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Breathing life into Liverpool

Liverpool Biennial is attempting to transform neglected areas of the city with new art venues

Sally Tallant is in for the long haul. The CEO and creative director of Liverpool Biennial is mid-way through her first biennial, but is already thinking about how her organisation, which puts on the UK’s largest visual arts festival very two years, will have a lasting impact on her adopted city. ‘In 10 years I want to have delivered a series of top quality biennials, delivered some permanent art projects and made Liverpool just as attractive to artists as Berlin or Glasgow.’

Liverpool Biennial was one of the many regional organisations that suffered substantial funding cuts (40 per cent in their case) with the demise of Regional Development Agencies, axed in 2010. Belt-tightening, seeking council support, keen budgeting and technological developments – Tallant says the uptake in social media between 2010 and 2012 slashed marketing costs – have all helped the biennial survive post-cuts.

At the Albert Docks, David Adjaye has built a circular pavilion to house Doug Aitken’s video pieces. Inside are eight screens on which Aitken conducts beautifully shot interviews on the subject of creativity with arty stars like Beck, Tilda Swinton and Elizabeth Diller. In Tate Liverpool, what first seems a raggle-taggle selection of familiar British hits from the Tate archive or on loan, including work by Mark Wallinger and Gilbert and George, coalesce nicely around themes of landscape, identity, pomp and pageantry.

In the Open Eye gallery, now slung beneath one of Broadway Malyan’s Mann Island towers, there’s a show by Japanese photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki. With pervy panache, his grainy photos of after-dark canoodling, cruising and rutting in Tokyo parks is shown in a small, pitch black room, with visitors given a torch to see the pictures.

One of the successes of the biennial is how it opens up previously inaccessible buildings. The first class lounge of the Cunard Building has been hugely popular. ‘About 60 per cent of our visitors are local. We’ve had people who used to work here, people who have driven past it every day for 20 years and never been in, all curious to have a look round,’ says Gareth Rudge, 23, an unemployed photography graduate from Anfield who is volunteering at the Cunard.

The show’s highlight is at the Bluecoat, a real treat of a building whose clever, eccentric fusing of old and new, bling marble posterior are worth the train ticket alone. Filmaker John Akomfrah has made an homage to Jamaican-born Stuart Hall, sociologist and leading light of the Birmingham School. On a Tuesday morning the screening room has over a dozen people watching the film. A retiree from Toxteth, Bill Banham, enthuses about the film’s jazz. Does the biennial help the city? ‘Not really. It’s good to see the art, but I’m not sure if it has a long-lasting effect – bar the publicity.’

Where it does take a more instrumental role is in the permanent projects run by Liverpool Biennial. Since the largesse of 2008 and Liverpool’s year as Capital of Culture, Liverpool Biennial has downsized. Its long-term work is now focused on a square mile of north Liverpool, which curator Laurie Peake describes as being ‘just five minutes from central Liverpool, but a million miles away socially and economically.’ It contains some of the most deprived wards in the UK.

One project is in Anfield, just opposite the grey superstructure of the Kop. I’ve been round this area several times in the last few years and the bitter tragedy of John Prescott’s euphemistically named ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ never fails to bite. Boarded up terraces have been left to rot, while new, pokey little houses are thrown up nearby.

Here, a family bakery, holding out for a lucrative CPO that never came, shut up shop two years ago. The biennial has taken over and refurbished the site, forming a social enterprise and community land trust. As part of the biennial, a Saturday bus tour takes people round the areas of HMRI, which shows a little of what has been going on, outside the overheated south east housing market, for the last decade.

The other significant project is at Everton Park, a 200-acre ground formed on the wasteland of successive 1970s and 1980s housing demolitions. Liverpool Biennial is working with Field/Operations, Liverpool Primary Care Trust to create a series of improvements to the park, with the view that by 2020 it will be handed to the community – via a land trust – that has helped steer its creation.

There are many critics of this kind of socially participatory art, notably Claire Bishop who has condemned the ways in which the Blair years saw ‘culture as a cost-effective way of creating the impression of social cohesion, while covering up policies that are actually undermining it,’ as she put in her 2012 book Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. But in these instances, Liverpool Biennial is acting less as curator and more as one of several NGOs and council bodies working together to improve the prospects of this part of Liverpool.

In these cash-strapped times, it may offer a compelling blueprint for enabling long-term, ground-up regeneration that takes its public along with it, rather than foisting a quick-fix upon them.

The Liverpool Biennial runs until 25 November at various venues around the city. Free

www.biennial.com

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