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.

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