by Natalie Bays, Founder of the NO Collective

I was born into the first generation to fully immerse themselves into the internet. As a teen, I could have spoken to anyone in the world from my home computer at any time; but despite this – I was only ever interested in talking to the bubble of friends I saw every day at school. I grew up in Romford, a metropolitan town on the very eastern edge of London and considered myself an artist from a young age. Art to me was drawing and painting in my own time and the occasional school trip to the London galleries, where we would see exceptional portraits and landscapes. London is the place to grow-up for art-lovers, but not the only place you should grow as an artist.

It wasn’t until I reached university that I truly experienced other creative cultures. People that lived and made artworks from different countries and studied with me, they made artworks that I couldn’t recognize in adjacent to the National Gallery. University of the Arts London is a world-renowned institution and therefore more than a third of my fellow students were from other countries. I was lucky that I was born in London and found myself at a ‘local’ university with so much prestige. In my Romford culture bubble at that time I would not have travelled abroad to study.

My first curatorial job in London was through my university course and was in collaboration with Hitachi Consulting. Organising a simple exhibition of my classmates’ work. This is where I honed my organisational skillset and understood that there was a value of art outside of an institution. The immediate challenges faced here were small but unanticipated. Transporting artists work from storage spaces because they didn’t live in the country, to negotiating fire regulations around culturally traditional materials. It was difficult but immensely satisfying. My biggest accomplishment, providing cultural stories in the form of artworks in a place for people to experience on a daily basis outside of a gallery space.
It was not long after that me and my collaborator Joe decided to found The NO Collective (Est. 2010), an organisation which would support society through creativity (hyper-localism) and also support artists with access to unique travel opportunities; to collaborate internationally and bring new cultural influences home.

There were a couple of reasons we were interested in international collaboration. The first was to share the experiences it had brought us as artists. My and Joe’s first international residency was in Norway. As performance artists, we researched Norwegian culture and made artwork alongside Trondheim residents throughout 10 days. This led to recorded artworks, writing, personal logs and even caused a stir in the city, as people heard about our artwork. The experience of making and exhibiting in a different country was so transcendent to our professional art practise that we were hooked. Around the same time a relational aesthetics exhibition by Nicolas Bourriaud in London called ‘Altermodernism’ solidified the need I saw for collaboration with other cultures in a post-modernist world.

The second reason was that while working with small communities in and around London, we had noticed the culture bubble I had experienced growing up. The culture bubble for me is being safe at home in London, with what we already know. Especially in places like Romford, there are few creative organizations, despite culture being a brilliant tool to do social good. We wanted to bring new cultural and creative experiences to the communities we cared about.

I am proud to reflect on the international art programmes we have organized both at home and abroad over the last thirteen years and what they have meant for those involved.

In 2016 we began a project with the Council of State Support under the Auspices of the Government of Azerbaijan called ‘InAzerbaijan’. The programme, which lasted three years, to create a web portal about the country in the UK, was set apart by the creative means in which it was organized. The programme was researched in both the UK and in Azerbaijan by young people (aged 16 – 30) to ensure information was accessible for its readership. It included first hand research through authentic meetings with Azerbaijani communities and we produced extraordinarily creative content by inviting UK creatives to become resident artists for a week in Baku. This was the first Azerbaijan focused website in the UK and it included information which was highly regarded by tourists due to the method of research and the recording of unique experiences. Diplomatically it also provided a platform for conversation about a country that could have otherwise been misunderstood in the UK.

Practically speaking, during this project we made three separate trips to Azerbaijan. The first without any context of place (of course due to lack of information online or in libraries). The most important part of planning an international project is understanding the risk, therefore having a grasp of ‘mitigations’ before you leave is very important. Prior to our first trip I made contact with the UK Embassy in Baku and the Azerbaijan Embassy in London. I also spoke with our hotel and natives to understand any cultural and practical differences. Creating a timetable, putting insurance in place, a risk assessment, some ‘trip rules’ and providing an emergency contact list to all participants is essential.

It was this project that introduced me to the Eurasian Creative Guild which shares so many values with The NO Collective. Our first collaborative project, the ECG Film Festival has found its place alongside the Romford Film Festival which I co-organize in London, and a successful example of placemaking through culture.

Film is a fantastic way to share stories of culture and identity in a really accessible and entertaining way. I support four international film festivals a year in Romford which all bring huge benefits to the town. The Romford Horror Festival in February brings over one thousand static audience members to Romford over four days. There is independent and classic film, ‘horror’ pop up shops and entertainment. During this time local hotels are filled up with guests and restaurants in the local area benefit from an influx of customers. In June the main festival brings film makers from across the world to share their cultural stories. A bigger local audience is shared alongside the ECG film festival that brings more diverse stories from across the globe. Finally the East London LGBTQ+ Film Festival in the Autumn brings together a minority community to share international stories of identity and strength. This brings a different audience and meaning; International advocacy and a huge solidarity to the stories that might be less comfortable from different places.

The important organisation details to be considered in our home projects is to be aware and supportive of cultural difference and diversity. It is always our aim to be as welcoming as humanly possible to anyone who has travelled to join us. Helping with travel plans and providing location guides. This ensures that artists continue to travel to improve the quality of their work and the quality of the experiences that they can bring others.

The programmes that I enjoy participating in the most are those that take artists from places with less cultural infrastructure to a different country. As mentioned, (Norwegian residency), these are the trips that are real career changers. Recently we were invited to Burabay in Kazakhstan as a creative team, to paint a mural and make a film. This allowed our group of four creatives to immerse themselves in to a different culture of people living in the district and reflect these learnings in the work that was made. We also took home a whole realm of unique experiences including meeting an Ambassador and joining an arts festival. This was a huge legacy project, ensuring that local creatives can bring their quality experiences to positively agitate creativity in their own town. Immediate effects have meant more exposure for one of the participants and a new mural organised in a local town from another.

Working abroad is showcased as a brilliant tool for self-development in business. For creatives this is also true, however, unlike usual business-people, creatives also radiate positive change in their wake. They mix with all classes of society, creating projects and artworks that help us share values as humans. They create networks that lead to cultural bridges and diplomatic ties and best of all, they make friends to collaborate with beyond borders.