Liverpool Biennial:
The Liquid Club

A Black man looks directly at the camera, his hand blurred at the bottom of the frame. He wears red over ear headphones and sits in front of an electric piano.
Screen grab: Larry Achiampong's Liquid Club

The 11th edition of Liverpool Biennial, The Stomach and the Port, has finally launched, following a year’s postponement due to the coronavirus pandemic. Despite such challenging circumstances, there is still real optimism about the Biennial and a desire to make a big success of the festival. One slight criticism of past Biennials has been that the critical and theoretical strands of the event haven’t always felt that relevant to the sense of place of the city. In fairness, it’s always seemed to me that the curators have a difficult job, expected to have skills that range across critical theory, event planning, and urban cultural studies. This doesn’t always work out in the context of an event of this scale. For this edition of Liverpool Biennial, curator Manuela Moscoso took the decision to run a series of club nights, The Liquid Club, that would explore and develop the critical grounding of the Biennial, with the longer gestation period encouraging critical space to emerge well before the event. This struck me as an interesting approach, so when Corridor8 suggested an article on The Liquid Club with an opportunity to speak to Moscoso and assistant curator Abi Mitchell, whilst also attending some of the new online events, it felt like a good opportunity to explore this aspect of the Biennial with a series of questions gradually emerging: how successful was The Liquid Club in developing the critical ground of the festival; what networks of people and ideas have formed through the club; what trajectories have moved through this critical skein?

Part one of The Liquid Club comprised ten events that ran from February 2019 to November 2019, where the aim was to explore the conceptual grounding of the festival in an inclusive way. The nights were originally conceived as a reading club and so, as Moscoso amusingly points out, ‘they weren’t going to have queues for entering’, but they would provide a space for critical reflection and an exchange of ideas, centred on the texts. Talking to Moscoso, she speaks with energy about the ‘relevance of an organisation being porous’, with access points for people outside of the core Biennial group, and this stands out as a key element of The Liquid Club’s remit in this first stage. Even the name, The Liquid Club, hints at this fluidity.

The first Liquid Club event focussed on the writings of Brazilian anthropologist, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, and has been a key point of departure, with various questions exploring notions of the body emerging from this event. It’s worth noting that these texts weren’t new to Moscoso and that she speaks engagingly regarding the theoretical strands from these writings that trace or intersect the Biennial: questioning the body from non-western perspectives; challenging the Eurocentric view of the body as autonomous and enclosed; the colonial perspective of the body; broadly, what a body is and what a human is. It’s clear that Moscoso values these nights, where the critical ground of the Biennial developed or, as she puts it, ‘the vocabulary of the Biennial’ emerged. Moscoso further emphasises the October gathering, where the conceptual ground of the Biennial developed significantly with three points of entry emerging: the stomach, porosity, and kinship. In relation to the questions that this Biennial proposes regarding the body, this was an important formative moment. It should be noted that Moscoso has guided the path of the reading nights, often referring to texts that she had previously read, and then re-read, in the context of the Biennial’s conceptual development. This threw me slightly as my expectation was that, following the initial starting point, the texts for the club might emerge with less guidance so as not to limit engagement in the formation of the critical ground. That said, having attended reading clubs where the texts have felt too chaotic from event-to-event, this thread from the curator might have been a good thing. 

The above questions relating to the body, that are central to the critical formation and grounding of the Biennial, are part of a shifting critical network that does seem to be adaptable and responsive. How, though, do they relate to Liverpool and the sense of place of the city? Are they so broad that they could work with any place? Or do they have a particular resonance? It’s fair to say that some of the questions are not specific to an arts event staged in Liverpool, but that isn’t necessarily a criticism, so long as the event does have critical touching points specific to place. These emerge most notably through the notion of porosity. It repeatedly comes up in conversation with Moscoso and, as one of the three communiqués written by Brooklyn-based curator Sarah Demeuse (available on the Liverpool Biennial website), seems to be the strand that most energises Moscoso. In a port city such as Liverpool, this emphasis on porosity is relevant to place, bearing in mind the centuries of movement on which the city is built, reflected in the material forms of the space and the cultures that move through it. These ideas would have had further critical purchase when the first stage of The Liquid Club was in progress, following the decision of the UK to exit from the European Union. This didn’t come up in conversation although, following the tidal wave of the pandemic engulfing everyday life, these questions have faded into the background.

