Connected Communities Festival, Cardiff 1-2 July 2014

One of the nice things about working on this project is learning new skills and experimenting with new ideas.  At the start of July quite a lot of the academic team (including myself, Beth, Saskia, Jess, Dave, Antonia) went down to Cardiff to take part in the AHRC’s Connected Communities Festival.

Of course a sentence like that brushes over the large amount of prep that that goes into an event like this.  Indeed, this was one of the biggest events the AHRC have run, so there was a lot of stress on their side.  We were just one of forty teams who were exhibiting, across a large number of venues, running break out sessions and arts events/interventions as part of this two day Festival.  Indeed, with meetings either side, the whole thing took up much of a week, so respect to the AHRC team for putting on such a slick event and thanks for their support in putting on our part of it.  As videos from the event have just been released, this seemed like a good opportunity to make a note about Cultural Intermediation’s presence in Cardiff.

Our contribution was threefold, we had a stand in the main conference centre, a break out session on the limits to co-construction and made an experimental short film with poet Chris Jam.  We started work earlier this year although we only got confirmation of funding in early May so it was then a bit of a mad scramble to get everything together in time.  The idea of the breakout session on the Limits of Co-Construction was to draw on the expertise of a group of ‘cultural intermediaries’ – people who, among other things, are the ‘how’ of cultural engagement – to highlight the key issues they faced in co-constructing projects.  Beth took the lead on organising this along with Andy Miles from the Understanding Everyday Participation project and we had some excellent invited participants (Stella Duffy, Gaily Skelly, Sandra Hall, Kevin O’Neil, Matt Daniels, Alison Surtees).  I’m not going to say too much about this as Beth is compiling some reflections about the session which we’ll hopefully have online soon, but a big thanks to everyone who took part in a really interesting set of discussions.  If you’d like to watch the video of the whole session, it’s available here:

We also had an exhibition stand - from my point of view this was quite a steep learning curve.  At last year’s Edinburgh Showcase I was mightily intimidated by the quality of stands from other people’s projects and so I was determined to put something more impressive together for Cultural Intermediation this year.  This of course means learning about graphic design and display printing as well as organising to put some of our research findings into a more user-friendly format for public-facing brochures and leaflets – links to all of these (in English and Welsh) can be found on the Outputs page.  It’s fascinating seeing your words transferred into a properly laid out brochure and even more interesting to see them translated into Welsh.  We also had the prototype of our touchtable app on show, which caused some sleepless nights – more thanks go to our programmer Aba-Sah for pulling out all the stops to deliver a prototype for us to take to Cardiff.  The AHRC’s multimedia team were buzzing around the different venues and recorded a short interview with myself and Beth at our stand, which you can watch here:

Last but not least Chris Jam spent the first day of the Festival wandering the streets of Cardiff persuading people to give him snatches of poetry and stories to make an artistic transect of the city.  This was one of those ideas that you have when in a playful mood and it’s great that the AHRC give us licence to try out different things.  Can poetry help you see the city differently?  We made a short film, editing overnight to show on the second day of the Festival.  Chris is, even as we speak, working on a slightly longer version from the miles of footage that he recorded with the help of Colin Lorne and Arshad Isakjee.  We’ll probably post a more considered reflection on this material at a later date, but in the meantime, here’s the recording of the session in which we presented the freshly minted film:

(Note that the AHRC’s team have unexpectedly promoted me to Professor!)

Overall, the Festival was quite a fun event and gave some space to take a step back from some of the things we’ve been working on over the last couple of years and to think a little more broadly about what we’ve achieved and where some of these debates are going.  So a big thanks to the AHRC for giving us the opportunity to reflect, debate and play.

Diving into big data in Salford

The hacker community come to MediaCity for the Greater Manchester Big Data Dive on Tues 22nd July 2014. Coders, data monkeys and other techie enthusiasts are gathering to respond to social challenges set for them.

Our project is asking the big data teams to paint an alternative data portrait of Ordsall (the Salford district where we are researching cultural activities).  Policy direction and language about the area tend towards identifying problems and issues (see the Ordsall Ward Profile) rather than looking at the good and interesting activities going on. The data dive has multiple datasets to draw upon and it will be interesting to see what comes out of it.

