There was a definite chill in the air last Saturday afternoon but that didn’t stop a good crowd braving the great outdoors for We Are Eastside’s East Stride, a tour of some of the area’s key arts venues led by local historian Ben Waddington.
We started off from The Old Crown, which as Ben pointed out, perhaps isn’t as old as it purports to be. We then made our way to where much of what makes up Digbeth all began, at Bennie Gray’s The Custard Factory. Those hanging about didn’t appear to be the usual skater kids that frequent its skate park, they seemed to be a much more rag-tag bunch.
It turned out they were the creations of people participating in the Craftspace Collective ‘Aggressive Localism’ workshop led by Juneau Projects. You’ll be seeing these Morris dancer inspired costumes worn by skateboarders in the Lord Mayor’s Parade later this year.
From thereon we visited the newly opened Rhubarb East Gallery in Rhubarb Studios on Heath Mill Lane, which is exploring The Uses of Enchantment with some lovely fine art photography from The Jackson Twins and Vee Speers, whose child portraits I found particularly captivating. Rhubarb-Rhubarb’s Creative Director Rhonda Wilson spoke of her joy in at last having a space to display work:
For years we have watched while the sometimes extraordinary talent emerging from our reviews and mentoring schemes, has been shown by other people, both in the UK and in international spaces. Now we have the pleasure of exhibiting the results of our efforts, in collaboration with some of the world’s most interesting image makers.
We carried on down Heath Mill Lane, stopping off at Eastside Projects to enjoy The Curtain Show and hear Gavin Wade talk about the artist-led, ex-industrial space and VIVID, where Director Yasmeen Baig-Clifford told the story of its versatile pod space developed by architect Ranbir Lal, a perfect solution for an arts organisation renting rather than owning their premises.
Ex Black Sabbath Manager and Birmingham International Jazz Festival founder Jim Simpson popped by and chatted with Lisa and Jenny from Capsule about the rougher, tougher type of music that seems to stem from industrial Birmingham.
Ben’s tour also included elements of local history and interest, such as the amazing brickwork on St Basil’s headquarters, which used to be a High Anglican Church.
Whilst we were oohing and aahing who should pass by but Pip McKnight, who told us all about how 7 Inch Cinema began whilst Birmingham Film Festival was folding, which was a cloud with a silver lining as they got a lot of the old equipment!
We got to have a chat outside Ikon Eastside, where many of the tour later got to enjoy Flatpack and Capsule’s screening of Burning, before crossing the road to find the tucked-away Grand Union. The current exhibition Gon-goozler is well worth a look with a fun space-travel theme that includes a spacesuit, a weather-balloon and of course, cheese, some of which had disappeared before the night was out.
What was really impressive about Grand Union was the studio space, where about 8-10 artists get their own, cheap self-contained work units to get creative in. The artists we met were as happy as pigs in mud in this place and spoke of the need for more like it. Like VIVID, Grand Union are tenants rather than owners of the old industrial space, but the units are flatpack so should they need to move, their studios can move with them to be reassembled in a new home.
We bumped into artist James Langdon whilst we were there, who spoke with Ben about his development of the distinctive We Are Eastside typeface. If you look carefully you’ll find the A’s are a particularly curvaceous treat and as Ben pointed out, not unlike the outline of Eastside itself, although whether this is by accident or design I’m unsure.
Last stop on the tour was the Rea Garden on Floodgate Street, where Arlene Burnett of Behind Closed Doors spoke about their development of the space, and resident artists Claudia Borgna and Alex Lockett of Project Pigeon explained their very different installations. Claudia’s plastic bag flowers looked like seeds from another planet had landed in the bottom half of the garden and taken it over.
Project Pigeon is a longer-term installation in the space, which means we get to see the pigeons develop from eggs to fully-grown birds. I got to stroke Bluen’s tiny chick (above), which is now the healthy, strapping 28-day old bird below.
There’s been some interesting online discussion about We Are Eastside since its launch, including a brilliant post by Jon Bounds at BiNS about increasing engagement in the arts, both by simple awareness raising and more in-depth local collaboration. The latter is something I’d like to see lots more of Digbeth – there’s some amazing cultural stuff going on around here, such as Irish Heritage and St Patrick’s Festival Birmingham which, for whatever reason, feels completely unconnected to much of the arts activity in the area.
From my resident’s perspective, both camps are making interesting, creative and exciting stuff happen, so it would be great to see them bounce off each other more. I suppose that’s why I’ve kind of fallen in love with Friction Arts, because they are so embedded within the community. I’d love to see arts organisations reach out more and work with local people who are already getting together and doing brilliant things under their own steam, my guess is that all involved learn an awful lot!