Theatre & Live Art Records at Risk due to COVID-19

We are currently undertaking a project to find and support significant theatre & live art records placed at risk due to COVID-19.  We are looking to help individuals and organisations that have been affected by the pandemic and need help with caring for their archives.  If you are concerned about your records or know of any records that are at risk, please have a look at our Records at Risk page and get in touch with Siân Williams, Project Archivist:

With the Theatre and Live Art Records at Risk project well underway, our Project Archivist, Sian Williams reflects on the project so far and the conversations we’ve had with funding bodies, organisations within the theatre sector and other collecting institutions.

The theatre sector has been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.  The effects of the pandemic continue to be felt and are still not fully realised, but it is clear that this period will have a lasting impact on the industry.

The Cultural Recovery Fund and furlough scheme have only recently come to an end, and there continue to be uncertainties over future additional financial support.  As well as ongoing restrictions, there are other issues to contend with, including audience confidence, reduced performances, whether group bookings will be revived, insurance costs and cover for COVID disruption, and what audiences want to see during and following these challenging times.  There are many factors that will affect recovery and whether or not the theatre industry can and even should be returning to pre-pandemic models.

During the pandemic, there were conversations within the industry about how the theatre sector was going to recover and ‘build back better’.  The voice of the freelance workforce was more loudly heard with the formation of Freelancers Make Theatre Work and their subsequent Big Freelancer Report highlighting the ‘inequities deep rooted throughout the industry’.  The desperate situation many freelancers found themselves in during the pandemic shone a spotlight not only on the immediate need for financial assistance, but the need to confront and remedy the core problems faced by the freelancer workforce that were growing long before the pandemic.  As the Big Freelancer Report states, ‘for freelancers in the performing arts, COVID-19 has acted as a force multiplier on an employment system that was already under strain… The theatre workforce do not want to return to an already broken system, therefore the income crisis need to be addressed’ (2021, p.129).  With the ESRC-funded Freelancers in the Dark research project soon to be published, which investigated the social, cultural, and economic consequences of COVID19 on independent arts workers across the UK, it can hopefully help to inform plans to support the sector as it rebuilds.

It seems that the pandemic was not exclusively the reason, but an accelerating factor forcing some theatres to permanently close and some professionals to leave the industry.  The financial impact of the pandemic meant theatres that were already facing financial insecurity closed or transferred ownership.  But the pandemic also offered the opportunity – or forced people – to re-evaluate their situations.  People reconsidered the hours they worked, their working conditions and their worth.

Over 70% of the theatre workforce are freelancers, and many were unable to claim financial assistance from emergency funding or financial schemes during the pandemic.  It is not known how many people have already left the industry due to financial insecurity or if they plan to return.  The film and TV industry was able to restart production much sooner than the theatre industry, offering some freelancers the opportunity to return to work.  But what impact will this have long-term?  Now theatres have reopened, there are reports of a ‘hiring crisis’, with productions unable to fill vacancies.  A recent article highlighted that it is roles requiring skills transferable to other industries which are proving difficult to fill.

Many of the problems that were once backstage and less apparent to audiences have now been revealed and brought to the foreground.  For the Theatre Collection, this project has highlighted how important it is for us, as a collecting institution of theatre and live art material, to understand the theatre industry in the present, so that we can better prepare for sustainable collecting in the future and try to prevent the loss of vulnerable collections that are vital to the cultural history of Britain.  As a collecting institution that has seen an increase in donations of archival material since the start of the pandemic, we must plan for potential donations, but also raise awareness of the Theatre Collection and other collecting institutions within the industry, so we can provide support and advice to those currently looking after their own records.

If you would like more information about finding a home for your records and advice on caring for your own records, please have a look at our updated ‘Caring for your theatre and live art records’ pages:–live-art-records/


My Time with Kevin Elyot by Lucy Bell

The Kevin Elyot Award was established in 2016 as an annual award of £3,000 given to support a writer-in-residence at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection. It is given in memory of Kevin Elyot (1951-2014) – an alumnus of the University of Bristol Drama Department – and the influence he has had on writing and the Arts. The award has been generously funded by an endowment given to the University by members of Kevin’s family.

The current winner of the Kevin Elyot award is Lucy Bell, a Devon-based playwright who writes funny, unflinching plays about British society, and the often-epic dilemmas of caring. Further information is available here:


I was delighted to start my residency at Bristol University Theatre Archive this autumn, as part of the Kevin Elyot Award. When Jo Elsworth rang to say I had won the award by unanimous decision of the panel, it was the highpoint of a troubling lockdown summer. In fact I was convinced she was ringing to either reject or interview me. I kept politely asking her to postpone the interview whilst she kept trying to explain that no interview was required. We got there in the end.

The idea I pitched was to do with the timeless time-sensitivity of women’s lives; how societal norms impose a ticking clock on women, the threat of “withering on the stem” (whether we want those norms or not). Ask yourself, would the US countenance a female president who was 78? They wouldn’t countenance a female president full stop. Many of us women feel explosively, joyfully released from those fertility-linked pressures at menopause, finally free to be the people we want to be, only to find our actual available time is decimated by the people we are now responsible for.

This is perhaps becoming less true, but it was certainly true for my generation, my mother’s generation and my grandmother’s generation. Kevin Elyot had a very different kind of life, but it seems this ticking clock was heard by him too. His characters are often gay men running after permanence in their relationships, constantly aware that the appeal of monogamy will soon reach its sell by date. And of course there is the lit fuse of HIV waiting in the wings. In his West End hit, My Night With Reg, a character dies between each scene.

              ERIC. Got a light?

              JOHN (giving him a light). I didn’t think you smoked.

              ERIC. I don’t, but everyone I know who doesn’t is dead.

Although Elyot doesn’t have the profile his ready wit deserves, his writing seems especially relevant in a year where we’ve all been forced to engage with mortality.

Leafing through Kevin Elyot’s archive has been an encounter with time in other ways too. On my first visit, I was struck by the sensation that this other writer, who I’d never met, who might not like me one bit if he’d ever met me, was extending a supportive hand, a hug even, across time.

Everyone knows that rejections are a constant and bruising part of being a writer. It was weirdly reassuring to read through bundles of letters rejecting the plays of such a successful and prolific playwright. A couple of times I laughed out loud at stock phrases I’d been sent myself. (At least 2020 has made gatekeepers choose their words more carefully!) In his print interviews I could hear his voice questioning why writing remains a compulsion, despite its many pitfalls, protesting against his works being siloed as a “gay plays” for gay theatres and festivals.

His plays are tangibly about love, loss, and the pursuit of the sublime. They also happen to include, rather than exclude, gay perspectives. I thought about how things are now, how the pressure to trade on characteristics has got stronger and how that can feel frustrating when you want to express your personal, rather than tribal, experience of life, and be allowed to speak to universal themes.

It was thrilling to feel time contract, as I found mutual points of contact across the decades. Peggy Ramsay was Kevin Elyot’s first agent, and her charitable trust has supported me, in my particular circumstances, to find time to write.

Elyot entered the George Devine Prize. The judges on his rejection letter included John Burgess who was a director at The Royal Court, where Elyot’s last play, Forty Winks, was staged. John’s the person who taught me to write plays through his free-to-access writing group at Nuffield Theatre, he separately supported the director I happen to be working with right now. It reassured me to think that, while our theatre buildings are imperiled, wonderful individuals like John and Peggy Ramsay are a flexing, unbreakable spine through the decades, touching so many creative lives.

Lastly, time is a key driver of Kevin Elyot’s play structures. Often time is looping backwards and forwards. You are pulled forward by the desire to see the scene that came before or in between. The character’s brains are looping backwards to a moment in adolescence when they experienced unadulterated love. I am hoping to tap into Elyot’s manipulation of time in the piece I write, as it relates to three generations of women marked by the same accident. I hope I can learn from Elyot to make it equally hard to put down.

There are, of course, some ways in which Elyot’s work seems of its time and not ours. There are casual references to incest and sex with minors which would never arise as throwaway dialogue today. His characters, men in their twenties, thirties and forties, rarely check their privilege in terms of the amount of time and freedom they have to do what they like.

As a mother and carer, I initially found this slightly alienating. Then I realized it was symptomatic of something profoundly unfair, and possibly the reason his characters look backwards instead of forwards. Elyot died in 2014, the year that gay marriage became possible. In his heyday, gay couples with children were an anomaly. I’ll never know what Elyot wanted or needed from his personal life, but Coming Clean, My Night with Reg, and Forty Winks read as tragedies about characters in search of an anchor. This makes Elyot’s timing seem very hard indeed.

