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Viv Harrison is a long standing member of the campaign group ‘Friends of Moseley Road Baths’ and was until recently a board member of the Moseley Road Baths CIO, the organisation that was created to enable a community takeover of the swimming operation, to prevent closure and mothballing of this historic site. She recently took up post as Pool Operation Manager. An artist and community organiser, Viv had excellent insight and thoughts about the campaign and the role arts played in it. [interview sumamry to follow shortly]

Interview with Viv Harrison, Pool Operations Manager

by David Viney | Birmingham City University

Viv Harrison Interview 22nd May 2019

David Viney
Okay, so interview on the role contemporary art can play in campaigns to save at risk heritage sites. And it’s the 22nd May 2019. Interview with Viv Harrison, if you could just tell us a little bit about yourself.

Viv Harrison
I’ve been a swimmer and been involved in the campaign to save Moseley Road Baths [from closure] since late 2006, when I went to the first Friends of Moseley Road Baths (FoMRB) meeting. I was involved in developing a virtual tour that went online for a while, I was also involved in the Pool of Memories oral history project that we ran, and we put on various public open days as part of that.

David Viney
Thanks, first question. In your opinion, what value does contemporary arts activity add to campaigns to save at risk heritage sites. So I guess we’re going to talk specifically about this campaign [Moseley Road Baths].

Viv Harrison
I think I think it brings in a different audience and makes a different audience aware of what’s actually going on. So the people who are sort of directly involved in the campaign, save the baths, some people who come swimming here, not necessarily the same audience that are engaging with contemporary art in Birmingham, some of them are and there is overlap, obviously. But it just sorts of extends that audience beyond the immediate neighbourhood. And starts to reach other parts of Birmingham and parts of the country.

David Viney
So could you tell me about some of the experience of arts activity that was delivered here at Moseley Road Baths.

Viv Harrison
There’s been quite a few different arts projects have been delivered here over the years. There was a project called ‘Swimming Without Water’, which I believe was Arts Council funded. That included an element of projection in part of the building. I don’t remember where exactly, might have been slipped baths. There’s this sort of hanging bead construction that still here [in light reception lightwell]. And there was also at one point, I don’t know if it’s part of Swimming Without Water, or if it was part of an earlier arts project here, where somebody had created a sound installation in in the small pool, so people would throw things in and that would break a sort of light and create a sound. I didn’t see that one myself. I was just told about it. People were quite excited about this. It seemed like quite an innovative idea or an interesting way to use a swimming pool.

David Viney
So it feels like the building’s been open to artists for a long-time.

Viv Harrison Yes. Yes, it has. It has I think Stans Cafe did have a theatre production here at one point as well. So I mean, some of those things might have been before FoMRB were formed. I think Balsall Heath and Moseley have always been a hub for artists in Birmingham. Then this building, because it’s quite an iconic building and a substantial landmark, people know it and it has always attracted contemporary artists.

David Viney
Do you think that is site specific to this building, and the locality within Birmingham, that it’s attracted a lot of artists activity, it’s, it feels like it’s attracting a lot of artists. Once they want to be in the building and also to do something for the campaign which seems to come across quite a bit. So the one again, takeovers, it’s like, you want to just leave them wanting to be part of that campaign?

Viv Harrison
I think it probably is, I mean, I’ll speak about my experience of being in the building as an artist. It’s kind of here, it’s a hub and you kind of get sucked in, you start swimming here. I’ve been taking a lot of photographs of building, I’ve been in all the hidden spaces, some of which are now close to the public to take photographs in there. And just that love of the building then seems to almost infect people. Yes. And people stick around and want to get involved and what then start campaigning and you know, coming up with ideas to help save it.

David Viney
And that is really organic, isn’t it?

Viv Harrison
Yes. Yeah. Yeah, that’s really good.

