This blog article outlines the use of performance – namely public walks and small dramatic interventions – as part of research methodology and practice. This article is supported with links to a short video made as part of this work and supported by the 2019 ESRC Festival of Social Science. At the conclusion we offer theory that performance supports research practice of generosity and open engagements.
My PhD research
My PhD research at Swansea University explores how emotional attachment to place changes as we get older. The work has two influences: firstly from human geography where we concentrate on the collective [place] rather than the individual; secondly from gerontology and the lifecourse perspective, where we see distinct phases of childhood, teenage years, young adult and so on through to being elderly.
The bulk of my work is based in Caerleon, near Newport; and where I interviewed just over ten people about the spaces [such as houses, streets or neighbourhoods] important to their lives. The format is to share a walk of around one hour. In some cases people are not able to go outside; we then take walks of the mind using geography to connect memories. To a degree any walk is a bit of a performance: we go into a space where neither party has complete control; the weather can also change things. In most cases the walk brings forward fascinating insights into people’s lives and we start to sense that geography can be a trigger to deeply-held emotions and memories.
Thinking about use of performance
Within my ethical approval there was provision to involve artists: firstly to help elicit responses through walks of the mind; and secondly to interpret the collective [anonymised] responses for research participants. However, the idea of using performance to share research findings with people not already involved came from my PhD supervisor Jon Gower.
We put forward a proposal for the Caerleon Arts Festival in July 2019. At that point I would be nine months into the second year of my PhD and about halfway through the data collection stage. The basis of the event would be to take a group of people for a walk with the added dimension of some drama. I had no experience of performance so looked to form a collaboration.
The work of artist Marega Palser on a project – above – called Framing the Transient Now had impressed me. Like me, Marega is an ethnographer at heart who likes to dig deeper into mapping places by walking and talking to people. She had instigated this latter project in Swansea during 2018. At the end Marega used performance as a way to communicate the work.
Drama to illustrate research findings
Marega and I decided on a format where she would interpret some of the stories during our walk. To pay for her time my first supervisor Charles Musselwhite agreed that I could use some of my ESRC Research Training Support Grant.
On a sunny Sunday morning in July a group of about forty people gathered at the Priory Hotel in Caerleon. I acted as the narrator and guide; at various points along the way Marega brought her own twist to the stories with some activities, dance and objects that she had made. The event was successful in many ways, but mostly because it allowed the story about the place to develop. In particular participants shared experiences of growing up during a period from the late 1950s through to early 1970s.
Three people from the July event were also keen to help my project and we subsequently shared walking interviews in August and September 2019. I was also referred to an additional two interviews which used walks of the mind. The material from this batch of interviews gave focus for a walking and performance event scheduled for November 2019. The event would be funded by the ESRC for the Festival of Social Science with a theme of the lifecourse and place attachment.
Within the November event we had a budget of just under £1,000. Approximately half the funds were allocated to a filmmaker to come for a day and then help us to make some short videos. The rest of the budget went to paying the artist fees, printing leaflets and hosting the session in a community centre.
Second event: refining the method
We chose the same collaborative team for the November event. This time we decided to have the performance in the first hour and for it to be inside. I put together a story which would explain the statistical phenomenon of an ageing population at a local level. A narrative would link the interviews to some contemporary writing and Marega would find elements that could be dramaticized. Altogether the story and performance would last about 40 minutes. We decided that the walk would occupy the second half of the 3 hour event. This time I asked two people who had previously been interviewed to act as guides for part of the walk.
On the day it rained quite a lot. Thankfully we had an amazing welcome [as well as cake and soup] from staff and volunteers at Village Services in Caerleon. I set the context then Marega invited attendees to sit down, slow down their breathing and try to enter their bodies – as if walking in their minds. Halfway through we put on Big Spender by Shirley Bassey. At the same time Marega then took out a long roll of paper and strutted around the room. She uncoiled the paper to make a roadway which people held together in their hands. Marega then pushed a toy tipper truck with stones in it along the roadway. Marega had the full attention of nearly forty people. At the end she playfully poured the little stones into an attendee’s hat.
