The Stomach and the Port

The first ‘outside’ chapter of Liverpool Biennial 2021: The Stomach and the Port is now open, featuring a major series of outdoor sculptures across the city, plus an online programme of sonic and digital commissions, films, events, podcasts and more. We’re adding new online content regularly – sign up here to stay posted.

From 19 May we’ll open the full festival of exhibitions and events hosted by partner venues throughout Liverpool. Booking is now available – find information here.

Liverpool Biennial 2021 explores notions of the body. Drawing on non-Western ways of thinking, the 11th edition challenges an understanding of the individual as a defined, self-sufficient entity. The body is instead seen as a fluid organism that is continuously shaped by and shaping its environment. A plethora of artistic practices inform this edition: many of the artworks include sound, shun direct representation, de-stabilise gender categories or look at intense forms of contact. Liverpool, and its maritime history as a point of global contact and circulation, provides the perfect ecosystem to situate these enquiries.

The Stomach and the Port develops through three entry points – stomach, porosity and kin. The stomach is viewed as a primary organ engaging with the world. Porosity is embraced as a way of responding to borders or the strict contours of the skin. The notion of kin is revisited as a social tissue that prepares us for abundant futures.

The artists in this edition share concerns with the definition, invention and circulation of bodies and their knowledges. They engage with histories of contamination and gather together ways of understanding our bodies as zones capable of expansion: where agency can be distributed amongst beings, ideas of representation are substituted by forms of embodiment, and concepts of kinship extend beyond everyday human experience towards a more inclusive society.

The Biennial programme is presented in locations across Liverpool, including public spaces, historic sites and the city’s leading art venues: Bluecoat, Liverpool Central Library, Cotton Exchange Building, Exchange Flags, FACT, Dr Martin Luther King Jr Building, Open Eye Gallery and Tate Liverpool. New for 2021, Liverpool Biennial’s reach will also expand to the city’s historic Lewis’s Building and Lush Building.

Liverpool Biennial 2021: The Stomach and the Port is curated by Manuela Moscoso.


The following three Entry Point texts have been written by Writer and Curator Sara Demeuse, commissioned to help give more in-depth insight into the conceptual ideas and framework behind The Stomach & The Port. Each entry point can be explored further through a series of suggested audience Trails, available to view on the Visit section of this site, and through the public programme, Processes of Fermentation.

Entry I: The Stomach

The mouth, like a port, is an opening. A place of first contact with the outside. It regulates two ways of traffic: import (often oxygen, food) and export (often language, carbon dioxide). Whilst the opening and closing of the mouth can be deliberately controlled, the stomach knows what the mouth does not. The mouth pays lip service to representation. The stomach diligently works substance, prepping it to be radically transformed. In this, the stomach is a model of production, in continuous interaction with the exterior.

The stomach can be thought of as the port to the gut, a site where the outside environment comes to dock. Here, organic chemistry, social ritual and roles, as well as economic power truly interact, before valuable content is clearly separated from waste: it is a primary site of active, yet paced transition. A stomach can’t ignore so-called foreignness and needs to engage with it, either by prepping it to transition into the body cells, or by slowly deciding to send it back to the mouth.

The stomach, like the heart, is a muscle. It is the place where what we ingest becomes part of our bodies: substances are slowly transformed by muscular mechanics and chemistry. When our bodies are distressed our stomachs act up: their chemical balance directly corresponds to our emotional balance. Yet, inversely, who hasn’t felt butterflies in their belly when feeling elated? The stomach is the locus of true physical feeling and of metaphoric mood.

Liverpool’s port embodies intensified circulation and necessary interaction: as the world´s first commercial wet dock, it stands for the movement of physical goods, the transport and separation of bodies, protection, control and connection, as well as for incessant exchange of information and knowledges. There is production, invention, and resistance despite imposition and restriction.

Through the stomach, we zoom into the back-and-forths of that production: the minute muscular movements that develop – such as rhythm, gesture, and mobile forms of knowledge – despite the mandate to separate, dominate, standardise and streamline.

Entry II: Porosity

The human skin is a product of a journey as much as it is a facilitator of many journeys.

