Balsall Heath Biennale

Derek Horton Essay – Playing with time: the Biennale and Balsall Heath in the ‘seventies

Playing with time: the Biennale and Balsall Heath in the ‘seventies

Derek Horton

Synchronicity appears when you look for it I suppose, but two events occurred whilst I was writing the final draft of this essay that resonated strongly with the ideas and histories that I had been reflecting on. First, a Twitter storm was unleashed by the announcement that a steering group has been formed to commission a new public art work for Birmingham, a group consisting of an uninspiring array of councillors, property developers, marketing executives and the like.[i] They want to spend over £2-million on a permanently sited artwork with what they glibly describe as ‘wow factor’, that must be ‘highly photogenic’, ‘add to the city’s cultural offer’, and ‘generate income through souvenir sales’. While in their public statements they alluded to Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North and Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago, the idea more readily evoked memories of Raymond Mason’s disastrous fibreglass Forward statue on Broad Street, as well as rather happier recollections of King Kong in the Bull Ring. Mason’s monument had a parochial, unambitious drabness that offended many Brummies, whilst Nicholas Monro’s King Kong at least reflected aspects of the city’s famously droll and self-deprecating sense of humour.[ii] Birmingham’s latest ambition towards landmark public sculpture aims higher, but it is a throwback to an idea of art as spectacle and public adornment, the aggrandising display of civic wealth imposed on a city without any real interest in the views or needs of its citizens. Such commissions rarely show any serious understanding of art’s social significance or potential.

The second moment of synchronicity was hearing of Birmingham University’s shockingly reactionary response to student protests in January 2014.  Students were ‘kettled’, arrested, strip-searched and eventually bailed on extremely harsh conditions, and after being subjected to these disproportionate and heavy-handed tactics by the police, were then suspended from their courses by the university management.[iii]  Birmingham University has gone to extraordinary lengths to quell dissent before, a notable example being the blocking of the appointment of Dr Dick Atkinson to the sociology department in 1968.  Atkinson’s exile from the university was the catalyst for the foundation of St Paul’s Community Project in Balsall Heath, which he set up in the late 1960’s with a number of more or less like-minded activists, of whom I was once one.[iv] Since that time St Paul’s has had a continuing influence and expanding presence in the area, so inevitably it was at the forefront of my mind in looking at the Balsall Heath Biennale project and thinking through its relationship to my own history in the area. No one who lives or works in Balsall Heath can avoid encountering St Paul’s and, despite the undoubted commitment and good intentions of many of those involved, not least the indefatigable Dick Atkinson himself, the social values and political ramifications of its pervasive influence on the area and its community remain open to question.[v]

I arrived in Balsall Heath in 1978 to work as a ‘community artist’ at the adventure playground on Malvern Street. In many accounts of the history of Balsall Heath, not least in its own website, the arrival of St Paul’s marked some kind of ‘year-zero’ in self-organisation and community activism in the area. This is not the case, and, although what we knew then as The Venture on Malvern Street came under the St Paul’s umbrella and expanded over the road to a city farm and a sports pitch, it was founded in 1969 by Balsall Heath Community Association, supported by the Cadbury Trust, with Ray Wills as the first playworker. Wills had previously worked with the pioneering Gene Pack, who, with funding from the Save the Children Fund, set up the Sparkbrook Adventure Playground in 1965, one of the first adventure playgrounds in the UK. 1965 was also the year of the first Sparkbrook Carnival, forerunner to the Balsall Heath Carnival, and also largely a product of Gene Pack’s energies.

Children playing with leftover materials on construction sites had inspired C.Th.Sørensen, the Danish landscape architect credited with ‘inventing’ adventure playgrounds, to develop the first playground to involve children as builders, opened in Emdrup, Denmark in 1943. In British inner-cities, bomb-sites left by World War II began by the late 1950’s to be developed as playgrounds by community activists and artists following this radical Scandinavian example. In the 1960’s they became strongly influenced by the DIY counterculture emerging from California, and Lloyd Kahn’s Domebook (1971) and Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogs (1968-72) became virtual ‘bibles’ for many of us.[vi] Central to the philosophy was an ideological and ethical commitment to the idea of freedom, of play unhampered by adult rules, and to children’s capability to engage in a kind of anarchic architecture. They were encouraged to use hand tools and even power tools themselves, with minimal training or intervention by adults to ensure their safety, in order to self-build an environment that they could determine and control.

