Lies attended Franko B’s Archive launch …
Content warning: Discussion of fetish and upsetting imagery
The blurby bit
Join us to celebrate the donation of archival material from legendary artist Franko B to the Special Collections and Archives at Bishopsgate Institute.
We are thrilled to provide a home to an extensive archive of Franko’s physical and digital artworks and materials, along with materials he has collected from other LGBTQ+ artists over his career.
The evening will start with a discussion between Franko B and Bishopsgate Institute’s Special Collections and Archives Manager Stefan Dickers, followed by two-hour techno DJ set by Franko in our Great Hall.
Find out more about Franko B and his archive hereBishopsgate’s promotional material for the event.
About Bishopsgate Institute
Bishopsgate Institute is an adult education centre in the City of London, a stone’s throw from the epicentre of the London’s trans madness, Shoreditch. Its pledge is to support the public in the benefit of their education and describes itself as a ‘haven’.
Bishopsgate Institute was “erected for the benefit of the public” in 1894, with the motto “I never stop learning”. Our purpose has not changed.
We continue to be home for ideas and debate, learning and enquiry. We are a haven in the city, where culture, heritage and learning meet, and our mission is to inspire independent thought, connect past and present.From the website
Pre-pandemic I’m pretty sure the curriculum was much wider than it is now and definitely included language courses. Now, however, those are ditched altogether and a good third of the courses are queer-themed. At the time of writing trans memoir writer Juliet Jacques was a regular creative writing teacher, there was a queer fan fiction course, queer tango and LGBT ballroom, queer appreciation of a TV drama, various walking tours of Queer London, a workshop appraising what it meant to be Muslim and queer, introduction to LGBTQ+ fiction, a film studies course focusing on Pedro Almodóvar and several tutor-led opportunities to explore the queer archives.
Onto the archives
Bishopsgate is the current home of the archive of the Museum of Transology, which can also be explored online. Its main theme is the promotion of medical and surgical ‘transition’ and items, like prosthetic breasts and dildos, are explained by the owner by filling out a brown tag. E. J. Scott, curator of the Museum of Transology, was attended the Franko B launch, arriving fashionably late. The Museum of Transology is just one collection in a huge LGBTQ+ Archive, currently more than 60 separate collections, with Franko B as its latest addition.
But there’s more. Bishopsgate also holds the UK Leather and Fetish Archive, created in 2016, i.e. just after the cultural shift known as the Trans Tipping Point. Coincidence? I don’t think so. It has roughly 36 entries at the time of writing.
According to the Society for the Study of Labour History, the Bishopsgate Institute Archive was set up to document the history of the labour movement. How absurd that it is now the host of pornographers who commercialise the defilement of the body?
Visits to the archives or booking onto archive tours appear not to be age restricted, as I could see no published advice regarding entry or purchase of tickets. I have dipped in and out of the archives and can confirm it is truly woeful. Jump to the next section if you want to avoid reading any details about them – very strong content warning for the Felicia Fisher Archive.
The Sugar May Archive
The artist Sugar May sells cartoon pornography and we are helpfully directed to her online store. Sugar May is also a special effects make-up artist who has worked with major film studios, like Disney and Netflix, so I suspect her ‘sex work’ is more like a hobby to her. Certainly the videos, which are publicly available on her website and made it into the archive, are extremely nauseating. Poor little rich girl, anyone?
Felicia Fisher Archive
The Felicia Fisher Archive features a sex worker who supposedly has a trainer fetish. A hashtag is recommended on Twitter for ‘all things sneaker fetish’. I put that hashtag in and found that there were only 8 tweets viewable to me, so it appears not to be a much of a thing there and I suspect a ruse for the dark ultraviolent pornographic cinema she acts in.
Bishopsgate suggested we could visit Fisher’s social media accounts, so I did. She had been tagged into the tweets below, her account itself protected. Depraved is a redundant epithet.
Mistress Eva, aka Eva Oh, runs a ‘slave training platform’ which essentially sells pornographic videos and photos under the guise of a dumb BDSM training course. The site claims to have 32K subscribers and subscription rates are only disclosed if you give up your email to sign up. Eva Oh previously had a corporate career.
Scally Lads Fetish Archive
The scally fetish boils down to wanking over poor uneducated boys who dress badly, i.e. chavs. Which is so fitting for an institute whose motto is ‘never stop learning’, isn’t it? I’m not quite sure where all these master/slave ideals sit within the theology of socialism but I’m prepared to be enlightened.
Largely comprising gay men, the scally fetish centres around a style and demeanour associated with a British working-class subculture known as chav or, in Northern England, scally. Originally, chavs and scallies were demonised, however, gay scally lads embrace the subculture in sexual encounters, placing onus on sportswear, tracksuits, sneakers and, in some cases, stereotypical chav behaviour.https://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/collections/scally-lads-fetish-archive
If the above all sounds a bit highbrow, Vice has done a reliably over detailed lowdown on what it really means (i.e. not washing for a week and ending up with a ‘cheesy cock’ and getting beaten up for it).