Our challenge at the event therefore asks participants to:

  • Present an ‘objective’ portrait of statistics
  • Characterise the area in a way that challenges stereotypes (about demography, built environment)
  • Frame ‘absences’ (certain types of provision against national averages etc)


Here is my presentation for this event: bigdata_surf


Culture, Sport and Protest


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Right next door to the Balsall Heath Library is the Moseley Road Swimming Baths building.

This much-loved and well-used site has been in disrepair for a while with a group dedicated to its preservation.

The latest move in support has been an arts project described in this BBC report:

More than 100 swimmers have posed as a “terracotta army” for an arts project at a historic pool.

Moseley Road Baths in Birmingham is one of the oldest swimming baths in Britain, but is scheduled to close as part of council cuts.

A photographic project to commemorate the Grade II* listed building culminated with 110 swimmers standing in the now unused Gala pool.

Attilio Fiumarella said it had been easy to persuade people to pose-up.

The Birmingham-based photographer said: “It was the first thing I imagined when I first entered this wonderful building.”

He said it marked the end of a five-month project that had revealed some “amazing stories” and people’s “emotional connection with the building”.

Kate Wilcox was one of those to get involved on Sunday.

“It was fantastic. It took a long time to set up, but people were so patient and encouraging,” she said.

“People were so up for being involved in this because of their affection for this pool. It’s great to be part of it.

“I’ve been using the baths for 20 months now and when I discovered they were planning to close it I was appalled because it’s a heritage building.

“The new library and the symphony hall are wonderful, but we should treasure our heritage. Moseley Road Baths should be a national treasure.”

Birmingham City Council previously said the closure of nine leisure centres, including Moseley Road, would help to save £6.8m from its leisure budget.

The local authority said it was too expensive to refurbish old sites, but that they would be replaced by new facilities.


Images from the shoot will be exhibited by photographer Attilio Fiumarella whose work has been commissioned by Some Cities.

Here’s his description of the project’s motivation which brings together heritage, sport and a a creative intervention:

“The Swimmers” is an ongoing project commissioned by Some City through a bursary.

One of the first public facilities built in Balsall Heath was the Moseley Road Baths. Constructed in two stages, being the first the construction of the Free Library, the baths were designed by William Hale and Son, and opened their doors on October 30, 1907. There were restrictions to access, as it was common at the time, and three different entrances attest to that: one for first class men, another for second class men, and a third one for women. Its unique architecture and gathering purpose made it the icon of the neighbourhood.
After several years of decline, one of the two swimming pools has been refurbished, restoring its old lustre. Sadly, the Gala pool is still left to degradation. The Birmingham City Council intends to close the Baths permanently in 2015, following the opening of a new sports facility.
This body of work aims to outline the loss of this valuable heritage and also to strengthen the relationship between the pool and its people.
“The swimmers” were immortalized in an atmosphere inspired by the butterfly and its cocoon. This temporary skin provides the butterfly with enough energy for a new life. In the same way, in this imaginary world, the users are gripping the swimming pool’s essence, keeping the heritage alive.

Notes on Balsall Heath Carnival


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Our research in the Balsall Heath area of Birmingham has enlisted local residents as participants in walking interviews. Geographical explorations prompt reflections on which places and spaces feature in the cultural lives of interviewees, unearthing layers of historical, contemporary, ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ activities.

Conducting this methodology over the course of a year, amongst other things, means paying attention to the rhythms of the day, of the working week, of the school calendar and of the seasons themselves – after all, few want to walk and talk when it is cold and wet. Then there are the fixtures of the yearly cycle such as religious festivals, holidays and the annual Balsall Heath Carnival, which took place on 5th July of this year.

Established in 1977, each carnival tracks a processional trail through the area before coming to rest in an extended event in Pickwick Park (see map). Thus, in this visit, it was possible to follow the crowd in order to observe and participate in an important cultural event in the community’s life.

