26 March 2013
This is Tomorrow

A Pathé film captured the opening of Birmingham Municipal Bank’s Broad Street branch in 1933, launched to thronged crowds at a ceremony officiated by Prince George. Presently empty behind its aggrandised facade, the mundanity of its design is revealed by the destruction of surrounding structures, as if a curtain is pulled back to show the expediency of the stage’s settings. Curated by Charlie Levine, ‘Thrift Radiates Happiness’ reopened the bank for four days, for TROVE in collaboration with Aedas, GRAIN/Library of Birmingham, RIBA West Midlands, The Birmingham Architectural Association and Birmingham City Council.

The exhibition is undercut with the vagaries of finance, crashes, chance and personal acts, igniting hidden experiences within the institution and the uncertainty that acts as a continuum just as the iconography of The Municipal Bank’s architecture signifies a bygone era of a community, jobs for life and deference to authority unimaginable in our time. In the lobby Elly Clarke’s commissioned audio work ‘Half Crowns in their Petticoats’ collages experiences of the bank’s former employees into the context of the building. The recordings, made within the bank, retirement clubs and homes are ordered into a bricolage of sonic snapshots; glimpses of experiences that frame the inner lives held invisible within the site. The papers swept off desks until the introduction of revolving doors; small dirty coins handed over as a lifetime of savings; columns of figures added by hand; the morgue-like silence of the accounts department, pregnancies hidden under big sweaters; fear of the sufferings of a debtor and the sense that management had the omnipresence of gods.

To the side of the lobby lie the offices in which individual works are housed. Tom Crawford’s ‘Millwall Hammer’ utilises a reconfigured Financial Times as a cudgel to repeatedly hit and mark a wall, pitting creativity and destruction together to question speculation, culture and class. In Caitlin Griffith’s ‘Exchange (After Tracey Emin’s ‘Interview’)’ an actor, medium, translator and journalist appear to interview themselves exploring the value of their skill and the fragility of professionalism, whilst in an adjacent office, Nicole Wilson’s ‘The National Debt Project’ attempts to offset the US Deficit with spare change found on the street. Her personal letters are responded to with automated presidential and bureaucratic replies, the cost of postage far greater than the amount sent.

In the basement’s vaults the ‘Investment Project’ invites you to pay two pounds in return for a card to a safety deposit box. Your speculation is returned in a work commissioned by Spartacus Chetwynd, Elly Clarke, Mecanoo, Sparrow+Castice, Julie Tsang or Mary Yacoob. The vaults communicate bewildering lists of numbers and are as obtuse as stone. Revoking your privilege to choose, you place your investment in trust, and await your reward. The resulting work captures a series of personal and intimate collisions with artists’ practices. In a separate room Ellie Harrison’s installation ‘The History of Financial Crises’ translates the exhibition’s opening time into the chronology of financial ruptures of the last century. Set timings activate popcorn machines to inexplicably erupt into action and then crash into dormancy, from Black Monday to the Dot-Com Bubble, the frequency and speed of production directed by the bail, bond and imbalances of credit.

The exhibition’s siting in the Municipal Bank activates a complex series of narratives that resonate and echo in the passages patinated by workers and investors. The silent moments of crisis and euphoria are exposed and expanded through the work’s commissioning and curation.

Cathy Wade