Breaking down barriers in Birmingham with Pikachu & pals

pokemon_go_logoA feature piece about an artist group who used the virtual reality app Pokemon Go to highlight Birmimgham’s cultural diversity. This article was used by Birmingham Eastside:

It’s been hailed as a supertool in the fight against obesity, a panacea for depression, a positive way to bring new tech advances to the masses, and a distraction from life’s stresses and strains.

Now the Pokemon Go virtual reality app could have a new incarnation: as a way to open doors to other cultures and bring communities together, especially in a post-Brexit world.

pokecatchingDozens of Pokemon hunters took part in the inaugural Pokemon Go Home event on Saturday September 10, set up by city artist and Pokemon hunter Tim Hodgson.

Tim’s vision was to set up Pokemon ‘lures’ at different minority cultural venues, produce an interactive map of their locations and opening times, and then encourage Pokemon hunters to follow the trail, calling in for a chat and a coffee at the venues along the way.

Volunteers from each organisation manned the venues, ready to talk and share information about their venue, their culture and their ambitions.

Among the cultural venues taking part were the city’s Polish centre, the Central Mosque, an Eritrean cafe, churches, arts centres and a Syrian restaurant.

It was, said Tim, a great success, although better weather would certainly have boosted numbers (it rained most of the day).


Said Tim: “Participants really entered into the spirit of it, chatting to fellow Pokemon hunters and going into the venues. That is what we hoped for, particularly among younger people.”

Tim, who works as a freelance arts and theatre producer, tied together the Pokemon phenomenon to the outcome of the EU Referendum vote.

“I think there was a lot of fear surrounding the Leave campaign messages. I thought this project would, in a small way, encourage people to talk a bit more and go into minority cultural buildings, see what goes on inside, and hopefully see how similar we all are.

“Without having personal experience and contact, all you really have to go on is rhetoric in the media and third-hand anecdotes.”

To cover the costs of setting up the scheme and of paying for active lures at each location, Tim launched a crowdfunding project on Kickstarter, which he advertised on Facebook and through his social networks.

He also offered contributors prints and postcards showing artwork connected to the project. Within days the £1,500 he estimated he needed had been pledged.

The artworks include a themed version of the infamous anti-immigration poster unveiled by Nigel Farage during the Referendum campaign, replacing the faces of refugees with Pokemon characters.

Richard, one of the Pokemon hunters who took part in the day with his 10 year old son Oscar, said one of the things he already liked about Pokemon Go was that it “gets you to explore different parts of your local area.”

“This event was particularly rewarding because it also gave us an opportunity to meet new people and uncover some otherwise hidden facets of our city. I thought it was really well done and a great idea – I hope there are other events like it in future.”

My Pokemon Go Home experience

fullsizerenderMy first confession: I’m not a Pokemon hunter. In fact, my relationship with the game is ambivalent at best, partly because of my husband’s current obsession with it.

Romantic walks are punctuated by detours to pokestops; in the midst of watching a movie together on the settee he has been known to get up and head out to quickly ‘take a gym’; and I have no idea how much money is being wasted buying poke coins. Pokemon has become the other woman in our relationship.

What drew me to this project, though, was the idea of exploring places in Birmingham I had not previously visited.

I like to think of myself as a left leaning liberal, someone who abhors any sign of people being judged on their skin colour, gender, sexuality, culture. My reaction to the Brexit vote was anger, frustration and negativity.

But I also recognise my experiences are limited; after all, I’m someone who has never knowingly experienced exclusion.

So it was we headed into Birmingham to join the Pokemon Go project and meet up with people who did understand what it felt like to be “other”, to be part of a minority.

We started at The Edge, an arts venue run by Friction Arts, in the middle of Digbeth. Sandra greeted us with tea and biscuits, before taking us on a whistlestop tour of the venue and a breathless run through of recent initiatives, all of them targeting people who might otherwise struggle to find a voice.

She spoke passionately about an arts project bringing unity to a suburb of Johannesburg; of Digbeth’s famed Friday Night music and arts initiative; of working with homeless and vulnerable young people creating street art and drama. Our tour ended with a magical bird’s eye view of the city from the roof of the building.rooftop.jpg

At the city’s Central Mosque we were welcome to visit the prayer hall and talked about the five pillars of Islam and the Qu’ran, the Haaj and Ramadam, women’s issues and terrorism.mosque

Amid the persistent drizzle, we detoured briefly to two of the outdoor locations, Birmingham Peace Wall and the Concord Wall, so the Pokemon hunters among us could gather extra goodies.

After a rest stop in the Bull Ring, we headed for our next destination, the Polish Millennium Centre, where Mags told us how the venue meets a vast range of need among Polish families, including access to legal, health, work, education, psychology and housing services, while also providing a community meeting place and place to party.

It also shares its building with Polish restaurant, The Karczma, generally accepted as the best of its kind in the city and beyond. Restaurant critic Jay Rayner puts it better than I could: “There is something very special going on here: a true instinct to feed, a massive generosity of spirit, and an outstanding love affair with the noble pig. This is Polish food the way you want it: deep, rich, soothing, hearty. It is one long hug on a plate.”

In need of a food hug ourselves after all that walking and hunting, we decided this was going to be our final destination.

We had failed miserably to make it round the entire trail – but we’d walked 7.5km, taking in streets we’d never before walked and discovering places we’d never visited.

The experience made us all more eager to check out more venues like these; places which have a distinct cultural identity and services to provide but which, at the same time, are eager to open their doors to all.

Next time you’re passing one of them, why not call in – you never know what you might learn and who you might meet.

Additional notes: Event organized by Tim Hodgson, a freelance creative theatre and festival producer specialising in built environment and found spaces. He was Creative Associate for the most recent Birmingham Weekender and co-founded the Birmingham Architecture Festival.

Artwork by Byng Inc., purveyor of contemporary illustrated goods based on the original drawings of Louise Byng. Celebrating pencil marks and vibrant colours, Byng Inc. is founded on an ethos of using simple materials to explore complex subjects. Her products are inspired by the city of Birmingham and its people, as well as looking more broadly at current affairs and popular culture, exploring the details others might miss.



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