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

In Response to Maddy, Katrina, Ash

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 third in a series of blog posts that will 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 responds to the second blog post, published here.

In Response to Maddy, Katrina, Ash
by Mary Paterson

Mary, I’m curious where this overlaps with or differs from your own experience, as someone who studied the history of art. What do you still apply from that study, in terms of approaches, questions, principles or practices? What have you since rejected or found to be unhelpful?

Shortly after I left university with a degree in Art History, I started working as a receptionist in an artists’ studio organisation. The university where I had studied presented Picasso as the most modern of modern artists, and the sole module offered on him was oversubscribed. So I studied historic periods: principally, the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. All of which is to say, it was a shock to meet an actual artist. And even more of a shock to realise artists had real opinions.

Just like Katrina, my studies had focused on the interpretation of the work of art as an object. In this scenario, the art object takes on the status of something like a natural phenomenon – as still and steady as a rock formation. This type of study, of course, is frequently concerned with art objects so famous they really do constitute a naturalised cultural landscape: the great cliffs of Rubens, Rembrandt, Renoir …

Later, I pursued a Master’s in Visual Cultures: an offshoot of Art History, inspired by the politics of civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s. Taking an anthropological model instead of an historical model as its basis, Visual Cultures promised to consider the stories that traditional histories have hidden from view. In this scenario, the art object is less like a rock formation than a fossilized skeleton dug up from the earth. Art is a record of its context, both a crystallised impression of a specific moment, and a clue to the environment at large.

Visual Cultures shifts the focus from art as object to art as relationship, but my studies still mined a distance between the art work and its affect. Inside this distance, in both my degrees, sat the art historian: investigating, interpreting, informing. This is the position I have tried to avoid being in, ever since, although I’m not sure if it’s a position sculpted by the disciplines, or by the learning environments of schools and universities – which instrumentalise the discoveries of meaning.

Just as you describe, what has always been so captivating to me about Live Art is that it collapses the borders between agents, subjects and objects, creating an avalanche of meaning that makes this distance impossible to preserve. Watching Live Art – particularly body based Live Art – I feel connected to the artist, who is the art, which is the audience, which is the affect, which is the meeting, which is the art.

Maddy: you studied English at University. I tried to do that too, but had to give up because I couldn’t bear to read (or write) turgid pieces of literary criticism instead of beautiful works of literature. In literature, the art object takes a different form: rarely a single item, the text is mass produced in different versions; although the power struggles between artist and critic remain the same. What does the study of literature have to teach us about how to approach the archives of Live Art?

Mary, one of my favourite stories you’ve told me of your life before I knew you is of being a student in Edinburgh and discovering feminist performance art in the archive. Is this something you went looking for? Or something that found you?

I didn’t discover feminist performance art in Edinburgh (where I did my first degree), but at Middlesex (where I did my Master’s). Getting to grips with the discipline of Visual Cultures, and armed with the relatively recent discovery that artists are people, I began to explore the visual, social and psychological landscapes of art within living memory. I was looking at artists from the 80s, the 70s, the 60s, the 50s. I went backwards like that – from things I could recognise to the things those things were referencing, and so on. I rewound through the library shelves, from colour to black and white, from VHS tapes to still images, from pictures to descriptions of acts nobody had planned to remember.

I remember the thrill of watching a grainy film of Hannah Wilke from the 1970s. In the film, she is stripping off and making ridiculous shapes in front of Duchamp’s The Large Glass. Her body and her attitude are a challenge to the male gaze and the cult of the male artist. Her later photographs document the disintegration of her body during cancer and its treatment. Now her long limbs and smooth skin are bloated and yellow. She stares out of the pictures, eyes fixed on mine. She is echoing a pose from years earlier, in which those same eyes gazed from a field of tiny chewing gum sculptures – models of vulvas, dotted all over her face.

Like many women, I had always hated my body for the way it mediated other people’s opinions of me. Now, I was discovering this archive of feminist performance art – often labelled ‘explicit’ – that imagined an entirely new relationship between a body and a (gendered) self. I don’t know whether I found the archive or it found me, but I do know that I was in desperate need of a new landscape to live in. My memories of this time are visceral, as if my body was really encountering these artists’ bodies. I think of this physicality as a quality of the work, which refuses to be an object; and as a quality of the archive, which requires the touch of your hand on the page, the weight of your finger on a button, the intimacy of your breath.

Is this the difference between the performance of the academy and the performance of the archive? The academy requires its students (and, increasingly, its teachers) to show their workings as they trample over familiar ground. The archive requires nothing but your attention. It predicts nothing but your time. What happens in the archive? What secrets does it hold?

Recently, I saw some of Wilke’s vulva sculptures exhibited at a show of women artists at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. They were lined up in a vitrine, like specimens in a museum. I leant close to the glass. The closer I got, the more the glass began to mist. The sculptures began to fade from view, so I shut my eyes to remember them. I imagined Wilke’s wet saliva still glistening in their folds.

