i n t e r v e n t i o n
1st February 2002.
(Click on any image for a larger version)
There is still time -- time before 6pm on Friday 1st February 2002. Still time before five houses on Westminster Road, Handsworth will be demolished. Still time before the crowds will arrive out of the dankest & dullest and most miserable day Birmingham has ever seen. Lights peep out from boarded-up windows into the growing darkness. Peter Hatfield's scrap-iron astrolabe stands silhouetted against what remains of the light. Welcome to Intervention - one local builder, five demolition-bound houses, hundreds of volunteers, over 60 local and international artists showing new work.
Finding the fairy-light 'En Trance', down the rabbit-hole I go -- under the houses through a brick tunnel, past a ghostly cellar-door and up and out into a world in which stillness and time are in very short supply. Kitchens need to be set up, vital equipment found, sonics switched on, a final lick of paint placed here and there. Harpo Marx's long lost cousin starts playing speedy chopsticks on the upright piano. A percussion of last-minute hammers can be heard. If a white rabbit were to run past, muttering "I'm late!", I wouldn't be surprised. Alice would have felt at home.
The stage is still bare. DEEP may or may not perform later - the gale force winds have meant the sheeting has had to be taken off the stage, leaving it open to the elements. The February rain keeps off, for now. Above the stage a face grimaces. It's a little like the 1960s clocks you see in charity shops; except this is four-feet wide and the surround is made from razor-wire. Around the back of the stage, benders and shacks loom in the light of a campfire. There's a garden out there, where trees have been painted & children have made art; but it's too dark & windy now too photograph. One artist says "I'm not going to even try to see everybody's work tonight, I'll come back in the daytime". I can see already that this is a show that really needs at least three visits. Another artist says she hopes the south Birmingham/Moseley creatives will - for once in their lives - venture up into north Birmingham and see Intervention.
Builder Dave Pollard has gathered about him a group of international artists loosely named the Sozo Collective, plus It's About Time Productions and others. "Before this I did Alchemy," says Dave "which was a show which transformed one house. This is five houses and... well, it's been manic, but the end result is that it's changing people's lives." Alchemy meant Dave found many local artists who work outside the beggarly funding-system, and because Alchemy was done in such an open way, local people saw how it might be possible for them to make real art for the first time. When he approached Midlands Area Housing Association to do a bigger Alchemy they said yes, Sozo Collective took over the houses and the unique event that is Intervention was born.
Dave Pollard, right.
The Intervention philosophy is summed up by the original new wall-poem by Handsworth poet & poet-in-residence Naomi Paul, which talks of 'new foundations laid'. The poem greets people as they enter the houses. Intervention is based on genuine ideals and energy, on a sense of fun. It's not about ticking off boxes on a form.
We draw the shadow house
paint the dream space
I step inside. I meet Louis Campbell in the kitchen, who's a singer and a key man in the local gig scene, and has been heavily involved in the organisation. I sus out where the only toilet is, and where the private area of the house is - one of the empty houses still had a resident in when Dave opened the houses up. Old Mr. Harris and his dog Ed been allowed to stay on, sheltering from the winter. Then it's on up the stairs...
... or is it? One of the first large-scale works to greet me is Dave Pollard's own surreal disabled staircases, complete with a water-pipe dribbling water from the third floor down to the basement. A premonition of the demolition to come, when these houses are flattened at the end of the show, while also evoking the bomb-damage of the Blitz. When opening up the houses, inscriptions dating from 1940 were found on the walls of the cellar. These recorded that their authors were suffering the war's heaviest bombing to date. No-one knows what became of those who wrote the inscriptions. It is perhaps ironic that the skies above Intervention are today dark in more ways than one - for today President Bush has announced a $48 billion defence build-up to pro-actively beat terrorism. We are once again at war - a world war, in which Birmingham civilians are once again targets.
Nigel & Sabine, Sabine in her installation.
I meet my friends Nigel Amson & Sabine Gollner. They both have work showing here, and together they've been making a film of the creation of Intervention. I buy a catalogue. Despite generous sponsorship and in-kind help from companies and trusts, I doubt Intervention will make money. Someone tells me that, "West Midlands Arts told us we might get some funding, but it wouldn't be much and it might take three or four months before we got the cheque. They're going to be abolished in April anyway, but it'll just be another bloody quango in there". Few here have a good word to say about West Midlands Arts or the conventional curated public-funded gallery system. Intervention is rooted in a different, DIY, world-view. A world that is profoundly discontented with the percieved failure of big organisations to deliver small goods - even when thrown billions of Lottery & Millenium money.
Nigel's audio work is about to start un-nerving people in the spooky cellar which people pass when coming down the tunnel-entrance. It's one of many works here which play upon the loose theme of ghosts/spirits; and the traces of cultural memory that haunt old houses - embedded in the left-behind things like the colour and pattern of the wallpaper, the choice of fittings, the decades-old newspapers hidden beneath floorboards.
My aunt lived in a house much like these, just around the corner in Willmore Road. In the early years of their marriage my parents lodged with her. Many features of the Intervention houses remind me of that old home.