Dream Designers: Staging Fantasy. Creating an exhibition in lockdown

Each year the Theatre Collection co-leads a MA unit for the History of Art Department. ‘Curating the Collection’ is an Independent Study Unit, for which students work as a team to research and curate an exhibition based on the Theatre Collection holdings. To start the process, there may be an overarching theme, a new acquisition to showcase, or an event to tie in with (for example Shakespeare 400 in 2016 or the Old Vic Bicentenary in 2018). But within these themes, the students are free to explore the collections, interpret and devise their own exhibition. The unit teaches them a range of curatorial skills, from original research to mounting and framing, writing display texts and organising publicity and a private viewing. The unit provides essential experience for those students wishing to pursue a career in museums and galleries.

For the 2020 exhibition,we wanted to showcase twentieth-century set and costume designers, and an introductory session with the students looked at a range of items that included art college notebooks as well as finished designs for major productions. The students became really engaged with the idea of the creative genesis of a designer and how they developed their ideas. In particular, the work of Julia Trevelyan Oman, Ralph Adron and Yolanda Sonnabend.

The students were especially interested in the idea of translating fantasy and fairy tale into workable sets and costumes, looking at examples of design from ballet and children’s theatre.

The students formed a strong collaborative team at their first session and were exploring all kinds of possibilities for their exhibition. This year we had planned for the exhibition to be staged in the Theatre Collection reading room and library. Past exhibitions there had worked well, with items framed and hung on the walls of these rooms. The MA students however had additional ideas for installations, to recreate a designer’s desk and utilise the surrounding bookshelves.

‘Looking through Yolanda Sonnabend’s uncatalogued archive was an interesting process and inspired a lot of different ideas within our group. We admired all the work she put into each design and the various forms of inspiration taken to make them. Her studio was a big part of her identity as everyone who talked about her always mentioned it, and so it became important for us to exhibit it in some form.’  (Adriana, MA student)

We were all very excited by the potential of these ideas. This was in February.

Due to the rapidly developing situation around COVID-19, the University took the decision to close on Wednesday 18 March and move the remainder of the teaching term online. We put out a call to the History of Art students who arrived on Tuesday 17th and undertook a herculean amount of image scanning and last-minute research in our library. Enough material was gathered but we had to make the decision and break it to the students that the eventual exhibition would be virtual and not in a physical space. There would be no private view but potentially an even wider online audience for their work. Plans had to be changed or even discarded, but the ideas continued to flow, with regular classes and group discussions online.

‘Once we agreed that our exhibition would be moved online  we began to reconsider the shortlist and the objects we originally intended on displaying. We asked ourselves the questions, how does a digitised version of an object affect its interpretation? We realised that, unfortunately, many of the large set design drawings by David Walker that we’d been considering, would not translate due to their size and we decided to leave these out of the exhibition entirely. We had also planned to stage a desk installation as a way to recreate the studio space of Yolanda Sonnabend, to show the chaotic yet productive environment in which she worked. We adapted this idea to a digital platform by presenting objects that showcased Sonnabend’s design inspirations and her design process by displaying personal artefacts and early draft work for various productions.’  (Rebecca, MA student)

As museums and galleries across the world found ways to attract new audiences through online exhibitions, our students were learning new skills that would be very relevant in the ‘new normal’ of planning and staging exhibitions. And it enabled them to think about their audiences and how people can access and understand an exhibition without a physical gallery framework.

‘All of the designers made the most of constraints. The move to an online exhibition has resulted in sharper text and clearly articulated curatorial positions, as there was less space for writing and the items included were reduced. However, this sharpness comes at the expense of physically attending the exhibition. It is not just the scale of individual works that becomes less clear in an online world; it is also the scale of the designers’ archives as a reflection of their talents that becomes less obvious too.’  (Ewan, MA student)

The exhibition Dream Designers: Staging Fantasy celebrates the work of the chosen designers by focusing on their work processes and influences. The first section in particular focuses on children’s theatre and the Ralph Adron designs for Unicorn Theatre’s Lizzie Dripping and the Witch and The Blue Monster. The second section of the exhibition looks at how all three designers approached the ballet of The Nutcracker.

‘Co-curating this exhibition has left me with a deep respect for theatre design. Researching the careers of our chosen designers has made me realise that theatre design is more than realising an aesthetic vision; theatre designers are charged with creating magic.’  (Annie, MA student)

With a final flourish of inventiveness, the students got in touch with Ralph Adron and, through email conversations with him, were able to learn more about his ideas and the challenges that designing for the stage can raise. The exhibition therefore also includes explanatory quotes that add yet another dimension to the works.

‘We were incredibly fortunate that Ralph Adron, one of the designers upon whose work we had created the exhibition was available to answer our questions. Ralph (we quickly became on first name terms in email) reminisced not only about the productions of his we had focused on, Lizzie Dripping and The Witch, The Blue Monster and The Nutcracker but also the processes, working practices and experience of working as a stage designer in his heyday. The insights provided were invaluable in contextualising the decisions made in respect of staging, costume and set designs and the inspirations behind the creative process of a designer.

Some of the correspondence reminded Ralph of elements that he had designed but not remembered or thought about for over 40 years. I was glad that he could see that we were interested in his works and he was also interested in our ideas, themes and inspirations for the exhibition. A wonderful source of enriching information for our exhibition but also a warm and generous person who is still providing delight through his artistry and creativity.’   Lyndon (MA student)

‘One of my favourite design tasks was arranging Ralph Adron’s mice on the title page, as though they were hanging [the title] up themselves! The theme of the exhibition was all about bringing fantasy alive, further, it brought an element of fun to welcome the online visitors into viewing the rest of the curated collection.’   Alicia (MA student)

The exhibition can be seen here and celebrates not just the creativity of the three designers but also the hard work and dynamic adaptability of the MA students. It’s been a privilege to work with them and we wish them every success in their careers.

Disordering the Archive: A Journey Down the Rabbit Hole

Thomas Manson and George Meredith are playwrights with a particular interest in history and the archive. In 2019 they undertook a residency at the Theatre Collection to explore questions surrounding adaptation and the creative potential of the archive, which culminated in two creative writing workshops. This second blog charts their response to findings in the Julia Trevelyan Oman Archive.

The Julia Trevelyan Oman Archive is one of the most detailed and extensive in the Theatre Collection. Julia – a celebrated theatre, opera, ballet and television designer – kept everything from her art college days onwards. And everything means everything. There are over two and half thousand entries in her online catalogue. The reference numbers which categorise her materials span JTO/1 through to JTO/429. There are boxes full of letters and notes and hurried scribblings. Vast stage plans and intricate sketches. Papier mâché birds delicately wrapped in tissue paper. All the scrappy detritus of a creative life, bound and boxed and labelled in the brimming store rooms of the Collection.

For not only did Julia keep everything, but she also ordered it all properly, and took steps to preserve the incredible wealth of materials she accumulated over the course of her career. As a result, this sprawling collection offers not only a fascinating insight into Julia’s life and work, but also into the act of archive-making itself.

There is a palpable tension in all archives – but particularly this one – between order and disorder. Archives are places of organisation and careful curation, and yet the materials they contain are so often the remains of disordered and unpredictable lives. Take the snippet of autobiographical writing, written quickly in pencil on the back of an art exhibition flyer, that describes a young Julia discovering her passion for creation:


The fascination with gardens grew. From creating imaginative palaces & gardens on the floor from children’s boxes of wooden building bricks, using mirrors for lakes & candlesticks for columns. Magic cities grew and fell as the floor was (JTO/237).


The note ends abruptly, mid-sentence. Julia was disturbed perhaps, or distracted or pulled away by the urgency of some other work. The thought is left unfinished and the paper is left to one side, most likely among the countless other papers in what Sir Roy Strong described as the ‘orderly confusion’ (JTO/112) of Julia’s studio, and this momentary centre of Julia’s creative attention becomes a trace, a relic to be codified and brought into a system of logic unbefitting of such disordered thoughts.

What are we to make of this now in the hush of the Theatre Collection’s reading room? What relation is there between this unfinished thought from some distracted afternoon and the systems of order that define its existence now? And how might a writer exploit this tension? What is the creative potential of introducing, or perhaps it would be better to say re-introducing, disorder to the archive?

Down the Rabbit Hole

We were considering these questions as we came across Julia’s work on Jonathan Miller’s 1966 television adaptation of Alice in Wonderland – a project that crackles with the tension between order and disorder.

As a designer, Julia was renowned for her tyrannous eye for detail and quite obsessive sense of historical accuracy. Her style harks back to the 19th century, with its cluttered, complex, realistic sets. The intricacy and social realism of her designs are actually remarkable given that she was working at a time when most designers of the period were turning towards minimalism in their work. Julia’s work on Alice is no exception. The collection is full of her intricate designs and exacting instructions. There are detailed plans, sections, elevations and drawings. Nothing escapes her eye for detail, and her research and reports cover everything from the placement of the furniture to the patterns on the curtains. Even the flies that will buzz around the Mad Hatter’s tea party are subject to strict controls:


They will live for about a week. Must be kept cool and in the shade. They should be fed on a pasty mixture of sugar and water. We cannot replace them if they are lost. Please return the container. (JTO/6/2).


