Author Archive

Books!

28th
Mar
2011

Books, the bookish, the book; there’s never been a better time to talk about them. Not sitting here there hasn’t, anyway. Indicators are everywhere: books are in flux. Turnover in book publishing is growing slowly, but exports are accounting for a bigger share of the market. Micro-publishers are flourishing yet so are Ebooks. A decline in High Street retail activity may see Waterstone’s go to the wall. Never mind Peak Oil, what about Peak Book? Are we living through a tipping point? Have we seen the apogee of ink on paper, the high point of the printed word?

It’s difficult to say. Especially given the research I’ve done for this piece. One thing’s certain though: that’s the introduction out of the way. So. Maybe now we can get to the point. And a giddy, feel-good, non-critical point it is too…

There’s a real slobbery bounce about the Birmingham literary scene at the mo, but a balance of vitamins and minerals as well. This spring we have news of everything from the latest release of an internationally renowned Brummie author to the ongoing investment in our creative future.

I’ll start with the former and a writer who – as a nominally ‘genre’ novelist – you may not have encountered. Roger Ellory lives in Yardley and when he was a teenager he was sent to jail for poaching. He wrote twenty-three novels before he sold his first; now he can’t stop bagging French crime-writing awards. His new book is due soon in paperback.

If you prefer murder to homicide – and a considerably more sober author biog to boot – the ever-dependable independent player Tindal Street Press present the first in a new series from former ‘young adult’ author David Belbin. You can read an extract here: http://www.tindalstreet.co.uk/news/sneak-peak-of-crime-novel-bone-and-cane

‘Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures’ said Jessamyn West, Quaker author and cousin of Richard Nixon. And if you think that’s bobbins, then you may be interested in what Candi Miller has to say on the matter. The author of ‘Salt and Honey’ opens Birmingham Book Festival’s Spring Thing on 9th April with a workshop that looks at ‘Truth, Lies and life Writing’. The Festival’s ongoing work includes the Write On! initiative, taking place in schools across the region; among the writers involved is adopted Brummie Helen Cross, who wrote ‘My Summer of Love’ and ‘Spilt Milk, Black Coffee’ and claims to find her inspiration on West Midlands Travel buses.

A bit prosaic? Then I’ll finish with Kings-Heath based author Andrew Killeen. His novels revisit and reinterpret Persian myths. His second is due out in August and I defy you to read its opening and not start counting the days:

I have a story to tell you. It is a tale of adventure, of love, and deception, of destiny and death. It is a tale of kings, and emperors, and of beautiful princesses; but also of poets, pirates, and priests. It is a story to entertain and instruct, to stir the blood, to inflame the senses, to dizzy the mind and rouse the soul…

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By Charlie Hill

Charlie Hill lives and works in Kings Heath. His first novel – The Space Between Things – is set in Moseley. www.charliehill.org.uk

Is Birmingham a city where it is easy to collaborate with others?

I arrived in Birmingham in the summer of 2006, tasked with preparing Town Hall for its anticipated re-opening, due to happen 18 months later at the end of 2007. Although I had lived in the Midlands during my school years, I didn’t really know Birmingham, and so had no idea how it would feel to live and work in the City, despite the reassurances from a few friendly faces I knew prior to my arrival.

Since then, I have worked closely with my colleague Paul Keene (Director of Programming for THSH) to build new relationships with artists, producers, promoters, other arts organisations, and civic and community groups.  The most refreshing aspect of working in Birmingham has been experiencing just how easy it is to meet people and “do business”.  Despite the huge amount of creative work taking place here, I quickly found that everyone knows everyone, and really there’s no excuse not to be working together and sharing ideas.


Our approach has always been to get out of Town Hall and to try and see as many other things as possible, both to support the work of others, but also to get a real understanding of how THSH fits into the creative network of the City.  When your day job is overseeing a hall which presents 300 different events a year, it’s important to remember to get off the daily hamster wheel and make the time to meet with colleagues from other arts organisations, as that tends to be how the interesting new ideas and projects begin to take shape.

