SevenStreets is having its loft insulated (well, there’s nothing on telly). I clamber into the halflight to shuffle around boxes of surplus tiles and crumbling cassette tapes. There, wedged into a tiny gap in the eaves, I spot a crescent of spit and twigs, shit and feathers. A freshly built swift’s nest. I’d seen them, swooping and screaming low over the garden, never realising they’d chosen my house as their summer residence.
I scramble down the steps and call the energy company: “I have to cancel the appointment.”
“But you’ll miss out on the free government grant,” they tell me.
“I don’t care. It’s…it’s being used as a nursery now.”
Unexpected guests get you like that. They shift your paradigms. Shuffle your priorities.
So what will happen next month, when 50 or so artists from around the world descend on the city to make us their late summer residence?
How will they be received? Will we roll out the red carpet? Unfurl the fibreglass insulation? Or retreat to the rafters?
Whatever shape our response takes, new fly-in Sally Tallant is determined to get one. As the Biennial’s Artistic Director, Tallant is set to MC a season of strangeness and charm – as incoming artists collide and ricochet around the city, as they do on their bi-annual migration to our shores, in that mysterious way artists move around the globe without so much as a compass app or matching set of YSL luggage.
“I want this year’s event to be unmissable,” Tallant tells us, as a palpable energy crackles around their Baltic Triangle HQ, an environmental artist from California slices up the sod of Everton Brow, and Copperas Hill is being transformed from unpredictable sorting office to unpredictable art gallery.
“No, the red needs to be more…tomatoey…” Tallant says. “And less glossy.”
Tallant is leaving nothing to chance. We get the feeling that if there was a paintbrush sequestered between the Biennial’s weighty shelves of art catalogues, Tallant would hoik up a pair of dungarees and do it herself. She’s certainly wasted no time in rolling her sleeves up…
“People are open to art being part of their lives around here,” she says, “but it’s our job to open ourselves up more. And connect at a much deeper level to the city, its artists, and its residents.”
It’s a rallying cry that’s galvanised the Jordan Street offices – seen outreach projects in schools and communities from Queens Drive to Speke Boulevard, and co-produced work between artists and Liverpool families. “It’s vital the Biennial sits atop of a healthy arts infrastructure,” Tallant says.
“I really believe that artists are facilitators. It’s crucial to involve artists in thinking about how a city reinvents and builds a new future. Especially in a city like Liverpool.”
This year’s theme – The Unexpected Guest – is one of those wonderfully elastic topics that you’d have been set in Friday afternoon creative writing class at school. A mindmeltingly open-ended phrase that brings to mind The Man Who Came To Dinner, E-Coli, Immigration, sex trafficking and summer songbirds. At least, that’s what it does to me. And I’m not even an artist. I stopped being creative somewhere in the middle of year two at Uni.
It is, in short, heaps better than ‘touched’ – the frustratingly winsome theme tacked onto the Biennial’s last outing. Possibly on the turn of an angel card.
Tallant talks of a festival that’s international, complex, challenging and thrilling in equal measure: “People get excited here when the huge ocean liners arrive. They’re real ‘events’ people can rally around. I want the Biennial to have that same feeling.”
Tallant talks of dramatic intervetions in Liverpool ONE, a pavilion at the Tate and of spectral installations at the Monro. But there’ll be no spoiler alerts in this feature. We think the Unexpected Guest’s chief weaponry should be surprise. And half the fun (no, all the fun) of the Biennial is of discovering.
“This city is addicted to spectacle,” Tallant laughs, as SevenStreets excitedly reels off past shows’ greatest hits, the Swarovski Spiders and the ABBA houses. Can we expect more of these watercooler interventions, we ask?
“Of course,” she says, “We’ve fifty commissions around the city, and artists make disrespectful guests. It can be a painful relationship. Difficult to look at. But irresistible too. If you invite an artist to your place, you have to expect that they’re going to ask awkward questions…”
That’s it – we’re taking our spare room down from Air B&B. We’ve already had an enquiry from a Chilean raffia collective, and we don’t want any awkward questions about the depressions in our memory foam mattress.
“The capacity of the city to take risks is one of the things that attracted me here,” Tallant, originally from Leeds, says of her move north from London’s Serpentine Gallery. “Liverpool understands the role the arts can play in regeneration, and that money spent on culture is extremely good value.”
“There is nothing on the scale of the Biennial in the UK. It is the country’s Biennial. A mature, national project. But maybe it’s time to rethink it, take it to the next level…”
This year, Tallant’s keen to embrace as wide a cross section of the city’s cultural map as possible (including critical writing workshop events scheduled with the Double Negative website, and the opening Crimson Grail spectacular masterminded by Samizdat’s Andrew Ellis), and the event will see weekly hootenannies at Camp and Furnace, keeping energy levels up, and interest alive throughout the ten week residency. Something that, with the best will in the world, the festival’s not quite managed to date.
Music? We ask. In a Biennial? Whatever next…
“I know, it’s crazy we’ve not embraced it before. But, as I say, I have big plans…”
Of course, talking about the Biennial on a culture website is pushing against an open door. We know you’re as excited as we are.
But what about your friends? Your parents? Your flatmates? Some of the world’s most exciting artists are heading our way. For a ten week festival. That’s totally free.
SevenStreets suggests our role, this year, is to visit the Biennial’s diaspora with someone from the city who’s never been before. Show them the wonder in our midst.