Ladypool Road Through Time // Balsall Heath Local History Society

Every town and region around Birmingham (and any city) has its own cluster of citizens who who are fascinated by how their surroundings all came to be. I think the longer you live in an area, the more questions you ask about it. That might be as simple is ‘where’s a good place to eat’, ‘is there a short cut to the bus stop?’ but eventually turns to ‘what exactly is that old octagonal turret opposite the Select N Save?’. Its easy to get sucked in and eventually become intrigued by everything. You become aware how alive the past is in a contemporary setting.

The various local history societies that form to research, discuss and share this info all have their own ways of presenting what they know. This may be a self published booklet, or the occasional guided tour and that’s where things get interesting with Balsall Heath Local History Society. Their approach is to fearlessly re-enact local stories and moments that you couldn’t possibly know about in full constume and with a very playful sense of drawing the audience into past. I don’t know of any other group in Birmingham who make the experience as fun and often daring as they do and its a thrill to host them for the first time in a Still Walking festival. Themes range from Wartime high drama to a board game inventor, whose creation initially didn’t cut the Mustard…

I’m always looking to connect new audiences to the various walks that run around the city and here’s your chance to do exactly that. Two tours run tomorrow (Sunday 22 Sept) at 11 45am and 2 15pm

Booking can be done here, or get in touch if you would prefer to pay on the day:


Drag and Drop // David Helbich

This morning I met David Helbich and Shila Anaraki for breakfast at Yumm, freshly in from Brussels, to discuss their event for Still Walking: ‘Drag and Drop’. The drag part refers to you being guided while the drop part means that at some point on the walk, you will be dropped off to await collection by the next passing group. What this allows is a still, reflective moment in a context that rarely happens: standing still in an urban context. I experimented with this on Wednesday (see my blog post) and I regularly find it surprising that literally doing nothing can create such a switch in our feeling and perception of the world. The Drag and Drop principle allows this fragile moment to take place under the carefully choreographed guidance of the two performers.

I’m very interested in the form of a guided tour, and what it means to be in the care of a guide for the duration of the walk. The information content should be accurate and engaging, but the group should cross the road carefully and not block the pavement en route, and many other facors apply. Because we nearly never are in a ‘guided tour’ situation, it’s easy to get it wrong while it happens. For this walk, the event deliberately introduces a stark moment, switching from a dynamic social group experience to an instant independent moment. In writing, that seems straightforward but the reality is that standing still is laden with expectations, anticipation and possibly even friction.

David and Shila are at this moment combing the city for a location for this walk and will be considerate to exactly how people will feel for the few minutes they will be static. For most of the next 24 hours they will be plotting the grid of streets, the route and the moments of exchange and all that it entails. It helps that David is a music composer, for this needs to be a precise experience. If you think you’ld like to experience this walk, please book here.

So where will all of this happen? Certainly somewhere in the city centre but the exact location will be announced later this afternoon (Friday) and if you book a ticket (which is free) you will tonight be emailed the location to meet. We’re expecting 20 – 30 people to be present, and before the two parties set out the procedure will be fully explained. Afterwards, you’ll be invited to comment and contribute to a discussion at a nearby café or bar.

Look forward to seeing you there!

Movementscapes // Vanessa Grasse

Vanessa Grasse is that rare breed: the Sicilian that moves to Leeds. I know of only four and Vanessa is the only movement artist amongst them. I absolutely love Leeds (and have never been to Sicily) and Vanessa’s movement across the earth’s surface to Yorkshire (and on Saturday, Birmingham) perhaps tells you that she is interested in urban spaces, and the rhythms and patterns that occur within them. A recurring them of the festival is ‘how do we feel about our space’ and Vanessa’s approach is perhaps the most hands-on of all. Her walk ‘Movementscapes’ is a series of placements and exercises that reveal the invisible rhythms and emotional connections of the city. How do you feel about the space behind Snow Hill Sation, and how do you move through it? It sounds like an unlikely (and unanswerable) question but Vanessa will provide a means to provide the answers. Birmingham Cathedral and the old Central Library are both en route.

now to find out. All the SW events end with a drink and a social moment and this particular one will have the best view of all ;o)

SOUNDkitchen // SOUNDwalk

I met Iain, Annie and James from SOUNDkitchen last week for a run through of their SOUNDwalk. Edgbaston reservoir lends itself well to a circular walk and an opportunity to reflect on a natural environment at the edge of the city. It’s no coincidence that a Buddhist Monastery is located nearby. The walk includes exercises to get the walkers into the spirit of listening to moments we’d usually overlook. It’s not easy – Iain references the background chatter in our minds, creating to do lists and stupid jokes in our (my) head. But we can train ourselves to focus – we never usually need to.

