Alternative spaces : Marrying contemporary art with community at Friction Arts, Birmingham

There is a place in Birmingham that needs to be brought attention to and it‘s for all the right reasons. It is an arts organisation which goes by the name of Friction Arts and it’s a physical as well as a conceptual space where contemporary art practice merges with community engagement, successfully. They call their base The Edge, which is a former boiled sweet warehouse, as it is situated between two contrasting neighbourhoods:Digbeth and Highgate. The Edge provides a refuge where   community members find a creative outlet, a catharsis for those that need it. They are one of few in the region which offer free-of-charge Arts and Culture clubs for children and rent the facilities at the Edge on flexible terms, funded or unfunded up to negotiation. The place is spearheaded by Sandra Hall and Lee Griffiths, who have been active cultural practitioners since the early 90‘s, starting out in the underground festival scene and are now the leading artists and creative directors of an integral part of Birmingham’s arts and cultural milieu.

Credits: James Gillies from Friction Arts Quiet Carnival 2020

Most of their projects spark conversations around current topics that need to be brought attention to and offer a starting place for reconciliation, healing and dialogue. As in the past around islamophobia and gentrification, both of which were site specific to Birmingham. They have not only instigated creative dialogues and interventions around areas of ‘friction’ hyper locally but abroad as well, bringing home what they’ve learnt there and vice versa. The alternative space they‘ve co-created for and from the community is certainly a unique one. Their creative practice and one of a kind approach deserves a closer look.

Responsiveness, simplicity and appropriateness are the adjectives that come to mind when the plethora of their initiatives are thoroughly examined. Whether it be in South Africa, Britain or Norway their honest and transparent dialogue with, as they like to call their co-creators, the ‘unusual suspects’, shines through.  Their community-informed decision-making which is grounded by solid philosophical underpinnings and further backed up by their artistic collaborative process creates a safe-space for conversations to be had between divergent people about contested issues which need to be faced in order to be able to make a better shared future for all stakeholders involved, whether it be connected to socio-economic, cultural, ethnic or geographical areas of tension.

The view from Friction Arts over Birmingham’s urban landscape

The results are never the same as the final outcome is never predetermined and Friction Arts never comes to a project with preconceived ideas on what should be done. The constants in their practice are listening, communication and action, usually in this order, for and from the communities they find themselves in. The final outcomes have varied from multi-room visual art installations to performative interventions. They’ve established themselves as true agents for healing and solidarity in times of increased social scarring and global, national, and regional polarisation.

With on-going tensions around arts and cultural organizations, the need for conversation-starters, change-makers, and bridge-builders, such as Friction Arts, is more important than ever. Agents striving for a more ‘possitopian way of thinking’, as coined by Bridget McKenzie of the Climate Museum, are out there and waiting for individuals to engage with them to spread the message. In other words, be ready to work with what we’ve got (which is essentially each other) to accomplish equity, appreciation, and parity for all. If you believe in their cause and would like to see up and coming Friction Arts projects please go and show your support by following them online:

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Þórhildur Tinna Sigurðardóttir

Tinna (b. 1995) is a freelance cultural practitioner and writer from Iceland. She has an Honours bachelor’s degree in art theory and history and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Arts and Cultural Management at King’s College, London where she resides and works.