Saturday, 3 November 2012

The Art of the Possible

This article first appeared in Radar magazine, Issue 12, September 2011. The original version also contained additional photographs by Fiona Cullinan

On the 29th of July a new art exhibition, Preclusion, opened in Stirchley. This is an unusual enough occurrence in itself for this part of Birmingham, but the venue makes it more unusual still. Preclusion is housed in the Whit Marley building - a disused factory taken over by squatters and now being used as a makeshift Social Centre.

The exhibition is just one of several projects being undertaken or planned at the Centre, although it is perhaps the most ambitious so far, with work on display from over twenty artists, some local, others from further afield.

There is no admission fee, and on the opening night the Whit Marley’s big wooden shutter is opened to reveal a path formed of two parallel lines of candles leading through a dark area to the old factory floor, where the various paintings, photos, illustrations, montages and models are spread along the walls, and occasionally the floor itself.

There is a conspicuous sense of fun running through many of the pieces here, such as Felipe Molina’s painting of a brightly coloured, smiling butterfly in whose patterned wings are hidden several other happy creatures.

Other works deal with more down-to-earth, local subjects. Martin Pickard’s photos show a Highgate tower block in the process of being torn down, its grey outer walls stripped away to reveal the range of different coloured interiors of the former homes.

The organiser of the exhibition, Harry Starling, has some of his own pieces on display, including my ten-year-old son’s favourite object in the room - the Necronograph – a clock in which the numbers are replaced by a variety of animal skulls painted in silver and gold

Preclusion is due to last for only a week, which seems a shame given it’s uniqueness, although some of the pieces, such as those by GintarÄ— InokaitytÄ—, will undoubtedly be around for longer as they have been spray-painted directly onto the walls.

On a second visit to the Social Centre a few days later I talk to a couple of the activists, Hannah and Josh, in the ‘tea room', a small, cheerfully redecorated area which was once presumably one of the factory’s offices.

The tea room is run as an anti-capitalist project – you pay what you can afford, or what you think it is worth. I paid nothing for my coffee, not because I had no money or because they had run out of milk, but because I completely forgot.

Amongst the other activities currently underway at the Whit Marley building are a guerrilla gardening project, which aims to transform the factory's disused car park, and a Free School where the intention is to provide free, quality education in a variety of subjects to anyone who is interested. A couple of qualified lecturers have already volunteered their time.

Josh offers to teach my son guitar, providing we can come up with a guitar between us which is small enough for him to comfortably get his arms around.

The centre holds regular meetings which anyone can come along to, either with ideas about how the space could be used, or just to see what is going on.

Hannah tells me that rather than encountering any opposition from suspicious local residents, many are genuinely pleased that the building is now being occupied as it had been used in the past by burglars as a means of gaining access to the backs of local houses.

The squatters hope to be able to remain in the Whit Marley building for up to twelve months before it is finally demolished. The site is then expected to have some role in the new Asda store which is controversially due to open up nearby.

When they eventually have to leave, the group intend to set up something similar in another empty building elsewhere in the city. There is certainly no shortage of candidates. Common sense suggests that a great many of Birmingham's disused industrial buildings could be reclaimed as community resources of one kind or another.

Maybe this is the fundamental point about the Social Centre - beyond providing living space for the activists, and space for individual projects, it also provides a sense of possibility - a tangible example of what can be done with a little imagination and an empty building.

Anyone interested in getting involved can contact the Centre via their website ( or just pop along to the Whit Marley building itself on Ivy Road

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