Grand Union, Unit 19 Minerva Works, Fazeley Street, Digbeth, Birmingham, B5 5RS

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Conversation between James Smith and Cheryl Jones

JS. Could you tell us a bit about the background to Grand Union, how it came to be here and the ethos of the space’

CJ. The ethos of the space is to support artistic activity. We provide a professional environment for artists and curators that encourages the sharing of resources and knowledge. As a group we have an array of practices and are at very different stages in our careers, so we each bring something distinct to the table, and encourage a flow of different people to visit the space. The added bonus of being in this locality means there’s a wider support network too.

About three years ago we found there were a substantial amount of people who were keen to develop new, affordable and higher spec spaces, and emerging curators who wanted a public space to develop their practice. The studios on offer at that time in Birmingham were felt by many to be inhibiting the development of a vibrant studio community. The opportunity for public activity was often limited by clandestine arrangements with unscrupulous landlords.

We started meeting to thrash out what it was people were committed to setting up and exactly how we would go about it. Out of that process emerged a core group which gained funding from Birmingham City Council towards fitting out 8 studios; and from Arts Council England to deliver a two year public programme of activity aimed at developing young and emerging curatorial practice.

We chose the space we have for a couple of reasons - it matched our needs in terms of budget and space, but also because of it’s location; we’re around the corner from Eastside Projects, Vivid, Ikon Eastside and the Custard Factory, not to mention all of the other organisations that are a few streets away.

Your studios are quite special, not the usual cold white box. Who designed them and what was the thinking behind their approach’

The studios were designed and built by Queen and Crawford with members of Grand Union helping with labour.

Our brief was have a clean, warm, dry space that was secure, and that could be built in the unit we had found to rent. We are on the first floor with no service lift, so this also influenced some of the design decisions. Queen and Crawford came up with this ingenious modular design using a basic timber frame, OSB board, and a clear polycarbonate. The walls are made up of sections which slot onto the frame, which means if we have to move on when our lease is up then we can reuse the majority of the materials. This is great, not only financially, but also environmentally. The spaces let a lot of natural light in because the walls are partially transparent, and we’re able to heat them because they’re enclosed and insulated.

Everyone really likes the look of the raw materials that have been used and so no attempt has been made to ‘decorate’ the inside of the studios (i.e. paint everything white). This gives them an honesty and differentiates them from the usual studio set up. The whole feeling that the spaces create seems to encourage people to use them even more. There’s a great atmosphere because so many people are in working all the time.

There seems to be an exciting emergent scene here in Digbeth, Birmingham, with a number of new spaces within a short walk of each other. Why do you think this has happened now, was it an organic process’

There have been spates of artist-led activity in Birmingham over the years, but never (in my time anyway) has it felt so exciting. A few years ago, on the other side of the city in the Jewellery Quarter and Ladywood, a few spaces opened such as Springhill Institute, Colony and Spectacle, and whilst they were putting on great events, residencies and exhibitions, they just weren’t sustainable long term because they were run by small groups of artists whose practices, in most cases, were taking them away from Birmingham.

Also, at that time, there just wasn’t the flow of young artists staying and setting up their own projects to take their place. Since then ‘Eastside’ (or Digbeth) has been designated the Cultural Quarter by the City Council, and is the next target area for regeneration. In many ways it is similar to the Jewellery Quarter (industrial, with many empty spaces), but it has a really special feel about it because of its architecture and geography. Since the Bull Ring development it feels closer to the city centre (it’s a 5 minute walk away), but completely distinct.

The planned regeneration, I think, has had an influence on the development of the area, because the Council have obviously been more willing to put funding towards spaces down here, for example Ikon Eastside, and our studio build. However there has been an organic process alongside this; organisations such as Vivid have been based in this area for a few years now and so it naturally follows that newer spaces will set up near by.

Eastside Projects set up round the corner in 2008 and so all of a sudden there’s this street of significant spaces all in really close proximity. Not to mention smaller organisations nearby such as The Rea Garden, Project Pigeon, The Lombard Method, Bordesley Centre of Contemporary Art, The Edge, and crossover organisations such as Capsule who run Supersonic Festival and 7inch Cinema who run Flatpack - both festivals with a growing, national reputation.