Pickwick park Map

The carnival is organised by St Paul’s Community Trust and this year, thanks to a suggestion from pupils at the nearby Clifton Primary School, its theme was ‘Balsall Heath Under the Sea’ reflected in pictures, costumes and activities.


The day was marked by glorious sunshine and a lively crowd although as noted at the Trust’s site: ‘The event was slightly smaller than last year with fewer stalls and attendance slightly down, due to the fact that Ramadan started a week ago.’ Mention of the careful observance of Ramadan suggests how the rhythms of community sometimes don’t always neatly coincide and might temper traditional associations of the carnivalesque (although the local streets are lively once the fast is broken after dusk). Certainly, the aromatic food, tearoom and popcorn stalls were hardly doing a roaring trade as many attendees were in the midst of observing their fast, yet ‘Never the less, the Carnival had a great atmosphere and the thousands of people who turned out had a great day.’

Pickwick Park is deep in the heart of the community, surrounded by the residencies of Balsall Heath, many of them the organised around those older and narrow terraced streets alongside a range of new builds yet to feel fully acculturated. As this was Saturday, the appearance and ambiance of the area was markedly different to the weekday: many were at home, on the street, heading carnival way at their leisure rather than rushing to school of focussed on daily business of business, of work (although many in the area were clearly still at work).

I should add too, that from the researcher’s perspective, seeking to participate as much as observe such activities puts one in a different position from having an appointment with a particular person, changing the power dynamic that is at work in such situations. In and around the carnival, I found myself browsing, buying and interacting as any other participant, announcing myself as a researcher when something, or someone prompted a further interrogative interest.

Central to the park space is an enclosed multipurpose sports pitch and a game of football was in full flow in front of a carnival stage while a bouncy castle did a roaring trade with young children. On stage, singers performed a variety of pop tunes one woman singing to her ukulele, another in soul styles with backing tapes. In around this central focus were the aforementioned food stalls and those that invited attendees to get involved in something creative. Much of this was aimed at engaging children in designing materials around the carnival theme (see images). These activities were managed by local institutions such as Balsall Heath Library and artists associated with the Ort Gallery and Print Works.

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Arrayed along one slope of the park were a number of stalls selling clothing familiar from many of the Balsall Heath stores that import fashions from South Asia and indeed make their own styles. There was a stall for a councillor available for consultation on local issues that seemed pretty busy (I waited for a word but of course the needs of others queuing up were more pressing than my research). There was a stall for connecting together Algerians living in Birmingham, for charity’s collecting aid for refugees in Syria and other sites of conflict. Here was reflection of the plurality of the community and indeed the global connectedness of this resolutely local event.

The standard yellow high visibility jackets of the event stewards testify to the underlying organisation necessary and bely the essentially organic qualities of such occasions and the sheer good will required to make such things work on behalf of all involved. That this happens at all is a testimony to the enduring mission and commitment of those involved in the St Paul’s Community Trust: As related in its online history,

‘St. Paul’s Community Development Trust had its origins in the desire of people in Balsall Heath to make a better future for their children, getting together to start a nursery, adventure playground and small school. The three groups joined forces to establish the Trust in the late 1970s, and from these small beginnings in voluntary endeavour it has grown to be a thriving organisation.’

Particular ideas of culture and community are palpable in such instances, manifesting the banal and the profound, reminding one of Raymond Williams’ observation that ‘culture is ordinary’ and an everyday, quotidian thing. The qualities of community appear to be performed in such a moment of coming together. It is there in the woman singing to her backing tracks, the face painting, new conversations and general exchanges between those who realise they belong to this community of people who are rarely gathered together in its name on any one occasion.

I eventually moved on with much to ponder about the meaning of such occasions. One useful item that I came away with from one stall operated by members of a local charity was a free copy of the novel ‘I know what you did last Jum’ah: Confessions of an Englandee’ by Qaiser M. Talib (Emerald publishers). This fascinating fiction is set in ‘Balsall Spark’ (Sparkbrook is the neighbouring area to Balsall Heath) and is told from the perspective of the teenage

Suhaib Haider, conveying his life in the area and relationship with his Muslim identity as a native ‘Englandee’. As one write-up has it:

He has loving parents, attends a wonderful school and enjoys his life enormously. He has no complaints against his Lord…but one Jum’ah, he has a major complaint against himself. His usually cheery mood changes as he faces the greatest challenge of his young life so far. 