As such this short performance – just the length of Big Spender – provoked many other accounts from the group; particularly from a man who had worked in a related trade. The story connected with memories of the construction lorries which – sixty years ago – had inconveniently rushed shale [or crushed stone] through Caerleon to build foundations for the new steelworks. The tale of the shale lorries was important to the 1960s housing expansion and captured the zeitgeist for Caerleon’s ageing population [aged 65 or more]. One attendee wrote:
Wonderful event, interesting stories, well-organised, informal
Another use of performance included Jon Gower reading out verse and short poems. Jon referenced lap wings and other nature which had been common before new houses were built in the 1960s. An attendee [too young to have experienced these times] from another neighbourhood of Newport was touched by this of the work, saying that:
Really enjoyed the comments about the lap wings and connection to nature: valuing nature = valuing ourselves 🙂
The group then walked from the Village Services Community Hub and down into the older parts of Caerleon. This was an opportunity for people to share their experiences and memories. In many ways these talks were performative in their nature. For example, we learned about the right to buy housing policy in the 1980s and also how bread was delivered door-to-door in the 1970s. The film gives some depth to the experience of walking in these spaces and sharing stories.
One of the people on the walk commented that people were chipping in with their own comments; effectively that multiple conversations were happening at the same time. She said that:
You can almost make friends in a morning by just learning about a place.
From Marega’s point of view as an experienced artist, producer and performer she wrote that the event was:
A great model for sharing information and connecting: ages; interests. Location good = heart of the community and social space.
Since the event in November a proposal has emerged for a larger piece of work which would see contributors from the day as community researchers. This time we would move to the specifics of housing and providing social care for older people.
Thoughts for the future and some links to theory
The account described in this blog is not something that my supervisors nor I had specifically planned beforehand. However, as a PhD student I took the chance to innovate and therefore gather valuable first hand experience. The following thoughts come to mind for future work.
- The immersive walk and performance does not have to be a dissemination exercise at the end of a project. The first event in July was halfway through my work and meant to be an enjoyable way of sharing ideas. In reality it changed the focus of the work because it encouraged people to take part, albeit not in a prescribed manner. As such we connected with what Jonathan Darling (20016, p. 241) writes about the research site, namely as a space:
….not for for the application of pre-given moral tenants, but for the cultivation of ethical sensibilities which value moments of generosity and open engagements with difference.
What the above urges is for the social scientist not to expect things from their research activities. As described previously, I was genuinely surprised with how people responded. Furthermore, the response from the November event suggested a further desire to get involved.
- The immersive event format is a chance to develop multi-layered and rich descriptions. In November 2019 we used three hours to construct what Bent Flybjerg (2001, p. 136) calls the “proper context” – namely giving both immediate meaning from the small and local and a sense of significance by outlining the larger context.
Part of forming that proper context came from illustrating the shale lorries [carrying stone] with the short performance. People understood that the lorries had a significant impact on local people in the 1960s, but they also learned that the upheaval was part of building what were then the most advanced steelworks in Europe. We outlined that many people still living in Caerleon today had come because of the jobs in the steel industry.
- A collaboration with an artist [somebody who is admittedly not a social scientist] can communicate messages derives from statistical research as well as qualitative or ethnographic. In this case we illustrated how the ageing population had increased by 32%.
The three minute video acts as an accessible introduction for those who could not come. I am confident that this video has been a generous contribution to other partners and will help for future collaborations. A further benefit is visual material that can be analysed for my eventual PhD thesis.
In conclusion that best thing about using these methods – specifically working with an artist – is that the social researcher can involve people and ideas that they may not have necessarily considered. To this end you have to host events when and where the public are most likely to come – such as a weekend morning. However, for the future I would think twice about outdoor elements during November!
Aled Singleton, December 2019
Darling, J. ‘Just being there… : ethics, experimentation and the culture of care’ In Anderson, B., & Harrison, P. (2016). Taking-place: Non-representational theories and geography. Routledge: London, pp. 214-260
Flyvbjerg, Bent (2001) Making social science matter: Why social … Cambridge University Press, Cambridge