One guest at the opening party for Liverpool Biennial 2008 was a local barber who first heard his city was staging a major international art festival just hours earlier.
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It is said he had as good a time as anyone, stayed late and took his family on a tour of art installations the following day. It helped to be a guest of Asher Remy Toledo.
The New York-based producer, who got chatting with the Scouse barber during a haircut, was also inspired by the meeting. So back in Liverpool this year, he set out to reach new audiences.
“These are the people who need to see these things,” he says of the city’s largely working class population. “They feel alienated.
“They feel intimidated by the art organisations, because they see this international crowd and people from London, all trendily dressed, and they say ‘We are not like them. This is not for us.’”
For the 2010 Biennial, Remy Toledo imported a public art model from his hometown, where artists are moving out of galleries and setting up in disused buildings.
These site specific projects take two or three months to set up and often run for even less time. As such, they present a real artistic and logistical challenge for the arts organisation Remy Toledo founded, No Longer Empty.
In Liverpool this year, he took on not one but two derelict buildings, almost single handed. “It was a big expense actually,” he says. “We didn’t have any electricity, or toilets, and they were very risky, hard to walk round. They had a lot of hazards.”
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No Longer Empty on the Road staged four projects in total and collaborated in an entire grassroots strand of the Biennial called S.Q.U.A.T.
Some credit Remy Toledo with being the first to bring local artists into the citywide festival. Others credit him with one of the year’s best shows as a crammed comments book from Phase 5 demonstrates.
“I think that art can really make social change,” he says, adding that news media is only effective up to a point when they carry stories about, say, floods in Pakistan or rapes in Bosnia.
“And 20 seconds later, usually next to those images, usually there is an advertisement for something fancy, or the Queen went shopping, Lord such-and-such redecorated his house, or Britney Spears went to such-and-such, and people then jump into that.”
According to Remy Toledo this is a filter which art has the “capacity to bypass”. The viewer of work with a social conscience may take the name of the artist to their heart; the collector may take even quite disturbing work to their collections.
“They might not be absolutely aware of this,” he adds. “But it’s true that these images, this type of work will touch people in a way that will remain, with no filters in between.”
Hence the commitment to the site specific art, a movement which Remy Toledo says sprung up in New York as soon as the economy crashed. “Everybody started losing their jobs and there were empty spaces and I immediately started actually seeing a renaissance of activity.
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“Maybe because our ground was shaken we had to think outside of the box we were locked into. When traumatic things happen in our life, they force us to think differently. A lot of ideas come our way. You think of new ways of doing things, because it’s not business as usual.”
The softly spoken producer seems none too keen on commercial art, deploring the instant commodification of artworks he saw first hand during time spent in China. He prefers artists to make public statements before making sales.
Remy Toledo draws a parallel between catwalk fashion and high profile commissions: “The models are wearing these extravagant outfits and you would say that nobody’s going to wear that. But it’s very much just to show a tendency, just a style, and after that you go and find something more practical to wear.”
At this stage the galleries come in and ask for smaller and less ephemeral work they can sell to collectors or museums. So events like the Biennial and organisations such as No Longer Empty are “very much a platform for artists to be fully active without so many restrictions.”
He reminds me that the man on the street is unlikely to go to a gallery. “But public really touches and can be approached by everyone.” Just ask his barber.
No Longer Empty on the Road projects can be seen at Liverpool Biennial until Novermber 28. Admission free. See the Biennial website for details.
Visit Mark Sheerin’s contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.