Occupy White Walls: democratising art at Birmingham Museums

Linda Spurdle, Digital Development Manager at Birmingham Museums Trust, and Yarden Yaroshevski, CEO and founder of games creator StikiPixels, discuss Occupy White Walls (OWW), which draws hundreds of artworks from the museums’ collections into a game centring on a virtual art gallery – via Blooloop.


Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah, joint chief executives of Birmingham Museums Trust on leadership, breaking barriers and job-sharing in a crisis – via The Museums Association.


Read about Farwa Moledina’s ‘Not Your Fantasy I’, recently acquired by Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and currently on display. Recent graduate Farwa was selected for New Art West Midlands x Coventry Biennial last year and her work can also be seen as part of Thirteen Ways of Looking at The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry.


Birmingham Museums Trust, one of the UK’s largest independent museum trusts, has appointed Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah as joint CEOs. The pair will formally join the charity in November, taking over from Dr Ellen McAdam who stepped down in June this year.


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

Grayson Perry, Claire's Coming Out Dress, 2000, © the artist, image by Jerry Hardman-Jones, Nottingham City Museums & Galleries collection. Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender and Identity exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

“Art can help us understand how society has changed … it can also enable us to see the world differently, offering insights into personal experiences beyond our own.” C.K McDonald

Grayson Perry, Claire’s Coming Out Dress, 2000, © the artist, image by Jerry Hardman-Jones, Nottingham City Museums & Galleries collection. Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender and Identity exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender and Identity is a touring exhibition conceived by Charlotte Keenan McDonald, firstly showing at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and now at our very own Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. In McDonald’s own words, “A lot of the work I have been doing to date is around LBGT+ history in [the Liverpool] collection and the way that it has been erased. I’ve been really interested in seeing what has been done in terms of research and who has been overlooked, as well as people who have been part of public histories.”

Coming Out is part of a trio of shows that began last year, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts in England and Wales. This ostensible helping hand failed many within the LGBT+ community because of its complete lack of inter-sectional amendments which did not address the lesbian community and still demanded a differing age limit to the community’s heterosexual counterparts.

Tate Britain’s 2017 exhibition Queer British Art 1861–1967 kicked off this reconsideration of histories. Coming Out has been seen to respond to the drop off point of 1967, initially with Andy Warhol’s Marilyn, which won the John Moore’s Painting Prize in 1967.

In the Birmingham instalment of this realigning trio, there are a variety of different works, ranging from audio visual work, to a decaying commissioned installation from Anya Gallaccio, from a number of high profile artists such as Grayson Perry and Sarah Lucas to emerging artists such as Jez Dolan, who graduated recently from Birmingham School of Art with an MA in Queer Studies.

As you first walk in to the exhibition, you are made aware to the fact you are walking in to a space for the queer and the kitsch. Viewers are instantly exposed to the queer cigarette gnome by Lucas, juxtaposed against the pristine materiality of Perry’s Claire’s Coming Out Dress which he wore to accept the Turner Prize as his transvestite comrade Claire in 2003. There is noticeable gaze from Perry’s dress to Lucas’ gnome. This gaze mirrors the multiple histories and queer voices heard in this exhibition, some louder than others – but nevertheless a multitude of voices are represented.

The prevalent kitsch is extended by the use of colour within the space, paying respect to the Gilbert-Baker Pride flag, which formed part of the battle cry of the late 1970s gay liberation movement and represented magic, healing and the spirit. This further reconfigures the normative wealthy, white, industrialist history of the gallery world, moving it further away from the white cube to a colourful non-linear queer art space.

As well as the kitsch, the might of the Young British Artists (YBA) calls you home to roost. A neon piece from Tracey Emin is hung above Warhol. This kitsch element of design was brought into Warhol’s seminal Marilyn print. Emin hit the headline in the 1990s with her evocative intra-personal works that laid bare female sexuality through the subversion of craft. Emin and her fellow YBAs somewhat co-opted Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame model, just as the YBAs arguably co-opted the public gaze – but for more than 15 minutes and on borrowed time. This seminal print anchors you to the middle of the space, drawn in by Emin’s romantic swirly neon, and by the chanting oozing out of Isaac Julien’s film The Long Road to Mazatlàn, with the beauty of queer ballet juxtaposed against the backdrop of the Wild West.

