"Here is a site on the edge of public memory..."

Artist residency with Behind Closed Doors


Three month residency based in an abandoned plot in Digbeth, the industrial heart of Birmingham. Those with a social and historical connection to the area contributed various elements to a 'funeral', to mark and process the sense of loss that has been aroused through regeneration. This ceremony was not documented, and now solely exists within the oral tradition of the area. Below are the texts used during the service, which form a kind of transcript.


Ben: Here is a site on the edge of public memory. To most people, it is unfamiliar and unknown. But each of us here today understood the powerful character of the area, and we each in our own way knew it differently, uniquely. We may begin to understand its true identity by looking at the history of the site.



Beyond these walls lies Digbeth, Deritend, Smithfield, Highgate...and the River Rea formed all of this: the track beside it was the "dyke path" that became Digbeth, which became the town and then the city of Birmingham. Along the banks of the River Rea, then so much wider were tanneries and small metal workshops, working in silver, gold and iron, using the river's flow for power.  There have been so many industries for centuries before the Machine Tools Services company started here in 1956. Since then, the site has shown its versatility. Although built for purpose, it allowed its identity to shift. In the 60s it was occupied by Philips Records, storing freshly cut disks, boxed and ready for their destination in the charts.  In the 70s, a draper set up here: D&B Walsh. They stayed for 23 years. And in 1993 an untimely death: the site was destroyed by fire. No explanation came forth, and the site was left empty. The garden grew tall and the gates stronger, as squatters sought to use the empty buildings. Ten years ago, the land changed hands again, with the promise of a cinema here...which sadly came to nothing. And last year, a small, concealed door cut into the iron led to the site changing again, with the opening of what you see today: the Rea Gardens: an oasis still with scattered remnants of its previous lives: a shoe, a mug, a mattress...recent excavations revealed layers of shellac fragments.


Those who have passed through since its reopening have come with a sensitivity to the strong feelings here.  A source of much speculation, from fireworks factory to pharmacy, it inspires the imagination without need for accuracy.


Arlene will now read reflections of the Chief mourners.



Reflections of the Chief mourners.

Arlene: The site, without family, captured the imagination of a steady stream of artists. These new friends have all had an intimate and distinct relationship with the site.


I experienced apprehension and anticipation in here for the months before clearing began, inching and ducking through a dense shrubbery that denied me comprehension of the scale of the site. This single spot here, now marked with the bird box, at the time felt miles from the entrance, was where I felt most safe, where I sat capturing movement with a pin hole camera. Visits from an inquisitive robin helped create a more homely space: life beneath a withered canopy.


Anne spent many an evening alone in the site - time spent catching moths - arriving to a street full of cars and leaving with only her car left waiting for her. Its simplicity challenged her to work outside of her comfort zone, without warmth or electricity. It turned out to be the most peaceful place, that allowed her to experience the city in a way she had never before. 


Helen watched nature engulf - "obliterate" - the industrious nature of the site, then, with the seasons, recoil to reveal industry once again. 


Paul responded with play and whimsy, he got lost in the space, the garden felt like the most secret of spaces. His experience of the space was necessarily very physical, physically restrictive, had to bend down and tunnel through. He watched the space softened itself after the shipping containers brought in for the first project were removed; the severity of the clearance wore off.


Ben: Thank you Arlene.  Let us now take a moment to reflect on thoughts put into song by Paul Murphy: "Out of Babel"



Song - Out of Babel

Paul: There's a fragrance in the air the city breathes

Now the spring is singing hymns among the leaves

And blossoms blow where statues stand

Across the square a marching band

Sunlit dreams reflect on glass

The blazing colour as we go past


Like a carnival on cable / A bhangra, jazzy funky fable

We go, we go / Hay are you ready here we go

Here we go, ho he ho / Right out of Babel


Mr Singh hoists his granddaughter high

And she's laughing like a dove as we go by

Painted dragons they lead the dance

The fiddlers tune / The great romance

Yeh all together or not at all

Tabla, bodham and conga call


It started in a garden / The world was innocent and young

Between the dawning of the day and the setting of the sun

But it wound up in a city / When all was said and done

To the city they come

From the east and the west and the north and the south

They come to the city strange tongue in their mouth
And out of the confusion and babble of tongue

People of the city gotta learn / They gotta learn to sing as one.

