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Arnolfini - est 1961
Phil Owen, Collaborations Producer at Arnolfini, exploring Bristol Archives.
image by Lisa Whiting

Phil Owen, Collaborations Producer at Arnolfini and aficionado of the extensive archive talks  about digitising the audio visual collection spanning close to 60 years.

Over the past couple of years, a lot has been going on behind the scenes with Arnolfini’s archive. Thanks to a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, we’ve been able to digitise almost 200 films of performances and workshops held at Arnolfini over the last few decades – we showed a few of these last summer, and you’ll be hearing a lot more about them as we gear up to celebrate our sixtieth anniversary next year. And in addition, we were delighted that our archive of audio recordings was used by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (see below for more information) as the first test case they worked on at their regional hub at Bristol Archives, where Arnolfini’s archive is housed.

I’ve been working with Arnolfini’s archive for about ten years now. For most of this time, this has involved work with paper, photographs or slides, much of which is now catalogued and available for view at Bristol Archives. We’ve been learning a lot from these. But being able to watch and listen to digitised AV material has, for me, illuminated this material so vividly.

We’re really excited to start being able to share these films and recordings which shed light on how tens of thousands of artists from all over the world have presented their work to tens of millions of people here on the harbourside.

As an initial taster, have a listen to this selection of excerpts of audio recordings, digitised by the UOSH team.

Jolyon Laycock: Bladud, 1985.
A ‘wordscape with music’, this is a music theatre piece commissioned by Bathhampton Primary School and performed here by the pupils. It was based on the story of King Bladud, the legendary founder of Bath. Jolyon Laycock was Arnolfini’s Music and Dance Coordinator in the 1980s, during which time he oversaw many school and community based projects.


Michael Craig Martin, 1976
From a talk given to accompany the artist’s second solo exhibition at Arnolfini. Michael Craig Martin had a long association with the gallery, having met our founder Director Jeremy Rees when they were both teaching at Bath Academy of Art at Corsham. Best known as a conceptual artist, here he talks about his relationship to painting.


Flying Costumes, Floating Tombs, 1991
Flying Costumes, Floating Tombs was one of the largest-scale performances Arnolfini has ever presented. Directed by the artist Keith Khan, who drew inspiration from the Indian-Trinidadian carnival tradition of Hosay, it was performed by a cast of over 150 in the recently completed Lloyds Amphitheatre. Here you can hear some of its music. Many local, non-professional performers took part – did you see it?


Derek Jarman, circa 1978
I’ve not been able to verify this, while my access to our physical archive is limited due to the lockdown. But I think this was recorded from a talk Jarman was invited to do as part of the lesbian and gay film festivals Arnolfini organised from the mid-1970s to coincide with Bristol’s early Gay Pride events. Here he talks about the influence of Hollywood on the UK film industry.


Pandora’s Box, 1984
From a talk about a touring group exhibition of feminist art curated by the collective Women’s Images. They had previously organised the exhibitions Womens Images of Men, and About Time, which were shown at Arnolfini in 1980. In this excerpt, artist Mouse Katz discusses the challenges of presenting feminist art within the establishment art world.


Craig Richardson, 1993
From a Radio Bristol feature on the exhibition Over The Limit, which the Scottish artist Craig Richardson was included in. Here he discusses a text piece he installed by the cranes outside what is now the M-Shed, with passers-by.


Urban Bush Women, 1992
Urban Bush Women are a pioneering African-American women’s dance company, based in Brooklyn, New York. During their first tour to Arnolfini, in 1992, one of their members spoke to Radio Bristol about making work inspired by the ‘movement forms’ she grew up with.


The whole of Arnolfini’s digitised audio archive, and a selection of digitised AV material, will be available for public access at Bristol Archives, once they’re able to re-open again after lockdown. More material will be made available online too, including a series of recordings which we’ll be sharing over the next few weeks. Keep listening!


Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) is an ambitious project. Led by the British Library and kindly supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, it seeks to save and make publically available almost half a million rare and unique recordings that are threatened by physical degradation or stored on formats that can no longer be accessed. Bristol Archives is an important part of UOSH; it is one of the ten sound preservation ‘hubs’ that have been set up across the UK to achieve this task.  Each hub will digitise and catalogue sound collections from their region; Bristol Archives is the hub for South West England and will attempt to preserve 5000 recordings from across our region by Oct 2021.

Bristol Archives have pulled together some collective, behind the scenes memories and clips of digitising  forty years of artists’ talks, performances from Arnolfini as part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH). Read their blog and hear some of the contributions here.