We have previously downloaded several tracks onto our iPods previously in the day and have been instructed not to listen to them until now. At key points, we are invited to press play and guess what we are listening to, from an up-close recording created earlier by the SOUNDkitchen team. There is always a clue nearby but the answer is often a complete surprise. Elsewhere, we listen to the live sounds of strategically placed microphones around (and in) the reservoir.

SOUNDkitchen provide a few more clues about the event below. About three tickets still remain so act quickly for this one! Tour starts at 5 30pm Friday 20th Sep (tomorrow) at Perrot’s Folly and lasts around 90 mins. We can provide an MP3 player if you happen not to have one. Book here.

Our walk offers an opportunity to engage in an active listening experience of the soundscape of the Edgbaston Reservoir and surrounding area. Aided by the use of sound technology we will augment your hearing ability to discover tiny hidden sounds, listen to distant locations and experience the environment from differing sonic perspectives.

The main purpose of our soundwalk is to encourage walkers to actively listen to their environment. Using some simple listening exercises we will guide participants to explore in detail the changing soundscape of the Edgbaston Reservoir, an important site for nature conservation and a popular urban leisure destination situated close to the city centre.

The walk will be punctuated with several augmented listening stations where, with the use of live microphones and pre-recorded audio tracks, walkers will be able to experience the environment from differing sonic perspectives. Come and hear sounds from under the water, be transported to a distant landmark, discover tiny hidden noises and open your ears to an aural wonderland.

Thanks to: Keith Wraight, Edgbaston Watersports; Rev. Matthew Tomlinson and the Choir of St Augustine’s Church; Jenny Middleton; Jim Harrison BCC Ranger Service

Wait, Look, Drag, Drop

In the week off between the festival weekends I’ve been keeping active with walking activities and adventures. There are always thrilling connections made during the Still Walking festival: people seeing the programme and getting in touch with their ideas. That does mean lots of emails in the morning but after those have been dealt with it’s great to get out and go for a walk (by now, this shouldn’t come as a surprise).

Today I investigated some secret tunnels in the city (more on that later in the week), photographed the William Bloye keystones at Steelhouse Lane Police Station (with nothing to report, other than “lovely keystones”) and stood still in Birmingham Cathedral grounds for around an hour.

I once stood there for 20 mins as an experiment, while thinking how to kill some time before an appointment. I was thinking which café or pub to go to then decided not to go anywhere, just continue to stand. I’d never done that before, and generally nobody does stand still for any length of time, unless they’re smoking or waiting for a bus. At the end of the ‘stand’ that time, my friend Brian passed by chance, looking disturbed. ‘What was wrong?’ Well, nothing: I actually enjoyed the experience and wanted to repeat it. One year on, I went back to spend 80 mins or so standing while the post-work crowds filtered past. What seems very simple (and possibly even a bit daft) actually turned out to have a lot going on. In brief, I came to feel that these were all people coming into my space, for a short time, and I felt very comfortable being there. I don’t think I’ve every looked at so many different faces at relatively close range in such a short time – that alone made the experience worthwhile, though its hard to say why exactly. I wondered if I would see someone I knew again – I did after 30 mins: Jerome from Birmingham International Film Society on his way to the final screening of the Chile 40 Years On festival… but too far to say hello to. I recognised someone who walked close to me but couldn’t remember why I knew her. For the entire duration, I would see a few puzzled micro-expressions, a few caught eyes but in this particular space no direct involvement from passers-by.

Towards the end something intriguing happened. Not everyone there was walking; there are many public benches in that space. Beyond the walkers, I became sensitive to who was resting, who was waiting and who really was doing nothing. There was a moment of high drama when a slightly melancholic elderly gentleman, who I thought was doing nothing, turned out to be waiting. He was met after 35 mins by a granddaughter with hugs, a bouquet of flowers and a stack of chemistry textbooks. Instantly my understanding of the situation was thwarted. Only I witnessed that short story, and now you know it happened too.

In the picture below, two people resting or waiting make it clear to each other that they want to have their own private space on the bench. There was another woman behind me who was resting or waiting too. After 45 minutes of being in that the space, the woman behind me and the man on the left in the picture stood and left together, gently and in silence. So why sit separately? After being so closely involved in the ‘story’, this was such an unexpected twist in the narrative I let out a cry of surprise. I suppose the point is, I would never have seen that moment had I not been watching that part of the city for an hour.

