Balsall Heath is an inner city area of Birmingham. This much we know. But depending on who you talk to, there are many different histories of Balsall Heath – and many different interpretations of these histories. Compared to its more affluent neighbours Moseley and Edgbaston, Balsall Heath has a contested – and ideologically contradictory – modern history. Up until the early 1990s, Balsall Heath was synonymous with prostitution, urban decay and crime. Indeed, it was recognised as one of the worst areas in the country. But over the last 20 years the area has been transformed through the work of community and religious groups, local residents and an organisation called Balsall Heath Forum. Indeed, Balsall Heath has recently been selected as one of the first 17 places across the country to develop a neighbourhood plan under the 2011 Localism Act (it is also the only place in the country to be simultaneously involved in a neighbourhood budgeting pilot). The selection of Balsall Heath as a government pilot was due to its transformation, and it has been suggested that Balsall Heath has influenced government policy, particularly the Conservative party. If you look on the Conservative party’s YouTube Channel, there are a series of videos featuring David Cameron in Balsall Heath. It’s even been suggested that the Conservative party’s ‘Big Society’ concept comes from Balsall Heath. Despite its transformation, the area is still identified as being socially and economically disadvantaged and like many inner city areas, Balsall Heath today is home to a diverse population of different faiths, nationalities and cultures.
What’s that in your window?
Somewhere along the way we decided we wanted to do a project in our local area – to ‘come out’ as artists to our neighbours. We had both lived in Balsall Heath for a number of years and thought the area was a fascinating context in which to make work. To mark the publicly visible second stage of the project, in July 2013 we took the momentous decision to turn our front window into a Cat Gallery, a space for contemporary art and cats to freely mix as they felt fit. The biennale newspaper, delivered to all 5000 houses across the area, posed the question: ‘Why not turn your front window into a Cat Gallery?’ As far as we are aware, no one took us up on this offer, but we did have people knocking at our front door, either wanting to know what a Cat Gallery was, whether they could come in, and on one occasion, whether we had the internet and could we find something out for them. On our road at least, we began to fulfill a very visible role – either as artists or the people who gave out free compost, sunflower seeds and newspapers. In some quarters, we became known as the ‘community people’ who may or may not work for the council (no one was really sure). In this sense then, the Balsall Heath Biennale was a ‘community art’ project in that it occurred within the community in which we lived – and now worked.
Particularities of Locality
The Cat Gallery was very much a response to the local stray cat problem and our decision four years previously to take into our home two kittens who had been born in the back garden – Benny, a tabby/tortoiseshell female and Roger a ginger tom. Outside of the context of Balsall Heath and its small armies of feral cats, Cat Gallery doesn’t easily translate. It was a reaction to something very local and in our eyes, this interest in the local defined the project (for example, the Art School syllabus was designed in response to Balsall Heath). We were very interested in not travelling, working on our doorstep and asking questions of what it might mean for an artist to work ‘locally’. Francis Frascina argues that the modern biennale is captured in Roman Abramovich’s 377ft super yacht mooring alongside the Giardini at the 2011 Venice Biennale: as ‘members of the recent global-traveling elite, they are opaque to the particularities of locality – a phenomenon associated with the biennialisation of the contemporary art world’. In contrast to this trend, the Balsall Heath Biennale was conceived in response to the ‘particularities of locality’, with the projects developed for the summer of 2013 emerging directly from the idiosyncrasies of the local area.
A Balsall Heath Biennale?
The project began in 2011 with a consultation period funded by the Arts Council. At this stage we had a dangerous combination of lofty ideals and fuzzy plans, but over the ensuing six months the project morphed into a reinterpretation of a biennale as a project defined by a commitment to a specific geographical area for a two-year period. As a starting point we took Lucy Lippard’s notion of the ‘Community Biennial’ (although the project has yet to fulfill the ambition implicit in Lippard’s proposition). At the Falmouth convention 2010, Lippard asked:
What about a Community Biennial, subverting the notion of high art by inserting a practice often scorned by the global art world. Curators could consult with various agencies and non-profits to discover the root social issues in the location, the community and activist organizations dealing with them, and seek out artists who could provide models for thinking and acting about these issues. [i]
One thing we discovered was that however you define it, a biennale is difficult to explain to a local audience who have no knowledge of contemporary art and quite possibly don’t speak English as a first language. Despite these reservations, we thought there was genuine value in linking Balsall Heath, an economically disadvantaged inner city area with ‘biennale’, a global art world power structure. Semantically speaking, the circulation of the phrase ‘Balsall Heath Biennale’ might have the potential to alter perceptions of the area, if only in a small way. The very word biennale posits a range of connotations and meanings and we felt the accruing of a different type of association to Balsall Heath was a valuable exercise in local re-branding.
Our ‘biennale’ can perhaps be related to Gregory Shollette’s notion of a Mockstitution.[ii] Shollette identifies a certain trend or mode of art practice that involves the mimicking of corporate structures and identities (he offers the example of The Yes Men or Bernadette Corporation). The Balsall Heath Biennale was partly fictional, using the institutional structure and name for deliberate effect. It was amazing how people responded to you either via email or on the phone, when you said you were from the Balsall Heath Biennale. It didn’t rub with Hans Ulrich Olbrist’s secretary though, who in reply to our invitation to Hans to judge the International Open Submission Art Exhibition replied:
Hans Ulrich sends his thanks for your invitation to judge at the Balsall Heath Biennale on Thursday 26th or Friday 27th of September. Unfortunately, September is a particularly demanding time for Hans Ulrich. He regrets therefore that he is unable to take on any extra commitments or to reply personally to you, as he would usually always endeavour to do. We thank you in advance for your understanding of this situation.
