Slaughtering the Sacred Cows: a reflection

On Wednesday 11 March, Anna Berry hosted a public conference, Disability Arts: Slaughtering the Sacred Cows at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham as part of her curatorial residency there. Panellists included Aaron Williamson, Aidan Moesby, Trish Wheatley, Sonia Boué, Tom Shakespeare, and Manick Govinda. Sonia Boué gives her reflections on the themes raised. – via Disability Arts Online

Ambition, challenges and slaughtering sacred cows, a year in the life of DASH’s first Curator-in-Residence

Anna Berry’s year-long residency at Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) is the first instalment of DASH’s Curatorial Commissions Programme, pairing disabled curators with mainstream arts organisations. Berry’s residency has culminated in the Art and Social Change exhibition at MAC 11 January – 22 March. Berry along with Deborah Kermode, CEO and Artistic Director, MAC, and curator and mentor Jess Litherland spoke to Disability Arts Online about the process.

https://www.dasharts.org/blog/anna-berry-interview-2.html

Anna Berry, curator-in-residence at Midlands Arts Centre talks about learning the role of curator, touring exhibitons, access and reveals what her curated exhibition will be about.

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/jul/23/supersonic-festival-review-birmingham

By embracing the heaviness in Birmingham’s heritage, and adding a strong dose of eccentricity, Supersonic is world-class. Review by Ben Beaumont-Thomas – via The Guardian

Two new publications launched in the region last week, at events at BLAST! Festival in Sandwell and at Birmingham School of Art respectively, aiming to forefront some of the best photography, art and writing happening in the West Midlands.

Photography for Whom? is edited by Anthony Luvera, with support from Grain and Multistory. Published bi-annually, its focus is upon socially engaged photographic practice. Bringing together past projects with contemporary practice, the publication aims to connect themes and concerns that continue to resonate within the field.

Issue 1 of Photography for Whom?, available to buy online, and in bookshops around the country, features a text by Luvera that situates community photography in grass roots political activism while considering its lack of profile in contemporary accounts of the medium. Heinz Nigg’s article explores the WELD Photography Project (the Westminster Endeavour for Liaison and Development) in Birmingham in the 1970s, while Kieran Connell considers the political nature of community photography. Photographs by Trevor Appleson, John Reardon, Derek Bishton, Brian Homer, many of which have been recently on display at MAC Birmingham, are interspersed throughout the publication.

Forward, a free publication edited by Dion Kitson and Tom Glover, locates critical writing, interviews, poetry and artworks at its core, and is available to buy online or free to pick up in galleries across Birmingham. The editors describe Forward as “your principal port of call for art in the West Midlands: what’s good, who’s good, where’s good … It is the beating heart of art in Birmingham and the West Midlands, celebrating the connection between the region and its cultural output.”

Forward’s inaugural issue features contributions from artists Fred Hubble, Foka Wolf, Abi Mardell and others, and interviews with Ikon Director Jonathan Watkins and drag queen Twiggy. A feature on the elitism of the art world by Charlotte Russell, the painting practice of Annette Pugh written by Ruth Millington, and a playful feature by Kitson that connects a historic Halesowen park and a bench proposed by artist Ian Hamilton Finlay to Saddam Hussain and the ‘Iraqi Super Gun’ are all included in this wide-ranging issue.

Two new publications launched in the region last week – Photography for Whom? and Forward, which aim to forefront some of the best photography, art and writing happening in the West Midlands.

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/jun/23/birmingham-heavy-metal-history-embraced-black-sabbath-one-hell-of-a-city

Vanessa Thorpe reports on Home of Metal, a series of exhibitions and events taking place across multiple West Midlands galleries – via The Observer

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2019/mar/02/taking-a-selfie-1970s-style-in-handsworth-in-pictures

Derek Bishton, Brian Homer and John Reardon’s photography is featured in The Guardian ahead of their upcoming exhibition Mac Birmingham from 23 March – 2 June – via The Guardian

Riverhouse: Kingston, Jamaica 2017 © Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson: From a Small Island

Camilla Brown reviews Birmingham-based Andrew Jackson’s solo exhibition at MAC Birmingham – via Photomonitor

https://artreview.com/reviews/ar_april_2018_review_sahej_rahal/

Fi Churchman reviews Sahej Rahal’s solo show currently on at mac birmingham for Art Review.

