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Longbridge Light Festival aims to put suburb back into the spotlight

Jon Perks looks ahead to the inaugural Longbridge Light Festival, a new international arts event aiming to put the regenerated suburb back into the spotlight

Regeneration X by Birmingham artist Matthew J Watkins, who will be contributing to the first Longbridge Light Festival
Regeneration X by Birmingham artist Matthew J Watkins, who will be contributing to the first Longbridge Light Festival

Be it religion, literature or art, light has been symbolic of cleansing, learning and revelation. Most often, however, it has represented new beginnings, new dawns and re-birth.

For the last eight years, the area of Longbridge in south Birmingham has been a dark place, both physically and emotionally; 468 acres of land which, for over a century, was home to one of the UK’s biggest car manufacturing sites.

From the Austin Motor Company in 1905 to British Leyland to the Rover Group, Longbridge was the British motor industry, producing such iconic cars as the Austin 7, the Metro and, of course, the Mini. At its peak, 25,000 workers were employed there.

While car production continues in the shape of Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC), the majority of the Longbridge site is now part of a £1billion redevelopment by St Modwen.

Where once stood a vast factory complex, St Modwen is now building 2,000 new homes, shops and, for the first time, a Longbridge town centre. The area now has an identity of its own, rather than simply being the address of a car plant and railway station.

Against and in response to this backdrop, public arts organisation WERK, on behalf of Bournville College (one of the first arrivals in the area’s re-birth) has developed the Longbridge Light Festival as part of a wider long-term site-specific art project for the area.

WERK’s light and art festival concept takes its inspiration from Lyon’s famous Fête des Lumières, Lumiere Durham and the redevelopment of Leipzig’s cotton mill, Spinnerei, a 10-hectare site used today by art galleries, events, studios and restaurants.

“What we are doing as a group is responding to the changing site, trying to show not only the transforming physical environment through public art, but to reinvigorate and reveal the social infrastructure through long-term engagement. We have only just begun to scratch the surface of this complex story,” says Claire Farrell, project curator and director of WERK.

Red Weed by Pitaya. Inspired by the Red Weed in the science fiction novel War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, the red plant grows on street lights, glows in the dark and changes the atmosphere of the city at night. Longbridge will be taken over by the red weed for the festival.
Red Weed by Pitaya. Inspired by the Red Weed in the science fiction novel War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, the red plant grows on street lights, glows in the dark and changes the atmosphere of the city at night. Longbridge will be taken over by the red weed for the festival.
 

The festival theme of Back to the Future was developed by Birmingham-based artists and festival curators Elizabeth Rowe and Chris Poolman, who were commissioned by WERK.

They have brought together 28 artists from across the globe – as well as from Birmingham itself – whose unique work will respond to the past, present and future imagining of Longbridge.

Alongside the light and art will be a full programme of hands-on activities produced in partnership with Longbridge community groups, businesses, schools and churches, including costume making, a dress your window competition, constructing lanterns and a Light-up Cycle Workshop where visitors will be invited to customise their two wheels before travelling along a temporarily illuminated “science fiction” cycle route.

The commissioned art installations by the likes of Pitaya (Lyon), Famed (Leipzig/Berlin) and Moritz Wehrmann from Paris ( www.longbridgelightfestival.co.uk/MoritzWehrmann ) will not attempt to hide the redevelopment, but rather respond to it and light it up, showing the world how the area is being brought back to life.

Members of the Institute for Boundary Interactions will be roaming the new Longbridge (a future ITEC Economic Zone) as futuristic town criers, gathering social digital archaeology from the area and broadcasting this via mobile speakers throughout the evening .

Birmingham’s own rich and established art scene is well represented too, with Matthew J Watkins, Ruth Claxton and Juneau Projects all contributing.

Each artist has taken their own unique approach to the theme; Cathy Wade’s Found Sculptures of Longbridge, using light to transform three redundant but historically significant red tanks into illuminated markers, while BAZ Birmingham has constructed a tube carriage from a fictitious future Birmingham transport network based on the Austin Allegro’s Quartic steering wheel, entitled The Quartic Rides Again!

We-Currency by Austin Holdsworth. If the community is working together, towards the same goal, then the sculpture forms a perfect sphere. But if people stray and don't unite, the individual component block will move away from the centre and the sphere will collapse.
We-Currency by Austin Holdsworth. If the community is working together, towards the same goal, then the sculpture forms a perfect sphere. But if people stray and don't unite, the individual component block will move away from the centre and the sphere will collapse.
 

Norman Cave, principal of Bournville College and festival partner, says: “Longbridge has had a rather gloomy recent past which it is now breaking out of, and the light festival is symbolic of the efforts the community is making in building a brighter future. We want to bring people together in this new public space to celebrate, participate and enjoy the free activities and events.”

Claire Farrell adds: “Look at how Lyon’s light festival has affected and embedded within the physical city – it’s known as the City of Light. It supports cultural well-being. Lighting affects how we feel about a place so for me the deeper underpinning, in addition to social cohesion, was absolutely what inspired the use of light, enriching what was around us.”

* The Longbridge Light Festival takes place on October 24 and 25. It is preceded by the Tran-si-tion international conference on October 24, hosted by Bournville College, where keynote speakers include artist Daan Roosegaarde from Rotterdam; Jean Francois Zurawik, director of Fête des Lumières, Lyon; Glenn Howells, director of Glenn Howells Architect in Birmingham. For more details visit: www.longbridgelightfestival.co.uk

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