An exhibition, co-funded by UWE Bristol's Community Fund and involving the University’s architecture and film students, explores the remarkable life of one of the world’s greatest tightrope walkers. Running since 26th May at the Bristol Beacon, A Fine Balance tells the story of Carlos Trower who escaped slavery and used his fame to promote the emancipation of enslaved people.
Trower, who was referred to as ‘The African Blondin’ once lived on the Christmas Steps in Bristol and performed with a Victorian Panorama show at Bristol’s Colston Hall (now Bristol Beacon) for over 3,000 people in the 19th century.
UWE Bristol students from the Architecture and Built Environment Department have been working with Local Learning since October 2020 to help plan and install the exhibition. The project also involved many other performers, archivists, as well as St Michael on the Mount Primary School and Circomedia.
A team of four Master’s architecture students developed the engagement strategy and designed the way the exhibition would look and function, based on a vast amount of information about Trower’s story, provided by archivists.
They then passed their drawings to a second team of final year Architecture and Planning students, who completed the design and installation of the exhibition and set design over a period of just 10 days, working with Associate Lecturer Áine Moriarty as part of their Agency Project module organised by Deepak Gopinath and James Burch.
The students suspended fabric, giving visitors the impression they are entering a circus. They then created and installed four laser-cut multi-layered images on plinths from scenes of Carlos Trower’s performances in various UK cities in Victorian times – all connected by a tightrope. There is a moving ‘diorama’ a device with images from Dr Paul Green, a historian and expert on Carlos.
They also built a feedback system, whereby members of the public can leave feedback in a Covid-safe way by selecting a pre-written answer about their experience of the exhibition using a coloured string.
Áine Moriarty, who is an architect and was a mentor to the students during the process, said: “We found the students’ design and set building work amazing, especially as the latter was finished in just ten days!”
Also featuring at the exhibition are two films created by UWE Bristol students. The first, a 'silent movie' style work was made by filming children from St Michael’s on the Mount C of E (VC) Primary School. The film captures the children's enthusiasm and how they were inspired by the Carlos Trower story.
In the second is an acrobatic movement film with performer Jordan Morton-Trowers. The sequences of the performer were filmed on the Christmas Steps in the centre of Bristol, where part of the exhibition is taking place.
What used to be the house where Trower lived with his daughter is now a shop that, for the exhibition, is displaying drawings from school pupils related to the tightrope walker’s story. Opposite in the Finis Gallery, the two student films are also projected onto a collage of Trower’s life, alongside other exhibits.
Áine said: “What's special about this exhibition is that it is talking about the Carlos’s journey beyond slavery, the connection with Bristol and the Bristol Beacon itself. Having David Ellington perform at the opening further connected us to a wider audience, including performance artists and the deaf community.
“The students were learning about real-life scenarios with clients, accommodating all these user groups, which has been both challenging and rewarding. The exposure they have had to different dynamics in such a project is not even something that professionals get to work with all the time.”
A Fine Balance is open from Saturday 29 May to Saturday 5 June and is free. The students have curated, built and installed the pieces at Bristol Beacon and the Christmas Steps venues.