The final observation I made was that the whole experience had a very calming effect on me, though again not sure yet exactly why. While standing, I was peripherally chalking up a ‘to do’ list once I reached Urban Coffee but left the space feeling rested and ready to tackle it rather than anxious and overwhelmed.

The experience made me anticipate two Still Walking events. The first is happening tomorrow (Thursday 19 Sep) which is Francis Lowe’s ‘Free Seeing’ in Digbeth Which I introduced here:

The first Free See in Birmingham will take place in Digbeth on Thursday 19th of September. Participants should meet at 3.00pm outside the Fusion Centre of South and City College, High street Deritend, Digbeth, B5 6DY. Please come, this is open anyone with a keen eye, or those who want one.

The other event I anticipated today was David Helbich’s Drag and Drop. I took part in this in Brussels earlier in the year. In a previous blog I remark how many walking artists have their own take on the Silent Tour and David’s is perhaps the most ambitious I’ve yet encountered. David is also a composer and the principle of Drag and Drop is to create a tightly choreographed walking score around the streets of Birmingham. For you, that means joining one of two group leaders and following (in silence) until a point where you will be deposited to await collection by the next group of walkers. It’s an experience of extremes, from shared group movement to temporary individual contemplation and back again – but be assured that you will always be safe and in control of your environment. The whole thing will be devised, scored and rehearsed within two days and the location of the event will be announced by email the day before the event – but will be within striking distance of the city centre. At this point, that’s all I can tell you, other than you won’t often have the opportunity to experience a walk like this in Birmingham – which is largely the point of the Still Walking festival. Also, it is free!

Freeseeing and Night Photowalk: Two Events in the Fringe Festival

I first heard about Free Seeing through its originator: Mr Andy Spackman,[edit: oops, it seems Francis Lowe is the originator :s] a lecturer in Graphics at Coventry University. The concept was simple: think of ‘free running’ (aka Parkour) and replace ‘running’ with ‘seeing’. A clever move I thought, and rather easier than free running… but possibly less common. Francis Lowe invites and explains:

I created Free Seeing in response to the concept of ‘the found object’. Why not take it one step further and ‘find spaces’? We rarely take time to stop and really record what we see, so Free Seeing invites viewers to stop, look and really see.

Free Seeing is an audience-led initiative that allows audiences to find beauty, mood and pattern in the most unexpected and often ordinary of places. A Free Seeing event involves visiting sites in and around the country and encouraging audiences to find time to appreciate the visual value of spaces and places that have hitherto gone unnoticed.

Free Seeing is for everyone and can be experienced in any way. An audience member may choose to take a camera, a note-pad, a chair or even a picnic. Free Seeing lasts as little or as long as the audience want it to.

The first Free See in Birmingham will take place in Digbeth on Thursday 19th of September. Participants should meet at 3.00pm outside the Fusion Centre of South and City College, High street Deritend, Digbeth, B5 6DY.

We will take a fresh look at some of the hidden gems that exist within the nooks, crannies and man made environments of the area.

Bring a chair… some food… a flask… Whatever you want!

And on Wednesday: the Night Photo School Workshop with Pete Ashton

How do you take photographs when there isn’t much light? How do you deal with small bright streetlamps against a dark sky? What are the best settings for a long exposure? How can you build a light painting using movements of the city?

This workshop starts with a brief introduction to shooting at night, with and without a tripod, before spending 3 hours on the streets of Birmingham. Tripods are highly recommended though not essential.

This workshop was last run in December. Photos taken by participants are on the blog here.

We meet at the Symphony Hall Cafe Bar at 7.30pm then head out into the twilight from 8.00. The Cafe Bar is on your left as you enter the ICC from Centenary Square.

You can book here

This event is part of the Still Walking Festival Fringe. Thanks to THSH for letting us use the Cafe Bar for the class.

Let me know if you are hosting a walking event happening during the festival and I’ll promote them here. There a lot of walking going on in the city!

Words on Buildings // Laira Piccinato

Buildings, graffiti, carvings, architecture, art, all stemming from the same concept – people feeling the need to make their mark on the planet in their frantic yet futile quest for immortality.

