from the megabus between Bristol and London

I like researching. I’m not sure that I’m necessarily good at it, in a productive way, but I am a big fan of the internet and the things you can find out on it. And I’m a big fan of books, and libraries, and the big dictionary (Big Dick) that my dad bought me for my 18th birthday, and which tells me the meanings and roots of words, and is much better at it than the internet. And I’m a bit obsessive and I like stories. 

I am also into what I suppose you could call ‘experiential research’  - going somewhere, doing something, and just seeing what happens. How I feel, how I respond. 

The work I make has always relied on a lot of both of these kinds of research - for Volcano it was watching Top Gun, talking to pilots at Bristol airport and learning, properly, how volcanoes work. Braveheart was five months living in Glasgow, interviews with anti-sectarian campaigners and heavy tomes about Scottish history. Being thorough appeals to me, and this new project - Béton Brute, a drag-satire about concrete architecture and masculinity is no different, though the timeline is considerably shorter. 

As is often the case, I started out knowing very little. And whilst the Brutalism Appreciation Society Facebook page has done a lot to educate me, I also knew that I needed to devise a research methodology that would get me up to speed on some of the things I am - brazenly, ill-informedly - talking about. I wanted to find a way of doing this research that was both academic and experiential. Because I feel that there is often a live/real element missing from academic research - it’s pure information - and a corresponding information-lack in what I find out from just being in a space myself. I know this is obvious, but it’s not something I’ve ever tried to directly address before, so seems worth mentioning.

For Béton Brute I have attempted to develop a series of research trips to real places - experiential - with professionals & researchers - information - to tackle this conflict, and for now it feels like a fruitful way of doing things. 

The first of these research trips took place at the end of July in Swansea, with urban planner Jennifer Angus. Jen, who’s based in London and works on the development of the olympic park site, offered to take me to Swansea to show me around. She wanted to take me there because she says it’s a city that she went to as a planner, and developed an affection for, which didn’t match with the way this city is often perceived. That, to me, seemed like a good enough reason to go, so go we did.

I tried not to go with too much of an agenda. I find that when I am spending arts council money on something I often become obsessed with outcome. With the idea of being able to quantify how this Helped Me Make The Show. In this case, however, I’d put money into my budget for the exact purpose of test-running this as a research methodology, and with the admission that - whilst it is important information to have - I might not know how it will work its way in. Still, it’s hard not to feel like you should be making something more obvious. 

We started the day with a long walk from the civic centre - a magnificent/ugly brutalist building on the edge of town, and then along a busy road and into the centre where we checked out various different shopping provisions, the town’s square (“it’s always nice to be beside water”) and a few other quirks here and there including a memorial to a fight, and the near dereliction of the front of the big theatre. I also interviewed Jen so that I could find out a bit more about what planning is, and why she does it. I’d like to thank her every day for the rest of my life for being so eloquent and helpful. After all that Archibald Tactful came out to play, and explored the areas we’d visited in a way much more akin to how I might look at a space as a solo artist on a field trip (but in drag, obviously). 

This was the first of three trips - I’m writing this on the bus to the third one - and it’s been interesting to reflect on how this went, what worked, what didn’t, and what I learnt in the process. I think filming stuff can make it difficult to really have a ‘natural conversation’, and so the second trip was less-filmed, focussing on specific locations instead. 

Overall I came away with a much broader understanding of what planning might mean, and how it affects us in our day to day lives (ie. every second of every day forever). I had a chance to consider the difficulties of predicting the future, and was forced to question and complicate my own know-it-all “everything would be so much better if they just did ____ and ____” attitude. I’m not sure if it’s refreshing or worrying to hear a planner say, “I don’t have all the answers - maybe I don’t have any of the answers”, but it’s good to think about this profession as something that might hopefully be a channel for the public’s needs, rather than a restricting act of bureaucracy. Capitalism isn’t radical but Jen believes that planning can be. 

Many thanks to Paul Samuel White who came with us to film and record our conversations, and has put together the video of our day which you can see at the top of this writing. Thanks also to Jonathan at Elysium Artist’s Studios who allowed us to film our interview in their building.