Longbridge Light Festival: 2014 & 16

The Darkest Light Festival Ever?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Do Artists Dream of Curating Light Festivals?

We were invited by public art commissioning agency WERK to curate the inaugural Longbridge Light Festival 2014.[1] [2] The opportunity intrigued us, partly because of its incongruity. A light festival in Longbridge – what sort of madness was this! Joking aside, we felt the light festival and wider LPAP project had a quiet radicalism to it. Light festivals are generally the preserve of urban centres. This one was occurring literally on the edge of Birmingham in a fairly non-descript working class suburban area. It was an unlikely location for a light festival and on an altruistic level the festival and wider LPAP programme offered the local community a significant cultural offer usually reserved for a metropolitan city centre.

A Town Centre Fiction

From the outset, it was an enormously complex project that required liaison with multiple partners to research, plan, commission and curate a Light Festival from scratch in 10 months. Previously the site of one of the largest car factories in the world, Longbridge is now home to a £1 billion regeneration scheme by private developers St Modwen (one of the country’s largest regeneration schemes). Having never known Longbridge when it was a thriving car factory, we encountered Longbridge as a very different physical environment: a building site, a super-sized out of town shopping centre development and an architectural oddity. We refer here to the new Bournville College – a gigantic futuristic building that appeared to have landed, somewhat indiscriminately, in the Birmingham suburbs. Its location wasn’t the only contradictory thing about it. Built with good intentions to support the regeneration of the area, it was strangely designed to face away from the local community it was now part of. Beyond Bournville College, the remainder of the enormous re-development site was owned by St Modwen. A line of barely visible metal studs in the ground marked the division between land owned by Bournville College and St Modwen. Although Longbridge town centre resembled a public space, in reality it was privately owned – effectively a private town centre that the public had access to. Yet the idea of a ‘Longbridge town centre’ was itself a fiction. Prior to the regeneration programme, Longbridge didn’t have a town centre; it wasn’t even a town. This was very much a top down model of a new town centre for a town that had never existed.[3]

The Darkest Light Festival Ever?

Beginning the commission, we were fairly ‘in the dark’ over what a ‘light festival’ constituted. Light festivals are now a large international movement using illumination to revive urban economies. They are invariably associated with the phrase ‘place-making’. Done correctly, they are also big revenue generators for local areas. The world’s largest light festival is the annual Fête des Lumières in Lyon, a festival that hosts 80 light installations and attracts over 4 million tourists every year. Its success has turned Lyon (the home of the Lumière brothers) into a template for other cities hoping to use illumination to regenerate urban centres.

We felt there was something slightly ghettoised about the light festival circuit: producers touring expensive – and what often appeared quite unimaginative – works around the world. Longbridge though isn’t Lyon (however hard you try to imagine it). And due to our budget constraints, we couldn’t afford any of the international touring works. Somewhat ridiculously our initial shortlist of artists included Jenny Holzer and James Turrell (with our budget we wouldn’t have got his Christmas lights). Our greatest fear – and this did keep us awake at night – was that we would produce the world’s darkest light festival. In the end, our budget constraints worked to our advantage. We couldn’t afford any big spectacle pieces so we had to re-think what a light festival might be. Could it be a non-spectacle? And how could it play with the conventions and clichés of the light festival format?

Back to the Future #1: The Sci Fi Town Centre

We decided upon a science fiction theme. Entitled ‘Back to the Future’ we wanted something that was both populist but also offered capacity for subversion.[4] Our starting point was the epithet that some local people had applied to the new Bournville College. It was referred to as the ‘spaceship’ on account of its distinctive architecture. The college did resemble a building that has landed from a science fiction future and these throwaway comments were interesting as they suggested local people saw this building as something ‘other’. Walking around Longbridge, it felt like the college and whole town centre development had landed from nowhere. Set within a rapidly changing mixed-use redevelopment site, itself resembling a shifting, earthy, lunar landscape, the new town centre site was strangely science fiction. Within this readymade science fiction environment, we tried to tease out with the commissions the idea of the regeneration process as something quite ‘alien’.[5] We collaborated with Matthew J Watkins to present ‘Close Encounters of the Longbridge Kind’, a projection onto Bournville College which was intended to provide an otherworldly backdrop for the festival proper. In Austin Park, artist duo Juneau Projects produced a series of cave sculptures that contained animations offering messages about possible near-future scenarios, whilst Austin Houldsworth’s interactive light sculpture created a dramatic central hub within the new town centre to measure community cohesion. In this fictional town centre of the future, The Institute for Boundary Interactions replaced the old town crier with a digital manifestation, absorbing and exclaiming social media at random whilst Joanne Masding’s LED video wall commission, ‘Symbol for a Light’ hinted at the seductiveness of new technology. In contrast, Matthew J Watkins exploration of homemade science fiction effects introduced a more retro technology into the ‘smart city’ space via a series of obsolete overhead projectors.

Back to the Future #2: The Sustainable Town Centre?

