Design: Grace Collins & George Gibson

Independents Biennial 2021

Online & multiple venues, Liverpool

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Currently in its 22nd year, Liverpool Independents Biennial is a festival which celebrates the art and artists of Liverpool City Region and aims to shine a light on how people make, see and interact with art.

Instead of focusing on outcomes, it works without a theme, highlighting how ideas can form and change at any time and point in the creative process. Art in Liverpool, the programme’s coordinators, describe the Independents Biennial more as a R&D programme than solely an (online) exhibition. They say that “one of the biggest challenges facing visual art organisations this year has been presenting context, and contextualising presentation”. By creating transparency regarding ideas, work, processes, progress and things not working out, they are trying to address this.

There are various ways to learn about and engage with this approach, including online workshops and conversations, as well as a public Google Drive folder that gets updated constantly. You can follow work as it happens and are encouraged to get involved at any time.

Working in residence as part of the Independents Biennial myself, I spend a lot of time engaging with artists and audience, trying to document the festival with my practice (which is mainly writing, but also chaos).

I join the Zoom workshop Make Your Own Portal, created and led by artists Grace Collins (they/them) and George Gibson (she/they) to explore time travel, portals and bookmaking. We’re getting taught how to turn a piece of paper into a 16-page zine and are given prompts to fill the pages however we like. It is interesting to see the other six participants work and notice the differences in style, working pace and approaches regarding having the same resources.

Fiona Stirling also works with the theme of time. She is an artist and mother, researching the impact of time and space on painting practices. She uses the terms “painting ad hoc” and “inbetweener painting” to describe the process of painting in between other jobs or responsibilities. This feels especially relevant as, due to lockdowns, the borders between work, other responsibilities and self-care are still blurry, if even existent.


“It is chaotic, always changing and never finished; an accumulation of ideas, things, words, experiences and processes”

The need to find new ways of working and feels more existential than a year ago. During a conversation on Twitch with artists Sam Venables, Feiyi Wen and Montse Mosquera, festival director Patrick Kirk-Smith and responsive programme coordinator at Open Eye Gallery, Sorcha Boyle, Patrick wants to know if there has been a shift in how work is created and presented compared to a year ago. Feiyi Wen shares something that I really like: the way she works is flexible and she is embracing fluidity; especially in a time when everything is standing still, it feels freeing to have things that are not fixed and can be moved.

After virtual events and conversations, I am excited to be able to go to an actual space to see GROUND: an exhibition by artists John Elcock, Julie Lawrence Paul Mellor and Sarah Jane Richards in Cass Art Liverpool. The artists are using paper-based media to explore wilderness, empty landscapes and distant horizons while looking at the seasons, changing light, patterns of nature and weather. It is captivating to look at the colours and images others have noticed on their countless walks. I enjoy Sarah’s Walks In Wild Placesand John’s Swifts Feedingfor their sense of liberation and draw to nature. A small point, but the works could benefit from being exhibited in a bigger space. More room around each work gives the audience the possibility to focus on one thing at a time without having as much in their peripheral vision.

The threads I notice running through the programme are connection and collective understanding. Even though everyone’s approach and practice differ, sharing one’s process feels both vulnerable and brave and seeing others do the same wakes feelings of belonging and being supported. Everybody has different experiences, but they are connected in some way and all the work carries the wish to understand and be understood more.

A difficult thing I found is trying to reach people who are not already in the ‘art-bubble’, knowing about the festival anyway. It would have been extremely interesting to see the audience in the physical space in North Liverpool would we have been allowed to open. I do hope that will be possible next time.

Nevertheless, Liverpool Independents Biennial fits into the current situation perfectly. It is chaotic, always changing and never finished; an accumulation of ideas, things, words, experiences and processes that are in some way or other shared and connected.


Independents Biennial continues online and in various venues through June.

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