Still Walking sent rogue reporter James Kennedy to cover the practice run-through of Iris Bertz’ walking tour of accidental art:
The trouble with being in a hurry to get somewhere is that as a pedestrian you don’t stop to look at your surroundings. It was iPod on and tunnel vision to the destination, a fifteen minute walk becoming ten. That morning, I walked from Bath Row, walking the length of Granville Street and onto Broad Street, and crossing the road into Oozells Square. Nothing really to see, a familiar walk through familiar territory, and besides, I wasn’t going to stop as I was late.
I stopped outside Ikon Gallery, which is where the walk was going to start. I looked briefly at the brief of today’s walk, led by Iris Bertz. In this walk, Iris would ‘explore the use of the accidental in art and focus on how it would be possible to see art everywhere.’ A psychedelic psychogeography; where accidents create multi-woven stories, challenging the city-dwellers perception of the mundane, challenging pre-conceptions and the imposed order of the city, making the city burst with colour and new-found beauty, instead of being a place to work, consume and go home.
Standing with the modern Royal Bank of Scotland building in front of me, I noticed a plaque on the floor underneath my feet. ‘Sculptures. Paul de Monchaux. Landscape Design. Townshend Landscape Artists.’ In front of me, a sitting area carved out of stone, a long bench, a seat with an archway over it, and two parallel rows of two seats. This was another aspect that the walk would cover – the lines blurred between what was art, what was furniture, and what was sculpture. Monchaux’s commission would play an accidental role in art, where the artistic became functional. Visions of artists and architects impressions of Brindleyplace (not ‘Brindley Place’) before it was re-designed in 1991. A utopian vision of multiculturalism, people coming and going, blurred faces and myriad fashions. ‘Exciting proposals for a high quality, mixed use development.’ Working, playing, engaging with the new designed spaces, here featuring ‘Sculptures’ by Paul de Monchaux, and ‘The Royal Bank of Scotland’ by The Sidell Gibson Partnership.
Behind me, the Ikon Gallery, formerly the Oozells Street School, refurbished and extended in 1997 by Levitt Bernstein Architects. When the walk started, we were told that we were going to see a very personal tour to Iris. This would not be a walk about truth or reality, instead, this would be an invitation to see how Iris saw. She recounted a tale of how, growing up in a small village with her artist mother, they were both stopped by a puzzled member of the community, who asked them what they were doing. ‘Photography’ they replied, to bafflement and bemusement. What on Earth were they seeing, that warranted them to stop and look in detail? On the front of Café Ikon, we were shown a dimpled window, which at first look seemed nothing out of the ordinary, but on closer inspection became an extended piece of art – an ear trumpet, where those inside the gallery could hear the outside. Without closer inspection and examination, this would have been rightly ignored. With new engagement – new possibilities.
We left Oozells Square, now facing Ken Shuttleworth’s The Cube, standing impressively, and as usual with Birmingham’s architectural decisions, gleefully controversially, against the skyline. Walking back to Broad Street, we walked past the Second Church of Christ Scientist Birmingham, as it is now known ‘Popworld’, (formerly ‘Flares.’) Crossing the road to the original Ronnie Scott’s in Birmingham, which in 2002 went into receivership and re-emerged as The Rocket Club, at the time having the dubious honour of being Birmingham’s 12th strip joint. Above the gaudy façade of a woman with her mouth hanging open in a pseudo-provocative manner stood a series of five concrete panels designed by John Madin, which together mirrored the idea of a gallery exhibition. They seemed fossilised onto the building, calling comparisons with Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’ (1993.)
Walking down Berkley Street, noises from generators mingled with the smell of curry spices. We were now engaged with Iris’ notion of the artist as walker. Now, we would see how artists within the city engage with the many blank canvases they find, canvases being the barricades, the fences and weather-beaten panels, the bricked up walls and any available space for the marker pen, the stone or the cans of spray paint. Here, on a metal door barricading a private area, which obviously said ‘don’t look at this, nothing to see here’ the artist known as sky had been, signing their name onto the middle of the door, the ‘s’ resembling a ‘5’ and the ‘Y’ underlining the ‘s’ and the ‘k’. To the side of this, an symbol of a dot and a dash, the morse code for ‘A’ stood inexplicably. However, our assumptions and readings, led by the artist, would create meaning. Behind the metal door, plants grew free wild and knotted and twisted, as with the brain of the artist looking at this free canvas, and being mildly irritated that they hadn’t bought their pencils and paints with them, and making a mental note to come back prepared.
Beyond this, a car park was shown to us. Not as a Martin-Parr-in-action, our attention drawn to the markings, cuts and cracks on the exit floor, which resembled abstract paintings, or maybe that the artist Doris Salcedo had been commissioned to re-create her ‘Shibboleth’ installation in Birmingham, after its success at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. ‘Shibboleth’ was created to make engagers think ‘what was real and what was not’ much as we were thinking about these markings in front of us.
Turning around, our attention was drawn (note: we were not discovering these for ourselves yet) to a wire had been coiled in a too-perfect ring, and was hung on a hook in the centre of perfectly aligned windows. The sun was shining that day, and the roof’s shadow of the opposite building was halfway up the wall, an unexpected, accidental sun-dial.