Diane Taylor's starched 1940s-style dress - made from curtain slats - revolves slowly in the bay window, glimpsed from outside through castle-like slits in the boards, evoking English respectability and 'keeping up appearances'. Julian Bull's television 'engine' the size of a fridge seems to watch the watcher. Led by first-floor installations (like the one from Alisha Miller) to look out of window, children from the neighbourhood feel the dual frisson of "insideness" and yet conscious that they must appear like ghosts to those outside.
Sabine Gollner's work takes on a first-floor bathroom. The sands of time have silted up the washbowl. Plaster-cast hands are frozen in the process of washing each other. There is crystalline ice in the bath. A nude plaster-cast torso hangs on the wall, as if it were a towel drying. When seem alongside these, we're reminded that the cold white flowing ceramic of the bowl echoes an austere world of classical sculpture.
Amid Martin de Sey's dynamic pop-art paintings hangs a single white-painted "readymade" light-bulb. Fragile and sealed, set against a water-stained ceiling, it will never be used again. It doesn't blink on and off, so is not likely to win the Turner Prize. But in terms of encapsulating the nature of the houses and the show, it works.
Handsworth photographer Vanley Burke has made a man's jacket which is papered with page after page from an Empire-era encyclopedia, evoking the time when some of the houses were used as lodging houses for Irish labourers and then for Caribbean immigrants. The jacket twirls and spins in the breeze from the storm outside.
Nigel Amson has a room of photo collages; long strips of photos making unbroken but slightly dislocated panoramas. I point out that Nigel's work has an odd syncronetic 'double' on the front-page of today's Birmingham Post. The newspaper doesn't mention Intervention but does display city-boss Albert Bore's full-colour isometric vision of transforming Digbeth into a £6-billion 'Eastside' development, on a scale of which Stalin would have been proud.
At the top of a real staircase I meet Hunt Emerson, Birmingham's best-known and most-loved cartoonist. He's made the observatory at the top corner of the house, celebrating the history of star-gazing and astronomy. He's going to take a week to recover from the show, he tells me, but likes my idea of doing an interview by e-mail sometime.
In the garden and around the house are several mysterious 'guardian figures'. These are difficult to photograph because of their size. Alienation by Spencer Jenkins is excellent; a giant organic pod-branch creature of which you can just see the head in the photo below, as it was lurking in a tiny alcove. Fearsome, but perhaps best seen as 'house guardians' keeping the bad-vibes weather at bay.
As well as the domestic and 'home', Intervention also strongly reflects the dissenting/evangelical/Irish-catholic Christian traditions which have shaped Birmingham over the centuries, as well as newer forms of Christianity. This is rare, in a society in which the media tells us that "nobody believes in anything much".
Graham Higgins draws out the homo-erotic in Christian iconography. Rich Hindu fabrics and bejewelled shoes bestrew a corridor, and suggests an entrance to a private shrine. Delanea Morrison uses bold Ethiopian Christian iconography. A Victorian fireplace becomes a smoke-breathing household genus loci. Brughel-esque Medievalist saints scowl and scheme. A window-frame made into a painting-object points up the blood-fetish in the rituals of the world's religions. There's even a small Krishna centre in one room.
Some work hints at an even deeper aeon-long memory of 'home', half-remembered from the 100,000-generation dreamtime of the paleolithic hunter-gathers. The people who lived in these houses for a mere three generations may have felt secure in the light of modern science; but the price they paid was to be bereft of terrority, animals, tribe, shorn of access to the the deep 'lived' mythological structures that such a life enabled.
Iris Bertz (centre)
Hunt Emerson's Observatory work references the stars and cosmology, and the active naming and mythologising of the heavens by man, one of the first creative activities. Iris Bertz's attic room of woven-willow references corracles (ancient early boats), the pods and shells and temporary structures of a hunter-gatherer life. Delanea Morrison mocks up a rear bay window as a simple hut. Parminder Singh Jutla scratches up the walls of a toilet with Lascaux-like figures making sweet love.
Alisha Millar also 'looks back'; but she examines the pre-history of personhood and so uses the birth channel as a form. Alisha has literally transformed her room beyond recognition. "I wanted to get rid of a lot of the space," she says, and squeeze people into a really narrow channel. An organic door leads into a corridor which curves up to the window, past bendy curved fibre-boards ribbed with lines of coloured vinyl. Cost has been a factor for her, as with many other artists. "It had to be cheap, or free," she says. "I saw these huge sheets of fibreboard and I knew I had to use them."
Somewhere in Intervention there is a story-telling room for children with only a child-sized door, but perhaps I've walked past it without noticing. An American tells me that perhaps this is an apt metaphor for 'your British grants culture' in which people think 'you have to get the money first' - arts managers simply can't 'see' any artist who has given up on accessing dribs & drabs of state funding and have 'gone their own way with their own ideas and resources'. He gestures around him to indicate he means Intervention.
Herbert Walters, 'H'.
Upstairs I find Herbert Walters spraying a flower black; it's the final finishing touch to his stable-gated pristine room. I'm kindly allowed to take the first photo of it. Although modern, the room also references the distance from nature, the "too clean" nature of modern living. His work is matched in style, though not in colour, by the angular paintings of Martin de Sey along the landing.