Artwork: Bhagwati Prasad from his ongoing series Hashtag Files. Details: #clappingsociety, #deathinsewers, #rightospeech, #thecleanabhiyan, #truthofgorakhpur, #truthofindianeconomy, #UID, #unhumandigestivesystem, #castediscrimination,#unhuamnevolution (Image courtesy the artist)

We speak to curator Meenakshi Thirukode about her platform Instituting Otherwise and her views on unlearning, institutional critique and decolonisation ahead of her participation in Reimagine India: Here, There & Everywhere Summit, at mac birmingham on Friday 23 March.

 

 

Artwork: Bhagwati Prasad from his ongoing series Hashtag Files. Details: #clappingsociety, #deathinsewers, #rightospeech, #thecleanabhiyan, #truthofgorakhpur, #truthofindianeconomy, #UID, #unhumandigestivesystem, #castediscrimination,#unhuamnevolution
(Image courtesy the artist)

 

Can you tell me more about Instituting Otherwise in terms of its beginnings and rationale?

I want to start by acknowledging the naming of my platform which is inspired by concepts developed by cultural producers and workers engaged in a long term research project Future Vocabularies initiated at BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, in 2016 that rethinks arts conceptual lexicon. The naming here is both, a gesture of solidarity with the work of like-minded peers and a process of unlearning. It was when I got a scholarship to attend the summerschool project at BAK in 2017 that a philosophical framework for my practice found an articulation.

I’ve been working within institutions – especially commercial spaces like galleries and a museum, based in the US and in India, over the course of my career. And a lot of my practice was to subvert these spaces in order to confront the ways in which the system works, particularly the relationship of culture and representation to capital as it relates to South Asia. So for me I don’t come from that binary understanding of a center-periphery, but rather from a space of loopholing and finding the glitches within the system (we never really function outside a system) in order to find possibilities and futures of an “otherwise”.

For me the curatorial is a space for that conversation and engagement to take place and holds potential in India. Unfortunately in India ‘curators’ are understood to be exhibition makers or function on an advisory role. To me, it’s a pedagogical space and I want to explore that as a possibility with real stakes in the politics of the country, by working with those outside of the dominant market oriented art world infrastrutures.

 

 

What do you feel the platform provides/offers your curatorial practice?

For me it’s about creating a ‘space’ – an infrastructure, not always a physical one of course, for thinking about political urgencies and its related stakes in the ‘real’ world and the role cultural producers will play in imagining and producing that. That’s what ‘Instituting Otherwise’ can hopefully be a part of. I’ve moved beyond art as something ‘object’ oriented or as a space where we constantly produce and consume – not just aesthetics but also effects like anger and pain and desires.  How does one participate in the world with the kind of knowledges we produce in the political conditions we live in? And I’m trying to create that space so we can figure this out. I don’t have the answers but I hope we can start to ask the right questions, together.

 

Artwork: Bhagwati Prasad from his ongoing series Hashtag Files. Details: #clappingsociety, #deathinsewers, #rightospeech, #thecleanabhiyan, #truthofgorakhpur, #truthofindianeconomy, #UID, #unhumandigestivesystem, #castediscrimination,#unhuamnevolution
(Image courtesy the artist)

 

What are your thoughts on ‘unlearning’ and on institutional critique within the context of mac birmingham’s summit, Reimagine India: Here, There & Everywhere, and its position as a popular arts centre?

I think ‘Institutional Critique’ is a western canon – or at least when we talk of Institutional Critique, it’s a very particular history we refer to that’s seeped into our collective conscious as a dominant narrative. Outside of England, Europe and North America, there were/are a different set of political, socio-economic and cultural histories that are important to look at. Of course that could entail looking at what it meant for artists say from South Asia, living and working with artists in the late 60s and early 70s in America or the UK, might have engaged with. And then how those narratives engage and create a more complex set of relations with how we understand identities, representations and subjectivities today.

Unlearning is perhaps in this particular context, a way to begin setting different frameworks, different variables and starting from an understanding that someone like me is a product of predominantly western academic institutional system – and so I feel like I need to acknowledge that and then start to unlearn all of it via shifting the ‘POV’ from which we view political and art histories.

For all this to happen, mac and the summit become that space I was talking of earlier – by involving me, mac and the Here, There, Everywhere summit, is now a site for asking the right questions, in terms of how I laid it out in my previous answer.

 

 

Artwork: Bhagwati Prasad from his ongoing series Hashtag Files. Details: #clappingsociety, #deathinsewers, #rightospeech, #thecleanabhiyan, #truthofgorakhpur, #truthofindianeconomy, #UID, #unhumandigestivesystem, #castediscrimination,#unhuamnevolution
(Image courtesy the artist)

 

Likewise, can you tell me more about your views and experiences of decolonisation within your practice and what this might mean to a city as culturally diverse as Birmingham?

