I am in London searching for the ‘right’ site. I have found ‘right’ places several times before, but for one reason or another we are not allowed there. I find myself in the backwaters of industrial estates. Lorries rattle past in almost continuous flows. I feel small and out of place on my steely blue bike. Like I don’t belong there. Day after day I set out. With satellite images in my head from scouring googlemaps and my AZ Map. I take rough notes and scrappy photos of dismal looking places. The lorry drivers stare and assume I must be lost. This is just the start of the process of finding a site. This is what I mean by a site-hunt. It can only happen slowly, at cycling pace. I often get lost.
Looking for the anti-glamorous
Vacant of people
Brimming with the wild
I wobble around on my bike
Eyes scanning the side streets
Take the strange route
What life is happening here?
What am I looking for?
Greenwich Penninsula – Morden Wharf Road. I’ve been there before. I still like it. There are new mounds of materials – mostly organic matter. Not much glass. It’s like a dumping ground for wood chip. I’ve just come off the busy approach road to the Black Wall Tunnel, but here feels forgotten about and left behind. I can see the distinctive buildings of Canary Wharf and the HSBC Tower hazily on the horizon. I move on. Across the Peninsula, past the rows and rows of car parking to the strange place that is the O2.
On the Air Emirates pods across the river to Silvertown I spot a large un-expected plot next to the Tate&Lyle Factory. Once on ground level, I get lost trying to find it amongst all the busy dual carriageway roads and the lorries. Eventually I do. It’s huge. It backs onto the river and is boundaried by the DLR, Tate&Lyle, and derelict warehouses. The skyline includes Canary Wharf. It’s grassy and overgrown. It’s perfect. Is it too far out? Too remote? I make an unexpected mark on my map. And cycle on.
Trinity Buoy Wharf, a gardening project in Canning Town. Up to West Ham, I’m searching for a place I’d spotted on googlemaps, at the north end of an industrial estate. Close to the train tracks. I can’t find it. Eventually I give up, and make my way onto the Greenway. I love this walking cycling route, that I didn’t know existed until I started searching for sites for this project. This section was closed last time I was here, with Keren on the hottest day of the year in 2015.
I cross the train tracks, and then my eyes get drawn to a vacant plot off to the left. Bordered by train tracks, a line of trees in the distance, gas rings on the horizion and the canal to the West. I’m curious and take the driveway down. There is a gateway and a cabin with a few guys inside just at the entrance. I am looking at them and they are looking back at me.
I take a few pictures and then notice a sign asking me to kindly not take pictures. There’s a couple of ramshackle buildings at the bottom of the driveway. And then surrounding that is this huge expanse of nothingness. A good definition of ‘brownfield’. It’s absolutely vast. I wonder if it is contaminated or something. It’s so unusual to see so much vacant land in London – that isn’t becoming a building, that isn’t a park, or a football pitch. That isn’t doing something ‘useful’. It makes me more interested. What are those buildings? Who are these men in the cabin? A few cars come and go. Only men. Eventually I go down to the cabin and ask. They’re a mosque. They own the land. They don’t know what the plans are. They give me a mobile number of someone to call. I feebly explain that I’m looking for a place to run an art performance. I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense to them. But I smile and they smile and I’m glad I got to talk to someone.
I continue up to the Olympic Park. Past the site by Pudding Mill Lane station that we got excited about last year. It’s being used as a work site now. Past the sweetwater site that we used in April. It’s sitting there, looking pretty much the same. The light is fading. Willesden and White City and the recommendation for East Dulwich will have to wait for another day. I drop into a cafe in Hackney Wick to warm up and get a drink.
I go back through my notes. The wider research begins.
Who owns it?
Would they be likely to agree?
How long has it been empty?
What used to be there? What’s coming next? How soon?
How easy is it to get to?
Where’s the nearest tube station and bus stop?
I mark my map. And make my shortlist.
This kind of searching in London has happened in bursts periodically for over two years. In that time we have blundered across so many curious hinterlands. I have travelled the greenways, the waterways, the capital ring path. Searching. It’s a bit like rummaging in dustbins. I have developed a very particular eye for unearthing unlikely spots and recognising potential goldmines. London is changing so swiftly, that googlemaps is often out of date. It is a useful tool, but not to be trusted. I have practiced this art of searching. We are still not finished.
In Corby we found a site. It was confirmed. It was easy to get permission – what a delight! We worked there for two weeks in October 2016 and we all fell in love with it a bit. And then in January, just as we were finalising the details of working there for 5 weeks this spring and holding the first performances there at the end of April…suddenly it was gone. The site has been sold, it will be turned into a food factory, and will be operating by April. Such is the way with these in-between spaces. We dashed to a few new possible places, we’ve jumped through almost all the hoops for the next place, this time in the centre of Corby town. I’m hopeful.
The following day we travelled to Glasgow to meet with Tramway who will be presenting Is this a Waste Land? as part of Dance International Glasgow in May. I was there last July and had identified two good sites. Behind Scotland Street Children’s Museum rapidly became my favourite. I started to imagine the piece in my head happening there and I was excited to see it again. It’s opposite Shields Road subway station, but hidden behind a large building. On my way to my meeting at Tramway, I got off the subway at Shields Road to have a look. I stepped out of the station, onto the road and realised something was different. The gate was open. The site had turned into a storage space covered in shipping containers and a car park. I realised how much I had been banking on being there.
Our meeting was great. They had found us another site – the place where a bus depot used to be. In fact it was still standing last July. It has fantastic views across the city. The site can’t be re-developed for several months because the ground has to settle or something. We have permission. We will slot in, in the interim time. Timing is of essence. This is perfect timing.
This project is forcing me to practice being flexible, agile, adaptable, transient, moveable. It’s like improvising in performance. It is a dance on a grand scale. In London we are still waiting and moving.