Archives as Inspiration – Natalie McIlroy

After many months of preparation, funding applications, and dreaming, we officially began work on the Saudade project today. It is tremendously exciting!  This first blog post is about my role as Lead Artist/Curator of Saudade however I am also involved in the project as one of the artists. So far myself and the team at the Expatriate Archive Centre (EAC) have been knee deep in administration as is usually the case with such ambitious projects. However, we now have the most wonderful group of artists on board and, almost, all the painful funding applications have been submitted. We look forward to announcing our funding and project partners in the next few weeks. I personally hope that all those late late nights with budget spreadsheets (whilst being heavily pregnant I may add!) will pay off and we can ensure that this project can be exceptional in its execution.

So what is the purpose of Saudade and why I am leading the project? Saudade celebrates and investigates the intersection between archives and contemporary art. It is interdisciplinary in its nature; combining primary, secondary and tertiary source material with an artistic slant or response and with an outcome that is aesthetically open ended. Ten artists will have access to the collection at the Expatriate Archive and through their own method of interpretation, visualisation & making, will create a piece in response to a specific collection. These pieces will be small enough to fit inside a suitcase from the archive. The suitcase itself is significant as it was one of the first objects donated to the archive.

Interdisciplinary collaborations are occurring more frequently in the contemporary art world as artists strive to find new niches, conversations and strategies to create art that allows us, the viewer, to see the world from a different perspective. I, personally, am motivated to be part of this rigorous and pluralistic way of working and I was keen to lead a project that encouraged artists to enter an archival collection, undertake research and create new work. In today’s society, in which the movement of people, whether in search of financial or personal safety, is under fierce scrutiny, an archive like the EAC is topical and crucial to understand the many reasons people relocate and start anew in a strange land. The EAC is perfect for this project because it strives to make its collection as engaging and accessible as possible and by creating this project, the archive comes alive in today’s world. The project offers the organisation and its staff a fresh outlook on their collection and encourages new approaches for audience engagement in the future. Furthermore, the EAC looked for a tool in which a representation of its archive could tour throughout the Netherlands, creating partnerships with other heritage organisations and this is the perfect vehicle to do just that.

I have worked with archives many times throughout my career so far, from school archives at the historical Sherborne School in Dorset, England to the municipal archives in the remote town of Belalcazar in southern Spain and I find the process of translating and communicating historical material in an artistic manner incredibly fruitful. The ‘artistic manner’ that I speak about can be anything from a watercolour to a lecture to a hike. For me, it is about framing, re-contextualising and drawing attention to hidden histories; the personal, the domestic, the ‘hum drum’ if you like. This in turn often reflects and ‘nods to’ larger topics or politics of the human condition.  The ‘art’ can be found in the translation.

The artists that are part of Saudade thrive on the notion of ‘translation’. From Carla Wright’s social political approach, combining ideas of social housing with play and subtle mark making to Thomas Nondh Jansen’s method of capturing a fleeting memory within a static object, all the artists involved are constantly challenging their role as a regurgitator (a new word – why not!?) of knowledge.

I have previously worked with many of the artists involved in Saudade and I know that this is going to be an entirely unique and really rather beautiful endeavour! Let’s see what the next few months bring!