We stood outside St Pauls Church, built in 1776. Here we saw the beauty of the words etched onto the buildings, the beauty of the craft. This was an exercise in making us see. People’s initials were carved on the side of the church; hieroglyphics, engravings and markings, each with their own separate meanings, each with their own stories. Deep engravings had made throughout history to tagging, now not just with permanent markers but also with stones or anything else that came to hand. Along the church, you could see dates and picture when and where the markings were made – D.L. 1809. Z. 1950.
As a species we need to function because of words on buildings. Signage etched on buildings used to indicate jobs for life, materiality on signage. Signs aren’t so much created to be part of architectural design anymore, more so than not they are designed to be disposed of when the business undergoes a re-branding, or the business goes out of business to be replaced by another business.

We were going to look at the hoardings of Taylor and Challen Limited, a Jewellery Quarter based company. Taylor and Challen owned several businesses within the Jewellery Quarter, and each one we would see would have signage emblematic of the era in which the building was owned. We walked down Henrietta Street. Underneath our feet we were invited to look down, and saw that the pavement we were walking on had been supplied by Cakemore Bricks, a Black Country brickmaker, advertising their wares literally, on the street.
Some buildings derelict and unused, some turned into resident quarters or artist studios. On our right, the Derwent Foundry, lettering at the top of the building in yellow, the premises now converted into flats, however, the lettering had been preserved. Underneath an iron bridge, we were invited to touch the bricks and see the chalk marks that had been written on the walls by today’s employees.
Right onto Constitution Hill, we noticed a stained glass window had been covered over with a sign saying that the building was now being used as the Consulate to Pakistan. A door was open, so our party went in and looked inside. We could see that the sign revealed who had put the stained glass window there to advertise their business. It previously had been owned by Barker Brothers, a silversmithers in the Jewellery Quarter. ‘BB’ had also been carved, seemingly unprofessionally, into the wooden bannister.

Back onto the street, we observed the former H.B. Sale Building, designed in 1895 and 1896 for a die-sinker firm, now in a state of disrepair, and despite bearing a golden sign saying ‘China Village Restuarant’, was now actually operating as ‘Syriana’, a Syrian/Lebanese restaurant. Up Constitution Hill, we saw three more buildings built for Taylor & Challen premises, each echoing the typography fashions of the times, one was from 1910, and another featuring ceramic tiling built in 1938, showing that a good amount of money had been spent on this signage.

We went across a side road, which saw an old pub now in use as an off-licence, and then went onto Livery Street. A hoarding erected on our left showed the back of one of the Taylor & Challen premises, its lettering painted or whitewashed onto the brickwork in capital letters, in order to give absolute visibility to passing trains/trade. To our right, the Gothic Vaughton Works, now a backpackers’ hostel, the ‘Gold and Silversmiths’ cladding chipped-off.
Taking a right, we went back onto Cox Street and saw a new-build block of flats, Midland Court, in cast lettering rather than stonemasonry. Walking up Mary Street, away from St Paul’s Square, we saw Bloc, a boutique hotel made out of engineering brick designed by BPN Architects. The name of the hotel appeared three times – visible on the side of the building, above the main entrance, and written in the window. Looking closely, it seemed as though the lettering on the side of the building had been laser-cut out of the casting that was now in place over the door. Simple, but effective, especially in terms of being pleasing to the eye and also in terms of cost.

Going down a side road, making our way, we saw a building for T&J Hughes, a jewellery case manufacturers and patterners, which boasted superb a superbly carved drain. Going onto Vittoria Street, we saw the gothic Birmingham School of Jewellery, established in 1890, and acquired by the old Birmingham Polytechnic in 1989. Onto Warstone Lane, things appeared different. The roads opened up in front of us and suddenly we were bombarded with words and logos. Thin logos of Urban Coffee Company, Coral, Tesco and Subway, all instantly brand-recognisable, and threatening to date on an ephemeral basis, rather than with the classic signage on the establishments that we had seen on our journey.

As was pointed out, permanence wasn’t always a feature in the Victorian era – an old bank, now converted into a generic HSBC or Lloyds or Natwest, simply had ‘Bank (est 1836) carved into its side. As we concluded our walk down the road, we noticed that the buildings were being replaced by a clutch of small independent businesses and jewellers, occasionally branching out into bigger buildings such as Robinson & McEwan and A.J. Smith’s (a variety works.) Opposite Vertu, on the corner of Frederick Street, we saw the Thomas Fattorini Factory, a business established by 6th generation Italian immigrants. The sign stood out against the skyline, and to our right, we could still see the top of the Library of Birmingham, standing out proudly like a Belisha Beacon. I could have made my way home from there. I reckon actually, for the sake of this piece, I should have done.