Two arrows made out of gaffa tape were stuck onto the front of a door (sky had been here again as well.) Iris considered this as a piece of urban art. The arrows pointed to each other, one on each door. The question was, what were they there for? Inviting us to inspect this intervention made the familiar unfamiliar, and interfered with logic, common sense and intelligence. It also drew comparisons with the 1960s Arte Povera movement which makes art works out of cheap materials, and that of Vik Muniz’s photography and sculpture work with Brazilian catadores (garbage pickers.)
We were invited to touch the sandstone walls of the CBSO centre (by Associated Architects in 1997) and looked at the shadows which seemed to resemble crouching human figures, disturbingly like Hiroshima shadows. Gum flecks, wear and deterioration however, gave these shadows faces and expressions, and thankfully provided laughter to juxtapose against the worrying thoughts before.
Across the road, on a window of the apartment block Friday Bridge (architects unknown) was pointed out to us. A sticker vase containing sticker flowers in a window seemed innocuous enough, but Iris told us the vision reminded her of Holland and van Gogh’s ‘Tulips.’ The vase was also framed perfectly, with a blind pulled behind them, seemingly for us, the onlookers benefit rather than the exhibitors benefit.
Turning left onto Holliday Street, the sandstones were beginning to fade and distress, slowly losing their manufactured quality. This was a case of nature returning to what it was, turning its back on man. Under the aqueduct, water had eroded bricks, making nature the artist rather than man, resulting in canvases of ghosts and crying women.
A void faced us turning left onto Bridge Street. A building removed leaving a beautiful derelict space, an open wound, showing the back of the old Central studios. The Library of Birmingham (Francine Houben, very recently) took on a brazen, proud quality behind the rubble and the overgrowth. To our left, a derelict house, or what could have been a pub or a lockmaster’s house (with seeing, the possibilities are infinite) had been painted white, almost with the intention of blotting it out from view, in order to disguise its otherness. Boarded up windows and doors sealed the danger inside. Another nod to Whiteread’s fossilised ‘House.’ A standing stone behind the house offered us a look into the yard/garden/place of mystery and showed an overgrown mass of weeds and dead flowers, and a shack with a tin roof added more mystery to the proceedings. The Central Television Studios had been used themselves for the use of helping viewer’s imaginations – an Accident and Emergency sign made it resemble a hospital, not a television studio, and graffiti saying “Summer 2011: The clock is ticking” had been used on an edition of the post-apocalyptic drama Survivors (shown on BBC, not ITV.)
More post-apocalyptic drama abounded on the site of the James Brindley pub, closed since 2008. To get to the pub you have to walk down a cobbled path, and we were invited the look at tangled ivy, that, in an attempt at removal, had woven a printed tapestry underneath the pub. Not just underneath, some of the ivy had spiralled up into two columns, an artistic accident recalling the work of Patrick Dougherty. ‘Someone who has tried to kill nature has succeeding in creating a bit of art.’ Iris, an experienced tutor in willow sculpture, showed us the twisted stalactites of twisted ivy, a superb piece of lattice work covering over what was seen as a monument to James Brindley, unfortunately being represented as a weed-strewn mausoleum. The pub had once been a vibrant jazz-friendly venue but suffered severe leakage, closing its doors in 2008. Those wanting to stake a claim in the pub were advised that it was unviable and unworkable, and the pub reminded shut, despite many efforts to rejuvenate the courtyard area. From death sprung life; a guerrilla garden patch stood to our right, and the canal-dwellers had had decorated their narrowboats with vibrant colours and on one, a narrowboat/Land Rover hybrid stood out from the crowd, complete with a fibreglass crocodile perched nearby.
Over the cobbled bridge past the Canalside pub, we saw more examples of painting and framing, creating accidental art. A hole in the wall contained a drinker’s stash of a can of lager and a fag end, and a ripped sticker on a boarded up window resembled the canalside crocodile, presumably created in a fit of ego. Through an alleyway adorned with sticker art and tagging (particular attention drawn to the Birmingham and Wolverhampton artist ‘NFA’) we got onto Gas Street, where we saw a repetition of the gaffa tape urban art phenomenon (this time pointing upwards and diagonally left.) To its left, yet another blank canvas, with this time, a ledge in which the painter could arrange their paints.
Over the road, a cast iron sign with a Victorian, Gilliam / Python-esque gloved hand pointed inexplicably to Broad Street. We were told that this wasn’t sticker art, and in fact was made out of cast iron, expensive to create, so possibly created by an artist or a marketing company (or both) with money to burn. The new ITV studios to our left, with their latest corporate branding (something which my inner anorak and nobody else at all got very excited about in 2012) on their brickwork, and we made our return back to Broad Street.
In between Mooch Bar the Quayside office block and Risa Bar we saw what was considered to be a public sculpture. A drain, ring-fence off with gaffa tape strewn across it and exposed, dangling wire. Fag ends littered the floor, and on closer inspection the earth underneath our feet was seen to be rising up. Office workers standing around having a well-earned fag and a chat eyed us with bafflement and bemusement. “What are you doing” they said? “Seeing.” “Right.”
Discover Iris’s full itinerary by booking onto her tour here. Tickets are selling fast so please don’t miss out!