Balsall Heath Tourist Information Centre


Travelling around the local area over the summer, the Balsall Heath Tourist Information Centre offered information on an area not renowned for it’s tourism industry. Although slightly tongue-in-cheek, the idea was underpinned by a seriousness as Balsall Heath has a fascinating modern history that many Birmingham residents are oblivious to. For us, Balsall Heath offered an alternative space of urban tourism, in contrast to more affluent tourist hot-spots within the city such as Bournville. If time and budget had allowed, we had planned to employ local residents as tour guides to offer an anecdotal and unofficial entry point into an area many Birmingham residents would generally avoid.

Originally we had hoped to site the Tourist Information Centre as a semi-permanent fixture in the Old Streetwatch Portacabin. This was used in the late 1980’s as a base from which residents held pickets against prostitution and drug dealing. Old Portacabins though, are political objects, and the cabin had been reborn as storage for a local children’s sport organisation.

Converting the Portacabin into a fully functioning Tourist information Centre proved a step too far and we had to create a more fluid, roving set-up that could be easily transported around the local area via three round trips in a Fiat Seicento.

We spent considerable time exploring the possibilities of having a genuine Indian pagoda style tent, but the cost and time were insurmountable, and we ended up purchasing the closest thing we could find from Magic Marquees of Manchester (if you concentrate, the gazebo has a faintly Middle Eastern feel to it). This was complimented by a range of props, such as banana fibre poufs and a red polypropolene mat from Ikea, trestle tables from Wickes and checked gingham cloth from Dunelm Mill. Additionally, three literature racks were slowly crafted over the course of several months from old fruit crates recycled and refashioned from the corner shop at the end of the road. These hopefully gave the appearance of a certain ‘slum chic’ so irresistible to artists.

The Tourist Information Centre distributed information on cultural activity in Balsall Heath, the visual arts more widely in Birmingham, the biennale newspaper, public sculpture colouring in posters, ‘Surreal House’ competition information, postcards and essays. The postcards featured a series of local ‘heritage’ sites and landmarks, such as Zaffs kebab house and Apna Ghar Asian OAP home.

The essays hopefully offered an esoteric and tangential lens through which to explore Balsall Heath. They included writing on taxi driver’s speeding offences in Taiwan, the political ecology of the plastic bag waste problem in Nairobi, driving under the influence of khat, the Tanzanian scrap recycling cycle and the role of artists within the field of gentrification. Block printing and badge making was also available at the centre - as was the opportunity to sign up for the Balsall Heath Academy of Contemporary Art.

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