Such stringent attention to detail seems strangely at odds with the anarchic world it is in aid of. Carroll’s wonderland is a dream landscape, where objects morph and change and disobey the rules of the world as we know them. Invisible cats float in mid-air and babies turn into pigs. Time stops and the Mad Hatter is trapped in an indefinite tea time, while the scones spoil around him. Julia’s geometrical certainties seem unlikely bedfellows with such a topsy turvy unreality.


Location shot from Alice in Wonderland (1966). Julia Trevelyan Oman Archive, JTO/6/5. University of Bristol Theatre Collection.


And yet, in another sense, this cocktail of order and disorder is a perfect reflection of Carroll’s vision. Wonderland is not a world of abject chaos. Order exists, it is simply a displaced form of order that answers to an abstract logic. Eating and drinking in Wonderland has an unexpected effect on one’s size, but Alice soon learns the system and uses it to negotiate her new surroundings. Similarly, the Caucus Race appears to have no rules at all but the creatures participating in it seem to understand the logic, and so Alice plays along:


Alice thought the whole thing very absurd, but they all looked so grave that she did not dare to laugh; and, as she could not think of anything to say, she simply bowed, and took the thimble, looking as solemn as she could (p.27).


The apparent disorder of Carroll’s Wonderland is in fact a satire of the arbitrary systems of order that define adult life in the real world – systems that we blindly inherit and accept without question. For Carroll, these real-world systems are just as arbitrary and bizarre as any to be found in Wonderland.

It struck us that there was a lesson here for approaching archives. Archives are ordered by systems that seem natural and yet are entirely artificial. There is nothing inevitable about the organising principles of archives, and one might just as easily categorise materials by shape or colour. Perhaps by introducing new systems of order and, like Alice, working within the logic of those systems, we can disrupt the dynamics of the archive and find new meanings and creative possibilities.

But what systems? And how can we apply them to our writing?

CURIOUSER and Curiouser

Traversing this precarious boundary between order and disorder, some refuge can be found with the French author Georges Perec and the OuLiPo movement he joined in the 1960s – around the same time that Julia and Miller were making Alice. The Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature) was founded in 1960 by writers and mathematicians experimenting with constraints and seeking different systems of logic for their writing.

Not to be confused with the earlier Surrealist movement, the OuLiPo rejected chance and exalted the imposition of rules. For example, some wrote ‘snowball’ poetry in which each word had to be one letter longer than the last; others forbade the use of letters with ascenders or descenders which hung below or above the line – such as ‘d’ or ‘g’ or ‘y’. These constraints, far from being restrictive, were catalysts for creativity. As Alison James writes: “…the OuLiPo is intrigued by such apparent points of convergence between order and disorder, law and its absence, chance and necessity.” (p.131). Indeed, one of OuLiPo’s founding members Raymond Queneau viewed writing without rules as a form of slavery.

The Oulipo Ambigram. Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons. Basile Morin / CC BY-SA.


Unsurprisingly, the OuLiPo were great admirers of Carroll. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is full of instances where language and images are disordered and reordered, forming a sort of textual fabric that is open to manipulation and mutation, as if it were a lump of play-dough. Take for example the Mouse’s “long sad tale”, the words of which take the shape of a mouse’s tail on the page. Similarly, the Doormouse’s story about three sisters who drew only things beginning with ‘M’ could be something straight out of the OuLiPo playbook. No wonder the movement described Carroll as an ‘anticipatory plagiarist’ who had been cribbing their techniques long before they had even thought of them!

Carroll’s playful use of linguistic rules and constraints is a great example of the humorous potential of the OuLiPo approach. However, these techniques can also be used for far more profound ends than Carroll’s Victorian nonsense. A famous novel by Perec epitomises how the slippages between order and disorder can prove fertile creative ground to explore even the most serious of themes. La Disparition (literally meaning ‘The Disappearance’) takes the form of a lipogram, prohibiting the use of the letter ‘e’, the most prominent letter in the French language. It is important to note that Perec’s mother died in the Holocaust and his father died fighting in the Second World War. In light of this, Warren Motte points out that “Perec cannot say the words père, mère, parents, famille in his novel, nor can he write the name Georges Perec.” As in Alice, language acquires a material characteristic here, as if it were a fabric to be torn. The destruction of the Holocaust is visited on the materiality of the written word, and the voids at the heart of the family and the self are forcefully evoked through their imposed absence on the page.

The materiality of the written word takes us back to the material archive; a collection of objects arranged by its own system of logic, by order and disorder, with its own gaps, holes and tears. Perhaps if we follow the lead of the OuLiPo, we can challenge its systems and create new orders of our own.

Magic cities

Coming full circle then, we were interested in how we might apply some of these thoughts when directly interacting with archive materials. At the culmination of our residency at the Theatre Collection, we hosted a writing workshop where we explored a number of OuLiPo techniques, one of which is known as larding. Beginning with two sentences (sentences 1 and 3), the writer composes a middle sentence (sentence 2). The writer then adds two more sentences, one between sentences 1 and 2 and another between sentences 2 and 3. The writer continues to lard the sentences until the two sentences have become a paragraph, and that paragraph a page.

This exercise takes the original material and imbues it with renewed meaning; a palimpsestic layering which reanimates the once ossified artefact, ramifying and seeking new connections. We can use this technique, to quote art critic Hal Foster, to turn archival “‘excavation sites’ into ‘construction sites’”, and build new connections from forgotten material (p.60).

For our own larding exercise, we returned to Julia’s archive:


The fascination with gardens grew.

From creating imaginative palaces & gardens on the floor from children’s boxes of wooden building bricks, using mirrors for lakes & candlesticks for columns.

Magic cities grew and fell as the floor was


Using this fragment as a starting point, we built on top of it, adding more and more between the lines until Julia’s unfinished thought became a new and complete piece of writing. And in so doing, we liberated it from the pacifying systems of the archive and re-injected the creative impetus that first prompted it on that distracted afternoon of decades before.

After our workshop, we returned to a small exhibit we had fashioned from Julia’s archive. We placed the items carefully back in their boxes. Sketch books. Photographs. Newspaper clippings. JTO/1 through to JTO/429. Reference numbers and crisp white folders. A trick of the eye, disguising the gaps and chaos and strange syncretism of a life lived somewhere in between order and disorder. Like Alice, and like the OuLiPo after her, we sought to navigate this in between. That fertile, hybrid space where objects look different and magic cities are built.

Works cited

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. 1865. Oxford World Classics, 2009.
Foster, Hal. Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency. Verso Books, 2015.
James, Alison. Constraining Chance: Georges Perec and the Oulipo. Northwestern University Press, 2009.
Motte, Warren. “Reading Georges Perec.” CONTEXT, vol. 11,

Items from the archive

‘Magic cities’ from a handwritten note recording the development of Julia’s passion for gardens. Catalogue reference JTO/237.
‘Orderly disorder’ from ‘Spotlight’ article by Roy Strong about Julia, Vogue, February 1971. Catalogue reference JTO/112.
Note about flies from prop list and notes for the 1966 BBC production of Alice in Wonderland. Catalogue reference JTO/6/2.


A Guide for Students to Our Online Catalogue, Digitised Images and Other Resources

Jill Sullivan, Assistant Keeper: User Services has written a guide to the Theatre Collection resources available to students online.

The Theatre Collection is one of the world’s largest collections of British theatre history and live art. It includes over 140 named collections and archives, comprising artworks, audio-visual material, costumes, designs, set models, playbills, prompt scripts, production notes and programmes.

The size of the Collection can be daunting and due to the current COVID-19 situation you can’t visit us, but here is a brief guide to help you access some of the holdings remotely, as well as some recommended sites to help with your research.

Start with our web pages

Madam Malibran as the title character in the opera The Maid of Artois (1836). Tinsel print. MM184.

Then use our guides listed under Explore to find out more about the different collections:



This section is useful for browsing biographical information and finding out more about what each collection holds. It’s organized by theme: Academics, Actors, Collectors, Designers, Directors, Organisations, Writers, and Photographers, as well as ‘Off-stage’ which covers a range of theatre creatives such as producers, managers, critics, agents, and wardrobe staff.

TOP TIP: If a person had many strings to their bow, we’ve listed them by each (for example, Joyce Grenfell was an actor, but also a writer, so she can be found under both headings).


