• Streetlife London Residency at the London Metropolitan Archives

    Last year I was Artist in Residence at London Metropolitan Archives for a major arts engagement project called Streetlife London. In the post below this one you can see more about how the project came about and my process while I was researching, exploring and creating. The project was devised by myself and the interpretation team at the LMA, and involved digital and printed art works, creative writing workshops, sessions with school groups and public engagement, performances and a one day conference about artists in archives. I have been back at the LMA recently reading from the collection I created, and showing and talking about the film I made during the residency at the LMA Spring Arts Festival, so I thought this would be a good time to talk about the outcomes of the project.

    So why Streetlife London?

    The streets of London have changed the world. Their significance is huge and far reaching. They are the site of joy, of tension, of political movements. They are London at its most social and at its most volatile. They are cultural and exciting and they are wild and dangerous. From fashion innovations that have sparked global movements to riots that have changed the political landscape, the streets of London are a vital flashpoint of the contemporary moment.

    As an artist, that is really exciting to explore, there is so much potential in this subject.

    The scope of the project was wide in terms of the timescale- medieval to present day. While I haven’t lived in London for 700 years, it does sometimes feel like it. Especially when having to do anything that involves taking the central line on the tube. But one of the biggest discoveries has been that many things that would have happened on the streets of London 700 years ago still happen, and often with only superficial differences. Despite the ever changing landscape of London as a major world city, the constant is how people relate to each other in shared spaces; the streets.

    I worked with LMA staff to research the themes of London’s street culture and society to approach interpreting items in the archives creatively and artistically. This led to fascinating discoveries and conversations and meant that my process became collaborative with the experts at the archive. An unusual fan shaped souvenir from the rambuctious and risky Bartholomew fair I found in the collections, for example, led to conversations that illuminated the lived experiences of Londoners coming together in Clarkenwell to let off steam with drinking, dancing and general debauchery. Bartholomew Fair was a bit like the Glastonbury Festival of its day, with a surprisingly big murder rate. You can find out more about that beautiful item, conversations around it and the discoveries I made from it in this short video.

    Throughout the residency I worked with groups to use the themes and discoveries of the project for workshops and events. Because I researched a range of collections, I used items from the film collection as inspiration during creative writing workshops, for example. Using early film footage of pageants in London, my favourite being a post war Lord Mayors Show with women aboard giant potatoes for 'health and beauty ' and a procession of dairy product costumes, I worked with groups to help them develop their skills and create from these stimuli. I also found school and college groups loved the Bartholomew Fair stories, and were inspired by these to create their own creative writing and poetry in sessions I led. The artists in archives event bought together people from organisations all over the UK for presentations and a panel discussion about the benefits, challenges and outcomes of artists interpreting and working with archives.

    My engagement with the film archives led to the creation of a digital piece exploring the changing landscape of shared social spaces. I was thinking a lot about how London is always shifting, and how currently that is most profoundly felt in the privatisation of public spaces and issues surrounding gentrification. So with that in mind I created a film based around a documentary from the early 1970's that focussed on London markets. Splicing that archival item with contemporary footage I shot in markets around London, the piece asks questions about the commodification of London streets. You can see the film here.

    During the residency I developed a collection drawing on my explorations of the archives. The result is Cries of London, a book of poetic works with the archival items that inspired them beautifully integrated into the design. It includes a piece evoking the tensions and sensory aspects of riots, inspired by a handwritten account of a 1792 riot in Mayfair that included sword fighting and a high body count. London has been considered a fashion and style capital for a long time, and I was delighted to find that this extends to the medieval period. When I discovered a street fashion illustration from 1450 of some rather well turned out gentlemen I created a piece in response. In the Bartholomew Fair collection I found a number of bill posters advertising different entertainments. I was really struck by these sideshow acts, by the variety of them, by the imagery and hyperbolic language used to sell them. And then by the stories and the lives that must have been behind them. So I created a series of inter-related pieces that explore this. Click here to find out more about Cries of London.

    This residency was incredibly rewarding, in the work I did enabling people to develop their creative skills, in collaborating with LMA staff and in finding such inspiration in the collections. One of the purposes of the project was to show how the LMA collections can be drawn upon artistically and creatively, and I feel we were able to achieve that. I am also thrilled that the outcomes of the project continue to have an ongoing presence and relevence. This week I will be at Guildhall Library talking about the digital piece I created 'London Markets.'

    Since Streetlife London I have been Artist in Residence in a number of schools around London, for an LMA and City Of London project drawing on the work of Medieval scribes to inspire artistic engagement with historical sources and help develop the creative skills of the students I worked with.

    To find out more about my residencies and creative engagement work please do get in touch on ndkfield@gmail.com

Nick Field

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