Back to Birmingham – City of Surrealists

Screening with the brilliant Video Strolls has the added bonus of a chance for a wander round Birmingham. I’ve blown through a couple of times before on tour with Russell Brand but those occasions were restricted to backstage views of venues and a quick dash through the Bull Ring searching for gifts for the family.

The occasion this time was a screening of London Overground at the Flatpack Film Festival and despite my best intentions I arrive with only an hour or so to explore. Instead of searching out new sights/sites I want to pay homage to the Birmingham Surrealists and somehow connect them to Birmingham’s Edwardian arcades.

King Edward House Birmingham

The crowds are out enjoying the sunshine pitching into New Street. There’s something about the architecture that reminds me of Downtown LA, the fading grandeur of former times. Could Ridley Scott save himself a few quid and shoot the next Blade Runner movie in the midlands, bounty hunters pursuing Replicants along the corridors of King Edward House.

Trocadero Birmingham

I stand outside the Trocadero pub in Temple Street, one of the haunts of the Birmingham Surrealists. I know the Kardomah Cafe is nearby but can’t locate the exact location until Andy Howlett takes me back there after the screening to point out the ghost sign still visible above the entrance to Hawkes and Curtis menswear shop.

Emmy Bridgwater Night work is about to commence

Emmy Bridgwater Night Work is About to Commence (1943)

I move on to the Birmingham City Gallery and Museum to find the surrealists there. The entrance is dominated by Jacob Epstein’s bronze statue of Lucifer (1944-45). After touring the galleries I find a painting by Emmy Bridgwater  Night Work is about to commence (1940-43). Bridgwater, born in Edgebaston in 1906,  was a key member of the Birmingham Surrealists along with Conroy Maddox and John Melville. It’s Melville’s Aston Villa that I spot next, painted in the year Villa won the cup, 1956.

The Victoria Birmingham

Time is moving on as it has a habit of doing when you have somewhere to be and I advance to the venue of the screening, a beautiful art deco boozer behind the Alexandra Theatre. The screening is packed and the film seems to go down well in its first outing beyond London. But once again I depart Birmingham vowing to return for more thorough exploration.

 

A People’s Manifesto for the Arts

Last Saturday out on the South Bank with artist Bob and Roberta Smith to create ‘A People’s Manifesto for the Arts’ with passing members of the public. Bob had already written his own manifesto that he intended to harangue politicians with but he wanted to gauge what interest there was amongst the public to advocate for the arts during the election campaign.

Bob passionately defends the Arts and Education – seeing Art as central to free expression and a core component of democracy.

“Before we vote in June’s election we must consider what kind of culture we want to live in.”Bob and Roberta Smith, The Guardian

I’ve heard him point out that tyrannical regimes always target Artists and Writers – and this Tory government has aggressively attacked the arts by withdrawing funding and eroding the place of creative subjects in the school curriculum. If your intention is to create a servile nation of worker drones the last thing you want to do is encourage them to think for themselves. Art and Culture requires you to see the world through your own eyes and encourages you to express your own feelings about the world aroud you.

In the 2015 General Election Bob ran for Parliament against Tory Education Secretary, Michael Gove in the ultra safe seat of Surrey Heath. He ran a spirited campaign which provided a great platform to advocate for the Arts and highlight how Gove’s policies had damaged the teaching of Creative subjects in schools.

“Post-Brexit, we face a dissolution of our museums and galleries comparable in its devastation to that visited on England in the 1530s, as philistine politicians slash budgets. Art schools and the arts in schools will be further diminished in a wave of manufactured disdain for so-called elitists.Bob and Roberta Smith, The Guardian

In a post-Brexit Britain the situation for Art, Culture, and Science looks uncertain so Bob’s campaigning is ever more vital.

You can find out more about Vote Art here

Save the Aldgate Bauhaus

My old alma mater is under threat. London Metropolitan University (formed from a merger between City of London Polytechnic and the Polytechnic of North London) is proposing to close all the sites of the old City Poly campus around Aldgate and relocate all courses to the Holloway Road campus (the old North London Poly).