On the landing, outside H's black & white room, are five wonderfully composed flower-photos by a Japanese last-minute artist whose name doesn't appear on the Intervention map. I'm told she has been studying Japanese flower composition for seven years.
Emma Shinybeetle peers at me through the dim red light, still tinkering under her mini-stage and readying her solo performance in her beautiful room. Above the stage a video screen flickers within plush Valentine's-card drapery. These houses must have been home once to numerous vases of flowers, romances, springtimes; home to 'bedding down' in many senses.
Balancing between Ikea sofa, ikon of modern motherhood and the balls of the Cerne Abbas giant is Helen Grundy. The sofa-object is both breasts and balls at the same time, surrounded by mini egg-breasts and studded with nipple-phallus prongs. A strong - and strongly curious - work which references the domestic sofa to the bodily activities that happen there; lovemaking, wet-nursing and more.
Upstairs there's a male counterpart to Helen's work. John Lupton has a sort of artistic version of a "boy's attic room". Punk plays on the soundtrack, the wall is covered in precisely-spaced photographs from the artist's life, including the iconic pop-culture figures who have influenced him. Slug/phallus-like tubes hang in nets of pulsing lights. The work is both a celebration and a purging, on reaching the age of 40.
The photography in Intervention is particularly to my liking, mostly quite simple and well composed, mostly black & white or sepia; except for the Japanese flowers and Sue Green's bright but rather cliched photo-series of Handsworth Carnival.
There are very few interactive new-media works, and not a computer monitor in sight - but International Wierdos (aka oscillate) lurk in the basement, doing strange un-photographical things with oscillations, modulations and mirrors.
Some of the work in Intervention touches on the voyeurism of being in what was "someone's house". Dominic Stringer's large photo of a young girl is displayed in a small bath/shower sized space, and is cut up into shower-like tiles. Sabine Gollner poises hundreds of domestic lotions and potions above a pristine icy bath, each semi-hidden in a plastic pocket, inviting the viewer to pry. Parminder Singh Jutla scratches kissing couples and flowing scenes of lovemaking into a small blue-painted cubby-hole. Spaces have been knocked through, enabling glimpses into other rooms.
American Wayne Bartlett has just flown in from New York - he's a founder Sozo member and was involved in their earlier Alchemy exhibition in Handsworth - and is still hard at work. At present he has his work sketched out 'in rough' on the walls.
Wayne tells me "I'm fascinated by the area's housing, and by the perspectives of the streets, and the tension between the outside and the inside. The vanishing points, and the similarity of the houses." In his room he's bringing the outside inside, via Nigel Amson's method of stitching photos together to make panoramas. But he's using them to draw on the walls an accurate 360-degree panorama of exactly what you'll see around you when the demolition cranes have taken the walls down.
The centre-piece of Intervention is literally the centre. Plunging through three floors in the centre of the building from the roof to the floor. An empty 18th-century slave ship, its emptyness full of meaning when set in Handsworth. Faithfully recreated in life-size by MA student Pauline Bailey. "It was an easy choice," says Pauline. "I saw the space and I knew what needed to be there. The work was technically complex but I think I had it easier than many of the others - I didn't have to agonise over the idea. This is ancestral worship, paying homage to those who have gone before and who enable me to be here now". Her huge subtly-lit work - shackles, votive candles, huge beams and decks, rigging - can't easily be photographed or even described. You really have to see it to appreciate it and be moved by it.
Equally poigniant is a far less realised work, left unfinished on the ground floor - by an artist of whom, I'm told, "he came and did a bit, but hasn't been seen for weeks". Fragments nevertheless suggest an engagment with the building and with 'home'; a transparent painted cut-out holds a model house. A wall is carved with a leaf, continuing the theme of the found wallpaper. A window has a single wavering streak of spray-paint. Dave Pollard's open-access policy meant no-one who wanted to show work was refused. It hasn't always paid off, but has largely succeeded. As Dave says, "it's about changing people's lives". And to do that you need to be open, to take real risks.
Vanley Burke, best known as a Handsworth photographer, contributes some especially expressive mask-style paintings of faces.
Down in the scullery/kitchen, American artist Llyn Jedamec (e=mc2, New York) has etched scenes of domestic work & sweat-shop sewing, in kitchen-stove charcoal, directly onto the walls.
All of a sudden the artists seem quite happy to relax. Nothing more can be done. All Intervention needs now is people, an audience.
The crowds arrive slowly out of the murk. High winds and heavy rain crash across the West Midlands, but soon there are hundreds here. My digital camera's battery has expired, the corridors and rooms of the houses become far too crowded to take pictures anyway. Imagine it. Imagine Birmingham having the guts and the energy to wrench itself free of the traditional subservience to the funded gallery system. Imagine artists starting to do it for ourselves. DIY.
Target by Julian Bull. Darts embedded perfectly
into a Birmingham City Council logo, each dart bearing
on its fins the face of an Intervention artist.
i n t e r v e n t i o n runs until about 22nd February 2002.
103 Westminster Road, Handsworth, Birmingham.
This web-page is only a partial taster - you really do need to visit!
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