The new Longbridge town centre raises a number of questions in relation to how we imagine the future of our town centres, the ecology of the city, sustainable living, mobility and energy usage. Formerly a car factory, the car still reigns supreme in Longbridge. As its new identity becomes that of an out of town shopping complex, the local road infrastructure struggles to cope with the increased volume of traffic. But in looking to the future, we are in some ways looking to the past – the ‘Back to the Future’ of our subtitle. Older methods of negotiating the city, cycling for example, are becoming increasingly popular and the festival presented a number of commissions and special events that imagined the idea of the ‘sustainable town centre’. As part of the festival, the Northfield to Longbridge section of the River Rea cycle route was temporarily illuminated in a lo-fi way and ‘dressed’ by local community groups and schools in response to the science fiction theme. In the wider context of the Birmingham Cycle Revolution and Birmingham Mobility Action Plan, the temporarily illuminated route offered a ‘futuristic’ way of experiencing Longbridge after dark. It also suggested how a permanently lit-up Rea Valley route – from city centre to city edge – might improve our negotiation of a car-centric city. BAZ’s collaboration with students from Turves Green Girls School, saw them constructing a tube carriage from a future fictitious ‘Birmiwoco’ transport network based on the Austin Allegro’s Quartic Steering Wheel. This was powered by the open source ‘litre of light’ eco technology pioneered as a solution to the lack of electricity in the slums of the Philippines. Other alternative uses of light in the town centre included Pitaya’s 0% energy installations, inspired by the red Weed in HG Wells War of the Worlds, which ‘grew’ on street lights along the new High Street and the specially commissioned sculptures in the lantern parade. Built by artist Ruth Claxton, these were coated in retro-reflective paint (activated by light or the flash from a mobile phone), a substance that is currently being incorporated into eco-focused European urban design.

Public Parks & Security Guards

On one of our first site visits to Longbridge, we were exploring the new park when a security guard walked up to us to inquire what we were doing. This was an unusual experience for a public park. But it’s a park that is owned by the developers St Modwen – effectively a private park that the public have access too. Longbridge in its current state is a very managed environment – a space dominated by large corporate brands. The expectation in this space is that you will be a passive consumer (as opposed to an active producer). Across both light festivals, we tried to quietly subvert this in several ways. In 2014, we initiated the Window Display Competition as part of the festival.[6] Co-ordinated by cultural planner Jenny Peevers, the Window Display Competition invited local community groups to create a window display – in a local town centre business window – in response to the festival theme. As such, the competition was an attempt to inject a more anarchic creativity into what is a largely corporate defined space and to find ways in which the town centre’s highly branded shop windows might be temporarily taken over by local people.

[1] WERK is an independent not-for-profit public art organisation established in 2006 by Claire Farrell, Director, Curator and Producer. WERK conceive public art strategies and projects across a range of commissioning contexts – from regeneration and social housing to large-scale experiential interventions.

[2] The light festival also featured an international programme curated by WERK and work from LPAP (Longbridge Public Art Project) artists in residence. This publication focuses on the artists and events commissioned and organised by General Public.

[3] The politics of privately owned public spaces are inherently contradictory yet there were advantages. The lack of local authority regulations ensured a refreshing lack of red tape and bureaucracy. Decisions on whether you could or could not do something were generally swiftly resolved by talking to the developers.

[4] As a wider proposition, the Back to the Future theme also aimed to capture the difficulty that many areas undertaking a process of regeneration face: the need to look to the future, whilst celebrating a past that is vital to the identity of the local community. The artists involved in the wider LPAP project, who also produced work as part of the light festival, addressed the complex political and social context of Longbridge’s past. Stuart Whipps conducted an ‘auto-psy’ as he projected forensic like images of Mini parts in one of the factory’s former tunnels under the Bristol Road, whilst Cathy Wade’s ‘Found Sculptures of Longbridge’ used light to transform local redundant architecture – the three red tanks – into illuminated markers of industry. Likewise, using car parts as her conduit, Aillie Rutherford conducted a series of psychic experiments in both Greenlands Social Club and the new town centre that will ask local people to imagine the future of Longbridge. Anna Schimkat, Moritz Wehrmann and Famed, all artists from Leipzig (a twin city of Birmingham), addressed the social context of Longbridge, perhaps framed by their home city, which like Birmingham has an industrial heritage on a colossal scale. While Morton Underwood’s sound recordings made links to a further city of industry – Detroit – with their light activated feedback machines.

[6] This continued our interest in everyday creativity initiated by the ‘Decorate Your House Competition: Surreal Theme’ we had organised as part of the Balsall Heath Biennale.

[7] We had selected a number of protest orientated pop songs which The Young Pilgrims developed into a score for the night. Several of these offered overt/covert observations on Longbridge. They included ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ by Bob Marley & The Wailers and ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ by Joni Mitchell:

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

[8] Protests had last taken place on this site as workers demonstrated about the closure of the MG Rover car factory in 2005 and loss of 6000 jobs for local people as production was moved to China.

[9] We would like to say a special thank you to teachers Sarah Barton, Nicky Allen and the students of Turves Green Girls School who worked so hard to deliver the 100s of outstanding protest placards that featured in the parade.