As an international artist preparing to create work based on the Expatriate Archive, I have to anticipate conducting the majority of my research at a distance through virtual and digital versions of the archive. However, having just finished another project in Trondheim, I took advantage of my nomadic emerging-artist lifestyle and flew to the Netherlands to book an afternoon with the physical version of the archive. In one sense, it was a grounding experience to leaf through handwritten letters and postcards from a small number of the English-language collections.
At the beginning of a project, it’s difficult for me not to overdetermine the form of the final piece. One asset in this case was the nature of the archive: a piecemeal sampling of different stories, full of gaps, and which doesn’t follow a linear path or narrative. Natalie brought up a description I really like, that the experience of going through the archive was “hallucinogenic.” It was full of disconnected imagery and focused on momentary personal details. Some of those descriptions and images I remember were of a lodge in the mountains of Venezuela, a black-and-white postcard showing an ocean liner in front of palm trees, a series of photographs of orchids and lilies in an unidentified foreign country, and lots of descriptions of illness and irritation experienced during travels with a young, leaky child.
The most poignant records I found while paging through the archive folders were of this family traveling in Australia, Thailand, and Lagos. During their trip, various members of the family experienced pain related to specific senses. One had a recurrent earache which had failed to heal after treated at successive clinics. Another family member felt lightheaded and woozy one morning at breakfast; her vision suddenly went out of focus and she couldn’t see for a short while. The doctor later described this as a typical lead up to migraines in hot climates.
In both cases, I’m interested in starting my project from the disorienting experience of losing one’s senses to these different illnesses. Because it happens in precisely the environment where a full set of sensations would be the most useful, these experiences mirror my experience of looking through the archive: searching for a full picture of a place and coming up with fragments and imagery instead. I was given only a sense of the experience, detailed in one instant and then cut short or lost in a tangent. Something is always absent and there’s the sense of the writers’ need to get it all down on paper before it’s too late and they forget. Some part of the thing is always left out.
And similar to the experience of being deprived of one sense and falling back on another, I’m interested in how these partial experiences of a place highlight something internal or unusual about the author’s relation to a new location that might not have been exposed had they stayed at home.