About Town – Video Art in Birmingham’s Southside

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Wednesday night saw the launch of About Town,  a video art exhibition presented by the Hippodrome in collaboration with Ikon Gallery. As its title suggests, the exhibition is spread out across a different urban spaces, all within the Southside area, from the Back-to-Backs and the theatre itself to Hurst Street’s Gallan Car Park. Free of charge, the exhibition is currently open to the public from 4-10pm daily until Sunday 16th November.

Intended to present some of the best in international video art and to provide viewers with a fresh perspective on familiar environments, About Town incorporates work ranging from intimate interviews to large-scale, multi-screen installation pieces. As the Hippodrome’s Chief Executive Stuart Griffiths explained, the exhibition was initially inspired by a visit to La Biennale international art festival in Venice, and the diversity of art on display reflects that of Birmingham itself.

About Town falls within the remit of Hippodrome Plus, the theatre’s continually expanding outdoor and outreach branch that also oversees things like Summer in Southside and the youth ambassador scheme. For Ikon, meanwhile, there was another motivation for getting involved: as the gallery prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, now is a great time to look back over some of the work it had displayed over the years.

Beginning in the Hippodrome’s own Qdos Lounge, Marjolyn Diikman’s Wandering Through the Future takes viewers on a journey through things to come as envisaged in the movies, with a series of film clips arranged chronologically according to their setting, from 2008 through to 802.701. This fun, playful exhibit prompts questions about the things we want and expect from the future.

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Meanwhile, in the foyer, Kelly Mark’s Hiccup #2 shows the Canadian artist sitting in the same position on the steps of the old Birmingham Library at the same time for five consecutive days. The fact that, each day, many of the same people pass her without noticing her performing the same actions calls attention to both the many things we ignore in our daily routines and the monotony of modern life, themes that crop up again in various other exhibits.

Scattered around the theatre are a series of clips entitled Happiness in Mitte, depicting stray cats drinking milk left out by the artist, Adel Abdessemed, in Berlin’s Mitte district. This proved popular among conscious attendees, though the small, inconspicuous screens are easy to miss if you’re not looking for them, leading to parallels being drawn between this and Hiccup #2.

In the Back-to-Backs, a very ‘meta’ piece called Video Times shows the artist, Kevin Atherton, watching television, staring back at viewers from the screen he appears on. The film is accompanied by a magazine containing scripted directions for his actions, printed in the style of a TV listings guide like the Radio Times. Created in 1984, this self-reflexive yet oddly cosy and domestic piece predates not only reality shows like Gogglebox and Big Brother, but also the culture of CCTV surveillance to which we’ve now become accustomed.

Upstairs, Heather and Ivan Morison invite viewers to enjoy the simple pleasures of an English country garden, while next door, a series of fascinating extracts from Cornelia Parker’s interview with Noam Chomsky demand a little more of our time. Santiago Serra’s Person Saying a Phrase deals with the issue of homelessness, another subject that emerges more than once in this exhibition.

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One of About Town‘s most eye-catching and instantly engaging pieces is Birmingham-born Grace Ndiritu’s The Nightingale, showing in Route 2 Havana Car Park opposite Southside’s Nightingale gay club. Her piece explores issues of identity and stereotyping with regards to race and gender, using the simple tool of a red, patterned scarf. By variously becoming, through a series of transformational movements, a headscarf, blindfold, hajib, burka, veil, bandanna, turban, gag and purdah, the scarf playfully references an assortment of different cultures, all present in the multicultural melting pot of the West Midlands.

The exhibition culminates in a sensory feast in Gallan Car Park, where a series of huge installations are displayed side-by-side, surrounding viewers with light and sound. Like Saying a Phrase, Roy Arden’s Citizen tackles the issue of homelessness, showing a young man in the centre of a traffic intersection as seen from a moving car. Like Hiccup #2Citizen also prompts reflection on the things we often fail to see.

Junebum Park’s 1 Parking and Oliver Beer’s Pay and Display are well-suited to the car park setting. The latter features some eerie choral work by Ex Cathedra and some slightly scary, emotionless performances from children: it’s certainly one to hold your attention, as long as you’re not put off by its creepiness! Meanwhile, Yang Zhenzhong’s Let’s Puff places viewers in between two screens, one showing a busy Shanghai Street, the other showing a woman blowing air in sharp bursts. As she exhales, the scene opposite shifts, and we find ourselves thrown into another part of the street.

The most instantly emotive and visceral of the exhibits, however, must be Gillian Wearing’s Broad Street. In this (at times uncomfortably) immersive piece, viewers find themselves ringed about with screens showing club-goers courting, arguing and otherwise interacting in central Birmingham, with lots of alcohol involved. Experiencing this in a dark, chilly car park has the effect of making us feel as though we’re really out at night on Broad Street. Troublingly voyeuristic though strangely fascinating, the installation is sure to inspire a variety of reactions depending on viewers’ own experiences of similar nights out.

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About Town is showing across Southside until Sunday 16th November, from 4-10pm. For more information, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

All images by Mark Rhodes except still from Grace Ndiritu’s The Nightingale.