The story goes that human bodies used to be more hairy, and that when they started outrunning their predators (humans being better at long distances because their bodies could regulate body temperature through perspiration), they began to shed this fur. In other words: skin, and skin color, became gradually visible around the time humans turned into a so-called dominant species, developing not only their ability to run, but also their hunting, roasting, and dressing skills.

The human skin is an organ that counts for about 15% of a human’s bodyweight. It is a fine-tuned interface that *protects* by shielding the inner body from toxins, by preventing excessive water loss, and by regulating the body temperature. It also *communicates* by receiving and decoding contextual information: it can register and react to temperature variations, it can sense texture, and, most importantly, it can synthesise vitamin D from sunlight. It is, in other words, a medium.Think of how it can absorb hormones, nicotine, nitroglycerine, and even opioid substitutes from engineered patches; inversely, it can convey information to the environment through perspiration, rashing, or “breaking out.”

There’s the idea that the skin to-be-had is a smooth, uniformly tinted, glowing (yet never oily), tightly-stretched foil over the flesh it covers. The skin functions as a top layer that seals that which is within; the wrapper that acts as a mirror of the inside. That mirror, however, is rippled, hairy, oily, at times wet and salty, and with occasional dry, even flakey, patches. There’s nothing permanent about a skin: its upper layer only exists for 3-4 weeks before turning to dust. There’s also nothing pure about a skin: besides accumulating or absorbing particles from the environment, the skin hosts about 1,000 species of bacteria. Basically, it’s more similar to an ecosystem than to a single thing.

At the dermatologist’s office, a didactic poster depicts a cubic cross-section of skin, as if it were a charcuterie sample gone astray in a virtual educational space. The poster indicates the anatomic components of the skin: the hair follicle, the sweat gland, the epidermis, the dermis, the hypodermis, the blood vessels, the lower connective tissue. The single hairs pierce through the outer layer’s uneven surface,which shows modest ripples like a calm summer lake. There are horizontal vectors (veins) as well as vertical ones (the hair, the perspiration gland), while the fat clusters behave a bit more messily. On a metaphoric level, it’s the vertical vector in this cross section that speaks to traffic, contact, infection and exchange. To emphasise this in-and-out is to point to the humans’ necessary giving and taking from their environment. Without this verticality there is no life, just a dividing cling wrap film.

A pore is what we know as the smallest unit of the skin – it’s the part that acts up as a pimple or that freaks out as goose bumps. Our pores open up in warm, humid environments and they shrink in cold climates. They are reactive. The word “pore” is related to port and porosity: all sharing an Ancient Greek root, póros, which stands for “passage,” but also for “journey”.

The skin is an amalgamate of chemical passages and cultural journeys and that journey is distinct for every human. To ignore the differences in skins is to ignore histories and structures of dominance and brutal oppression. Most of these differences have been articulated through ideology, and ideology, in turn, is often turned into law. Both are created out of fear – a fear of losing power. The skin-as-divider is a screen of fear, a surface upon which to apply unspoken quantities of disinfectant, bleachers, self-tanners, toners, and whatnot – all to blend in and self-protect. This ideologised skin shuns touching other skin.

Acknowledging the porosity of the human skin and daring to touch another’s skin recognises the passing, weathering, vanishing, variating and exchanging that come with the journey. The skin knows this but it’s time we started poring over that.

Entry III: Kinship

Kin – a quaint enigma, like “kayak” or “kudo,” one of those rare words that start with a K.

Kin – not as in “kind” or as in “kinetic” (though a kind, kinetic kin is obviously appealing).

Kin – as in young birds helping their parents in rearing their own siblings or in nest building, even when they themselves are capable of breeding.

Kin – yes, as in “next of kin”. It’s an expression mostly associated with dread as it concerns planning for the transfer of belongings or debt after one’s passing. “Next of kin” also presents the question: who will take care of me when my body or mind starts failing? In many contemporary human cultures, the notion of kinship emerges at the crossroad of the nuclear family, legal obligations, and estate planning. These practices stand at a far remove from those birds that defend the parental nest, or the worker bee who foregoes breeding so that the queen’s offspring can thrive.

In zoology, kin selection (or kinship) is explained through genetics, which boils down to basic cost-benefit reasoning. A web search pulls up this quote: The gene that favors altruism spreads when participants are related and the cost to the individuals is low as compared to the benefit to the recipient. Therefore, altruism is promoted by kin selection and close genetic kinship.