This week, Town Hall have hosted Fierce and Flatpack in two exciting events (The Irrepressibles, and Digging For Gold), and we are very proud to be involved as partners in both festivals. The Irrepressibles show came about because Laura from Fierce and I were both at a previous Irrepressibles show in St Martin’s Church as part of last year’s SHOUT Queer Festival, and we were both blown away by what we heard. A couple of quick discussions later, and a chat with Jamie from the Irrepressibles, and we had agreed to jointly work together to bring the group back to Birmingham for Fierce. With Flatpack, we have always kept in touch with Ian and Pip, and following their big Curzonora project two years ago, we were keen to work with them to bring another Flatpack project to Town Hall. By taking our successful existing silent film with organ accompaniment format, and adapting it to include improvised piano and some shorter films, we have been able to add to Flatpack’s focus this year on archivist Iris Barry.

We are also preparing for our major Rite of Spring 3D project, taking place on April 21st, and performed by the CBSO with dancer Julia Mach and artistic director Klaus Obermaier. We have made the financial commitment to ensure that this extraordinary project is presented in Birmingham, but as always, we want to work with our partners to ensure that all the potential audiences get to hear about it, and we don’t serve Birmingham audiences best by just doing that by ourselves.

That approach to the marketing strategy for the Rite of Spring project runs through all of our work at THSH – we will always work with partners wherever we can, whether it is us guaranteeing the fees and costs for a project, or through more straightforward marketing and cross-promotional relationships.  For example, if we are promoting The Dhol Foundation in concert at Town Hall, we will work with The Drum, sampad, Punch, Birmingham Music Service and independent promoters to ensure that we utilise as many avenues as possible to spread the word on the show, and to help develop an audience for the artists. We are also talking to the Birmingham Jazz team on a weekly basis, sharing ideas for future projects, and working together to promote performances such as the recent Uri Caine/Mahler concert, as part of the Birmingham Mahler Cycle.

On a national basis, we’re working with promoters and festivals including Serious, who collaborate with us to ensure that artists including Mariza, Staff Benda Bilili and Salif Keita are performing in Birmingham as part of their limited UK tour plans. Serious and other promoters who represent touring artists are keen to include Birmingham, but this will only happen if an organisation like THSH is prepared to invest and commit to the artists, as these concerts rarely stand up on a purely commercial arrangement.

So, back to my original question – is Birmingham a city where it is easy to collaborate with others?  Five years on, we can look back over a very broad range of collaborations, some of which were for one-off occasions, and some which have since evolved into an ongoing relationship. I believe that collaboration is definitely one of the things that Birmingham does best, and we should be proud of what we can achieve by working together.

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By Simon Wales, Town Hall Birmingham

The film below was shot at the St Patrick’s Parade in Digbeth earlier in the month. Due to the flickering in the timelapse photography technique used, it’s probably best avoided by anyone with photosensitive epilepsy.

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By William Fallows

William Fallows documents Birmingham through video and photography at vimeo.com/newfolder and flickr.com/newfolder.

It reeks of tired group halls full of the bingo playing near dead, bad murals by neutered ex-graffiti artists who have swapped credibility and self respect for a rainbow on the wall with ‘diversity’ written across it, and of sickly orange Reef and the juices of bored teenage girls letting themselves be fingered at the Youth Club just to feel something in the graveyard of banality that is any community centre.

The word only exists and given the credence it has because not all the hippies had the good grace to OD, sell out, or go mad. Some made it through and got into power.

Any time I hear the word ‘community’ used it is being dismissed in the same sentence, wars are fought by units, gangs, packs. Communities hold fucking jumble sales and block planning permission for renewable energy because they cast shadows they don’t like.

‘Care in the community’ was a balls up, a forerunner to the Coalition doomed deformed baby ‘Big Society’. It relied on the notion of community to take care of potentially dangerous mental patients. We asked a ghost to care for our most vulnerable and ended up with another reason not to trust anyone lest they try and plait your hair against your will and molest your pets.

