Visible Cities: A photographic exhibition at Dartington Gallery exploring Venice and Birmingham

displacement of their time

Visible Cities
A photographic research exhibition
At Dartington Gallery October 08
By Beatrice Jarvis
Work process in collaborations with Dr Bob Jarvis, ( Townplanner LSBU)
Professor Mike Gibson ( Town Planner) Tom Grant ( Sound and Video Artist)

walk with me to the city from the feild

What do you see in your minds eye when Venice is murmured, or Birmingham is spoken about in dulcet tones? The man who sites behind you on the bus could have murmured the street names in his slumber, maybe your local take way is called la Gondola.

What image, what smell, what sound, what texture forms imprint on your minds eye when these to cities are alluded to. Taste it sees it, smell it, allow it to enrapture you for a minute sink into a labyrinth of memory or preconceptions for the cities I talk of.

Have you been to either, perhaps more interestingly have you read a guide book for either or received a colourful postcard, forging an odd image of a conceivable pleasure dome, evoking a yearning you to visit, to be tempted by it allure.

This exhibition started with a two week trip to Birmingham. Searching perhaps for the underside of the metropolis. The Venice of the North. Travelling. I did not go to lose or find myself. I was not burdened with ambition of determined outcome. I simply sought to find the city. ‘The city’ perhaps I wanted to find. An amalgamation of 412 images forming my map. I did not go seek the Venice of the North, to discover Birmingham was the Venice I am missing. I visited the cities perhaps because I wanted to remember what it felt to be a stranger in a city. To discover what it feels like to arrive in a place and walk for days with my camera and try and capture the essence of the paths of the paths that I stumble.

I have visited Venice since I was child, wrapped in thermal vests to keep the cold winter out, unaware of the beauty of the streets I was walking and yet visiting again, memory did sink, like the city, entrenching itself into my mind, now forming itself into the images that are laid out on these walls. The city as I remember has fallen slightly, tattered at the edges and in need of holding up. Yet the very essence of it falling is what makes it so beautiful. Perhaps you read this and conceive I am another tourist, visiting these places; ‘unable to change my position in the world, I change my position to it’ (Visconti 68) as I cling to the elements of the fallen Babylon, creating through images a world I can relate to and feel a warmth in a temporary home, wanting to fall endlessly in love with the moment.

pounds for ideas

Venice is a myth which I hope that through images I can sustain. The multi faceted illusions of a past grandeur that linger forcefully in tried walls rooted with sea mists and the fragrance of old canals. Birmingham is faster in the destruction game, the canals are close to vacated, and the streets now filled with glistening tar mac and buses are close comparison to a ride on the number one vaporetti. How does modernity fill the streets which are no longer paved with the orders of the Doge? The narrow maze lined high with strict lines and the remnants of a century past. This is all a charade, cities that are in reality theatres starring the guests of modernity, decay is made to wait at back stage, yet still it rears, lingers through fragrance and uncleaned streets. Venice, a utopia that becomes subject to the tourist gaze, fragmented sections of an altered lost identity. ‘Don’t take Venice, a drug which is pleasurable on first trip. Venice is not so much a town as a representation of a town.’ Venice plays at being a town and we play at discovering it, like actors in a series of three day scenes. Tourism in Venice is its downfall, Europe’s Disneyland, a playground for the rich, a fun ride for the weekend, to imagine what a city could be, but never staying long enough to see if fantasy is reality, keeping up appearances for as long as the guide book will cover. .

I am fascinated by conception and realisation of the concept of a city, any city, what is the place of the city in your memory, what does the name of the city provoke when you overhear it, what connotations does the memory of the sound of the city bring, what provocations, what evocations. , the sound of the city evokes, provoke and remind. As canals run through the city, memories flow through the mind. Engulfing the moment, taking the present into a new dimension, creating the city with all of the images I have amassed from Birmingham and Venice from my wanders, my walks, strolls, endlessly seeking to piece together my own map.

I have walked the cities of Birmingham and Venice with a camera and a note book, perhaps as wanderer, as flaneur, as anthropologist or as tourist wishing to be lost in a new maze. I have concluded that I need only to walk more. This exhibition is an overview of my observations, studies and notes. To compare these cities is to wonder how to create utopia with only the remnants of a fallen dream, fallen blocks about which I am gluing together through my lens.

He walks

I am at the beginning of my study. A man reaching 90 may still be at the beginning of his. There is no truth that can resolve in this, only exploration and seeking, that may create links in these falling stones.

