ARTICLES Finding a home: a conversation about community, live-art and Birmingham

Credit: Jessie Leong

Finding a home: a conversation about community, live-art and Birmingham

We talk to the founders of Home for Waifs and Strays, a Birmingham initiative that seeks to foster a community and home for live-artists in the city. 

Kate Spence: In a nutshell, Aleks rang me one night.

Aleks Wojtulewicz: At 2 in the morning – like all the best ideas, late at night and not sober! I was in Swansea, in a bar called Shakespeare’s, sitting at the piano. And then I thought, something needs to happen in Birmingham. As an artist, you go away and study, and then you come back to the city and you try and find your place in the arts. There was one, but it was fragmented, and didn’t really exist in the way I felt it needed to exist. I knew Kate felt the same.

KS: You literally texted, would you like to start a live art organisation in Birmingham with me? And I thought, why aren’t we already doing that? It felt like, this makes total sense. We didn’t even really know each other very well back then. But the crucial thing is that we met outside of Birmingham – there wasn’t much in the way of Birmingham supporting its emerging live artists. So we wanted to fill the gap.

What does live art as a practice require?

KS: You need space, you need a community, you need to be able to test ideas. It’s a hard thing to track and document because once it happens, it’s finished. If you’re performing your own work, you don’t ‘see’ your own work, and it’s hard to step back and look at it.

AW: It can be quite lonely.

And what does your project do to counter that?

KS: So our project enables lots of events that people can come back to, that are social, even if they are showcasing, developing work, or are workshops or discussions. You’re meeting people that you might not have met before, forming friendships and meeting people you can bounce your ideas off. The more people do that, the more people set up things themselves. In Birmingham now, you have lots of little organisations and collectives sharing work and putting on their own events, all contributing to the city’s art on their own terms. What we try and do is work with lots of different artists that are doing many different types of live art.

Initially, we would put out open calls every month, using spaces that were free: above a pub, or even downstairs, and we brought a live artist from Bristol to do a large-scale performance in the cathedral grounds. We did a lot of city-centre based things, and had different venues each time. Then we applied for funding, and got offered a space for a while, which meant we had more control over what we could show because we didn’t have restrictions – nudity could be involved, for instance – we tried to have a balance of bringing artists outside of Birmingham, and having open calls for people to show their work. Funding also meant we could pay people, which meant the ambition of the work we were showing grew.

AW: We’ve always had from the beginning a focus on there having to be a form of development, and we have to support the people we don’t see supported. As emerging artists when we started this, we were in the same boat as the people we were curating for shows, which both was detrimental in that we were not being supported ourselves. But also positive, in that we were supporting the community. We’ve always had a focus on taking something and making it a little better, but we have also always had an open platform for failure, because we would much rather have someone try something for the first time and fail, than do something they’ve done a million times, because that’s boring.

If you think about the traditional institutions that will have been set up at various times to support artists in Birmingham, historically – whether galleries or charities – why were they failing to mend the gap you had to step into?

AW: A lot of it comes down to funding, as bad as it sounds, and also how ‘new’ performance is in the world of art.

KS: Even though it’s not!

AW: Even though performance art is ancient, coming from stories round a campfire – still a form of performance – but for it to be considered necessarily as an art form that needs funding, that changed a lot in the 60s and 70s. Then, people had careers as performance artists, they took a yearly wage. That time is gone, and now people fight for those jobs – there isn’t the financial support to build performance artists. There is still that underground idea of ‘we’re not getting paid for this, we do it because we love it’ in Birmingham.

KS: The problem is that live art is difficult to curate, and to document, and there is no sellable object. A lot of live art is not ‘family friendly’, it often doesn’t have the potential to be a children’s workshop, a lot of it won’t fulfil criteria for funding in those ways. A feminist artist making work using her period blood – that’s not going to be the one they want to bring in for children’s workshops, but we still want to show her work, and give her the ability to make work like that. We wanted to have a safe space where people can make their work better, and turn Birmingham into a place that artists want to stay in, to continue their practice in a meaningful way here.

In Birmingham, there is always an uncertainty around space – people don’t know how long they will hold onto their spaces. That really becomes an issue. Because of landlords. Because of gentrification. Because they want office buildings, hotels and everything shiny. And in one sense, that is totally understandable, and you have to ask, does the wider community of Birmingham want conceptual art? Or do they want more jobs? But the knock-on effect is that people are always on the move.