Community art projects are mostly hateful dull grey pieces of nothing decided by a collection of average that take the most banal, least offensive idea and squeeze the joy out of it until it becomes an art looking thing – a product. The most interesting of these projects are normally done involve an artist who, deciding they like eating food, knows a way of actually getting paid to make art is to say the magic ‘C’ word to a council, spend six weeks pretending to record and give a good god damn about a particular groups history, desire and opinions ignore it and make the thing they were always going to make anyway.

Art can not happen by committee because group think trends toward bland, consensus means compromise and compromise is mediocre. The Community Flag in the Creative War is a the herald of surrender that nobody will care about and will hopefully mean that a pack of Art Bastards in hob nail boots will find you and stomp fuck you out of your misery.

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By Danny Smith

For more from Danny Smith, take a look at – http://edgetrinkets.com

Andrew DubberJon CottonRobin ValkJohn Mostyn and Lisa Meyer were all kind enough to share their perspective and ideas for this post – I’ll publish their comments in full on my blog so none are wasted. I also drew, with permission, on the Birmingham Music Network’s recent 10 Questions survey.

Unparalleled Riches

The comments on the current state of the scene were very encouraging, suggesting there’s more quality, active musicians in the city than ever before and a number of hardworking and creative promoters as well.

So what improvements might be made to encourage some of the many talented and dedicated individuals and groups to progress further on a professional and national level?

Venues and Noise Abatement

We picked out Kings Heath’s Hare & Hounds as an example of what a good local music venue can be (great location, facilities, standard of acts and size of audiences) but felt there’s too few live music venues around for a city and scene of our size.

Recent issues between property developers, the council and independent venues such as the Fiddle & Bone, the Spotted Dog, the Nightingale and most recently the Rainbow and Moseley’s Price of Wales are all situations in which the city and the community have had the opportunity to act clearly in favour of culture over profit – if we are to have the courage of our convictions going forward, common sense prevailing in any similar situation is of vital importance.

Jon Cotton suggests that these issues could very often be solved by small grants for acoustic improvements to venues – possibly around £1000 per venue for simple materials and an hour or two’s consultancy with an acoustician.

Annual Festivals

We are fortunate to have some small, quality festivals such as Moseley Folk and Supersonic and efforts should be made to support them as needed as well as identify other existing and emerging festivals and support them too. On the larger scale, Gigbeth was admired but perhaps fell short of its full potential, whilst the value of ArtsFest is questionable due to its very broad reach and the policy of not paying artists.

Organisational issues aside, a Festival lives or dies on the quality of its curation – there is a lot of experienced promoters in Birmingham and they are a resource that should be tapped as much as possible by any future large scale efforts. As valuable as good intentions might be, its quality that ultimately counts.

Media Support

It seems bizarre that our local radio stations do so little to engage with the local music community. This is both our loss and theirs, since, as little more than pale imitations of much bigger national operations, their audience figures are dropping rapidly. So its to the grass roots that we might best look to the future. Rhubarb Radio is steadily expanding with well programmed and sequenced automated play lists offering a variety of moods at different parts of the day combined with programmes presented by fast developing local talent and all using West Midlands music. Support for Rhubarb and the likes of South Birmingham Community Radio should be encouraged and need not be financial.

Likewise in the world of print media, the Birmingham Post is down to a weekly and the Evening Mail, whilst its news coverage is ultra local doesn’t seem to cover local talent until they are proven on the national stage. Fortunately, we have Indies such as AreaBrumnotesRadar and Night Times taking up the slack.

Focal Web Presence

There’s good stuff going on the web such as Live Brum (for listings), review and photos from Brum Live, long running bloggers such as Russ LThe Hearing Aid, the directory and blog at Birmingham Music Network, a terrific playable online library of music at the Pilot Project and archive projects such as the Birmingham Music Archive and Home of Metal.