Live Art is notoriously difficult to categorise.  The Live Art Development Agency suggests thinking of live art as a strategy, rather than a category – their ‘What is Live Art?’ web pages are a good place to start.  Within the Live Art Archives you can find items relating to performance, art, dance, music, experimental and alternative theatre, poetry, and much more, including a lot of audio-visual documentation.  Catalogue records for many of these items are available on the Theatre Collection’s online catalogue, so if you know what you are looking for you can head straight there, but if not a list of individual collections within the Live Art Archives with short, introductory descriptions is also available.


The library catalogue has a link to the main University of Bristol library catalogue and to a list of our journal holdings. At the moment you won’t be able to access the books at the Theatre Collection, but the University library site will have information and links to electronic books and articles, databases and – NEW – free access to many additional online resources at There are also some excellent newspaper archive websites that I’ll talk about later.


The Art UK site contains digitised images of all our oil paintings, which are available to download and use. It’s also a really good site for exploring other UK art collections.

Once you’ve explored these main pages or if you already have a good idea of what you’re looking for, you’ll want to search our online catalogue.



On the Theatre Collection home page, click on ‘Search the Collections’ (left hand side).

On the next page you’ll see a menu on the left-hand side. There’s information ‘About’ the catalogue (and uncatalogued items) and a section on ‘How do I search the catalogue’ which explains the different options.

Mr T. P. Cooke as Captain Aubri in the melodrama The Forest of Bondy, or The Dog of Montargis (early C19th). Tinsel print. MM185.

You can do a basic search in the top bar button, but you’ll probably find the ‘Advanced Search’ and ‘Search by Production’ options the most useful.

TOP TIPS: don’t be too general. If you put Shakespeare in as a search term, be prepared for a long day! Similarly, putting in a theme or concept won’t find results – the catalogue needs facts. Think instead about whether you need to look for a particular play or a character, theatre or actor, or whether you need productions by a particular company for example.

But you might also want to widen the search, in which case you’ll need to do some lateral thinking – for example if you’re searching for an actor, try also searching for the theatre companies they worked for and other people they worked with.

And check spellings as well. Unlike an internet search engine, the online catalogue won’t find versions of words and spellings.

And remember, if you can’t find what you’re looking for, email us if you need help at



We have lots of digitised images available, although at the moment these are not available to download from our site. If you are a student, then you can email us to request any of these for use in your assignments or projects. Over the following weeks we’ll be working to make more of our images available to view online.



To give you an idea of our holdings, here’s a list of some sample collections:

Bristol Old Vic Archive

We hold the archive of the Bristol Old Vic Company from its beginnings in 1946. It includes photographs, programmes, prompt books, production notes and posters. We also have related archives of people who have worked at the BOV, such as the designer John Elvery, and materials relating to the theatre before 1946, ranging from eighteenth century handbills to the in-depth research notes on the history of the theatre created by historian Kathleen Barker.

Handbill for the Theatre Royal, Bristol (1797). BOV/PB/374.
Poster for Hamlet (1958) starring Peter O’Toole. BOV/PB/Box298/2.

Have a look at the BOV Heritage pages to see lots of our digitized images and stories from the theatre’s history. And yes, there was a real elephant on stage in the 1820s!


All our BOV and related holdings are now catalogued and we have many more digitised images for use.


Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree Business Archive

One of the last great actor-managers of Victorian and Edwardian theatre, this archive contains extensive materials relating to Beerbohm Tree’s management of the Haymarket and Her Majesty’s Theatre. It includes prompt books, photographs, designs, scores, production notes, diaries, financial records and press cuttings books.

Portrait photograph of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree c.1906. HBT/PH/1/6.


Henry VIII at His Majesty’s Theatre, 1910. Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Cardinal Wolsey, Arthur Bourchier as Henry VIII and Violet Vanbrugh as Queen Katherine. HBT/PH/1/7.

The Mander and Mitchenson Collection

Founded by two actor-directors, Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson, this vast collection represents a passion for theatre and a lifetime of collecting. It took 37 lorry trips from London to Bristol to transport all the items so that gives you a good idea of just how big the collection is! It comprises artworks, costumes, ceramics, objects (ranging from ‘Shakespeare’ tea tins to Sarah Bernhardt’s make up cape, from oil paintings of Kemble and Siddons to ventriloquist dummies!), and nearly 1400 reference boxes containing archive materials on all major UK venues, actors (including ‘Early Actors’ – c.1770-1850), music hall and variety artistes, musicians, designers, directors, writers and dancers, opera and ballet companies, pantomime, melodrama and circuses. These files contain a variety of photographs, programmes, press reviews and cuttings, published scores, playbills and ephemera.

Wager between Mr Bedford and Mr Williams for two gallons of claret, countersigned by David Garrick. mid-C18th. MM/2/PE/EA/19.

We are in the process of cataloguing the reference files but very little is catalogued to item level. However, we do have some lists yet to be added and there are some digitised images so do get in touch if you can’t find what you need on the catalogue and we can check these for you.

Playbills and Programmes

Playbills and handbills (the precursor of the modern theatre programme and flier) are a mine of information. Unlike the C20th posters, playbills had much more text on them, detailing cast and crew but also scenes and plot synopses. Plus the types of performance, the way they were advertised and the ticket prices and changing names for parts of the auditorium offer a glimpse of the types of audiences that went to the theatre in the past. The Theatre Collection has nearly 300,000 programmes dating from the late C19th to the C21st. Again, these offer fascinating glimpses of social history in the advertisements, and modern programmes often contain detailed articles on the production and histories of the theatre, company and plays.

Playbill for production of The Battle of Waterloo, Royal Amphitheatre, Westminster Bridge, May 1825. M&M Collection, uncatalogued.


Playbill for variety show at the Shakespeare Theatre of Varieties, Liverpool, c.1950s. M&M Collection, uncatalogued.

Interested in modern audiences? Read Dr Kirsty Sedgman’s ‘Lightning Talk’ at the 2019 Theatre and Touring Symposium at


Design Collections

The Theatre Collection contains named archives of specific designers, such as Julia Trevelyan Oman, Oliver Messel (Personal Archive), Alan Tagg, David Walker, Yolanda Sonnabend, John Elvery and Ralph Adron. We also have a generic design collection, which comprises hundreds of set and costume designs, representing over 100 years of incredible creativity. To search for these, you can use the ‘Production’ search option, or the ‘Advanced Search’ option if you know the designer’s name.

Costume design for Priscilla the Goose, in Mother Goose, by John Elvery. Bristol Old Vic, 1985.

Julia Trevelyan Oman Archive

Julia Trevelyan Oman CBE (1930-2003) was one of the most celebrated theatre, television, ballet and opera designers of the second half of the C20th. She was noted for her attention to historical detail in productions such as Brief Lives (1967, Hampstead Theatre Club and later productions), La Boheme (Royal Opera, Covent Garden, 1974) and Enigma Variations (Royal Ballet, Covent Garden,1968). Her personal archive covers her entire career and includes her original designs with research files, technical drawings and plans, research photographs, production photographs, correspondence and fabric swatches.

Colour range for ladies costume dress fabrics, La Boheme, Royal Opera House, 1973. JTO/25/51/53.
Costume concept for ‘Mimi’, La Boheme, Royal Opera House, 1974. JTO/25/50/15.

Oliver Messel Archive

Oliver Messel was one of the most famous designers of the first half of the C20th, as well as being one of the ‘Bright Young Things’ of the inter-war period. His archive reflects, among other things, his professional achievements as well as his friendships, his architectural designs undertaken when living in Barbados and his wartime work for the Camouflage Unit. His first professional commissions were to design masks for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes production of Zephyr et Flore and for one of C.B. Cochran’s Revues. Among his stage and screen credits were the costume designs for the films The Scarlet Pimpernel, Romeo and Juliet, Caesar and Cleopatra and the set design for Suddenly Last Summer (for which he was nominated for an Oscar), as well as the 1946 production of the ballet The Sleeping Beauty. More information and links to the Messel catalogue are here.

Have a look at our Exploring the Oliver Messel Archive pages, which include an illustrated biography, an opportunity to explore our 2018-19 exhibition Wake Up and Dream (including the audio installation The Caviar Outlook) and a link to watch I Went to a Marvellous Party a performance and installation by Tom Marshman, inspired by the Oliver Messel Archive.


Interested in photography? Take a look at the John Vickers Archive

John Vickers Archive

Vickers trained with the eminent theatre photographer Angus McBean and in turn influenced the work of Mario Testino, his assistant in the 1970s. This comprehensive archive documents Vickers’ career throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Included in the collection are glass plate negatives, prints, framed items, correspondence and ephemera. The Vickers Archive is now catalogued and many of his photographs have been digitised – they are especially strong for productions at the Old Vic (London) in this period as well as portrait photographs of many of the most famous actors of the period.

Vivien Leigh. by John Vickers, c.1946. JV/1/1/478.

