Cathy Wade is an interdisciplinary artist who works through collaboration, curation and research. Alongside her own practice she programmes Edible Eastside’s converted vacant industrial land in Digbeth which has evolved into a hub for collective planting, growing and contemporary art as the site’s transformation from abandoned concrete building lot has been accompanied by its re-use as public space by contemporary artists and curators. She also is a studio holder an curator for A3 Project Space’s responsive and evolving programme of exhibitions and events. The potential for personal histories and narratives to mark public space and places of local significance will be the primary element of her residency at Longbridge.
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 south west Birmingham. Rather than focus on the history of the plant per say, Wade’s large 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, 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 is working on another project that re-thinks the future of public space in Longbridge. Wade will create 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 birch trees will transform a dark, unfriendly space into one in which it will be a pleasure to spend time. 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, approximately 5000 workers would disembark each train. Currently, however, the station is tired and in need of revitalisation. Wade has been working alongside Northfield Eco-Centre to devise a project for the station that plans to re-plant the station banks with 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. 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 conceptually expand the site of Longbridge train station. These create 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