Eastside, East of Westside

Here’s a tweet I saw the other day, a sentiment we’ve all heard (and maybe said) before:

“Wish Birmingham’s creatives would shout louder about the great stuff that goes on in the city”.

There are lots of good things, but by definition there’s chaff with the wheat too — so are we really after “the creatives” to do the shouting? Wouldn’t we be better served with a batch of critical eyes, exposing the greatness?

Or is the shouting the first stage of that, do people need to be aware of ‘something’ before they can pick the best bits? But do “the creatives” (a pointless generalisation, but I may as well stick with it as everyone else seems to) really want to let us know they’ve got a trumpet?

Or, do they just want to impress the art scene, get a few quizzical looks from passers-by and be able to moan that “people from round here don’t care”? There’s always been that suspicion floating round my head; notice how all the excitement is round the ‘private view’ or the party (something I’ve never really understood) rather than the exhibition itself, think about how odd (and ad-hoc) opening times prohibit dropping in, think of overly discrete signage and oblique descriptions.

How many of our art-spaces acknowledge what they are on the outside in some way, you know with the word ‘art’ or it’s bourgeois partners ‘gallery’ or ‘exhibition’, how many are willing to sit back and have people walk past assuming that the old factory has started up making widgets again?

Take He An’s I talked to Ah Chang on the way to work. After work I ended the relationship. I stood in Paradise Circus and cried for hours… neon sign piece. It dominated views of Digbeth for around a year, was an interesting and accessible piece of art — but wasn’t documented or celebrated anywhere nearby. No explanation, no plaque, no way for people to find out more. Coupled with the use of Chinese and being placed on a building that demonstrably wasn’t Paradise Circus, how were people meant to engage?

We Are Eastside | Birmingham

We Are Eastside is trying. Looking past the nebulous concept of ‘Eastside’ itself (the area has a name, Digbeth, one that people of the city have had a few hundred years to get used to) there is a collection of interesting things happening in the area — and the less well known (or newer) should hope to get a well-deserved recognition bump from being seen as part of a scene.


View We Are Eastside in a larger map

Anything that makes the stuff going on at Eastside Projects easier to find out about is to be celebrated — I’ve seen some brilliant stuff there and its themed exhibitions are well balanced between challenging and accessible. New space Grand Union will need help for people to simply find, tucked as it is into the second floor of an old sword-making factory (sword-making? wow) on tiny industrial estate flanked by mechanics and an even more incongruous Baptist Church. And people do need to find it, it’s showing some nice stuff (I was particularly taken with the Roderick Buchanan piece in there currently) and has a very relaxed atmosphere.

Some of what We Are Eastside (as a collection of things) is isn’t as easy to understand, you can’t visit promoters or publishers so maybe the addition of Birmingham Jazz, Punch Records or Tindal Street Press into the mix does little to foster coherence of ‘stuff to see or do’, or is that not the point. ‘Stuff to be proud of’, yes — but those visiting the Custard Factory or other office spaces will usually find little art activity that they can get involved in. At least in the Custard Factory at the moment there’s some floor to walk across.

Rhubarb-Rhubarb’s new gallery is more easy to understand in that it’s obvious what it does, and on the evidence of its opening show that’s exhibit huge stunning fine art photography.

Created in Birmingham’s shop is so successful because it’s in the centre of public activity in town. For that to work it needs to make some artistic compromises, those over in Eastside don’t need to do that — but they do have a need to drag people across. Why will people come — what’s the attraction?

We Are Eastside is having a go and it’s great to see that the website acknowledges the place of cafés, shops and pubs in that — I’d go further and invite them to contribute too. That might go a little way towards making Eastside somewhere that does deserve a calling a area rather than creatives/industry/some people all existing separately in the same place. Some of the best stuff I’ve seen in Digbeth has been that, like Friction Arts’ Echoes from the Edge, which has really been a part of the area.

If anyone must be Eastside, let’s keep it up and make it worth finding.

