Just like any other live event courageously pencilled into our diaries this year, Liverpool Biennial 2021 will look, feel and sound a bit different. If so much of the past 12 months have been defined by restrictions on what we can and cannot do, where we can and cannot go, then the 11th Biennial is an opportunity for us to think about what it really means to connect and share in each space around us.
Originally scheduled to take place in 2020, The Stomach and the Port aims to explore notions of the body and how we connect with others around the world. Ever adapting to new contexts, the Biennial’s theme has perhaps never been so warranted as we begin to process a year both ravaged by a public health crisis and defined by racial injustice.
The programme of artists will each respond to and explore their own interpretations of this year’s theme and the wider societal shifts that we are witnessing. One of them is SERAFINE1369, the moniker of Jamila Johnson-Small, an artist living and working in London.
Adapting to each space and context, SERAFINE1369 works with a range of audio and visual material to explore the body as an oracular device through ideas about confinement, the subconsciousness and tension. Ahead of fronting the The Liquid Club on 18th February, a space to expand on the conceptual thinking behind the Biennial’s theme, Matthew Berks spoke to the artist about their practice and the concepts underpinning their work.
(furyfuryfury, 2019. Photo: Chris Bishop)
The Biennial’s 11th edition, The Stomach and the Port, explores notions of the body and our understanding of the individual as a self-contained entity. Could you talk about how you usually approach such themes?
If I am honest, I don’t work in a way that I think from any external theme, I just take in the information – in this case the title and vision for the Biennial – and I get on with doing what I am doing. I trained as a dancer and am endlessly fascinated with bodies and body as lens and metaphor. I am very interested in reading things through bodies and understand bodies to be sequences of entangled systems and cycles functioning as multi-dimensional portals. While I am making, the things around me – new information, conversations – can act as a filter of a lens for my thinking, but my relationship to thematics or ‘aboutness’ tends to be emergent.
Your performances tend to work with the tensions and power dynamics that exist between space, body and audience in different environments. What draws you to these concepts in particular?
With my work I am often trying to figure out or work through the things that I experience and find confusing/difficult in life. I wouldn’t say that I am there creating meaning, more searching for it in ways. Or not even searching, but clearing the space for myself to be with it – the tensions, the dynamics, the meaning that shows up in context, when we are looking, when there is time/space to look.
You often use video, electronic music and sculpture to create atmospheric landscapes across a variety of spaces including nightclubs, galleries and theatres. Does each space – its architectural forms and the way audiences interact in that space – influence your performance in any way?
Of course. I am very interested in working with what is already there, so part of the work is always considering the space as material, and the things that a space proposes to me. My entry point is usually through the formal and energetic impacts of the physical space, rather than their histories – how the architecture invites people to move (or be still) in the space, the scale of it, the textures.
How does the subconscious inform and influence the direction of your practice?
I guess I am consciously working with my subconscious as a guide. I am not so interested in invention or ‘new’, more in what is here already, the latent tensions that steer decisions, movements, directions. This is partly an interest in systemic programming, as well as a curiosity around the idea or the role of ‘the individual’ beyond being a weather vane or medium, a set of embodied expressions of environment or symptoms of the impacts of a system. I take an intuitive approach to things, gathering things I am drawn to and not immediately questioning their relationship or encouraging any coherence. I work increasingly with dreams and visionary landscapes drawn from impressions of internal physical activity. I think about the work as an oracular device, a container for this content gathered and guided by subconscious attraction.
Liverpool Biennial’s identity is very much rooted in taking over unexpected public spaces. At the Lewis’s Building – built in the 20th century as the flagship store for the department chain and set to be further redeveloped – you’ll be performing a specially commissioned piece. Are you able to tell us a little bit more about what we can expect?
I haven’t performed in a year, which is the longest break since I started, and I can’t say what will come out of my body after all these new experiences… I mentioned earlier that I think about my work as oracular devices, and what I can say is that when I was first imagining this work in late 2019, I was thinking about the tensions between vast open space and confinement, about loitering, and these things have shown up very intensely in our lives this last year. This work is coming from the thinking I’m doing about the emotional formation and regulation of bodies as and through the concept of loitering.
Will ideas about intimacy and proximity change in a ‘post-Covid-19’ world? Has all of this encouraged you to perhaps re-evaluate your own notions about proximity, and do you expect it to open new ways of interpreting that in your future work?
I can’t say how things will be, and I suspect that it is too soon to be able to talk about ‘post-Covid-19’ times. I think this pandemic has been – is – incredibly confronting, on so many fronts. I imagine that there are and will be a deep and transformative impact/s on the global psyche.
My notions of proximity, I’ve always had questions around the ways that proximity to things impacts me, conscious of the porousness of my body and its susceptibility to invasion (take this as you will) and concerned about the emotional, energetic fields that haven’t been culturally commonly considered when navigating and sharing space, trying to understand the relationship between intimacy and proximity. I was working through these things, learning my boundaries in a sense, through performing and being proximate to audiences, both as a one-to-one encounter and to make spectacle (i.e. shine a light on the inherent drama) of movements of (perceived/projected/imagined) power and relationship in proximity. With my physical practice, dancing, I try to create the conditions through the scores and structure of performances to enable myself to enter into a kind of meditative state, where I tune to both my interior landscapes, body systems and environment and when I next perform. I don’t know what these new/different tensions around proximity, sharing space and witnessing others will produce in the space, in my body, in the work.
The Liquid Club, in partnership with Melodic Distraction, continues with SERAFINE1369 on 18th February. Tickets here.