Saturday 01 October 2016 – Sunday 01 October 2017
Postcard from... Bristol Biennial 2016: In Other Worlds
At Temple Meads train station, a wall-mounted speaker bids visitors ‘Welcome to Bristol’. If you stick around you’ll hear it again, possibly in a different language. This is Russian artist Natalia Skobeeva’s Hey Bristol, which welcomes visitors both to the city and to the third iteration of Bristol’s contemporary arts Biennial.
Skobeeva’s other contribution to the Bristol Biennial is The Swearing Door, which is located in one of the entrances to the underpass at St James’ Barton roundabout. ‘Pessimist, American, Copycat, Terrorist,’ are some of the labels thrown at passers-by as they enter The Bearpit, to use its local name. The location has a fractious past. Having once been the city’s international trading post it fell into disrepair as commerce shifted to the city, and in recent decades it has become a place to avoid for all but those unfortunates on the very fringes of urban society. Six years since the inception of the Bearpit Improvement Group a thriving independent trade scene has emerged and the place is now a destination in its own right. There couldn’t be a more appropriate location for Bearpit Banquet; the opening event of a festival whose focus is social engagement and inclusion. Against a warm Friday evening backdrop of skateboarders and smart shoes, live music and unbuttoned collars, a staff of volunteers serves up Eritrean and Sudanese dishes and offers an opportunity for people from all walks of life to sit together and share that most social of daily rituals: dinner.
The following evening, three miles from the city centre on a disused railway-cum-footpath, in the dimly lit Staple Hill Tunnel, a crowd anticipates the first of two performances of A Galaxy of Suns. The 2016 Bristol Biennial is subtitled ‘In Other Worlds’, and nowhere in the programme is the theme more apt than here. Australian Michaela Gleave’s project comprises live performance and a downloadable smartphone app that uses a device’s GPS data to translate the distance, location, and magnitude of stars into a unique sonic experience for its user. Notes chime out as the smartphone screen changes hue through purples to oranges, yellows to blues.
This is by no means the world’s first app-based artwork, but with A Galaxy of Suns it feels like the smartphone has arrived as a viable medium. Gleave has collaborated with composer Amanda Cole and app developer Warren Armstrong to produce a beautiful combination of music, astronomy, and conceptual art that will live long beyond its location-specific life for this Biennial. The work’s live rendition in a tunnel long enough to render GPS readings impossible adds a human dimension to the work. Performed by the local Gert Lush Choir, whose 36 members are dotted along one side of the tunnel wearing silver hooded capes and each facing their own individual floor-mounted spotlight, the resultant chorus was at times discordant but never unpleasant. This otherworldly experience evoked truncated lightyears and consideration of one’s solitary insignificance in the cosmos.
A much less conspicuous performance of sorts occurred in the city’s St George area, which a group of participants set about deep mapping with the aid of Tom Stone’s instructions or ‘tactics’ as he calls them. Stone uses his project, Stand Up, Dear City, to take participants on a walk where they are asked to ‘Look at the spaces which have been defined by community needs’ and ‘Observe the way you slip from one zone to the next, pay attention to the boundaries of these zones.’ Thereby mapping the feel of a place. A map, Stone suggests, need not only be a record of the surface that one walks across but also of the space that one passes through.
Site-specific works feature heavily, and offer a way of framing a work that is unavailable to conventional gallery exhibitions, one such example of this is Emily Parsons-Lord’s The Great Dying. A solitary white cube is located in an underpass beneath the M32 motorway. Inside the atmosphere has been adjusted so that oxygen levels are as they were at the time of the planet’s last mass extinction. The difference between inside and out, in one of Bristol’s most chokingly polluted areas, is barely discernible. Artist collective CHAMP’s (F)Lawless takes the Biennial’s In Other Worlds theme to the online realm. Such web-based site-specific artworks seem to be still in the nascent stages of self-exploration. CHAMP and Carina Ahlskog’s livestreamed webchats presented a self-revealing work in progress that built towards a final live performance, aided by a predetermined foregoing of concrete outcomes, this project feels loaded with potential.
In an empty city centre office block, Liz West blacked out an entire 10,000 square foot space and installed a stunning tribute to the visible colour range. Using cellulose gels and reflective floor tiles West successfully answered the question (posed in the brochure) ‘can colour change the way you feel’. Our Colour proved a hit for people of all ages as word, or more accurately images, of this most photogenic of works spread across social and national media throughout the week.
Bristol is a city proud of its cultural diversity, both in the socio-political sense and in the arts and culture sense, and there can be few cities in the UK where the non-art public is as regularly confronted with artworks as they are here. Along the harbour walls hanging boards bear phrases such as BREAK FOR THE SEA and WE DON’T SPEAK OF SUCH THINGS. These are products of The Floating, a collaborative writing workshop located on board a ferry in Bristol harbour. When texts like these start popping up in public spaces it becomes difficult not to read nearby spray-painted pieces such as ‘CALL IN SICK’ and ‘YOU STILL LOOK TIRED’ as part of the work, but that misdirection only adds to the pleasure of an art trail.
The Biennial’s last-day event, Hengrove Festival of the Ancients was unmistakeably performance and participation art. Promoted as a look-back to the present from an imagined future folk festival, the wares on offer were scarce but quietly rewarding and included a maypole whose ribbons had been spun from plastic bags and an archaeological dig presenting iPhones and pieces of car exhaust whose uses had been lost in the sands of time. An audio installation relayed a first-person account of the one great unifying ritual of our time; shopping, as a female voice in a Bristolian accent confessed ‘I really like the smell of plastic’.
The programme, though limited in duration and scope, packed in fourteen festival commissions and seven satellite projects showcasing some insightful, entertaining, and exquisitely realised artworks. Every piece demonstrated the core values of Bristol Biennial: namely a commitment to accessible, thought-provoking, socially conscientious artworks and events, and a staunch support of emerging and early career artists. That this was achieved on a budget just 4% the size of that of the sprawling Liverpool Biennial is astonishing, and testament to two years' hard work put in by the Bristol Biennial team and its supporters. One would hope that the success of this event attracts further funding that might allow the 2018 Bristol Biennial to run for more than just nine days. One thing is for sure, this city is ready for it.
Trevor H Smith is the recipient of the VASW Bristol Biennial writing bursary.
Working towards a South West where talented artists thrive, and a resilient and connected visual arts ecology that inspires more engaged and diverse audiences to value and advocate for its work.
Part of the Contemporary Visual Arts Network