Children gather eagerly in a small tiled cubicle, their eyes red with the chlorine of the pool. Clutching wet towels they squeeze in around the antique bathtub. They are gasping with glee and discussing in earnest ‘Even Lovers Drown’, a multimedia performance by Harminder Judge & Sorina Reiber that occupies the space.
This is ‘SLIP’, Fierce Festival’s two-day take-over of the disused Women’s Slipper Baths at the historic Moseley Road Baths, featuring work by Aleks Wojtulewicz, Annie Mahtani, Emily Warner, Kino 10, Sarah Farmer, Sheila Ghelani, Sophie Bullock and Harminder Judge & Sorina Reiber. This young are fascinated by the eyeless floating digital faces worn as a mask by the hooded performer, spurting water and drowning in a blue ocean to the loud sounds of heavy dance beats.
The event, co-organised with the Friends of Moseley Road Baths and part of Birmingham Heritage Week, brought together diverse audiences to explore the much-loved, partly abandoned and endangered spaces of the baths. Alongside the kids captivated by iPads replacing faces, were those equally mesmerised (and concerned) by Aleks Wojtulewicz’s endurance of electric impulses fired with increasing intensity through his body causing involuntary violent muscle jerks. Families with young children gather in the Women’s Baths Attendant’s Kiosk to watch giraffes compete in a high diving competition, a favourite short film in a curation provided by Kino 10.
Other visitors congregate in Sheila Ghelani’s cubicle for a new iteration of ‘Rambles With Nature’, taking it in turns to wear embroidered white gloves and share a large ear horn to listen carefully to discussions of the eco-systems that surround flowing water. Smiling to each other as they notice the small oak tree sprouting from the bathtub and the tiny ship marooned at its base, they collect their ‘momento’ and excitedly peer into the envelope to discover what’s held inside.
Emily Warner created two videos. One features looped footage of her head repeatedly dunked in a bowl of water, evoking suspicions of unseen pressures. The other sees her repeating a multitude of tasks that cumulatively work to comic effect. Filmed in the baths themselves, at points she’s scrubbing the floor, dashing with a float, walking hurriedly – all the while wearing red and blue, the colours of Birmingham City Council’s logo.
Sounds of the videos, performances and music installations spill from the labyrinth-like space. These intermingle with echoing laughter, gasps, enthusiastic questions, passing remarks on the beauty of the space and the sharing of memories ebbing and flowing as audiences meander and explore. Some visitors are curious following their weekly use of the public swimming pool, some have travelled to see the art installation and others to take the opportunity to see behind the scenes of a beautiful heritage site. Many were lucky enough to experience all of these.
The tours of the building led by the Friends of Moseley Baths group draw much more diverse audiences than you would expect of a heritage tour. Young teenagers stood alongside pensioners jostling for position to take photographs of the once-grand Gala Pool, to sneak a look at the 200 tonne cast-iron water tanks in the attic and to inspect diagrams of the steam heating systems. After a particularly engaging description of how the pool’s water is filtered through near-magical sand that can only be sourced from Leighton Buzzard, the bemused retiree of Birmingham City Council received a spontaneous round of applause.
Under the direction of Laura McDermott and Harun Morrison, Fierce has continued to invest in long-term and sustainable visions for the communities of Birmingham, demonstrating how art can change people’s relationships with the city, not just for the duration of a festival but on an on-going basis. Building on a relationship initiated in 2013 by artists Laura Delaney and Lisa Stewart who orchestrated ‘Parting Waters’ in Fierce 2014, ‘SLIP’ connects artists, visitors and local communities, drawing attention to important local issues that resonate with a much wider public.
This is a much loved social space, a rare environment where everyone feels like they have as much right to be there as anyone else. It’s vital, majestic and democratic, a public space with secret spaces, full of history but also future possibilities. Moseley Road Baths is still facing the imminent threat of a complete closure and a fall into dereliction. Over its duration, ‘SLIP’ asserts beyond any doubt that this space must be saved and remain open to all.