  • Lee

    Right with you on the critical factor – being shouted about would be far more satisfying than having to do the shouting oneself. However, having an opinion about anything in the world of the 'creatives' (yep, inverted commas are the order of the day) is frowned upon, any criticism tends to create a defensive position and counterattacks follow. We Are Eastside, despite pandering to the renaming of the area (does anyone remember being consulted about that?) may hopefully offer some kind of joined-up approach to what is going on in the arts (as opposed to the 'creative' industries) in Digbeth, perhaps some kind of critical approach or quality benchmarking might emerge as a result. We live in hope. I would also like to see more engagement by the 'creatives' with the area they work in – what about the Shisha bars, for instance – The Moon Lounge (the old Carpenter's Arms) is massively popular (and does great 'shakes), all the cultural activity that goes on in the pubs, like the spoken word stuff Wrote Under do. There's a lot more going on around here than the rather insular Eastside lot might credit, and it might do us all a bit of good to expand this effort into something that really reflects the hive of activity that is Digbeth. And can we drop this Eastside twaddle now, hardly anyone outside knows where the hell it is – but everyone pretty much knows Digbeth!

  • “And can we drop this Eastside twaddle now, hardly anyone outside knows where the hell it is – but everyone pretty much knows Digbeth!”

    (Albeit as an outsider) I'm hugely in favour of abandoning this “referring to Digbeth as 'Eastside'” bollocks.

    Just saying, likesay.

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  • The main problem with 'Eastside' is the creeping lack of imagination that laid out plans for 'Westside' and 'Northside' in the Big City Plan.

  • That is indeed a terrible thing, but to call it the 'main' problem seems to suggest that the name “Eastside” wasn't spectacularly crap to start with. Which it was. And is.

    It's a shame Brum doesn't have a butchery quarter. They could call that “Topside”.

  • Not sure the CiB shop has to make artistic compromises. Does it feel is has to? Bull Ring customers are a pretty wide church.

    This is a really interesting piece Jon. There does seem to be a lack of critique around Brum's arts scene, I've heard many say it. And those hidden Eastside galleries are something that drives me nuts. If you want to 'shout' about how great we are then, as you say, put an A-board outside with a big arrow pointing to the way in.

    I couldn't work out if by using the word 'Eastside' this group were pandering to the planners or quietly undermining them. I like the the Spartacus tone of it anyway – “No, WE are Eastside; No, WE are… etc. etc.”.

  • I read Pete's post on what sells in the Bull Ring to be artistic compromise of a sort “Items should appeal to a high street mindset.etc” — http://cibshop.wordpress.com/2010/03/15/were-lo

    I think that's perfectly valid really, I wonder how well the Pavilions 'Art Shop' will do by comparison.

  • RichBatsford

    I think most people are probly shouting as loud as they reasonably can. Shouting – ie marketing isnt easy, but I would imagine most groups are giving it their best go. Bearing in mind you have to balance things – Im aways very aware that as a promoter and as an artist its important for me to try and make people aware of what Im doing, but Im constantly also aware of not wanting to come across as going on about it all the time and coming across as self-obsessed or self-important (any more than usual anyway).

    How should people “shout” louder?

    More and better reviews/reviewers would certainly be a great move.
    Xx

  • “How should people “shout” louder?”

    Also much better signage and accessible explanations.

  • I should expand on it in depth but it's less a compromise and more an acceptance and respect of our location. I don't want to be the sort of wanky popup shop that attempts to “challenge” the retail hegemony or whathaveyou by being annoying. I'd like to show that you can produce and sell stuff that people want to put in their homes without it being shit. I don't want the artists in the CiB shop to compromise but I do want them to think about their work in a very different context to, say, the Ikon. Because we're not in the Ikon. We're opposite H&M. We have to respect that.

  • And I read it as “no, We are Eastside” too. The only downside seems to be the inclusion of a few organisations to satisfy funding requirements, but that's inevitable really, once you go down the funding route.

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