For me this is basically shutting down my beloved City Poly – where I learnt so much more than Politics. It’s where I formed a (terrible) band and made my first film (ironically about saving Central House – featured in my video above). It’s where my student mates included a 45-year old ex-armed robber, a gay indie pop star, and a retired trade union shop steward. As an 18-year old fresh out of A-Levels I was in the minority with the bulk of the student body made up of ‘non-traditional’ students. The handful of public school kids formed a protective posse before they learnt that the great unwashed were actually quite civilised.

Being in the East End at such a tender age was an education in itself. At night I used to sit and share a can of Tenants Super with the men outside the Salvation Army Hostel. We learnt about the Battle of Cable Street not in the classroom but on Cable Street itself. We munched salt beef bagels and Lamb Balti – all new tastes for my provincial palette.

But this protest isn’t about my memories – it’s about the destruction of a precious historic educational institution in the heart of London’s East End – a University that has strong ties to one of the most under-privileged Boroughs in the country. It will mean the closure of totally unique courses such as the BSc Musical Instrument Making, shown in the video, the only course of its kind in Europe and possibly the world. This will have a profound effect on musical instrument production in Britain.

The Arts subjects taught at The Cass School of Art and Architecture will be crammed into smaller spaces – the unique fusion of Arts disciplines that happens at the Aldgate Building will be lost. It seems crazy to close an Art School in the East End of London – a globally recognised centre of contemporary art – even if you calculate the value of education in purely commercial terms you’d have to recognise what a fantastic asset that is.

Cranes crowd the skyline all around the university. These buildings are prime real estate – they’ll be demolished and tower blocks raised in their place. Where there was an art school will become a block of luxury apartments, where there was the Dept. of Humanities at Calcutta House will become some other form of monstrosity. It is part of the hollowing out of London – the gutting of its life and culture for the sake of a quick return.

Please watch the video and also sign the petition to Save the Cass.

Psychogeographical intervention in the General Election

With the General Election looming it seems an apt time to post this video of an psychogeographical intervention I was invited to stage by artist Bob and Roberta Smith in Michael Gove’s Surrey Heath constituency where Bob is challenging him on May 7th.

Employing an algorithmic derive seemed like a good way to unlock hidden aspects of the principle town in the constituency – Camberley. The Situationists had developed the derive as a form of reconnaissance mission for the eventual transformation of everyday life – in this case it would be launching Bob’s election campaign.

psychogeography algorithm

The algorithm (above) that we used, and the overall idea of algorithmic or Generative Psychogeography was developed by Dutch artists Social Fiction who experimented with the process over the Summer of 2001. I’d used these in a psychogeographical remapping of High Wycombe working with my sister throughout 2004-05 to great effect. What would happen in Surrey Heath?

In their essay, Algorithmic Noise as Free Culture: The Hot Summer of Generative Psychogeography 2002, Social Fiction write of the experience, “Participation in a generative psychogeographical experiment forces you to adopt the characteristics of a machine, you are pushed through streets like an object in almost closed loops which are connected by sudden rushes straight forward.”

Camberley

As the algorithm took us into a series of carparks linked by flytipped alleyways this prediction appeared to be borne out – Camberley was perhaps a perfect ‘generator’ of psychogeography.

The process does come with the warning that, “the algorithm which should be able to produce a walk without navigational friction repeatedly produces more confusion than certainty: the algorithm becomes chaos.” Which certainly seemed to be the case as we crossed and re-crossed roads, and skirted a multi-storey carpark that Bob sketched.

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I had stated that we would follow the algorithm for exactly one hour. Our final turn took us off the main road opposite Sandhurst Military Academy and into the carpark behind Argos. And there at the very end of the derive, dead on 1 hour of walking, we found ourselves outside Camberley’s one and only Art Shop. From the chaos the algorithm had produced the perfect conclusion to the exercise.

Vote Bob for More Art

Alien Invasion of East Village

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How am I supposed to process the latest arrival at East Village. I already feel unnerved by the looming presence of the monolithic blocks – this Mega City One in its infancy then these ‘things’ appear over night like something from an episode of Doctor Who – apparently benign and cheerful but containing an underlying threat of some terrible robot death.

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It seems I am not alone in my fear of this place – whoever was commissioned to create what I suspect is possibly ‘public art’ had a similar reaction.