I’m always learning what that term might mean. I think there’s always a tendency for an over-use of a term or to think of it as a ‘constant’ concept – and we see de-colonisation being used everywhere, when actually some sites and spaces are not necessarily de-colonising. So one has to always understand the precarity of the process, and how these concepts can be co-opted by capital or even far right populist movements.

We need to really think about what we mean by cultural diversity, by the term diaspora and what it means to someone like me, who has lived and worked in many contexts and conditions in the US and in the UK, but is from India and lives and works there now – a choice I made because at some level, these an urgency and stake in my being geographically located in India. So I think there’s an opportunity here at mac and in Birmingham to be able to really complicate the many ways in which we think of cultural diversity and that’s exciting for me.

 


What upcoming projects and research do you have planned?

I’ve been interested in how the curatorial in India can be a space of pedagogy and politics and I’m working to develop my platform ‘Instituting Otherwise’ in that regard. In terms of research I’ve always been interested in lost, erased histories and now the histories of the ‘otherwise’. I’ve been looking at how colonial and imperial imaginaries and histories (not just art but for instance, International Relations and Policy histories) have shaped the way we understand the world outside of the ‘West’ and how ‘culture’ was/is constructed as a means to oppress and marginalise. I’m also interested to continue research around performativity and the political – and particularly looking to work and research alongside those doing work on caste representations in visual and popular culture in India.

Projects around these trajectories of research are taking shape right now, so I will have more information on that in due course!

 

 

Reimagine India: Here, There & Everywhere Summit
Friday 23 Mar | 9.30am for 10am start –  5.30pm | £10*

https://macbirmingham.co.uk/event/reimagine-india-here-there-everywhere-summit
https://institutingotherwise.cargocollective.com/

We speak to curator Meenakshi Thirukode about her platform Instituting Otherwise and her views on unlearning, institutional critique and decolonisation ahead of her participation in Reimagine India: Here, There & Everywhere Summit, at mac birmingham on Friday 23 March.

BrumYODO Woodland

In mid-May, a week-long arts and culture festival, A Matter of Life and Death at mac Birmingham explored death and dying in creative, fun and active ways.

 

BrumYODO Woodland. Photograph Lee Allen

 

Organised by BrumYODO, a community collective made up of artists, funeral directors, health workers, hospices and performers, and coinciding with national Dying Matters Awareness Week, A Matter of Life and Death featured speakers and performers from across the country. It attracted people of all ages to take part in activities, debates and events all aiming to encourage discussion around the sometimes taboo subject of dying.

BrumYODO is named after the Dying Matters Awareness Week 2016 slogan YODO meaning ‘you only die once’. Formed three years ago, the group’s purpose is to encourage the people of Birmingham to think about, talk about and plan for end of life.

Fran Glover, BrumYODO committee member and funeral director with A Natural Undertaking:

“Society generally seems to have a fear of talking about death and dying but our festival has shown that, given the opportunity, people are more than willing to tackle these subjects. Through debating, art activities and events we heard conversations taking place which completely challenged the belief that people don’t want to think about death and dying.

“We also found that very often in these discussions the focus then moved to life and what matters in life. Again and again we came back to the importance of relationships, families and friendship. Considering our own mortality is so important in reminding us to make the most of the time we have with the people who are important.”

BrumYODO, art salon. Photograph Lee Allen

As part of A Matter of Life and Death mac birmingham hosted two exhibitions – Murmuration and Celebrating Life in the Face of Death. Murmuration is a community project in which local artists Jane Thakoordin and Margaret Murray worked with different groups to create handkerchiefs embroidered with messages in different languages and paper birds. Displayed as a swirl or murmuration of birds and lines of handkerchiefs, the piece highlighted the theme of waving goodbye.  During the final weekend, the artists also held workshops for visitors at mac to create their own birds, pictures and mobiles as part of the project.

Celebrating Life in the Face of Death is a photographic exhibition resulting from a competition run by the national charity Dying Matters, which asked for images linked to death, dying or bereavement. Supported by celebrity photographer Rankin, the winning entries have been made into the exhibition which opened in Birmingham and is touring the UK.

Artists were given the opportunity to get creative with the Art Macabre drawing workshop. Models took on the roles of women from Hindu traditions including Kali, the goddess of destruction and rebirth. People were also able to put pen to paper in a writing workshop with Birmingham children’s author Juliet Clare Bell.

