Our love and connection to the Sunday Bootsale at the Wholesale Markets led us to having an ongoing relationship with the site as a whole, some of the workers at the Wholesale also ran stalls at the Sunday market. We learned of the (supposedly) imminent closure of the site in 2015 and the proposed relocation to a new, out of town site. People started asking us if we were going to do something about it – our interventions at the market seemed to have made people believe there was something we could do. We knew we weren’t going to be able to change the local government’s decision to take back such a valuable piece of real estate, but at least we could try and preserve some of the stories and histories of the site and celebrate this unique part of our city’s history.
We spent a large part of the next three years of our lives building this project. We began by interviewing market workers and customers, and beginning the huge task of documenting the place. There’s been a market on the site since 1086, when the then ‘lord of the manor’ was granted a charter to hold a livestock market there. This brought people to the then tiny hamlet of Birmingham, some of whom settled and, in Lee’s words in our Everything Must Go performance – ‘The market bought the trade, and the trade brought the traders, and the traders brought the makers and the mavericks, and fortunes were won and fortunes were lost and fortunes were stolen, and we built this city, and we tore her down, and we built this city, and we tore her down and we built this city, where the only constants are change, and the markets…’. The Wholesale Market could truly be said to be the birthplace of Birmingham and we would be losing a market on this site after 900 or so years, so it needed to be attended to with care and love.
We began by working with photographer Dan Burwood who took images of workers at the market using his 100ish-year-old large format camera. We gave all the subjects large prints of the shots, in return we would interview them about their time working at the markets – we always try and have a reciprocal relationship with any community we work with, and the market community were no exception. As you can imagine, the community here was a tough nut to crack, if we weren’t regarded with outright suspicion initially, we were certainly regarded with bemusement – what were these artists doing here? As Christmas was coming we held an impromptu party at 6am one morning, dressing up in Santa hats and handing out chocolates and mince pies and we brought along Bostin’ Brass to play a concert – there were no official festivities, so the workers at least started to regard us more favourably and we could start to get some real chats in.
For lots and lots (but actually a tiny sample) of photos, videos and audio recordings we made during our time at the market, you can visit our Tumblr,
We continued to inhabit the market, often staying all night to document, explore and talk to the workers. We often spent time in the market café, run by the fantastic Joe. It was the centre of market culture – the breakfasts were legendary, a request for egg on toast got you six eggs, for instance, for people working all night his refuelling station was a godsend. Joe would often also feed local homeless people for free, much to the annoyance of market management and security – though many would turn a blind eye. One of the other things we’d notice was that, around 10 in the morning, as the market began to wind down, people would arrive to pick up discarded fruit and veg off the floor. These were mainly Chinese, African and Afro-Caribbean elders, supplementing their diets with some perfectly good produce – there was a fair bit of waste generally at the markets and as we spent time there we rarely had to buy our fruit and veg. The move to the new market with it’s closed site has prevented these casual market-goers from obtaining this free food supplement, and preventing food waste, and we wonder what difference it has made to their lives – and their health.
As we clearly weren’t going away, Birmingham City Council started to take notice of us, and more or less offered us support – we had a particularly fraught relationship with the Markets dept, who seemed to regard us as a bit of an annoyance. Whilst Leadership appreciated our efforts to record the market before its demise, so consequently there was a lot of toing and froing with permissions for this and that which created tensions, but we weren’t to be discouraged and got our heads down to carry on documenting this important place at the heart of our city.
We weren’t going away, so after about 18 months of our presence the council generously gave us a disused building on site, at a peppercorn rent. This gave us a base to work from, a place for the workers to drop in, and importantly a place to exhibit the photographs, artefacts and other documentation we’d collected during our residency. Due to its unorthodox shape, we named it ‘The Wedge’ and we had our home at the market.
We continued to film, photograph, interview and collect and were amassing a huge archive of material – worth mentioning the tumblr again here, to get an idea of just how much material, and how much work we were doing. Sometimes we developed a kind of jetlag effect – pulling all-nighters, early mornings, evenings, while still holding the fort back at HQ during the 9-5.
After almost three years, and numerous delays, the closure of the markets was finally announced. The new site in Witton would be ready and the businesses on site then had a scant two months to pack up and relocate.