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


Mary, around your creative practice you also work as a producer, in finance, on the board of a National Portfolio Organisation: that is, you do a lot of the invisible work that goes into making performance happen. I’m interested in two things here: the ways in which a neoliberal culture deploys invisibility, often to make invisible both the workings of its own power and the machineries of inequality; and also the invisibility of care that makes capitalism possible, whether it’s care for children or those who are too old or too sick to be part of the capitalist machine. You and I have talked about the feminisation of care, and how that is integral to its eradication from view within a patriarchal culture. I’m curious how we can make all this visible in our project, as writers-in-residence with Franko’s archive, how we can question these absences – but also how we can make sure we see them, given their absence, their seeming invisibility.

There are two ways in which care becomes diminished in our society. One is the way in which it is rendered invisible by capitalism – a system based on the exploitation of labour for financial value, which cannot (as a matter of survival) recognise the affects and effects of non-financialised care. The other is the way in which it is rendered visible by capitalism – a system based on the promise of economic potential, which speaks only in relation to how this potential is lost or gained.

This is why caring for people has such low status: the very act of care implies the economic potential of both carer and cared for is curtailed. It is also why it never works to talk about care in capitalist terms – to describe the economic ‘cost’ of care work, for example; to do so is to diminish the topic of ‘care’ to ‘capitalism’, which is both smaller than care and ignorant of its meanings.

I could replace the word ‘care’ in the sentence above with ‘art’ and it would still ring true. I could replace ‘care’ with ‘grief’, or ‘social relations’, or ‘mental health.’ And yet, we still care for each other and make art, grieve and have relationships. We do these things and we talk about them. And that, I think, is a testament to the fact that although we are disciplined by it we are not enslaved by capitalism: its values are not our values, its terms are not our terms, its limits do not approach the richness of our lives.

The objects in an archive will degrade. Their financial depreciation is as sure as your next breath. Are these the kinds of secrets that lie in wait inside?

I know the buzz of finding administrative detail in an archive. Looking through the Edge 88 archives, for example, is to find (amongst other things) a series of fruitful glimpses of the planning process: funding procedures, letters of invitation, suggestions of space required to put on a performance art festival in a run down part of London in the 1980s. Reading about artists’ ambitions for screen sizes or room layouts is an important way to bust the myth of the all knowing artist-genius, as well as the myth of the always perfect art-object. It anchors the work of art to artists’ intentions, and simultaneously destablises those intentions with their clumsy corollaries: mistakes, coincidence, luck. This administrative care work roots art in the networks and complexities of life.

But I wonder if looking for evidence of this kind of activity – the desire to render this care work visible – is also a way of asserting the power of interpretation: the art historian as the arbiter of truth, and the judge of what should be remembered. What if we start from another perspective: that care is held in these boxes of photographs and flyers in the Franko B archive, and in the intention to keep them? What if we remember how this archive came about: as a personal collection gifted by the artist to an institution? What if we think of this collection as a practice of care, which is not represented or contained by any of its individual objects, but sustained in the ongoing encounters they have with curators, researchers, visitors, and our collective imaginations?

In other words: what if we think of Franko’s archive as a complex and multi-layered series of acts of care? It was an act of care to keep this material (do you still have a copy of your undergraduate dissertation?), and then to give it away. It is an act of care from the archivists to take this material, to consider its preservation, and to make it available. None of the relationships involved in this network of care is transactional, in the sense that none of them is complete: Franko has not stopped collecting, the archivists will not stop preserving, the archive will not stop being ready for visitors. And, waiting for the visitor’s touch, none of the objects is complete, either.

In a transaction, one thing transforms (or pretends to) into the next – labour into money; or perhaps, the moment into the document, the present into the past. But in a relationship of care, something remains. Your life is always worth more than the things you do with it. Your memories are never sealed in collections of words. Time does not sit quietly in the past, but persists in the movement of your body, curling its ideas into the tension of your spine.

All these things are clear to the people who care for you.

I think this is what people mean when they talk about the ‘explicit’ body in performance. It is not the material of the body that’s explicit, but the expansive and unknowable landscape of its relations to other people. As Franko often says, his work isn’t shocking. War is shocking. Famine is shocking. Exploitative and degrading capitalism is shocking. Instead, I think of Franko’s work as vulnerable: 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 practice of being alive is made explicit by Franko’s archive: the long processes of his life and work. For every artwork of his that I’ve seen, read about, heard about, or imagined in some kind of public discourse, here are dozens of images, experiments, notes, ticket stubs, flyers, scrawled names and numbers, friendships hinted at, romances recalled, pieces of cloth, pieces of paper, memories, moments and moments and moments collected like bubbles of air in the archive. Like bubbles of air, because they do not make an object but an atmosphere. Like bubbles of air, because they are waiting for your breath.

