A Needle Walks into a Haystack

Liverpool Biennial

Sound carries. And it is the sounds of political and social unrest that offer one of the most interesting threads for navigating this year’s Liverpool Biennial – a constellation of exhibitions, events and curatorial side-shows grouped under the title, A Needle Walks into a Haystack. The Biennial’s greatest achievement is its power to make you feel like the main protagonist in an oral parable, passed by word of mouth, needle-like, between the blackened terraced houses of Liverpool’s sloping streets. Attune yourself to a sound-map of the Biennial and you’ll have found a satisfying way into the haystack.

The Bloomberg Contemporaries exhibition, for example, is dominated by two distinctive soundscapes. The first is Marco Godoy’s Claiming the Echo – a brilliant video of Madrid’s assembly-based protest choir Solfonica, who perform protest slogans to the musical scores of Henry Purcell. Then there’s Matt Copson’s projected graffiti-installation, Reynard the Fox, laughing menacingly in a stilted voice about the disenchanted youth, as though projected across the tannoy. The new Companion Weekend is promisingly noisy too, with spoken word, poetry and musical performances heard against the ornate backdrop of the Philharmonic Dining Rooms.

On the outside Liverpool is a city of quarry-red terraced houses and smoked-black brickwork, but the Old Blind School’s interior is a peeling palette of inexplicable pastels.

For me, the best of the acoustic offering was the exhibition at the Exhibition Research Centre devoted to Liverpool’s oral poet, musician and painter, Adrian Henri. Here rare video and audio archive footage evoke the sounds of radical Liverpool in the 1960s and ‘70s. Henri’s words come to us slowly across the music, at times coloured with romance and at others, barbed with politics. Listening to Henri’s experimental lyricism, the sounds of Liverpool and the chiming of the Liverpudlian accent, the Mersey Sound, become richly musical and even sensual. Henri was a wordsmith of great skill and craft.

As I’m leaving, I overhear two Scousers swapping stories about going to Henri’s spoken word events in their own Mersey youth, their voices ricocheting against the looped recordings. It’s when the Biennial taps into the Liverpudlian local and particular, when it picks up the melody of the city’s sounds and passes them back to the visitor, that it really has our attention; that we’re all finally leaning to listen in.

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Every two years the Biennial seeks out venues with their own local character, and this time the historic Old Blind School has been chosen as the contextual and cultural backdrop. On the outside Liverpool is a city of quarry-red terraced houses and smoked-black brickwork, its tar dock-waters shrouded under grey, but the Old Blind School’s interior is a peeling palette of inexplicable pastel shades: lemon yellows, mint greens, soft pinks, baby blues and shades of beige.

Marc Bauer’s pencil sketches from a sojourn in a dingy hotel in Liverpool feel like an interesting piece of meta-architecture: recording “a crack in the ceiling, a knot in the string that pulls the blinds, and a vegetal pattern on the carpet”. On the way to the toilets the aquatic sloshing sounds of Louise Hervé and Chloé Maillet’s video piece echoes in the darkened cavern of a room (is there a hint of damp in the air too?). The video shifts between a mythical fiction of discoveries made by marine archaeologists out at sea and the documentation of a Thalassotherapy session in a local swimming pool, so that architecture and art offer a wondrous symmetry. In the upper room Rana Hamadeh’s sound play, scripted and soundtracked for a bunker-like space, leaves you reeling from an acoustic trauma newly resurrected.

There’s a palpable sense that if you scratched away at the walls you’d find living history beneath.

In 1791 the Liverpool School for the Blind was founded by local hero Edward Rushton and since then the building has transformed and regenerated many times. Over the course of a century it’s housed the Merseyside Police, The Trades Union Centre, a recording studio and performance venue for the young and unemployed known as The Picket, and most recently, the Theatre Resource Centre. The building is a fascinating palimpsest of Liverpudlian social history and testament to the city’s reputation as the pioneering home of welfare.

There’s a palpable sense, wandering the corridors of the old school, that if you scratched away at the walls you’d find living history beneath. For locals, the Biennial has brought an old, abandoned building back to life: giving people an opportunity to return to the institutional and radical spaces of the Old Blind School where they once worked, campaigned, plotted, picketed and even performed.

Liverpool mural

As a life-long southerner and occasional Londoner, I didn’t expect to find I had any place within this architectonic narrative. Yet looking up from amongst Peter Wächtler’s ceramic sea creatures I discovered a mural. A mural which was not a part of the official Biennial programme but a piece of the fabric of the building itself, a fragment of the city’s past. Like the needle who stepped into the haystack to discover a lost connection with the social and political history of Liverpool, I found that I was a part of the crumbling walls and chipped paintwork after all. The mural was painted by a relative of mine in 1986.

My great uncle Mick Jones, son of the Garston-born Trade Union Leader Jack Jones, was a political illustrator and mural painter most famous for his work on the Dalston Peace Mural designed by Ray Walker. The mural in the dome of the Old Blind School commemorates the Peoples’ March for Jobs in Liverpool: it curls over the mint green balcony of the top floor with the rage and passion of 1980s political activism. The colours are vibrant and in wild, striking contrast to the polite neoclassical detailing of the rest of the building.

Give us a future: the sonics of protest, dissent and disenchantment echo right across the city.

Edward Rushton, one of Liverpool’s great radicals, is depicted as the blind hopelessly leading the blind. There are towers of smoke billowing behind him, and the cranes and hooks which swing in and out of the warped mural seem to threaten to demolish the world around them, including the crumbling red brickwork of the Albert Docks. Beneath this post-industrial apocalypse the people march with their bright, rippling protest banners.

Marx lurks somewhere amongst the crowds along with a self-portrait of the artist himself. Recent family debates have concluded that the fiery red-head leading the protest must be my great aunt. That statuesque woman raises her arm to unleash a cry, the slogan on her t-shirt screaming out: “Give us a Future!” It ripples across the painted surface of the domed mural, and, by a kind of magical coincidence, these sonics of protest, dissent and disenchantment echo right across the city and the many venues of the Biennial.

 
 

The Liverpool Biennial continues until 26th October 2014.

Image credits, from top to bottom:
Michael Stevenson, Strategic-Level Spiritual Warfare, 2014. Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial 2014. Photograph by Mark McNulty.
Judith Hopf, Flock of Sheep, 2014. Photograph by Mark McNulty.
Mick Jones, Old Blind School mural. Photograph by Francesca Brooks

 
 

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Francesca Brooks

Francesca Brooks is a peripatetic writer with a passion for travel, books, art, coffee and rocks. She has short fiction published and forthcoming with Firewords Quarterly, Cabbages and King’s, and the Writing Maps Journal, and has also written arts and culture pieces for publications as diverse as Garageland, Collage Magazine, Revolver Chile, and Jotta. Although currently a postgraduate student at King’s College London in Medieval Literature, in a previous life Francesca worked with art galleries, rare book dealers, frozen food companies and even a circus.