Architecture, even of this anarchic sort, is always determined by available space, and I arrived at Malvern Street from Hockley Port, which then was probably the largest adventure playground in the UK, run at the time by Chris Robinson, an authentic just-back-from-India hippy who lived on a canal boat, and the playground was also loosely connected with Peter Houghton’s Birmingham Settlement, which in turn provided a home for the original Birmingham Arts Lab in Tower Street, Newtown.[vii] My move was the adventure playground equivalent of moving from Los Angeles to Manhattan, the tiny parcel of land on Malvern Street forcing us to build upwards rather than outwards. By 1980, structures of scaffold planks and telegraph poles towered over the rooftop of the Railway Inn at the corner of Malvern Street and Clifton Road, in a way impossible to imagine in the over-regulated and health & safety-dominated world of 21st century recreational space.

From these anecdotal recollections, the reader may begin to realise that the invitation from Chris Poolman and Elizabeth Rowe to contribute to the documentation of their Balsall Heath Biennale project proved irresistable. It immediately sparked connections between my own history in Balsall Heath and their experience thirty-five years later, including the extent to which certain things had not changed as much as one would have expected or might have hoped. It also provoked a reflection on the similarities and differences between what the terms ‘community arts’, or ‘socially engaged practice’, or ‘arts activism’, might mean and how artists now might react to such ideas and strategies compared with their counterparts in the 1960’s and 70’s. All these terms are historically contingent of course, and Nicolas Bourriaud’s notion of ‘relational aesthetics’ is another one that now has to be added, and may even be seen to encompass in some way many of the earlier ones.

In the ever-changing but always opaque vocabulary of artspeak, the language of arts administrators, curators and theorists, ’public art’ and ‘community arts’ are now more often referred to as ‘art in the public realm’. Hidden behind these semantics are some ideological problems. The term ‘realm’ is based in the concept and language of ‘rule’, deriving from the Latin regalimen or regalis, of or belonging to a rex (king). A ‘realm’ then is the dominion of a king or queen, although used more widely now to refer to a domain under a specific person or organisation’s control. Most so-called ‘public’ space remains in state or private ownership and is therefore almost always controlled and regulated by institutional bureaucracies or commercial interests. To imply, as the term ‘public realm’ does, that the public somehow ‘rules’ or even has any significant control over their domain is a piece of Orwellian doublespeak with which art merely colludes if it so defines the spaces in which it might be sited. Artists working within identifiably public spaces need to take some responsibility for contesting rather than merely complying with the dominant understandings of how such space should be organized and controlled. Balsall Heath is a place in which the local community’s attempts to wrest some control over its own space have a long history (in which my own involvement began, as I have described, around thirty-five years ago at Malvern Street Adventure Playground), and the Balsall Heath Biennale has now created its own place in that history.

Some time ago, I sat in a Spanish café watching a young man sporting a hoodie and a spray can putting the finishing touches to his extensive (and quite skilful) tagging of an Eduardo Chillida sculpture sited on the waterfront. This caused me to reflect on whether I was looking at one work of ‘public art’ or two, and the experience reminded me of Lawrence Alloway’s somewhat ironic ‘laws’ of public sculpture which are: (1) If a work can be reached it will be defaced; and (2) If such damage reduces the level of ‘information’ conveyed by the work, it was not a genuinely ‘public’ work to start with.[viii]

Alloway was an English critic who became much more at home in Los Angeles and, nearly forty years ago now, had some very prescient things to say about those approaches to public art that assume it should be object-centred. He argued that this “prevented artists from contributing to the formation of the urban continuum”, which he suggested was “characterised by continuous flow and replacement” rather than by the “monumentality” to which too much public art aspires.[ix] For art to enter the public domain is for it to take its place in the entire landscape of everyday life, shaped by its architecture, technology, commercial and popular culture, and by the speed of its change and the contradictory permanence and entropy of its infrastructure. It is also of course for it to open itself up to appropriation by civic or corporate vested interests. Like it or not, art that enters the ring with the capitalist spectacle of corporate and civic architecture, high-tech multi-media entertainment environments and commodified cultural experience always runs the risk of ending up as a marginal if not virtually invisible intervention.

Ironically however, this might actually be the source of its strength. Humility can overcome hubris, and art that recognises and celebrates its own frailty has more to offer than art that asserts its objecthood and seeks to fight it out in a massively uneven contest. Overcoming a view of art as a fundamentally material practice, in which objects and spectacle are privileged, results in a more radical potential. It opens up the possibility for art practices in which the social is the form as well as the content, where social interaction is the methodology, and where artists work with people as much as with things and materials.

With considerable foresight, Alloway, observed that, “the production of public art is not compatible with the narrow base in which the artist retains for himself the role of exclusive donor of meaning. What is needed, maybe, is an art that has to do with the formation of idioms.”[x] Public art, he argued “requires nothing less than a realignment of the art / public relationship”.[xi] In this context a socially engaged art practice might adopt a more micro-cultural approach, rejecting the use of public space as merely a different and theoretically more accessible site for art’s location, in favour of developing strategies through which to intervene in the private experience of the public.