Live Art Archives:

Performance Magazine Archive

Performance Magazine was the key UK Live Art/Performance magazine from the late 1970s through to the early 1990s and provides a fantastic record of live art activity that took place during this period.  The Theatre Collection holds a complete set of the original copies, but the Live Art Development Agency scanned and made available online all 66 issues recently and we’ve included links to these pdfs from our online catalogue so there is no need to wait until we re-open to view these!

Franko B Archive

Franko B, photograph by Hugo Glendenning.

Thanks to a very generous grant from Wellcome, over the past two years we’ve been busy cataloguing the collection of this extraordinary contemporary visual artist.  With over 2,800 detailed catalogue records covering all aspects of Franko B’s practice – performance, ceramics, curating, music, teaching – there is a wealth of material here available for research. Whilst you’ll have to wait until we re-open to access the items physically, there is plenty of documentation available on Franko B’s own website.

Our two wonderful project writers-in-residence, Mary Paterson and Maddy Costa, kept a blog as they reflected on the archival processes we encountered through the project, and you can read their series of blog posts here.


If you’re using materials from our collections, please make sure that you cite University of Bristol Theatre Collection. For University of Bristol students, if you’re using the Harvard system you should cite an archive item like this:

Author, Initials., Year. Title of document. [type of medium] Collection, Document number. Geographical Town/Place: Name of Library/Archive/Repository. For example:

Brown, P.S., 1915. An address to the Farmer. [manuscript] Holdbury Collection. 600. London: Holdbury Library.

An in-text reference for the above example would read: (Brown, 1915)

(Source: These guidelines are also available via the UoB Library site here


Remember: we may not be on site but we are available to answer questions about our holdings, or if you need research advice or want to find out more about the Theatre Collection, just get in touch with us at and we will do our best to help you.




University of Bristol Library Recommended databases and online newspaper archives

TOP TIPS: You can use word search in this database, but if you’re searching a name, try hyphenating it (e.g. John-Smith) to make the search more specific. Also, if you are searching the theatrical trade journal, The Era, just input Era (not The Era).

The British Newspaper Archive is also a really good resource, with a bigger range of newspapers and twentieth century coverage. It’s a subscription-based resource but with reasonable short-term charges. Visit




APAC. The association of Performing Arts Collections

All major theatre archives – including the Theatre Collection – are members of this: You can use it as a portal to access information about other collections and their holdings – see

Bristol Archives

Explore their online catalogue for more information on the theatres and venues of Bristol at

Bristol Old Vic Heritage Project And take a look at the fabulous Limbic Cinema film made for the 250th anniversary of the theatre in May 2016 at

National Resource Centre for Dance at the University of Surrey

Including the British Black Dance Archives and the Choreographic Archive of Siobhan Davies Dance. Visit

National Theatre Digital Archive

The archive covers the movement to found the National Theatre and the period from the start of the company in 1963 right up to the present day.

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections

SIBMAS (International Association of Libraries, Museums, Archives and Documentation Centres of the Performing Arts)

Similar to APAC, the Members Directory (international) is at

The Live Art Development Agency Study Room and Online Resources

Here you will find library catalogues of LADA’s extensive study room materials, together with a fantastic array of study guides, screenings, audio content, online video channels and project websites, all relating to live art. Available from

University of Kent Special Collections

Including the British Cartoon Archive, the Dion Boucicault Collection, the Charles Dickens Theatre Collection, David Drummond Pantomime Collection and others. See the A-Z listing of all their collections at

University of Sussex Special Collections

A range of archives including theatre and performance literature at

Victoria and Albert Museum Collections online, the V&A Theatre and Performance Archives and the National Video Archive of Performance

All at

Remember if you need advice, or want to find out more, just email us at and we will try and help.



Christopher Transfigured: Kevin Elyot adapts Christopher and His Kind

Thomas Manson and George Meredith are playwrights with a particular interest in history and the archive. In 2019 they undertook a residency at the Theatre Collection to explore questions surrounding adaptation and the creative potential of the archive, which culminated in two creative writing workshops. This first blog charts their response to findings in the Kevin Elyot Archive

Christopher Transfigured:
Kevin Elyot adapts Christopher and His Kind

I wish I could remember what impression Jean Ross – the real-life original of Sally Bowles in Goodbye to Berlin – made on Christopher when they first met. But I can’t. Art has transfigured life and other people’s art has transfigured Christopher’s art. What remains with me from those years is almost entirely Sally.
(Christopher and His Kind, p.51)

Kevin Elyot’s archive is full of adaptations, from Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone to Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami and many adaptations of Agatha Christie novels. In fact, these adaptations comprise a significant part of his writing output, and while Kevin may be best remembered for his more prominent theatre successes, these works must be considered an important part of his oeuvre. Of all the adaptations in his archive, none is more fascinating – or more comprehensive – than his work on Christopher Isherwood’s Christopher and His Kind, which was broadcast on the BBC in 2011. The collection traces his process from initial plans all the way through to his correspondence about the DVD release, and these materials offer a unique insight into what is clearly a vital part of a professional writer’s trade. They also highlight the complexities involved in bringing such a well-known personality to the screen.

In any adaptation there are two voices at work: the voice of the original author and the voice of the adapter. But in Christopher and His Kind there are a multitude of competing voices. There’s Isherwood and Elyot, of course, but also a cacophony of others. It is a story that has been so well told by so many people, that any re-telling has to compete with the raucous sounds of Kander and Ebb and Minelli and Fosse and Cabaret and I Am Camera and every other author and historian and filmmaker who has ever journeyed back to 1930s Berlin. And then there’s all the other noise of a film production – the producers and directors and designers and commissioning editors who bombarded Kevin with suggestions and changes and cutbacks. In truth, the dominant sensation when delving through the Christopher and His Kind collection is one of overwhelming noise. It’s a wonder Kevin could hear himself think.

Grappling with Isherwood

It starts quiet. At the heart of it all is Kevin’s copy of Isherwood’s book. All 339 pages are annotated. Dense handwriting is crammed into the margins; spidery sentences in the paragraph cracks. Sometimes it is a reaction, or a date, or a summarising word. Often it’s just ‘USE’, underlined twice, or ‘PERHAPS USE’, or – least certain of all – ‘USE?’ Kevin Elyot’s adaptation is all here, taking shape between the paperback covers of Isherwood’s memoir – and it’s like the two writers are in dialogue across the chasm of the decades.

Written in 1976, Christopher and His Kind is Isherwood’s autobiographical account of the notorious years he spent amidst the rise of National Socialism. And as well as presenting a compelling narrative in its own right, the book provides a manual for the thorny process of adaptation. Here Isherwood’s creative peregrinations are as important as his real ones. We are introduced to ideas for novels, plays and stories both published and unpublished, characters are discussed alongside their inspiration, real and fictive narratives diverge and meet, often until the boundaries become almost imperceptible.

Isherwood grasps his story with both hands. He is his own appointed biographer, calling upon and monopolizing the literary works and diaries of others to discuss his own tribulations. In doing so, he perpetuates the myth of Christopher Isherwood in Berlin, a life lived as much in the collective imagination as it was in reality. As Isherwood’s immediate use of the third person ensures, the Christopher of 1930s Berlin is not the Christopher of 1970s California.

Isherwood depicts his younger self as a man only too concerned with his public image. And whilst a more transparent, openly resurgent homosexual narrative drives the book – rectifying a previously vigilant approach to homosexuality within his fiction – the blurring of the real and the fictive remains key. On a ship headed for Hong Kong, Isherwood and Wystan Auden are bored senseless by an English rubber planter named White, who strolls the ship’s deck offering them lines for their literary endeavours (‘Their lips met in one long kiss.’) White, however, is swiftly redeemed: ‘Wystan and Christopher are now no longer bored by White. He fascinated them, because he had turned into a Maugham character.’ (p.222) For Isherwood, fiction always bleeds into the real; it is, after all, what keeps its heart pumping.

Kevin’s challenge was to unpick these sutures of mediation, to find a thread in the knot of voices and characters, to capture a man whose image, like that of Jean Ross or Sally Bowles, has only grown more elusive in this work of supposed candour. It is fitting that Isherwood should come to be defined by the opening lines of his Berlin novel, Goodbye to Berlin:


I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed. (p.243)


Within these lines that propelled Isherwood into a writing career characterized by a sharp camera-eye, it is the quietly conflicting, mischievous use of the word ‘fixed’ which proves most evocative. It is at once a confession and an acceptance. Isherwood is unashamedly prone to the art of embellishment; but every adaptation, every depiction of the past, is at the mercy of its curator.