Food artist Annabel de Vetten of Conjurer’s Kitchen hosted a Death and Dine evening in which she shared funeral food facts and encouraged the audience to try some new tastes. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery also held an Art of Death Tour which highlighted objects from different periods and cultures related to death. During the weekend, audio art experience, Woodland by French and Motterson, asked people to lie in silence in Cannon Hill Park listening to a recording describing the process by which their bodies would decay into the forest floor.

BrumYODO, willow coffin. Photograph Lee Allen

A market place at mac gave visitors the opportunity to find out more about making funeral plans, hospice care and local charities while also buying arts and artefacts. There was also the chance to take part in a behind-the-scenes visit to Redditch Crematorium and Westall Park Natural Burial Ground.

Visitors were challenged to ask and answer the question ‘what can you do?’ to encourage local communities to be compassionate for people at end of life. Hosted by Birmingham hospices St Mary’s and John Taylor, the event saw community campaigner Tommy Whitelaw sharing the story of his mother Joan’s dementia journey and urging the people of Birmingham to be compassionate for people who are dying.

“We were really pleased with how many people engaged with A Matter of Life and Death both at the events and also online and through social media,” added Fran. “We definitely achieved our aim of opening up the discussion here in Birmingham and beyond. We are very grateful to everyone who helped us make the event so successful and we are already discussing our plans for the coming year.”

For more information see http://brumyodo.org.uk/ and http://www.dyingmatters.org/AwarenessWeek

 

 

A week-long arts and culture festival to explore death and dying in interesting, fun and active ways recently took place. Read more about A Matter of Life and Death at mac birmingham.

Photo: Ray Jacobs

Writer Poppy Noor visited the second Awkward Bastards symposium in March co-produced by DASH, mac birmingham and the Live Art Development Agency. She reflects on the event, as well as questions of diversity and representation.

When I arrive at the Awkward Bastards second symposium I am not sure what to expect. The event, hosting radical artists across two days promises to be one filled with diversity and difference. But as a non-white woman who spent my teenage years living in homeless hostels, I never know what to expect when people say the word ‘diversity’ anymore. It feels like a word that’s always said to me – normally by someone who is middle-class, white, and probably male. But I don’t feel like a particularly ‘diverse’ person, I just feel that I am normal and I want to be represented.

Lewis Davey, an artist who stands for a 5-minute rant at the end of the day, sums this feeling up perfectly and with brilliant humour. He is talking about an American Footballer, who was criticised in the States for not standing when the National Anthem was played

“It’s just some guy’s favourite song.” He retorts. “Trap Queen by Fetty Wap is my favourite song. Imagine if I asked you to stand every time I played it!”

The line is funny because, for those of you who don’t know, Fetty Wap is an African-American rapper who is blind in one eye, has tattoos on his face, and sings about “getting high with [his] baby, and “getting fly with [his] baby.” Just thinking about all of the people that I so frequently see at galleries, with their knee-length skirts and stiff-upper lips having to stand to that song makes me equal measures giddy and uneasy. But of course, he has a broader point: this is what being forced to try to appreciate art that wasn’t made for you is like.

It’s something that Frances Morris, who refers to the Tate as “warm” and “safe” in her keynote speech could do with remembering. When artist Jamila Johnson-Small calls out these comments in a panel discussion for performing “illusory false empathy, which perpetuates erasure” she reminds me that a lack of diversity is about so much more than just being underrepresented. When I go to the Tate, I don’t just feel underrepresented: I feel as if my culture, and the people I grew up around simply didn’t exist at all. The panel brings to light how discussion around diversity in these spaces is so often more than just complacent – it also sustains the narratives that prevent inclusivity from happening.

Photo: Ray Jacobs

Diverse art means the ability to inform and educate. It draws us away from seeing people, multi-faceted as they are, in the singular boxes which mainly act to undermine those who do not fit into the pre-packaged, heterosexual, able-bodied, white form of ‘normal’ that we are constantly fed. But at Awkward Bastards, I realise how we can all too easily fall into the trap of viewing art through the lenses of familiarity and privilege. When artists take to the stage to lament the lack of disabled artists’ works displayed across the country, I realise how little I have questioned the fact that rarely have I seen such art displayed outside of hospital walls and school hallways. “My art is not therapy” says Sarah Watson, a multi-media artist with a learning disability, “If it was therapy, I’d be paying for it. This is my job.”

