• I’ve been working with the London Metropolitan Archives as Artist in Residence for the last few months, and it’s been great! The project I’ve been working on is called Streetlife London: From Chaucer to Banksy. Yes that’s right, 700 years of London street culture and history to play with. I’ve loved the challenge, and the possibilities.

    If you don’t know about LMA, let me tell you a little bit. It essentially holds the history of London within its walls, and London is a place with a lot of history. In my first week I got an extensive tour of the building, with miles and miles of shelves packed with many fascinating items, and so many things to discover. The archivist who showed me around introduced me to some personal highlights, including the original plans for Tower Bridge, a poignant log book with photographs from a Victorian orphanage, and a collection of beautiful playing cards from the middle ages. Immediately I was struck by the opportunities for exploring lived experience, but also how much there is to tackle in terms of materials alone. In the early stages of the project navigating an artistic path through the archive became the biggest challenge, particularly because this is the first time many of the collections have been approached in this way. And, realistically, it’s hard to get inspired by the parish admin records of Hammersmith in 1792. But then I started to find the real gems that spoke to me, and that’s when things got exciting.

    Streetlife London came about through discussions I was having with the development and interpretation team at the LMA about ways to get people engaging artistically with the collections. Generally people use the archives for academic research, or for discovering more about their family history. With this project one of the aims was to demonstrate how this rich material can inspire, or be translated into art and creative projects. The streets of London, the culture and history of the public lives of the people of London, seemed to me a thrilling subject. The streets of London have changed the world, they are both iconic and ordinary, volatile and cultured, they are the vital beating heart of the social city. Rich territory indeed. So we devised the Streetlife London project.

    My way into the project was to approach the collections thematically. I started thinking about the kinds of things we see now on the streets of London, and what they might have been historically. I began researching around pageants, fairs, markets, protests and street fashion. From this starting point I was able to find a path through the archive, and made discoveries that started to inspire ideas for new pieces. I realised also, how the archive is reinvented and rediscovered each time someone finds a route through it, each persons navigation of the archive is unique.

    Through the archives I have discovered hand scribed accounts of ancient riots, depictions of fierce Medieval street style and remnants of the lives of people who appeared in street fair side shows. It’s been quite a journey. In the next few posts I’ll reveal more about it.

    The streets of London will never seem the same again.

Nick Field

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