As he tries to establish prayer in his life, he becomes embroiled in a battle for the spiritual future of his school: a power struggle between a Muslim, a Christian and a staunch atheist. 

As Shaythaan continues his spiritual war against the people, will Suhaib manage to correct his own faults? 

Will he manage to come out on top in this power struggle? 

Will his uncle, Chacha Conspiracy – member of the notorious political group Al-Death to Al-Kafiroon – dissuade Suhaib from participating? And will the forces of godlessness bring Suhaib’s dreams crashing to the ground?


Fiction clearly, but such imaginative portraits are important artefacts – alongside photographs, poetry, online rap, physical space and so on- for understanding the variety of cultural activities in Balsall Heath. The book also offers an engaging portrait of its milieu – fictional yet clearly recognisable and dramatised around actual locations.

Heading home after the carnival visit (it looked as if it would last a while yet), I took a turn down the deserted Clifton Road. Just by the Clifton Mosque I came upon a signal sign of a different perspective on community.

A Police Notice (captured on my camera phone below) served to remind of the potentially troubling qualities of when people come together. On 2nd July a man was shot on a street in Sparkbrook, at the border with Balsall Heath with two others injured. Media reports suggested that this incident was the result of a clash between gangs who formed part of a 300 strong crowd that had gathered on the Stratford Road.

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The full details of the incident are yet to be established and I’ve yet to investigate the background to this order and what it has to say about Balsall Heath. However, its does pose questions about perspectives on the nature of crowds and public life in communities, anticipating that – unlike the Pickwick Park assembly – gatherings are likely to be negative phenomenon. As I suggested at the outset in paying attention to research and the rhythms of the seasons, the particular publicness of community life, of the possibility of such gatherings is at its height at this time of year.

Diversity in the city, University of Lisbon, Conference


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Dr Jennifer McGarrigle organised an excellent conference in Lisbon on 26th and 27th June, which I was fortunate enough to be part of. The conference theme Diversity in the City: Shifting realities and ways forward brought together international researchers looking at issues of migration, integretation, segregation and spatial encounter in the context of plurality. I gave a paper in the session on Migrants and the Arts which came out of the current cultural intermediation workpackage underway in Balsall Heath, Birmingham. Taking a community-centred approach, the paper proposed that research needs to capture creativity in marginalised and peripheral spaces in the creative economy, including ESOL classes, places of workship and the domestic scene, to effectively insert diverse migrant experiences of culture and arts into funding and governance structures. Unexpectedly and fortuituously, one of the keynote speakers, Dr Richard Gale (University of Cardiff) delivered a fascinating paper using social-spatial network analysis in the very same area to investigate neighbourhood interaction and friendship. In the context of negative UK public discourse on segregation and conservative Islam, both papers and the wider conference attended to various sites where connectivity across ethic-religious groups takes place.

Lisbon isn’t a bad spot to spend a couple of days either…1977225_10152206244397747_1800544418922695315_n

Ordsall Update June

Latest from Ordsall

June was a busy month in Ordsall with the On in Orsdall Community Researchers developing their approach to finding out more about cultural activities in the triangle and M3 magazine working out what to publish in a special on cultural activities around the Chapel Street area (which is in Ordsall).  Yours truly has been helping them and also trying to make sense of the bureaucratic structures that sit around the communities in Salford. This culminated with me making a short introduction to the project at the Ordsall and Longworthy Community Committee meeting on 1st July at the local neighbourhood centre.

I’ve also been volunteering at Ordsall Hall in the gardens there, learning lots about weeding (water the soil first if the plants are hard to pull up) and about tudor gardens (who knew that gem lettuce was around in medieval times – I thought it was a posh supermarket idea!). I’ve also started volunteering at Kids with Dreams at Salford Lads Club, where my favourite activities are colouring in with the kids and playing pool and only just about holding my own on the table.

