Echoes was a two-year project, looking at the histories and stories of Digbeth and Highgate from the 50s to the 80s. We worked with local people, archivists and activists to compile a huge archive of oral histories relating to the areas – which you can now access through the Library of Birmingham’s archives.
The project culminated in a nine-room interactive, touchable installation, based in our studios and neighbouring buildings, and was also re-interpreted for a 3-month run at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. During the project we ran loads of events for local residents, including ‘Yard Talk’, where we invented ‘reggae bingo’, in order to connect local Irish and Afro-Caribbean residents – ‘ I and I, on it’s own, number 1!’. ‘Kebab and a Scuffle’ where local resident Ray O’Donnel recounted memories of being in local gangs in the ’60s, and we made Yard Talk a monthly event where residents would come and talk about particular themes – e.g. ‘work’, ‘play’ ‘holidays’ – we later developed this into bringing young artists along and presenting alongside elders, for instance a contemporary dancer and a former ‘Windmill girl’ would compare their experiences in very different dance contexts.
The final exhibition was toured in groups of up to 15 at a time, was unguided, everything was touchable or interactive in some way – visitors were led around by the recorded voices of residents, and ‘magically’ opening curtains – it was like a performance without performers. There were a series of rooms that were themed and contained a number of related installations:
- ‘Nan’s front room’ – a typical working class ‘best’ room, more touchable than the real thing, containing plastic-covered furniture, nick-nacks and aspirational objets – with biscuits to nibble on your way round. There were stories of buying warm, freshly slaughtered chicken, buying souvenirs of holidays you never went on, and more
- The Homeworking Room – wallpapered with knitting patterns, filled with dozens of boxes, this room was a homage to the practice of poor families topping up their earnings by sitting up late into the night, threading nuts onto bolts, ‘carding’ safety pins and other piecework
- The locker room – a representation of a typical factory locker room, the smell of carbolic soap, tea bags chucked up against the wall and workboots next to shoes. This room was particularly poignant for a lot of older men who would spend loads of time in there, despite it being the smallest room in the show. It represented for them the transition from childhood to manhood, one of the oral histories in the room talked about leaving school as a child (at 14) on Friday, and beginning work as a man on Monday
- The industry room – with a pounding factory soundtrack interspersed with stories of amputated fingers, being the last out and locking up a factory you’d worked in for decades, this was a difficult room to curate. We couldn’t recreate a factory so we made a series of installations with a centrepiece showing one man’s tool collection, developed over 40 years working as a cabinet-maker in a local factory, from the first toolbox given to him by his mother as an apprentice to the one he had on retirement
- Celebration room – this room was about the fun factory workers used to have – works outings, Christmas parties, you could eat curly sandwiches and cheese and pineapple on a stick while you looked round this room
- The squat/bomb peck room – this room was about the transition in the 80’s when industry really declined, factories became derelict and unemployment was high – it was also balanced by tales of play in old bombsites – or bomb pecks as the Brummie saying goes. There was a re-creation of a squat, and a detailed bomb peck, toys and games to play
- The pub – pubs have been uber important in the area – social centre, job centre, where wedding parties happened one day and wakes the next – we had to include a pub installation. The stories in this ranged from funny stories of local characters to harrowing stories of the 1974 IRA pub bombings. We installed a stage with a working mic at the end and we had groups of people having singsongs and hosting impromptu standup comedy sets
The pub was the ‘final’ part of the exhibition, but possibly the most important part was still to come. Whilst people were going around the show, we transformed ‘nan’s front room’ with a large table and lots of tea and biccies on hand. When people came through we’d all sit down and talk about the show and what it had made them think about. These talks often went on longer than the show, it having triggered all sorts of memories and thoughts and we got some great further oral histories out of these chats. They were also loads of fun. The whole experience of the group going around the show together, talking to each other and picking up or touching everything, then sitting down for tea, chats and reflection at the end made the exhibition a really engaging and holistic experience, unlike anything the audience had experienced before – it made a lot of them think more about engaging with the arts. Five years down the line and lots of the people who attended keep coming to our events, or just dropping by for a cuppa.