David Viney
Next question – thinking about the [arts] activity that you’ve experienced here, was it planned as part of the campaign? Or did it happen organically? So from the conversation with {FoMRB] and looking through the archive? What seems to come across was some of it was planned by people involved in the campaign, for instance Mark Gunton setting up  music activity with a very specific purpose, whereas it sounds like a lot of the contemporary arts projects happened because people approached because they wanted to do something in the baths, or they heard about the campaign and they wanted to contribute. It feels almost like there might have been a snowball effect that the more artists were doing stuff, or heard about stuff, the more people might have approached. Does that feel right? Does that feel like there was a steady stream of artists?

Viv Harrison 
I think there was a steady stream of people. But I think also some of the thing that might have seemed like quite an organic and sort of free-flowing, like the Fierce Festival stuff was planned in advance. So Harun from Fierce liaising with Mark [Gunton] and they planned a programme of activity here that formed part of the funding bid. But Harun Morrison approaching FoMRB came about because it all the other FoMRB activity that he’d become aware of.

David Viney
So there’s three things going on there. This kind of the stuff you [FoMRB) plan specifically, because you have the skills and you have the passion to do it, and contacts. Then there’s people that approached and that it became planned activity. But there’s probably people that just rocked up as well and just did one-off things, or things that might be bene un-funded or contribution in other ways. I don’t know poster design etc.

Viv Harrison
I mean, yeah, there’s been several designers involved over the years designing posters. The Friends of the Baths logo with us the arches, that was designed by someone. Now we’ve got the CIO here, the CIO logo was designed by someone who’s a designer, someone else who’s produced a water colour. So there is a steady stream of people trying to contribute things and offering their help. Yeah. And then like I say, there’s people approach, and we can sort of plan and programme funded arts events as well.

David Viney
So there’s activity that has a very specific aim of raising awareness. And it’s planned, has as a marketing campaign that goes with it and meets your outcomes for FoMRB, you know, raise awareness, bring money in, etc, etc. Yeah. And then there’s stuff that just kind of happened and that wasn’t programmed. Yes

Viv Harrison
As part of the Pool of Memories project as well, we did put on an art exhibition at the School of Art across the road. Yes, some years before it’s been renovated. With the specific idea of bringing in new people. It was an open submission event. So people could submit their artwork in advance, and we could select and curate the exhibition. And it was just a different type of open day. And then we could bring people across and run tours.

David Viney
So I’m assuming there was a conscious decision to programme activity off site. Because the building itself, it is a mess in places. Viv Harrison Yeah.  David Viney And I’m guessing that was more programmed by the friends. Viv Harrison Yes. David Viney. So I’m assuming artists mostly approached you wanting to have access to the baths. Viv Harrison  Yeah.

Viv Harrison
I’ve also, you know, had an exhibition of my own photography that I organized and curated myself, which brought in different people again. Plus, I submitted one of my photographs of one of their upstairs corridors of Mosley Road, to one of the RBS photography exhibitions, which was the same one, the Hundred Swimmers, of course, actually, and as well, so were actually two photograph’s about Mosley Road Baths in the same exhibition.

David Viney 

Okay, so I guess going back to that, when you were planning the campaign, when you were campaigning, and I’m sure that was very fluid and organic, and you know, a lot of people have been lobbying in the background and there would have been public campaign. Did you all sit there in a room and say, ‘we need to involve artists in this’? Or did that that just happen? Because of the people involved? And the connections in the community?

Viv Harrison

I think it just happened, because some of the people who came along to campaign were artists, like myself, artists and photographers, so yeah, so we used quite a lot of my photography as part of our campaign. With the Instagram page, the CIO, runs now, Laura takes a lot of photographs. So again, we’ve got someone who has the skills as professional photographer, helping us. The virtual tool that we designed. Yeah. And that came about because Steve Beauchamp is a writer and he was very interested in the history of the baths, I’m a photographer, and Michelle is a filmmaker. The three of us created the content for the virtual tours. So that’s how some of projects came about, because we were sort of saying what skills were bought by people.

David Viney
So in the context of campaigning, I was curious, do you think it’s better to plan activity as part of a structured program, or let activity happen organically in a unplanned way? And we’ve discussed that is what happened yet? How did that work out?