The cost of production

Or curators, for a TV adaptation takes in many other voices. Alongside the annotated memoir in Kevin Elyot’s archive there are boxes and boxes full of bundles of paper. Notes. Drafts. Schedules. An email from the production company cutting his 3-hour film to 2. A reminder of the project’s budget constraints. A push from the BBC to include more context (‘we think it’s really worth turning the spotlight slightly more onto the politics of interwar Germany’). Shooting scripts with big red lines through them. Line drawings on storyboards (a cartoon Christopher backs away from a Nazi). Piles and piles of DVD rushes (Matt Smith finds his mark, his collar is adjusted by an offscreen hand). Marketing material. A glossy copy of the Radio Times (THE NAKED DOCTOR – MATT SMITH GETS SEXY). Correspondence about the unfortunate positioning of the Certificate 15 logo on the Irish DVD release – squarely between Matt Smith’s legs. Isherwood’s book is dwarfed by it all – literally. And Kevin’s notes within it seem fragile and inconsequential in the face of the gargantuan machine of TV production.

It’s a testament to the realities of adaptation. The writer’s passion matters little when it comes to the cold facts and figures of budgets and schedules. To see Kevin’s adaptation progress from first draft to screen is to witness both a fruition and an impoverishment. His words are spoken and his scenes are actualised but at the expense of a number of other ideas. In the margins of a long email of suggested cuts and revisions to an early draft, Kevin writes ‘NO! Why does everyone feel the need to cross the I’s and dot the T’s? Why should everything be spelled out?’ In the final version the cuts and revisions have been made. I’s must be dotted. T’s must be crossed. And where is Christopher in all this? The man so endlessly transfigured by life and art is transfigured again. Mediations upon mediations.

In all of Kevin’s notes and correspondence there is a sense, although never explicitly articulated, that he is somewhat disappointed with the final product (despite the large stack of congratulatory letters and positive reviews). As if he never quite caught what he wanted, as if the real Christopher somehow eluded him. It is hardly surprising. Isherwood is inherently elusive, more myth than history, a man obscured by a multitude of successive representations, not least his own. A TV adaptation of his life can only ever be a camera turned on a camera, filming into the void.

Among the chaos of Christopher and His Kind, Kevin finds solace in a brass dolphin clock stand Christopher is given by his Berlin landlady when visiting Germany after the war. In Kevin’s adaptation, the older Christopher stoops over his typewriter, glancing every now and then at the clock in the dolphin’s tail, remembering his years in Berlin. In the book Christopher asks: ‘What becomes of such things? How could they ever be destroyed?…It stands ticking away on my desk, as good as new, whilst I write these words. (p.103). The dolphin clock stand has not only survived a Berlin turned to rubble, but an adaptation process which sees time and people destroyed and remoulded. It is fitting that this object, mentioned only once in Christopher’s book, should become such an important motif in Kevin’s adaptation.

Works cited

Isherwood, Christopher. Christopher and His Kind. 1977. Magnum Books, 1978.
Isherwood, Christopher. The Berlin Novels. 1992. Vintage, 1999.

Challenging Archives: A wayward stitch in time

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. Their blog posts reflect on the complex set of challenges the Franko B archive poses, the archival process and Franko B’s artistic practice, which explores issues such as the limits of the body and the human condition, dealing with pain, suffering, abuse of power, empathy, eroticism, and sexuality in contemporary culture.

This post was inspired by a visit to Textile Conservation Ltd, a private studio in Bristol overseen by Alison Lister. It is mostly written by Maddy Costa, but with texts by Mary Paterson stitched into its fabric, a nod to the spirit and collaborative ethos of Lister’s work. Mary’s texts are from our publication Challenging Archives, which is being printed in a small run of 500, and will be available from 6 March 2020. In repurposing Mary’s words, it is possible that I’ve shifted them from her original meaning, misinterpreted or cut them into new shapes.

Together Mary and I will be looking further at how Franko’s archive can be a a tool for creative research and inspiration, at a workshop in Bristol on the evening of Tuesday 10 March 2020. Further details, including the booking link, can be found here.

Alison Lister with a jacket made from one of the canvases used in a performance of I Miss You


the blood keeps moving


It’s not often that textile conservator Alison Lister is asked to preserve blood. “Unless,” she says, with a shadow of a smile, “it’s needed for evidentiary purposes.”

The blood on the piece of canvas Lister stands beside as she says this is evidence of a kind. It was shed by Franko B during a performance of I Miss You (1999-2005), and it is – in Lister’s words – “actively to be kept”. This is difficult, because the blood itself keeps active. Already it is a different colour from what it was five or ten years ago, dried to a deep, deoxygenated brown, so dark it’s almost black. And the chemical processes of the blood are still ongoing. Blood is moving in the canvas right now, dissolving its threads, eating its innards. “Eventually,” says Lister, crisp in a pristine white lab coat, “the blood will work its way through the material completely.”

How long that will take, she adds, is impossible to say.

I Miss You is, perhaps, Franko B’s most iconic work. During ten performances over six years, the artist covered his body with white paint and covered a long strip of floor with white canvas. He walked up and down the canvas, like a model at a catwalk show. The audience was packed in tightly on either side. One vein on each of Franko B’s arms was sliced with a small blade, and he was bleeding. Mary, who wrote those words, never saw one of these performances, but has held Franko’s body in another of his works, felt the sweaty exhaustion of it watching Milk & Blood, and has a mental image of I Miss You that begins to feel like memory. Maddy, who wrote these words, has a different set of memories: of school holidays spent in the clothing factories where her parents worked, cutting, sewing, pressing, trimming loose threads from each garment, soon learning enough to set up a factory of their own. These differences follow us through the doors of Lister’s studio, on the outskirts of Bristol, and condition how we experience her work, what we notice, what we remember.

After performances of I Miss You, Franko B gave the canvas catwalks to designers and asked them to fashion a wearable garment, according to their own taste and whims. For Julian Warren, archivist at the Theatre Collection at the University of Bristol, these are now art works in their own right: not remains of the moment, but beyond the moment. Among the items stretched out on a table in Lister’s studio are a T-shaped jacket or tabard, and a long flared kilt; items boxed and awaiting attention included a heavy hooded jacket and a pair of stumpy platform boots. Lister’s task is to preserve them for the archive: which in this case means accepting one kind of deterioration while preventing another. She speaks of packing each garment “in a way that it’s not a danger to itself – for instance, not having the metal elements touching anything”, and ideally as flat as possible, padding any folds into a soft curve, because a sharp crease would wear into a tear over time.

She also needs to “avoid blood crossing to other bits of fabric”, a phrase that connotes a fear of contamination – startling, given that the fear of contamination that Franko challenges and decries with his bleeding works, the fear of gay men and blood potentially contaminated by Aids. Blood corrodes – but once it’s dried it’s not a health hazard, says Lister. The only danger here, the one Lister is taking such care to avoid, is to Franko’s legacy, to possible future encounters with his work.

The blood keeps moving. Its existence is mutable. It is part of the choreography of time.


Each garment requires packing in such a way that it isn’t a danger to itself


textiles are intimate with bodies / made to be laid next to the skin, draped across your shoulders, held close for comfort / warmth / identity


Lister’s studio is bright, almost oppressively so, overhead strip lighting bearing down on a motley array of intricate fabric pieces, each an emblem of a bigger story. But the room is also serene: classical music whispers in the background, and when a textile item is not being worked on it is protected beneath a drape of snow-white sheets. There are four workspaces: pieces from Franko B’s archive occupy one; at another, Lister’s assistant is tending to a pair of Napoleonic epaulettes; opposite her is a handkerchief hand-embroidered by a first world war solider; to her left stands a dress model wearing the costume that adorned artist Andrew Logan at the first ever Alternative Miss World, its two halves – one conventionally masculine, a suit; the other conventionally feminine, all lace and flounce – temporarily unstitched and waiting to be reunited. At the next workstation there’s a huge tapestry from a National Trust property, most of it rolled up – opened out, it would dominate the room. Lister stands beside the final table and draws back its layers of sheeting, to reveal – another startling moment – a T-shaped tabard of uncannily similar design and dimensions as Franko B’s. Only this one is made of feathery silk, stitched in the early 1800s for the first Duke of Wellington.

Where Franko’s garment is robust, stern, stiff, the Duke’s is terrifyingly fragile. Its painted gossamer silk has fractured into jigsaw pieces; Lister’s task is to restabilise them into a single entity, to be returned to public display. I find I can’t look at it, that looking at it induces a mild panic attack. My fingers prickle at a memory: of taking down a set of curtains I’d made myself, for my bedroom 18 years ago, from a stiff organza silk. Four years of exposure to sunlight had damaged the fabric irreparably; as I took the curtains down they crumbled in my hands, into skin cells, into dust.