Breathe them in, absorb these moments, process them in your body and breathe them out. In this way, this archival project requires a vulnerable visitor: arms open, ready to be wounded. In this way, it echoes the workings of art, grief, love, social relations, happiness, emotional excess, memory, forgetfulness and all the other threads of our lives that are not acknowledged in terms of the transaction, the object(ive) or the workings of capital. In this context, every intention is an unanswered question. Every encounter is an unexpected response. How do we talk about all of this? Explicitly (breathe). Vulnerably (breathe). Together? (breathe)

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


The final question for now, Mary. How do we guard against our own fetishisations as we approach the archive from a multiplicity of angles, holding Franko at the centre of our inquiry?

 In Freudian terms, a fetish is a type of misrecognition. The fetish object appears to have inherent properties which are, in fact, the properties of the social relations that surround it. Social relations can also produce a fetish: a King thinks he’s a king because other people are his subjects; a subject thinks he’s a subject because someone else is King. And thus a madman who believes he is King is no more mad, wrote the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, than a King who does: both have misrecognised the body of a man as the source of his power.

You could say the same thing about the artist. Or the art historian. Or the art objects that represent their labour.

There is definitely a kind of transfiguration that takes place when you study an art object closely. There’s a painting in the National Gallery of Scotland that I studied so much as an undergraduate, my mind wanders across its surface, sometimes, while I drift into the oblivion of sleep. The painting reminds me of a time when I believed in truths, and discoveries, and a canonical cultural landscape; before I became vulnerable to the explicit mess of subjective relations.

But this is just a story I tell. I know the painting doesn’t embody my feelings about it. I know that if you walked into a small, richly painted room in Edinburgh and saw the Stoning of St Stephen painted in 1603 on copper, it would not mean my dream of intellectual freedom. When I read about you and Katrina finding Franko’s diary, I don’t think the diary holds the value you found. Rather, the value emerges from the ideas you floated together, the relationship you formed, the stories you can tell. And it is in fact this value that holds the diary – makes the pages more tactile, pushes meaning into the gaps between words.

This relationship that you formed includes Franko, imagined in the conversations between you and Katrina, as well as in your private desires to know more. This relationship includes Franko’s intentions, his acts of care, and ego, and preservation that are embedded in this archive. It includes the archivists, the institution, the funders and the other practical supporters of the object you were holding in your hands. And it includes the object.

But it is not the object.

It is a body of relations. An explicit body of relations. Perhaps, an explicit body of relations of care.

What if we start from there?

Or in other words, the answer to your question is in its reverse: holding Franko at the centre of our inquiry, we approach the archive from a multiplicity of angles, avoiding fetishisation.

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


The Many Lives of Performance

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 second in a series of blog posts that will 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. In navigating these issues there may be references which some readers find upsetting.



The many lives of performance

by Maddy Costa with Katrina Fray, Ash Rowbin and Mary Paterson


I come to Franko B’s archive without prior first-hand experience of his work, and whenever I feel anxious about this (I ought to know more), I reassure myself that I’m akin with the students, researchers or otherwise curious parties who might encounter it in future. There’s a pleasing detective quality to piecing together knowledge from the stuff of the collection, as though all those years spent watching Moonlighting and Murder She Wrote didn’t go to waste.

For this blog I wanted to talk to students already using the archive for their research, tangentially or directly, to begin to build a sense of the relationships circling around it. Katrina Fray was introduced to me by Julian Warren, Keeper of Digital and Live Art Archives at the Theatre Collection in Bristol; she’s a recent student in the History of Art department at University of Bristol, and focused her dissertation on live art documentation. Ash Rowbin is someone I’ve met at various discussion and performance events in London, and long admired; a BA Drama student at Queen Mary University, he’s writing his dissertation on the political economy of live art, and will be starting a Live Art MA this autumn. Our conversations raised a number of new questions for me, which I’ve addressed at various points to Mary Paterson to consider alongside me.


1. Beyond the object

The helmet sits silent at the far end of the table. Round shape, like a bowl made by children, fingers sticky with glue as they attach squares of papier mache to a balloon. This helmet moulded from canvas, canvas dripped with blood. The stains brown, spattery, more like paint now than bodily fluid, mouthing the words to a story, the story of an art work.

Katrina wrote her final year dissertation on performance documentation, taking as her starting point Peggy Phelan’s much-quoted assertion that: “Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.” I’m immediately charmed by this, because Mary and I have used the same quote both to name and as an ongoing source of inspiration for Something Other, the experimental writing/performance platform we co-nurture with artist and academic Diana Damian Martin. Katrina doesn’t dismiss Phelan’s statement altogether, but instead wonders how the performance, as primary source, can be “amalgamated with all of the other documentation, so you get a better, holistic view of the performance and the different meanings and facets it takes. Photographs, oral history, background things like the tech spec: all of those can tell you something different about the performance.”