Walking, looking, smelling, seeing and observing the city as I was not supposed to according to the development agencies, stumbling through fallen palaces, skipping amongst the barren wastelands, an interest continues city to city to unearth the realities of the effects of modernity. Wandering with intrigue through the backstreets, the unmarked place that the map cannot quite locate and the sat nav pauses for. Amongst people who murder pigeons as a warning of where not to pass. A wall of broken glass shatters slowly. A city that I have only known briefly, arriving with no particular routes in mind and no map to dictate a way. Rolls and rolls of film, a late rise and I commence.

The city by bicycle. What implication does the cycle have on observation methods, how much do you miss? Little by the amounts of footage and image I am currently culling for this exhibition. A collation of images I now see before me alluding to Birmingham. Alluding to Venice. How is it that I have portrayed the city in such light? This is not a negative implication, and in no means do I wish to portray a place I have rested in for days in any particular light as such dipping in is not sufficient for deep considered observation.

Staying in a gated community, sleeping on a roof top, trespassing through all parts. Returning to a room reflect, mapping through my dreams my own city. The city is dangerous I am told over the telephone by my mother. Little notice to the shopping developments, more time perhaps to cheap outfit sourced in bargain warehouses.

What is important about arriving in a city, how to find routes, where to find where the city starts and ends, which buses, which roads, are there such things as good and bad parts, can we know a route in a day. I have maps, tucked into my pocket, unread, reconstructed, cut to pieces and reassembled to make the city I see.

Arriving on the late train from London, met by dazzling lights of the nearly new mega shopping complex looming luminous towers, heading the mass of the last straggling shoppers, making a fresh path for the night occupation as sweaty droves fill the bars and flood like a stagnant canal onto the paving stones.

The profile of the canal is potentially elegant, filled with the poignancy of the old city, the city as we can imagine with our blinkers on. The path ways are neat, with few needles scattered and the cans have rusted to look like art, the preservation policies are clearly going as plan. The geese are the tourist attraction, consuming the paths, hissing at those quite pleased to see the free wildlife.

I walk the city calm, drawn to the broken maze of dream scapes fallen silent in the tremor of a hurtling bus. The city alone, the city unaccompanied is playful and lures its occupants into unsavoury haunts, offering a new place to play. Streets lit in fantaisiful glow, perfect illuminations of the lights that frame the street which should be as dark as the sky. A lover’s embrace between the grass and the dirt.

portrait unknown subject

The cities meet me with no expectation, offering me a brief show of their allures, vain and pouting. I distain to look, choosing to crawl to the darker streets; the make up and fancy dress is worn, tattered and reveal a darker layer. Flat blocks left empty, a security guard smiles, a old smile as though tired of watching the police station. There is a bridge that over looks the motor way, you can stand and feel the breeze of five lanes of traffic brush your metal cheek. There is a bridge over a canal which is filled with stagnant waters of a burnt out fire.

The Wasteland

I did not intend to merge these cities, indeed they remain separate. They are two cities and I narrate a small part of their tales.


I wonder if a day in the city is enough to gain a memory that lasts longer than the steam on a hot cup of tea. This series is perhaps taking images so they can fall as confetti into a sea of dust and detritus, or perhaps so they can form tidy neat crisp lines on gallery walls. The city is soft, waiting sodden feet decide its form. The feet that decide not stand in Commercial Street, turning instead to the streets where the factories no longer produce smoke.

I have walked now in the rain, through the streets that I wish to compare and contrast to the aged mirror of Venice. Is the city a mirror, a plausible future? A future that consists of odd pockets of air and dirty used streets.

textural study

Memory is redundant; it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist. (Calvino) Just as I walk around these streets trying to place together a reality of the city, trying to understand the history, the roots, and the people and how these fit to make a whole which takes the identity of urban form. I am concerned when I realise each area shifts and makes another bold statement to assert its identity each new day I walk, loss of memory as memory is an imprint of a changed past. To say I know the city is a lie, I see parts and place together an odd meaning which may or may not exist tomorrow.

I have worked predominately alone in my explorations of these cities. Working at odd hours with my camera, the streets as a playground, as fearful terrain. I have also worked in collaboration and discussion with my father, Dr Jarvis, Urban Designer and Senior lecturer who annually takes students to Venice and has written extensively on the subject regeneration in Venice, Professor Mike Gibson, Town Planning, who has worked extensively in Birmingham as part of the community architecture and has produced many papers on regeneration in the city. I explored Birmingham with Tom Grant, who has made a film and soundscape to reflect our walks in the city. This can be seen as a moving image diary of our urban explorations.

This exhibition can be viewed as a personal mapping of my experiences of the two cities to form a photographic psychogeographical cognitive map of my observations.