I’ve spent time in Salford Quays (also part of Ordsall, dontcha know) and finding out about what goes on round there. I have a radar for free/cheap activities and so I am looking out for them.  I have hung out at Salford Uni MediaCity Campus and a community researcher and I went to the Lowry to find out from their learning and community engagement manager about what the Lowry do for their local community. Turns out, there’s loads going on – so much that it deserves a post of its own, so more later on that.

I’ve also been wandering around the Chapel Street area, taken on a guided tour of the other end of Ordsall all the way up to Greengate (the new development opposite Manchester Cathedral), along the pedestrial walkways next to the river Irwell, past the listed railway arches next to Salford Central station (where they used to keep horses back in the day), admiring Islington Park and the domes on buildings along the way.

Over the next 12 months, I will carry on helping with various cultural activities in the Ordsall area and developing links with other individuals, groups, organisations and events which give the area its heart and spirit. We are defining cultural activity very loosely here – any activity which gives life meaning - it’s that loose. I’m also trying to unpick the government structures that sit around the area as they are critical in understanding what helps people realise their ideas/ambitions.

I’m a fan of digital stuff so I’ve been looking out for apps and games ideas, none yet but it is early days.

Jessica in Balsall Heath

As I walk through Birmingham streets on the way to the university, I notice that the city experience for a new visitor is shopping, as it is in many other cities.  I find out that the university had to abandon years of planning after HS2 was announced – the trainline was due to go through the space allocated for a new building.  Even universities, massive institutions as they are, have to move out of the way when the corporates are coming through.

Predatory corporates, sit like hawks watching people as they go about their lives, swooping in to pick up any assets of potential value. People worry that their (Council owned) homes will be handed to the developers and they will be moved somewhere else (unknown) with other people (unknown) rather than in the safe and familiar community they live now.  Gradually, every available patch of land is converted into expensive flats.

In inner cities, billboards loom suggesting lifestyles local people know are not aimed at them.  It has happened before, in the 1960s when whole estates were knocked down and rebuilt.  In Balsall Heath, a community member recalled how houses just round the corner were bulldozed due to damp just months before damp proof coursing became available.  It’s hard not to be suspicious of fingers of power working invisibly to lay claim to these areas for profit. Who can be trusted and who cannot.

It’s hard to talk about ‘a community’ as people are not bounded, although they do all live physically in one area and what affects that area would affect them all.  Try to identify people within the ‘community’ to talk to and every time you try to zoom in on community, it disappears.  People do orient around common interests.  The cost of living has been cheap in inner cities until recently so people for whom high income was not possible or not a priority were drawn to these areas.  Especially if they needed to walk places.

In this project focused on cultural activities, we asked are artists just a niche community who get funding to show artworks to each other because they cannot access funding for it any other way? Are audiences for artwork incidental to the artmaking process?  Is that the same for culture as well?  Does the audience matter? In this context, how then to interpret art, culture, community, creativity in ways that make sense to others or even to each other in the research team?  What words do you use, if you don’t want your words to affect how people understand what you are trying to say.  Does art provide obliqueness and therefore a form of transparency?

Timing itself becomes a frame.  The terms, the process, the arrangement.  Who is in and who is out is predicated more on the structure of the process than anything else. Who gets to decide who decides? The point of this project is to sit outside the local authority / Arts Council frames and yet it would perhaps help to select another alternative frame rather than having one emerge which we do not like.  As people manoeuvre to ‘jerrymander’ the process, we could end up in an uncomfortable position, painted into a corner.

My own assumption was that we would support cultural activities as small scale initiatives done by local people who had an idea for something they thought would be cool and which they could persuade their friends, neighbours, local people to support them to do.  I imagined a girl who wanted to get a recording contract and needed time in a studio; a kid with a great idea for an app who wanted to get some advice/programming support; a woman with an idea for fluffy dogs that she could sell on a market stall.