Trite arguments about simply choosing “the best” artists are ripped to shreds by panellists on the day. One ranter scorns the official artwork commissioned for the Paralympic Games, a colourful drawing of Big Ben by an able-bodied artist from the States. “What does it even represent?” she asks. What’s most shocking about this is how much good quality art could have been commissioned in its place. When I see Sue Austin’s “Deep Sea Diving” installation about life in a wheelchair, it isn’t magical because she’s in a wheelchair. It’s magical because Austin conjures up emotions, insights and sensations in me that I could have never brought up myself. When she presents on how 3D technology could meaningfully bring art to audiences otherwise unable to access it, it is innovative because she speaks from a place of understanding what it is like to have that access so frequently blocked from your life. It’s not the checkbox of diversity that feels good about the event, it is how diversity is facilitating me to understand and think about things in a way that I hadn’t before. Isn’t that what art is supposed to be about, after all?

At the end of the symposium, I think about how I have felt most validated at times when I have felt reflected in art and broader culture. It feels like being written into a story that you long knew you should have been a part of. But reflecting on the performances which came from experiences most different to mine, I realise that reading someone else’s story can, in the end, be so much more interesting than reading your own.

Poppy Noor is a freelance journalist writing on issues around diversity and inequality. She writes regularly for The Guardian and commissions content for their Housing Network. You can view her Guardian bio here or follow her on Twitter.

Writer Poppy Noor visited the second Awkward Bastards symposium in March co-produced by DASH, mac birmingham and the Live Art Development Agency. She reflects on the event, as well as questions of diversity and representation.

As part of a Special Opportunity Award from the New Art West Midlands exhibitions, Katie Hodson, a recent graduate of University of Worcester, is currently undertaking a residency offered by Office for Art, Design and Technology.

Throughout the residency Katie has been developing a new and ambitious body of work which expands upon and continues her sculptural practice and interests in modernist built environments; in particular directly responding to the buildings, plazas and public spaces of Coventry.

On Monday 24 April, there will be an ‘In Conversation’ event with Katie at mac birmingham. The event will feature Katie presenting her research and work produced during the residency and will include a panel discussion exploring themes relevant to her practice which are as broad as modernist architecture, casting techniques, city centre re-developments and working in a site-specific context. Her work is also on display in New Art West Midlands at mac birmingham until 14 May 2017.

You can book your free ticket for the talk via the mac birmingham website here.

‘In Conversation with Katie Hodson. 6pm, Monday 24 April 2017.

 

As part of a Special Opportunity Award from the New Art West Midlands exhibitions, Katie Hodson, a recent graduate of University of Worcester, is currently undertaking a residency offered by Office for Art, Design and Technology. On Monday 24 April, there will be an ‘In Conversation’ event with Katie at mac birmingham.

Anna Berndtson, Self Stress Relief (Performance, 2015). Image Hannah Levy.

Disability, diversity and the institutional gatekeepers of the mainstream.

Ahead of next month’s Awkward Bastards II symposium at mac birmingham, New Art West Midlands’ Director Craig Ashley shares his thoughts in praise of awkwardness and on making a creative case for diversity for our region and beyond.

Anna Berndtson, Self Stress Relief (Performance, 2015). Image Hannah Levy.

On Thursday 12 March 2015 the eagerly anticipated Awkward Bastards symposium arrived at the Midlands Arts Centre (mac) in Birmingham. Commissioned by the Disability Arts organisation DASH to rethink ideas around diversity, the event took place in mac’s main theatre auditorium with accompanying exhibitions and performances happening across the busy public spaces and galleries of the arts centre. With contributions from artists, academics, curators and historians, the programme explored different perspectives on the current state of Disability Arts, and the wider subject of diversity in the mainstream.

In planning the symposium with my co-organiser and collaborator Mike Layward, Director at DASH, we set about foregrounding a conversation about what constitutes the mainstream, and how it is constituted in the realm of the arts and culture. We talked at length about the absence of Disability Arts from the institutionally-shaped canon of artistic movements, and the problems with defining oneself as a disabled artist – the perceived challenges such an association might present, and the possible barriers that may inadvertently be put in place.

At the same time I was developing a retrospective exhibition of the work of the Manchester-based artist Qasim Riza Shaheen, which showed at mac in the autumn of 2014.  The curatorial approach explored ‘awkwardness’ as an alternative critical framework in which to situate a body of work that had been largely classified and typecast as queer.  Awkwardness presented an opportunity to readdress the artist’s work without the baggage of a highly loaded term, and to consider it more in relation to an engagement with the audience – a difficult transaction or encounter within the mainstream, rather than a limited and unchallenging position outside of it.