And to have a space in the city centre is very very expensive, partly because of business rates – and so you completely change, you stop being an artist and you start being a business person.

What we try to do is have equal value for artists making live art as there is for visual art. So last year we had ‘Homegrown’, which was an artist development project which gave each artist a mentor, a tour around the UK, talks and documentation.

How do you think public attitudes have shifted?

KS: I think people enjoy coming to something live, they find it exciting, it’s less boring because they don’t know what’s going to happen.

AW: I remember when we started our shows three years ago, we would get sometimes 3 members in our audience. A year or two after that, I remember counting on the door, sometimes something like 350 to 400. Rare occurrences, but spaces are being filled, and a massive turnaround of people – you have a following going to our shows, knowing that there is live art to be expected.

And so you have grown a community – is there anything those people have gone and done as a result of that energy?

KS: Yes, more people have experimented with making performance, who might not have done before.

AW: On our ‘Homegrown’ project, we made a point of saying, we want anyone who thinks they are making some kind of performance, be it music, sound, anything – just something live. And I think that’s where the art community has changed loads in Birmingham: it used to be performance art for performance artists, but now there is a sense of making art for everyone.

KS: There is a bigger sense of community with all the arts organisations, and people are looking at how we are going to survive together.

AW: When the funding changed, with less available, now it’s almost when you put in an application, you don’t expect to get it. So you have to think of alternative methods, and that involves working with communities, and other arts organisations in partnerships: you’re always in conversation with them. Now you’ll get messages from people asking to work together on an Arts Council application.

The problem is that it all comes down to funding. The Arts Council changes their criteria every year, in terms of applicants – they’re not hiding those changes, but they have their own agenda. Quite rightly so, they’re giving away the money. But in our first funding bid, they wanted to see us working in partnerships, and people within the city, then the next year they wanted you to be working with people outside of your city, and now they will want you to match with your own funding. The problem is that you just don’t know what will happen next year.

KS: Another part of live art that is really fascinating in Birmingham at the minute is the drag scene and there’s so much interesting stuff happening there. One of the artists who we had on our ‘Homegrown’ project was China Dethcrash, who works at the Nightingale Club which has drag queens as hosts. China wanted to do more than just host – they all did: they have a creative practice, they want do more than just have photos taken and look after drunk people. So there are now nights such as Glittershit, Second Self and collectives such as Dragpunk and Creature Collective Birmingham, set up and run by the Drag community in Birmingham. That’s certainly a less gentrified art form, built on a completely different model: you start at 10 at night and finish at 6 in the morning. Unlike a lot of the rest of the art world.

What’s important is, a load of people are saying, ‘I believe in this, I’m really passionate about this’ and are doing something together, making cool things happen. That’s always happened in Birmingham, but how do we do it so it doesn’t just exist for a couple of years before moving elsewhere? People can’t move somewhere else now because London is too expensive to live in, so we have to make it happen here. One of the good things about Birmingham is that it’s still relatively affordable to live here.

So you’ve talked a bit about austerity and how it’s changed the context, inequality, gentrification and how that pushes the process of change, and how forms of art change across history. What are the other drivers of change that you expect over the next ten years?

AW: I think there will be more people over the next ten years starting their own things – people are starting to enjoy independent art, and I think that’s the direction. When we started as an independent organisation, the joy was that we could do what we wanted. A lot of artists out there still have to tailor themselves to applications.

KS: Artists are people too. They have lives, they have children, they have other priorities. We need to have time to sustain ourselves. There are interesting things happening in Birmingham around that. For example, the Impact Hub has radical childcare – a parenting scheme with 2 days’ desk space and a crèche on one day.

AW: Slowly artists are standing up and expecting to get paid. You’re expected to do a lot of work for free, for virtually no money. So there is a shift now.

KS: A lot of people can get very tired and drained.

AW: When essentially you have nothing to ‘sell’.

KS: Say your artwork is amazing, but you’re not good at writing funding applications, you will struggle. When we put an open call out and get applications, we don’t assume that everyone is amazing with words. That’s one of the things we are able to do to help.