by Mary Paterson
As part of the Wellcome Trust funded project Challenging Archives: Delivering research access, public engagement and the curatorial care of the Franko B archive, writers-in-residence Mary Paterson and Maddy Costa are engaging creatively with the Franko B archive as it is catalogued, conserved and made accessible.
Inside a manila folder inside a box inside Franko B’s archive is a packet of slides of a performance he made around 1991. To see the pictures, hold the plastic packet in both hands and angle it towards the light of the window. Squint.
Here is a body. Naked, perhaps? Partially naked? It’s a man’s body. His face is covered by a mask and his body is covered in black marks. Keep squinting. The black marks are words, projected onto his skin and the wall behind him. In these photos he is standing static against the wall, like a captured specimen. A specimen captured by words.
Move your hands down the sides of the plastic packet, carefully. Perhaps there is an archivist nearby who you sense might be watching. Perhaps she makes you feel nervous about touching the real slides with your real fingers, in case your body might ooze with something that tends to decay. Or perhaps there is something nostalgic about holding the plastic packet and squinting at the window and watching these tiny runes come to life like twentieth century stained glass.
Keep looking and you will find slides that are close-up images of words. Are these the words used to pin the body to the wall? They are sentences taken from tightly packed newsprint; key phrases ringed in black felt tip:
Judge James Rant, passing sentence at The Old Bailey, said, “This is not a witch hunt against homosexuals … nor is it a campaign to curtail the private sexual activities of citizens of this country. Much has been said about individual liberty and the rights people have to do what they want with their own bodies, but the courts must draw the line between what is acceptable in a civilized society and what is not.”
In her office inside a Georgian townhouse, Sue Paterson, the outgoing Director of Legal Services for Bristol University, describes the legal work that surrounds the acquisition of archives that may contain ‘challenging’ material. Challenging, in a legal context, means challenging to the law; the relevant laws, in the context of Franko B’s archive, include The Obscene Publications Act (1959 and 1964), the Indecent Displays Act (1981) and the Video Recordings Act (1984 and 2010). The wording of the Obscene Publications Act, Paterson says, has not changed since it was first introduced sixty years ago. An obscene publication is a photograph, film, book or other kind of document that ‘tend[s] to deprave and corrupt.’
But what ‘tend[s] to deprave and corrupt’ is a matter of opinion. The words from the judgment that appeared in Franko’s 1991 piece came from a 1990 court case, in which sixteen men stood trial at The Old Bailey on obscene publications offences – they were accused of making and distributing BDSM porn for gay men. The policeman who led the investigation described the defendants as part of “the most horrific porn ring ever to appear before a British court”, linking gay pornography to unnamed violence. Their defence team said the films were of consensual acts between adult men. The judge said that consent was irrelevant. “[P]eople,” said Judge James Rant, “must sometimes be protected from themselves.”
If there is one defining feature of Live Art, it is the quality of the interpersonal encounter: the alchemy of bodily presence in a room; the frisson between the artist (who is not acting but embodying thoughts and feelings) and the audience (who is not spectating but participating in a one-off event). Live Art is about the collision of ideas in the embodied experiences of interconnected people. You could say it is based on an opposite world view to the idea that people need protecting from themselves, their bodies or their bodily desires. On the contrary, Live Art is interested in what happens when bodies are brought together.
For artists and historians of Live Art, then, the ‘challenge’ of Franko B’s archive is not the subject matter of the material so much as the forms and processes of its documentation. Looking at a slide of a man’s body covered in words spoken thirty years ago, how can I understand how it felt to be there? How can I smell the sweat, the fear, the trust, the danger? What is lost in this transformation of an experience into an image? This is not just a transformation from the dimensions of the physical world to the 2D illusion of a picture, but also a crucial transformation in time – from a moment shared between a limited number of individuals, to a moment that can be distributed far and wide.
This same threshold of time is, in fact, crucial to the law. The Obscene Publications Act does not concern a live event but its records. Many acts are not illegal until they are recorded, as Nigel Richardson tells me. Richardson is the specialist lawyer the University consulted about the material in Franko’s archive. The example he gives is of an 18-year-old man and a 17-year-old woman having sex. The sex is legal. But a video of it is not: the video is child pornography. (While the age of consent for sex is 16, the age of consent for pornography is 18.) So, while Live Art historians might argue that documentation is a diminished form of the embodied encounter, the law might argue that it’s a criminal one.