These textiles were made to be laid next to the skin, held close for comfort. The fabric asks to be cared for. It asks for care.



her wrists arc over the fabric / her neck bends over the fabric / her body follows the original weavers’ movements / like an embrace


When she works on the tapestry, Lister leans in close, tracing the original stitches with her own. Each mark she makes in the act of repair is sewn onto a secondary backing. She is writing a crib sheet for questions, expected but as yet unknown. Every new stitch must be accounted for, identifiable as such, as a modern intervention. There is a difference, Lister says, between preventive fabric conservation – the measures taken to avoid decay before a textile work is even made – and interventive. As a private practitioner, intervention is where her focus lies.

The word conveys a violence far removed from the close caress of Lister’s fingers. Once, she says, she found a centuries-old human hair woven into the back of a carpet. There is a human tactility to fabrics: they were made by people, worn by people, and those people are here with you.


Blood and a fastening of bone


S/he lifts the object with gloved hands. S/he places the object in a box the shade of dove grey. S/he releases the object to a bed of tissue paper. It makes a sound like fresh snow.


I’ve heard Franko B describe himself as an image maker, rather than a performance maker. But his images are sewn into the fabric of time. Their mortality is part of their language. That’s what makes them so human. Mary, who wrote those words, looks at Franko’s textile pieces and warms at a memory. Franko B’s work is vulnerable, she writes: here is a man, naked and hurting, and here are you. Here are you. And here is another human being. And here are you. There is no room for gaps, for endings; there is no end to this work: it is a practice of being alive. It is a practice of being interconnected, of needing more than anyone can ever give, of giving more than anyone can ever pay for, of stretching beyond the limits of your own body into the sinews of other people’s minds.

This is not quite what I see when I look at Franko’s textile pieces.

Mary and I, accompanied by Julian Warren and his colleague Sian Williams, return with Lister to the Franko table. I lean in close to examine the stitches on the kilt. The fabric is thick, heavy, rough beneath fingers; I know because I’ve stitched fabric like this myself before, felt its weight drag against the needle, as though refusing to be manipulated. Sure enough, the stitching of the kilt is wayward, wobbly; I can see the hands of the person attempting to sew it, struggling to control the material as they fed it through the machine, unable to produce a truly straight seam. I realise that as remains of the moment of performance, an iconic performance by Franko B, the canvas itself is so monolithic that I feel little connection with the man, naked and hurting. Instead it is an object beyond the moment, and becomes alive to me differently, as a record of the vulnerability of another human being. I see that vulnerability in every stitch, and it’s unexpectedly visceral to witness.

The liveness continues, says Lister. She demonstrates how Franko’s fabric pieces will be packed, so that the “most interesting aspect is immediately visible”, to minimise the need for unpacking. The protective fabric sheeting of her studio will be replaced by protective sheets of tissue paper, interleaved between every delicate fold. There might be dirt ingrained in the fabric but that too was of the moment. From now on it will be the responsibility of every visitor to the archive not to damage it further with their touch.

Challenging Archives: a series of future encounters

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. Their blog posts reflect on the complex set of challenges the Franko B archive poses, the archival process and Franko B’s artistic practice, which explores issues such as the limits of the body and the human condition, dealing with pain, suffering, abuse of power, empathy, eroticism, and sexuality in contemporary culture.


Entering new territory: Franko B’s archive


by Maddy Costa

Although it might not look like it, this post is constructed from two interviews: with Stefan Dickers, Library and Archives Manager at Bishopsgate Institute in London, and Dr Justin Bengry, Lecturer in Queer History at Goldsmiths, University of London. I approached both of them with a vague set of thoughts about how an institution confers value: is there a qualitative difference between the “value” of Franko B’s work within the Theatre Collection and Tate’s archive, for instance? Certainly the art market and performance market are wildly different financial beasts. At a discussion event with Franko, attended by Alison Lister, the textile conservation specialist who has been working with his canvases, we talked about how the canvas held by Tate is sealed within a protective environment, whereas Alison sees the organic properties of the work, its propensity to degrade where stained, as integral to the experience of interacting with this archive. I’ll be thinking about this further in a future post.

My conversations with Stefan and Justin started with these questions but soon journeyed elsewhere, in directions focused less on abstract notions of value and more on the human aspects of the encounter within the archive. The texts that follow have been written by merging their voices with mine: I’m grateful to Stefan and Justin for their generosity both in sharing their time, thoughts and work with me, and in allowing me to render their words in this way.


Dear future student

Let’s imagine a consistency from my time to yours. That the doors to the library are still heavy and intimidating, that to reach the archive requires passing through a wood-panelled vestibule, dark and austere. I don’t remember any more what I went through to become comfortable in those spaces, it’s just you do it and do it and do it again. It might feel risky, as though something is at risk.

Perhaps you know what you’ve come here in search of. Perhaps you’re searching not knowing. I ended up doing queer history by accident: sifting through different materials, poring over images, slipping through the margins. Cultivate your queer Spidey sense. I want to propose this as a proper methodology: just flipping through things, something grabs your eye. There’s not a reason for it: something unconscious takes your eye there. This might be the springboard for a new line of research, for a lifetime of slowly unfolding work.

Some of what you see might surprise or unsettle you. What we’re doing here, the collecting of diverse sexuality and wider queer experience, is quite new territory. Think of the archivist as your companion and guide, translating from catalogue to object, text, or image. They might say informally: do prepare yourself. Prepare yourself with trust.

Notice the affective power in actually holding materials. There is something electric about that encounter with an object that has touched someone that you’re researching, that has been created by someone you’re researching. Your relationship with what you’re studying can change when you have a tactile experience of the remnants of what people have left behind. What has degraded over time, because of this touch? There is always existing damage, and damage that I’ve created. Harm is inevitable. Franko’s archive speaks to that harm.

What you are looking at is not just a spectacle: it is profoundly political. To know this you need the context. That context can be the context of the moment of creation and the politics behind it, it can be the context of the acquisition of the piece, it can be the context in which you’re now viewing it. It’s going to have multiple moments of historical significance. Lines of connection strung like a spider’s web, sticky and strong, across these contexts, past and present, my now and your now, imagined forward and back. That queer Spidey sense moving through and between, evaluating, reflecting back on the period, and seeing what that means to us. Whisper back to me what you see.


Dear future historian

[of art? performance? aesthetics? spaces of gathering? galleries, or nightclubs, or community halls? of queer lives? subcultures? social foment? resistance?]

Let’s imagine a progression from my time to yours. That the opening of the archive to the social and cultural experience of queer Britain has been one among a series of profound and positive shifts in understanding human relations, that heterocentricity has shifted off centre, that heteronormativity no longer claims normality. These archives stand as reminders that the routes to those changes were complex and multifaceted; that queer history is not just about being annoyed and pissed off, about protest, campaigning, going on pride marches. The expression of the queer community is not just making a placard: it’s about singing clubs, dancing clubs, poetry, writing a play. And it’s about sexuality, about kink and fetish, the leather rubber scene – desires, experiences and expressions of self whose meaning and value are changed by being deemed by experts to be worthy of interrogation, investigation, examination.

What might be required to think yourself back, to the rancour and violence of my time? Might the blood shed on a sheet of canvas do it? An image of a man bound in hospital paraphernalia, shaking a nightclub crowd out of its complacent hedonism? Has the violence of language been tempered? What words need excavating for the difference between your now and mine to burn clear? Classification – how people have been named and identified in the past – is really interesting. We deal with this a lot in LGBTQ histories. What do we do with keywording that either leaves us out entirely, or uses words and terms that lose meaning or gain different meanings or become offensive? Faced with offensive labels and cataloguing information, do you say, ‘we are a progressive institution and we don’t want to project that offensive material on to our staff and patrons’? Or do we say, ‘our catalogue itself is a historical document’? I lean towards the latter. It’s important not to lose that information, because if you don’t know that it had been catalogued like that, it’s easier to imagine that the archive was always this beautiful, welcoming, inclusive place, and it wasn’t.

Franko’s archive winds through progressive waves of homophobia, progressive acts of humiliation against humans who don’t conform to gender or sexual stereotypes, progressive attempts to marginalise anyone who lives differently. The work of classifying and cataloguing addresses the past from the present. I hope you recognise that past as a distant landscape, narrowing your eyes in relief.


Dear future archivist

Let’s imagine a collapse of civilisation, or environment, or both, between my time and yours. What has been saved? Has Franko’s work been saved? While everything around it has crumbled has the archive somehow managed to settle, like geological layers compressed in time? I’m going to trust that the answer is yes. That the archive was deemed precious, worth saving. And that happened because of how archivists now and in the future steer people here.

This is the work of the archivist, this guidance. I’ve always seen working in an archive as similar to working in Boots. It’s a service industry. You’re not a guardian, you’re not a custodian: you’re a facilitator. Someone comes in and says, I want to see something or I want to know more about this, and your job is to facilitate that person to go away having learned more about that. And that’s a political thing, because you decide what to show them and what routes to take them down – and I would try to open up all options.

