The following article first featured in November 2005’s issue 26 of ‘Prospect NW’, the monthly magazine for RIBA NW, published by the Carnyx Group. The features were part of a monthly series of ‘introductions to public art’ written by Ian Banks, the (then) Public Art & Architecture Officer for Arts Council England NW. Ian produced a total of 24 articles for Prospect NW, spanning from May 2003 to December 2005. Content varied according to artform and whatever pertinent public art news was current at that time. All 24 Prospect NW articles are available as a free pdf download off the self-publishing platform Lulu.
This article searches for the hidden and subtly layered role for micro art in the ‘Regeneration Game’. In doing this, it celebrates our community and the everyday and commonplace. “Life, can be terribly tame…..”.
Cryptic Clues – Hidden gems of the everyday and the commonplace
To me previously, the art and appeal of bird watching was about as unfathomable as doing the cryptic crossword, in that both appeared undeterminable pastimes wasting valuable time rather than providing either basic leisure amenity, or whiling away moments of boredom. Interesting for me then, to recently discover that both activities had formed the centrepiece of a series of micro arts interventions, commissioned by Sandwell’s arts-in-regeneration flagship called THE pUBLIC – which looks to create temporary artworks for its recurring Platform project. Curated by Trevor Pitt, these occur all along the West Midlands Metro line running between Birmingham and Wolverhampton.
The work Looking for the Black Redstart was commissioned as part of Platform in June and was supported by the Metro, as well as Urban Fusion, Sandwell Valley RSPB and The Wildlife Trust. Part of this involved artist Clare Thornton leading local people on an ecological ramble along the Metro line, armed with binoculars, to carefully look again at their everyday surroundings and identify the rare wildlife they had perhaps previously overlooked – and in particular the increasingly rare Black Redstart. Thornton produced a range of supplementary sound recordings, photographs, billboards and textile pieces as a result of the events. Although seriously in decline, and on the RSPB’s Amber List of endangered species, the endearing Black Redstart seems to actively favour the Birmingham and the Black Country area, having its preferred nesting sites within urban wastelands and old buildings, as well as along canals and railway lines. Admirably, this small robin-sized bird, actually prefers to live part of its year at the heart of our industrial and urban centres, migrating from our coasts to spend its summers nesting there.
To compliment this, artist and poet Alec Finlay’s publication Crossword (Snowhill-St George’s) is a poetic Word Map of that same journey and takes the form of a cryptic crossword, with each clue and answer relating to a station, stop or place along the transit route between two industrial centres. Accompanying the publication, four specially designed posters were sited in advertising spaces along the route that also held clues to the crossword. It was produced by Finlay working in collaboration with a local historian and The Guardian crossword setter Sandy Balfour, to collect words and clues relevant to a particular area, and which were available on the Metro trains throughout September.
THE pUBLIC (previously Jubilee Arts and more recently c/PLEX) has collectively over 30 years experience of what it describes as “inspirational and creative projects focusing on issues of importance to local communities including health, regeneration and education”. During this time, the organisation has worked with over 850 different local groups, reaching over 200,000 people. In 2006, THE pUBLIC will reach a major watershed, with the launch of its (reportedly) £30 million West Bromwich headquarters, designed by Alsop Architects. As one would perhaps expect, the building is a boldly inspiring and eccentric vision (which is hoped will eventually become the catalyst for further regeneration at grassroots level) combining arts, technology, learning and business development. One hopes though, that retained at the very heart of all this will still be their simple philosophy of valuing and facilitating modest, yet challenging, arts practice within the continually regenerating thing called ‘community’. As the Regeneration Game gathers momentum to force ever more high profile good practice and design onto our evolving communities, perhaps it is worth remembering that, whilst change is often good, not all that is good needs to be imported and spoon-fed to us – and certainly ‘big is not always best’. Tucked away in our everyday surroundings, often where they are least expected, are dormant clues just waiting to uncover a richer, more cryptic poetry. We may have to eke these out on our own a little, but perhaps a deeper sense of achievement and liberation comes from this more solitary and laborious process.