Drawing in the crowds – Making the Barrowland Dialectogram

So I’m drawing a dialectogram of the Barrowland ballroom. A dialectogram is by the way, a large and detailed drawing of a place –the bastard spawn of a comic and a map (which also had a bit of a fling with an architectural plan along the way – see here for further exposition). Each artwork is layered with stories that come from the people who know the place best, their contrasting perspectives rendered as a mass of ink lines and copperplate text. What this amounts to  – the dialectogram has something to tell you. But what comes at you is dense. Non-linear. Excessively detailed. it makes you work for it.

Which is fair enough I’d say because behind every inky mark lies months of work. You could say that making a dialectogram is much the same kind of experience as trying to read the bloody thing.

Firstly, there’s the lurking (or fieldwork, if you want to be polite about it). I spend as much time on-site as possible, back and front stage, trying to get the feel of the place after hours as well as at the gigs themselves. I’m as interested in the plant rooms, stairways, corridors as I am the glamour spots like the dance floor or green room. What I’m trying to grasp is how the building fits together – its connective tissue, the stores, galleries and gantries the average punter never sees but is essential. To be able to poke around at the indulgence of Tom and his staff is a great privilege.

In the midst of all this lurking and poking I am sketching. Some of it is about mapping out the basic geography of the place or noting telling objects – a shattered drumstick or tool-bag stashed by the stage. Signage, lettering, paintwork – all of it is noted as potentially useful.


That’s fairly typical of a dialectogram project. What has been distinctive about Barrowland Ballads has been drawing in the middle of bar queues and mosh-pits. The pencil fair races over the page as I try to capture the frantic energy of a Wolfe Tones gig, or the slick dance moves at Barraloadasoul. Just a nudge of the elbow and it can all be ruined in seconds. And without fail, whatever the gig, at some point during the night a head appears over my shoulder and the question ‘what ye doin pal?’.

Of course, what’s really confused them is what I’m not doing, i.e. enjoying the gig like everyone else.

Now if me and said curious gig-goer get on, I might do their portrait. I’ve produced a lot of these during the project; it’s a great way of starting a conversation, and showing the results has won many a delighted smile (or impromptu critical feedback…) – it almost feels like we made it together. But more than that, to draw someone is to get to know them – their personality, how they see themselves, how they fit into the place. Even though my subjects will only be seen at a distance and from above in the final work what I learn in this more immediate and detailed interaction is still hugely important.

I also take lots of photos – not artful and evocative as per Chris Leslie’s efforts but…well…what’s the word…? Anal.Fascinating records of light switches, radiators, doorways, cludgies and strip lights, evidence I will later piece together when establishing the Barrowland’s layout. But compared to the sketches, they are BORING. When I die and go to Hell, my eternal punishment will undoubtedly be a slide show of these things.

Did I mention the interviewing? The words? Lots of that and those too. What’s nice with Recollective projects is being able to pair up with my colleagues in conducting interviews. I’ve been working mostly with Alison this time, sketching while she uses her superior charm to open up staff, punters and players. What this gets you is a massive pile of transcripts – which I then have to work through, mark up. I’m carving out gobbets of oral testimony that will be worked into my depiction of the Barrowland, often very specifically connected to a given part of it.

It’s a messy, chaotic process that always feels last minute (and often is). From a few marks laying out the plan, the image spreads across the surface – but it’s achingly slow, and this drawing is a BIG one – roughly 1×1.5m. You could feed a family of five around it with plenty of elbow room. Working out how the image will cover this surface, finding a scale that includes the entirety of the building but lets the viewer get close enough to see what’s happening takes up a lot of time in and of itself, even before you put the really good stuff in. This kind of drawing is, unlike the onsite sketching, slow and finickity. It’s really not good for the back.

Or… the sanity, mind you.  In any one shift at the drawing board I run the proverbial gamut of self-inflicted grief as shown in this highly scientific photo-montage…


Stage 1: Morning. Determined, confident, full of apparently reasonable goals, I begin the day’s work, pencil in hand…

Stage 2: Late morning. I become engrossed in a particularly interesting corner of the Revue Bar/Main Stage/Cleaner’s Cupboard. I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get it just right. This is great! Look at the penwork! I can do this…

Stage 3: Somewhere around teatime I come to realise how much time I’ve just frittered away on the Revue Bar/Main Stage/Cleaner’s Cupboard, and just how much white space is still left to fill. I glance sideways at my phone, and the date on the lock screen.

I whimper, softly.

Stage 4: It becomes apparent that I am a ridiculous man leading a ridiculous life, and that I will never finish the task I have set myself. Despair sets in. My receding hairline retreats just that wee bit further. And really, is that bit I’ve just drawn any good anyway? Looking at it now, I’m really not so sure. Oh, and there’s my significant other texting – what’s for tea? Sighing, I tear myself away, drink deep of the self-loathing and irritation that’s fair bubbling up now, and go home.

The next day, I come into the studio and pick up a drawing implement. Rinse. Repeat.

And in the end – I get there. The pressure pushes you along, somehow. And there’s certainly pressure with this one. Some of the best dialectograms have been made in a place I had never heard of but learned to love. But the Barrowland? It already had me. I had coveted the idea of a Barrowland dialectogram, looked at it from afar and dreamed about that dream project. It has always been at the top of a very short, exclusive list of Glasgow fixtures I needed to draw. It’s my Moby Dick, the white whale that is hard to forget and even harder to capture.

The Barrowland you see doesn’t need me to make it famous. Whatever I come up with over the next month or so, I am just another act that came in the side door, who walked under that spectacular barrel roof and tried to win the crowd. Yes. I am nervous about the Barrowland dialectogram (the Barrowlandolectogram, if you like).  A wee bit scared, in fact. But that is in a way, useful. That performer who walks out on that stage for the first time, pretending it’s just another gig, a date like any other? I have some sense of how they feel in these moments. They tell themselves it’s just another gig.  But they know it’s theBarrowland. This has to be their best show ever