The human animal, however, has applied this selective logic in a contradictory way. On the one hand, it has developed methods to subordinate and exploit other species as well as its environment to promote unsustainable population growth. On the other, it has created deep inner division within its own kin so that certain humans feel legitimized to exploit and subordinate other members of their own species. It’s the prime example of altruism meeting – and ultimately getting trumped by – selfishness.

We live in a time when traditional structures of division and belonging have become so deeply entrenched that the human genome has become too weak to bring about collective purpose. The pendulum has gotten stuck on the individualist end of the spectrum rather than on the genome-at-large end. In other words: a few humans experience economic, financial and maybe familial growth for an indeterminate, yet certainly finite, time, whereas all other human and non human animals, along with the environment, gradually go to hell.

So then what? In a time when genetic manipulation is rife, the altruistic gene + group fitness mechanisms seem outdated and insufficient to create a new, sustainable connection. Yet, I wonder: what if there’s a way to reverse-engineer kinship? That is, by activating radical altruism, could we experience that primordial sense of being in the same boat? I’m thinking about practices of giving and caring that would supersede logics of paternalism, pity and anthropocentrism and instead build connections: between humans, as well as between humans and non-humans – at times ephemeral, at times lasting til death do us part.

Now that’s kind, kinetic kinship.

Manuela Moscoso

The Stomach and the Port

Liverpool Biennial 2021 asks the question: what is a body? What does it mean to be human, and what could humans be to one another? The Stomach and the Port draws its title from an understanding of bodies as fluid, porous and interdependent organisms – continuously shaping and shaped by their environments.

We might think of the human stomach and the port as two sites of connection and exchange; both receive and redistribute information, knowledge and goods, both are by nature relational. Our skin, too, is a boundary through and on which social meaning is inscribed and a porous and breathable organ through which we respond to the external world. The 2020 pandemic has laid bare the reality that all bodies are porous, not only to each other, but to vast, interconnected networks of cultural, natural and sociopolitical systems. Recent movements to protect lives from state and structural violence and to preserve physical integrity such as Black Lives Matter have also demonstrated that borders are not simply geographical, architectural, or biological, but are politically and interpersonally maintained. All the works included in this Biennial address bodies within specific locations and constraints, but also suggest they are never truly fixed to any one place in particular. Humans are not merely consumers or receivers, but producers and reproducers of the world and of future political consciousness.

Ports have been vital to the movement of bodies and materials throughout history. They played a key role in the development of modernity, in establishing the dominance of Western democracy and in the foundation of colonial capitalism, in which gendered, racialised and colonised bodies, along with natural resources, were fed into then/now-emerging economies of extraction. Liverpool played an important part in this world order. The city became a globally important port by the 18th century.

The very first enclosed port was built here, establishing the city’s prosperity via trading cottons and woollens, guns, iron, alcohol and tobacco. Liverpool also found wealth from human trade, both the forced movement of people and the trade of products created by forced labour. The first school of tropical medicine was founded here in 1898, a time when science emerged as the bedrock of objective and rational analysis, within which early Western definitions of the body were formed.

I have spent over two years navigating questions regarding the ‘body’ and the long-standing myths, assumptions and generalisations that accompany attempts to define it. Western bodies have long been designated as a ‘neutral’ or ‘universal’ standard, which in turn has determined the conditions of citizenship and of whose life is valuable, worthy of protection and rights. In this edition we ask, how have these definitions of the body been preserved? By whom? In whose interest? How might we disrupt these categories, and how can we resist them? In doing so, how can we nurture a sense of coexistence and reciprocity, with others and with our environment?

Articulating these issues through the language of the body, and attention to its porosity, vulnerability and interdependence, might enable us to perceive the body as the site of intersecting powers, to a site for political agency. What happens when we shift our understanding of bodies from something humans have, to something humans are? Such a shift might help us to redefine political agency as a collective, inclusive and indeterminate force rather than as a tool for dogmatic self-reinforcement. The art practices shaping this Biennial all persist with complicating and refining the conversation; moves beyond dichotomies of individual and collective, interior and exterior, to thinking with a body that is fluid, resilient, unpredictable and entangled with one another. We strive for a world that nurtures life for all. In this Biennial, art explores those entanglements and their potential for resistance, providing a space to imagine.

