Friends of the Earth – doing some digging

Intrigued by the pioneers of environmentalism in Brum? From the early days of environmental education, paper recycling, practical actions around sustainability and creative street actions, there is so much to explore and uncover through the Birmingham Friends of the Earth Heritage project that I’m currently involved with.

We are currently recruiting volunteers who want to be involved in exploring organisation’s history.

Volunteers are being given the opportunity to interview BFoE activists.  This Thursday I will be running a fun workshop to teach some of the basics of oral history interviews.  We will be using audio recorders and film to capture memories.  Again, no experience is needed – just a curiosity and enthusiasm for exploring the topic!  We are meeting on Thursday 23rd November, 2:00-4:40pm at Stirchley Baths.  E-mail Liz Palmer at heritage@birminghamfoe.org.uk if you would like to get involved.

Volunteers are also being invited to help us sift through the extensive BFoE archive.  The BFoE archive of photos, newsletters, leaflets and posters is kept at The Wolfson Centre in the Library of Birmingham.  It’s a real treasure trove and we’re eager to share it through this project!  There are sessions scheduled for:

  • Tuesday 21st Nov 4-6.30pm
  • Tuesday 28th Nov 4-6.30pm
  • Tuesday 5th Dec 4-6.30pm
  • Saturday 9th Dec 1-4.30pm
  • Tuesday 12th Dec 4-6.30pm
  • Tuesday 19th Dec 4-6.30pm

No previous experience of archival research is needed – just your enthusiasm!  Again, contact Liz Palmer if you would like to attend!

 

A Healthy Ecology of Culture?

‘How do leaders in the Arts achieve wider and deeper engagement with the Arts and Heritage?’

This was the question posed by Robert Hewison, author of the excellent book Cultural Capital, the Rise and Fall of Creative Britain’ at an Arts Connect WM seminar for Arts and Cultural sector leaders on 1st November.  It’s also a question that I’ve been grappling with on a personal level over the past few months, and something I alluded to in a blogpost back in June.

Hewison has superb insight and clarity into the shifts in cultural policy, in the increasing commodification of culture and need to justify its value in market terms.  His book charts the rise of the ‘Creative Industries’ and the notion that an army of freelancers and small scale creative businesses can drive innovation, tackle unemployment and regenerate whole swathes of post-industrial Britain.  As one such freelancer who is frequently told how much my colleagues and I contribute to the economy, I’m acutely aware how much guff is spouted in this regard.

Thankfully there seems to be plenty of work being done to redefine how we measure value in arts, heritage and culture.  I completed the University of Sunderland’s online ‘Introduction to Participatory Art and Media’ course over the Summer and the range of excellent case studies with serious research evidencing their impact was wonderful.  However, unless this work is taken seriously at a strategic level with adequate funding and supporting structures, the hours spent meticulously evidencing outcomes will be just one more instance of the sector fruitlessly justifying ourselves on other people’s terms.

We were also provided with some seemingly damning statistics, highlighting how increased Arts Council and National Lottery funding for the Arts has led to minimal impact on engagement amongst the wider public (admittedly using flawed methodology).  It was highlighted in the ensuing discussion on our table that it is important to bear in mind the wider context of ‘homegrown’ and commercial culture to get a truer picture.  My mind instantly turned to a key text from the Leadership course, John Holden’s ‘The Ecology of Culture’ which sees culture in a wider context than Arts Council policy, where different cultural sectors organically intersect and support each other.  Like a natural ecological system, it requires interdependence and sustenance of the many different elements.

The lecture highlighted three key threats to the sector, which really set the challenge for everyone in the room:

  • National Lottery funding decreasing
  • Educational policy narrowing
  • the wider Economy shrinking, with particular challenges at Local Authority Level.

So, how do we begin the answer the question posed to us?  In all honesty I fear for my future in the sector as a Freelancer.  Whilst welcoming additional funding coming into new and existing National Portfolio Organisations locally, I feel that freelance artists are frequently on the outside of the conversation, working precariously in a tough environment.  If we don’t ‘get the gig’ or have the time to invest in attending arts events it is hard to operate.  This is exacerbated for people with dependents, people with additional needs or people living in more isolated areas.  The idea of an ‘Ecology of Culture’ is something which makes sense to me – the need for stronger networks at all levels, with more people looking ‘sideways and below’ for support, instead of merely responding to challenges and opportunities coming from a policy level.

