Postal Exhibitions from OUTPUT

Artists: Jon Edgley, Donal Moloney, Podge, Mali Draper & Dan Waine, Radical Womxn’s Dance Party, Leo Fitzmaurice, Hassnat Sikander, Sumuyya Khader, Golden Harvest Industries, David Blandy, Gabrielle de la Puente & Harriet Burns

Collected between December 2020 & February 2022

OUTPUT’s postal exhibition programme initially emerged as a solution to uncertainty in December 2020. A time when anxiety was being driven back up with pre-Christmas tiers and sustained frustration around what, if any, long-term planning was viable. Over the next year exhibitions have been released at regular intervals, with the final one having just arrived through my letterbox. Of all the innovations in how art can be accessed to have emerged in the last couple of years, this series is my favourite by a country mile. 

postal exhibition by Hassnat Sikander for OUTPUT. A digital-pixel style background of dots overlay a white and purple pattern. In the foreground are five black silhouette figures, each in a different dance pose. In the bottom left corner is a QR code.
Hassnat Sikander (one side)

How can one single print constitute an exhibition? The word carries implications of a much larger experience than a single sheet of A3. And after a pandemic year of experiencing largely flat online shows, I’d come to believe more than ever that some kind of experience is fundamental to being able to appreciate art. So it’s been fascinating to explore how each print has been not just a work in itself, but a gateway into a bigger story. In some works this is literal, such as where QR codes in the work take you away from the standalone piece and into the wider scope of the artist’s intention. If this sounds dull or contrived, it’s not when it’s been executed like Podge has approached it. Why just have album art on your wall, when you can have the music too? His print feels like a contemporary progression of the LP cover, one resounding with our modern accustomization to instant access. But it retains that sense of the common experience of being able to share great music with our friends.

“Postal exhibition” is also a phrase which suggests that a single print can encapsulate ideas which would usually have literal, physical space into which to expand. Dan Waine and Mali Draper’s work kind of runs with this idea: to complete it you need to leave the print behind and venture to Princes Park, to wander its paths and be guided by their poetry, which unfolds seemingly spontaneously at spots dictated by GPS. Perfect for breaking us out of the acquired habit of staying indoors, local, into a mindset of exploration.

Others, conscious of the need for caution in the ongoing circumstances, have developed ambitious expeditions which can be fully accessed from the comfort of home. As it only arrived through my letterbox on Wednesday, I haven’t yet had a chance to play ‘Lost Eons: Haven of Aves’, developed by David Blandy, Gabrielle de la Puente and Harriet Burns. But having read the booklet I’m truly looking forward to doing so soon. A transparently political piece, it translates its observations of contemporary social hierarchies into a rich imagining of a possible-future-Liverpool. Though essentially quite pessimistic in its belief that hierarchical  systems prevail beyond civilizations, its scenarios and characters offer possibilities for survival, creatively navigating relationships and scenarios.

One side of the postal exhibition by Sumuyya Khader for OUTPUT. At the top are the words "so she takes another breath". Underneath this is a woman's head adn shoulders, but they're painted over with colourful brushstrokes.
Sumuyya Khader (one side)

Or there’s the approach of Donal Moloney; the print I received is a small piece of a much larger work which had been divided up into 100 equal pieces. You could view all the pieces in turn on Output’s website, but there’s been a fun challenge to imagination during the many occasions I’ve tried to imagine the entire work brought together. Where would those severed lines go, and how would it fill a wall? Speaking of which – Moloney’s work is one of the few in the series which was conventional enough to put in a frame and look nice on a wall. In fact I’ve spent rather a long time thinking about how best to do each print justice in terms of display. Most have had essential elements on both sides, and to hide one away from display would be to miss the point. It’s also a fact that some of these prints are not intended to simply look nice. Take Radical Womxn’s Dance Party: really, the purpose of its colour palette is to pique your interest enough to draw you in to focusing on its text on prison abolition.

(This is something which is noticeable across these prints, actually: how text is frequently employed with as much urgency as image. Whilst each artist will have had their own reasons, I wonder whether this is another area where the pandemic has had an influence. As it stole face-to-face communication from us, we had to become more comfortable with other ways to properly express thoughts and feelings to our nearest and dearest. For me at least, written words – not reviews and not here, but privately written free-flowing thoughts and experiments – became essential as a form of expression far more tangible than the flat screens of another bloody Zoom. As the audience of these exhibitions I find their words to be like entry points into conversations like I had in the “before times”, on subjects on the edges of my everyday concerns. Ideas are nourishing, and text aids their intention to get their fullness and urgency across.) 

It’s likely you haven’t loved every print distributed. This is totally fine: it means it’s a diverse selection of work. OUTPUT’s programming isn’t based on aesthetic style, but on promoting artists born or working in Liverpool. It’s always been a blend of emerging and established artists and I’ve been delighted to see them sticking by this principle that it’s the art, not the name, which matters. This local approach has another side-effect: I highly doubt it was OUTPUT’s conscious intention to create a kind of “year in culture” document, but in a way that’s what it is. I’m not sure I should think about these as a set, but it’s perhaps inevitably how I do – a set from a particular time and circumstance. Thinking in this way, I find that they work together because they’re so disparate. From Jon Edgley’s typically cutting satire in ‘To Let’ to the fabulously chaotic fun of Golden Harvest Industries’ chaotic ‘RCorpoBop’, they offer a view of where Liverpool’s creativity is at right now both aesthetically and socio-politically. 

Detail of Radical Womxn's Dance Party postal exhibition for OUTPUT. The words "fire to the prisons" are printed three times in blue ink, with a pink wavy line cutting through the centre.
Radical Womxn’s Dance Party (detail)

It’s also hugely important to consider how radical the entire idea of the postal exhibition is. Yes, it has a clear forebear in the Mail Art movement, but honestly why isn’t any of this much more mainstream? With so many institutions wondering how to keep audiences engaged with their work from afar this just seems like such a simple, yet relevant and refreshing concept. But it’s a model with huge significance beyond recent circumstances, too – it’s a properly creative point of engagement, a proper exhibition experience, for anyone who can’t get to the art they’d like due to access limitations. 

And I’m not only talking about physical access, but economic too – I mean, these were free! New work by some of the best artists in the city and country is sitting on my walls, and all I had to do was ask. There’s no sense of quality having been compromised or corners cut to make this possible – in fact, the reverse. It’s clear that each artist has deeply considered how to approach their exhibition and work within this mass format. (My favourite is probably Leo Fitzmaurice in this regard. I like the way it gets a bit meta with the idea of what a poster represents – a poster of posters. It’s an opportunity well-taken to explore the lines between art, commodity and the quotidien. The accompanying film and its stuff-of-nightmares soundtrack is also worth a watch.)

Honestly full credit to everyone involved for producing this programme. It goes so far beyond the idea of a souvenir poster from an exhibition being the key record. Rather than posing as a “wish you were here?” to those who couldn’t be, these works have their own creative life and impulse which you can be a complete part of from home. The idea could easily be worked into any exhibition and I’d really like to see this kind of care for the needs of their audience picked up more widely. Tangible, expressive and accessible: can we have more of this sort of thing, please?

Visit OUTPUT’s website to find links to podcast interviews with most of the artists involved.

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