Blast is quite possibly the best piece of performance art in any medium to have taken place in Birmingham in recent years. Certainly it was a great spectacle with heaps of pyrotechnics and bangs but it was also an incredibly considered and, in places, quietly meditative piece, simultaneously draining and inspiring.


It was a performance of a standard that any city could have been proud of but it could only have taken place in Birmingham. The whole thing oozed with an understanding and love of the city from its industrial past to its unknown future. This was Birmingham art, ticking all the boxes and towering above all else. Its almost unfair to the rest of Artsfest that this is taking place at the same time – they cannot hope to compete on so many levels.


The audience, while substantial, could have been larger. I hope the word of mouth network will do the job over the next 18 hours but I do feel slightly perturbed that this event wasn’t pushed harder to the public. If it were a Tate production there would have been national press and features on Radio 4. (I’m happy to stand corrected if there was). This is the sort of public art event that Birmingham deserves, being inclusive and fun but not afraid to aesthetically and intellectually challenge. It’s a shining example of what city-specific art can be and I cannot thank and congratulate all those involved, from the performers to the organisers who pushed this project forward, enough.

Thankfully it’s on again tonight and, as you can gather, I highly recommend you go. You won’t regret it.

The above photos are mine and are part of the Birmingham Artsfest 2007 Flickr group, members of which will be covering the whole weekend. If you just want photos of Blast they’re here with many more to come.


  1. dp

    Thanks for the heads up. I think I heard some of this – and will have to go see it tonight. Returning the favour, you’ve got two typos in this post: “it’s industrial past to it’s” should be “its industrial past to its”. The possessive of it is its, not it’s. 8)

  2. Following the luscious photos on Flickr I’m trying to figure out if I can make it over to Blast after work tonight. I’ve seen a couple of different start times advertised though (!) and, in the absence of getting through to someone on the info line, was wondering if anyone could confirm what time it starts and finishes?


  3. scouser

    i left after 25 mins as did a substantial amount of people. From the look of the photos it must have got better but to be honest i got bored of waiting for something to happen. Art? There are people at theme parks all over the world who do better than this daily and they don’t refer to themselves as artists….(but as i say didn’t stay for all of it and the photos look good).

  4. I really enjoyed Blast tonight!

    It was great- it reminded me of my horrible commute to school- South Brum to the North; where I would use the rhythms of the train movements for compositions to enhance my journey. I never got round to using the idea during my music studies and after seeing tonight’s performance I don’t need to.

    I loved the haunting harmonies that came from the steam whistles- ghost like, ethereal and melancholy.

    It made me proud to be a Brummie. I wish it had been marketed better- I felt guilty not being able to share the experience with more of my friends.

  5. I went to this last night, and I thought it was great – it went from being quite casual and intimate to so intensely chaotic…I just love how it was all based around the location, which was used really well. Really inventive.

    Also, those big fire towers reminded of Blade Runner. Which is always a good thing. Always.

  6. I found the lack of slickness part of the appeal: I don’t think I would have missed the projections on the side of the station building at all had they not been there.

    If not art, then theatre perhaps?

    In any case, I’m glad I saw/heard/smelt it!

  7. I was there at both performances – I went to Friday’s in the hope of being mildly entertained, leaving for Saturday the big CBSO concert in Centenary Square. But I was so blown away (intellectually, emotionally and just plain viscerally) that I had to go again on Saturday with my camcorder so that I could never forget what I had seen.

    I’m sorry scouser didn’t enjoy it, and he should, perhaps, count himself lucky that he didn’t go on Friday as they’d edited it down (from almost 90 to under 50 minutes for the whole show).

    My congratulations to all concerned, and as the original text says, it’s a pity this was part of Artsfest rather than being an event in its own right. Perhaps some of the people at Centenary Square would have attended this instead! (I made it to Centenary Square in time for the end of the concert and frankly, wasn’t half as impressed as I had been with Blast!)

    If anyone’s interested (plugging it really isn’t the point of this post) I have uploaded to YouTube a few clips from my mediocre recording (click on my name)

  8. ezra

    BLAST – Saturday 15th September

    The first belch drew laughter from the crowd. The second was followed by a collective gasp. By the third, there was utter silence. BLAST was a show that lived up to its name, blasting its audience out of the inertia of their comfort zone and into a spectacular world of light and sound, smoke and fire. They were confronted with an explosive combination of steam orchestra, smoke theatre and echo music which filled the air as well as the imagination. The performance was just short of an hour but kept its sense of magic and suspense throughout; by the time it ended the audience had been stunned into a state of paralysis, waiting, once the applause had subsided, for the next burst of energy to rip through the stillness. BLAST was not a simple catalogue of explosion after explosion, one loud bang after the next, but established instead a more steady and enduring rhythm, building up its momentum towards the effortless creation of unforgettably beautiful moments: the giant shadows of tall chimneys cutting through the smoke, a firefall cascading in gold and silver sparks from the top of the old station building, and a strange brigade of giant fireflies streaming across the night’s sky and away into the distance.
    This was a blast from the past – old films of trains and railways projected onto the oldest surviving railway building in the world conspired with the modern railway behind to form the backdrop as each element of the old steam train was dissected and wonderfully reassembled before our eyes, from the flag and the whistles that marked its departure to the hoots and clunking rhythms of its journey. Occasionally it seemed to be a physical re-enactment of Auden’s beautiful Nightmail. The whirl of machinery and engines, motors and petrol certainly succeeded in recreating the old industrialism of the factories and train stations that used to crowd its setting, in one last glorious stand.
    At times it felt like being trapped in the midst of an exhilarating war-zone, at others like being surrounded by a thousand boiling kettles with all the energy and excitement of the industrial revolution’s very first sparks. It brought us face-to-face with a fog-cat which, unlike Eliot’s, leapt and twirled in a vibrant and powerful dance. The performance read like a conversation: in one brilliant moment a train hooted as it passed by to take the sound to the back of the space – bringing an inevitable reply from the hooters, horns and sirens – as if the performance had merged fleetingly and indistinguishably with reality. This was followed by a breathtaking pyrotechnic tennis match that lurched from one side of the site to the other – horizontal fireworks whistled like sparks along fuses that ignited the booming machine-gun like clatter of the titanic Large Hot Pipe Organ. All in all, it was supremely balanced, carrying off a thoughtful intensity and a grandeur which was never self-important nor lacking in attention to detail. It was hard to tell whether it was just the smoke or the moving power of the performance that had brought the tears to my eyes. I may well have left with a stinging retina, ringing eardrums and an irregular heartbeat, but it felt like being blasted into life.

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