Some have been here longer than others, but now it feels like there’s a real scene. Grand Union is the new kid on the block really, but we would have been mad to set up in a different area. We’re stronger in numbers and can hopefully support each other to adapt to the new political climate.

Festivals like The Event aim to cement this sense of a visual arts scene and promote it to a national audience. It also encourages other, more nomadic artist-led groups to co-ordinate their activity, and commissions artists from outside of the region. Last November’s Event worked brilliantly; pop-up galleries were created and on the opening night our venues were full to capacity, some with queues waiting to come in!

When I dropped in we started to talk about cultural infrastructure. What are the most important challenges that you need to address so that you don’t get moved on when the rents are inevitably raised’

I’m not sure that the rents will get raised in the near future, what with the ‘current financial climate’ (overused term I know). We negotiated a good deal with our landlords in the first place because these units had been empty so long. I can’t see they will be in demand any time soon. Hopefully by the time they do we’ll be in a position to cope. Our landlords have been impressed with what we’ve done so far and want to keep cultural activity happening down here near, so will hopefully support us to some extent, even if that means helping us find a more appropriate building when they want to redevelop this one.

The cuts in government funding are the more pressing thing we’ll have to deal with. Nick Serota in his Guardian piece the other day stated that ‘it will be the smaller, most innovative organisations across the country that suffer the most’. He’s right and without public funding it will be extremely difficult to continue our curatorial activity. As I said above we’ve got strength in numbers and together with our neighbours have become a real asset to the city’s cultural offering. If we can all keep producing interesting programmes, increasing our audiences and find creative ways of earning income, then hopefully we will not only prove our worth to our funders, but could also start to develop private sector support.
Our studios are not subsidised, so are now self-sufficient. The project space is more vulnerable, but with schemes like Grand Union Editions (a limited print portfolio), we hope to create an income stream which will fund the public programme.

Could you tell us a bit about your current show, Jamie Shovlin, Hiker Meat’

Hiker Meat springs from one of Jamie’s previous projects Lustfaust: A Folk Anthology, which he presented at Becks Futures in 2006. He presented a collection of fan-made tape covers and ephemera for an 80s German noise band Lustfaust. He had actually hand-produced all of this material with collaborators Mike Harte and Euan Rodger, in almost obsessive detail.

You can see on they created a very rigourous back-history for the band, which includes them composing the score for Hiker Meat, an imaginary horror film constructed as a tool to produce the music. Jamie is constructing elements of this film, creating an archive of material that to all intense and purposes could be conceived of as material for a real film. There’s a soundtrack including Foley artist effects, a dialogue track, a full script that’s been well used with notes created by actors, casting shots and a US style movie poster.

The central installation consists of 60 televisions with around 250 clips from horror films from the late 70s and early 80s. Each television corresponds roughly to a scene in Hiker Meat, but also acts as a massive, aesthetically interesting, reference archive of his research.

The great thing about this work (and his previous projects) is the playfulness - Jamie creates these huge amounts of material in obsessive detail, trying to make sure every element is plausible for its time, toying with our perceptions of what’s ‘true’ or ‘real’, but retaining a sense of humour within that. It’s impossible to keep up with all the references and anecdotes, and not get confused about what is actually real, even in the production of the work.

I also work in an art museum and so these ideas around presentation, authority and interpretation really resonate with me. The collaborative element of his practice is also intriguing and it will be really interesting to hear him speak about that his colaborators with Euan and Mike, especially as this project sets out to examine that very process.

Artists’ Talk, Friday 12 November, 7pm

Jamie Shovlin, Mike Harte, and Euan Rodger discuss the Hiker Meat project. Rodger and Harte have collaborated with Shovlin on various projects, most notably Lustfaust: a Folk Anthology 1976-81.

This will be followed by an open studios event where you will get to meet artists based at Grand Union. This is a free event but booking is required, please contact

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