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InBirmingham is two months old!

13 Jul

In Birmingham turned two months old this month, so as a result we  have decided to take an entirely (un)deserved holiday in America.  But we won’t be abandoning our blogging while we’re away.  Over the next ten days we will be visiting three very different cities in the States: Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New York.  We’ll be soaking up the atmosphere and cultural highlights and comparing what we find with what we know in Birmingham.

Although absolutely coincidental, the timing seems somehow appropriate.  If reports are to be believed, Birmingham is set to miss out on another capital of culture bid, this time to Derry in Northern Ireland.  If this is the case (the result is formally announced on Thursday the 15th July), the city could do with taking stock and learning lessons from other cities around the world.  As well as looking in on itself and celebrating what it already has, to compete on an international level Birmingham has to start engaging internationally.  We hope to contribute to this in a very small way (and also have a lot of fun in the process).

We’ll post our findings, along with some holiday snaps, here when we get back.  You can also follow us while we’re away on twitter @InBirmingham.

Happy trails!


Representing Handsworth

26 May

By Kieran Connell
In summer 1979, three local photographers – Derek Bishton, Brian Homer and John Reardon – set up a makeshift studio on the street outside their shared premises in Grove Lane, Handsworth.  The studio consisted of a 35mm camera mounted on a tripod, a plain white backdrop, and a sign in three different languages inviting passers-by to come in and take their own photograph.  How and when the photograph was taken was left up to the participants: the camera was attached to a long cable release that each participant would hold; Bishton, Homer or Reardon would set the camera up, hand participants the cable release and then stand aside, leaving control over the shutter in the hands of the people whose photograph was being taken.

Original self-portrait project, 1979

Over 500 people took part in the Handsworth Self-Portrait Project, and each received a copy of their own portrait to keep.

Now, just over thirty years on, the project is being revisited in Handsworth as part of a wider project that examines how the area has been visually represented over the last forty years.  On Saturday the 5th of June at Handsworth Library, visitors will have the chance take part in a new set of self portraits, each, as in the original project, receiving a copy of their own portrait to keep.  A selection of the photographs will then form part of an exhibition, to be held atthe Library in September.

This September also marks 25 years since the disturbances in Handsworth.  The events in 1985, in which two people were killed, reaffirmed the negative portrayal of Handsworth generally presented by the mainstream British media.  Throughout the post-war period, newspapers have tended to focus on issues relating to crime and deprivation in Handsworth, and the area has been given a negative reputation both in Birmingham and in Britain more generally.  As the author Salman Rushdie put it in 1986, ‘If you say “Handsworth,” what do you see?  Most Britons would see fire, riots and looted shops’.

However, for many years, photographers from within Handsworth have worked to represent a more faithful side of Handsworth, one that captures its vibrancy, diversity and above all its energy.  These photographs of Handsworth and the people who live there undermine the negative stereotypes often presented by the media, and taken together often form a celebration of the many positive aspects of life in inner-city Birmingham, as well a documentation of its hardships.  The self-portrait project was just one example of rich tradition of photography coming from within the area, with photographers such as George Hallett, Pogus Caesar, Claudette Holmes, Andrew Jackson and Vanley Burke each working in contrasting ways to present a different side of the area and the people who live there to the one normally shown in the mainstream media.  A selection of the work of these artists will also be shown at the exhibition in September, alongside the photographs taken by a group of year 9 students at the local Holte School (tutored by Vanley Burke himself).

The exhibition will attempt to move away from the lazy stereotypes of the mainstream media, and show how photographs can occupy a central role in the recording of an alternative history of Handsworth, a history that reflects the true vibrancy of life in Handsworth.  To put your own face in this history, come and take your own portrait at Handsworth Library on Saturday the 5th of June, between 9.30 and 4pm.


Bridging the North/South Divide

24 May

By Kieran Connell

The new-look MAC in Cannon Hill ParkAn estimated 10,000 visitors attended the re-opening of the Birmingham Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) earlier this month.  Thousands are also expected to attend the Flyover Show underneath the Hockley Flyover this coming Saturday (the 29th).  These two institutions have very different feels, but they also encapsulate the cultural vibrancy that has long existed in Birmingham on both sides of the city.

The MAC first opened in 1962 in Cannon Hill Park in the south of Birmingham, as a centre for local young people.  The idea was to establish a place that would make the arts accessible and exiting to local children, but this soon widened to include the local population as a whole.  This year’s £15 million re-vamp has replaced the original modernist design with spacious white floors (all on the same level) and a much larger exhibition space.  There are also refurbished cinema, theatre, and workshop spaces as well as visual arts, crafts and performing arts studios.  Around 10 % of the Birmingham population now visit the MAC each year.

