The Birmingham Surrealist Laboratory

The Birmingham Surrealist Laboratory is the first stage of a feasibility study for a heritage space dedicated to the Birmingham Surrealist Movement (1930s-1950s). The seed-funded experimental project aims to investigate the ways in which new digital facilities can help unlock complex issues of cultural heritage and cultural sensitivity in a diverse city. It has two main precedents. Firstly, a Surrealist House competition staged as part of an art programme for residents in the area of Balsall Heath, south Birmingham (Balsall Heath Biennale 2013).  Secondly, interest in finding funding for a new heritage space in Birmingham has been mooted by the Barber Institute and National Trust.

Of particular interest to the project is that Balsall Heath was home to the Birmingham Surrealist Group (Levy 2003; Sidey 2000; Remy 2000), and, indeed, the locale for British Surrealism nationally over the 1940s and 1950s, given Conroy Maddox’s role as a champion of ‘orthodox’ Surrealism (Levy 2003). The Birmingham Group comprised Maddox, Desmond Morris, John Melville and Emmy Bridgwater, and was at the centre of a community of alternative cultural figures including jazz musician George Melly, writers Stuart Gilbert and Henry Green, and poet Henry Reed. Today, Balsall Heath has been identified as falling within the lowest 5% of neighbourhoods – referred to nationally as ‘Super Output Areas’ – for multiple deprivations (Census 2011). A low take-up from the established, predominantly Pakistani Muslim population in the Surrealist House competition offers productive ground for working through how digital technologies can be used to investigate multiple barriers to mainstream, and more subversive, manifestations of culture and heritage in the city.

(Warren et al., ‘Case for Support’)


Key Participants

Dr Saskia Warren is an early career researcher with a background in geography, cultural policy and creative practice. She is lead researcher on a large scale AHRC funded project, Cultural Intermediation: Connecting Communities in the Creative Urban Economy. She is a Committee member of the Balsall Heath Cultural Steering Group and invited author of a chapter for a book on Balsall Heath Biennale (forthcoming 2014). She was consultant on a diversity, democracy and representation report for Bradford College (awarded an NUS prize 2013), and has led an HLF project. She brings arts sector, policy and public engagement expertise to the project.

Dr Stephen Forcer (Co-I) is a Lecturer at the University of Birmingham and has published widely on the avant-garde and Surrealism, including a co-edited special issue of Nottingham French Studies on The French Avant-garde (2011), research and review articles about the relationship between French and international Surrealism, and a forthcoming second monograph, on Dada as Text, Thought and Theory (Oxford: Legenda Research Monographs in French Studies, 2014/2015). He is an editorial board member of the US-based journal Dada/Surrealism and has participated in several events dedicated to Birmingham Surrealism, including a public lecture on ‘Surrealism, Conroy Maddox, and Balsall Heath’ at the Balsall Heath Biennale (2013), acting as judge for the Biennale’s Surrealist House Competition, and a contribution on Maddox to the film More Canals Than Venice (Rainbow Films, 2013).

Dr Richard Clay is a Co-director of Digital Humanities Hub, £1.1 million project focused on the use of leading edge multi-touch technologies, especially in museums, libraries, and archives. He is the author of ‘Matthew Boulton and Birmingham ‘the Art Capital of the World’’, Matthew Boulton and the Art of Making Money, Studley, 2009. He was lead curator on the Barber Institute exhibition Matthew Boulton and the art of making money (2009) and Principal Investigator on the AHRC-funded collaborative research project, Suburban Birmingham: Spaces and Place, 1880-1960. The project collaborators are University of Birmingham, University of Birmingham Special Collections (UBSC), Birmingham Libraries and Archives (BLA), and Birmingham Museums and Art Galleries (BM&AG).

Izzy Mohammed is the Audience Engagement Coordinator for the Library of Birmingham. He has given an invited talk on ‘Post-war Birmingham: ethnic diversity and social change’, at the conference Birmingham’s Global Communities, organised by Birmingham Museums and the Centre for West Midlands History, University of Birmingham. He brings to the project cultural engagement and outreach expertise with diverse groups, access to relevant networks and significant project development and delivery experience.

Matt Daniels is Chair of the Balsall Heath Cultural Steering Group, the independent consultant on Birmingham City Council’s Cultural Commissioning Pilot in Balsall Heath, and director of Youth Music to create partnerships between schools and music organisations in Birmingham.

Professor Elza Adamowicz is author of Surrealist Collage in Text and Image. Dissecting the Exquisite Corpse, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge Studies in French, 1998). She holds an emeritus chair in French Literature and Visual Culture at Queen Mary University, London. She is one of the UK’s leading international experts on Surrealism, with particular knowledge of the international and British forms of Surrealism, and has published numerous single-authored books, edited volumes and article-length items on these and other aspects of avant-garde thought, culture and aesthetics.

Dr Silvano Levy is the world’s foremost expert on Conroy Maddox. His numerous publications in the field of Surrealism include the monograph The Scandalous Eye. The Surrealism of Conroy Maddox (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2003), and he has curated national touring exhibitions of work by Maddox and Desmond Morris.

Professor Roger Shannon initiated and co-organised (with Forcer) a screening of Levy’s film on Maddox for the  Flatpack Film Festival 2013 (p. 10), which has led to a series of subsequent events and activities. A cultural studies specialist and award-winning film producer, Professor Shannon also offers a breadth of arts contacts and connections that will be invaluable to the round table, to the dissemination of the work done in the project, and to the development of subsequent plans for larger events.