Broken man
Urban Collab Phase One


As part of my research in Birmingham I have worked in discussion with Professor Mike Gibson, Town Planner.
This has proved an interesting comparison to my photographic study of the modern day wastelands; Gibson was extensively involved in community architecture program developing a comprehensive regeneration programme of the slum areas of Birmingham, pioneering the system of ‘enveloping’ in the 1980’s.

Within Birmingham in the 1960’s there were several schemes in place to monitor development and redevelopment in place to ensure that areas were utilised as effectively as possible, these were to develop a ‘Housing action area’ which were specific parts of the city that needed particular areas of urgent renovation. This had the ultimate disadvantage in terms of longevity, with most renovation having very limited life. .

travel safe friends

Professor Gibson is a pioneer of ‘The Barefoot’ approach to architecture where architecture must go beyond buildings because buildings are not enough. They are big and wasteful accumulations of natural resources that are difficult to adapt to the continually changing conditions of modern life. It is important to consider the views of both residents and professionals to get a full picture of how successful a place is. However, the types of knowledge held by each are quite different. Whereas professionals have a more abstract, global knowledge about urban design which they can carry from place to place, lay users tend to have a more practical, local knowledge of how places work. Both are needed to get the clearest impression of a place, and of how best to create successful, sustainable places in the future. The Discretionary legislation 1960’s created a new approach;’ A new life for old housing’, utilising existing power and resources to redevelop deprived areas technically fit for demotion with active local involvement. This was pivoted by research by The Home Office, which was left in the capable hands of radicals involved in Community Action Teams, allowing anarchistic and radical approaches to enter government planning policy. This revolutionary approach was however was short lived, as the individualistic approach meant there was no clear overall structure within the regeneration programme, the approach changed dramatically with a new Comprehensive regeneration programmes designed to clear all areas, with no real concern the individual.

There were strict legislations now in place that in order a residence was habitable it in had to have running water, to be weather proof, with an inside toilet and facilities for cleaning, which has obvious positive implications on paper, yet in reality the individual was gradually being cast aside, personal needs cast aside. In the 1970’s there was great social unrest in the majority of major housing estates in Birmingham due to these new polices as the main result was a development of the view all should be demolished, there was great threat to the homes of literally of millions, with demolition programmes in place yet to implemented to destroy and destruct later to rebuild. This was largely agreed to as there was little threat to ownership patterns, as property owners who in the majority had no attachment to the slum properties as they received the price of their land value, which was adequate as the properties required so much work in order to be high quality accommodation.

This was first instigated through Home improvement grants leading to partial regeneration in areas, this was non systematic and for the majority unsuccessful. This led to a major development in the 1980’s named Enveloping; where entire streets of terraced housing were regenerated in terms of desperately needed external maintenance, allowing them to appear presentable and the tenants were responsible for interior renovation with small grants to cover costs This programmed was innovative as regeneration was street by street rather than house by house, renovating properties to an extent that they would be satisfactory for 30 years, this scheme was much more successful than previous regeneration endeavours as it utilising areas deemed as slums and classified as fit for evacuation and unsuitable for human inhabitation. This allowed for residents to remain in their existing residences and avoid major regeneration and uprooting programmes, socially allowing the demographics of the city to remain in place

The journals Professor Gibson has contributed to this exhibition reflect a period of transitional state and shift within Birmingham, a systematic approach to improvement of living conditions, with great importance due to substantial civic initiative allowing social change which is clear due to the ethnic composition that now exists in Birmingham, as now in East Birmingham the population is 80% Asian, mixed Hindu and Muslim. The housing initiatives in the 1980’ s served to protect the essence of Birmingham, allowing for the Asian Immigrant population to have settled and defined areas in the city, of course this has obvious implications of social divisions, but yesterday’s solutions can become today’ problems, as can be now seen with the preservation of the Castle Vale estate, and the inherited problems it is now struggling to over come. In 1900 John Dunlop opened a factory here and other manufacturing companies were slowly approaching the area. Birmingham was already on the doorstep. However, Castle Vale never succumbed to the skyline of factories, pollution and noise. It was destined for a different purpose and yet the quality and individual character of the homes was often severely lacking. The Castle Vale housing estates really came into being in the 1960’s. Tower blocks sprang up all around Castle Vale and tenants soon moved in. This 1.5 square mile site of the old airfield and surrounding outbuildings became home to over 10,000 people and 5,000 homes. Over the years the quality of living in tower blocks deterioted and vandalism made life in some almost intolerable. Companies in Birmingham would refuse to set up business in the area and the B35 post code was to be avoided at all costs. Such was the reputation of Castle Vale. Recent years have seen great moves to provide regeneration and improvements at Castle Vale. Old tower blocks have been pulled down and new homes are going up. Refurbishments ensure that many homes are once again comfortable to live in. In ironic line with this exhibition, the development of a shopping turned retail park has gradually paved the path to allow Castle Vale Housing Action Trust to win the secretary of state’s Partnership in Regeneration Award in October 2000.