Since a university will only pay organisations or people set up as sole traders, this whole vision collapsed and I did not know what to replace it with (immediately).  A new vision is building but the question remains – how to enable people’s ideas, and where are the blocks, even unintentional ones?

Balsall Heath Meeting and Screening – All Welcome!

‘A Touch of Eastern Promise’

Hillac Restaurant, Moseley Road, 4 June 6-8pm

Over recent months, as part of the project detailed on this site, a team of researchers from the University of Birmingham and Birmingham City University have been exploring the cultural life of the residents of Balsall Heath.

One of the things that the project seeks to do is to recruit local people to form part of a panel to work with us in order to commission a funded project for Balsall Heath.

We are not looking for experts or people with experience and we’ll be offering support for the group: what we need are people who are interested and willing to get involved.

Thus, as a way of introducing this project and a means of inviting individuals to get involved, we’ll be holding a meeting on 4th June at the Hillac Restaurant, 568-570 Moseley Road, 4 June 6-8pm.

At the meeting we’ll also be screening a long lost gem from BBC television called ‘A Touch of Eastern Promise’ that will be of immense interest to many local residents, especially those with long memories! We hope that this will spark some discussion of ideas about what shape the cultural project might take and excite people about getting involved.

‘A Touch of Eastern Promise’ was broadcast on 8th February 1973 and was produced by the English Regions Drama Unit at BBC Pebble Mill. It was originating by Tara Prem, a young writer-producer of Anglo-Indian parentage who felt that migrant communities such as those in Balsall Heath were under-represented on TV.

The light-hearted drama concerns a young man (Dev Sagoo) who dreams about a Bollywood film star (Jamila Massey) who he seeks to meet when she pays a visit to the city. The programme was shot entirely on film and on location in Balsall Heath, amongst the local Asian community. In fact, the show drew much of its cast from amongst the same community. As Tara Prem recalls: the BBC had problems in casting dramas that dealt with people from migrant communities such as those from Pakistan as the pool of available professionals appeared quite small. As she says, she and the director Michael Lindsay Hogg toured around the streets of the Balsall Heath, ‘literally picking people off the street and saying – “do you want to be in a play?” and getting them in.’

The film is around 30 minutes in length and shows some aspects of Balsall Heath that have disappeared. It features a huge range of local people who some may recognise and in fact, some may recognise themselves! It is suitable for all the family so do come along and take a look and hear about our project and the opportunity to get involved.

You can find out more about the film and its producers online at the Pebble Mill Studios website.

If you have any further questions please get in touch. You can post a query below or email us at: or

Call/text Paul Long on 07870507771.

Introduction to Jessica


I’ve just been appointed to the Cultural Intermediation project as a Research Fellow focused on cultural activities in Ordsall, Salford.

Here’s some background info on me

My interests lie in creativity, cultural meaning and urban sustainability.  I joined SURF in May 2014 and contribute as an anthropologist to the AHRC Connected Communities Programme. I am just finishing my PhD at the University of Manchester on idea generation and realisation in the making of a civic parade (due mid-2014).  I have an MA with Distinction from University of Manchester in Social Anthropology (2007) and a BA with First Class honours from University College London in Ancient World (1994)

I am focused on the generation of cultural meaning through creativity as an adaptive process and how organisations act as enablers and barriers.   Key areas of enquiry include:

•           Political influences on city making processes

•           The dynamics of collaborative creativity and co-production

•           The role of artists and other ‘creatives’ in working around organizational barriers

•           Alignment of anthropology and art

•           The potential for anthropology as a storytelling medium to engage in futures thinking

I also have a background in digital media, consultancy and social enterprise.  After graduating in 1994, I became an IT consultant focused on emerging technologies such as internet and interactive TV.  Mobilised by the dot-com crash, I moved into activism and social engagement, becoming Knowledge Manager at the Demos thinktank in London in 2002 and co-founder of the thinkingwomen network. 

