From the 12th September 2008 to the 5th October 2008 Birmingham played host to everyone in the world.
In a disused part of the AE Harris factory (1) in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter the Stan’s Cafe arts group, in a return to their home city, set up and ran the exhibition/performance Of All the People in All the World. The concept is simple: each individual is represented by a single grain of rice, arranged into patterns and piles to illustrate a range of historical and contemporary population statistics. The concept may be simple but the execution is complex, moving and involving.
But let’s just flashback to Coventry in 2003 as The Rice Show has a history of its own. First appearing as a small scale performance in the foyer of the Warwick Arts Centre (which is in Coventry not Warwick), the exhibition then travelled around non-traditional venues – cathedral, shopping centre, school etc – in the Midlands before touring the rest of the UK and finally into Europe and beyond. The show’s website contains information on all the performances with snippets about the highs (Vancouver 2005: a woman pointing at two grains of rice labelled Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber and asking “is that really them?”) and some lows (Birmingham 2003: a fire alarm at the neighbouring department store leading hundreds of retail staff to trample the show underfoot whilst escaping the rain).
With one exception all the past performances have covered just small parts of the world and only once before the AE Harris Birmingham show has the whole world been represented, in Stuttgart 2005. At least in this respect the world has turned more benign as Stuttgart suffered “searing heat and high humidity that made working tough, the apocalyptic rain that caused guttering to fail and the venue to flood” although it was worth it as the highs were “the people and the place and the space and the wonder”. There was torrential rain on the opening night in Birmingham but most of the time it was just overcast. The atmosphere, however, was just as amazing.
On arrival at the performance you are given a brief explanation and your own single grain of rice (2) to add to one of the other 6.7 billion grains already inside, one for each person in the world. Then it was into the old factory building to be confronted with various piles of rice.
At first it is difficult to comprehend quite what is going on; just what is the point of all these piles? Then you start to look, to read the labels – none of which include actual numbers – and to realise that these are not just randomly represented statistics but that there is reason behind the arrangements, some simply entertaining, others poignant and moving. For example one of the first arrangements to the left of the entrance showed the total population of New Zealand and the number of extras involved in the filming of The Lord of the Rings, making you realise quite how many orcs there were:
Most juxtapositions make you think. For example the piles representing the number of people per square kilometre in the UK and India were about the same but comparing the population density of Birmingham and Mumbai was frightening:
This is another of the strengths of the performance, that each event has been personalised for its location, so as well as world facts such as the huge pile for the population of India, there were ones comparing the numbers of workers at the Longbridge car plant in 1910 and 1942 with the number who lost their jobs in 2005 and the number of worldwide employees of the Nanjing Automobile Corporation (and a single grain for Sir Herbert Austin). Nearby are piles showing the changes in employment numbers at AE Harris and the number of Chinese workers it would take to make an equivalent salary to one AE Harris employee. And then there are those showing the decline in employment in the Jewellery Quarter… and so it goes.
The unexpected effect of all this, the thing that you have to experience the show to appreciate, is the way in which all these piles of rice make the statistics they illustrate become real. You can stand in the passage between the total population of the USA and the total population of Canada and see how the first dwarfs the second. Your eye is drawn constantly to the unbelievably huge pile that is the population of India (which is in the picture below). You look at a random statistic and think ‘blimey, that’s about the same as the population of Australia’. Comparisons become meaningful in an emotional way, where numbers on a page will always remain facts.
The more time you spend walking around the exhibition, the more powerful it becomes, and it was only late in our progress through the statistics that we came to what was possibly the most emotional of all the areas, the one mostly filled with representations of the assassinated, the mass killings, disasters etc. The sheer size of the pile representing the number of people killed by the Nazis in the concentration camps and ghettos (the right of the picture below) was overwhelming, because for a moment those grains of rice were the bodies of the dead:
And as the picture above shows it is not a static exhibition but a performance: the brown-coated curators are always tidying and informing visitors and every-so-often there will be an announcement over the tanoy – “new statistic in the European zone” – as another supposedly random statistic is added. You could even follow the announcements at home via Radio Rice and what the rest of the world was saying about the performance via their blog compiling every post, photo, twitter etc tagged thericeshow.
It is reported that approximately 4,500 came to the AE Harris Birmingham performances and Stan’s Cafe elegantly describe the event themselves as:
Shocking, up-lifting, thought provoking and funny, Of All the People In All The World will change the way you think about the planet we share.
The website also hints about future projects from the group including the intriguing quote “next month we should be able to announce a new show, all be it very short and small called Come Together, which we hope to present for one night only in both London and Birmingham”.
(1) The whole area around and including the factory is currently subject to long and ongoing plans for redevelopment, hence the empty part used for this performance. The redevelopment is planned to be the typical ‘mixed-use development’ but critically to include the continuation of the manufacturing firm. More details on this at the Birmingham Mail.
(2) For anyone curious to know where I placed my grain of rice I was very tempted to become an honorary addition to the population of India but eventually went for the more mundane but appropriate option of adding it to the pile representing the number of people commuting daily into Birmingham by train.
— words by Paul & Elizabeth
— pictures by Paul