Awkwardness therefore appealed as an alternative starting point for a symposium tasked with rethinking ideas around diversity.  This shift or transference of focus, from the difference or impairment of the artist to the audience and the passively observed conventions of the mainstream arts experience, was a critical point to locate in the debate.  The social quality of awkwardness seemed to us to be readily aligned with the social model of disability – a recognition that disability is an unhelpful construct of society, rather than an objective diagnosis of psychological, physical or sensory ability relative to the external world in which we live.  Extended to the wider territory of diversity in the arts, and appropriated as a social model for the purpose of this discussion, awkwardness provided the neutral ground upon which to begin a new conversation, one that reflected upon and scrutinised the societally-defined context of the arts environment, alongside the concerns of artists that were centred largely on identity, self-definition and classification.

We felt there was a question around legitimacy that also needed to be framed as part of the conversation, to acknowledge the historical context of exclusion and subsequent civil rights action in Britain during the post-war period.  In his appropriately provocative symposium title, Awkward Bastards, Mike Layward referenced legitimacy, or rather a perception that groups or individuals operating outside of the mainstream were considered in some way illegitimate, or otherwise implicated as bastards by the establishment.

Our public-facing arts organisations and agencies, acting as intermediaries between the artist and the audience, tend also to be the institutional gatekeepers, tastemakers and trendsetters with a significant and collective influence upon the mainstream.  Is it possible, we wondered, to dispel the perceived correlation between legitimacy and the mainstream, or is it necessary to continue to broaden the mainstream to include the last of the outsiders?

For those who had travelled to attend Awkward Bastards from across the UK, as well as the many viewers online who had tuned in to receive the live broadcast, there were perhaps no real surprises amongst the evidence and experiences presented throughout the day.  Speakers echoed time and again the widely-held view that there is still much work to be done in creating equitable opportunities around leadership and access in the arts, as indeed there is across society more generally.

However, despite the familiar and persisting challenges associated with diversity in the cultural industries, the overarching tone of the symposium was a hopeful one.  A shared sense of optimism accompanied the difficult conversations about representation and inclusion, and mainstream arts organisations were positively acknowledged on the whole for continuing their work in beginning to shift the institutional ground in relation to matters of gender, race, class and disability.  Slow though it may be, progress was happening and seen to be happening on a number of fronts.

Referred to frequently on the day was Arts Council England’s Creative Case for Diversity, an initiative that speaks about the need for diversity in the mainstream.  The Creative Case, the shortened name by which it has become known, has located diversity as a strategic goal for each of the 684 arts organisations currently in receipt of regular funding – the National Portfolio Organisations and Major Partner Museums.  Between 2015 and 2018 diversity is firmly cited by Arts Council as ‘a key issue in relation to the programming and audiences, leadership and workforce of all our funded organisations.’[1]

In the introduction to her short presentation about her own personal history of diversity in the arts, connected to the Blk Art Group and the Black arts movement in the UK, the artist and curator Marlene Smith declared her belief in revolution and made the following provocation: ‘It is an open secret that our cultural infrastructure was founded upon and still rests on a tower of elitism. In the UK we cling for dear life to the old order, pay lip service to the notion of change and quake in our boots at the thought and consequences of revolution.’[2]

Whether the Creative Case will be effective in helping to bring about a revolution, and demolish the so-called ‘elitist tower’, remains to be seen.  Clearly it will take some time to measure the impact of the current endeavours in affecting change, and navigate the resistance that it will face.  Nevertheless, the determination of Arts Council and others to address diversity at a national and strategic level is surely a good thing.  From the artists and the artworks commissioned, to staff and the contractors employed, there appears now to be a concerted effort to move beyond a superficial addressing of diversity – a move away from the purely project-based model that would often see activity delivered by and for ‘diverse groups’ in isolation, to an earnest dialogue that recognises the value of a wider set of perspectives and cultural experiences as integral and mutually beneficial.

This is perhaps an overly optimistic note on which to end.  Events such as Awkward Bastards all too often conclude in a positive manner with groups of likeminded people agreeing cheerfully that the world is a slightly better place than it was at the beginning of the day.  As a sector and as a society, we do need to be watchful and vigilant, to be certain that progress continues to be made, but also to ensure that the intricacies and complexities of culture – not just its reductive facets and features – are acknowledged, respected and made visible.  The sentiment of the Japanese author and novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki resonates here. In his 1933 essay In Praise of ShadowsI [3], the reader is invited to consider the nuanced qualities between light and darkness, and to appreciate the subtleties within the shade.  While these passive observations allow us to monitor change from a distance, there is a need for activism and intervention too – and here the merits of awkwardness as a catalyst for change should be recognised and applauded. By taking a position of awkwardness, we are empowered to ask difficult questions, to challenge the legitimate ground where it is assumed or outmoded, and to propose alternative territories for the mainstream.