This language of “primary source” is, Katrina tells me, typical of the ways in which art historians approach their subjects. “Art history as a discipline can be very, very object-focused,” she says; and, worse, “stuck in a traditional rut”. Its processes are designed for paintings, sculptures, and don’t work for live performance: “You’re completely stumped if you don’t see a performance, or there’s no documentation of said performance.” She wants to see the theory of performance studies infiltrate the study of art history, but also believes that “art historians have a really important part to play in archives and how objects are perceived and dealt with”, that there is much that performance studies can learn from the visual analysis practised in the study of fine art. In other words: “Let’s stop putting boundaries on everything.” Which sounds like something Franko would say.

A similar argument was made by art historian Jonah Westerman in a paper he wrote in 2015 for Tate Research: “Performance happens at the threshold of action and image. That place is impossible to identify definitively, to cordon or sequester, and this is why even the most sophisticated attempts to define performance as a thing in itself end up either submerging it beneath unknowable depths or conflating it with the forms with which it travels.” He resists Phelan’s statement because it creates a definition that works against the radical potential of performance art to resist definition.

Something I particularly enjoy, as I get to know Franko’s work better, is noting the ways in which he resists definitions being applied to his work. On the table before me and Katrina sits a helmet Franko made in 2003 in protest against the Iraq war. Made using canvas from Franko’s “bleeding performances”, it prompts a conversation between the two of us about how art historians might differentiate between “remnants from the performance, and whether you count those as a document or a leftover” – and how this in turn might help to disrupt the term “documentation” itself, which Katrina finds “really problematic”, etymologically too enmeshed in authoritative ideas of proof and instruction. The helmet is engaged in what Katrina calls a “cyclical process”, each new construction creating the means for the next but also looping back to the initial performance. I read in that cyclical motion another resistance, of the linearity and propulsive drive of capitalism, always seeking new markets, new conquests.

Mary, I’m curious where this overlaps with or differs from your own experience, as someone who studied the history of art. What do you still apply from that study, in terms of approaches, questions, principles or practices? What have you since rejected or found to be unhelpful?


2. Serendipity

A sheaf of papers, the yellow-brown of dying leaves. The text typewritten, from the days before ubiquitous computers. Franko’s undergraduate dissertation, starkly titled: The Sadomasochistic Nature of Society. On the third page, a dedication: to my friend Dave. Murdered on 16/8/89 by his next door neighbour, for being a homosexual.

In a box of materials related to Franko’s student years at Chelsea College of Art and Design, Katrina and I stumble across his undergraduate dissertation – written at roughly the age Katrina is now. Scanning its opening pages, I’m struck by the ways in which the questions he raised then – relating to sadomasochistic relationships, private and public expressions and performances of sexual desire, and where these intersect with “social, political economical and moral context/discourse”, not least in terms of classifications and legislation relating to obscenity – are the same questions being raised now in relation to his work and his archive. It’s as though, in that moment of discovery, I have gently pressed my fingers to Franko’s neck and found his pulse.

But perhaps it is Franko’s archive itself whose pulse I’m finding. It seems to grow each time I return to it, and so there is always something there to surprise me.


Mary, one of my favourite stories you’ve told me of your life before I knew you is of being a student in Edinburgh and discovering feminist performance art in the archive. Is this something you went looking for? Or something that found you?


3. Preceding the live

There are papers, perhaps. Someone has them. Perhaps many people have them. But for now the table is empty. For now.

From his undergraduate dissertation onwards, Franko is explicit in articulating another “cyclical process”, that which connects his life, including the politics within which he has lived, and his work in a series of self-informing reinforcing loops. (“The reason I have chosen to write on this subject is because it is the foundation of my very existence, work practice (generally) and sexuality.”) Within the study of art history, however, Katrina identifies a quite separate “taboo”: that against looking at an artist’s intention. “If you’re doing your visual analysis properly,” she reports the thinking, “you shouldn’t need to know it: you should be gleaning everything possible from the object itself…”

As she says this, I see what she means about the “traditional rut” of art history. The object as singular corresponds with the idea of the artist as singular, both in the sense of unlike other (ordinary) people and working alone. I’m still mulling on the implications of this when I meet Ash, who is writing his undergraduate dissertation on the political economy of live art, “the infrastructure or social relations that allow it to happen”. He came to Franko B’s archive in search of a case study: “Historically archives have been a place of acounting and proof [that etymological root of documentation again], and often that’s where the correspondence exists that is especially useful for me.” The academic Diana Taylor, he tells me, writes in her book The Archive and the Repertoire that “what’s found in the archive tends to exceed the live” – which makes me think of Phelan’s somethings other, her differentiation between the ephemeral live act and the effects that exceed it, are excessive to it. Ash’s interest, however, is in the archive as the place where he might find “the things that tend to precede the live: all the things that happen prior – funding applications, blueprints for the set-up – in order for the thing to be made”.

He left Franko’s archive surprised, that it didn’t contain what he was looking for, except in fleeting glimpses. “The archive is always a fragmentary, partial history, as any history is,” he acknowledges. But what does it mean that the partiality of Franko’s archive is so particular? There is very little documentation here relating to the mechanics of staging Franko’s work: the sourcing of canvas and cannulas through which his blood could drip, the labour of the person responsible for painting his body white, for his care following a blood-letting performance, for tidying up the gallery afterwards, all points Ash raises in relation to Franko’s 2003 work I Miss You at Tate Modern.

