The Liverpool Biennial opens this Saturday, March 20, 2021. The 11th edition, The Stomach and the Port, was scheduled to take place in 2020 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. It explores notions of the body and ways of connecting with the world. Makery discussed with the Biennial’s curator Manuela Moscoso about The Stomach and the Port.
Manuela Moscoso, curator of the Liverpool Biennial, has attracted the main artistic focus since the abrupt and well-documented departure in late 2020 of the director, Fatos Ustek. Originally from Ecuador, she came to the Biennial from Mexico City’s Tamayo Museum.
The Stomach and the Port
On the eve of the opening of the ‘outside’ and online section of the Biennial, we asked her about the curatorial notion of the exhibition as mirroring the human body and its experience.
Manuela Moscoso replied: “The works connect bodies and experiences to key places, past and present, speaking of the movement of humans across the sea and proposing new understandings of the relationships between the body and nature. The Liverpool Biennial rethinks the body beyond its concrete physical boundaries. Our bodies are not autonomous, rational or universal. They are multidimensional forms that depend on, and interact with, people, animals, plants, artefacts, images, technologies and the fabric of our contemporary world.We tend to think of the skin as the ultimate frontier of our bodies. It functions as a shell that separates our inner life – the self and the mind – from the outside world – society and nature. The skin is flexible and porous and so are we. Today, the way we relate to one another has been dramatically reshaped by the effects of COVID-19 and by the Black Lives Matter movement – a call for social justice and a demand for anti-racist action. The concomitance of these occurrences is not a coincidence. Both have their roots in a long-standing economy of extraction: nature, gendered bodies, racialised bodies – all have been turned into objects and seen as commodifiable and disposable.”
This porosity and concentration on the skin has been reflected in visiting curator and writer Sarah Demeuse’s introductory essays to the Biennial: “The human skin is a product of a journey as much as it is a facilitator of many journeys. The story goes that human bodies used to be more hairy, and that when they started outrunning their predators (humans being better at long distances because their bodies could regulate body temperature through perspiration), they began to shed this fur. In other words: skin, and skin colour, became gradually visible around the time humans turned into a so-called dominant species, developing not only their ability to run, but also their hunting, roasting, and dressing skills. The human skin is an organ that counts for about 15% of a human’s bodyweight. It is a fine-tuned interface that ‘protects’ by shielding the inner body from toxins, by preventing excessive water loss, and by regulating the body temperature. It also ‘communicates’ by receiving and decoding contextual information: it can register and react to temperature variations, it can sense texture, and, most importantly, it can synthesise vitamin D from sunlight. It is, in other words, a medium.Think of how it can absorb hormones, nicotine, nitroglycerine, and even opioid substitutes from engineered patches; inversely, it can convey information to the environment through perspiration, rashing, or ‘breaking out’.”
This will also be reflected in the public programme ‘Processes of Fermentation’ which will bring together a “diverse collection of voices through a dedicated peer strand”. They say: “a healthy stomach has a rich diversity of bacteria. This probiotic injection of different voices will similarly assist in the absorption and digestion of information, ideas and exchanges to support and increase our collective gut intelligence in response to the Biennial.”
A ‘blended’ version of the Biennial
Particularly since the pandemic, there have been a number of artists making works about wellness and wellbeing. To what extent did the works reflect that? Moscoso: “Although it resonates with current times the journey of Liverpool Biennial 2021 started in the Summer of 2018 and by March 2020 the Biennial was shaped. Saying this, for years artists have been articulating questions on wellness but most also on justice, empowerment and change. Specifically the biennial listens to practices and asks questions, such as, how to re-consider a sense of a body from a place of inclusion? What can we learn from different social or ecological struggles to re-calibrate our senses? How can we unlearn habits shaped by structural forms of oppression? The biennial gathers artists whose practice and research are engaged with these type of questions, not only on this occasion but through all of their work.”