That said, I still feel something is lacking which could be well filled by something modelled on Created in Birmingham. CiB rarely mentions music for the good reason that if it covered every decent new album, gig or video, music would completely swamp the other content. Is there a case for a sister Music in Birmingham site?

Facilitation, Not Control

Its very tempting to try and fix things with big, top down initiatives, but often they fail to deliver and given the current financial climate, there’s not likely to be much public money around for a while. Andrew Dubber suggests that the smartest thing that could be done now is to identify and support already existing and naturally forming scenes and connections, and draw goals and strategies from those communities’ own ambitions.

Proud to be Independent

A lot of very exciting music and events are happening through the efforts of people taking initiative and responsibility for their own success. We should be proud and encouraging of this rather than waiting for an authority figure from either the public or private sector to come along and validate our efforts with an official seal of approval. John Mostyn goes so far as to suggest that a small pot of public funding should be used to encourage the term ‘Unsigned’ to never be used within the City in any way, shape or form by anyone… ever.

Cherish Diversity

The diversity of our music and culture may have slowed progress towards a cohesive and structured scene or community, but maybe that very diversity has the capability to power us forward to a time of unparalleled musical output and cultural harmony.

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By Rich Batsford

Rich Batsford is a booking agent and a composer/performer of meditative solo piano music and reflective songs www.richbatsford.com

My friends can’t understand why I live in Birmingham. My friends live in places like London, San Francisco, New York, Hong Kong; to them, Birmingham might as well be Accrington. It’s a place they won’t think about for the rest of the month.

As a writer on the subject of contemporary art, to me Birmingham is perfectly placed in the centre of contemporary art resources that Londoners would have difficulty discovering, never mind paying attention to. West Midlanders are less than an hour and a half by train from most of the country’s leading contemporary galleries, while a comfortable distance away from the marketing hype of London. Visiting galleries and museums outside the capital is like finding bands that haven’t yet hit the mainstream.

Thankfully our own art gem, the IKON Gallery – Birmingham’s saviour for contemporary art – spoils us with international scope and creative use of venues. It’s a great home base for those of us who thrive on visual art. From here, our options further afield are as easy as starting at New Street Station.

For example, currently touring Britain, pausing at London’s Hayward Gallery for stop number two, is British Art Show 7. BAS 7 made its debut in 2010 in Nottingham, a little more than an hour from New Street Station. Spanning October, November, and December, the Nottingham programme had more exhibition space than the Hayward Gallery provides, which means the wicked-cool Londoners are likely to see a mere survey of what was shown at The Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham Castle, and Nottingham’s New Art Exchange . If you had gone to Nottingham to see BAS7, you’d have been made aware of Haroon Mirza, who subsequently has won the Northern Art Prize and is featured in ArtReview’s March 2011 issue.

Liverpool. I know what you’re thinking; you’re not driving to Liverpool to watch your car get jacked. Luckily, transportation comes to you, thereby avoiding any contact with the more entrepreneural of the Scouse population. Only 1 hour 30 minutes by train from New Street, Liverpool Lime street itself is only 20 minutes away by foot from international contemporary art: Tate Liverpool. You’ll pass plenty of serious looking pubs and shiny shop fronts before you get there (note to self: when walking back to train, make frequent rest breaks at said points of interest). Tate Liverpool, along with FACT, Blue Coat, the Baltic Triangle and pretty much any empty building in town, showed off international artists at last year’s Liverpool Biennial. All of the venues have currently ongoing exhibits, and each has a cafe with free WiFi for your nimble, micro-blogging, twitter fingers. Also in Liverpool is the John Moores Painting Prize , announced every two years, with finalists presented at The Walker Art Gallery. The Walker is a stone’s throw away from the train station. Keith Coventry’s “Spectrum Jesus” was the winner for 2010, which had to be seen up close to be effective. The Moores Painting Prize also allows for a visitors favourite award, which is historically never the same as the jury’s prize winner.

