The city as art

Last Wednesday, 15 May 2013, saw Birmingham's Civic Society,,  host a debate on Public Art in Birmingham The Next Steps in which the society discussed it's aim to commission a piece of iconic public art to be unveiled in 2018, the centenary year of the Civic Society.    

The key questions directed to the audience were:

  • What defines Birmingham? 
  • What images do ‘Made in Birmingham’ conjure up? 
  • What is meant by ‘public works of art'? 
  • What defines an ‘iconic’ work of art? 
  • What would be the best location for such a work of art?

The debate followed the Birmingham Post article, Call for public artwork in Birmingham to rival Angel of the North, on May 3rd in which the Civic Society's ambitions were outlined and invitation to the public to debate what is public art and what they'd like to see was launched.

He said: “It started in 2011 when we set up a working group. We wanted to get to grips with existing public art in Birmingham, where it was and what was in the store. Also how appropriate it is and whether we could have something that showcased Birmingham worldwide, not just little statues people have forgotten about and reflecting Birmingham’s unique selling points or characteristics.”

Mr Pitchford highlighted existing high profile examples including the Iron Man, by Antony Gormley, and River Goddess (known as the Floozie in the Jacuzzi), the statue of Admiral Nelson (Birmingham’s only Grade 2 listed monument), the Chamberlain Memorial Fountain, the Hall of Memory, the statue of the Bullring bull and the statue of Boulton, Watt and Murdoch. Works in storage include the Spirit of Enterprise fountain.

I attended the debate last Wednesday that, perhaps disappointingly for the Civic Society, didn't reach an outcome on what the iconic piece or even pieces of art work should be or even where it should be sited but did provide an interesting discussion on the role of art in the city and what Birmingham itself stands for.  What was noticeable however was an audience that didn't reflect the diversity that the city is made up of and while one comment from the floor said perhaps we should think of the city as a jigsaw i feel that if we don't engage everyone to own the artwork it will fail in one of it's key aspects as a piece of 'public' art.

Laurence Broderick's bronze bull at the Bullring,, has been adopted by residents of the city through the Bullring being an integral part of the city, and follows a previous bull which was seen on the wall of the former 1960s shopping centre.  The bull has become a well loved attraction to visitors and residents were rightly upset when it was damaged in 2009,\

That's not to say everyone will like whatever is picked for the finished piece or pieces of public artwork, but I hope that even admirers and detractors aside it will be something the city owns and which might therefore help the aims of becoming iconic and representing the city.  The discussion noted how iconic pieces of art can become known globally reflecting the cities in which they sit but how this also challenges the artwork as reflecting the city or as an idea of the icon itself.

It would be hard to buy a piece of iconic art and 'plonk' it down in Birmingham and expect it to do a change in image overnight and I personally think this would undermine the essence of the art being a Birmingham piece, something that has come from the city or which an artist has created have taken ideas from their reflections on the city.  The Angel of the North, which the Birmingham Post article provocatively suggests we want to rival, sits on a site where coal miners worked for centuries and reflects Newcastle.  Our own piece should be something that speaks for us and attracts attention and interest.

One commentator in the debate noted that you cannot predict the outcome of art and while it's difficult to separate the stated aims of helping to change Birmingham's image we shouldn't work backwards from the desired outcome to an identikit approach to creating a piece of public art.  Birmingham has been bold and brave in the past and our own motto speaks of going Forward.  One commentator noted the defining character of Birmingham has been taking risk and it would be exciting to see an artist commissioned who could take their interpretation from the city and create something away from competing needs of those commissioning them.

Public art shouldn't be a full stop.  Being Iconic stops it moving forward.

Birmingham has not stood still and the redevelopment of New Street Station is a natural part of a city which reinvents itself periodically and which can mix the old and the new as it changes from a city of a 1000 trades to a city of 1000 opportunities, people and backgrounds.  Public art and the idea of a traditional public artwork statue as someone noted reflects a snapshot of time and in that static form can quickly blend into the background through the passage of time; the iconic becomes the background.  For me that's what I like about the shiny exterior of New Street Station and how that will reflect the changing city around it from the reflections of people passing or standing still or the changing weather and clouds passing by.  Capturing change but in a fixed way however might be an almost impossible challenge but one that seems worth attempting.

Some of the interesting suggestions and comments from the debate included:

  • Using the canals and the flow of water that permeates the city.
  • Using the BT tower as a focal point city wide and making it less plain; even the suggestion of the former Bull Ring's King Kong climbing it.
  • Using former viaducts as New York City inspired Highlines as green spaces.
  • Bringing together materials and images shared by all faiths such as fire, stone, water.
  • The use of street art; a topical note following Digbeth is Good highlighting the loss of the welcome to Digbeth artwork adjacent to the coach station, Welcome to Digbeth…

While the debate on a piece or pieces of public art should provide another interesting debate for the city, Bank Holiday weekend will see the inaugural Birmingham Architecture Festival.

The event seems aptly timed following the public art debate with a series of events under the theme of 'Take A Second Look' designed to inspire, engage and provoke debate and look at the city in fun and inventive ways celebrating the ever-changing city of Birmingham.

The wonderful Urban Buildings, has highlighted some of the interesting things to look for.

Things to look forward to include architect accompanied photo walks, by Matt and Pete’s Photo School.  It also looks like Ben Waddington from the Still Walking festival has been inspiring/assisting with the creation of some of the walks, based on a mention of theDigbeth Moss tour on his blog.

These type of tours are a great chance to explore a city we might think we know intimately, but end up leaving with a fresh perspective on things.  As Ben says:
I often suggest to people they stop and look at the city rather than walk past it at a fast pace – there are worthwhile things to see that you will miss by walking at all.

The programme shows the activities taking place from Friday 24 to Monday 27 and many are selling out fast if not already sold out.  If you can't make one of the events why not take a tour round the city and see the contrasting styles of architecture or discover a new area of the city or explore the city through the pin hole camera photography of Tom Hunter who has explored spaces and places in the Jewellery Quarter and Colmore Row Business District,

A few of my own pictures exploring the city are shown below from my flickr collection:


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