Now redundant stars from distant galaxies

Are strung out like festive lights between the trees

The carnival has been and gone

The city sleeps and turns t'wards dawn

Jaswinder dreams of a dragon dance

The fiddler's tune / The great romance

Ben: Thank you Paul. I would now like to invite Joe Holyoak to give our reading.



Joe: Today's lesson is taken from the words [...] of a modern prophet, Professor Michael Parkinson; his Birmingham City Centre Masterplan: the Visioning Study, Chapter 6, verses 68 to 70 and verse 74.



Eastside [...] is not an easy development site. There have been problems with fragmented land ownership. There have been problems with industrial contamination.  [...]. 



People have raised a variety of concerns about Eastside. It has been said that there is not a clear enough vision for the area. Development is [...] occurring in an uncoordinated fashion, which could leave an incoherent place [...].



This is a hugely important area [...] Birmingham must focus on this area.



This is one of the most exciting parts of the city, which has authenticity, grit, great buildings, waterways. In other cities it would be a jewel. It is absolutely critical that this area is developed in the right way for the city.


It certainly must not be overdeveloped or sanitised by conventional development.


Here endeth the lesson.


Ben: Thank you Joe




"One does not look for ruins in a manufacturing town whose motto is Forward". But a time has come when in order to continue moving Forward, we must also look back - we must see that things have their own time and design.  We must consider what we value and what we can grow, what we should preserve and what to let go.


There are ways in which we affect space and ways in which space affects us. How we find and how we leave space. How we carry a memory into the future.  How we pay homage. Resurrection, renewal and reconciliation between the past and the future of the space. This vulnerable of this site evokes conflicting feelings of potential and responsibility. It holds a guarded openness, a stubborn flexibility.


"As a live dog is better than a dead lion, so is a busy street better than a ruined temple". Nothing is ever truly disposed: whether living in bricks, in memory, in gesture or in light. The earth itself cannot be embalmed, it lays itself to rest. Our buildings are a mirror of ourselves and their treatment also a reflection of our character. And we are standing among ruins.  They demand nothing but ask everything.


I'd like now to read a poem by Hannah Hull




A curve of fallen steel

The precise hue

of faded blue.


Heavy rain reveals

metal hoops

in every size


I dug a hole

Shards of shellac

Waterfall, spill


Tucked away

sodden boxes



Time has its own design:

A monument

to itself



We will now call on Rea as a symbol of the origin of the gardens. Please now join me in reading the blessing on the last page of the Order of Service. 


We bless this site today /   with the waters of the Rea.

Whence it came /  may it yet return


We now reach our dismissal. I will now pass over again to Paul for the closing song.



Out of the shadows - Song

Paul: 'Hold fast to dreams / For when dreams go
Life is a barren field covered with snow
Hold fast to dreams / For when dreams die
Life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly' [Langston Hughes]

Hold fast to dreams / For if they fade away
All your whole world turns to grey
And what will you do on that day
If you don't hold fast to dreams

All: So come out of the shadows / Step into the light
Come out of the shadows / Everything's going to be alright

Paul: Art it is a minstrel / It sings an ancient song
Celebrating goodness / Exposing wrong
And so we gather here / Beside the river Rea
To celebrate this garden / Springing from decay

All: So come out of the shadows /Step into the light
Come out of the shadows / Everything's going to be alright

Paul: The river carries dreams away and brings new dreams to birth
Amongst decaying factory sites / Flowers in broken earth
Beneath the dark November sky rain falls on you and me
As River Rea through Tame and Trent journeys towards the sea.

All: So come out of the shadows /Step into the light
Come out of the shadows / Everything's going to be alright


Closing Words

Ben: We invite you to join us at The Anchor on Bradford Street for a light buffet, and a pint of the specially commissioned Digbeth Phoenix Ale, accompanied by a soundtrack selected by Chromatouch. There you will also be able to sign the Book of Condolences. Arlene will lead the way.