Viv Harrison
It’s worked out quite well, I suppose we’ve had the two things running alongside each other. Activity that we’ve we’ve planned, so when we have open days we plan to have art activity, or we’ve planned to have musicians coming in. And that works well, because we can plan and work out what we need to do. But at the same time, having enough flexibility to have those one-off things to respond to new people coming forward and finding ways to including them.

David Viney
So did the arts activity bring new people to the site? You can say?

Viv Harrison
Yes, yes, absolutely.

David Viney

I guess the important question is how you know these are new people. How could you measure where they’ve come from? As a campaigning group of volunteers without the administrative infrastructure of an organisation to monitor people. I guess you instinctively knew who were and were not regular swimmers for instance?

Viv Harrison
That’s the thing we’ve never actually recorded. We did have a mailing list and people could leave their information with us. So every time we did an event, more people would be adding their names to the mailing list. So that a way of measuring it. And you know, we’d ask people, how they heard about it, where they’ve come from. So you know, when we’re when we’re running some of these events, like when we’re running open days as part of Heritage Week, for example, people will probably have never been here before. And they come and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realise the baths were open’, ‘I’ve never been here’. You know, people come from other parts of the country. So we did gather anecdotally.

David Viney
So you knew new people were coming, but without the infrastructure behind, it’s difficult to gatherer data.

Viv Harrison
As a friends group, it’s never been our building to take control off. So we’ve, we’ve always sort of negotiated with the staff who were here to say, we’d like to put on this event. And they’ve always been positive, and sort of open to those ideas. And but obviously, we didn’t, we haven’t had the resources to do that kind of data collection.

David Viney Over the course of 15 years of campaigning? What impact did arts activity have, in your opinion, and we can maybe even talk about an example? So we could maybe talk about the Attilio picture [100 Swimmers], which I’m going to do as a case study?

Viv Harrison
I can give one example of the impact that that art activity has had is that with myself being an artist and photographer, when we were writing the application to get Moseley Road Baths onto the World Monuments Fund Watch List, we needed to send images with it. So I sat down and having the skills to take photographs, but also the skills to actually edit to them as we could only send 10, and I’ve got hundreds, okay, we could send 10 photographs that perfectly illustrated Moseley Road Baths to people sat New York, where people have no idea what this building is, they’ve never heard of it. And they were so amazed by the building, that those photographs played an important role in getting Moseley Road Baths onto the World Monuments Fund Watch List in 2016. Which is what got the National Trust interested and gave Historic England more focus.

And we’ve now the CIO has been able to start running swimming here. So without artists involved, we may not have managed to do any of those things. I know, that sounds a bit big headed. But I know because two women from the world monuments fund London office came down. Yeah. And one of them was there at that meeting in New York. And she was telling me that those photographs were amazing. They were just blown away by them in New York, they were so fascinated by it.

David Viney
So that’s a specific impact, which is good, a personal contribution, which is good. So, maybe a think about a bigger event that might have impacted.

Viv Harrison
Someone who was at the Conservatoire, who came here and recorded, just sounds from around the building, just you know, the ambient sounds of building and built that into a music performance that you then had over the road in the Old Print Works.

David Viney

Okay. So that, again, that brought in a different audience as well. A very different audience.

Viv Harrison
So this is this is very contemporary, contemporary music.

David Viney
it does seem like the baths is imbedded within the cultural fabric of the city. It just seems to have had a lot happening here. It also feels that if it wasn’t threatened with closure, some of that stuff wouldn’t have happened because it would have just been a working swimming pool.

Viv Harrison
I think so. I mean, someone like tours and things we’ve been running, if this was a fully functioning, fully working swimming pool, they wouldn’t let you. It would be too busy, we wouldn’t be able to have events in the Gala Pool. I think some of the the reason why people are drawn to this building as well is the almost derelict nature of some parts of it, which people love. People love old, neglected buildings. It is fascinating. Absolutely.

David Viney
So overall, what impact do you think that arts activity has had.