The yellow flag with green, red and black blocks flies against a bright blue sky next to a clock tower of the Royal Liver Building. The clock face shows the time as five past eleven.
Larry Achiampong, Pan African Flag for the Relic Travellers’ Alliance, 2021. Installation view at the Cunard Building, Liverpool Biennial 2021. Photography: Mark McNulty

Following the coronavirus outbreak, all plans for the Biennial were put on hold and the event went into a kind of stasis, which so many organisations have experienced. After a year’s hiatus, it was decided to reboot The Liquid Club in November 2020, in a different online form, to get the wheels moving for the rescheduled Liverpool Biennial 2021. It’s important to add here that Moscoso is quite clear that this second part of The Liquid Club is separate from the first. As discussed, the first staging of the club focussed on unfolding the critical ground of the event whereas, as Moscoso reiterates, this second part is geared around the artists, letting them do their own thing on this conceptual ground. Assistant Curator Abi Mitchell has taken on more of the responsibility for this second part of the club. Many of the artists who feature create sound-based practice, so it’s of note that Mitchell has joined from a role delivering a contemporary music festival, and she emphasises that this was a ‘really nice fit’ for her. Mitchell talks about ‘letting the artists host the session so it’s entirely about their practice, how they want to talk about that and how they want to present that’. Melodic Distraction, an independent Liverpool-based radio station, continues to work with Mitchell in delivering the events, offering valuable experience of the online medium. Moscoso points out that they met Melodic Distraction ‘through the readings’ in the first iteration of The Liquid Club which is representative of how the club has helped forge connections in the city.

My first online Liquid Club event was Larry Achiampong’s one-off listening party for his ‘videogame_mixtape_’ (2021). In this project, Achiampong mixes various music and audio from video games in order to explore the heritage of these sounds and gaming as a cultural phenomenon. Mitchell introduced Achiampong and his friend Wumi, who was sitting-in and co-hosting the event. Attendees were directed to set up the ‘videogame_mixtape_’ to play in another browser window, with video game footage accompanying the sound. (When Sega’s Golden Axe came on the screen I was taken back to my teen years; a medieval baddie axing the legs off some poor, defenceless knave!) Achiampong and Wumi talked about their personal experience of gaming, what it meant to them, and the meanings and resonance of sound in these games. Gradually, the art angle fell away and they touched on how gaming was a way to connect with people, which related to the Biennial’s critical space this year and the online technology we’ve been utilising more and more throughout the pandemic. The event was an interesting point of access to Achiampong’s practice. 

A black woman dressed entirely in black including a head covering holds a wooden mask near her head but her face can be seen to the left looking away. In her other hand is a large black and white photograph of men pulling another man out of a doorway. She stands in front of a background of black with multicoloured floral prints.
Xaviera Simmons, Sundown (Number Twenty), 2019

The same can be said of Ayesha Hameed’s Liquid Club hour. I wasn’t aware of her work and, following the session, read the essay ‘Black Atlantis: Three Songs’ by the artist, which came up in the conversation co-hosted by MIT Professor of Anthropology, Stefan Helmreich. The essay coincided with various ideas that Hameed is exploring in her practice, and the relatively informal Liquid Club set-up helped make the research more accessible. This is a key aspect of what the Liquid Club has become in its second iteration: a departure point for further exploration, that might intersect the broader meshwork of the Biennial.

So, having attended these events and spoken to the curatorial team, I returned to my initial questions: has the Liquid Club worked in developing the critical ground of the event, in a way that relates to the city; how has a critical archipelago of people and ideas formed through the staging of the club? As discussed, many of the questions and ideas that are part of the conceptual stew of this Biennial are relevant to place, and relate to the material and conceptual space of Liverpool. It’s also clear that an effort has been made to broaden engagement with the critical aspects of the Biennial through The Liquid Club, particularly in its first guise. 

As Moscoso points out, her role as a curator is to create space and opportunities for artists under the umbrella of the Biennial and, once the critical ground has formed, the artists take something of a lead. Hence, the critical ground will further unfold over the next few months through the practices of the artists but, importantly, it does seem that the energy and potential is there, partly due to the focus on the critical space that The Liquid Club afforded. With many looking to get out-and-about after lockdown, this potential could result in the best Liverpool Biennial ever in terms of engagement and energy: get your glad rags at the ready.

This year Liverpool Biennial is taking place in two ‘chapters’: the first chapter launched on 20 March, and is taking place in outdoor spaces and through various digital channels. The second chapter, 19 May – 27 June, will more resemble past Biennials, with the opportunity to look inside iconic Liverpool buildings such as the former Lewis’s. The next edition of the Liquid Club takes place Thursday 27 May, 7-8pm with Xaviera Simmons (main image).

Anthony Ellis is a writer, researcher and educator based in Manchester.

Published 23.05.2021 by Sinead Nunes in Explorations

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