Following the success of the 2022 Commonwealth Games, a magical garden of epic proportions took over Birmingham City centre. We spoke to Creative Director and Clore 2010 Fellow Angie Bual about the inspiration behind PoliNations.
Can you tell us a bit more about PoliNations?
PoliNations is an installation, a living breathing horticultural theatre and venue that springs up in a city centre. It is created to trigger ideas about how our cities could be greener. Certainly, its existence in Birmingham has had an impact on people’s well-being. It’s made the normally blank, concrete Victoria Square a utopian place for people of all ages and backgrounds to hang out. We are celebrating the fact that most plants and flowers in our gardens are non-native. Just like people, they have journeyed here over hundreds of years. Our landscape is multicultural, without the colour scent and vibrancy of the flora and fauna from outside of the UK we’d have just a 10th tenth of what we have now. PoliNations looks at multi-culture through the lens of horticulture. It also has light shows, yoga, meditation, a tuk-tuk that gives free chai – oh and 5 gigantic architectural trees that collect rainwater!
Have there been any significant challenges along the way?
It’s been an interesting time! We were ramping up towards a huge celebration and multicultural Ballistic Seed Party, and all of a sudden, we were in a national mourning period of 10 days. These 10 days are the final days of PoliNations and so we’ve been crafting and editing our programme to suit. We’ve had many stakeholders to appease, and at once have been supporting the artists who have invested months of work in creating live art that was intended for a brighter national mood.
How has the Clore Fellowship made a lasting impact on your leadership journey?
We talked a lot about resilience at Clore Leadership, and I know that that word is a challenging one. But there is an inner resilience that doesn’t relate to burning yourself out or being tired – it’s the resilience you require when a tabloid newspaper tries to bring your project down. It’s the resilience you need when you’re thrown a curveball and you need to steer your own team through it (removed dash) and you need to manage up at the same time. It’s the resilience you need to keep calm, to go to bed on time, stop scrolling and get back to it in the morning.
What do you feel has been your biggest Leadership Learning?
I remember Baroness Genista Mcintosh reminding us to think about the ladder we’re climbing – and to check in that we’re climbing the right ladder. She was referring to her experience of being Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House during a challenging period and later realising that opera wasn’t her calling – and she was climbing the wrong ladder. I suppose it’s about being value driven. I spent a lot of time considering taking on the UNBOXED commission and all of the complexities surrounding it – and talking about a multicultural Britain in a genuinely inclusive and wonderful way was the best way to fit the commission. For me, it’s been worth it because the value PoliNations has resounded strongly with people – because it’s a project from the heart. I’ve hugged and cried with people under the trees because PoliNations is exploring intersectionality – and people feel that and it brings up memories of being rejected, and of rejecting one's own culture. It’s been a big journey for me to come to terms with that.
What one piece of advice would you share with other leaders?
The network that you collect is the one that you turn to when you get thrown a curve ball. This time last year we had to pull The Hatchling a day before the performance because there was a mass shooting in the city, and the city went into mourning (there’s a pattern, I know). That meant sending 200 people home and re-booking everyone in 2 weeks later. The people I called in those hours and days gave me the advice that made me certain of the steps I needed to take. You always need someone to have your back, even if you usually lead alone.
PoliNations was commissioned as part of UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK and also presented as part of Birmingham 2022 Festival. Click here to find out more about the project.