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Birmingham Literature Festival: 8-12 October 2013

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carol-ann-duffy-portrait-300x199Celebrations in honour of the new Library of Birmingham will continue over the next few days with the return of the similarly re-designed Birmingham Literature Festival (formerly Birmingham Book Festival). To coincide with National Poetry Day, the festival kicks off tomorrow with the announcement of the city’s new poet laureate, alongside readings from previous bearers of the title. Following this, acclaimed poets Carol Ann Duffy and Imtiaz Dharker will be performing their work in the library’s studio.Imtiaz

The festival lasts until 12th October, featuring a whole host of exciting guests including Germaine Greer, Benjamin Zephaniah, Will Self, Shami Chakrabarti, Lionel Shriver, Jonathan Coe and Stuart Maconie, as well an interesting mix of local writers and their work. There will also be a series of writing workshops, covering a whole host of subjects from children’s Germaine-Greer-252x300animation, to poetry in translation, and from sci-fi and horror genre writing to maximising your productivity as a writer. On Sunday 6th October, BBC Radio 4 will be attending, bringing Poetry Please and With Great Pleasure to live Birmingham audiences, with appearances from poets Roger McGough and Paul Farley.

Benjamin-Zephaniah1-for-website-300x225On Wednesday 9th, a group of writers shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize will be reading from their work and answering audience questions in the studio theatre, and on Friday 11th, you can catch a rehearsed reading of Alan Bennett‘s lost television play, Denmark Hill, a black comedy set in South East London. The performance is organised by the Birmingham REP, and will finish with a Q&A session with director Tristram Powell.

Roger-McGough-Poetry-PleaseIf you’re strapped for cash, there are plenty of free events taking place throughout the festival, including the aforementioned Radio 4 recordings. On Sunday 6th, you can join West Midlands storytellers for Tell Me On a Sunday at the Ikon Gallery, and on Tueday 8th, Wednesday 9th and Saturday 12th, you can attend launch events for brand new anthologies of poetry, fiction and art.

will-self-credit-polly-boland-237x300It’s great to see the West Midlands continuing to celebrate arts and culture on both national and local levels. Let’s hope the festival gets as good a turn-out as the Four Squares Weekender!

NB: Look out for me in a bright pink t-shirt if you’re around on Tuesday 8th, Thursday 10th or Friday 11th!

4 Squares Weekender – Free Theatre to Launch the New Library of Birmingham

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If you’ve been following the news this week, you may well have spotted that the new Library of Birmingham was opened on Tuesday by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who survived being shot by the Taliban for championing girls’ rights to education.

Speaking on the day, Malala described books as weapons for beating terrorism, claiming that “the only way to global peace is reading, knowledge and education”. With characteristic eloquence, she went on to explain that,

“Books are precious. Some books travel with you back centuries, others take you into the future. Some take you to the core of your heart and others take you into the universe. […] It is written that a room without books is like a body without a soul. A city without a library is like a graveyard.”

Malala also spoke about the importance of Birmingham as a city, describing it as “the beating heart of England“.

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Following on from this official launch, a weekend of free live performance across Birmingham City Centre will celebrate the library’s opening, beginning at 9.30pm tomorrow with As the World Tipped, a spectacular, aerial outdoor show by Wired Aerial Theatre, set on a huge 12 metre screen against the night sky. Watch this space for updates: I’ll be attending and reporting back on both the show and the media launch beforehand. If you can’t make it tomorrow, the performance will be repeated at 9pm on Saturday.

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Across Saturday and Sunday, you’ll be able to see a diverse range of shows taking place across Birmingham’s Oozells, Centenary, Chamberlain and Victoria Squares, with something for all ages to enjoy. In the words of Peter Knott, Regional Director of Arts Council England, 4 Squares Weekender is, “a spectacular weekend to celebrate arts and culture”, offering “something to suit all tastes”.

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In Oozells Square and Brindleyplace, there’ll be a series of performances and activities organised by mac Birmingham. Inside Ikon’s galleries, there will be music by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, as well as dance from Sampad and contemporary circus by Pif-Paf. Outside, you can take part in family-friendly activities, helping to build a giant city out of clay.

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A musical picnic will take place in Centenary Square, courtesy of Town Hall Symphony Hall, and featuring performances from Birmingham-based saxophonist Soweto Kinch. Meanwhile, inside four converted caravans, the Birmingham REP will be providing impromptu acting and storytelling, and inside the new library itself, there’ll be music from Ex Cathedra and the Birmingham Opera Company.

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TippaIrie2013In Victoria Square, NoFit State Circus will be providing performance and circus skills taster workshops. If you missed them at Summer in Southside, this is a great chance to catch up with their incredible acrobatics, as well as to take part and learn some skills yourself!

Finally, in Chamberlain Square, The Drum’s Simmer Down stage will be hosting a range of reggae, ska, bhangra, sufi and hip-hop music, including performances from Tippa Irie and Musical Youth. Inside the Town Hall, you’ll be able to see dance performances from the Birmingham Royal Ballet and DanceXchange, including opportunities to take part, while the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery will be presenting a full day of film courtesy of Flatpack Festival.

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Said Stuart Griffiths, Chief Executive of the Birmingham Hippodrome, “”Birmingham’s arts organisations offer some of the most vibrant and exciting programmes in the country. We are delighted to come together to welcome the new Library of Birmingham at this incredibly exciting time for our city.”

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If you’re attending, don’t forget to tell us about your experiences on Twitter, using the hashtag #bham4sq. As with the Summer in Southside festival, I’ll be hanging around over both days, so check back here if you’re curious about anything you don’t manage to attend.

Hope to see you there!

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