Chris Poolman and Elizabeth Rowe’s Balsall Heath Biennale has in many ways been a model of this kind of strategic micro-cultural approach. It has been the opposite, and as such a welcome antidote, to most current attempts at engaging the public with art in a way that goes beyond the institutions of art’s promulgation and display. They were not parachuted into the community with which their art practice sought to engage, they have lived in it for years and been committed to it as citizens and residents as well as artists over an extended period. Then, having committed themselves to engaging with their own community as artists, they have done so consistently, including when times get tough, in ways that many artists are not willing to do and funders are rarely able to ensure.

The contemporary public art commissioning organisation Situations provides a good example of more imaginative ideas of what public art can be and where and when it can take place.[xii] It has developed a set of New Rules Of Public Art, worth listing here in full:

·       It doesn’t have to look like art.

·       It’s not forever.

·       Create space for the unplanned.

·       Don’t make it for a community, create a community.

·       Withdraw from the cultural arms race.

·       Demand more than fireworks.

·       Don’t embellish, interrupt.

·       Share ownership freely, but authorship wisely.

·       Welcome outsiders.

·       Don’t waste time on definitions.

·       Suspend your disbelief.

·       Get lost (down unexpected paths as the work unfolds).

This is an approach that has a great deal in common with the best and most radical ‘community arts’ practice of the 60’s and 70’s and with the principles that informed the adventure playgrounds movement. It embodies a philosophy that bridges the thirty and more years between Poolman and Rowe’s time in Balsall Heath and my own.

The idea that art can take any form or mode of encounter, that it’s not about permanence, that it involves an evolving and responsive engagement with a community over time, and even the creation of new communities within that community, are all principles that have been very much in evidence in the Balsall Heath Biennale, where the ‘encounters’ have included street parties, temporary sculptural interventions on house frontages, a gallery for cats to interact with artworks, competitions, an A-Z encyclopedia of Balsall Heath, a newspaper and a temporary art school.

The need to create space for the unplanned and a recognition that artworks arrive through a series of accidents, failures and experiments, is what means that public art projects take time. Poolman and Rowe have playfully turned the term ‘biennale’ on its head, taking a word that in the art world normally describes a big event that occurs every two years, and using it to name a project that lasts for two years, generating many small events throughout that time. The two years of the Balsall Heath Biennale have allowed for moments of uncertainty and opportunities for rethinking wherein the artwork comes into focus, and for responses to and developments from artworks to unfold over time and be open to the potential for unforeseen things to happen. One of the unique strengths of Poolman and Rowe’s approach has been their long-term commitment to the two-year project in ways that mean that the distinction between ‘the project’ and the practice of their everyday life in their local community in Balsall Heath is at least blurred and mostly not even apparent.

In recent years there has been a massive renewal of interest in the art of the 1960’s and 70’s. The rediscovery by new generations of artists of the significance of such as Robert Smithson, Gordon Matta-Clark, Vito Acconci and Bas Jan Ader has contributed to this. So too have exhibitions such as the complete re-creation by Germano Celant and Rem Koolhaas at the 2013 Venice Biennale of Harold Szeeman’s 1969 exhibition, Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form. Likewise many other shows by young curators for whom the period is historically recovered rather than remembered. The curatorial strategy of London’s Raven Row Gallery for example, in various recent exhibitions documenting and reframing the work of Eduardo Paolozzi, the Artists’ Placement Group, Stephen Willats, and various 60’s artists influenced by psychedelia, has brought some radical work to the attention of a new generation, but it has done so within a deeply conservative and academicised framework that strips the work of its power and social significance. Jeremy Deller’s appropriations of working class cultural life and theatricalisation of class conflict have a similar effect, by counteracting the oppositional aspects of their content with the complicit form of their reinvention as spectacle. Reconstructing events such as the Battle of Orgreave in the 1984 miners’ strike, taking them out of the realm of history and into the realm of art is a banal and inconsequential political gesture. What results from these reenactments is merely pastiche, an aestheticisation of history that trivialises reality.[xiii]

The capacity of capitalism and its attendant political and cultural institutions to generate and absorb change, to incorporate and thereby nullify challenges and cancel out alternatives, to appropriate countercultures and commodify them, is frightening in its simultaneous power and invisibility. It is all-encompassing and yet so embedded in our everyday experience as to go unnoticed. My reflections on Balsall Heath and on the nature of so-called ‘public’ art both provide examples of the ways in which radical alternatives can so easily end up as the orthodox consensus they set out to oppose. These conservative forces can only be challenged and exposed to view by a constant renewal of humble attempts to take the small actions that individuals are capable of, seeking to effect small changes in the everyday experience of their immediate environment and closest neighbours. Chris Poolman and Elizabeth Rowe have attempted exactly this through the Balsall Heath Biennale, recalling the spirit of optimism and collaboration that has deep roots in Balsall Heath through an art practice that is unassuming in its manifestation but ambitious in its social motivation.


