Alt city guide to Birmingham

Canalside cafe at Gas Street Basin, Birmingham.

Creatively, Birmingham is elusive. Unlike many cities, it does not have an identifiable cultural DNA. It has never asserted itself as a centre of radical art or music. Local creatives offer various reasons why. Some take a quiet pride in that anonymity: “We didn’t shout as loud as people from Manchester, but that’s the nature of the city”, the techno producer Karl O’Connor, aka Regis, once told the Quietus. Over the years that modesty may have become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but, even geographically, Birmingham is not built for self-promotion.

This “city of a thousand trades” has always been sprawling and granular. It is highly diverse socially and culturally, a city where the best restaurants (Jyoti’s) or music venues (Hare & Hounds), are often found in the suburbs – if you are willing to travel. Which not everyone is. For instance, attracting people from the city centre into the rave dens of neighbouring, post-industrial Digbeth can be difficult. Consequently, Birmingham club crowds tend to be dedicated and discerning, though, overall, the scene is relatively small. As Alex Wynne Hughes, co-promoter of the Shadow City parties, puts it: “A lot of people would say we’ve got our own thing going on.”

Fundamentally, this is a city of gangs and individuals working in comparative isolation, which encourages driven oddballs and out-there ideas. Look at the annual Supersonic festival or Brum bands from Black Sabbath to Dexys Midnight Runners. There is a purity in that, says Mark Badger from the label Iron Man (and the band Police Bastard): “If you want to make art, make it because it’s something you have to get out of your system; not because someone’s going to pay you.”

That attitude may explain why Birmingham has produced so much screamingly loud, confrontational music, from Napalm Death to the Negative Reaction label, alongside quieter outliers such as Broadcast, drone label Oaken Palace or electronica imprint the Irrational Media Society. These outliers can be influential, too. Most notably, the “Birmingham sound” (the mid-90s industrial output of Regis, Surgeon and the club House of God) was a key precursor to modern Berlin techno.

Such DIY energy is also palpable in the arts scene. Digbeth is home to numerous offbeat outfits, such as aerial theatre company Rogue Play, and printers/ ‘zine store Rope Press. “The past two years have been exciting in terms of people such as Grand Union, Eastside Projects and Centrala making their own things happen,” says Lisa Meyer, artistic director at Capsule, which produces Supersonic. But how long will that last? The planned, HS2-related transformation of Digbeth threatens the area’s creative pioneers. “As the largest arts organisation here, we don’t own our building. It’s precarious,” warns Eastside Projects’ director Gavin Wade.

The battle to find affordable space in central Birmingham is one that food entrepreneurs know well. Birmingham has five Michelin stars, but, says Lap-fai Lee, a professional cook and blogger at thefoodist.uk, “I’d trade three of our stars for 20 more places like [indie burger joint] Original Patty Men.”

The message? Support Birmingham’s battling independents.

CULTURE

Centrala

Run by the Polish Expats Association, this colourful warehouse space is a gallery, venue, cafe and “destination for free-thinkers”. It hosts everything from avant-garde music events to calligraphy workshops. “Its visual art, film and performance programme has a strong east European flavour,” says Jonathan Watkins, director at the IKON gallery. “The cafe serves delicious Polish dumplings.”
Unit 4, Minerva Works, Fazeley Street, 0121-439 3050, centrala-space.org.uk

Digbeth First Friday

On the first Friday of each month, Digbeth’s creative hubs throw open their doors. Minerva Works, in particular, is home to a cluster of innovative artist-run gallery and performance spaces, such as Stryx, Grand Union and Vivid Projects. On 3 December, Vivid Projects is throwing an Algorave, where freshly minted electronic bangers are generated live from computer algorithms. Look out for Recent Activity, which sites art in odd places.

@AE Harris

Run by experimental theatre group Stan’s Cafe, this is a 50-seater theatre within a working metal fabrication business. This year, its visiting shows have explored gender discrimination through contemporary dance and, in Outbox Theatre’s Affection, “bodies, intimacy and HIV”.
110 Northwood Street, 0121-236 2273, aeharrisvenue.co.uk

Birmingham Open Media (Bom)

Visitors to this hacker culture-inspired art lab are currently (until 28 January 2017) invited to climb into pods to experience Justin Wiggan’s Life Echo. A fusion of art, technology and imaginative health care, Life Echo explores how sound can trigger positive memories. Bom also includes the Wilderness, a much-tipped restaurant which, in everything from its forest decor to its foraged ingredients, is seeking a return to nature.
1 Dudley Street, 0121-643 2617, bom.org.uk

Flatpack Film Festival

The festival happens each April but, beyond that, Flatpack keeps busy throwing events such as a screening of Bride of Frankenstein in Dudley Castle, or a 90s hip-hop club night in celebration of Kid ‘n’ Play’s House Party (26 November). “It uses spaces really imaginatively,” says Lisa Meyer. For more alternative cinema, try the art deco gem Electric Cinema, and Mockingbird.

DRINK

Post Office Vaults

Due to the street-level livery, people still mistake this (basic, windowless) basement for a post office, but what it delivers is superb keg and cask beers, and real ciders. Ross Lang, who runs the Bottle Shed in Acocks Green, loves it: “You expect a pub with just bitter and mild on. In fact, it has a selection of 400 beers, from traditional Belgian bottles to Magic Rock cans.”
Pint from £2.80, 84 New Street, 0121-643 7354, postofficevaults.co.uk

1000 Trades

With its cobbled-together, DIY aesthetic, street-food residencies and local art, 1000 Trades is an unusually interesting watering hole in the upmarket Jewellery Quarter. It focuses on natural wines and craft beers. Fans of the latter may also like the Jewellery Quarter’s brewery taps at Burning Soul (Saturday only, halves from £1.70) and Rock ‘n’ Roll Brewhouse (Fri 5pm-9pm, Sat noon-6pm).
Pint from £4. 16 Frederick Street, 0121-233 2693, 1000trades.org.uk

40 St Paul’s

This tiny unmarked bar (it’s the door numbered 40, below Midland Court) stocks around 150 gins. “The guys here love gin. It’d be impossible to leave not sharing that enthusiasm,” says Sai Deethwa, who runs Thai street food stall Buddha Belly. Note: 40 St Paul’s’ former head bartender, Robert Wood, has recently launched an ambitious 10-seater cocktail hideaway, Smultronställe.
Drinks from £7. 40 Cox Street, 07340 037639, 40stpauls.co.uk

Faculty

An unapologetically nerdy coffee shop – check out that chart of bewildering PH, TDS, DGH water statistics – Faculty serves a stunning flat white: rich, silky, full of sweet caramel flavours, a lick of liquorice at the close. In nearby City Arcade, Tiltis similarly hot on coffee, as well as pinball and craft beer (schooners from £3.80). Ross Lang: “Tilt has pushed boundaries. It once had eight Swedish Omnipollo beers on at once. There were 40 people queueing at the bar.”
Coffee from £2.20. 14 Piccadilly Arcade, facultycoffee.com

 

 

[Source:- Gurdian]

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