I remember, on first meeting Julian Warren, him talking about exactly this: his wish that the archive would hold not merely photographs and videos documenting performance – creative remnants, if you like – but everything administrative relating to each performance too. Soon after meeting Katrina and Ash, I have a conversation with a friend, a performance artist, about Beyonce’s film Homecoming; she’s frustrated by how little it shows of “how she actually makes her work. I wanted to hear about the budget! I wanted to see mood boards, things that were cut, how it was cast! Genius is mundane in practice, show me those bits.” As K Austin Collins writes in his review of Homecoming for Vanity Fair:

“Look at the ellipses in how Beyoncé narrates the design of the show itself. […] ‘Every tiny detail had an intention,’ she says. Yet the film never explores those intentions. I wish it had; Homecoming made me long for more of the boring procedural stuff—the meetings, the decision-making, insight into how Beyoncé thinks and feels that’s distinct from how she narrates the story of herself and her intentions. […] Like so many up-close-and-personal looks at Beyoncé, this new special is better at signifying genius than at letting us come close to the real thing.”

Without administrative documentation available alongside creative, Ash argues, the archive risks giving the impression that only the intention of the artist is relevant to the making of the work. “Art histories, especially about performance artists, tend to uphold the idea of the autonomous artist,” Ash suggests. “They tend to give the impression that art just happens and is this autonomous thing that has a life of its own. You don’t get the sense that anyone else was really involved in the creation of the work, of the layers of labour and the divisions of labour that would have had to be in place to do it.”

Mary, around your creative practice you also work as a producer, in finance, on the board of a National Portfolio Organisation: that is, you do a lot of the invisible work that goes into making performance happen. I’m interested in two things here: the ways in which a neoliberal culture deploys invisibility, often to make invisible both the workings of its own power and the machineries of inequality; and also the invisibility of care that makes capitalism possible, whether it’s care for children or those who are too old or too sick to be part of the capitalist machine. You and I have talked about the feminisation of care, and how that is integral to its eradication from view within a patriarchal culture. I’m curious how we can make all this visible in our project, as writers-in-residence with Franko’s archive, how we can question these absences – but also how we can make sure we see them, given their absence, their seeming invisibility.


4. The body as fetish

A diary. Square, chunky, thick cover, pastel coloured, the kind given by an aunt or cousin who doesn’t really know what to buy you for Christmas. Paintings inside the left-hand pages, drawn from Tate’s Impressionist collection. Handscrawls barely legible, phone numbers, appointments, a year demarcated into tasks and commitments. An open window, ground level, no curtain or fencing. Stealing into another’s life.

In his search for emails, financial documentation, technical specifications, the behind-the-scenes necessary for performance to be made, I see Ash looking beyond the body: the body of Franko and his body of work. In Ash’s view, this documentation of the social, political and economic infrastructure within which performance sits also consitutes the performance – or what he calls “one of its many lives”. But the fact is, emails and invoices are much less sexy than the body; and I do use the word sexy here deliberately, in the casual sense of alluring, but also with an awareness of the ways in which Franko has always foregrounded sex and sexuality in his work.

Ash tells me of another book, Isabelle Graw’s High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture, which “talks about what happens when an artist moves away from making object-based work and the body becomes material. It doesn’t actually lead to the defetishisation of the object: what happens is that the body becomes the fetish.” Given the ways in which Franko explicitly addresses fetish in his work, there’s something deliciously self-reflexive in this. But it also prods me to question my own feelings in relation to the archive, written to some degree into the first blog post with Mary: of encountering Franko’s body in the archive but wanting to feel connected with it in the flesh. And again, given the ways in which Franko’s work navigates the line between the body as flesh and the body as representation, this desire feels like one he has always deliberately courted, provoked and questioned.

Opening a box from the “Personal” series in the archive, Katrina and I find one of Franko’s diaries, for the year 2005. It’s quite an ordinary day-to-day appointments diary, not a journal of private thoughts but a messy collection of notes and telephone numbers and reminders that the gas man is coming in a frame containing the word IMPORTANT!, so mundane it’s beguiling. We turn the pages of it with as much care and respect as we might a precious sketch book, noting the number of staples slicing into its pages, where Franko had once attached additional notes, enjoying his disregard for date lines and the ways in which he has casually defaced its reproductions of traditional oil paintings, trying to decipher his scrawly handwriting. On our favourite page, Franko has drawn in the white space below a particularly woozy set of Monet water-lillies, two blocky figures captioned with the words “The Nigth of The gNifes”. These are my favourite encounters with the archive: those moments when Franko isn’t in control of his image, when everything becomes slippery.

The final question for now, Mary. How do we guard against our own fetishisations as we approach the archive from a multiplicity of angles, holding Franko at the centre of our inquiry?