Oxford, the city with what is the northern version of the British Museum, the Ashmolean, is about an hour by train from New Street. For contemporary art fans, Modern Art Oxford is about a 15 minute walk from the station. Like Birmingham’s IKON Gallery, the MAO changes shows more often than footballers change their team allegiances.

Sheffield: land of silverware. Where would our dinners be without it. Sheffield’s S1 Art Space is only 1 hour 15 minutes away by train, and while not as active as IKON or MAO in their programmes, there is a centre of contemporary art activity. The even number years feature the Sheffield Biennial, while opposite years fill in with S1/Salon, usually a film and video exhibition.

Closer to home, Walsall’s New Art Gallery is less than 25 minutes away. Bob and Roberta Smith, a name more tied to London these days, is currently being exhibited until 20 March. Plus, the building itself deserves respect and recognition. It’s not often a town of just 170,000 people agree to a cubist, modern design in their city planning.

And if you’re really stuck for fun, London is only an hour twenty away by Virgin Train. You’ll have to chance the lively viruses on The Underground, but you’re never far from either of the Tates, or any of the East London galleries that exhibit the more interesting international artists. The good news is that you’ll be back in Birmingham by dinner time.

For international contemporary art, being in the middle is much better than being on the ends.

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By David Green

From California, lives and works in Birmingham, writes for Contemporary Monkey.

Last year I was lucky enough to be selected by the Cultural Leadership Programme to spend a year on a professional development and work placement down in Bristol. So I put my usual job of making new theatre performances on the back-burner and headed down the M5.

My year was spent working as part of the small but highly effective iShed team, which is based at the Pervasive Media Studio, and is a part of the larger organisation and venue Watershed.

My task was to help shape and then produce the first year of Theatre Sandbox – a national commissioning scheme for theatre companies to engage with emerging technologies in their practice.

Except the thing was, I didn’t know anything about these technologies myself… yet. But this is why I’d applied for this placement – to learn. And learn I did.

… RFID … wifi beacons … interaction design … augmented reality … QR codes … arduino … bio feedback sensors … these words floated around me, and eventually began to settle as I saw and experienced concrete examples of them being used in practice.

I learned most things through a kind of Pervasive Media Studio osmosis. Just overhearing people’s conversations, lectures, lunchtime talks and workshops introduced me to a slew of new vocabulary, possibilities, hardware and software.

And just a few short months after my own first introduction to Pervasive Media (here’s some definitions of this diverse field) I started to lead our six commissioned Theatre Sandbox theatre companies into how they might incorporate these technologies into their own projects and practice.

It was incredibly exciting to see how experimental theatre practice could have a dialogue with experimental technologies – each one’s processes, restrictions, affordances and modus operandi affecting and influencing the other.

I found it interesting to observe how different the usual process of theatre making: end goal make-or-break

(idea ? develop content ? refine, perfect, edit ? assemble acting, design, sound elements ? performance of finished show in front of audience ? reviews)

was to the process of technology development: iterative

(idea ? sketch version ? test with users/audience ? integrate feedback, create prototype ? test with users/audience ? integrate feedback, refine product ? release finished product).

Sometimes during Theatre Sandbox these two processes seemed directly at odds with each other, and it will take more than just this one pilot project to re-educate both communities in how to contextualise and best offer feedback to these kind of projects whilst in development. It felt daunting and precarious for the theatre artists to test their work at such early stages in its development, but such testing was essential for the development of the technologies and the experience as a whole.

I was pleased to discover that some of the core skills of theatre artists were particularly valuable within the sphere of technology development. Where some technology developers may be guilty of getting caught up with how cool their new tech is without much thought for their users, how it actually is to use, whether its useful or fun. Theatre’s focus on the audience and on their experience of what is presented to them dovetailed neatly with technology’s system of user interaction design. Theatre artists naturally considered their user/audience’s interaction with the technologies and the work, often finding cunning and ingenious ways to make the hardware and interactions part of the fictional and aesthetic world of the performance.

