Birmingham’s Digbeth First Fridays started in 2014 and have since created a monthly event where different independent art spaces synchronise the openings of their new shows. The resulting evenings are always cheerful environments as people hop between the various spots, picking up another glass of wine at each location, absorbing a flavour from each space, bumping into people they met at a previous Friday. Growing up in Birmingham I attended and enjoyed what the city had to offer regarding these smaller arts venues, usually tucked away in Digbeth, somewhat hidden from view and off the beaten track of the city centre. Before First Fridays was launched, weird, low-key spaces doing interesting things certainly existed, but it often felt you had to be-in-the-know to find them. And though being in on the public secret can feel exciting, it is great to see First Fridays shine a light upon the more obscure activities of the city, illuminating this important and vibrant aspect of Birmingham to more people. Several of the galleries that actively and repeatedly participate in First Fridays are located in the Minerva Works complex on Fazely street and include Grand Union, Vivid Projects, Stryx and Centrala.
My highlight of this month’s event was Khadlja von Zinnenburg Carroll’s performance “Men in Waiting” and Khadlja von Zinnerburg Carroll’s exhibition “New Work”, curated by Roma Piotrowska at Styrx. Carrol’s work showed images along the walls and boxes of drawings on a short table that over spilled into people’s hands as they picked them up to get a closer look, rummaged and moved images to see the ones underneath, unearthed those at the bottom of the piles. Mostly the boxes showed child-like drawings done with pencil crayons depicting different situations – fallen trees, figures in combat – somehow the images displayed distress. Also in the boxes were pamphlets on G4S security, and on the walls were fuzzy, pixilated photographs with similar children’s drawings over the top: corporate and bland corridors embellished with illustrated guards, guard dogs and people fighting.
The performance took place at the back of the gallery. The blinds on the windows were closed. A frosted door-sized panel hung from the ceiling, just above the ground, on the left-hand side of the performance area. A laptop connected to a projector, an overhead projector, a slide projector, a musician with a guitar, a performer, a mask, a paper puppet, torches and speakers were all present in the space. The piece featured a smartly dressed central performer who guided the show. It opens with a light shining from behind the frosted panel and in its spotlight a silhouette of the performer’s face appeared alongside a shadow puppet, their body cut in an intricate, lace-like pattern. They share a paper microphone and whisper, and though what was said escapes me, I remember the delicacy that caused the crowded room to hush and look. The spotlight went off, the projector revved up and a corporate border-control PowerPoint began.
The room filled with an automated, disembodied voice that assumed the position of an immigration holding space located at the back of Heathrow airport. The performer then shifted from a whispering shadow, to assuming the role of border control and immigration spokesperson. Technology shifted again, this time to slides, and so too the performers position became increasingly fragmented, switched to a position that sounded like the perspective of someone who was kept in an immigration detention centre. At first, I found the confusion a little alienating, unable to grasp the space from which the art spoke, but soon I realised that I was amongst a plethora of fragments: the visual rhetoric that jumped between technologies, the fragments of sentences that surfaced and disappeared from the performer’s mouth – I was being shuffled through an environment, too multi-faceted and too large and too political to entirely comprehend. The place: a political and physical border, geographical movement, immigration centres, holding cells. The voice: immigrants, refugees, prisoners, border patrol guards, spaces that hold people. It lasted about thirty minutes, it’s structure becoming somewhat episodic, each segment marked with different tools used to visualise the complex ideas and perspectives that each relished in their lack of coherence. We ended on a video of a small house burning, a girl sitting and watching at its side. The room was still and hushed till the end, and I mused how we had all changed together, from curious audience to bodies in a room, captivated by the work.
Another highlight from this month was Luke Dowd’s show “Best Wishes, Warm Regards, Many Thanks!” at Recent Activity on Floodgate street. The gallery is small, the entrance is an open garage door and the central wall cuts diagonally across the space. Twelve images are pinned up in a grid, almost all a uniform A1 size. They converse with each other, unified by certain aesthetic tropes and their quotidian subjects. The papers are filled with images composed largely by gradients of block dots often found in screen prints, with one piece showing only levels of black to grey gradation. Others are interjected with colourful felt-tip lines, spray paint smears, patches of light, awkward white spaces, curved lines that look like string left on light-sensitive paper in the dark room for a photogram. All these textures are then flattened, made unaware of each other’s differing materiality as they share a single plane on the printed paper. The less abstracted images are glimpses from Dowd’s studio: wires along a wooden floor, his feet standing over a pervious work, and then more domestic looking spaces: pots and pans on the hob. Such objects appear as if they have been photographed, scanned and screen printed before being worked over, scribbled or drawn on, cut up a little before being rescanned and printed (this is me speculating.) When I see these quotidian objects in the work, I wonder if they function less as identifiable moments and more as stock content, the thing that the work is made around because it is the thing that is there, present in the instance when the art must be made, the thing that process can orbit around. I cannot help but read the title as somehow sarcastic, a combination of pleasantries scrawled at the end of a correspondence, meaningless but necessary, again a stock content.
James Lawrence Slattery.
Luke Dowd’s “Best Wishes, Warm Regards, Many Thanks” at Recent Activity runs till the 9th of June. More info at http://recentactivity.org.uk/project-space/luke-dowd/
For more info on First Fridays visit https://digbethfirstfriday.com/take-part-2/
James Lawrence Slattery is an artist, academic, and critic living and working in London. Their main research centers around queer attitudes, neoliberal subjectivity, and film analysis. They recently published an essay for Montez Press titled “Love 2 Hate You: Jouissance Between Identity and Capital”. Upcoming projects include a paper titled “The ‘Aletheic’ Gaze as Queer Vision” to be presented at the Film-Philosophy Conference 2018 at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. They write a regular blog, www.tobereel.wordpress.com.
Featured image: Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll, Men in Waiting, performance, music by Jessyca Hutchins, photo Ilona Zielinska