Notes and links

The Helmet mentioned in part 1 is catalogued as part of Artwork in the Artwork & Objects series, ref no FB/9/2/10. A digital image of it is available here.

Franko’s undergraduate thesis is from box of Material relating to Chelsea College of Art and Design – BA Mixed Media 1987-1990, ref no FB/1/1/2.

The diary is from the ‘Personal’ series, ref no FB/10.

Jonah Westerman’s essay Between Action and Image: Performance as “Inframedium” was published as a Tate Research Feature in January 2015, and can be read here.

K Austin Collins’s review In Homecoming, Beyoncé Is Closer and More Unknowable Than Ever was published by Vanity Fair in April 2019 and can be read here.

Challenging Archives – Writers in Residence Mary Paterson and Maddy Costa

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 first in a series of blog posts that will 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.  In navigating these issues there may be references which some readers find upsetting.


The Challenging Archives project team in Franko’s studio. L-R: Mary Paterson, Sian Williams (project archivist), Julian Warren (Keeper of the Digital and Live Art Archives), Maddy Costa (with Suki the dog), Franko B


Throughout their residency, Maddy and Mary will be writing in dialogue: sometimes addressing correspondence directly to each other, sometimes, as here, presenting the text unattributed.


Part 1

What is the body of the archive? Where is the body of the archive? Where is it felt? Where does it sag? Where does it leave its mark? Where does it leave its traces? Who traces it? Who traces it with her finger, choosing between its pages, hesitating beneath a word?

Where do you hesitate when you’re looking at another body? I mean, someone else’s body? I mean someone else’s body of work, which does not exist in material but in memory? Is there a difference between a body and a memory? How is it felt, this difference? Where is it held, this difference? Where do you hold your memories? How do you hold your body? How do you remember bodies you have never held? What is there to hold on to?

What is there to hold onto from the past? From yesterday, or the day before, or the un-photographed moments in the days before that? What can you touch, and what touches you? What touches you like a handshake or a brush of the hair or a drop of something warm and sticky and hard to keep a hold of? I mean, what is touching in a memory? What is physical about it? What is a physical memory – like a mould, or a fingerprint or a photograph; and what is physical about memory – like the imprint it leaves on your muscles, the feeling it pierces into your skin?

And now?

Do you think there is something made (up) in the acts of preservation?

Do you think about the possibilities, the potential meetings, the speculative meanings, the retrospective knowledge, the collaborative documents, the modern memories, the new histories, the re-readings that are created from the acts of preservation? What is made with this care, this consideration, this meta data, this record keeping, this safe pair of hands? How does it feel to handle someone else’s memories? What does it mean to make available someone else’s life, their work, their life’s work? When it comes to someone else’s life’s work, what is available? What is available and what is always unavailable? What is always unavailable but can be imagined: summoned up in the space between photographs and flyers and a drop of something that was once contained within a body?

How do you preserve this feeling, wrap it up in acid-free packaging and keep it safe?

What is safe?

What is safe-keeping?

What is being safe and what is keeping?

What is lost? What is a challenge? What is challenging about safety, about memory, about preservation? I mean, what is a challenge to keep safe? And what is it about this material, this body, this bodily material, that is a challenge?

What is a challenging body (of material)?

What is a threatening body (of material)?

What are the threats of the body (of the archive)?

What are the threats to the body (of the archive)?

How can a body (of work) be a threat, and how can it be a possibility?

How do you find its possibilities? How do you trace them with your eyes, your fingers, your memory? How do you encounter them? How do you start the encounter, how does it take shape, and who makes the shape (in)visible? Does it make sense to call the shape of this encounter alive? Is it a life? Is it a living thing? Is it a dangerous thing? Is it possible to have a dangerous encounter with a body of work that is being held for safe-keeping?

What kind of future are we saving (ourselves) for?


Before repackaging: The original boxes donated by Franko B in 2008


Part 2

I am thinking about Franko’s body. The tattooes that clamber across his face and tuck themselves beneath his clothes, hidden, alongside the scars. I’m thinking of the needles that pricked his skin to create those tattooes, the scalpels that sliced through epidermis, dermis, maybe reaching hypodermis too, in his willingness to let the violence of the world imprint itself visibly on his body. I’m thinking about the hidden scars of a body that grew in difficult and inhospitable environments: an orphanage run by priests, an aggressive family home, a Red Cross boarding institition where some staff were kind and some were bullies. Scars that trace the nervous system, felt inside the body as an electric pulse.

I am thinking about the warmth of Franko’s body. The warmth of his voice when he speaks, the purr of it, a cat demanding attention, the burr of it, the pronunciation of English words catching on his Italian accent. A resonance at once high and low, the treble of energy, excitement, indignation, the bass of sensuality, viscerality, self-possession.

I am thinking about the charm that is held inside that body. The charm of Franko the storyteller as each photograph in the archive prompts a reminiscence, a story. The charm of the conjuror playing games with time, so that when we speak it is at once now and then, the time of the archive, the document, the record, and the time of the work being made and performed or presented. The charm of the politically motivated and marginalised, of the activist who doesn’t want your approval but knows it will come eventually because he is right.