The Flyover Show is an annual event put on by internationally acclaimed jazz musician Soweto Kinch.

Soewto Kinch

It is a daylong street festival that brings together music, poetry and dance, all taking place under the concrete slabs of the Hockley Flyover.  This year’s headliners are the MOBO award winners Ms Dynamite and Speech Debelle.  The location is important.  On the one hand, Hockley, like the neighbouring Newtown and Aston, is known for its deprivation and social problems.  As Kinch, who is from Hockley, puts it, ‘my area only ever receives negative press’.  But on the other hand, Hockley is a reminder of the great cultural legacy that this part of the city has.  Adjacent to the flyover is the now-derelict Muhammad Ali Centre, opened by the man himself in 1981 and in its time something of a MAC of north Birmingham.  The saxophonist Andy Hamilton, the reggae band Steel Pulse and the performance poet Benjamin Zephaniah also all come from around the area.  The Flyover Show is an attempt to establish a new legacy and, in Kinch’s words, ‘use art to inspire’.

The re-opening of the MAC in Moseley and the Flyover Show in Hockley, events taking place within weeks of each other, are both occasions to enjoy taking part in, but they also act as an important reminder of the need to think of the city of Birmingham as an entity as a whole, the sum of all its parts.  As Kinch alluded to, the north of Birmingham has in recent years received a negative reputation in the wider city, but equally, areas like Moseley and Edgbaston are also commonly viewed as being overly middle class and even elitist.  Yet both events provide examples of the exciting cultural work that is going across the city as a whole.  Thinking of Birmingham in terms of artificial dividing lines means you are missing out on great chunks of the Birmingham cultural experience.  The size of Birmingham means that it is relatively easy to visit different parts of the city either by car or public transport.  But it is also big enough to have a rich array of different cultural traditions, each often with roots in different parts of the city.  As examples, the MAC and the Flyover Show are institutions – and, indeed areas of Birmingham – that people from across the city should enjoy visiting and be proud of.  In light of Birmingham’s forthcoming capital of culture bid, it’s high time to start thinking of and enjoying Birmingham as a City.


A Day in the Life

17 May

By Kieran Connell

Last year’s furore over the release of 1 Day, a film about gangsters made using unknown actors from the Handsworth area of the Birmingham, was well documented.  On the advice of West Midlands Police, two well-known cinema chains in the city refused to show 1 Day because of fears over the possibility of violence, and for a while, the only way you could get to see a film explicitly made and set in Birmingham, using Birmingham actors, was to leave Birmingham.

Seeing a copy of 1 Day available for rent recently in my local video shop made me reflect on the ridiculousness of that situation.  At the height of the controversy in October last year, the West Midlands Chief Constable Suzette Davenport appeared on local television likening the film to ‘a shoot-out at the OK corral’, and warned of the dangers of ‘glamorising violence’.

Like many films, 1 Day is indeed violent.  It forms a fictional account of two gangs in north Birmingham, widely believed to be based on, but not represented in the film as, the Burger Bar and Johnson crews.  The storyline centres on the personal relations between different gang members, and the race (in one day) to get hold of the £100,000 owed to a particular member.  There are scenes of gun-toting and shootings throughout, and the film opens with a character preparing crack whilst simultaneously talking to his baby daughter.

All – to some people I’m sure – distressing enough, which is why the film was given a certificate 18 rating.  But to argue, as West Midlands Police seemed to, that such scenes might encourage gang crime in Birmingham is patronising in the extreme.  Firstly, if you are going to ban 1 Day, why not also ban the numerous other violent films that come out on general release on a given weekend.  In the last few months alone, gruesomely violent films such as The Prophet, Saw VII and even Kick Ass have all made it past Police censorship onto the screens of Birmingham cinemas without any serious controversy.

The issue, it seems, was that 1 Day was set in Birmingham in an area known for its gang-related problems.  But this too seems more than a bit irrational.  How many films or television series in the history of the moving image have been explicitly based – however loosely – on the criminal goings on of a particular area?  The HBO television series The Wire, set in the infamous west side of Baltimore and nominated for more than 15 awards, is only the most obvious answer.  As far as I know, The Wire is being shown on television screens across the city.

For a while, however, the Police even tried to stop even this from happening with 1 Day in Birmingham.  In an episode that encapsulates the absurdity of the stance of West Midlands Police, the director of the film, Penny Walcock, arranged for a showing in the Custard Factory as part of the Birmingham Black Film Festival on a small television screen.  Midway through the showing, the Police stormed in, turned the lights on and switched the TV off, alleging it to be a breach of the peace.  The audience of mostly film buffs and members of Birmingham’s cultural industries, were stunned.

