Round the Wrekin
for Turning Point WM and Writing West Midlands by Jon Bounds, Danny Smith and Pete Ashton
Writers Jon Bounds and Danny Smith, who successfully crowdfunded £1,040 for a psychogeographic road trip visiting every working pier in the UK in a fortnight, plan to collaborate with experimental photographer Pete Ashton to investigate the contemporary mythology of the West Midlands through the prism of a unique and curious phrase "Round the Wrekin".
The Wrekin, a 400m-high isolated hill in Shropshire, looms large in the region, both geographically and in communication from pre-history to the modern day. It is the centrepiece of folk tales and myth around it’s creation by a ‘Welsh giant’ and with its transmitting station is a communication hub for much of the West Midlands.
The phrase “going round the Wrekin” is said to refer to a roundabout and unnecessary route, but how does that use vary across the region? Does “going round the Wrekin” when near to the hill mean something quite different? This idea forms the backbone of our trip.
The artists plan to use this opportunity to explore new ways of collaborating and developing their craft through and understanding of the other's work. How can the framing of a photograph inform the phrasing of descriptive prose? What does a poet's eye bring to a visual composition? It is hoped this practical collaboration will also happen with people met on the road, be they practicing artists or members of the public.
Thanks to the artists' long and involved background in social media and digital innovation in the West Midlands, the collaboration goes beyond the core participants. A deep understanding of the methods and uses of online social collaboration will ensure the aims, process and outcomes of the project are informed by hundreds of participants whose roles will go far beyond mere observers. To do otherwise would feel alien to the artists.
The phrase "round the Wrekin" also informs the methodology by encouraging the artists to slow down and deliberately find obstacles that might lead to chance encounters. By documenting the development of their practice alongside the work itself, it is hoped this may inform the work of other artists and arts organisations.
Starting in the centre of Birmingham (home to the artists), the team will take as straight a route as possible to the Wrekin hill near Telford in Shropshire. We hope to sample a wide range of West Midlands environments: from the commercial centre of Birmingham through the inner cities and suburbs of west Birmingham, Dudley and the post-industrial outskirts of Wolverhampton, emerging into the rural villages of Shropshire, through the new town of Telford, and finally mounting the ancient Wrekin itself.
Map of proposed route: g.co/maps/qjmqw
Traveling this modern ley line by foot or available local public transport, they will talk with interested local people to find and document the centres of power from which the ley line gets its direction. By sticking to the constraints of a straight line and avoiding conventional ‘fastest’ routes the artists will cross places and interact with people that might not normally be reached by the arts in the West Midlands.
During the journey the artists will document their thoughts and progress online, using dedicated social media accounts and mapping tools. These platforms for dialogue enable others to virtually participate in the road trip and will also be used to solicit help and information about the local areas en route. This crowdsourcing of information will dictate activities, interaction and some travel methods along the way. It will act as a way to centre the dialogue creation and identify people, communities and places to interact with and record.
Community nodes such as bus stops, cafes, pubs, libraries and parks act as a real-world equivalent of social media. The artists will inevitably follow the social nodes of the places, using people and concentrations of transport services as our guide.
The focus of the writing during the trip will range from short prose status updates on Twitter and Facebook to longer passages on the project website. The artists will record thoughts, of themselves and others, and answers to the question: "What does ‘going round the Wrekin’ mean to you?" These will form the basis of the more formal work completed after the trip.
The visual artist will document the journey using a range of photographic equipment from cameraphone to high-end DSLR, and will employ a range of styles from wide-screen cinematic road trip vistas to a focused, expressionistic close-ups. He will look for patterns and echoes along the route, attempting to find a visual definition of the West Midlands and its people. His challenge will be to participate actively with the writers rather than merely observe and record. Experiments with the act of taking photos, and how this affects the art of seeing, will occur.
After the journey a multi-media document will be placed online as permanent record. A specially designed website wil see photographs and film integrated with a jointly authored essay of the road trip. The essay will draw on themes encountered during the trip and use those as a starting point to explore the psyches and 'race-memories' of the people met on the journey.
The site will be a document in the form of an interactive HTML5 web page featuring text, images, video, maps and interactive social elements, freely accessible in all modern desktop and mobile browsers. For example: http://goo.gl/Wqv7f and http://goo.gl/bYxnX
The writing and visual art will also be available as eBooks in various appropriate formats, including ePub, Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks, and as a print-on-demand physical book.