James Kennedy


Quiet Edges // The Silent Walk

The Silent Walk

The silent walk is a standard in the walking artist’s tool kit. It’s a great introduction to how effective live art can be and that it doesn’t always require a lot of preparation or even a budget.

The first one I went on was Kira O’Reilly’s Silent Walk which ran during Fierce Festival in 2011. She told me she’d adapted it from a Chicago performance group called Goat Island. The event was an aimless and leaderless wander as a group (or about 15 people) setting off from what was then VIVID’s space on Heath Mill Lane in Digbeth. Kira led the assembled group out of the door initially to give it momentum but after that it decided (without communicating) where it would go next and what it would stop to look at. An invisible group dynamic decides where to go next. Essentially, it was experiencing flocking behaviour in humans. I recall we stopped to look at a broken water main that was bubbling up through the pavement like a fountain, and the only time the the group stalled was outside the police station on Digbeth High Street. The group attracted a few glances but wasn’t regarded with suspicion – even by the police. There might be the occasional puzzled look as the group descended down an alley.

The second silent walk I went on involved walking round Chelsea with a similarly sized group, but this time gathered together by a large elastic band, about fifty feet long. This time the group did attract attention. People in the group took the instruction of silence as binding and questions, comments and interventions from the public outside the band were ignored. The wake of friction and confusion it left through the streets was almost as visible as ship churning up the ocean. There was separate dynamic within the group: who should support the band (it wasn’t attached to us) and how fast to walk, how to ensure everyone had enough space. At one point the group stopped and the two leaders left the band and set off in different directions. Who should we follow?

Each walking artist adds their own tweak to the game – and a slient walk should be a fun and intriguing expereince. Such a walk features in the Still Walking programme: Simone Kenyon’s Quiet Edges. It proceeds through some outlying streets around the Jewellery Quarter this afternoon, but this will not be about site-seeing. The locations will be unfamiliar to most. Simone will invite you to experience the city and the simple act of group walking in a way that may well be new to you. The first rule is “No Talking”. The second rule is lively discussion of exactly what you experienced in a warm, dry location with a drink after the event: I look forward to hearing your take on what happens!

Some tickets still available here.

Still Walking is Go!

Announcing the launch of the third Still Walking festival! Ten new guided walks around Birmingham over the next ten days (mostly around the weekends) with various investigations / blogging / promoting other people’s walking events / generally wandering around in the week days between. Please do let us know if you got something interesting happening involving walking in your part of Birmingham, or even further afield.

Check the full programme though be warned that events are selling fast!

We’re calling the midweek events and activities the Still Walking Fringe: this is really just highlighting the events that are happening anyway. It seems people walk for all sorts of different reasons but it can be quite difficult to find out what’s happening where. For this outing of the festival, we’ll be going out of our way to find out what’s happening in Birmingham – the city people are calling “the City of Walking” ;O)

We’ll be blogging more about the Fringe over the next few days but some highlights are Pete Ashton’s Practical Psychogeography Workshop on Mon 16 September starting at 4 30pm – 9pm and Roland Kedge’s Glacial Boulder walk on Saturday 14th September (tomorrow!). For that walk, you need only turn up at the Great Stone Inn, Church Road, Northfield at 2pm. Roland will guide this three mile tour over approx 2 hours and round up the various glacial deposits that made their way from Wales during the last ice age. Free!

The festival proper kicks off this evening with Words on Buildings led by Birmingham Architecture Festival’s Laira Piccinato. The walk sold out some time ago but I’m going to see if she’ll lead another before it gets too wintery. Add yourself to the mailing list to be the first to find out: but in the meantime plenty of other tours are running. They’re all £4 and one is free.

But before then I’m going on a short walk to gear up for the events: a simple exercise to visit the nearest street to my home that I haven’t been to before. For me, that’s the mysterious sounding Pentos Drive near the river Cole. I’ll be joined by the noted Brummie nocturnal explorer Karen Strunks. Why do it? There’s probably nothing there but I think it’s good to expand your zone a bit occasionally.

A final note: launching a festival on Friday the Thirteenth may seem to be inviting trouble but luckily all the guides are paid up members of the Lucky Two Shoes League of Foot Freedom.

See you on the walks!

Ben Waddington

Festival Director

Lost and Found // Iris Bertz

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!