Discovering Liverpool: Three Things I Learnt Spending Time with Artists

Posted on 16 December 2015

Exploring Liverpool's theatres with Villa Design Group. Photo by Jennifer Watts.

Exploring Liverpool's theatres with Villa Design Group. Photo by Jennifer Watts.

Katie Tysoe spent some time exploring the city with the Liverpool Biennial 2016 artists. Here she shares her insights following the experience:

I hail from a fairly ‘non-arts’ background and until six months ago had never met, let alone worked with, an artist (except for the odd brush with some diva up-and-coming bands). I’m also relatively new to Liverpool, so it was fairly daunting when as part of my recent placement as curatorial trainee at the Biennial, I was faced with the task of accompanying the 2016 artists around the city, in search of sites that could potentially form the backdrop for their contribution to next year’s festival. Yet the experience proved to be hugely enriching. Not only is Liverpool a city with a colourful past, passionate about its mixed cultural heritage and welcoming to all, but exploring it in the company of artists has helped me to see it in a new light. These experiences are reflected in the enthusiasm of the team at Liverpool Biennial and its commitment to both capturing and showcasing artistic talent as part of the city.

Below are a few of the things I learnt through spending time with artists – most of whom had never visited Liverpool before – which I feel we could all benefit from in a voyage of discovery of what Liverpool is, and what it takes to be part of its past and future.

#1 Curious by nature

I was struck by the curiosity of artists; their ability to notice things I would miss or details that would normally get lost in the mundane of the everyday. Often they would wander off down roads, their attention caught by a neo-gothic building, an old church or some interesting graffiti. We took them to many different sites around Liverpool during their visit and they displayed an enormous interest in their surroundings everywhere we went – asking about the range of local pubs, who exactly are the clientele that stay at the Adelphi Hotel, and what is sold at the Hippy Hole?

Liverpool Biennial 2016 artist Alisa Baremboym on a visit to the 3D prosthetic skin-printing lab at the University of Liverpool. Photo by Katie Tysoe. 

We thought it was important to try and reflect the whole of Liverpool in the range of sites we visited: from the more glamorous locality of the Albert Dock to the abandoned warehouses, buildings and storefronts that are currently left in a state of derelict and neglect. A highlight for me was accompanying Koki Tanaka and Lawrence Abu-Hamdan on a visit to Squash Nutrition (a creative health organisation in Toxteth) where we learnt about the work it carries out within the local community and why it’s so important. Several of the artists were also curious about the different areas of research developing in the city. Through this I was able to accompany Alisa Baremboym on a visit to a working bronze foundry, help Lucy Beech discover a 3D prosthetic skin-printing lab at the University of Liverpool, and watch Lawrence Abu-Hamdan explore the acoustics and sound inside the Oratory housed at St James Gardens.

Seeing Liverpool through the curious eyes of the artists gave me the pleasure of realising how we often become so used to our surroundings that we forget the treasures that are around us every day and on our doorstep.

#2 A willingness to learn

I was surprised at how, with such an international range of artists, each Biennial manages to exist in close connection to the city. The artists I met were genuinely eager to uncover and become assimilated with what it means to live in Liverpool, and wished to engage with and respond to the city on a deeper political, social and historic level. There were questions aplenty, my favourite being from a group of artists who were keen to encounter Liverpool’s gay scene and the local bars, to more complex ones concerning the contemporary socio-political climate and how it has affected the city – particularly with regards to the rising levels of homelessness (and the great efforts various charities in the city are doing to respond to this problem). Lawrence Abu-Hamdan was interested in the legacy of the Riot Act that was read out at St Georges Hall in 1911, Audrey Cottin was eager to find out about the impact of the vast student population upon the city, and Lucy Beech has been carrying out a good deal of research into the different micro-communities that exist in Liverpool – such as the yoga sessions at Sefton Park Palmhouse – and how they bring people together.

Whether you are a relative newcomer like me or an old vanguard of the Mersey, this willingness to learn about the city and its ways struck me as an attitude that should be adopted by all, and that can only strengthen the already strong community spirit that exists in Liverpool.

#3 A passion for people

The artist as creative genius, mysterious entity and lonesome being are long-standing tropes, yet having spent time with the artists visiting Liverpool, I can confirm that this last fiction at least can be debunked. The artists were chatty, friendly and, to my delight, interested in my own opinions and views as we visited different parts of the city; listening intently to tour guides, community arts specialists, foundry workers and others. Their passion for people was clear, and their interest in what forms the identity of Liverpool was refreshing as we talked about what it is like to be a part of such a complex, friendly and lively city. The Biennial has a real strength in forming good relationships with the artists and facilitating a friendship with the city.

The opportunity to spend time with different artists from around the world has been a valuable experience. It's shaped the way I see Liverpool and has opened my eyes to what you can experience and find out when you truly get under the skin of the city. The way they helped me to experience Liverpool in a new light will stay with me forever and has added to my excitement around visiting the festival in 2016, when I will have the chance to see what the artists' encounter with the city has materialised into.

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