And the man behind it all …
Stef is the Special Collections and Archives Manager at Bishopsgate Institute and has been responsible for the development of the Institute’s collections on the history of London, protest and activism, and LGBTQ+ Britain. He qualified as an archivist in 2001 and started at Bishopsgate in 2005.
Previous to this, Stef worked in the archives of the London School of Economics and Senate House Library.Bio taken from Bishopsgate website
It appears that in April 2022 the Institute’s archivist, Stefan Dickers, took part in an event held at Bishopsgate, as a participant rather than a professional capacity. Which is nice.
The current trustees includes several drawn from the corporate world, the BBC, a priest, an employee of the Wellcome Collection, an academic and a cancer consultant working with Macmillan Cancer Support. The Institute relies on donations, grants and income from courses. There is no publicly available information that I could find on where those grants come from but it appears, for once, that Arts Council England aren’t involved.
I wonder if the trustees are truly aware of the content their website hosts and directs members of the public to? Presumably they must be because there was a great deal of fanfare that Franko B had agreed to submit his work into their LGBTQ+ archive, and, several weeks after the event, the news was pinned to the bottom of the home page and all other pages on the website.
Who is Franko B?
Born in Milan, Italy, Franko B moved to London in 1979, integrating into the anarcho-punk scene. He began performing in nightclubs and, by way of his blood performances, was later responsible for bringing subversive body art into the leading art institutions, such as ICA, Tate Modern, and Arnolfini. A pioneering artist, Franko B uses his body as a tool to explore the themes of the personal, political, poetic, resistance, suffering, and mortality. Bishopsgate Institute is thrilled to provide a home to an extensive archive of Franko’s physical and digital artworks and materials, along with materials he has collected from other LGBTQ+ artists over his career.Blurb from Bishopsgate’s website – my italics
I first came across Franko B as a teen when one of his ‘blood performances’ was given TV coverage. It may well have been this segment here from his 1998 appearance on the Southbank Show (be warned it features acts of sadomasochism). At the time I remember thinking the performance was for his own gratification, especially since the reasons he gave for doing it didn’t add up. In those early days he would paint himself white all over, or rather helpers did, and then play with his own blood in different ways. People paid money to see this.
Perhaps I’d gained an unfair impression of him as on his website Franko B has put together some of the interviews he has done over the years, presumably the ones he really likes, in which he is rather less monosyllabic. Perhaps with time he got better at explaining himself, or the journalists had been generous in the edit? Either way, to mitigate for some of the criticisms levelled at him, he explains that he paints himself white so as to not to complicate the image with his extensive tattooing, that the collection of his blood is done clinically, rather than cutting himself, and that he uses his own body to demonstrate his message so as to not exploit other bodies (though surely his helpers may have felt exploited?).
His first ever performance, according to this interview, was in a fetish/SM gay club where he ‘came in a wheelchair pushed by a woman dressed up as a nurse and I had a oxygen mask and was waiving McDonald flags, blood bags attached to my body, which I then cut it and threw it at the audience’. Later the gay press reported that onlookers felt this was unethical. Franko B justifies his behaviour because he knew people in the club were into having unsafe sex. In that interview he claims that he did cut himself to collect his blood.
Franko B had a traumatic childhood being bought up by the Red Cross in an orphanage for boys. As I understand it, this was because his mother was physically abusive and when she briefly came back into his life as a teen to claim him from the system he was distressed by her reappearance and wanted her to go away. Undoubtedly he is a survivor.
The conversation with Franko B
The man who interviewed Franko B was Stefan Dickers, the Special Collections and Archives Manager at Bishopsgate Institute, and no doubt the person responsible for bringing in the fetish archive. Since the sound in the hall was very poor and Franko B’s train of thought difficult to follow it has been difficult to put this together.
Franko B had cleverly used the opportunity of the launch, naturally attended by many of his friends, colleagues and students, to have a little party, so there was a disco afterward, DJ’ed by himself.
Dickers and Franko B first met at an archive conference held at Bristol University, where the other half of his collection is held, and Dickers described his jealousy on learning this. A month after this encounter Franko B emailed Dickers and offered his materials to the Institute.
How important is it to you to have your work in one of the biggest LGBTQ archives?
Franko B responded that he liked that the archive was situated in London, mentioned ‘LGBT people’ fighting for the miners during the strike and also ‘lots of porno’, presumably a reference to the fact the archive holds a lot pornographic material and wanted to be associated with that. He realised that he was aging and was thinking about his legacy. He was still in contact with the archivist in Bristol, still prepared to offer them more material. He also mentioned ‘months and months of dark room sex’, but I don’t know the context of the remark.
The Brixton days
When Franko B first came to the UK he lived in Brixton. He arrived in June 1979 and worked in an Italian restaurant, sometimes sleeping rough. Taking magic mushrooms resulted in an end to the job and then he started to mix with British people, taking a squat in Brixton and then becoming part of a gay housing co-op. Political education came through involvement with an anarchist book shop. He became vegetarian. Then he met a woman who invited him to a pottery class, she became interested in him while he became interested in pottery. Looking back on himself to that time he believes that he was ’emotionally retarded’ and still is to an extent, but much better. Formal art training was at Chelsea, he had to work three jobs but got a little help from a grant. The performance art began in 1994.