In Praise of Awkwardness is one of 3 essays featured in The Incorrigibles: Perspectives on Disability Visual Arts in the 20th and 21st Centuries, a new publication from DASH available to purchase here. DASH Director Mike Layward has served on the Advisory Group committee for New Art West Midlands since November 2016.

[1] Arts Council England. 2014. Creative Case for Diversity 2015-18. [Online]. [Accessed 2 June 2016]. Available from: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/

[2] Smith, M. 2015. Rethinking Diversity. [Online]. 12 March, mac (Midlands Arts Centre), Birmingham. Awkward Bastards symposium. DASH and mac. [Accessed 2 June 2016]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2F-uw0yJPpc

[3] Tanizaki, J. 1933. In Praise of Shadows. London: Vintage Classics.

Ahead of next month’s Awkward Bastards II symposium at mac birmingham, Craig Ashley shares thoughts in praise of awkwardness and the creative case for diversity for our region and beyond.

Image by Stephen Burke



Ampersand Projects’ Co-Directors Matt and Kate Andrews and artist Justin Wiggan discuss the aspirations and impacts of Green Lungs, a community-engaged participatory project that took place in Autumn 2016. Working with refugees in Birmingham, Green Lungs sought to highlight the importance of Birmingham’s green spaces to the wellbeing of some of the city’s newest community members. Anneka French finds out more.

Image by Stephen Burke

The Green Lungs project introduced over fifty refugees living in Birmingham to the historic Cannon Hill Park through a series of creative workshops that took place in Autumn 2016, led by artist Justin Wiggan. Many of the participants have recently settled in Birmingham, seeking sanctuary in the city. This project is a symbolic welcome to Birmingham’s green spaces: havens of peace and quiet in the urban, post-industrial landscape.

A key aim of Green Lungs was to build meaningful and prolonged connections with the parks that will hopefully last beyond this project, creating a legacy that participants can share with their family, friends and community. The project culminated in the planting of spring bulbs in a secluded part of the park – a small yet lasting intervention for each individual involved that they can return to next year.

What were Green Lungs’ starting points and aspirations?

AP: When we started discussing setting up Ampersand Projects in late 2015, we knew we wanted to focus on projects that introduced people to the positive impact art and heritage can have on their wellbeing, aspirations and outlook. We also knew that we wanted to work with people who don’t normally encounter art in their everyday lives.

Green Lungs came about through discussions with sound artist Justin Wiggan, who Kate had previously collaborated with on Advance with Feathers, working with patients at St Andrews mental health facility in Stirchley. We knew he was experienced at delivering activities that engage participants irrespective of language, circumstance or background. We have a shared belief that Birmingham’s parks are very special (and endangered) places and we wanted new arrivals to the city to experience them. Justin was also interested in exploring the relationship between nature, sound and memory.

As a new organisation, we were keen that, as Green Lungs is our first project, that it delivered on our aim to enrich people’s lives through contact with artists and green spaces. It was also really important that the project worked well as a pilot; we want Ampersand Projects to deliver sustainable work that can be developed and impactful over several years.

What are the project’s political implications?

AP: From the outset, we didn’t want Green Lungs to be overtly political in nature. Above all, we wanted to create a safe environment for participants to experience and enjoy Cannon Hill Park and encourage them to revisit – it was critical to us that the participants weren’t ever made to feel like they were being used or exploited to push a wider agenda. However, we hope that the project and exhibition reflect the individual voices and humanity of people seeking sanctuary in Birmingham and perhaps shift perceptions around refugees and asylum seekers, if only in a small way.

The legacy of Birmingham’s parks as free, democratic spaces that are for everyone is also important to Green Lungs. Many new arrivals to the city don’t realise that it has so many parks and green spaces, and that they are free. We’re keen to promote just how green Birmingham is as a city in our projects.

What do you feel is the importance of connecting art projects with wellbeing-focused activities?

AP: We believe that people can significantly improve their wellbeing by becoming invested in the public spaces that surround them, such as local green spaces. We feel that we have an opportunity with Ampersand Projects to provide people lasting experiences that will encourage them to see these places differently and take ownership over them. By working with artists such as Justin, our participants have opportunities to have new, creative experiences, draw on their own lives and gain confidence. We feel that we have a responsibility to improve the lives of the communities we work with.