In 2005, I founded social incubator, Krata developing a think-and-do-tank in Manchester with projects around environmental issues, community engagement and social enterprise.  Key outcomes included community engagement on the Regional Strategy for NWDA, analysis on barriers to healthy eating for Food Futures and raising funding for two projects: a café and market garden and a social enterprise running cooking workshops, the latter now independently run by the co-founders.  In 2003, I designed a foldaway bag as an alternative to plastic bags working with Oxfam to sell through independent retailers and online.  I am an active member of a female social entrepreneur network seeking to promote and support social enterprise.

I have ongoing enthusiasm for speculative fiction, short-filmmaking and community radio, broadcasting weekly on an ALL FM show with my kids.  

Arts & Science Festival – 1960s Art & Architecture Tour


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The University of Birmingham Arts & Science festival, now in its second year, ran for a week from 16th – 23rd March 2014.

The festival was described as “a week-long celebration of ideas, research and collaboration across campus” and as my research looks at the cultural festival and how universities are engaging with it, I went along to a few of the events to see was happening.

The 1960s Art & Architecture walking tour of Edgbaston campus was part of the Arts & Science festival’s programme, presented in partnership with Ikon gallery’s Ikon 50 programme, a special series of events and exhibitions marking the gallery’s ‘milestone year’.

Last Saturday afternoon at 1pm, a group of around 25 people converged in the sunshine at Eduardo Paolozzi’s huge bronze Faraday sculpture at the edge of the campus. Claire Mullet, Deputy Curator of Research and Cultural Collections at University of Birmingham, and one of the collections’ other curators, Chloë Lund, met us there. Claire explained that the University’s Research and Cultural Collections contain around 1,500 objects and artworks, many of which have been commissioned by the University and many acclaimed artists have leant or donated important pieces. This collection is separate to the Barber Institute’s collection and much of it is exhibited in the departments and public spaces around campus.
So began a fun two hours or so of discovery within the campus boundaries!

Now, I am a veteran of many public walks and have a great enthusiasm for them, so it came as no surprise when within minutes the sunshine was replaced by a sudden hail storm – this seems to happen all the time. BASF_blog_1Claire was prepared and undeterred, and from under a frilly umbrella she described the circumstances in which the 1970 Barbara Hepworth sculpture Ancestor I (pictured right) was bequeathed to the University by the sculptor, following the award of her honorary degree in 1960.

Thankfully, we were then lead us inside Staff House and into the warm. It is worth mentioning that the University boasts a huge amount of astonishing and extraordinary spaces within its buildings and the top floor of Staff House is definitely one of them. At the top of this building, almost hidden away in a corridor with an elegant roof that floods the space with natural light, is one of the most notable works of the tour, a framed blue abstract painting by Robert Groves. He was one of the Ikon’s founding group of artists and the man who gave the gallery its name in 1964. We had to take turns to see it, there is only room in front of it for a few people to stand.

There are many other wall-based art works on display in this building, one particularly notable one is a huge John Walker canvas called Anguish at an intersection in the stairwell. BASF_blog_2
While we stopped to admire it, Claire mentioned the artist’s connection to Birmingham and Chloë offered a more personal observation of how the piece visually fits with the space where it is presently hung.

Next we headed across an open space to the Finance office and clustered around a really unusual piece of public art, situated in a less airy stairwell. BASF_blog_3

The legend attached to Anguished Skein by Patrick Maher, a ‘punk orange’ painted metal squiggle, it is incredibly significant to the tour, as it turns out the piece was commissioned for the University’s former Finance Officer, Angus Skene, a ‘character’ who was also instrumental in setting up Ikon gallery. Angus was a collector of contemporary art, he and his partner donated a large amount of money to start the Ikon gallery and he urged the University to make funds available for commissioning and collecting work from this period and investing in public art around campus. It is likely that his story is pretty fundamental to the University of Birmingham’s Research and Cultural Collections and one member of University staff I spoke to was certainly interested to hear the story behind a piece of sculpture she sees frequently. But soon we’re off again, this time to the Law building, to see Moonstrips Empire News (1967), a collection of up to 100 screen prints installed in the entrance lobby to the Law building and the stairs leading up to the Harding Law Library. BASF_blog_4

The recent refurbishment of this space combined a £4000 grant from the School of Law and Claire’s own vision for the space, she explained that the bold colour scheme was designed specifically with the work in mind. The investment in the space created a serendipitous opportunity to have the work that had already been adopted by Research and Cultural Collections properly framed and mounted so that it could be displayed publicly.

