The Potential of Archives

17 Jul 2020

What is the impact of an archive? And how can we use them to frame and understand the everyday? We look to Studios artists past and present, investigating how they have used or responded to archives in their work. 

Inspired by The Courtauld Institute of Art’s MA Curating the Art Museum show Unquiet Moments: Capturing the Everyday, that celebrates the alternative archive – the recording of everyday life through the making of art – we wanted to turn to our own creative community and explore how artists have engaged with archives and sought to build a dialogue with history.

From deconstructing archival audio material to the hidden histories of London's sewers and the River Thames, read on to see how our artists have worked with this multi-faceted medium.

Paul Purgas & Imran Perretta: AMRA

An audio-visual collaboration between Studios residents Paul Purgas and Imran Perretta, AMRA works with historical and contemporary South Asian archives and field recordings to build its audio.

AMRA considers a broader spectrum of archives and what these could be; spanning work with historical recordings to South Asian sample packs and collections of instrument recordings such as flutes, tablas and shruti boxes. The development of AMRA’s visuals take a similar approach, combining video shot by the artists of Indian dancers and 3D models of artefacts alongside archival 16mm film footage, all manipulated using deconstructive techniques based on analogue video synthesis.

Through this approach to archival disruption, AMRA explores diasporic echoes and Indian musical heritage, addressing themes of mythology, futurity and the trauma of partition.


In 2018, musician and performance artist GAIKA presented SYSTEM at Somerset House. An installation and month-long series of live events to mark 70 years of Windrush, SYSTEM explored the history of sound system culture and Notting Hill Carnival’s heritage beyond the borders of West London. For Studios resident GAIKA, Carnival and the fixed sound system are a bold demonstration of immigration, blackness and raw technical power - this was embodied in SYSTEM’s installation; its architecture housing a multitude of screens showcasing Notting Hill Carnival archival video source material, stories, characters and statistics. In framing the archival with the contemporary, SYSTEM invited audiences to immerse themselves in a shared narrative, historical knowledge and a rich and ongoing cultural legacy.  

Eloise Hawser: By the Deep, by the Mark

Fathoming flow in the body, the sewer, the river and the city, Eloise Hawser’s Somerset House exhibition By the Deep, by the Mark took the building’s close relationship with the River Thames and Victoria Embankment as its starting point, plunging visitors into the hidden networks of liquid flow within our bodies and below the city. A journey through site-specific archival materials, a three dimensional mind-map of sculptures, audiovisual displays and medical hardware, Hawser presented maps, models and measurements of the River Thames alongside cutting-edge diagnostic ‘phantoms’ (specialist medical machines used to analyse fluid dynamics within the body) to draw parallels between extraordinary feats of civil engineering and the intricate inner workings of the human body.

Looking to the past and future sewage systems that keep London clean and its population healthy, as well as pointing to our fear of pollution, disease and the lengths we go to protect ourselves, By the Deep, by the Mark sought to reveal emotional resonances within the, often overlooked, infrastructures that underpin modern life.

Jenn Nkiru: Rebirth is Necessary

The multiple award-winning Rebirth is Necessary sees filmmaker Jenn Nkiru piece together portraits with archival footage that includes Afrofuturism pioneer Sun Ra and the Black Panther Party in a dreamlike short centred on the magic and dynamism of Blackness past, present and future. Evoking a ritual of rebirth and building a dialogue between history, dynamism and contemporary expressions of black identity, time and space become altered, rethought and reordered. Rebirth is Necessary featured in last year’s Get Up, Stand Up Now, Somerset House’s major exhibition celebrating 50 years of Black creativity in Britain and beyond.  

Jennifer Walshe: Aisteach – The Historical Documents of the Irish Avant-garde 

Composer, performer and vocalist, Jennifer Walshe presented her project Aisteach while an associate artist at Somerset House Studios. This imaginary record of the Irish avant-garde was inspired by artist Caoimhín Breathnach (Jennifer's great-uncle) who lived as a recluse in the Irish village of Knockvicar for all of his life. Breathnach’s artistic practice focussed on the creation of ‘subliminal’ tapes and films, an archive of sorts, which he believed possessed the capacity to shift consciousness. Breathnach spent the last years of his life planning a film called An Gléacht. The work was to combine subliminal tapes and films with filmed footage showing a sequence of occult rituals at sites in Ireland ranging from the Hellmouth door in the Caves of Kesh to the Tobernalt holy well.

Jennifer completed this film alongside the audio work Aisteach, which brings together collaborations across created compositions, recordings, scores, articles and other ephemera. It was recorded during the 2018 edition of Sonic Act Academy, Amsterdam where Walshe was performing and screening An Gléacht.

Maeve Brennan: Listening in the Dark

Visual artist Maeve Brennan is led by a documentary approach, with work that looks at the historical and political resonance of sites and materials. 

Her film Listening in the Dark gathers evidence of human beings’ impact on the natural environment. While there is a growing sensitivity to the ecological damage we are causing, we can be strangely blind to things that happen outside of our consciousness. Maeve takes the example of the bat, a creature that has fallen beneath our radar, as her starting point. Undisturbed for millions of years, the bat's nocturnal rhythms are being increasingly interrupted by the presence of wind turbines. Exploring how new (and well-intentioned) technological developments are affecting the atmosphere in ways we don't always appreciate, the film also illuminates how scientific research has revealed an undiscovered sensory dimension. 

Combining archival footage of pioneering bat studies with footage shot in Scotland, Brennan’s film looks back through time, enlisting fossil records and other evidence to remind us of the mysterious landscape beneath our feet as well as the unheard soundscape above.

This long read forms part of The Courtauld and Somerset House collaborative digital programme, supported by

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