These journals reflect a community approach to regeneration, realising the importance of community engagement, debate, discussion and interaction with council regeneration schemes, allowing the community to fully highlight the significance they place on their homes. This personal approach is essential to a successful relationship between council and tenants, the city and the individual, essentially laying the foundations for successful place making

our street

My intention with my photographic material is to slowly develop a profile of the wastelands of Birmingham to create a profile as to which areas need redevelopment and renewal currently working from a grass roots approach and comparing the states to the estates of the 1970’s. I strive also to highlight the potential beauty and possibility of existing urban areas in dire need of regeneration for creative and artistic use. This is a long term project, to which this exhibition is the first stepping stone; .

demolish us

This project will return to Venice for evalaution and re:FormA in September 2009

For further information please see press review:

Selected Bibliography for further reading:

• Ahmed. I. (2004) Sorrows of the moon. A journey through London. London. Coldstream Publishers.
• Akay and Peter. (2006) Urban Recreation. Denmark. Dokument Forlag.
• Auge. M. (1992) Non-Place. Introduction to an anthropology of super modernity. France. Editions Seuil.
• Ballard. J. (1976) Concrete Island. Suffolk. Granada Publishing.
• Burgin. V. (1996) Some Cities. London. Reaktion Books
• Calvino. (1974) Invisible Cities. London. Secker and Warburg LTD
• Cuthbert, A. (2006) The Form of Cities. Oxford. Blackwell Publishing.
• Debray. R. (1995) Against Venice. London. Pushkin Press.
• Donald. J. (1999) Imagining the Modern City. London. The Athlove Press.
• Douglas. J. (1976) Investigative Field Research. Individual and Team Field Research. London. Sage Publications
• Frers. M. Meier. L. (2007) Encountering Urban Performances. Visual and Material Performances in the City. Hampshire. Algate Publishing
• Hollevolt, C. Jones. K. Nye. T (1992) The Power of City. The City of Power. New York. Whitney Museum of Modern Art.
• Home. S. (2004) Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton. London. The Do Not Press.
• Huggett. R (designer) (1979) Languages. An Exhibitions of artists using word and image. Harlow. Arts Council England.
• Jacobs. J. (1961) The Life and death of Great American Cities. The failure of Town Planning. London. Penguin Books
• Johnson. J. (1978) Doing Field Research. New York. The Free Press.
• Medhurst D F, Parry Lewis J. (1969) Urban Decay. An Analysis and Policy. London. Macmillan and CO
• Miles. M. (1997) Art, Space and the City. London. Routledge
• Morand. P. (1971) Venices. London. Pushkin Press.
• Pile. S. (1996) The Body and the City. Psychoanalysis, Space and Subjectivity. London Routledge.
• Raban. J. (1974) Soft City. London. Fontana.
• Relph. E. (1976) Place and Placelessness. London. Pion Limited.
• Weber. M. (1958) The City. USA. The Free Press.
• Westwood. S. Williams. J. (1997) Imagining Cities. Scripts, Signs and Memories. London. Routledge.
• Willats. S. (1979) London. Whitechapel Art Gallery.
• Willats. S. (1987) Between Objects and People. Perspectives on City Living. Leeds. Leeds City Art Gallery.
• Willats. S. (1996) Between Buildings and People. London. Academy editions.
• Wimsatt. W. (2001) Bomb the Suburbs. Graffiti, Race, freight hopping, and the search for Hip Hops Moral Centre. Berkeley. Soft Skull Press.


All images and text copyright to Beatrice Jarvis.

2 Responses to “Visible Cities: A photographic exhibition at Dartington Gallery exploring Venice and Birmingham”

  1. Hi, I am working on a Well Being project looking at Castle Vale. I am very interested in this work and would like to see more. Thanks, Jill

  2. Hi Bea, I looked at your photographs of Birmingham and was shocked. I use to go shopping in Castle Vale when it was supposedly ‘rough.’ I even dated a girl that lived on ‘the vale.’ You should of told me about your plans of photographing Birmingham when I was in Heather’s house. Good luck with the work. If you want to see the real Birmingham let me know. I live in Shard End near Castle Vale and the Asian areas you mention are also near by! But then you would no longer be a stranger in the town, but you no longer are as you already have ‘re-enactments of perception’ regarding this town.

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