Pete Ashton self-identified as an Artist in 2010 after a decade of investigating the possibilities of digital and social media for creative activity. His primary visual medium is photography with a particular interest in how the artform functions as a digital object in a social space. In 2006 he brought the Flickrmeet model to Birmingham where relative strangers meet monthly to photograph the city. In 2007 he co-created and ran the award-winning Created in Birmingham blog, which helped revolutionise how creative organisations used the Internet to communicate with audiences and peers. Having explored the possibilities of analogue manipulation through home-made cameras and lenses he has recently moved on to exploring the algorithmic manipulation of digital images such as downsampling and compression. Pete blogs prodigiously, seeing this transparent and public documenting of his process as essential to his development. He speaks frequently about his work, notably at the Ikon Gallery and Birmingham Central Library.
Outside his artistic practice Pete trades as a website developer, digital communications trainer and social media advisor, and runs a series of practical photography workshops with fellow photographer Matt Murtagh entitled "Photographing The City".
Main website: http://peteashton.com
Art website: http://art-pete.com
Dead Space - Looking Through Birmingham
Dead Space was a series of installations in a window of Birmingham Central Library curated by EC Arts. The second of three artists, Pete Ashton created a series of slow animations consisting of sequential photographs shot through the artists own customised lens. The lens is made from a vintage camera which forms a process called “Through The Viewfinder”. The slow animations were displayed on salvaged CRT monitors that have been converted into peep-show machines. A frequent subject of Pete’s work is “unnoticed Birmingham”, the patterns and shapes that emerge as the city succumbs to and builds on the entropy of progress. For this show he invites you to view Birmingham’s pedestrian flow filtered through a nostalgic, intimate perspective of inner Birmingham.
Outer Circle bus stops
As part of 11-11-11 - Outer Circle in 2009, Pete chose to cycle the route and create a photographic record of the bus stops. By focusing identikit street furniture placed at strategic points along Europe's longest bus route, Pete hoped to develop an understanding of Birmingham, from the echoes of the villages consumed by the suburban sprawl to the marks made by the city's broad demographic. To the casual observer Birmingham looks like a single entity, but is it? This 82-page book contains all photos in order, a map and essays.
Digital Collage, 2012
A project to understand and process the bewildering volume of photography pouring online. In January 2012 Pete noticed the tendency of people to upload their photographs to the Internet without renaming the filename assigned by the camera. Services like Flickr would then treat this filename as the title of the photo. This allowed for a truly random sample of "normal" photos from across the world. Pete bulk-downloaded 3,500 publicly available photos from Flickr and looked at various ways to digitally manipulate and display them. The final work involved each photo averaged down to a single block of colour and presented as a large canvas.
Book contribution, 2009
As part of her Uncertain Eastside walking project, Nikki Pugh asked people to join her on a route she had been repeatedly walking and help her document it for publication. Pete undertook a comprehensive photographic record resulting in 186 photographs of the post-industrial and pre-regeneration detritus of Birmingham's Eastside district, an exercise in slow walking and seeing the frequently unseen.
Following a Pecha Kucha talk on the value of looking at the world from a different angle, this side project involved talking photos of curious items and shapes on the ground. All photos were taken with an iPhone and posted, with geographic co-ordinates, to Flickr and Twitter as they were taken.
Through the Viewfinder Photography
Practice, 2006 - 2011
TTV photography is a technique where a digital photo is taken through the viewfinder of another camera. Using a 1950s Kodak Duaflex as his viewfinder camera, Pete developed a unique methodology and style of photography over a period of years. 2000 photos were published online and the work appeared in exhibitions, was sold at arts markets and used in classrooms and workshops. Pete retired the series in 2011 fearing the novelty and theatre of the work was overshadowing the original purpose.
Documenting a jouney
Documenting an area
Documenting artistic practice
A selection of photographs
Claire Farrell, Director EC-Arts:
Pete Ashton is a dedicated and considered creative individual. Pete stepped off his social media platform in 2011 to explore and develop a mixed media concept within an experimental project entitled Dead Space, the project aimed to provide a public-facing space for artists to learn and create; in response to the context of the buildings function - a library.
Pete's response to the projects approach and holistic intention was remarkable; Pete embraced the challenging environment by utilising his incredible initiative and ability to be self directed and self sufficient. Through trial and error Pete responded positively to the experimental process, gained valuable learning opportunities and professional development as an artist.
Kate Self, Learning Co-ordinator, Ikon:
Employed as a freelance Web Manager Pete Ashton has worked extensively to create and develop Ikon's Slow Boat microsite: ikonslowboat.com
This work has been an essential part of Ikon Youth Programme's success. Learning has been implemented for both the young people participating in the project and organisational staff.
Highly capable, enthusiastic, reliable and creatively responsive to our brief, Pete has been tremendous to work with over the last twelve months.
Helga Henry, Fierce Earth:
Pete Ashton has worked with Fierce Earth on a number of major projects and initiatives. He always has a thoughtful and intelligent approach to his work and strives for quality and authenticity.