I am thinking about the history that is held inside that body. The history of social services and care provision for children. The history of mental health diagnoses. The history of homophobia. The history of right-wing politics. The history of authoritarian abuse. None of these things are history, and not just because their scars trace the nervous system inside the body. Each one is still a scalpel, slicing through the skin of culture to the person beneath.

I am thinking about Franko’s body as it is contained inside two of the temporary boxes in the archive. One of the boxes is made of grey cardboard and carries a sticker with the words “Warning: contains items with bodily fluid, including blood” printed on it in bright red ink. One of the boxes is plastic and carries a sticker with the single word “Exibhition” hand-written in bright red marker pen. I am thinking about how the warning sticker pushes me away, gives rise to a feeling of anxiety. How the hand-written sticker with its jumbled spelling pulls me close, gives away something about vulnerability that inspires a feeling of care. And yet the box that carries the warning, holding blood and skin cells, traces of DNA, might bring me closer to Franko’s actual body. While the box that carries the exibhition sign holds only images, distance, remove.

I am thinking about the difference between meeting a body in person and meeting them through images and words. For years now I have “known” Franko through images and words: photographs of him performing, word-of-mouth description, critical appraisals of his work. I haven’t known his work myself because I felt anxious about the warning signs, the bodily fluids, the blood. And so I’m thinking about the assumptions that attach themselves to words and images, which might have nothing to do with their subject, the person or body, and everything to do with the gaze and understanding of the audience.

I am thinking about us, as the audience of this archive. What are we listening for, as we look? Do we need Franko present to tell us his stories, or can we read those stories into the archive ourselves? What difference does it make that you have encountered his work in person, seen the blood as it drips bright red from his body to the canvas, and I see only the canvas stained with his dried brown blood? What is, as a result, visible to you that might be invisible to me? What is, as a result, audible to you that might be inaudible to me?

I am thinking about entering the archive as an act of unfolding, each discovery opening up a new possibility, a new question. I am thinking about thinking, the complexity of thought that goes into any single action, the movement of thought through blood and bodily fluid, unseen, but making action possible.


Boxes from the original accession


Digital objects

3D digital models of selected objects from the Theatre Collection can now be viewed on the website of 3D photogrammetry specialists, Cyreal.  By exploring the 3D Gallery, you can discover items from the Franko B Archive, mouldings from the Oliver Messel collection, ceramics from the Mander and Mitchenson collection, as well as costumes and set models.

3D digital representations can be tilted and turned with the movement of a mouse and easily manipulated so every angle can be observed.  The large number of photographs taken during the process creates such a high-quality model that you can zoom in to explore the fine detail of an object, such as the pattern on Stephanie Cole’s dress from Tenko or see close up how Franko B used canvas from his performances to create objects for exhibition.  With objects that are particularly fragile or intricate such as the mouldings from the Oliver Messel collection or the set model of Cinderella’s coach, this technique provides a permanent digital representation of the object that can be viewed instantly with no constraints on time or the need to follow Reading Room handling procedures.

If you want to find out more about the 3D photogrammetry process, read our previous blog A Cyreal Day.

We are keen to hear your reactions to these digital models, what other items from the Theatre Collection would you like to see as 3D digital models? Tweet us @UoB_Theatre_Col or email us at

Censorship and the Stage

In 1968, towards the end of a decade renowned for its artistic and musical experimentation, the British stage was, extraordinarily, still bound by strict censorship laws. The Theatres Act 1843 gave the Lord Chamberlain the power to ban any play that may be considered detrimental to ‘good manners, decorum or the public peace’ or heavily modify it, meaning many plays that had had successful runs on Broadway, or elsewhere in the world, could not transfer to the West End.

The Lord Chamberlain’s involvement with the country’s entertainment goes back several centuries. Under the reign of Henry VIII, his job was to run the royal household, arrange royal weddings and funerals, administer palaces and look after royal parties. His deputy, the Master of the Revels, was put in charge of in-house entertainments and theatre. In 1737, the Theatres Act devolved censorship directly to the Lord Chamberlain, and in 1843, the Theatres Act declared that one copy of every new stage play be sent to the Lord Chamberlain for review. If it was deemed acceptable, it would be granted a licence like the one below.

Lord Chamberlain’s licence, allowing the performance of ‘East of Ludgate Hill’ at Theatre Royal, Windsor, in 1950


The act was vague and the censor was inconsistent, but there were a handful of themes that were absolutely off-limits: God and royalty, it seemed, could never be portrayed. 1.

Plays featuring homosexuality could only be performed in clubs, rather than licensed theatres. The Royal Court Theatre attempted to play the system by changing its status to that of ‘club’ in order to show A Patriot for Me and Saved, but the Lord Chamberlain was incensed and took legal action, winning his case. His victory, however, ultimately led to his demise: the case restarted the debate around the appropriateness of theatre censorship. On 26th July 1968, Royal assent was given to the Theatres Act 1968 which abolished censorship of the stage in the UK, and on 26 September, it came into force.