I’m not entirely sure what my ask is, I’m still making my first forays into thinking about this in more depth.  I’m probably being quite unfair in my analysis based on my current bugbears.  I could probably be more proactive, be more focused, take more risks myself.  However, here are some thoughts, which I appreciate are very focused on my own development:

  • In the Heritage sector there is so much dependence on Heritage Lottery Funding for individual projects.  It seems that there is little in the way of learning and development, particularly as so many projects are one-off, small scale activities by community groups who do not deliver heritage projects as a core activity.  As part of my work as Secretary of The People’s Heritage Co-operative I am interested in exploring how we can develop networks to increase our resilience.  Sharing experiences and skills, as well as making connections with other heritage practitioners will surely mean that we are spending less time competing for limited funds and more time pooling our skills as the funding pot decreases.  I’m particularly passionate about making the case for high quality and strategic heritage education with young people and I hope that Heritage Practitioners can feed into the development of the ‘Cultural Education Partnership’ locally.  Watch this space as plans develop.
  • National Portfolio Organisations could create ‘learning communities’ – spaces where artists can collaborate, play and respond to each other, without the pressure of responding to a commission.  Friction Arts’ ‘Artists on the Edge’ is a superb example of this.  It has created a family of artists from different disciplines who are now forging new paths, but who are also able to bring their skill and energies to supporting Friction Arts’ work.  It’s a reciprocal and sustainable model, which is of particular value to ‘post-emerging’ artists.
  • Arts organisations also need to find ways to welcome Artists through their doors – not just as consumers of culture, but as people with something to offer and share.  How can we initiate these conversations?
  • I really welcome the Arts Leadership course (Arts Connect WM are recruiting the next cohort now!) and I’ve taken plenty away which I’m not yet sure what to do with.  Perhaps my next step should be seeking a mentor?  But who and where?

Am I thinking along the right lines here?  Am I just using this as a sounding board to vent some frustrations?  I think that most artists CAN and WANT to achieve wider and deeper engagement.  Too often our engagement is fleeting, ‘hit and run’, working to another agenda.  I crave depth, collaboration and longer term relationships where I can use my artistic practice to work in a genuinely participatory and collaborative way.  Several projects are in the pipeline where I hope to address that.  In the meantime, let’s keep Hewison’s question in mind and try and develop a healthy cultural ‘ecology’…

Happy Birthday Moseley Road Baths!

A building very close to my heart, Moseley Road Baths, is 110 years old today!  It stands as a testament to the late 19th Century municipal vision of public buildings which could create spaces for self improvement, healthy living and community.  It also stands as a testament to a campaign of community action, lobbying and creativity, which has prevented the doors closing and the building becoming derelict.

When I moved to Birmingham in 2003, I worked on Reception for a few years whilst setting up as a freelance Film Maker. As a result of that, I was able to enjoy the beautiful architecture, swim regularly (sometimes with the pool to myself!) and meet so many people, many of whom are now friends.

When the building was nearing its Centenary year and threatened with closure, a handful of us came together and formed the Friends of Moseley Road Baths. Back then it seemed unlikely we could convince Birmingham City Council to keep it open. Today I went for a lunchtime swim to celebrate all that we have achieved.

In 2010 the Friends of Moseley Road Baths received funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund for a three year ‘Pool of Memories’ project. I was so lucky to interview people with memories of swimming, bathing, working and socialising in the building. Even better, I ran workshops in local schools where pupils were given opportunity to make their own oral history films. The work from that project can be viewed on the ‘Heritage’ page of the Friends of Moseley Road Baths’ website.

However, there is still so much work to be done. A Community Interest Company is hoping to take on the running of the building from April next year when the Council pull out, but funds are needed to help make that happen. So here are two asks:

Vote for the building for Aviva’s Community Fund (it takes a few minutes) and contribute to the Crowdfunder.

