Tonight I participated in a diverting, though possibly not very illuminating discussion billed as The Art Of Ideas.
The brief was to talk about how art may be shaped by the place in which it is made. Catherine O’Flynn spoke eloquently about Birmingham Old and New and her love of those places forgotten bits of the old live on in the new. The architect Sam Jacob talked about the Narrative and the place of architecture in Urban Regeneration and this, of better or worse, is roughly what I said…
“First up have to issue one apology and one caveat. The apology is to everyone here who lives in the West Midlands but outside Birmingham, I’m sorry, not that you live there not here, or that once again that you’ve had to travel here from there, but that, for now, I’m going to ignore that there exists at all. The caveat is simply that my thesis is entirely undermined by the existence of Led Zeppelin.
I’m James Yarker, director of Stan’s Cafe, which is a theatre company but which sees this as no impediment when chasing artistic ideas that excite us in whatever direction they take us. We tour our productions across continental Europe, to North America and Australia, but they are all made in here Birmingham and are often born out of, or bound up with, our home the City.
In early shows props and pieces of set were picked up from the gutters and the city’s street corners to act parts in our fantastical dramas.
Voodoo City was inspired by two black cider bottles lined up on a Balsall Heath pavement in a way which could only mean that urban voodoo was afoot and a spell had been written out of this place to exert control over those things in our lives which were beyond our control.
In Ocean of Storms the 11c orbital bus route is ridden as a space capsule, a satellite reporting back to earth as angels search for a girl in a sliver puffa jacket who is lost in the city.
More recently Home Of The Wriggler, set way in the future, tells, in extraordinary fragmented detail, tales of a vast community of people whose lives were bound together by the Longbridge car plant.
I was 21 when I moved to Birmingham to form Stan’s Cafe with Graeme Rose, an indigenous Brummie. I didn’t really care where I was so long as I was doing what I wanted to do. And this big, cheap, dirty, well-connected, energetic, fast developing city suited us well. I loved it because it felt real; for the first time I was living somewhere where people made things. It felt honest. I loved it because it felt alien, I could go to the corner shop buy my tea and return home without hearing a word of English spoken. As the years have gone by I’ve come to realise that either Stan’s Cafe is suited to Birmingham, or we have come to resemble our city.
My perception is that Birmingham is a modest City, it is suspicious of the Flash, or the brash, or the arrogant, or anything that may give off the whiff of pretension, possibly for this reason it has never been fashionable. In fact, certainly for all of my youth it was unfashionable, possibly leading to a sense of self-containment, which may in recent years have burgeoned to self-contentment. Great art is made in this city but its makers do not make a fuss about it and neither does the city. The civic leaders aside, most people seem happy just to be left alone and so ingrained is the city’s sense of modesty that it’s attempts at showing off rarely hit the mark.
Possibly because of this contentment, possibly because of it’s fear of pretension, but maybe because it isn’t a port, or even because it lacks an aggressive regional rivalry, Birmingham has no edge, it isn’t a city that appears to enthusiastically embrace the new or the radical. Stan’s Cafe is making a success of itself here not because of a great local vaunting of the theatrical avant-garde, but because this city provides us with a rich stimulus of sites and sounds and thoughts and challenges to respond to.
In truth, we moved to this city because no one appeared to be doing here what we wanted Stan’s Cafe to do. We were to be the big fish in this vast empty pond. The plan has worked but in truth there was and is plenty of life in this vast pond. People are making things, tinkering, building, innovating, experimenting, fabricating, testing and patenting in workshops, lofts, bed-sits and places where men once bashed metal. This city has a voice, you just have to listen for it as it chooses not to shout at you.”
Then there was the usual ‘discussion’ stuff.
There is another talk tomorrow (Wednesday) then Brian Duffy is in the eye of a musical storm for them on Thursday.