“What’s the point of spending money on art?”

Volgograd Place doesn’t seem to be the most-loved bit of the city. It’s just another thoroughfare, a footpath between the city centre and Hillfields, the health centre or City College. A route through under the flyover, not really a place to stop.

At Talking Birds, we’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Volgograd Place. Partly this is because of its naming after the twin city with which the company has the strongest links, but it’s also because we rather like the idiosyncratic concrete lunar landscaping, the fountains that had broken (or been switched off) long before we came to the city and the soviet-red lighting scheme that we just about remember the last vestiges of. We’d love Volgograd Place to get the same sort of attention as the area under the flyover on Gosford Street, which we visited in December: a clean up and a lighting scheme, some love. It deserves it.

The next best thing, we thought, might be to throw a kind of impromptu party under the ring road, with free music, coffee, cake and conversation – so we took The Cart down there today.

The Cart is one of those projects that is both fun (like playing Father Christmas is fun) and a privilege. It is just so brilliant to be able to give people stuff for free – no, I should qualify that – to give people a gift that they might not have known they wanted or needed: of company, connection, culture and sustenance. To have that close and immediate interaction with our audience. If that sounds like charity handouts, I’m not explaining properly. On The Cart, the gifts aren’t handouts, it is an equal exchange – in exchange for the coffee and cake there is conversation, which is a two-way thing and both parties gain.

If you’re wondering what is it about this exchange that makes it an art project, the political answer might be that much of the art Talking Birds makes seeks to create more connection in society because we feel that it is lacking, and that this is a bad thing: so you might call it art for social good. But also, it is an art project because it is conceived and conducted by artists, and creating moments of connection is our job – it is what culture is – the ‘glue’ that bonds human beings together, whether that culture is art, TV, food, gardening – whatever. When Talking Birds makes a show, the audience sharing that experience have a bond, something (that isn’t work) to talk about, an excuse to speak to their neighbour, a vehicle for them to discuss how they feel about (eg) the hospital closing (and about how we told that story), a way for them to connect with each other, hear different points of view, maybe even change their minds: Culture is, and is a catalyst for, connection.

The Cart is about creating the conditions for connection. Connections between artists and passers-by, and connections between different passers-by who happen to stop at the same time – and have a conversation they wouldn’t otherwise have had. It’s fun but, like life, it’s not always easy – and today was pretty tough. What do you say to someone who is so beaten down by life, and by the local drugs trade she blames for changing the neighbourhood she once loved, that she no longer feels like she belongs here? How do you comfort a stranger on the verge of tears because their back gate has been kicked in again? Can listening to their stories help? How can free cake make any of that stuff better? How can winning City of Culture change anything?

There were lots of positive conversations and surprising insights about the city, but on a day like today, somehow more memorable is the man who tucked into a generous slice of (free!) victoria sponge and said, rather combatively: “I don’t like culture. I don’t think City of Culture is a good idea. What’s the point of spending money on art, when there are people needing jobs and somewhere to live?”

Having to answer hard questions is supposed to be good for you – making you examine what you really believe, and whether your point of view stacks up. In some ways, I think that winning the City of Culture title would be a vote of confidence in the city, which allows its people to feel a little proud, and lifts Coventry a little higher than everywhere else for a while – advertises it – so that it becomes somewhere that people want to be, and to invest. And if it’s somewhere that people want to invest, that means a degree of job creation and prosperity – but it is key that this investment benefits all the people of the city. Not enough of the investment in the city at the moment benefits the people who live and work here – and when it doesn’t, this is when they cease to feel they belong – and this needs to change because a city isn’t a thing, it’s the sum of its people.

City of Culture can’t make everything better, just as free cake can’t make everything better, but maybe it can bring people together to start the conversations that lead to the actions that do.

Photos mostly by Andy Moore. Drinks & Cake by HMS Cupcake. Music by The Upsiders. Artists joining Talking Birds today: Julia O’Connell & Ola Animashawun.

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