Good news. Just before Christmas, I found out we had successfully been awarded a bid, titled ‘The Birmingham Surrealist Laboratory’ (with Dr Stephen Forcer, Modern Languages, University of Birmingham). Funded by the Communities and Culture Network+, the project builds out of our ongoing Cultural Intermediation work. It represents the first stage of a feasibility study for a heritage space dedicated to the Birmingham Surrealist Movement (1930s-1950s). The seed-funded experimental project aims to investigate the ways in which new digital facilities can help unlock complex issues of cultural heritage and cultural sensitivity in a diverse city. It was inspired by a recent Surrealist House competition staged as part of an art programme for residents in the area of Balsall Heath, south Birmingham (Balsall Heath Biennale 2013; http://www.balsallheathbiennale.com/decorate-your-house-competition).Of particular interest to the project is that Balsall Heath was home to the Birmingham Surrealist Group (Levy 2003; Sidey 2000; Remy 2000), and, indeed, the locale for British Surrealism nationally over the 1940s and 1950s, given Conroy Maddox’s role as a champion of ‘orthodox’ Surrealism (Levy 2003). The Birmingham Group comprised Maddox, Desmond Morris, John Melville and Emmy Bridgwater, and was at the centre of a community of alternative cultural figures including jazz musician George Melly, writers Stuart Gilbert and Henry Green, and poet Henry Reed.
Today, Balsall Heath has been identified as falling within the lowest 5% of neighbourhoods – referred to nationally as ‘Super Output Areas’ – for multiple deprivations (Census 2011). A low take-up from the established, predominantly Pakistani Muslim population in the Surrealist House competition offers productive ground for working through how digital technologies can be used to investigate multiple barriers to mainstream, and more subversive, manifestations of culture and heritage in the city. The project comprises two digital workshops in the Digital Heritage Hub, University of Birmingham, and a roundtable with surrealist experts and community leaders. It also neatly dovetails with the Cultural Intermediation research which will be focusing on communities and the creative economy in Balsall Heath this calendar year.