The irony, of course, is that the Police’s ridiculously heavy-handed approach actually increased the buzz about the film.  As with previously banned films like the Exorcist, more and more people wanted to see what the fuss was about.  The film obtained a cult following even before people had seen it.  As I travelled round Birmingham on the top deck of local buses last year, I recognised on kids’ phones clips from the film and exerts from the soundtrack.

If the Police had bothered to watch it, this in actual fact is the point of 1 Day.  Yes, it is violent and sometimes shocking, but the real value of the film is the performances of the cast.  As well as being a film about violent gangs, 1 Day is also a sort of musical – throughout the film the cast perform raps and rhymes into the camera, all of which had been written by the casts themselves.  It is these raps – not the guns and violence – that provide the narrative for the film, and it through them that we get to hear the thoughts and feelings of the characters and, by extension, the people who play them.  1 Day may not win any awards for originality in terms of storyline (indeed, it does contribute to a somewhat clichéd perception of black youth in Britain at the moment), but the performances of these young actors and rappers is something that the city should be celebrating, not shying away from

Given that my local Blockbusters now stocks copies of 1 Day, maybe the Police have finally given trying up waging their war against it.  Now go and get hold of a copy and see for yourself.


History at Street Level: Birmingham’s Photographic Legacy

30 Apr

Alicia Field, Moseley, 2010

By Kieran Connell.

Birmingham has a distinguished history of ‘street photography’, the art of capturing the frantic hussle of everyday city life.  Almost thirty years ago, Derek Bishton and John Reardon published Home Front, a collection of documentary-style photographs that recorded the photographers’ experiences living in Handsworth, north Birmingham.  Home Front is a visual testament to the frenetic pace of life in that part of the city, and the reader is taken in and out of churches, pubs and clubs, town hall meetings and shops, all seen through the lens of Bishton and Reardon’s camera.  This is not a view from high on up: the beauty of street photography like this is that we are made to feel like we are experiencing these events in as everyone else did, from behind crowds in the back of a pub, or up close and personal, in ‘real time’.

It is a sense of intimacy that most characterises the photography of Vanley Burke, one of Britain’s foremost black photographers who also works in the north-Birmingham area.  Burke somehow manages to capture the most personal scenes of everyday life, almost as a result of him having mastered the art of being there whilst at the same time not really being there.  Burke’s photography gives the impression that he and his camera have faded into the background, his subjects are seemingly so unaware of the presence of his lens.  As we see through his eyes a funeral, a baptism, a group of friends in the park, it feels as if we are flicking through the pages of a family album.  Burke has been taking photographs in the same area for over forty years, and it is almost as if he and his work have become part of the furniture as his subjects go about their daily lives in the church, living room or on the street.

Yet this is an art that is increasingly under threat.  Due to recent moral panics about paedophilia and terrorism, photographers are often less able to enjoy the freedom so vital to the visual recording of the street’s stories.  Children regularly appear in Bishton, Reardon and Burke’s photography, on parents’ shoulders or playing cops and robbers, however parents are becoming more and more wary of having their children photographed.  In the years since 9/11 and 7/7, photographers have also become regularly stopped from doing there work by the police, having films removed or memories wiped, in some cases even being arrested for taking photographs, all in the name of the prevention of terrorism.

Birmingham has one of the highest ratios of CCTV cameras per head in the whole of Europe.  These are not just installed in shops and malls, on buses and alongside motorways, but in the last few weeks in Moseley and Sparkhill, literally on the streets.  You may have noticed the erection of these giant, grey boxes on a pavement near you, designed by the ‘Safer Birmingham Partnership’.  As photographers find it more and more difficult to go about their work freely, responsibility for recording scenes from the street is passed from photographer to the state, moving from art to law enforcement.

However it is vital that photographers are able to record the everyday stories that are being lived day by day, minute by minute in the city.  What is at stake here is not the ability to fight crime, be it paedophilia, terrorism or even littering.  The images that street photographers take are in fact snapshots of the city’s rich and diverse histories, as they are being made and lived.  Photographers, whether established artists like Bishton, Reardon and Burke, or up-and-coming local practitioners like Liz Hingley or Alicia Field, must be allowed the freedom to work, otherwise it is not only art that suffers, but the ability to record the city’s evolving history.  These are not simply photographs; they are, as Vanley Burke himself puts it, ‘histographs’.