squatBeen to see everything at the Biennial yet? Don’t worry, there’s still time. One of our favourite strands is the SQUAT project – a collaboration between New York art group, No Longer Empty, and the UK’s The Art Organisation.

Examining the issues surrounding the city’s empty, boarded up or abandoned industrial spaces, SQUAT confirms that old maxim, empty vessels make the most noise.

Consisting of a series of site specific – and thrilling – sound installations, events and performances, SQUAT’s set up a temporary home in the city’s Ropewalks area, creatively making good use of the places they find. Things that the everyday city left behind…

All of which makes us wonder – why are their so many holes in our city’s fabric? With a little imagination, everything could be so different. We guess that’s the point. And, for that reason alone, we implore you to go check it out.

SevenStreets caught up with No Longer Empty’s Co-founder, and Director of NLA on the Road, Asher Remy-Toledo.

Tell us about why you set up NLE

I was very sad to see so many empty spaces in the city, a lot of artists I knew were leaving town for other places because they could not afford their rents and their galleries were closing or not selling. I’d moved to NYC many years ago attracted by this vibrancy, cutting edge and great art scene; I thought it was very bad for me to just see that energy die.

I had seen an art installation the previous year in an old police building in the centre of Hong Kong, the artists used the former prison cells to create site specific installations that conveyed the claustrophobic size of the room, the lack of freedom. I was taken by it, I realized that exhibition would not have had nearly the same strong impact if it would have been in one white wall gallery space or museum. In that moment I was determined to do site specific installations. Then one day while having lunch with a friend of mine Manon Slome, we were discussing about the large number of empty spaces in the city; I mentioned about this exhibition I saw and how sad was to see so many artists leaving town. At that moment we decided to partner to create one time exhibition using about a dozen spaces in Manhattan and create meaningful site specific installations that were low budget.

Why do you think it’s captured the public’s imagination so strongly?

I think the key to our rise has been that we were there at the right time, having had the opportunity to have been involved in the art world for several years, travelled around and seeing how artists respond to spaces and historical moments in unique ways. The other aspect is that we pay extreme attention to detail, as a museum would, we have a holistic approach where we learn from the art establishment and also from grass roots organizations and guerrilla marketing.

vinyl graveyardHow did it lead to NLE On the Road?

I thought of on the Road because we have had several inquiries from other countries asking if we would be interested in bringing NLE there; I am always making connections everywhere, developing projects, meeting artists, curators, business people, I think we need a lot of breathing space as both of us are highly creative and entrepreneurial and each of us has a different strength and approach we bring to the organization. I decided to create this other chapter, which is totally independent from the New York group, but inspired by it.

We collaborate with each other but have different goals even though we still share some similar missions. At the time that the NY chapter is becoming a non-for profit entity with a board of directors and a non-commercial approach, I am more interested in maintaining my vision without compromises while still maintaining a connection with the New York chapter.

How did you get involved in the Liverpool Biennial? What did they want to accomplish that made you/NLE a good match for the 2010 show?

I’ve been going to Liverpool for at least three years doing advisory work for FACT. I got involved with them while I presented an exhibition at 798 art district of Beijing parallel to “Synthetic Times” media technology exhibition in the city, Mike Stubbs, FACT director, happened to come to see it while he was in town; he loved it and invited me to Liverpool.

Coming to Liverpool has been very exciting, it’s a very off beat town where things could go
amazingly well or awfully bad. You pretty much have the same chances! The city has grown on me, I’ve learned to appreciate its insulated off beat, chip on the shoulder attitude. Reminds me of New York, but also of China.

You need to think differently in order to succeed in Liverpool. Just average doesn’t work.

I had met some landlords that own properties in the Rope Walk area of Liverpool where FACT is located. I decided to take on my mission to join forces with FACT on helping develop this particular neighborhood by attracting artists to the area and make this a Bohemian village. Lewis Biggs, the director of the Biennial, said to me once while having drinks after work, “You know Asher, empty spaces are such a part of the nature of Liverpool, we are very familiar with recession here in town, what you are doing in New York could be an interesting project for us…”

Artistically, what did you set out to do for the Liverpool Biennial, and why did so many of these projects involve the application of music and sound?

Site specificity is a primordial aspect of No Longer Empty, I selected sound because it’s very Liverpool, live music here is everywhere. The city is very vibrant, youthful, intense. Some people in the city can’t relate to the Biennial; that’s partly because a big part of the city is very working class and they see these groups of trendy artsy people dress in black and with cool specs coming and taking over the city for three days and then disappearing
to the next international event.

I wanted to create something for the Biennial that will talk to new audiences. My interest is not to preach to the converted, but to bring art to new audiences by presenting it in unexpected spaces, helping create social change. Who needs one more art exhibition while there are so many social problems in the world?

I see art is a social catalyst. People read news about floods in Pakistan and they think ‘how terrible, I feel so sad for those people’. Then the next page shows a sale on handbags, and suddenly they forgot about the floods. I think art has the power of getting to people passing through their filters. That’s why I like public art, because also it takes people by surprise to see something in an unexpected venue.

What were your criteria for the projects you ultimately selected to be in the show?

They have to be engaging, a lot of technical and media stuff is very cold and boring, I am
always interested in art that is visually interesting, but also emotionally and mentally
grabbing. I m trying to attract the city people who live in Liverpool all year around, but I
also want to the arts cognoscenti to be equally surprised, pleased and bit thrown out of
their expectations about what to find in a Biennial.

You usually see the usual suspects, the same people, same artists names, is almost as going to Art Basel. I also have to be aware that I don’t have much budget for this, so it has a lot of grassroots approach in order to make it happen without sacrificing the quality, as I have learned to do in NLE New York. I think that at the time when most art funding has been cut, this is very appropriate for the times.

We know it’s hard to pick, but which pieces are your favorites?

There are some very ambitious projects that I m very excited about it, like the one of Giuseppe Stampone who created a five speakers in the shape of “life size” coffins they play national anthems of countries that have affected the collapse of the world economy. Certainly, I love the very large installation by Ray Lee and its electromagnetic robots that spin around with lights creating this surreal and hypnotic visual effect that involves the viewer and also the one by Phil Jeck is such poetic installation

What were the biggest surprises and challenges you encountered along the way?

It’s very difficult to put together something in a country one is not familiar with, especially if there is such ambitious project. I had to secure a space, bring electricity to it, hire workers, promote it, deal with ‘special interest’ groups that constantly threatened to shut down the exhibition if money was not paid to them under the table, all of those things that if we’d have known the extra money and the amount of work it entailed, I wouldn’t have done it.

A Little Impropriety

Running as part of S.Q.U.A.T is Impropriety, an epic ten-week run of improvised performances exploring the themes of S.Q.U.A.T. Liverpool, every Tuesday of the Biennial at The Kazimier, 4-5 Wolstenholme Square.

A unique series of soap style shows featuring a regular cast of characters and a continuous storyline to be decided by  the audience. The final episodes will be performed every Tuesday – 2nd November, 9th November, 16th November and 23rd November – at Kazimier, 7.30pm prompt. Tickets are £5 online from www.kazimier.co.uk, and also on the door.

Expect special guest appearances, guest directors,  flash-mob style happenings and other unrepeatable business. Impropriety was formed in 2008 in the wake of the 2008-minute
improv-marathon, “Oh Wait.”.  Based on that success the group achieved artistic residency at Mello, Mello as well as weekly “Introduction to Improvisation” workshops for anyone who wishes to attend. The workshops are every Wednesday at 7pm.

SQUAT, The Ropewalks, until 28 November
Liverpool Biennial (click here for locations map)



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