Here are just a handful of comments from supporters explaining why they feel the building is worth saving. I cut this together from interviews with regular Sunday morning swimmers.

For regular updates on the campaign, details of how to get involved and for news on events and activities, subscribe to the Friends of Moseley Road Baths’ mailing list.

How to Curate an Exhibition

I’ve been musing on the leap from content to curation today with the Friction Arts gang.  They really set the bar high in making exhibitions immersive and making content available.  We had chance to unpick some of the ideas behind their current project, ‘Wholesale Memory’ at Birmingham’s Wholesale Markets, and discuss the relationship between market traders and the artists who have been working so long to try and capture their stories.
There is one more chance to attend their ‘How to Curate an Exhibition’ workshop on 3rd November – it’s practical, inspiring and you can hang out in the Library of Birmingham with pizza after hours!
 

High – Keneish Dance

I’m really enjoying documenting dance projects recently – particularly when I get to see work in development and find out a bit more about the process that goes into creating a piece of work.

‘High’ by Keneish Dance was previewed at Sandwell College in September.  The dance company specialises In Contemporary Dance and African Dance.  ‘High’ is currently in development, but you can take a peek at what to expect here.  Look out for future performances or stay in the loop by subscribing to the Keneish Dance newsletter on their website.

Multisensory Delights – Part 2

Recently I reflected on my blog about the strides that Extant are making in increasing opportunities for visually impaired artists and theatre-goers.  Opening up opportunities for people who have long struggled to be part of the arts world is creating new narratives and new approaches to performance which can be exciting for everyone.

‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ by Dance Artist Billy Read is another fine example of what can happen when artists with physical impairments are enabled to put their ideas and talent into the public domain.  ‘Unlimited’ is a funding stream which supports disabled artists across all art forms.  For Billy, a deaf Dance Artist (hailing from Walsall, as all the best of us are…), it gave him the funds, time and rehearsal space at mac Birmingham to experiment with different techniques and tools to create a really special piece of work.  It also enabled him to collaborate with Ariel Fung, a deaf Dance Artist from Hong Kong.  I went along to mac Birmingham last month to document an R&D performance of the work in progress.

The premise of the piece is that Billy and his friend Ariel inhabit a dystopian world where deaf people can be controlled by the use of implants.  Sign language is prohibited, deaf clubs are shut down and this army of automatons are put to work in mines and office blocks.

Billy’s approach to dance is of necessity different to dancers who can hear music.  His reliance on being able to physically feel beats and visually follow cues gives him a different starting point.  He and Ariel were accompanied on stage by a percussionist and a DJ artist who together provided a live score – the vibrations were felt throughout the audience, and in places can be seen on the footage(!)  Projected text, film, images and audio description were used in places to help to provide a narrative, but as with the music, it helped to create a multi-layered performance, a real sensory feast.  I particularly enjoyed seeing sign language incorporated into the dance – both BSL and the ‘secret sign language’ which was enhanced by use of small lights on gloves moving in the darkness.

The performance was followed by a Q&A session with the whole creative team, where the audience gave their thoughts on the performance and we could learn more about the artistic process.  I felt really inspired by how the R&D period had given Billy time to collaborate with other artists, to play around with projection, lighting and sound.  They shared their experiences of trying to work out how these tools of communication could move from being functional to become something which really enhanced and complemented the whole performance.

The core message of ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ is that deaf culture can be inclusive and creative – our world would be a poorer place without the contributions of the stories, talent and creativity of people with disabilities.  You can judge for yourselves when (we hope!) the piece goes on tour.

Billy is represented by Deaf Explorer, who are working to increase involvement and visibility of the deaf community in the arts and develop deaf artists as leaders.  To find out more about the development of this work or if you are interested in booking a performance, e-mail Alan McLean at deafexplorer@gmail.com.

Multisensory delights – Part 1

When I was asked earlier this year if I would be willing to document a performance by ‘Connect and Co’, a group of visually impaired performers who had developed a piece for stage with Extant, I jumped at the chance.