The biennale brand can only take you so far.
The Politics of Sharing
Our Arts Council application described how the Balsall Heath Biennale
is an ambitious project exploring the ‘politics of sharing’ in an economically and socially disadvantaged inner city area of Birmingham. Occurring over a three-month period in 2012, the remit of the BHB is to show how contemporary art practice can have an impact upon improving the social and physical fabric of the local area, whilst also showcasing the wider cultural offer of Balsall Heath to both local people and the wider city.
Suggesting that ‘contemporary art practice can have an impact upon improving the social and physical fabric of the local area’ might seem overly ambitious, arrogant or simply divisive, but by this stage in the project we hadn’t left Balsall Heath for months and had become obsessed with the local litter problem, whether art could solve it and if it could, whether it would be art any more. The curators litter pick didn’t happen in 2013 but there is still time. Maybe Hans Ulrich will have a gap in his diary if we give him enough notice. Balsall Heath has a bipolar personality. It is an area renowned for its strong community infrastructure and modern history of community activism. But Balsall Heath also has a continual problem with fly-tipping, dumping and litter – the abuse of shared common public spaces.
You wonder how can an area so often praised for its community activism, for inspiring the Conservative Party’s Big Society, look so bad? [iii]
Our thinking became polarised around notions of the common – of common space, commonality and how people shared a local area. Broadly speaking, the common is concerned with sharing. Historically, this idea can be related to how people have (or haven’t as the case may be) shared ‘common ground’:
When, in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, first in England and then all over Europe, the meadows, where animals grazed, and the forests, where everyone could gather wood, were privatised, the conflict about common ground was born. [iv]
Today, the common has relevance in terms of the selling of natural resources (such as oil) to private enterprises. In the era of the internet we can think of the ‘creative commons’ – open access to cultural products such as information and ideas. The common therefore, is about the politics of sharing – be that space, a community, information or natural resources. In light of this, and in relation to Balsall Heath, we might ask the following questions: how do people from many different cultures and faiths share a common public space? How do these different cultures function as a community?
The projects that formed all stages of the Balsall Heath Biennale aimed to explore these different sides to the area. Half of the projects tried to contribute towards Balsall Heath’s community infrastructure (and provide opportunities for local people), whilst other projects invited people to think about their use of shared public space or re-imagine how this space might be used differently (and creatively). Ultimately – and linking both these interests – we were interested in trying to do something useful. Some projects worked, others totally failed.
Dr Saskia Warren and Derek Horton were invited to contribute writing to the publication, both having differing relationships to the project and area. Dr Warren had taken the biennale as a case study for a project she is currently working on at Birmingham University, Cultural Intermediation: Connecting Communities in the Creative Urban Economy.[v] In contrast, Derek Horton’s essay contextualises the biennale via an exploration of his experiences working in Balsall Heath during the 1970s as part of the adventure playground movement.
[i] Lucy Lippard, Imagine Being Here Now: Towards a Multicentered Exhibition Process, http://www.thefalmouthconvention.com/keynote-lucy-lippard
[ii] Gregory Sholette, Speaking Clown to Power, http://www.gregorysholette.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Speaking-Clown-to-Power.NOCROP.pdf
[iii] The Balsall Heath Biennale Colouring in Book includes an essay by anthropologist Laurence Douny called ‘The Materiality of Domestic Waste. The Recycled Cosmology of the Dogon of Mali’. This essay offers a fascinating account of the relationship between waste and recycling within the Dogon tribe of Mali. It suggests that different cultures have different interpretations of what waste is and what it signifies. On a personal note we found that we went from a position of some indifference towards litter and dumping in Balsall Heath to one of near obsession.
[iv] Pg.3, Community Art: The Politics of Trespassing, Paul De Bruyne & Pascal Gielen.
[v] Dr Saskia Warren, an academic at Birmingham University, used the Balsall Heath Biennale as a case study in a number of papers / presentations over 2013 as part of the Birmingham University led AHRC-funded project ‘Cultural Intermediation and the Creative Urban Economy’. The research investigates governance, community engagement and practice-based interventions in the creative economy, with a focus on Birmingham and Manchester (the interviews Saskia conducted with us have been added to the database at Birmingham University). The papers / presentations were: (1) Warren, S. and Jones, P. (submitted 2013) “Local governance, disadvantaged communities and cultural intermediation in the creative urban economy” Environment & Planning C: Government & Policy; (2) Warren, Saskia. (2013, June). Local governance, community commissioning and intermediation in the creative economy, Presented at the Experience the Creative Economy Conference 2013, Toronto, Canada; (3) Saskia Warren (2013, June) Local governance, community commissioning and intermediation in the creative urban economy. Presented at Urban Art and The Public, University of Kent, Canterbury – UK; (4) AHRC-funded Cultural Intermediation: Connecting Communities in the Creative Urban Economy – Light-touch case study for Governance Workpackage (PI Dr Phil Jones and Co-I Dr Beth Perry).