The combination of colourful elements sets up an excellent and very pop-arty juxtaposition between what was probably a neat but stuffy institutional lobby and the riotous colours, kitsch and logos of the 1960s prints. It is a complete surprise, it works and I love it! BASF_blog_5

As we left the Law School it was nice to see that the sun had come out again. Claire explained that it is not only 1960s art that the University could offer to Ikon on this tour, but examples of architecture too.
BASF_blog_6 The Grade 2 listed Muirhead Tower could be seen from here, somewhat dominating the campus, and this is one example of these. It was built in 1963, although it was modernised with a £27 million refurbishment in 2007. Chloë adds that in the early 60s the university experienced a big expansion in student numbers. This must be the 1963 Robbins committee report on higher education that I have already read about, in which it was suggested that universities should become more democratic, with places available to all who attained the relevant qualification for them. The expansion led to a new phase of building and consequently a new style of architecture appeared on campus.
There are other examples of 1960s building directly next to the Muirhead Tower, but just before we set off towards them, I notice a poster for The Handsworth Scroll on a pillar next to where we are standing.BASF_blog_7

The Handsworth Scroll is an item from the CCCS archive that was on display earlier in the festival, in fact the festival guide listed that event alongside today’s walk.

Claire tells the group that the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) resided for many years at the Muirhead Tower. There is currently an AHRC funded project at the University to mark the 50th anniversary of that institution and the Arts & Science Festival presented John Akomfrah’s new film The Stuart Hall Project (read my review of the film here) this week too.

At this point, a member of the group mentions another 1960s related event taking place on the following Saturday at The Library of Birmingham which is also part of Ikon 50. Those Were The Decades is a day-long event with an Illustrated talk about the CCCS by Dr Kieran Connell, a panel discussion on Ikon in the 1960s with John Salt, the first artist to exhibit there, plus other events including film screenings of Motorcity Music Years: Second City Sinners (1992) and Medium Cool (1969) – this 2nd film is part of Flatpack Film Festival‘s programme.

This had become a truly fascinating walk, connecting so many of Birmingham’s cultural organisations and innovators to the times when these things were made and revealing some of the cultural developments that link them together. We still had a couple more places to see too, so we headed to the Arts building to look at one of the last major commissions by Cornish modern painter Peter Lanyon. His ‘Arts Faculty Mural‘ (1963) fills the whole of one wall inside the school’s lobby and extends up over the door. It was imagined as an abstract representation of elements of the campus that could be seen from either side of the lobby and it is reported to have cost £13.23 per foot. This expense had provoked some opposition at the time it was made, as quotes from Redbrick, the university’s own newspaper, confirmed. Claire had prepared many of these sorts of notes and had also printed out pictures to hand round, all of which added extra context to what we observed.

BASF_blog_8Next we were taken to see the prefab Modern Languages building, built using innovative methods for its time, with a surprising, elegant interior space and so much natural light!BASF_blog_9

We ended our walk at the Metals and Metallurgy Building situated at the North of the campus, looking at a set of reflective grid paintings with geometric shapes painted onto mirrors by David Prentice, another of Ikon’s founders. This work, Pleides, was commissioned and designed especially for the building, which is built as a grid itself (below is a picture of the ceiling at the Metals and Metallurgy Building).BASF_blog_10
This tour was completely fascinating (and free, as was much of the Arts & Science festival programme!) Claire and Chloë provided ongoing, valuable contextual information, helping us to understand some of the hidden meanings in the buildings and art that we saw. Writing about it has also made me wistful for something else that I’d really like to see, but never will to be able to: Ikon’s first home, the glass-sided kiosk in the Bullring shopping centre.

Created to be mobile and ephemeral, a so-called ‘Gallery without walls’ – would it be have been called a ‘pop-up’ gallery, today, I wonder?




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