Belated artefacts: Preface for a previously unpublished open letter

Radclyffe Hall, Flora Dunster, Laura Guy and Mason Leaver-Yap

In June of 2019, researchers Flora Dunster, Laura Guy and Mason Leaver-Yap jointly authored an open letter. Their prompt was a contemporaneous article on Hyperallergic that attempted to chronicle the life and work of photographer Tessa Boffin (1960–1993). The open letter initially appears to be a rebuttal. Certainly, the writers take issue with many of the claims in the Hyperallergic piece, and critique the methodological approach and archival research of its author. However, the June letter also includes a more expansive reflection on the different types of work required when dealing with materials and archives that emerge from the trauma and burnout closely associated with political activism—work that needs to be particularly careful when many of the subjects of those materials and archives (specifically queer subjects) are still alive and working, albeit in a different contemporary political landscape. The open letter probes the conflicts and intersections between academic research, archival access, scarcity and visibility. It examines the exhaustion of visibility as a tool when researching minority positions, and questions why this happens.

The open letter was never published in the time period it was intended to be read. For one, the editors of Hyperallergic agreed to amend the original article to reflect and encompass a different version of events before publication of the letter was confirmed, and so the urgency to challenge the original article’s claims lessened. Secondly, the open letter had no clear ‘home’; its detail was too scholarly for a culture and entertainment blog, and too responsive for an academic journal context. The decision was to put the text on hold indefinitely.

Radclyffe Hall has resurfaced this letter for Yaby and presents it as a ‘just-past’ artefact—one which deals with unpublished but not unspoken histories. Its belated publication in 2022 is attentive to the language and ideas that were circulating in the ‘just-before’ moment prior to the global pandemic. The letter is also emblematic of writing that falls out of circulation not because of the importance of what it does (or doesn’t) say, but because of publishing’s awkwardness when asking what is at stake when dealing with living memory. The letter encourages Radclyffe to wonder how to be faithful to the vulnerabilities of such questions, subjects and communities.

There is also something usefully perverse and productive in publishing this out-of-sync text within the current context of an experimental contemporary art journal. It allows a reader a position that the writers could not have anticipated, and yet, as the writers’ themselves describe, the letter helpfully continues to point to the “precarious ways that cultures emerge and find meaning both within and outside of the historical moment to which they belong.”

- Radclyffe Hall


Absence has often been a defining character of lesbian culture and its histories. When the lexicon of ‘queer’ entered the academy in the early 1990s, writers such as Annamarie Jagose and Mandy Merck identified the contradictory idea that invisibility might be a condition through which the term ‘lesbian’ becomes legible in histories and theories of queer culture. Whilst lesbian served a defining role in the new queer theory as a kind of foil – an essentialist past against which queer could map itself – it also occupied a place of unmined potentiality. Thus lesbian exerts on queer a “temporal drag”, as Elizabeth Freeman put it in 2000, working against the progressive logic of mainstream LGBT+ liberal politics, the limits of which are painfully obvious at present.

In this respect, we read with interest our colleague Ksenia M. Soboleva’s essay “How Tessa Boffin, One of the Leading Lesbian Artists of the AIDS Crisis, Vanished From History”, published on Hyperallergic (June 17, 2019). As Soboleva identifies, Tessa Boffin was a photographer who, from the mid-1980s until her suicide in 1993, sought new representational forms for lesbian subjectivity. Her work responded to a context of state sanctioned homophobic violence and the HIV/AIDS crisis as it was experienced in the UK during that period. Soboleva’s article is part of a series of essays commissioned by Hyperallergic, with support from Swann Auction Galleries, to mark the fifty-year anniversary of Stonewall – an event which represents, at least to a US audience, the advent of the modern gay liberation movement. It is through this lens that Soboleva frames Boffin as one of queer culture’s underrepresented protagonists, a forgotten figure whose own work as a photographer addressed the mechanisms of erasure in historical narrative.