Both disciplines of thought acknowledge the razor-sharp edge of this distinction in time. And it’s obvious why. The circulation of a video is viscerally, importantly different to the experience of a live action; consenting to a live action is viscerally, importantly different to consenting to a distributed document of it. And yet what Franko so expertly highlights is the way in which this distinction has different politicised effects in the service of different types of power. In the case of the law, and in direct contravention of his stated intention (“this is not a witch-hunt against homosexuals …”), Judge Rant used his position to condemn the desires of gay men:
“People,” said Judge Rant, “must sometimes be protected from themselves.”
By people he meant gay men.
By sometimes he meant always.
By protected he meant isolated.
By themselves he meant them, the other, the immoral, the excluded …
Judge Rant meant, “gay men must always be isolated from themselves and each other.” And the unspoken words in that sentence are the most powerful of all: “gay men should always be isolated from themselves and each other,” meant Judge Rant, “by people like me.”
The body is muted by the words. The body is overcome by them. There is no escaping these words, projected onto the body, shaping its curves and its crevices, marking its movements and its desires. Disembodied and enlarged, these words map this body, subjecting his skin to the flare of a projector’s screen like an interrogator’s lamp. Presumed guilty. Inscribed with difference. Inscribed with the difference between the power of the man who said these words, and the power of the men whose lives are changed as a result.
What is the difference, for a presiding judge, between the live and the documented? As soon as he spoke, Rant’s words were recorded in real time by the court recorder, reproduced and distributed in newspapers around the country. He spoke these words and, as a direct result, all three defendants changed their plea to guilty. Judge Rant’s interpretation condemned them to condemn themselves.
The naked body, the objectified body, the resistant body, the illegal body, the artistic body, the captured body, the young body, the younger body of the now older body of the artist Franko B, who’s body I have seen on more than one occasion, in more than one medium, naked and clothed, inscribed with tattoos, pierced with cannulas and streaked with blood, streaked with sweat, streaked with paint.
As I squint at this body which glows like shards of stained glass in my hands, I am looking at an idea of a body as much as I am looking at a document of one. What does it mean when your body is described as degraded, poisonous, disgusting? What does it mean when your desires are described as uncivilised, cruel, violent? What does it do to your body? What does it do to your closeness to other people? What does it do to your freedom? The freedom of your body and the freedom of your mind?
Perhaps, like me, you didn’t know anything about this piece of work until you found some records of it here, inside a manila envelope, inside a box, inside a room lined with books. Perhaps, like me, you didn’t know anything about Judge James Rant, or the Obscene Publications Act, or the fact that Franko’s work was separated, at his degree show, from that of other students, in order to issue a warning. Anyone entering Franko B’s graduating exhibition was told they might find his work obscene or offensive. (What does this do to your freedom?)
In the same archival box there is a photograph in a frame, wrapped gently in polyethylene and tied in a bow. The frame is old and wobbly. Perhaps it is a cheap frame. The picture inside shows three men, laughing and smiling. They are young and beautiful. Two of them are naked from the waist up. One of them is lying across the others. Perhaps they are 18 or 20. Perhaps they are 16 or 24. They are so beautiful. Beautiful in the way that young people are beautiful, beautiful in the way that we were all once young and we were all once beautiful. It is perhaps the most intimate, most delicate, most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
Our bodies. Ourselves. Our intimacy.
The Obscene Publications Act is no longer very relevant. It has been superseded by other laws, which describe specific activities considered obscene. In 2019, the Crown Prosecution Service published guidelines to indicate that consensual acts between adults should no longer be prosecuted under the OPA. In any case, society has changed: the number of prosecutions brought under this act, the guidelines say, had declined from 131 in 1999 to 35 in 2005. Perhaps we have become more tolerant of each other. Perhaps we no longer think that the obscenity, depravity or corruption of private desires should be decided at the discretion of a judge. Nevertheless, the sixteen men tried in 1990 remain guilty. Five of the defendants appealed their conviction at the Court of Appeal and, when that failed, at the House of Lords. When that failed, three of the defendants went to the European Court of Human Rights. In 1997, that appeal failed, too.
Meanwhile, Franko’s questioning of the real and the imagined, the spoken and the performed, the live and the distributed, continues to resonate. As we become ever more immersed in digital technology’s stream of broken consciousness, the questions swirling round what is real, what is a document, what is a memory, what is a prediction, how we encounter these things, and which systems of power they serve, become more complex. If a 17-year-old woman sends a naked photograph of herself to an 18-year-old man, is this a consensual act or non-consensual child pornography? If a performance is streamed live on Facebook, is it an interpersonal encounter or a disembodied film? If a senior police officer is sent a file to their phone, even if they never see it, are they guilty of possessing a Class A indecent image? What if the police officer is a woman? What if she is black?