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. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0.


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 http://www.bristol.ac.uk/theatrecollection

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 http://www.bristol.ac.uk/library/find/free/ 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 theatre-collection@bristol.ac.uk



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 https://uktheatre.org/who-we-are-what-we-do/uk-theatre-blog/audiences-behaving-badly-and-what-we-should-do-about-it/


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: https://library.aru.ac.uk/referencing/harvard.htm) 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 theatre-collection@bristol.ac.uk 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 https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/




APAC. The association of Performing Arts Collections

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

Bristol Archives

Explore their online catalogue for more information on the theatres and venues of Bristol at https://www.bristolmuseums.org.uk/bristol-archives/

Bristol Old Vic Heritage Project

https://bristololdvic.org.uk/heritage And take a look at the fabulous Limbic Cinema film made for the 250th anniversary of the theatre in May 2016 at https://bristololdvic.org.uk/archive/250th-birthday

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 https://www.surrey.ac.uk/national-resource-centre-dance

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 http://www.sibmas.org/members/members-directory/

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 https://www.thisisliveart.co.uk/resources

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 https://www.kent.ac.uk/library/specialcollections/a-z.html

University of Sussex Special Collections

A range of archives including theatre and performance literature at https://www.thekeep.info/collections/themes/414-2/

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

All at https://www.vam.ac.uk/info/theatre-performance-archives

Remember if you need advice, or want to find out more, just email us at

theatre-collection@bristol.ac.uk 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

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