Biography

Manuela Moscoso was the Senior Curator at Museo Tamayo in Mexico City. Previously, she was the Associate Curator of the Bienal de Cuenca 12, Ecuador and the Co-Director of Capacete, a residency programme based in Brazil where she also ran the curatorial programme, Typewriter. She is the co-founder of Zarigüeya, a programme that activates relationships between contemporary art and the pre-Columbian collection of the Museo Casa del Alabado, Ecuador.

Samantha Lackey, Director

This Biennial has been three years in the making and while the context of its exhibition has been radically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the ideas around which the Biennial and the work circulate have remained constant. Relationships are at the heart of this: the ways in which our bodies experience the world and the connections that we make in the world. This has been a year when particular kinds of certainty about our bodies – and about whose bodies matter most – have been at the forefront of our everyday experience. We have reflected on the effects of our behaviour on the animal and natural world. We have witnessed renewed forms of solidarity as people across the world protested systemic racism, as multimillionaire footballers spoke up for, and with, hungry families. We have sought solace in nature, in our animal companions. The stories that shape our lives have changed. This Biennial recognises the potential in retelling the old stories differently and in writing new stories. It proposes new forms of equity between humans, animals and nature. Importantly, it does so with a careful optimism founded on deep engagement with ideas and experience and on the potential for new forms of collective action. We believe it does so with beauty, care and joy.

Liverpool Biennial is always the result of an extraordinary collaborative effort. More than that, it is also a cumulative manifestation of years of energy, work and support. Over the past 12 months we have had to draw on all our reserves and on the generosity of everyone with whom we work: our artists, our team, our partners, our funders and our board. We have remained committed to the importance of realising this festival, to connect everyone we can to the exceptional art and ideas contained within The Stomach and the Port. We give heartfelt thanks to everyone who has played a part in this in Liverpool, and across the world.

Biography

Dr Samantha Lackey was Head of Collection and Exhibitions at the Whitworth (University of Manchester), where she was senior lead on the Leadership Team. Previously, she was curator at The Hepworth Wakefield (2010-16) where she delivered 40 exhibitions over 4 years as part of the team that opened the gallery in 2011 to critical acclaim. She received a PhD on the subject of surrealism in 2005, which was the context for her work as a lecturer, research fellow and her first exhibition at the Whitworth, Subversive Spaces: Surrealism and Contemporary Art.

Our Team

Director
Samantha Lackey

Curator
Manuela Moscoso

Producer
Justin O’Shaughnessy

Programme Manager
Lily Mellor

Front of House Manager
Jenny Watts

Assistant Curator, Production
James Maxfield

Assistant Curator, Programme
Abi Mitchell

Assistant Curator
Hyun-Seo Chiang

Curator of Learning
Aimee Harrison

Learning Producer
Jasmine Bertie

Learning Assistant
Claire Henderson

Acting Development Manager
Aoife Robinson

Communications & Development Advisor
Catherine Holden

Press & PR Advisor
Susie Gault

Digital Content & Marketing Officer
Helena Geilinger

Communications & Development Assistant
Helaena Williamson

Professor of Exhibition Research
Joasia Krysa

Operations Manager
Jade Mitchell

Head of Finance
Allison Mottram

Finance Assistant
Dan Bayley

HR Consultant
Jane Howard

Biennial Collaborators

Creative Writer, Entry Points
Sarah Demeuse

Curator of Film Programme: The Refracted Body
Margarida Mendes

Co-Curator of Publication: The Stomach & The Port
Keyna Eleison

2021 Identity Design
Dr. Lakra with Sara De Bondt and Mark El-khatib

Writer
Orit Gat

Website Design
Mark El-khatib

Website Development
Richard Cool

Thanks
Chantel Baldry
Polly Brannan
Sunny Cheung
Kezia Davies
Sarah den Dikken
James Ducker
Louise Garforth
Bethany Garrett
Faye Hamblett-Jones
Sarah Happersberger
Joanne Karcheva
Je Yun Moon
Zoe Radford
Paul Smith
Sally Tallant
Zoe Thirsk
Ellie Towers
Fatos Üstek
Rachel Wallis
Jake Winsor
Amy Worsley
Josiah Worth
Laura Young
Placement students from University of Liverpool and Hope University
& All our wonderful 2021 Guides