A year later, Bristol University Drama Department produced The Cornish Ordinalia, three medieval mystery plays, at Piran Round amphitheatre. The Creation play featured God, who was, finally, allowed to be depicted on a UK stage. He is presented as a being with an egg-shaped head, surrounded by a golden crown.


God’s Head, as depicted by UoB Drama Department


  1. Changing Stages: A View of British Theatre in the Twentieth Century, Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright,  Bloomsbury, 2001

Lella Raymond’s Letters

A few months ago, my cousin handed me a folder containing letters that she had inherited from my late Aunt Lella in 2011. My Aunt was an upright, formal woman, all tweed and tradition, with a passion for the arts that often inspired her to write letters to actors, playwrights and authors she admired. Many high-profile figures responded, and their return letters, dating from 1927 to 1993 are now The Theatre Collection’s newest accession.

They range from short, perfunctory replies from JB Priestley – ‘Many thanks for your letter and I am glad to learn from it that you have enjoyed “Instead of the Trees” so much. It was good of you to write’ – to longer replies from actresses including Peggy Ashcroft, who thanks Lella for sending in a script for critique – ‘Dear Miss Raymond, Thank you for letting me have the script on “The Bronte Affair”. If I may I will keep it and suggest it again to the Apollo Society. It might well be an Aldwych Theatre Project.’

Other letters from non-theatre stars, kept with the collection for the sake of provenance, include a notecard from Jessica Mitford complaining of the earthquakes in Oakland, California (below), and one from writer Vera Brittain, stating ‘I hope you are liking your nursing work better than I liked mine. The day may still come when your experience will be similar to mine – though I hope not!’

Other correspondents offering their greetings, thanks, and interesting tidbits from their lives include Evelyn Waugh, Celia Johnson, Cicely Courtneidge, Sybil Thorndike, Wendy Hiller, Miles Malleson, John Betjeman and Rachel Kempson.

It is a lovely collection, and it is a pleasure to think that the fruits of my aunt’s dedicated letter-writing career might go on to inspire and inform researchers well into the future.


By Helen Kavanagh, Keeper of Theatre Archives


Don’t Mess With Messel

One of the things I love about volunteering at the Theatre Collection is handling some of the artefacts held in its keeping. Yes, it can be a little chilly when working in the temperature-controlled strongroom, but as my mum used to say, I can ‘don a thermal vest‘.

Lately, in the more balmy surroundings of the reading room, I’ve been working through boxes of the Oliver Messel Archive, undertaking biographical research of his associates. I’ve gained knowledge about some of the 20th century’s notable personae and insight into Messel himself. A man I hadn’t heard of before I started working with the material – and there is plenty of material! He didn’t seem to throw much away but we’re richer for it.

Amongst myriad papers, there is treasure: yellowing press cuttings; black and white photographs of Bogart and Bacall, printed telegrams and letters (glorious, handwritten letters that Messel and his friends exchanged). Handwriting is becoming a dying art and it’s wonderful to see this tangible connection and imagine a pen – or pencil – scuffing across paper. Messel demonstrated that a well thought-out response, even in disagreement, carried more weight than a vitriolic key-bashed Tweet. He also came across as a man of principle and a couple of items in particular reveal this.

Firstly, a letter he wrote to Kay Graham of the Washington Post.  In January 1977, the newspaper published an article about Theodore R Britton Jnr, the first black American ambassador in the Caribbean. It claimed Britton was being, “probed on incompetence charges.”  Messel, then resident in Barbados, did not like the tone or content and sent a delightful riposte, praising the ambassador’s achievements. He was also unequivocal about why, in his view, Britton was being investigated: “…You cannot convince me that there has been no racial motivation in all of this from the start; of course there has! Envy that a man who is black should be in a coveted position, that he should also have compelling charm and intellect.”

A second example illustrated that Messel’s loyalty extended beyond his acquaintances. In September 1970 the Performing Arts Council Transvaal, wrote to him about mounting a production of Sleeping Beauty in Johannesburg. They requested use of costumes and décor that Messel had designed for the production when it was performed at Covent Garden.

I almost whooped, ‘Good man, Oliver!’ when I read Messel’s reply. His firm refusal was from the heart. Referring to the poisonous regime of apartheid, he made clear that there weren’t any circumstances in which he would accede to the request. ‘I could not wish to accept any hospitality from a country whose laws and principles are to me so utterly abhorrent.’ He continued, ‘that you all live blind-folded through the selfish greed of a white minority appears tragically short-sighted.’ He was, he said, ‘revolted by separate audiences.’

I’ve discovered that the Messel Archive isn’t only about what one man left behind. It’s also a glimpse of what was happening in the world: what’s changed and, unfortunately, what hasn’t. I wish I could have met him, though what he’d have thought about my thermal vest, I can only guess.


By Natalie Smith