Going into collaboration with Birmingham Literature Festival has opened up possibilities, not only for Overhear, but for the writers we commission. One of those opportunities has been the chance to write prose in response to the locations on the project, as well as poetry. We met up with Garrie Fletcher at his chosen venue of the Ikon Gallery to talk about his history with the gallery, the story that has grown from it and his plans for getting other people writing in response to the city.
‘It’s something I’d thought about myself,’ Garrie says, as we begin talking about Overhear, ‘having stories attached to locations. I write stories that are pretty much always set in real locations anyway so I like the idea that there’s an app people can get and that you have to physically be in the place to access the work. It’s new, it’s innovative. I think there’s something very exciting and powerful about being in the space that the story is set.’ Laughing, he admits that there could be other consequences. ‘What I don’t want is people going “that’s not right, it’s more like this!”’
The Ikon is perhaps the perfect venue for Garrie, as he explains: ‘My background is art as well as literature. A few years ago I actually ran a screen printing workshop upstairs. I like the Ikon and I like that it’s a repurposed space. You know, it used to be a school and it’s still very educational. Not just the strong links with schools but the exhibitions themselves are quite challenging.’
‘The first time I ever came to the ikon must have been ‘92, ’93,’ Garrie tells us, ‘when they were down on John Bright street. I went there specifically to see an exhibition I’d read about in The Guardian. I don’t remember what it was called but what I do remember is that there was a whole host of weird stuff going on: There was a wooden table upside down, legs in the air and there was a brown paper bag in it jumping around – a bit of sculptural kinetic art. That’s made its way into the piece.’
‘The story isn’t about me but there are bits of me in there. That image I first saw here has stayed in my head as a sense of what the Ikon is all about, about challenging stuff, pushing the boundaries of art, what people expect from a gallery. I imagine there’s a lot of people who come in here and are engaged by what they see because it challenges them and their notions of what art is.’
It’s clear that Garrie has a connection with the venue, but did the notion of being doubly restricted – having to include not only the venue but a specific exhibition as significant features of the piece – make him think twice about choosing the Ikon?
‘Tom threw it out and said these are the venues, get back to me with the ones you’re interested in. He did point out that there were more constrains with this one – it has to link with not just the space but the specific exhibition they’ve got in there now. Some writers might find that constricting but for me, it’s quite liberating. Sometimes when you’re writing it’s like oh god where am I going to set this but I know where it’s set and I know I’ve got to include the exhibit so that’s two questions answered – and that has led into the characters in the story and their relationship with each other.’
He goes on to tell us a bit more about the work itself: ‘It’s a first-person narrative about a person’s relationship with the gallery and with somebody else that they go to the gallery with. The protagonist came to Birmingham a while ago – a bit like me – about 25 years ago, and they didn’t know anybody. They felt isolated. Then they get talking with this person they met in the gallery and from there, a friendship grows. Towards the end, there’s an exhibit one of them wanted to go to,’ he gestures behind him towards the gallery, ‘that one they’re hanging now – and they’re reflecting on how something’s lacking. So obviously the person, their friend, is lacking but they’re also reflecting on the space the person once occupied. And sometimes art is a lot like that, it’s about what you leave out as much as what you put in… so they’re linking the absence of their friend with the nature of art as well.’ He pauses, then laughs. ‘It’s a lot less high-brow than it sounds,’ he says, ‘what I don’t want to do is alienate people with the story.’
In fact, Garrie’s intentions are to bring more people into this experience, not just by listening to his work but creating their own. His belief in Birmingham as an unending source of creative inspiration as well as his fondness for poet Ian McMillan’s daily ‘tweets of wonder’ have motivated him to lead an Overhear Walking Tour of his own that inspires people to walk the city and share their own poetic musings via Twitter.
‘For me, when I come into town, I still get a buzz about being in the city. I find it exciting to be around all the people, all the opportunities, all the different ethnicities beliefs non-beliefs in this huge – it’s a well-worn phrase but – this huge melting pot of stuff that as a writer you can play around with. I think Birmingham itself is a brilliant canvas to throw stuff at and see what happens.’
If you’d like to add a few of your own poetic paint splashes to the canvas of Birmingham, tickets for Garrie Fletcher’s walking tour on October 19th are available here.
Garrie’s short story Ikon will be available to collect from the Ikon Gallery using the Overhear app from September 26th.
Garrie can be found on his website https://fletchski.com/