Looking for the Black Redstart

Clare Thornton

Metro route from Birmingham to Wolverhampton, 2005

Part of Platforms public commissions for the Metro route from Birmingham to Wolverhampton incorporating performance, photography and guided walks exploring wildlife in urban landscapes. 

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Following the project an exhibition of photography, sculptural works and print created during the project was presented at Bilston Craft Gallery, in 2006.

Later that year the work was reconfigured for the Dorchester Art Festival, art and ecology programme, curated by Helen Pritchard.

The Story of the Artist … Looking for the Black Redstart
Clare Thorton

In Spring 2005 I was invited by curator Trevor Pitt at community arts agency The Public, to consider the Birmingham to Wolverhampton Metro tramline for the “Platforms” public art programme. The question: “What did this public transport route mean to me and how would I creatively respond to it?”

One morning as I travelled on the Metro from Birmingham to The Public’s office – going against the main flow of passengers/commuters at that time of day, I began to consider the land either side of the tracks. This was a nature ‘corridor’ cutting through the industrial conurbation of North Birmingham and the Black Country. The tram was quiet and I was the only person to get off at Trinity Way station. I stepped onto the platform and was struck by the sound of birdsong. Here was thriving nature in the midst of an urban & industrial area.

Given that birds/wildlife was to be a thread running through this project located in the Black Country area of the West Midlands, a trip to the local Nature Reserve (run by RSPB -Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) seemed the logical next step. This is when things gained focus and momentum. I learned about one of Britain’s rarest birds - the Black Redstart. I liked the name immediately. I was attracted to it’s nicknames: the “bombsite bird” and “power station” bird. This was a bird that thrived in urban industrial landscapes nesting in disused factories, building sites, areas under regeneration and change. The Black Redstart was a curiously appropriate mascot for the Black Country - a post-industrial area undergoing considerable change economically and in terms of urban regeneration.

A sighting of this rare bird is highly prized. The quest to find the Black Redstart had begun – a conceptual journey as much as a physical one. This project was to become an urban adventure. I began to go out along the metro line with binoculars, maps and recording equipment and began to document this performance/ research with photographer Cath Tarbuck.

The idea then grew that as sightings of the Black Redstart had been recorded along the metro line (aswell as the local canal network) a visual record of my search for this bird could also be publicly presented along the route. We approached Viacom who supported our proposal to use a number of the poster/advertising boards at Metro stations. These large photographs were a kind of visual ‘hook’ to the transitory, passing audience/metro tram passengers.

I was also keen to make public performance actions during the project, and for two days during Birmingham’s Fierce! Festival 2005 (www.fiercetv.co.uk) I ‘performed’ my adventure along the Metro route - hopping on and off the trams at peak commuter times, chatting with fellow passengers and metro staff who asked me what I was doing and sharing with me what they had seen on their own journey’s…

Through my discussions with curator/producer Trevor Pitt we arranged free picnics and ‘rambles’/nature walks. To create social events and engage with more people, drawing in local bird/wildlife experts to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. These activities complimented the performance interventions and were intended to offer a relaxed social space in which people could meet and take an active part in the project.

Thus I was joined by local ‘adventurers’ who also armed with binoculars, accompanied myself, Morgan (Wildlife Trust) and Peter (RSPB) along the path running alongside the metro tracks.

A ‘Looking for the Black Redstart’ photo album creatively documenting these performances, nature walks and picnics has been produced, capturing the participation by local people and documenting the surprising wildlife secrets to be discovered amidst this urban sprawl.

An invitation to exhibit the outcomes of the project was made by Bilston Craft Gallery – situated near the Metro route. For this small-scale exhibition in January 2006 I created new textile and print works to compliment the billboard posters, photo album and a contextualizing video interview produced by Fierce!. I was interested in trying to translate into the ‘soft’ medium of fabric and stitch my journey and my passion/curiosity for research (for example cartography, wildlife books, geological data – hardcopy and digital archives). I am particularly interested in how artists and scientists communicate their ideas and findings about the world they live in.

The Bilston exhibition pulled together the project elements. In ‘Looking for the Black Redstart’ I wanted to investigate ideas about journeys, physical/geographic, mental and urban landscapes and sparking a curiosity for the everyday. I wanted to look at local public transport networks in a different way and invite local people to join me on this journey.

Following the Bilston Craft Gallery exhibition, in April 2006 I was invited to present the project in an entirely new context at the Dorchester Festival (south west England). The theme for that year’s festival was art and ecology. The Dorset region is rural rather than urban/industrial. Whilst the exhibition in the Dorchester Town Hall presented the works as they were shown at Bilston, naturally the rambling/nature walks element was re-designed to respond to this new location. Having made contact with the local Wildlife Trust Roadside Verges project worker and the local RSPB representative we researched several possible walking routes leading us out of the town centre. Rambling is usually associated with rural environments (that’s why the first Black Country urban rambles had been so surprising and novel intervention in that industrial locality). In order to surprise and creatively disrupt the rambles in the Dorchester area we stuck to roads rather than paths cutting through fields and woods and our surprise destination was in fact the local sewerage works – not a conventional area of local natural beauty or obvious wildlife hot spot.

These gentle disruptions were all part of the process of inviting participants to look differently at their local environment and neighbourhood. Key to ‘Looking for the Black Redstart’ participatory public art project is the desire to inspire curiosity in the everyday and an active engagement in local issues and concerns by the artist and participants.