Contrasting with the Walker Art Gallery’s Coming Out, the curatorial volume then dies down to a whisper when we are met with the arresting photographic series ‘Exiles’ by Sunil Gupta, depicting the cruising zones in his hometown of New Delhi, where the law against same sex acts still remains ironclad. This section is quieter in comparison, with the Walker Gallery display showing Gupta close to Warhol. This curation reflects the frequent white washing and the misheard processes that queer people of colour go through within the art institution.

These histories aim to be redressed and realigned by Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery through a learning and engagement programme called FORUM facilitated by the Arts Council. FORUM’s programme breathes inclusivity as local artists and community groups were part of its development. Its aim is the realignment of queer within the art world so that its communities can continue and thrive.

The term ‘coming out’ has gone through a shift. It has been reclaimed, turned from a negative phrase to a moment full of colour, celebration and vibrancy. This is underpinned by the variety of gender identities and sexualities disclosed in the exhibition, brought to life by the sculptural and film works displayed particularly. These act as flag posts for the concept of the show. This latest instalment of pioneering queer British exhibitions is an important baton to carry into the main arena of the art world. More should be done to continue the realignment of queer histories through the lens of art.


By Leanne O’Connor


(This is an amended version of a review first published here.)


Leanne O’Connor reviews Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender and Identity at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, on display until 15 April.

Hereford College of Arts graduate Bob Langridge embarks on a personal journey of reconnection with the natural world in his photographic series, Hell Lane. Exhibited at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery as part of New Art West Midlands 2018, the project comprises hours of analogue exposure time within Dorset’s enigmatic hollow-ways.

Instinctively, Langridge turns to large format film in order to produce imagery that envelops a contemplative relationship with his subject. He slows down the often automated 21st Century processes of image-making, and reverts to a painterly aesthetic – one which captures the nuances of light and the motion of foliage over time. Langridge’s Hell Lane is on display until 6 May.



Selina Oakes: Landscape is a major part of your practice. What does the notion of landscape mean to you?

Bob Langridge: Landscape means something different depending on its context. A painter or walker sees it in a different way to a person working in farming. I began making work in landscape as way of experimenting. I wanted to use large format film and for me the best environment to do that was to work in a landscape as a photographer. What I discovered was that by using large format film I was forced to slow down and consider what I was doing. The slower I worked, the more I became aware of my surroundings. I began to notice the subtle changes of light and colour and those things photography cannot capture – like birdsong and the rustle of vegetation when the wind blows. This helped me to become more considered about composition. I also realised that I was looking for something else; a way to express more than just the geographical features. I was looking for a connection or a story and that is what landscape is to me.

Experimentation continued with Hell Lane. I decided to use a pinhole camera to see what I could produce. It would be flippant to say it is down to chance but one cannot look through the viewfinder of the camera I had, so I used a medium format film camera to check that the composition was okay. Exposure for the images was either eight and a half or 17 minutes. During that time the light can change significantly. It also allowed me time to sit and reflect on my surroundings. At some point it clicked that hundreds of years ago someone else would have trod the same path as I was now.


SO: The series Hell Lane was inspired by Robert Macfarlane’s book Holloway. How does this publication inform your work?

BL: I came across Holloway in a roundabout fashion. While photographing on The Long Mynd in the Shropshire Hills, I became interested in the little paths created by the livestock. I started to research the old trade routes beginning with The Drovers’ Roads of Wales by Fay Godwin and Shirley Toulson. This led me on to searching for local “green lanes” to photograph. My tutor, Clare Smith, suggested Macfarlane’s book. I found it wonderfully written and it has some fabulous illustrations. I became interested in searching for the sunken routes. Holloway was that intangible something extra I had been looking for. Macfarlane’s work, and that of Hamish Fulton, led me to question how I could represent a place in a way that went beyond documentary.


SO: Time is a significant part of your imagery. Can you discuss how time – particularly slow time – is folded into your artistic process and images?

BL: By its very nature photography is a two-dimensional art. Robert Adams writes that landscape pictures provide “three verities – geography, autobiography, and metaphor.” When these attributes combine, they “strengthen each other and reinforce what we all work to keep intact – an affection for life.” When working on Hell Lane I knew that I wanted to find a way of representing what these routes had come to mean to me. For me the use of long exposure times provides the images with more than simple reportage can. There seems to be a sense of something happening. I hope that I have managed to capture a sense of the place.

