When Lord Herbert Austin visited the old print works in Longbridge on 4 November 1905, a leap of imagination was required – this was the site he had selected for the Longbridge car factory.
Underpinning Cathy Wade’s ‘Star Map’, soon to be installed on site, are some of the intangible factors that brought Lord Austin to this particular part of southwest Birmingham. Rather than focus on the history of the plant per say, Wade’s sculpture is a carefully researched visualisation of the night sky over Longbridge, at its signature longitude and latitude, at the time of Lord Austin’s visit. Constructed from stainless steel, with constellations cut through to reveal points of light by Digbeth-based manufacturers, Clifton Steel, this is a monument to an auspicious moment. ‘Star Map’ echoes the flux, energy and power of machinery within the ever-changing face of the skies above us.
Nearby, Wade has completed another project that re-thinks the future of public and private space in Longbridge. Working closely with St. Modwen’s urban design team, Wade has created a planting and lighting system for the new town centre, whose ideas have come through the 2014 iteration of LPAP’s Longbridge Light Festival. Programmed lighting and a series of multi-stemmed birch trees have transformed a hard-landscaped space into one that can be explored. This is a work of art with a practical and social function that will subtly alter according to season, time of day and the natural growth of the plants. Wade’s vision is for this work to metaphorically and physically connect aspects from different moments in the timeline of Longbridge – to help pedestrians navigate the new walkways and publically accessible areas, and to offer an alternative, nuanced perspective of the current site development.
Longbridge’s train station has played a vital role in its history. Its rail services were another key reason for Lord Austin’s selection of the site. In its heyday, thousands of workers would disembark trains arriving in Longbridge. The station – a key gateway to Longbridge – is also in the midst of redevelopment plans. Wade has been working alongside Northfield Ecocentre’s Incredible Edible initiative to devise a project for the station that aims to re-plant the station banks with wildflowers and cuttings donated by the community, including edible plants that can be harvested by the community. This living artwork will grow and alter like the planted town centre works, while making reference to ‘green wall’ sites at other stations and public buildings in Birmingham, including the recent Marks and Spencer green wall in Longbridge. This is no fixed monument but one with the capacity to mature, adapt and literally take root in its selected ground. A series of photographs taken by Wade of the station and other stations across the country shared via social media since early 2013 conceptually expand the site of Longbridge train station. These are creating new conversations about the value of the railway.
Perhaps what is most important to Wade is keeping alive a sense of civic pride. Longbridge is a place where people live, work and socialise, and this has to be considered. Wade’s various projects draw together the history of the site, as well as its present developments and future changes. Through conversations at Greenlands Social Club and with other residents of Longbridge, her works offer a sensitive and organic approach to making art for and within such a complex physical and emotional place.
Text by Anneka French
Cathy Wade is an interdisciplinary artist who manifests works through collaboration, writing and publication. Her work is disseminated online and through material objects in formal and informal networks.
Recent projects include Delineator and the #ShaunRyderBeermatShow. She has exhibited extensively in the UK and internationally working with galleries and projects including Werk, Vertigo Gallery, Vivid, Toomey Tourell Gallery, Sluice, Printed Matter, Newlyn Art Gallery, Ikon, Ech-O-Cham-Ber, Curfew Tower, Capsule, Clarke Gallery & A3 Project Space.
She is currently The BCU Wheatley Fellow for 2015-2016.