Exploring art under self-isolation in Birmingham (and beyond.)

I’ve been talking to a couple of arts organisations about what their plans are to showcase their arts programming, and also to get people to engage with art, whilst part of the world currently gets to grips with the fact that getting out and about may be a bit more limited than what they have been used to as 21st century citizens. But already there individual artists and organisations are taking  steps to surmount all obstacles, and this blog will take a micro look at a macro phenomenon. Starting of course, in Birmingham.

I have run an open mic/showcase event called the Sunday Xpress since 2006. It is currently housed at Centrala, founded by the Polish Expats Association in 2014, and is one of the key players in Birmingham’s art community. It was announced on social media that the venue would close to the public for the foreseeable future. I sent the co-director a message, saying that we would have to cancel the gig, but if I could help in anyway, I would be more than happy to.

The response was very interesting – that there may be an option to stream gigs. Now, Centrala’s artistic programme is such that streaming would work particularly well, particularly as a lot of their artists could be filmed by a skeleton crew on a sound stage. The resulting footage could either be streamed live on social media, or perhaps, better, on a dedicated website with a donate button for the price of a ticket, with an option to download and keep after the event. Café OTO in Big London are doing the same, with the plea to ‘love your venues, even if you can’t be there in person.’

Looking at Centrala’s events page, there’s a lot that I would have liked to get to. There was an event featuring sound artists from Bulgaria on the 20th, an event from Thinking/Not Thinking Presents on the 22nd, and stop-off from Thomas Truax during his UK tour, with local support from Kate Arnold and Steckdose. I can’t get to everything, but the last time I was there was for the Supersonic Presents…AJA/Pretty Grim/Sofa King show on the 8th of March, and as usual with Supersonic events, I left with a big smile on my face. Supersonic Presents…have a dedicated YouTube channel, which is a fantastic resource if you weren’t there, and also to discover new and exciting acts that you may not have seen before, and especially if you’re having to minimise contact.

But on that Tuesday evening, I was delighted to see that Centrala were going ahead. Photographer Paulina Korobkiewicz and writer Natalia Domagala will be delivering their artist talk as planned for their current exhibition ‘Udarny Trud.’ However. It will be streamed only on YouTube on Thursday evening. To see it preserved, click the link below!

From what I have seen so far, Grand Union and BOM are planning to present artistic programmes online, and I believe that others within the artistic community will no doubt follow suit – please let me know!!

Locally in South Birmingham, I was carrying out one of my self-isolation jobs (focus: raking leaves in the garden) and thinking about how local engagement with the arts could occur under the new regime. In neighbouring Stirchley Park, there is already a camera obscura installation fitted by local artists Hipkiss & Graney as part of their Dead Shrines Project in 2019. In this regard I was thinking of our public parks being galleries, particularly if gallery notes are available on-line to hear more about a project.

Talking to Hipkiss & Graney, there is also a proposed movement for downloadable art kits, created alongside Heidi Murphy of Considered Mischief, with the idea that these would be suitable for all ages, and accessible at home. What I particularly liked about this idea is the way that delivering them could be adaptable – email and downloading, or even the fact that they could be hand-posted (if people had expressed interest in the idea of course.)  Stirchley Art Room produced a blog on Tuesday, proposing that they intended to offer art learning opportunities by offering project ideas, online tutorials and links. As usual with Stirchley, there is a galvanised community ready to activate these plans. Ampersand Projects’ Grow Your Road public events have had to be cancelled, yet they still aim to deliver growing packs to their three project roads, and will produce ‘how to’ videos and Facebook community groups for people to still take part in the programme.

Many in the creative industries are using their powers to try and help artists and freelancers through these uncertain times. One of these is Amahra Spence, founder of MAIA Group, who has set up a successful Go Fund Me page to ‘provide hardship funds for any artists, cultural workers that cannot work during this time,’ which as proved incredibly successful so far, raising over £2000 in two days. The fund was influenced by Luke Barnes, founder of the Liverpool Artists Coronovirus Fund, which you can also access here.

Elsewhere, there have been pledges by music fans to buy merchandise and/or advance tickets from up-and-coming bands and promoters who have had to cancel or postpone events. Music distributor Bandcamp has also announced that artists and groups will receive all proceeds from music and merchandise sales this weekend.

On a larger scale, Arts Council England were incredibly quick off the mark in addressing how they were going to support people who work in the arts, museums and libraries. And today,the BBC announced their plans to alter their schedules, with a detailed education programme for all ages, dedicated bulletin boards and help for those in isolation and also an ‘essential arts and culture service – Culture in Quarantine, to keep the arts alive in peoples homes.’

Of course, there are undoubtedly issues that are going to surround engaging with the arts under self-isolation, but if and when it all clears, it’s possible that we the people (!) will be even more galvanised to process real change, on our terms.

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