I wonder if in part my approach to my work developed as a reaction to the instantaneousness of current photography. We wander around and all we see is our screens – even our friends see our images minutes after they have been taken. As photographers, we learn that photography is a choice: a choice of what to include in, and what to exclude from, the frame. We choose where to shoot from and when to shoot. If we are lucky, we also realise that there are times when we need to put down the camera and be in the moment.


SO: As an artist, you have built a deep understanding of Dorset’s hollow-ways. What sentiments do you wish to communicate to the viewer?

BL: I don’t think at any point in the making of Hell Lane I considered what I wanted a viewer to get. I hope they are intrigued and drawn into the images.  The feedback I have had so far has ranged from being mysterious to being sinister.


SO: How has New Art West Midlands and the show at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery supported the transition from Hereford College of Arts to life post-graduation?

BL: Being part of New Art West Midlands has been a real bonus. In revisiting my work and its predecessors as I prepared for the exhibition, I had moments of revelations and picked up bits that I had not noticed before. I have started to develop ideas for work that I had put to one side as I focused in on Hell Lane, so in that respect it has given me a real boost.

Hereford College of Arts graduate and New Art West Midlands exhibitor Bob Langridge speaks to Selina Oakes.

Thresholds visualisation, Courtesy Mat Collishaw and VMI Studio.

Developed in Birmingham is a season of hands-on workshops, talks, walks and events which reveal, explore and celebrate the city’s significant role in the early history of photography. In our second interview about the season, curator and photographic historian Pete James, talks about Mat Collishaw’s new VR artwork Thresholds, currently on show at the Waterhall, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.

You have worked with Mat Collishaw in Birmingham before but how did this particular project come about?

I’d been thinking about a doing a project to re-create Talbot’s 1839 exhibition using facsimile prints for some time. I’d written about it briefly in a couple of papers and then, around 2012, I discussed a loose idea with two leading Talbot scholars, Roger Taylor and Larry Schaaf. Then the move from the old to the new library came along. This pushed everything on to a back-burner where it stayed until 2014 when Mat and I began collaborating on In Camera, a GRAIN commission to make work in response to the Library of Birmingham photo archive.

Walking through town after the launch of the show I pointed out the former site of the Literary and Philosophical Society in Cannon Street to Mat. At the time I thought the Talbot exhibition had taken place here. I mentioned the half-baked idea of somehow re-creating the show. Mat told me he had been looking for a virtual reality project for some time, but that he had no real interest in the glaringly fantastical imagery usually associated with VR games – or “unicorns and elves and hot air balloons”. He wanted to do something with VR that was quite real and this seemed like a good opportunity. The idea seemed to offer a way to engage with VR, technology which, like photography in 1839, was going to change the way we look at the world. So Thresholds really came about by accident – through a chance collision of our separate and distinct ambitions. Once I got stuck back into the research I discovered that the 1839 show had actually taken place at King Edward’s School on New Street. The Lit. and Phil had been the base for the organising committee. We re-shaped the project around this new site and the rest, as they say, is history.

As a curator and researcher known for working with archives and historical materials, what has it been like to work with such new technologies?

Working with VR has simply been a mind-blowing revelation. It’s been an exciting and daunting roller coaster, a steep learning curve, an experiment and a hugely rewarding challenge.

Mat and I teamed up with Dr Paul Tennent from the Mixed Reality Lab at Nottingham University and VMI, a London-based firm who specialise in photorealistic CGI and VR experiences for architecture and property development. Their technical knowledge and Mat’s artistic vision has utterly transformed the way I think about working and doing photo history. Every time I put the headset on and go back to 1839 new ideas and understandings flood my head.

The collaboration has given me the opportunity to help create a virtual reality representation of what is arguably one of the first public exhibitions of photography, and to be part of one of the first projects using simulated realities to explore photo histories. It’s given Mat the opportunity to work with a new artistic tool, to be at the forefront of a new creative movement, and to make an artwork that, in blurring the lines between reality and reality-reality, asks audiences to think about the impact this new technology will have on our lives.

It’s also stimulated a raft of conversations about how we now use the knowledge gained to create and develop new applications within museums, education, art and research environments; how we can bring together material from globally distributed collections to explore ideas on multiple levels; and how we can share the outcomes with audiences who can’t get to visit the actual installation.