You hold a position of power framed by generosity. You hold a position of vibrant authority. I’m so reliant on archivists who know their collections better than I ever will, to say – once I’ve explained what I’m researching – oh, have you thought about this collection, when nothing in the catalogue suggests to me that I would have looked there. They know better than I do where I might find things, especially if they’ve been there for a long time, if they accessioned it, and might have been the ones cataloguing it. When an archivist moves on, institutional knowledge is lost. The loss of the knowledge that was there can feel like it deadens an archive. You understand this so well: that an archive is a living collection, but it’s even more living when a living, breathing human is there to open it up to you. And further: there’s no way you can get the physical experience of using an archive from a catalogue. Knowledge passes palm to palm.

You recognise how this job is laced with political decisions, especially when the archive in question involves bodies, queer bodies, leaking bodies, bodies abraded, pierced, scarred. Some might dismiss the images you hold as obscene, but again, what’s obscene is completely political – and who am I to make those kinds of decisions? What you choose to protect is political. So is the question of who. And of course that influences the stories we can tell. How you begin those stories – with the language you choose to wrap around the catalogue – is political. With society in tatters, these stories might reform/re-form society’s foundations. Every piece of the archive a stone to build on.


Dear future artist

Let’s imagine, you and me. Isn’t that the invitation? Immersed in this disrespectable archive, with its tattoos and its scrawls and its weight of canvas drill, with its boots and its radiation mask and its unrepentant images. Image imagine imagination. Deep in the roots of the word imagine an old French word meaning sculpt, carve, paint, decorate, embellish. I think of your hands, moving through Franko’s archive, how open it is to your touch. What do you make of it? What might you make from it? I reach out from the past to discover.


Challenging Archives: legal history and Franko B’s archive

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?


an image of a type written academic dissertation
Franko B’s dissertation, on “The Sadomasochistic Nature of Society” (1990, Chelsea College of Arts)




A different kind of order

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. This is the fourth in a series of blog posts reflecting on the complex set of challenges the Franko B archive poses, the archival process, and the ways in which the archive might inspire new creative work. Franko B’s artistic practice explores issues such as the limits of the body and the human condition, dealing with pain, suffering, abuse of power, empathy, eroticism, and sexuality in contemporary culture.

In their most recent posts, Maddy and Mary have posed each other a series of questions, on the subject of encounter and engagement with archives, and with Franko B’s archive specifically. The dialogue begins here, continues here, and concludes with this post, in which Mary asks the questions and Maddy replies.


You studied English at University. What does the study of literature have to teach us about how to approach the archives of Live Art?

An instinct to avoid the question.

This is personal. Those years at university were a privilege that clings through every attempt at erasure. Worn on the body like a skin, like an armour, no matter how fragile the matter beneath. And so ill-fitting. Three years of avoiding study, spending hours in second-hand bookshops bingeing on the idea of books but not actually reading them, or running away, to gigs, to London, to New England once, following a band, to the loss of self only music could bring. No lectures. Finishing essays at 6am. Three years of block and avoidance. At least back then it was free.

But also:

Discovering Gertrude Stein. Discovering Djuna Barnes. Discovering the feminist writers of the 1890s, and the queer culture tucked in the pages of The Yellow Book. Discovering French feminism, Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray. Adding these things to riot grrrl fanzines and queercore bands and the deaths of River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain. Discovering Pauline Boty. Discovering Shostakovich. One magical month learning how to spin a web from myriad threads, connecting things seemingly unrelated. A skill that would finally find its uses in the encounter with performance and live art.

But also:

Feeling overwhelmed. Feeling unable to fathom the depths of language, only ever swimming in the shallows of a poem. Feeling the tools of criticism weigh heavy, mistaking a sledgehammer for a scalpel. Feeling at the edges of nuance but finding no way in. Perhaps everyone feels this gut-punch of fraudulence, this itch of imposter syndrome.

Too many critics of performance arrive from the study of literature, unversed in the lexicon of the body, seeking the fixed and the focused. The archives of live art avoid definition but might be described as places of vagary, fallibility, refusal. Here the ephemeral becomes tangible but still evasive, present but still absent, comprehensive but still incomplete. The text is partial, the subtext elusive. Perhaps it’s not the study of words themselves that teaches us how to approach the archives of live art but the study of the space between the words and between the lines.

But also:

The study of literature never ends. A journey literal and lateral, criss-crossing a landscape wide and deep. Always receptive, always discovering, always leading to other fields – philosophy, politics, performance of course. Live art is all of these. The fences between each field open like the margins of a page.


What is the cultural landscape that Franko’s archive imagines? What is it for you?

What is it to step into a landscape long avoided? Perhaps even, just a little bit, feared?

I am sitting in a hospital room having a cannula inserted into my arm, similar to the kind Franko uses for his blood-letting performances. The nurse tries a vein in my left arm, and then in my right, a vein in my left hand and then in my right. Each time a scratch, a scant dash of blood, and then the vein slips away. After five attempts I am nauseous with anxiety and almost faint. This is the landscape I imagined when I thought about Franko’s work. Even though the blood-letting performances are only a fraction of that work.

The archive requires a reimagining on my part. Or rather, has offered a remembering.

I remember a pub in Essex Road, a frayed artery of north London, called Disgraceland. Opening a newspaper to see a photo of it used to illustrate an article on social inequality in the landscape of my youth, wealthy people oblivious to the fractured lives of their near-neighbours in homes judged unfit for human habitation. The name of the pub was ironic and true.

I remember walking the underpass at Waterloo station, known then as cardboard city, a home claimed and created by homeless people.

I remember Soho’s reputation as a dive bar at 3am exploded across tight-knit streets. Sex workers louche in doorways and gay men holding hands and neon lights and detritus and defiance ingrained in the tarmac.

I remember a photo of Derek Jarman on a hospital bed, dying, bringing up the death toll of AIDS, surrounded by cherubic young men. The friend holding the book pointing out his younger self in the photo, fresh-faced, luminous.

I remember a girl at school knocking the heel from her shoe to show the cavity where she hid Ecstasy pills on the nights she slipped out raving.

This is the cultural landscape of my growing up, most of it, just a little bit, feared. Even then it was being swept aside and the landscape that’s replaced it – metal shard and mirror glass, locked door and security guard – is so much more terrifying. What’s that thing Franko says? “Once I was underground, now I’m marginalised – it’s a big difference.”

His archive is that difference.


Maddy: who else needs to know about this archive? Who else needs to breathe this air, construct this landscape, be vulnerable here?

I hold the past in the palm of my hand. I hold the present, I hold the world. I swipe, navigate, like, share. I find Franko’s website, see photographs of the work, read lists of dates, read reviews. It’s comprehensive. Ordered, orderly, aligned with precision. Even the bulges of his naked body are minimised by this geometry of containment.

There is a line in Mark Fisher’s book Capitalist Realism that haunts me: “Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable.” Website design portions the thinkable into neat boxes, regimented fonts, formats that function equally across desktop and mobile. What might be beyond the horizon?

I have watched the archive in its journey from slapdash miscellany of plastic containers to the standardised boxes and folders of a library collection. Each item finding its place in a catalogue, sequenced, numbered, filed. But this feels like a different kind of order: one that sets disobedience free. Open a folder the colour of farmhouse butter and what surprise might slip out? My favourites so far: a diary, hand-scrawled with messages mundane and mysterious; a sequence of flyers advertising a fetish club night (“sleaze pit for dicks & clits”) with an escalating intensity of dress code, first strict, then ultra strict, then very ultra strict; an angular skirt constructed with the canvas from one of the bleeding pieces, splattered with blood, sullied with mud, reshaped with lines of stitching that skitter across the heavy fabric. Each object holds the fingerprint of those who’ve held it before, trace of long-shed skin cells.

The archive is for those who hold the world in the palm of their hand and know there are further horizons. Already, two or more decades ago, predating so much modern technology, capitalism had shaped a generation (to quote Fisher again) “whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened”. Algorithms track and anticipate and hustle the seeker down predetermined paths. The archive is for those who crave a different map of discovery.


Maddy – my final question to you: amongst this multiplicity of angles, where are you coming from?

from the ego that (still) wants to make art

from the humiliation of (repeatedly) being the least creative person in the room

from the desire to work with and for others, alongside and through others, to think in conversation, to write in collaboration, to be part of something bigger than myself

from a belief in stories handed on, handed down, retold, reshaped, forged myths, unblinking testimonies, cult romances, besotted critiques

from love of words, love of people, love of mystery, love of otherness, love of dogs and sometimes children

from queer idolatry and feminist passion

from curiosity, doubt, fear

from two conflicting impulses: to be visible/heard/known, and to slip through a crack, disappear