The artists Laura Delaney and Lisa Stewart are interested in water as ‘an alternate agent for reconsidering the physical and political spaces which we occupy’. In their work ‘Parting Waters’ being shown as part of the Fierce Festival in Birmingham, the artists have presented a series of works in response to Moseley Road Baths, an Edwardian bath house and swimming pool, situated in Balsall Heath which is currently threatened with closure in 2015. A ten-year campaign has been fought by the local community to save the baths but sadly, this historic and unique hub of the community is facing an uncertain future. Delaney and Stewart’s interventions at Moseley Baths are timely and poignant. The artists, however, have not focused upon this end point in the life of the baths, but have instead chosen to make work, which responds to the site in a subtle and enquiring way. A video installation, ‘Night Swimmers,’ will be projected onto the exterior of the building during the festival from dusk until late evening and a ‘Floating Forum’ combining discussion and a swim are amongst the events for ‘Parting Waters.’
During public swimming sessions, there is also an audio piece; a selection of music choices gleaned from the pool’s swimmers and from the artists’ themselves. ‘Deep End Dedications’ is audible only when your head is immersed below the waterline where the curved pool wall harbours an intriguing underworld. The swimmer is momentarily introduced to these dedications during a mild splash of front crawl. As the swimmer’s head emerges for breath, the soundscape is interspersed with the activities at surface level such as school children learning the rudiments of swimming, in bright orange armbands in the shallow end.
After some experimentation, perhaps the best swimming stroke for hovering between both sound environments is backstroke. The ears are at the optimum position, sitting on the line of the water, creating a midpoint between muffled watery music and the sharper acoustics of collective shrieks that rise up into the magnificent ironwork and glass of the roof.
As the swimmer rests at the side by the glazed brickwork, they may contemplate the origins and history of such baths. In Birmingham, like many industrial cities, there were numerous bathhouses, all imperative to the lives of the working class communities that were clustered in the urban centres to service the heavy industries. The back-to-back houses had limited washing facilities and usually shared toilet facilities. The bathhouses, which sprung up in cities like Birmingham, were therefore important public services for communities becoming hubs for the populous, not only for washing but also for conversations and social interactions.
Moseley Road Baths also reminds us of the clear social divisions that existed, with separate areas for men and women, and upper and lower classes divided into appropriate areas. This is where we might begin to revisit Delaney and Stewart’s interest in the physical and the political that are enmeshed within spaces such as these. Introduced during the industrial period of high production and prosperity these bathhouses are now defunct and increasingly abandoned. They have fallen foul of a free market economy, just like the once skilled workforce who came in large numbers to use them.
A strong local community has fought tooth and nail to keep open the baths and have documented the place. Working with these individuals and others, the artists have sought to expand the lineage of Moseley Road Baths’ history, creating poignant interventions that do not attempt to artistically hijack the subject for their own means but in fact reveal alternative facets of this place and daily choreographies of the city’s inhabitants, as they become swimmers. Water, an essential component for all life becomes an inclusive, cohesive force in a swimming pool, where social hierarchies once rigidly enforced in such places,are now indistinguishable and redundant.