Over the weekend I had a heavy fix of alternative guided tours in Birmingham: I was at the Still Walking Festival. The programme mixes walking tours of the more conventional form of showing you a series of locations and talking about them with walking tours that experiment with the form of what a tour can be.
The first tour I took was called 'Lost and Found' and our guide was artist Iris Bertz. It started in the foyer of Ikon Gallery in a rather peculiar manner: festival director Ben Waddington introduced the tour and lead us to the first location, a room in the gallery where a member of the Ikon's team gave us a short introduction to contemporary art and to the Shimabuku exhibition before showing us one of the artist's film. We then got a further introduction from the artist Iris Bertz and I began to wonder if we were going to be passed from guide to guide throughout the tour. But no, we settled with her and began the main part of the tour. These multiple beginnings were given directly and clearly so to set the frame and make non-art audiences not feel intimidated but rather, welcomed. At first I feared this was going to be over-explicative but as the tour moved on from this point I came to see it as building upon a solid foundation.
We were then led around and Bertz shared what she saw when she looked at the different areas, buildings, walls and plants that we stopped in front of. Here she made a connection between this abandoned and boarded up ghost building and Rachel Whiteread's 'House' sculpture.
This sign, showing a shrinking list of places to go to in case of emergencies, she likened to an artistic intervention that made an ironic commentary upon regeneration hubris, the sort of work that could form part of an institutional critique programme. I was glad that she moved into this social and political dimension as this layer of reading the city gave the tour added resonance.
At one point we had come across an incongruous crocodile sculpture on a houseboat and later we saw the animal's form repeated on the wall. This was a nice touch as it began to give the tour more of a history: one observation fed upon another and this made something that would have been a minor sight into something more significant within our narrative.
The tour finished in front of a 'found painting' and my abiding impression was that it was a tour of her artistic imagination first and of the neighbourhood second. It was her way to show how art had helped her to better see forms in daily life. This it did in a modest and unassuming way, but was no less effective for that.
The next tour 'Pedestrian vs Car' was led by Roxanna Collins and the geographic palette was car parks and subways. Our first stop was Pershore Street Car Park where, chance would have it, an Ikon Gallery project had taken place some time ago, its trace, this crumpled poster, still visible. There were however not so many explicit art references on this tour, it really was themed around the spaces.
Because the spaces we passed through and stopped at ranged from mundane to depressing and even potentially dangerous whilst the commentary remained minimal, I found my attention moving onto the guide herself, and more specifically, asking the question, why is she attracted to these places? She had said that she did not drive a car and yet was attracted to these city locations that are the result of the motor vehicle and its dominance in the city's planning. This was quirky and I suspect there is a further story yet to be told lurking within this tour. This was however the very first time the tour had been given and this was indeed her first ever tour so I suspect it will mature and expand with repetition.
This was a nice detail highlighted in the walk: two large stones used as improvised steps to scale the wall and make a short-cut over the road. This brought my attention to just how car friendly Birmingham City Centre appeared to be and how pedestrians often had to either run the gauntlet across lively A roads or else make lengthy detours through subways. It also drew my attention more generally to the improvised solutions to pass through the city, the desire paths, the holes in fences and barriers ripped aside.
Something that was a feature of these tours was that the group ended up talking between itself. There was an interesting mix of people taking the tour and most had something to say about the spaces too. From the top of this multi-story car park, for example, we had an architect talk us through a nearby stalled tower that he had been working on. Conversation moved onto city planning and the economy and then to photography before finally continuing in a local pub. The social dimension is a feature of these walks as at the end of all of them there was an opportunity to talk with the guide and to one another.
The final tour I took on a damp Sunday afternoon was 'WALK * LOOK * DRAW * KNOW' led by Tom Jones. The basic theme was perception and the approach to heightening it was the use of simple sketches. The point was not to produce beautiful drawings, it was to draw in a way that helped focus the eye upon a detail so that it could be better understood.
We did this through a series of perceptual tasks that Jones guided us through. In this square for example, we were to focus upon parallel lines as we made our way through it. This active reading of the space was not only to be done with the eye, we were also encouraged to be open to metaphorical readings the space. In this square's case it was to consider it as a drawing room, as an inwardly focussed space that encouraged intimacy rather than an outward focussed space that, for example, inspired awe.
To do this we undertook some funny looking tasks like this one where we stood in a line looking at the shift in the pattern of the paving stones as we slowly lifted our gaze from under our feet to a point in the distance where perspective made the stones appear to converge as parallel lines. We must have made a nice sight ourselves. I had the feeling that this very conscious approach to seeing did make me read the space in a new way and I could tell that Jones had led generations of drawing students through these exercises as he was confident and in control in his guidance. It is a question what the purpose of this approach is and I suspect it is multiple, not single. It seemed that while it could aid ones drawing skills it was primarily there to improve ones perceptual abilities and here it could be seen as something that simply makes life more interesting. This tour was related to the first tour of Iris Bertz, also an artist tour focussed upon perception. The difference, as I saw it, was that this one was based more upon how we use the eye and that of Bertz upon how art has influenced how she perceives the world. The two of them made good counterparts.
We finished in the park observing plants and the exterior of the rather beautiful new Birmingham Library, a building which features a fantastic view over the city. A defining feature of the festival is that it helps people who would not normally give tours develop them through its mentoring programme. This struck me as a very good idea as it meant a whole array of different sorts of tours came into being as a result, tours that were far from the blue badge guide style heritage tour. The festival is still quite young but growing, and it has the potential to create a new public for guided tours in Birmingham by offering a range of tours that are less about showing the city of the great and good and more about sharing its citizens' perspectives on the their hometown. I did not catch the tours that were more actively playing with the form of the tour itself but they are part of the programme too and with more coming this weekend, it is a must if you want to see something new of Birmingham.