Viv Harrison
I think I think it’s raised awareness of Moseley Road Baths across a huge cross section of society in Birmingham. There are people all over Birmingham who know about Moseley Road Baths. It seems like wherever you go and you mention Moseley Road Baths, someone learnt to swim, or they know someone who learned to swim. Yeah. And I think it’s just kept Moseley Road Baths at the forefront of attention. Like you say it’s a cultural and heritage landmark in Birmingham, and it’s still would have been a landmark but people wouldn’t have been so aware of it.

David Viney
It struck me that there is just something very symbolic about the building that basically speaks to the change in our culture, politics and society over the last 100 years and the change in the public and private spheres. I don’t know if that doesn’t resonate with people on some level as well.

I think it possibly does. And I think the fact that it was built for people to also be an incentive for them to join Birmingham. And I think people who live nearby are people, you know, even people who’ve lived here but learnt swim here and moved away. It’s still their pool. Yeah. Yeah, there’s that there is a very strong attachment, so even if you live in like, live in Leeds but were brought here, it’s still their pool, and they want to be able to come and swim here. When they’re in Birmingham.

David Viney
So in your experience, how has arts activity supported campaigns to save at risk heritage sites. Do you have any other examples? I know Stirchley Baths had a campaign and I’m going to try and speak to them, do you know of any of the sites in Birmingham, for instance, or nationally, where Contemporary Arts has been used in the same way that’s been used here.

Viv Harrison
I can’t think of anywhere offhand. I know Contemporary Arts have been used at the wholesale markets, but obviously, they didn’t manage to save the wholesale market.

David Viney
Okay, so this is the last question. So would you encourage the use of contemporary arts in campaigns to save at risk heritage sites.

Viv Harrison
Yes, I definitely would. It’s just, it’s just another tool, I guess, that you can use to bring in publicity is just another way of doing it. So you know, we we’re focused on the heritage of the building, we’ve had tours to bring people in, we’ve had tea dances. We had one event where people would dress up in 40s clothes, sort of wartime with costumes to take people around on the tours. But contemporary art is just another way of bringing people in and possibly bringing in different people as well.

David Viney
I suppose it’s worth reiterating something you said about having professional quality images, which is a marketing tool on many levels, there’s also the priceless, priceless, images that just trickle out, so you know, your images ended up in New York.

Viv Harrison
When a lot of the artists who come in there is an investment, they have an interest in doing it. Even the ones who have been funded to do things they still seem to have been personally invested in in the building.

David Viney
Because that’s intangible. Yeah. So you can pay someone and you’ll get some lovely images yet, but you’ve got something extra – they’re proud of those things. And then they’ll push them. You get more word of mouth. But you get visual word of mouth. Yeah. Yeah,

David Viney
Have you got anything else to add? What would you say, for instance, if there was a campaign that came to you, they’re asking for advice and information to how you did things, what might say to them?

Viv Harrison   
I think when you’re campaigning to save something, you’re very much focused on that campaign, and the reasons why you want to save it. Yeah. And sometimes when artists come in, they might see something from a different perspective, or give you a different point of view that you might not consider sometimes you have to close to have objectivity. Just approaching things from a different a different direction, sometimes even if it’s just off at a complete tangent, it can actually be interesting and raise awareness just as much as you constantly banging on about what a fantastic building is and how everyone should learn to swim here.

David Vine
So you’re essentially getting like a fresh injection of energy?

Viv Harrison
I think so. Yeah. It just gives you that little boost every now and then. Because repeatedly saying the same things for fifteen years is wearing, you know, people get tired and think they’re not achieving anything. You know, some people might move away, and then all the people might sort of see the contemporary art, and then you get fresh people coming in as a result of that.

David Viney
Did you recruit anybody new for any of those things? Just out of interest?

Viv Harrison
Honestly don’t know. It’s difficult to say. Yeah. Yeah. Just different. Yeah. People just drift in and out campaign. Really. So I can’t really say.

David Viney
Thank you for that.

Viv Harrison
No problem