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote on here about how much I had enjoyed documenting some really excellent work by Extant, increasing access to drama and performance opportunities for people with VI in Manchester and Birmingham.  Their belief that not only should people with VI be able to access artistic opportunities, but that they can also bring an energy, creativity and perspective unique to their own experiences was really exciting to me.  It was clear that there was an appetite to develop the initial drama workshops in 2016 into something more.  You can learn more about that project and view the film here.

A year later and Extant wanted to take that work a step further by staging a performance at mac Birmingham.  They worked in partnership with Birmingham Vision who recruited and supported the performers, some of whom had no previous experience of live performance.  Directors Suriya Roberts-Grey and Jo Gleave worked with the group to create a performance which was developed and driven by the participants themselves.  Rehearsal space and artist development support came from mac Birmingham, one of Extant’s ‘Regional Hubs’ featured in last year’s film.

What emerged was an evening of short sketches called ‘Getting on with Life’, exploring different aspects of life living with VI, using humour to show the challenges and adventures of everyday life.  From dealing with incompetent taxi drivers, challenging irate gym staff or exploding assumptions about their love lives, the performance sought to highlight what ‘Getting on with Life’ means to them.  The full performance (35 mins) is here.

As well as being able to articulate their everyday challenges, it was the first time that many of the participants had been recognised for their creative talents.  Ian, one of the performers, believed strongly that the sharing was an opportunity to highlight the artistic potential within the VI community.

The project also raised the question of how theatre makers and venues can realise the potential of people with sensory impairments through creating multilayered, multisensory and accessible work where audio description and touch tours can be tools which enhance the experience of all theatre-goers (there will be more musings on that in the second part of this blogpost…).

There is already talk of performers’ next steps, of taking advantage of other opportunities at mac Birmingham, of future performances.  The film below features footage of rehearsals, excerpts from the performance itself and interviews with project staff and participants.  Watching it, you can’t help but sense that this is just the start of something…

 

Women’s History Birmingham

So many times when I interview people I hear ‘I’m not sure if this is of any interest but….’.  A lot of people, it seems, undervalue their contributions, or take for granted how important their experiences are for other people.  These tend to be the most interesting interviews.  They also mainly tend to be women.

Just as well then, that local historians Nikki Thorpe, Nicola Gauld and Sian Roberts created ‘Women’s History Birmingham‘ to promote and raise awareness of women’s history in Birmingham, and in particular women’s contributions to shaping the social, cultural and political landscape of Birmingham.  Subjects covered include the Women’s Liberation movement, policing, mental health, Fascist Spain, perceptions of single mothers, reproductive health, prostitution, sit-ins, and DIY culture to name just a handful of themes we’ve touched on!

The HLF funded project was inspired by a small pamphlet, ‘Birmingham Women: Past and Present‘, produced by Professor Catherine Hall for the Feminist Review journal in the early 1980s.  The pamphlet was the basis of a sponsored walk to raise funds for the journal, and featured information about key points of interest along the walk pertinent to prominent women in the city’s history.

Over three decades later, this work is now being developed further through collecting testimonies of women who lived and worked in Birmingham during the 1970s and 1980s.  These recorded memories are being added to online maps, to encourage people to undertake their own history walks.  You can view the maps, discover a whole host of stories, design your own heritage walk and contribute information by viewing the map on the Women’s History Birmingham website.  The edited films are also available to view over on my Vimeo page.

I have facilitated workshops at Perry Beeches II and Waverley School focused on teaching pupils key film making skills and oral history interview techniques, before giving pupils free rein to interview women for the project.  I have been completely taken aback by the maturity that pupils have shown for interviewees, and as a result, the honesty and frankness of those being interviewed.  The films, which I have been editing together, create an important archive, filling a huge gap in our understanding of how the ideas, actions and attitudes of women in the past shape the world around us today.

However, perhaps the greatest legacy of this project is in the changing attitudes of the young people involved in the project.  This quote from a pupils at Perry Beeches II perhaps sums up the impact best.

Thank you for sharing your stories and for making us aware and maybe helping us to see what we can do in the future.

For interviewees too, it has been a valued opportunity to reflect on their journeys and what sharing their experiences can mean to others.  Jasmine was very generous in sharing her memories:

The youngsters were keen to listen to my journey, through my life in education and work especially my work with children experiencing mental health problems. Their curiosity and questioning gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own life achievements, as a black women working in the health service.

