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Live at Parkside Gallery

Flatpack Film Festival: Birmingham Arts Lab

6 April - 25 May 2018

In September 1968 five young members at the Midlands Arts Centre met to discuss setting up their own space, inspired by a wave of Arts Labs then springing up across the country. To raise awareness and cash the group began a series of light-show gigs around the city under the name Strange Days, and a few weeks later they outlined a manifesto for the Birmingham Arts Lab in counterculture bible the International Times:

"The main work of the Lab will be to provide facilities for the committed artist to develop and present his work (to the public) in a creatively uninhibited atmosphere, with the emphasis on experimentation... Suitable premises, allowing a large area for members' projects, have already been fallen in love with and to make the whole thing real we urge you to support the various fund raising events and give as much as you can..."

Early the following year they had negotiated temporary use of the first floor at Birmingham Settlement's premises on Tower Street in Newtown, and over the next two years the Lab expanded to take over the whole building. Facilities included a print workshop, performance space and cinema, and during this period the whole operation was run on a voluntary basis by a core group of members - most of them in their early twenties, some living on the premises.

While most other Arts Labs soon fizzled out, Birmingham's grew and professionalised throughout the 1970s, hosting a huge array of films, gigs, theatre shows, happenings and installations at Tower Street and then from 1977 at its new premises next to Aston University. Gradually the Lab lost its multidisciplinary character to focus on cinema. Renamed the Triangle and absorbed into the university, the venue eventually closed down in 1994.

The exhibition presents a fleeting glimpse of the work which came out of Birmingham Arts Lab, from eye-popping poster art and site-specific performances to satirical comics and experimental film programmes. The organisation's influence lives on: it provided a launchpad and testing-ground for a huge range of artists, producers and performers, and its early period is a reminder of what can be achieved by a group of young people with big ideas and limited resources.

This exhibition is part of Flatpack Film Festival's Birmingham 68 programme, exploring a turbulent, fertile moment in the city's history. It would not have been possible without funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund. We would also like to thank the following: Trevor Pitt (Pod Projects); and Lawrence Roper (The Framers). Particular thanks to Birmingham Museums Trust for providing access to posters from their print collection, and to all the Lab alumni who shared material and stories.

Image credit: Hunt Emerson

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