The breadth of his experience and the range of influences at his disposal always drives up the quality of any work we do together and as such is is a valued partner and collaborator.
Jon Bounds and Danny Smith are writers and psychogeographers who have completed a number of projects as a writing team. Currently they are working on a book about a two-week road trip around the surviving seaside piers of England and Wales, and previously they created a short eBook about a journey around Birmingham’s independent pubs.
Jon Bounds has built a reputation in Birmingham as a social media pioneer and community organiser. He created the website Birmingham: It's Not Shit as a parody of the failed European City of Culture bid in 2008 and developed it into a vibrant alternative guide to the city, with the annual Brummie of the Year award attracting thousands of votes and national attention. He frequently appears in the media as a Brummie commentator and was featured in the Birmingham Post's Power 50 list in 2008. He was honoured with a Webby award in 2010.
Danny Smith is co-founder, editor and feature writer for Dirty Bristow, a literary magazine for new writing across a wide range of genres. He has also written and illustrated features for Area, Fused, and Vice magazines along with columns for Prospects magazine and regular contributions to a number of local and national websites. Danny has a BA with Hons in Fine Art.
Pier Review is a project about culture's relationship with the seaside, and the people that live and visit there. The final result with be a book written by Jon and Danny about their two-week road trip around the UK. While travelling they interacted with supporters and locals via a number of blogs, Twitter and Facebook accounts. In order to finance the trip they raised over a thousand pounds through a crowdfunding website, and supporters were given access to a private live-blogged account. It was covered extensively in local press and national radio.
More info: pierreview.co.uk
Trip blog: http://funders.pierreview.co.uk/
Trip twitter: https://twitter.com/pierreview
Concrete and Cocktails
This is a short eBook about a trip around every independent public house in Birmingham city centre. Jon and Danny undertook the trip on one day and then wrote a joint travelogue about the journey, the changing face of the pub and of Birmingham. The resulting work was covered in the local press and was, briefly, bestselling in the travel category of the Amazon Kindle store.
More info: links.dirtybristow.co.uk/freebook
“worthy of Hunter S Thompson” Amazon review
11-11-11 - Outer Circle
Supported by National Express West Midlands, Jon encouraged people to spend 11 hours on the Outer Circle bus route on the eleventh of November 2008. Around thirty people did at least part of that and recorded their journeys online — resulting in a collection of contemporary views of the city. The project was covered extensively in the local media and the supporting website, and repeated in 2009 and 2010. A psychogeographical essay written about the first journey became part of a book accompanying photos of the route by Pete Ashton.
Travel and Creative Writing
Jon has written features for wide-ranging publications such as Fused magazine, and Area (culture) and Flipside (music magazine) as well as co-editing and contributing to the Birmingham-based literary magazine Dirty Bristow (dirtybristow.co.uk). A collection of his writing is available on the Amazon Kindle store. Jon has also contributed pieces about Birmingham and the West Midlands to such publications as The Guardian (eg http://bit.ly/JBGuardian); The Birmingham Post (where he also wrote a blog/column: http://bit.ly/JBPost); and bbc.co.uk (eg http://bbc.in/jbounds).
Birmingham: It’s Not Shit
Jon's long-term blog project BiNS has been serving up the not-so-ugly truth about Britain’s second city since the time of its failed European Capital of Culture bid in 2002. It continues to attract visitors and publicity, and has become one of the foremost online presences in the area offering news and comment to as wide an audience as it can.
Talk Like A Brummie Day
In June 2007 TLAB Day was set up with the aim of promoting the culture of Birmingham and dispelling some of the stereotypes held around the local dialect. It was promoted mainly online, with around 1,000 people joining its Facebook group or becoming MySpace friends, leading to extensive media coverage, in the local and national press, local radio stations, ITV News, Radio Five Live and BBC One’s The ONE Show.
Birmingham Music Map
In collaboration with the Birmingham Popular Music Archive Jon invited the public to contribute to an online database of music culture in Birmingham, by placing venues, artists, people or anything they felt related to music on a map. A physical artwork of the results was commissioned in the form of the Birmingham Music Map as part of Plug In an exhibition at mac.
Was an online pantomime which Jon created, wrote and directed. It was sponsored by the Birmingham Hippodrome and engaged thousands of users across the Twitter social messaging site for three years running. It also won an award at the Webbys, in the online art category.
