How to talk about contemporary art to a dead rat

Cheddar & Court Road; Jakeman, Hallam and Lincoln; Alexandra; Chesterton, Colville, Queen St, Alfred St; Mary St; Sherron Gardens, Cobden Gardens, Vincent St; Kinver Croft; Tindal St, Homer St, George St, Edgbaston Rd and Cromer Rd; Clifton, Roshven, Taunton, Kensington Avenue; Seven Streets; Strensham, Beaconsfield Road.

Facilitated by Balsall Heath Forum, Balsall Heath has a network of residents groups organised around clusters of streets (the legacy of the Streetwatch movement set up in the late 1980’s to rid the area of prostitutes and drug dealers). During the summer of 2012, we attended several meetings at each of these groups as we undertook a sustained period of research into the local area. The radio play script realised as part of the biennale  is based on these meetings, offering a semi-fictional rendition of very particular local issues: confusion over Khat and cats, balti-samba dances, giant rats and inflatable policemen.

The residents meetings were the first step in substituting the hectic Birmingham Art World calendar for the equally hectic Balsall Heath community calendar. Out with loitering next to Eastside Projects toilets speculating about Gavin Wade’s shoes, in with Balsall Heath Forum Awards For Young People, Church Centre Book Launch’s, Community Networking Lunch’s and Open day’s at Sparkbrook Resource Centre. Throw in meetings with park-keepers, the police, Mosque leaders, primary school creative co-coordinators and local councillors. Add in workshops, school assemblies and information stands at local events. This research period also involved setting up a community garden, helping to organise a street party and becoming elected to the executive committee of the local neighbourhood forum. Finally we produced an A-Z of Balsall Heath / Colouring in book detailing our experiences and new found knowledge of the local area.

In effect, one form of separatism (the art-world) became replaced by another (a hyper local Balsall Heath). Like the police officers who go undercover as new age travellers for too long, at times we felt we may have gone too far, too deep, too quickly. Over a six-month period we rarely left Balsall Heath, but our reward was an insider knowledge of the area and it’s marked contradictions. Balsall Heath street furniture (bins and lamp-posts) for example, is painted a fetching mixture of green and yellow. Apparently as part of Balsall Heath’s regeneration, residents were asked what colours they would prefer to have these items painted; on the face of it this is a great example of how to give local people a say in their environment. However, in reality the shade of green used reflected a tension between the Kashmiri and Irish communities, two of the area’s largest immigrant populations, both of whom have particular shades of green associated with their cultures.

The consultation period involved becoming known on the community ’scene’ as we sought to not only research the local area, but also explore local people’s reactions to contemporary art. It became a process of how you might go about talking about contemporary art to a non-specialist audience (as previously mentioned, one of the first hurdles, in any conversation, was the very word ‘biennale’ itself). In retrospect, we approached the consultation process over earnestly, quickly realising the impotency of our fairly straightforward methodologies in the face of the local punter with a ferocious indifference to Artists. We required something that would draw people in and create a space in which they might talk openly about Balsall Heath, it’s issues, and the potential role of art within this. We created a series of ‘consulting’ devices and methodologies that were synonymous with the local area, anchoring our investigation around such highly local traits as rats, cats and ice creams vans. These tools also played with the figures and tropes of community art, the first of which was our interpretation of the classic village fete game ‘Splat the Rat’: an oversized Attack the Balsall Heath Rat machine.

Balsall Heath has a vermin problem. If you live in Balsall Heath you will have heard about the 2ft rats living of the waste of over 40 balti restaurants. Some of you may have seen one and lived to tell the tale/tail. Local people were more than willing to talk, even fill in a questionnaire, if they were rewarded with the opportunity to viciously attack a plastic rat with a wooden baseball bat. Where you find rats, you’re also likely to find cats. And lots of them. Our second conversation device reworked the uber community art vehicle of the sock puppet to produce attitudinal stray cat sock puppets. Referencing the Balsall Heath stray cat problem / lineage, these generated a new local vernacular combining street / youth patois and a fictionalized cat idiom. Tinnit. Finally, we employed a small fleet of remote control ice cream vans and a giant vinyl map of Balsall Heath. Great for facilitating a discussion over a bird’s eye view of Balsall Heath, children were drawn to these, often seeing it as a once in a lifetime opportunity to pull the aerial off a miniature ice cream van. Our final methodology, and accidentally most successful, was called the ‘runner bean consultation’. More on this later.

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