You have a number of partnerships on the project. How did these develop and how were they selected?

AP: Green Lungs is our first project working with refugees and asylum seekers. We worked with the support of St Chad’s Sanctuary who were vital in brokering the relationships with this audience, making this project possible. So much of their work is focused on the vital services needed by those seeking sanctuary: food, clothing, housing and language classes and they were very receptive to us providing this additional experience for their users.

We have built a good relationship with mac birmingham as freelancers over the last few years through Kate’s various Next Gen projects and they were incredibly receptive to our proposal of Green Lungs last year. We were also very grateful to draw on the in depth knowledge of the Park Rangers service, who were a joy to work with. We look forward to continuing to work with their staff in our future projects.

You have worked with a number of young people too. How has this scheme been developed?

AP: For three years Kate has led the Creative Agency project at mac, which was an opportunity for young people to build and learn new skills in all areas of creative arts marketing and audience engagement. For Green Lungs, we worked with mac to recruit five young producers to collaborate with us on the delivery of workshops, documentation, curation and exhibition design. We’re keen to create voluntary and paid opportunities for emerging creative producers in our projects. Through Creative Agency, we’ve seen the positive impact this kind of experience can have on young people embarking on a career in the arts, particularly in securing employment or starting their own projects. The project benefitted hugely from their involvement.

How have you shaped the format and activities of the project?

JW: For me as an artist, what was interesting about Green Lungs is the fact that it allowed the participants to experience being an explorer instead of a tourist. It enabled them to translate their own experiences of the past, present and future by making connections through the workshops with the sky, the horizon and the ground. This also allows the participants to be quite philosophical and make connections with the mind, the eyes and the mouth. These were grouped together by means of association. By allowing participants to see these connections through a series of specifically designed worksheets, we generated collaborative material over a series of workshops and walks.

Working with the participants has impacted on my artistic practice by allowing me to think about their role as more of an active partnership rather than translator. It also challenged my preconception of how ideas, sounds and places can change in meaning because of tiny cultural differences and huge personal experiences but how, in the end, we as humans need the same things – to be loved and respected. 

We all need to reflect on our own current circumstance and situation, and to think about how we approach the current changing climate where more and more people are finding themselves displaced, escaping and lost. The world picture now indicates that everyone needs to rethink their purpose and reaction to other humans. 

The model of the Green Lungs project, is a simple, sustainable model which shows how creative individuals and arts organisations play a very specific role in the integration of the human family.

What opportunities has the project offered for its participants? Have you faced any particular challenges?

AP: Many of our participants find themselves in difficult circumstances; some are still dealing with the trauma and implications of freeing oppressive regimes and leaving family behind. Therefore, their safeguarding was paramount above any artistic outcomes. We were very lucky to have the experience and expertise of St Chad’s Sanctuary to guide us.

We also had to be flexible and allow the workshops to take shape organically, due to changeable circumstances the participants are in, as well as levels of English spoken. We encouraged participants to write and share their experiences of the park in their own language if they were more comfortable.

Although our time with the participants was quite fleeting, St Chad’s have told us that many of the participants have spoken positively about the experience and many were keen to revisit Cannon Hill and their local parks following the workshops. Many of the participants came back for the exhibition launch, which was preceded by the private planting of spring bulbs in a secluded part of the part of the park.

What legacy do you hope Green Lungs has and what are its future plans?

AP: Green Lungs is a pilot project that we hope to grow from this year onward; working with more participants, artists and environmental and outdoor organisations. Long term, we also hope to produce resources that allow Birmingham-based organisations working with refugees and asylum seekers to lead their own arts and heritage activities in parks.

Our wider aspiration for Ampersand Projects for us to build on this area of work, becoming a leading organisation which brings together the arts and the outdoors for the benefit of communities across the West Midlands.




An exhibition featuring sound artworks by Justin Wiggan and documentation of Green Lungs is currently on display at mac birmingham until 28 February 2017. 

Green Lungs is supported by Arts Council England Grants for the Arts and is in partnership with mac birmingham, St Chad’s Sanctuary Birmingham, Birmingham Ranger Service and Birmingham Wellbeing Service.

Ampersand Projects work with communities and artists to create accessible and empowering engagement experiences in public spaces. Based in Birmingham, UK and founded in 2016, they work to improve wellbeing, develop skills and give opportunities for people to create and experience special spaces, enriching art and share heritage.



Ampersand Projects’ Co-Directors Matt and Kate Andrews and artist Justin Wiggan discuss the aspirations and impacts of Green Lungs with Anneka French.