Tuesday, 7 October 2014 Liverpool Biennial 2014 @ The Old Blind School, Hardman Street L1 9AX
As I sat in traffic jams and made way for two sets of ambulances on my journey into Liverpool’s ‘Cultural Quarter’, I wondered who would be there and how today would tackle some of the very real local social challenges our northern cities are facing.
The Old Blind School is a building steeped in history; the first blind school in the country with a rich architecture, where brush-making, reading Braille, basket-weaving and pianotuning were amongst the taught activities; a building left empty for too many years, which holds a spirit of times past. So when the Biennial decided to open its doors this year and populate its spacious rooms with contemporary art, performances and gatherings, this invitation to the public to come in through the heavy old doors was in itself a change-making act. The original sense of purpose followed by neglect and rediscovery of this building resonates in a city grappling with a multitude of pasts, presents and futures.
The welcome was warm, as I was accompanied on the mini-journey up to the events space, from which conversation and energy were already spilling out. Amongst the many familiar faces there were also a host of people who were new to me, and I immediately recognised the quality and commitment brought by key creative individuals and leaders from Manchester and Liverpool to the questions which the day was designed to raise and work on.
Importantly, the turnout demonstrated a show of solidarity paired with a real will to collaborate across two cities, which have very different qualities and have tended to turn their back on each other despite their proximity. This will was echoed in conversations throughout the day.
Sally Tallant welcomed everyone and set the scene and the rationale of the day to focus on entry routes into the cultural sector for people in the North West who are underrepresented, by exploring how can we optimise our local assets to influence public policy and create stronger regional networks for sharing learning and responsibility.
Many aspects of the training and research I chose to pursue during my Clore Leadership Fellowship in 2005-6 have become a touchstone for me over the years, as have the friendships forged. This summer it was a pleasure to re-connect with Sue Hoyle, the person who has carried the vision and learning through from the launch of the programme 10 years ago.
Refreshingly, Sue started her talk by laying out her own beliefs with confidence and humility, beliefs which underpin a set of inclusive values. Sue doesn’t define leadership by conventional hierarchies, but by change-making potential, which can be released and fostered in many different ways. She challenges the notion of career ladders and talks eloquently, embodying the way in which her work genuinely affords care and support to people who are stepping up to face the challenges which the cultural sector faces. Her concluding point about self-awareness and personal and collective wellbeing being at the heart of what leaders need to take charge of, was particularly strong, given my own journey to this point, and the pressured context in which we are operating.
Our first group discussion raised more questions than answers, though some really constructive suggestions were made of how to share learning programmes and how to make the process of building connectivity between disciplines and cities creative and rejuvenating.
Bonnie Greer started her keynote, perched on a window ledge, unashamedly raising awkward, uncomfortable issues and taking us into a territory where change wasn’t a choice, it was imperative. Her vocation is language, yet she immediately exposed how our language still falters around definitions and categories linked to diversity, race, disability and inclusion. Bonnie addressed her speech to black women, and by doing so, she heightened our awareness of the marginalized parts of us, the parts which perhaps did feel uncomfortable on a horse.
Her speech was a call to arms and a call for healing at the same time; it was rife with powerful personal reference points, topical debate and the challenges facing all who hold true to social justice at a time during which inequalities are becoming more acute. She moved with grace between the need to confidently back freedom of expression, specifically in relation to the withdrawal of Exhibit B, and a leader’s need to embrace failure, and expect opposition. She spoke about the cap she wore, which symbolised the people from her Chicago homeland who walked with her into the room with her when she collected her OBE, and how we all can be so much bigger than we are.
Bonnie is a poet of our time whose dinner party is Twitter and who asserts her place in the worlds of politics and science with direct quotes and metaphors, which cross difficult boundaries and take us stridently into our chosen or perhaps allocated battlefields. Using health imagery, she told us how “a successful virus not only mimics but outdoes the host“, and evoked the extraordinary power of synapses and of the body to re-create itself. (Looking back at my notes I just looked up the word synapse and the definition –“A junction between two nerve cells, consisting of a minute gap between which impulses pass by diffusion of a neurotransmitter” – seems relevant in a global context to the sense of Manchester and Liverpool working together, as it does in a universal context to the cultural influences and exchange between Chicago, Liverpool and music from the 60’s. Could the neurotransmitter become our collective consciousness?)
This speech triggered multiple questions and injected a new courage and generosity into the afternoon’s discussion. We talked about the need for framing our systems with equity and devising new economies which boost learning; about the need to know when leaders can step back and let go of control for unexpected and beautiful things to happen of their own accord; about what embracing failure as well as lauding best practice actually means.
With Sue’s words about wellbeing in my head, I left slightly before the end to ensure I could pick up some print and avoid rush and stress leading into the next day’s events. Subsequently, I heard from others about the auction and saw some of the valuable offers and promised myself to set a reminder on my phone for a month’s time to re-visit some personal learning points.
Talking to peers, these three weeks later, specifically people who have dedicated their lives to community arts perhaps feel that some of the debate was theoretical and that there is a need to weave this commitment together in real action now rather than talk. The need between sharing responsibility and fluidity between the individual and the collective was deeply felt. When I was turning over before the event which of our cultural leaders were born and raised in Liverpool and struggling to name more than one or two, Karen Gallagher, Artistic Director of MDI immediately came to mind. On the topic of identity in relation to Bonnie’s speech, Karen wrote “I am seen but not seen - sometimes I see people are quite surprised when I describe myself as a black woman for instance....as the majority (usually white, male/female and middleclass) do not consider diversity as an issue unless they are challenged on it...then you challenge and as a black woman you suddenly inherit a reputation!!!”
This reputation is perhaps felt more acutely in the North West right now too, in the very fabric of our historically radical cities. The Old Blind School itself was perhaps seen and not seen by many people for years. It is going to take leadership and courage to re- create spaces which respect the history in the way in which the Everyman and the Philharmonic are doing just around the corner.
In the very way we live and work, we are re-defining what ‘working class’ means. To come back to Bonnie’s words, “If you want to build a ship don’t tell people to gather wood and divide the labour, etc., find people who yearn for the vast and endless sea.” In Liverpool many people still yearn for the sea, the wider world and for more labour, so what is the nature of the offer from the cultural sector that can tap into this passion and energy? The person who I invited who didn’t come was perhaps someone who wouldn’t have felt at home in this room, as a young white male with no formal qualifications, yet has so much to contribute in inspiring young people in the city and I was heartened that when I mentioned Quarantine’s White Trash show from years ago, that the impact of the message of this had also stayed fresh with Matt Fenton, who is now running Contact Theatre.
The day succeeded in broadening people’s awareness of the Clore spectrum of courses, of re-jigging memories and learning and of connecting people’s values and aspirations. By deliberately asking people to nominate invitees to the day the impetus for a ripple effect from the day was embraced. How can an action-learning set or future group meetings build on this? By exchanging skills, promoting and valuing diversity on a daily basis and inverting or subverting conventional hierarchies to strengthen and reach out beyond the walls of our institutions, our cities and our region? All of this remains to be seen and acted upon. What is certain is that, opportunities are there if we choose our battles wisely, co-create new vocabularies, and step out of the leadership frame from time to time to let other’s ideas take root, flourish or flounder, without knowing which it will be.