It was an unusually pleasant summer’s day in July 2017 on which I first set foot inside the cool, cavernous interior of the former Coventry Evening Telegraph building. I was being shown around by Coventry Biennial director Ryan Hughes, as I had recently been selected for a New Art West Midlands Curatorial Bursary to work on the biennial and also because ‘The CET’, as it has affectionately become known, was to become the site of the biennial’s principal group exhibition. At that point, a not-inconsiderable feat of imagination was required to see how this could be so. The building had, in eight or more years, been used only for self-guided heritage tours that did not even nearly cover its entire footprint. There were whole floors without power and many rooms blanketed with the assorted detritus that is left behind by a down-sizing company which neither intends to return nor expects anybody else to. Deeper inside the building, the initial cool gave way to a chilly cold as that cavernous lobby, by turns, contracted to become claustrophobic office space and then expanded to become truly massive in the former print rooms. Those who visited the building during the biennial will know that what looks, from the street, to be a handsome, but fairly unprepossessing, mid-century office block becomes, upon exploration of its interior, a veritable warren of spaces encompassing the domestic, the commercial, and the industrial in a complex of connected buildings covering almost an entire city block.
The Biennial’s theme, and the title of the exhibition in the CET building, was ‘The Future’. The irony does not escape me that, as I write, ‘The Future’ is now in the past. But any conception of the future is always inextricably bound up with the past from which it springs. The biennial’s exhibition at the CET always acknowledged its place in a historic building in Coventry and sought not to predict the future but to thread art through that historic building in a manner which united old and new for a vision of the possible futures which might await us all.
My principal concern and the focus of my work, however, lay in the question of quite how, even with around 60 artists planned to be shown, we were going to fill the almost endless available space. During my time with the biennial, I visited artists in their studios as far apart as rural Yorkshire and urban High Wycombe. I had the privilege of being invited generously into the practices and thought processes of many artists, having discussions that helped to evolve my understanding of how their numerous practices with varying starting points could be situated, within the exhibition, to invite each work into a lively discourse with the others and to generate a hearty artistic and intellectual feast for visitors.
On the more pragmatic side of affairs, I supported volunteer recruitment events, worked closely on the design direction of the Biennial’s printed programme and led on the coordination of the VIP and Professional’s Preview Day. During the biennial itself, I led curator’s tours for members of the public, as well as colleagues in the arts sector. Part of the potential of any biennial lies in its ability to habituate itself to its host city, finding moments of encounter that grow out of, respond to and transform the spirit of the city. To this end, I used the curator’s tours as an opportunity to discover and discuss other people’s reactions to the exhibition and the artworks in it, as much as to share my own knowledge and opinions. The biennial was a truly collaborative, city-wide project and I was delighted to also be asked by biennial partners Scratch the Surface Festival to lead a conversation with the artists of their END//BEGIN-Dialogue exhibition, on the topic of how art making can intersect with, express and sometimes provide relief for artists with mental health issues.
We did, ultimately, fill the CET with art and, in my entirely biased opinion, we did so quite admirably. During my time with the biennial, I developed my project management, networking and research skills. I also gained a great deal more experience of working with artists at various stages in their careers. The experience has already led to my being given a place at artist Jamboree 2018 and I am now greatly looking forward to spending a summer’s weekend in the glorious Devon landscape surrounding Dartington College, which is of course very different from the urban landscape of Coventry that I spent a lot of time in during the course of the biennial. But, once again, I will have the privilege of sharing discussions and debates about the practices and processes, this time, of 150 fellow artists and curators. Whatever that may lead to, whether exhibitions or other forms of dissemination, I hope to experience again the genuine and enthusiastic public support that people from Coventry and beyond lent to the biennial. For after all, as my experiences with the biennial reaffirmed, art needs people just as much as people need art.