I mentioned to Moscoso that she has initiated a ‘blended’ version of the Biennial, with an ‘outside’ version preceding an ‘inside’ version with an online portal and opening and asked her how the thinking developed towards that.
“We planned a biennial that was opening all at once, on one date. However, COVID-19 and the different restrictions have meant we have had to work with what we have and the information we have, when we have it. We will open in two chapters, first the outdoor and sonic commissions and online channel, as lockdown persists in England, and when lockdown is lifted the second opening will encompass all the venues and artists. The online portal is a place of access for the content of the exhibitions. During such unprecedented times, art can be the most powerful place to go, through a wide variety of practices – from sound, to film, to sculpture, to dance – all art opens up our understanding. It positions us as active participants in this process of change and asks us to reconsider what we know and how we know it.”
As a rower myself, I liked the sound of Osteoclast (2021) by Teresa Solar composed of five kayaks, each sculpture reflecting the shape of a human bone. Could Moscoso describe what’s happening here? “Teresa Solar is presenting a newly commissioned outdoor installation, titled Osteoclast (I do not know how I came to be on board this ship, this navel of my ark), at Exchange Flags. Composed of five kayaks, each sculptural piece reflects on the shape of a bone in the human anatomy. The sculptures anchor on the history of Liverpool as one of the most active ports in facilitating transatlantic trade in Europe. Solar’s work draws a parallel between bones – as hollowed structures, full of cavities, carriers of tissues, veins and cell communities – and vessels, vehicles of migration, transmitters of bodies and knowledge. In contrast to the enormous ships that were, and still are, built and docked in Merseyside, Solar’s kayaks, turned into a disarticulated skeleton, set the human body at sea level and evoke the sometimes-forgotten fragility of the human body over the sea. At the same time, they also celebrate our capacity for transition and transformation.”
“How can we unlearn and redesign other types of humanity?”
Our readers being a community of DIY makers, hackers, citizen scientists and artist/scientists, which part of the Biennial did she think would most appeal to them? “The biennial questions the concept of humanity from a Eurocentric perspective that is assumed to be neutral. How can we unlearn and redesign other types of humanity? I would say a trajectory through the Biennial could be started with looking at the lab work and research from Anne Graff and Jenna Sutela, followed by looking at the research on colonialism by Luisa Ungar and Ines Doujak, moving on to examining the sonic as a form of resistance through the work of Lamin Fofana and B.O.S.S (Black Obsidian Sound System) at FACT”.
We asked Nicola Triscott, Director of FACT about how the B.O.S.S work would manifest itself in relation to the Biennial’s curatorial notions of ‘kinship’. “B.O.S.S. have created an immersive environment: an expansion of their short film, Collective Hum (2019). The installation reflects and describes ways in which marginalised groups have developed methods of assembling against a background of repression and discrimination in the UK. The collective position of sound system culture is a space of communal strength and encounter, where kinship is formed and reciprocated. The audio-visual installation entitled, The only good system is a sound system, envelops the viewer, resonating through the body, creating a club-like space of collective pleasure and healing. B.O.S.S. will create an immersive installation, using the space to mirror the shape of a speaker driver on a sound system. At the centre of this is a new ceramic containing a pool of water, which will vibrate and ripple in time to the sound waves. We will produce a series of podcasts with B.O.S.S and Sable Radio, which will bring together a variety of local and international artists, activists and experimental broadcasters to discuss or create alternative broadcasts. We also hope to produce live events towards the end of the exhibition, as restrictions are eased.”
Finally how did Moscoso apply the metaphor of the actual city of Liverpool as a port with the human body? “Liverpool’s position as a port and hub of cross-cultural encounters, circulation, distribution and global transnational mobility – along with its difficult history of humans forcibly moved from Africa to the Americas and beyond – is central to the narrative of this edition. It is a bringing-together of the near and far with notions of movement and digestion; the stomach’s role within the body and the movement from inside to outside, on a global scale.”