The Big Picture
A project funded by Arts Council England to increase audience participation, and delivered alongside partners such as BBC Nations and Regions. As Online Editor Jon managed online communications and technical aspects of the collection of over 100,000 user-submitted photographs from people across the West Midlands region over a six-month period. He interviewed participants and developed stories around their photographs to engage more people online. It was the recipient of an Arts and Business Award and also commended by the international Webby Awards.
inthebigpicture.wordpress.com (results site)
Caroline Griffin, Programme Director, Audiences Central:
It was a real pleasure working with Jon on The Big Picture project. He was a never-ending source of inspirational new ideas for how we could make the most of the digital potential of the project - and was able to work with the limited resources we had available and still produce great results. His creativity, knowledge and enthusiasm contributed hugely to the success of the project and I hope to have the opportunity to work with him in the future.
Jon Hickman, Lecturer in Interactive Cultures, Birmingham City University:
Creative people on the Internet are ten a penny. Jon Bounds is creative, sure, but his projects have something more. Whether coining memes for fun, or developing approaches to improved public consultation on policy documents, or all manner of work in between, Jon cares about his work and the way it touches people. If you want to work with someone who is not just creative but who cares about what they do, who instinctively understands how people do things online, and who's a true wit to boot, then call Jon Bounds.
Daniel Cremin, Rhubarb Radio:
I worked with Danny Smith on the Student Birmingham 'Live and Learn' project for Rhubarb Radio, his duties were to engage Birmingham's university and college audiences with blog posts, social media content and a weekly podcast. Over the three months of the project I found Danny's enthusiasm, skill and attention to detail outstanding. He consistently produced well written and well targeted content to tight deadlines—he also managed to be interesting and creative with some difficult and weighty topics.
Creative Writing examples
Parking on a coast road, the sun is slowly fading and the junction between land and water is looking more English and peaceful than I think I’ve ever seen. My seaside has always been the commercial seaside, this is not it’s just quiet. Nice.
And it’s closed.
We arrive at the toll gate at ten to six and are just working out how to pay when the realisation that the closing time of five thirty has popped a crimp in our visit. There’s nothing we can do but gaze through the wrought iron gates. The gates look darker than they should due to a think coat of green paint, and the pier looks older and more fragile than perhaps it is due to the growing dark.
Getting down on to the beach, I’m feeling a desire to feel some sort of loss. I swing my legs off the side of a concrete jetty and stare out to sea. This first time I’ve looked at the sea properly as at Weston all focus was the town and finding our way. Here the sea is where the action is, the tide is encroaching and breaking gently onto the slope. Others such as ourselves are taking the wind, including a internationalist array of flags across the beach road. I watch a cute couple enjoy the emptiness: she’s taken her shoes off to slip into the surf and he’s dotingly taking her photograph.
Birmingham is really green and lush in places, the mature trees either side of the road can fool you into thinking nothing happens, that people wash cars clean of that tree gloop and have special machines for either sucking or blowing leaves subject to preference. Riding on the top deck you feel the need for those heavy suburban curtains, the drives where the parked monster truck acts as a barrier.
Where shops appear they don’t seem to be planned, the ‘party shop’ in Stirchley on the Pershore Road seems to whimper “celebration” rather than shout. It’s falling into itself, does it open? I don’t know. It has competition, the area thrives on the vibe of balloons and peculiarly dull glitter. Even the charity shops, the copy shops, the functional shops hide a stash of party poppers beneath the counter. In the pubs it’s perpetually New Year.
Bournville seems the most suburban suburb of them all, but really it’s an estate. Suburbs need more than the endless, not straight for some reason, roads with heavy foliage and cars, they need focal points. Bournville’s focal point is leaving it. I’ve never been to Bournville in the same way I’ve never been to the past, it wouldn’t be right. It looks focused on being itself, it has an insular industriousness. An order; factory, play, road, out, continue.
... I choose these places for their quirkiness, because the sub-cultures overlap with my own and maybe, most importantly, all these pubs are the venues of the most interesting things that happen in the city. These pubs are the small gig venues that keep the scene alive, there the rooms where our artists are reaching a wider audience than the cities white cubes allow, and these are the places that will take a chance and support exciting ideas.
I don't know if this is true in other cities, and certainly if anyone wants to pay me to research this I'll be willing to check it out, but it's the independent pubs in Birmingham that keep it vital and give it its character. Don't believe me? Imagine a city centre without these pubs, where the only place to get a drink is the Whetherspoons or any other its contemporaries, no gigs, no events, just two pounds a pint and chart music. I can name three or four other cities that are just like this. None of them are worth living in.
It was a shocking moment when after nineteen years of living in Birmingham I realised it will never be finished. The building work will never be done, some part will always be being demolished for another part to be built fresh: no one will ever take a step back, with their hands on their hips, and turn around with a ‘TA-DAA’. The ubiquitous cranes will always be part of the skyline, they’re not visitors they’re residents.
Cities are the bodies of our collective souls, and like bodies they change, regenerate, and can be easily marred. Ever see Ground Zero from up high? It looks like an awful scar across the face of pretty girl.