Theatre artists are also adept at weaving stories, and creating meaning from potentially disparate incidents and experiences. The Theatre Sandbox projects successfully integrated technologies but never became obsessed by the tech for its own sake – the story and audience experience always remained the focus, and this is what ensured that the projects were genuinely engaging for their audiences.

Please do watch this short overview video of the scheme featuring extracts from all six projects, narrated by myself, and shot and edited by Birmingham’s own Chris Keenan.

I completed my placement in December 2010, and am now back in Birmingham eager to start using my new-found skills in this region: helping others develop projects; brokering arts and technology partnerships; and creating new theatre productions that integrate pervasive media with my own company The Other Way Works.

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By Katie Day

Katie Day is the Artistic Director of Birmingham-based theatre company The Other Way Works who have been pushing the boundaries of theatre practice for around eight years now, and produce site-specific audience-interactive performances like our hotel-based thriller ‘Black Tonic‘.
www.theotherwayworks.co.uk

On April the 1st this year I will be embarking on a yearlong sabbatical from the company I co-run, Stereographic, in order to concentrate on my music and arts projects. I have my personal reasons for taking this step now but many of the broader reasons are valid for anyone deciding to undertake a sabbatical. The benefits to the creative-minded can be immense, so where better to highlight them than here?

First, let’s start by defining the term sabbatical. I’m with Wikipedia on this and would simply define it as “a rest from work, a hiatus, lasting from two months to a year”. I wouldn’t elaborate on this myself, as the key to a sabbatical is simply to have a break from work, from the everyday. For me, these are some of the major benefits of doing so:

Freshness

Our brains are great at organising stuff and providing near instant, ingrained responses. That’s a really important ability to help us function as human beings. Clearly you don’t want to think “what’s that noise?” every time your phone rings, or spend ages assessing the options for dodging that bus.

The more we do the same things the more ingrained our responses become. This is a real killer where creativity is concerned. If you make a concerted effort to regularly change stuff around in your life then you can guarantee greater freshness of ideas, but in all honesty, how many of you have deliberately done something that scares you recently?

Ponder o’clock

This one is simple; time to think about nothing in particular aids creativity. “Aha! moments” require a wandering mind.

Perspective

Building processes to “keep it real” into your daily routine is a start but I believe a truer perception of what you do and aim to achieve is only possible through a sustained period of time off work. The perspective gained through this can only be trumped by one thing in life, trauma…and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

Time to make THOSE ideas happen

The 99% are right in their slogan “It’s not about ideas. It’s about making them happen.” Creative people tend to have lots of ideas for lots of great projects they could bring to fruition, if only they had the time. Have a quick think about your ideas that fit this description. The world would be a better place if they saw the light of day, right?

New opportunities & relationships

Less time in the office / studio means more time meeting new people. Unless you decide to lock yourself in a box for the entirety of your sabbatical this is pretty much a given and good things will come of it!

Financial reward

As an artist/creative you are rewarded for the quality of your ideas and your passion to make them happen. If you are passionate about what you do, you’ll come back to it – only bigger, better and with renewed ideas and drive!

Life is (very) short!

Take two minutes to think about what you are doing with your life. Let’s assume you broadly like it. OK, why not get better at it? Or, if in the end you find there’s something out there you’d rather be doing instead then that’s cool too. The key is to give yourself the space to consider this properly.

After all that…just watch this

Still not convinced? Think it’s unworkable? Think the financial reward bit is just a red herring? Then, please spend 17.5 minutes watching a lecture delivered by the designer Stefan Sagmeister, at TED in 2009. Says it all…

http://www.ted.com/talks/stefan_sagmeister_the_power_of_time_off.html

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By Sam Underwood

Having set myself up for a fall by talking so enthusiastically about sabbaticals, why not keep an eye on how I get on at: http://sabbatical.mrunderwood.co.uk. Oh, and for a quick overview of some of my plans here’s my recent Pecha Kucha 20×20 presentation on the subject: http://www.vimeo.com/19477253
Stereographic will continue to be run by cofounder George Benson.