[i] ‘Steering group begins search for world-famous piece of public art in Birmingham’, The Birmingham Post, 29 January 2014. One of many tweets described this as evidence of the city’s “ignorance and conscientious stupidity”.
[ii] Mason’s crudely illustrative Forward, installed in 1991, was dubbed the Lurpak statue, owing to the buttery colour of its polyester resin material. Never popular, it was destroyed by arsonists in 2003. Monro’s King Kong, commissioned by the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation and the Arts Council, was briefly installed in Manzoni Gardens next to the Bull Ring, to mixed reactions, but the City Council soon lost their nerve and sold it to a second-hand car dealer who displayed it at his sales lot in Camp Hill, but it was later used to advertise a different car dealership in Balsall Heath, near the junction of Clifton Road and Ladypool Road.
[iv] Space does not permit a description of their contribution and their support for me, but I am immensely grateful to my former colleagues at St Paul’s, without whom this would not have been written: John Boulton, John Butcher, Carol Fulwood, Claudette Kanagalingam, Es Rosen, Dave Swingle, Kim Sutcliffe, Mick Turner, Sandra Uddin. And Mick at the Railway, Tim and Mary at the Old Mo’ and Joe at Saleem’s, who sustained us all!
[v] After its radical beginnings in the theories expounded by Atkinson in his 1972 book, Orthodox Consensus and Radical Alternative, Atkinson’s own position and that of the St Paul’s organisation took an increasingly rightward shift. More recent books, such as Cities of Pride: Rebuilding Communities, Refocusing Government (1995), Towards Self-Governing Schools (1997), and Urban Renaissance: A Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal and the Welfare Society (2000), have all been influential on and openly cited by both New Labour and Tory politicians, including having influenced both David Cameron’s ‘big society’ policy, and Michael Gove’s ‘free school’ agenda. Tom King as Thatcher’s environment secretary was an early visitor to St Paul’s, followed by amongst others, David Blunkett, Alistair Burt (who can be seen on YouTube talking about “learning from Dick Atkinson”) and David Cameron himself.  Atkinson and St Pauls’ active involvement in setting up vigilante groups organised by residents and local mosques in a “clean-up” campaign to drive prostitution from the area in the 1990’s was another example of Atkinson’s controversial strategies, articulately criticised by Nick Cohen in a New Statesman article in 2000.
[vi] Two of the best illustrations of the impressive scale of adventure playgrounds in the 60’s and 70’s, and the extent of the active involvement of children with them, are Jack Lambert and Jenny Pearson’s book, Adventure Playgrounds (Penguin Books, 1974) and the BBC television documentary, This is Our Playground, 1969, which can be found on YouTube.
[vii] Of the same generation and from similar starting points, Peter Houghton and Dick Atkinson ended up running very different organisations. Houghton’s Birmingham Settlement ran Britain’s first money advice centre, offered support to troubled adolescents, and was in many ways a more radical and democratic organisation than Dick Atkinson’s St Paul’s Project and Balsall Heath Forum. The Arts Lab was an experimental arts centre and artist collective from 1968 to 1982 providing an arts and performance space dedicated to radical research into art and creativity, described by The Guardian in 1997 as, “one of the emblematic institutions of the 1960’s. It moved from the Birmingham Settlement’s Tower Street site to Gosta Green in 1977.
[viii] Lawrence Alloway, The Public Sculpture Problem, in Studio International 184 (October 1972), reprinted in Lawrence Alloway, Topics in American Art Since 1945, New York: W.W.Norton & Co, 1975 (p.248).
[ix] Alloway, 1975, op cit (p.246).
[x] Alloway, 1975, op cit (p.246).
[xi] Alloway, 1975, op cit (p.249).
[xii] Situations is based in Bristol and was founded by Claire Doherty, previously a curator at Ikon in Birmingham and FACT in Liverpool.
[xiii] Adorno’s observation in his essay Commitment, addressing so-called committed art, is apposite here: “For the sake of political commitment, political reality is trivialized.” (Theodor Adorno, Commitment, 1962. Reprinted in New Left Review, vol.1, nos.87-88, September-December 1974).