Soboleva’s article attributes the erasure of Boffin’s work to a number of factors that focuses on the tensions – rather than the affinities – that might define queer community. To this, we add that Boffin’s “vanishing” (as the headline for the feature reads) is relative to the hegemony of North American narratives which inform art history and art markets. Boffin’s curtailed legacy is stronger within the UK, a testament to her importance in British LGBT+ communities both historical and contemporary. Toward the end of her life, Soboleva writes, Boffin created performances like the Crucifixion Cabaret (1992) with her partner Nerina Ferguson, in which the two performed hard-core sex acts onstage. Dressed as a Roman centurion, Boffin fisted the menstruating Ferguson who, in the context of the performance, served as Boffin’s ‘slave’. As Cherry Smyth has written, the performance broke multiple taboos, not only because the fisting occurred without a glove and was therefore seen as promoting unsafe sex, but also because the event was performed for (and included) gay men, manifesting the kind of mixed-gender fetish space that was still relatively new on the queer scene.

As Soboleva rightly suggests, accounts of the performance recall Ron Athey’s similarly hard-core live works and the scene developing in Los Angeles around Club Fuck! But the parallel Soboleva draws between the photographer Del LaGrace Volcano’s (then Della Grace or Della Disgrace) concern regarding blood in the Crucifixion Cabaret and the furore surrounding Athey’s work at the height of the American Culture Wars is superficial. Her assessment, which aligns Volcano’s own response with the homophobia that underscores responses to Athey’s work, fails to account for the vast power differential which distinguishes Volcano’s written expression of discomfort, articulated from within the community to which they both belonged, from the institutional push-back which Athey has repeatedly met. In this way, it elides the highly charged political and emotional dynamics within LGBT+ landscapes during the 1980s and ‘90s.

Boffin and Volcano were in close dialogue, both as practitioners and friends. Volcano was included by Boffin and Jean Fraser in their book Stolen Glances: Lesbians Take Photographs (1991) in which the editors wrote in their introduction that, along with the work of Morgan Gwenwald and Jill Posener, Volcano’s photography “appropriate[s] the visual codes of pornography precisely in order to hijack heterosexual sites and customs”. There is a far closer correspondence between Volcano and Boffin’s work than between Boffin and American counterparts. Sympathies between the two artists’ approaches are legible through a shared history, both inhabiting London’s queer spaces, and as key figures in the network that comprised the UK’s so-called independent photography scene at the time. Though there are dissimilarities between the aesthetic approaches of the two photographers, both encountered criticism and censorship throughout their careers. Whereas various galleries refused to stage Boffin’s exhibitions, Volcano’s book Love Bites was published by the Gay Men’s Press when no women’s press would do so. When the book appeared, some gay and feminist bookshops refused to stock it, revealing the intricacy of debates surrounding the representation of sex at this time. In this sense, Volcano’s criticism of the Crucifixion Cabaret needs to be understood in light of debates about what constituted safe sex practices for dykes as well as discussions that engaged with the racialised connotations of the master-slave dynamic in BDSM that partially framed criticisms of the lesbian club scene in London at this time.

Testimony given by those involved in lesbian community in London in the early 1990s, such as during events associated with the forthcoming feature film Rebel Dykes, gestures to a recent history that is multiple and fraught. Impacted by direct experiences of the HIV/AIDS crisis and Section 28 (the legislation in the UK that prohibited the ‘promotion’ of gay and lesbian perspectives in public institutions), many individuals encountered burnout after years of direct action and activism to which the contribution of lesbians was crucial. Writing histories of this time means engaging with the precarious nature of memory, as well as experiences of trauma that are never consigned solely to the past. But it also means engaging in the energy and vitality of a culture rooted in lesbian political community. To this end, while Soboleva chooses to stress darker aspects of Boffin’s life, it important to emphasise Boffin’s role as an organising figure in London’s queer photography scene: a teacher, an activist, a friend and a lover. As Nerina Ferguson noted, she wanted “to be remembered by the fact that she did everything she wanted, in life, love and death”. To read Boffin primarily through the lens of her suicide is to pathologise her practice and risk flattening the texture of her life. It is a manouver disproportionately applied to women artists, and stereotypical of lesbian representations.

