Project Pigeon

Pigeon fanciers and their racing birds bring a truly unique project to Birmingham's Flatpack Festival this March

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At this year's Flatpack Festival, Alex Lockett and Ian England bring art-fans and filmgoers alike to an endearing installation that takes pigeon fancying to new levels. Exploring how art can co-exist with daily life and culture, Project Pigeon takes on events like pigeon racing, an art project with homing pigeons, and also a series of educational endeavours where young offenders get to take care of the birds.

Tucked away in Rea Gardens on Floodgate Street, the "pigeon fancying" artists have been busy with birds since their Pictorial exhibition in August 2009. Twelve pigeons flew across the country ferrying artworks from artist's studios, including works by Lisa Chung, Justin Carter, Tom Dale, Ole Hagan, Lindsay Seers and Simon Woolham. At the opening, the audience watched as the pigeons arrived, and moments later they were 'called in' as the artwork was installed in the loft.

With Lockett even securing a position as Assistant Auditor of the Aston and District Pigeon Flying Club, they've taken the pigeons rather seriously and recently published a newspaper on how to look after pigeons alongside pigeon-related facts and a guide to pigeon terminology. A film is also being produced about pigeon fancying which will be screened in Rea Garden later this year, and throughout the summer they will be running practical evening classes on pigeon keeping with lessons on how to breed, train, feed and race them. During this year's race season (March – September) Project Pigeon will be running a syndicate – for just £5 a month members can sponsor a pigeon and be in with a chance of winning up to £200 a week in races. Project Pigeon holds regular Open Loft Days, and will be open throughout Flatpack Festival weekend (12-4pm).

Dazed Digital: How did you come up with the idea of relating pigeon fancying to 'art'?

Alex Lockett and Ian England: Project Pigeon explores how art, sport, education and curating can co-exist; how aesthetics can be grounded in everyday life; how sport, culture and media sit together; and it explores associations between the pigeon world, the art world and, more generally, society.

Our practice often involves working with and becoming part of constituencies such as pigeon fanciers and allotment holders. In working closely with these groups we are able to make metaphors and associations between these particular hobbies, the institutions of culture, and society. What does pigeon fancying tell us about current social predicaments?  What does the institution of pigeon fancying tell us about the institutions of art?

DD: Do you think they are happy to be involved with your project?
Alex and Ian: Despite two years among them, the pigeon men always seem surprised to see us in our capacity as artists. They tease us for asking so many questions, for taking photographs all the time, shooting video and recording our conversations! But they are always keen to suggest ideas! They enjoy our thirst for knowledge of all things pigeon and enjoy teaching us. This year Alex was made the assistant auditor of the club, I think this shows (among other things) that they are happy with our work and that they enjoy collaborating with us.

DD: How does one get into pigeon training? A background in ornithology? How did you do it?
Alex and Ian: One phone call and an invite to a meeting opened the door to the pigeon universe.  For the last two years, we have attended a pigeon club in the West Midlands, the pigeon men have been very generous with their advice and support.  We subscribe to British Homing World’s weekly magazine which keeps us informed of new developments and gossip, watch pigeon DVDs, read pigeon books, go on pigeon blogs, we attend pigeon conferences, pigeon shows, auctions and social events. Alex has previously kept hens as part of an art project, they were a lot easier.

DD: Why did you choose to get involved with Flatpack Festival and We Are Eastside?
Alex and Ian: We have a lot of support from our neighbours and being part of the community is really important to us (and the pigeons), it reminds us there is a world outside the loft!  We are always calling our neighbours for strange things that we don’t anticipate we will need like tooth picks (for putting breeding rings on), water (drinking and bath), ladders (when we lock ourselves out), bits of food for rat traps, scrap wood (emergency loft repairs), a vice, cups of tea, wifi, WD40…. and the toilet!  

DD: How do you see this project as being particularly culturally relevant to the Festival?
Alex and Ian: The pigeons are art in themselves but there are also lots of events that happen around the pigeons.  For Flatpack we will be setting up a live stream from the pigeon loft, this will enable anyone from anywhere in the world to log on and see what is happening in the loft.  This is the third live stream Alex has made, the first in 2004, which was a live link from her allotment (when broadband had only just become widely available); technology has really progressed since then making setting up a live link something anyone with a phone or computer can do.

DD: And finally – do your pigeons ever throw a strop and refuse to work?
Alex and Ian: Yes! They are most stroppy when on the ‘widowhood system’. This is when hens and cocks are separated over the winter to prevent them breeding too early. I would be stroppy about that too, although they are in their element when put together again!  Absence makes the heart grow fonder as they say.  You have to be very patient as a pigeon fancier, especially when training your young birds, I sometimes get in a strop with then if I have to spend hours trying to persuade them back into the loft after training!

Pigeon Project is run by Alex Lockett and Ian England, and features at this year's Flatpack Festival 2010: It is also part of We Are Eastside, a platform for the east end of Birmingham's growing creative community.
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