Many times I have walked past Eastside Projects and looked into the open doorways of the vehicle repair shops that share the same road. Always dark, with sparks flying, music blaring and various greasy, comforting smells, they are mysterious, inviting and intimidatingly macho spaces. This time, for one weekend, I am allowed to go inside.
For her presentation at Fierce Festival, Dina Rončević is deconstructing cars. A gold Nissan Sunny, to be precise, and she is using the help of five young girls from Birmingham over three days to do it.
The car is parked in a bay in a taxi repair garage, just set back far enough to discourage conversation with the audience. It is slowly being taken apart by the artist and her helpers who are aged between ten and twelve years old. A number plate, a rear view mirror, a headlight, a bumper, are all removed carefully and safely by the girls (they have had training in using basic hand tools) and build a growing pile on the garage floor. Each participant wears protective gloves and a white overall which quickly becomes dirty. ‘I’ve taken off four parts so far!’ one girl proudly proclaims. The girls are concentrating, working hard, chatting and helping each other.
Previous showings of ‘Car Deconstructions’ have sited the work outdoors. Each ones becomes a unique relational project. There is always a new (old) car, a different set of girls to work with and a different audience, all with their own attitudes towards gender, adolescence, manual work and art. On the first day here, several of the mechanics who work at the garage are still there finishing up for the day: working on other vehicles, talking in the office, smiling wryly at the deconstruction in front of them. They decide to stay and watch, amused expressions on their faces. I ask them what they think. They seem to like it, they say it’s good but they don’t call this art. One ex-taxi driver who works there tells me that he has never seen a female mechanic in all the time he drove taxis. That was for forty years. And that is the point.
As part of her artistic practice Rončević trained as a mechanic but the only work she could get was holding lamps, sweeping garage floors and undertaking the most basic of maintenance checks. She feels this was because she is a woman. Now, with her passion for vehicles, mechanics and for figuring out how things work on a technical level, she is able to deconstruct cars for a living as art. In a neat parallel of female accomplishment, I spoke also with a woman at the garage who was pleased to tell me that she is Birmingham’s first ever Asian female taxi driver.
Rooted in gender politics and the performance of gender, Rončević’s project uses the act of work to explore issues without any of the young participants ever really being aware of this. To the girls, this is play, a chance to try something new, get messy and make new friends. The undercurrent of the work is much more earnestly political. Rončević aims, ultimately, to leave these girls, and us as audience members, with an image of young women working, of women using tools effectively to complete a task, competently, with pride and with a growing bank of practical skills. This is a picture painted rarely.
I walked past the garages that sit alongside Eastside Projects. This time I went inside.