Spotlight: Coventry Biennial of Contemporary Art

Emma Ha. Mosaic for an Office, 2017

Emma Ha. Mosaic for an Office, 2017

The inaugural Coventry Biennial of Contemporary Art starts on 6 October. We talk to its Director Ryan Hughes about the motivations for a Biennial in the city and what we should expect.

Tell us a little about yourself. What is your background?

I'm a curator based in Birmingham and I have worked across the West Midlands, nationally and internationally. After studying Graphic Design and then Fine Art, I worked in various institutions and artist-led spaces, often as a technician or curator and occasionally as an artist.

Alongside working in gallery contexts I have also worked extensively on projects operating on the boundaries of that system including publishing, experimental music, technology and creative, professional development projects.

I have recently curated exhibitions at MK Gallery and Vivid Projects, have performed at Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum, BOM (Birmingham Open Media) and Supersonic Festival and have produced projects on the slopes of Cader Idris, under the cover of Sherwood Forest and in botanical gardens, theatres and churches. I am also Lead Artist at Office for Art, Design and Technology through which I have worked with practitioners including James Bridle, Radical Software Group, Rafaël Rozendaal and Heath Bunting. I'm on the advisory board of New Art West Midlands and frequently work with local authorities.

Why does Coventry need a Biennial of Contemporary Art? Why now?

Coventry has a thriving cultural scene. A scene that is predominantly theatre, dance and musically focused. Coventry Biennial of Contemporary Art will bring the visual arts to the forefront of the city's cultural offer. This is particularly important at the moment given that Coventry has been shortlisted for City of Culture 2021 and that the city council has published a new 10 year strategy for cultural growth and support. The biennial intends to be a vehicle for driving that support toward visual artists in the city, the region, and for educating audiences in Coventry around their own visual heritage through engagement with contemporary practices.

Andy Holden. Laws of motion in a Cartoon Landscape, 2015.

Andy Holden. Laws of motion in a Cartoon Landscape, 2015.

Why should we come to the Biennial? What are your top picks from the programme?

The programme's really jam packed and I'm really pleased with everything that is happening. The two exhibitions I'm probably most excited about though are The Future and Andy Holden's Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape.

The Future is housed in The Coventry Evening Telegraph Building (CET). Built between 1957 and 1959 as the offices and production facility of the city's local newspaper, it has stood empty since the early 2000's. We have converted the space into a gallery. Some references for the conversion have been Palais De Tokyo and The Tanks at Tate Modern. We are taking quite grand, large and fairly dilapidated spaces and transforming them into a gallery which is suitable for a range of works whilst still communicating something about the history of the building and the work which was undertaken there. Likewise, the selection of works in the show are responding to the various processes which have been undertaken in the building. For example, we have photography being installed in old darkrooms, video in conferencing suits and ceramic tiles in bathrooms.

Bringing Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape to the West Midlands also feels very exciting, the work has recently been purchased by Arts Council England and is currently on show in The Future Generation Art Prize as a part of the Venice Biennale. Both of these exhibitions feel like statements of intent for the Biennial, showing that we are eager to bring major, internationally important work to the city and region, whilst also making large scale group exhibitions which unfold over vast and unusual locations.

Artists explore the Coventry Evening Telegraph Building.

Artists explore the Coventry Evening Telegraph Building.

What challenges have there been converting a previously disused space, the CET Building into a gallery space? What will we see there?

The CET Building has been empty for so long that getting it clean, safe and secure has been far more difficult than actually getting it exhibition ready. When we first visited the building there were no toilets, very limited electricity and lighting. It leaked in places and there were several broken windows. Getting the building suitable for large groups of visitors has been difficult. We have been working with a fantastic team of volunteers and technicians to get these issues resolved, and to then build gallery style walling and other exhibition furniture. Unpicking the history of the building through this process has been exceptionally enjoyable! 

Li Hui. Secret Valentine, 2016

Li Hui. Secret Valentine, 2016

You have selected established, internationally recognised artists as well as local emerging artists. How did you go about your selection?

Having a real mixture of practices felt important so that audiences with different levels of comfort and experience with contemporary art can access the Biennial's programme and also discover something new. Most people will be more or less familiar with Picasso and might remember the fuss that a newspaper made about Assemble, the 'sort-of-architects' who won the Turner Prize a few years ago. Likewise, most people in the industry will know the work that Andy Holden, Yelena Popova, Stuart Whipps and Charley Peters are making. However, it also felt really exciting to work with artists whom many visitors will not have come across before including recent graduates and emerging artists, many of these practitioners are people I have discovered through my work with educational institutions and whilst running professional development programmes. As a part of my curatorial practice I am constantly researching, meeting with and thinking about artists and their works so selection was a natural process once buildings for the biennial had been confirmed. Frequently the theme of The Future and the context or features of the venues led the selection process. I needed the shows to feel right and for that feeling to make the biennial accessible.

Coventry Biennial of Contemporary Art takes place from 6-22 October 2017 across Coventry, West Midlands.