What were the reactions to the performances?
Unsurprisingly Franko B’s performances scared people but he felt it was on the background of the AIDS epidemic. He enjoyed the performances and he took great delight in seeing the horrified reaction of the crowd, mimicking for us the gasps of shock from his audiences.
Another performance artist he had appreciated at the time was a woman who ‘cooked a fucking egg with her pussy’ who then ate the egg. ‘Fucking brilliant,’ Franko B enthused. The audience were eager to make suggestions about how the artist could be found.
It was 1995 that he began his long relationship with the ICA, having made a connection with one of the female curators there, but eventually broke off that relationship, apparently criticised for being too experimental. In 2003 he would DJ in the dark rooms in Vauxhall.
There was also activism and getting arrested following a protest at Australia House. He and his compatriots chained themselves to the bridge but quickly got bored and unchained themselves.
He talked about the personal is political and that sometimes, if you were lucky, you could also be poetic (which sounded like he was parroting someone).
Do you consider your work controversial?
Franko B denied that he did, despite the anecdotes just minutes before reveling in the shock he’d manage to generate. ‘Life is shocking,’ he said. People shouldn’t be shocked by the sight of my willy, he told us, as if that was what he had principally become known for, rather than semi-cannibalistic performances with his own blood. I believe he then went onto deny that his work was pornographic, finishing dumbly ‘I love porn’. ‘You’ve come to the right archive,’ quipped Dickers.
‘Whenever I come to visit you, I never know what you’re going to pull out of a carrier bag,’ said Dickers
This provoked an anecdote from Franko B from the time he performed in Croatia with a ‘double-fucking dildo’. The anecdote fell flat. I suspect no one could understand what he was saying (I know I certainly couldn’t), rather than casting a shade at him.
I think after that there was a question about how did he decide what to do next, art-wise. Revealingly Franko B felt it was a lot to do with luck and I’m inclined to agree. He told us of a student he had worked with who had done a particular canvas which involved stitching. Franko B liked the outcome so decided to do one of his own. The student naturally didn’t like this, and Franko B told him ‘we can compete if you want’, pointing out there was no copyright in art making.
Everybody is a monster in some way.Franko B.
Has anyone pissed you off in copying your work?
Yes, came the swift answer and an inaudible of who and why. One thing I did hear though was that he hated the art duo Gilbert & George describing them as egotistical arseholes (I suspect the real issue is the size of their bank accounts and fame).
He also told us that a fellow art lecturer had told him off about shocking students, ‘yeah, fuck off,’ he told her. This was not a one-off, others had reprimanded him about his teaching style.
Questions were then opened up to the floor and someone who knew him in a personal capacity asked the question:
With your ceramics there is a huge amount of work done around ‘lost boys’ -am I allowed to ask about that?
Franko B was happy to talk. Lost Boys was an installation that had been exhibited in Ireland before covid, a cross made up of about 200 small figures. The work was about all the boys that he met when he lived in the orphanage. He was there for four years but others came and went much quicker. The idea to make these figures came to him early in his study, he had identified with the figurines, but it wasn’t until much later that he did the work.
A question about Brixton
Franko B talked about knowing the artist Sonia Boyce and that there had been a gay community in Brixton at the time, which was on ‘the frontline’ (whatever that means). The squat that he lived in had become a co-op. When the council sold the building onto a housing association they had tried to evict him. He took them to court and won and the council were forced to provide him with a similar accommodation. He held the position of secretary of the housing co-op. I suspect his understanding of how institutions worked helped him immensely in outwitting the civil servants. He had no lawyer, just argued for himself in court. Brixton was a good place to be until the invasion of yuppies in the late 80s but he did experience being shouted at for being gay, ‘batty boy’ and the like, before that.
Franko B was charming and funny but those who knew him were wary. On the tables at the back there was a selection of his things given to the archive; I wasn’t impressed. His success appears to be incidental to my mind. Porn has clearly been a constant in his life and work and his time spent on the SM fetish club scene must have been the main inspiration for his early works. Perhaps he was the first to realise the performances he saw in the clubs could be directly transferred into the contemporary art world? No doubt he was inspired by the likes of Leigh Bowery, another regular of that scene, whose appearances on The Clothes Show, shown at teatime on the BBC, groomed a generation into not recognising a clothing fetish when we saw one. There seems little difference between the pornography of artists like Franko B and pornography in general, except for the high production values.
On the issue of Bishopsgate though, it is objectionable that they celebrate commercial exploitative enterprises whilst still claiming a socialist legacy. There appears to be zero understanding or concern by Bishopsgate that victims of sex trafficking and/or child abuse often end up in the sex industry/perform in porn (Franko B himself an example of this). Nor has any consideration been given to how sexual exploitation fits in with their socialist history or how endorsing such an exploitative industry benefits the public. They need to remove: ‘Our purpose has not changed’ from their motto because really this is a radical departure, but sadly replicated across many left wing spaces nowadays.
Thank you for reading! Sign up to my blog by going to the bottom of the page.
Please share on other forums if you liked it, as I only do Twitter.