Photo: Nick Hynan Photography

What do you think the ‘recreation’ approach to this historical narrative brings to the subject?

We began using the term ‘recreation’ but stopped soon after we realised that people were taking this too literally. They were beginning to think of the project simply as a heritage project, not an art project.

Thresholds is an evocation of a moment in photographic history which, in turn, seeks to offer a point of departure, a pretext, for consideration of how photography has evolved and impacted upon us – for good and bad – since 1839. It’s a recreation in the sense that it’s based on sound and detailed research about the space and contents represented, but it’s also an imaginary space which enables the modern viewer to consider related ideas from multiple viewpoints: past, present and future.

The ‘recreation approach’ enabled us to ask questions about the future of VR – is it the next big thing or Betamax? Like photography in 1839, it’s an emergent and imprecise technology, and it’s hard to predict exactly where it’s going to go and what impact it will have on us.

I like to think that perhaps one day someone will ‘recreate’ our show using a yet unknown technology, and look back at it as part of another narrative around the history of art, technology and photo history.

Photo: Nick Hynan Photography

The exhibition has been on display in London recently. How is it different in form or context now that it is being shown in Birmingham?

The Waterhall provides much more space than was available at Somerset House. It enables the audience to see the entire installation, which sits like a glowing monolith in the centre of the space, surrounded by contextual and complimentary material.

Our aim is to evoke different contextual ideas and associations around the show at each new location. In London, the show was set against the backdrop of an art fair where Talbot prints, once seen and handled as rough prototype images with no great financial value, are now shown behind velvet curtains, talked about in hushed tones, and sold for vast sums of money.

Here in Birmingham, it’s set in a local historical, photo-historical, almost site-specific context. We have been fortunate to include rare and important material from the King Edward’s Foundation Archive and to show contemporary artworks by Cornelia Parker (Fox Talbot’s Articles of Glass) and Ravi Deepres and Michael Clifford’s film Obscura, which resonate with ideas, themes and pre-histories of photography embedded in Thresholds.

We have also been able to present the show within the context of a programme of complementary exhibitions and events: Jo Gane’s White House in Paradise Street, on show at BOM, and Developed in Birmingham, a series of talks, workshops, and photo walks which, together with Thresholds, explore, celebrate, and promote awareness of the history of photography in Birmingham.

Piece from the Birmingham Daily Mail, 1880 presented as part of A White House on Paradise Street at BOM (Birmingham Open Media). Photo: Nick Hynan

How have you developed the surrounding exhibition from the King Edward’s Foundation Archive?

The King Edward’s Foundation Archive has been a critical part of the project. We used its unique and significant holdings to shape the VR / CGI environment and to inform our understanding of how the exhibition appeared in the school building. Alison Wheatley, the Foundation Archivist, and David Blissett, an architect expert on the work of Charles Barry, provided invaluable insights into the archive material.

We have loaned key items from the archive – including Charles Barry’s original 1833 competition drawings, an architectural model of the school, and a digital projection of 24 glass stereo slides made before the school was demolished in 1936, to tell the story of the school. These 2-D and 3-D objects stand in contrast to the virtual rendering of the school seen in the VR experience. We have also included rare and important documents – including a copy of the original 1839 exhibition catalogue – which provide further historical and narrative context for the VR experience.

What can visitors to the exhibition expect?

Quite literally an experience like no other. A chance to immerse themselves in a cutting edge VR project which combines art, history, and technology in a new and perhaps unique way. They can expect to be transported back to the dawn of photography where they will perhaps share in the sense of awe and wonder experienced by our Victorian predecessors seeing photographic images for the first time 178 years ago. However, I’m more interested in the ideas people will take way from the exhibition than the expectations they may bring to it.

Read the interview with Jo Gane about her exhibition A White House on Paradise Street here.

Thresholds is open at the Waterhall Gallery, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery from Thursday to Sunday until Sunday 6 August 2017. Booking for the VR experience is advised, but the surrounding exhibition is free.

Information about the full Developed in Birmingham programme can be found here.

Developed in Birmingham is a season of hands-on workshops, talks, walks and events which reveal, explore and celebrate the city’s significant role in the early history of photography. In our second interview about the season, curator and photographic historian Pete James, talks about Mat Collishaw’s new artwork Thresholds, currently on show at the Waterhall, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.