The interview left me reflecting on my own life experiences and how important it is to share stories with the younger generation about some of my conflicts and challenges.

It left me hoping that the conversations with us may give them a model of overcoming some of their own challenges that they may come across in their female lives.

A few weeks ago we shared the project at the Women’s History Network Annual Conference and it was clear that there is a real appetite and enthusiasm for the project to develop further.  We will be developing ideas in the near future, but do get in touch with your thoughts and ideas if this has got you interested!

 

 

Why Oral Histories?

I recently tentatively wrote a little bit about some of my explorations into thinking a bit more about my role as a film maker or storyteller, about how I can develop my work to have more impact and about how I can collaborate with others who inspire me.

A superb opportunity for reflection and learning has been the University of Sunderland‘s online ‘Introduction to Participatory Arts and Media’ online course, developed in partnership with ArtsWorks Alliance and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.  It’s packed with really interesting case studies, as well as lots of opportunities to reflect on what the learning means in respect of my own work.  As part of the course, I have been asked to write a blogpost reflecting on an aspect of my own participatory practice and why I feel passionate about this.  So, here goes…


When I reflect on the most enjoyable and satisfying projects that I’ve worked on, they have consistently related to using oral histories and archives with young people.  I see participatory heritage projects as a starting point for participants to understand more about who they are, how they can connect to the world around them, how they fit into the wider picture and how change happens in society.

Pupils are turned off learning about people and places which are distant geographically, historically and in relation to their own lived experiences.  Yet when events from the past are presented in an exciting and relevant way, rather than a series of facts to be digested and regurgitated, really interesting things begin to happen.  When they play a role in taking ownership of the work then things get really exciting!

The Friends of Moseley Road Baths’ ‘Pool of Memories’ project was one such project.  It linked pupils’ experiences of swimming at their local swimming pool to the experiences of people who had swum, bathed or worked in the building in the past.  Through tours of the building, online research and oral history interviews, we created some very passionate champions for local swimming facilities!

Heritage Projects can also give space for young people to open up about their family’s personal stories.  Here is an old film created for The Lichfield Festival by a pupil about her Great Grandfather’s experiences of military service in North Africa in WWII.

In this film produced with the People’s Heritage Co-operative, students from Swanshurst School were involved in researching the experiences of wounded soldiers from WW1 in South Birmingham and interviewing War Veterans from other conflicts.  In their reflections on the project they highlighted why these kind of heritage projects are important:

‘You learn so much about where you live and what goes on that you feel responsible to continue this’.

‘I think that taking part in experiences like this can be even more informative than learning about it in lessons, because in this situation you’re learning more about actual people’s experiences’.

I am interested in developing this work further, so that workshop participants can come away with the skills and confidence needed to explore spaces, places and people around them independently.  Instead of one-off experiences, is it possible to create a culture of curiosity, where understanding events of the past is valued more than it is at present?

This will mean using archives and stories more creatively – ‘curating’ material in creative ways to develop narratives which have a resonance for others, beyond the initial participants.  How can the ‘responsibility’ that the student spoke about develop into action which impacts on people’s lives in the present day?  What kind of infrastructure is needed to support young people to take on this task?  What are the best examples of participatory, creative and empowering heritage work?  Do share your thoughts!

40 years of Birmingham Friends of the Earth

Birmingham Friends of the Earth are celebrating their 40th Anniversary this year. To help mark four decades of campaigns and action, I am working with local historian, Liz Palmer,​ on a Heritage Lottery Fund supported project.  It will involve working with activists, past and present, to explore memories and archives.

Back in April I attended the 40th Anniversary Party.  The fact that it was so well attended (see above!) really shows what an important role Birmingham Friends of the Earth, and The Warehouse, have played in people’s lives.  So much has been achieved, so many friendships formed and so much creative and committed work has been put into making positive and sustainable environmental change.

If you want to get involved with delving into archives or recording oral histories, there is an informal meet-up next Tuesday, 8th August at 6pm at The Warehouse on Allison Street. Or, if you would like to be kept in the loop with news and events, you can subscribe to the project newsletter for occasional updates.