When Boffin died in the early 1990s she left little explanation for her suicide, but she did leave a handwritten note requesting that her archives be maintained by her friends, including Fraser, the art historian and AIDS activist Simon Watney, the photographer Sunil Gupta with whom she collaborated on the book and exhibition Ecstatic Antibodies: Resisting the AIDS Mythology in 1990, and Jo Nelson, who organised the acquisition of some of Boffin’s personal effects, including her library and teaching materials, to the University of the Creative Arts, Rochester, UK. It is because of these individuals that Boffin’s work continues to be accessible to various scholars and curators. But it is significant to note that one of the letters that Soboleva refers to in her argument was recently withdrawn from public circulation by archivists at UCA. Restrictions to collections are sometimes applied as a result of requests by the individuals concerned. At other times, it is a process enacted independently by archivists as collections are catalogued, with decisions made in accordance with the professional bodies to which archivists belong (in the UK, this is The Archives and Record Association). We do not know why the decision was made to place restrictions on the letters held within the Tessa Boffin collection at UCA, but one of the items referred to by Soboleva is no longer available to researchers.

We are conscious that the ethical responsibilities of archives held at universities differ from those of their users, and might even, at times, be subject to ideologically conflicting positions. (Think, for example, of the controversy surrounding records relating to paramilitary activity in Ireland held at Boston College, when litigators – acting on behalf of the Police Service of Northern Ireland – successfully requested access to a collection that researchers had promised would remain closed until after the deaths of individuals concerned.) Whereas placing restrictions on archival materials is an ethical practice undertaken by archives in order to protect themselves and the living individuals they implicate from legal ramifications, writing on recent histories of lesbian culture is determined by different factors – namely, the specific dynamics that characterise any community of individuals. Groups who are drawn together through complex experiences of marginalisation and oppression, not to mention desire and pleasure, are riven with the tumult produced through intimacy as indeed they are with ideological rifts between different factions. These material conditions raise questions for historians working outside of that moment and outside of those communities, albeit in proximity to some of their members.

Clearly, the work of Boffin, Volcano and their contemporaries offers much to articulations of queer subjectivity in our political present. Where Boffin’s images have been included in recent exhibitions such as Resist: be modern (again) (on display until 17 August 2019 at John Hansard Gallery, Southampton), broader reinterest in lesbian-identified photography of the 1980s and ‘90s is discernable in the current research of scholars such as Lexi Bard Johnson, Tara Burk, Catherine Grant and Soboleva, as well as in various high profile exhibitions in the UK (Still I Rise, Nottingham Contemporary; De La Warr Pavillion, Bexhill; Kiss My Genders, Hayward Gallery, London), and the US (Art After Stonewall, 1969-1989, Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio; Grey Art Gallery, Leslie-Lohman Museum, New York City). The attention paid to archives of lesbian artists whose work has been marginalised relative to more established contemporaries (including by ourselves) can be contextualised by a desire to find alternative, even resistant, histories of queer culture at our present political moment. Yet it can also be contextualised by another, distinct yet interconnected facet of contemporary culture – namely, the appetite of both the art world and the academy to mine archives of lesser known artists in the interests of accruing capital.

Although lesbian-identified artists have often sought to address an absence of representation, perhaps the lens of visibility, or lack thereof, is no longer a useful way to account for histories of lesbian culture. The supposed marginalisation of lesbian perspectives in queer politics continues to offer trans-exclusionary radical feminism a powerful rhetorical device. Restating paucity as a condition of lesbian existance also paradoxically serves to obscure, rather than promote, the myriad practices that have been generated, and continue to proliferate, under its terms. Finally, rendering art history a kind of magical reappearance act threatens to reproduce straightforward correlations between artworks and the identities of the artists who made them. Feminist and queer historiography has often warned against the potentially pathologising or moralising affects of approaches that suture an artist’s practice to their biography.

In this light, it seems that the anti-essentializing forms of representation that Boffin and her collaborators sought have much to offer queer art history as it proceeds. Informed by workerist and anti-colonial politics, and coupled with the insights of post-structuralist theory, feminist perspectives contributed to a major shift in historiography from the 1960s onward – a shift that broadly contested the empirical certitude of the document. Boffin’s work was closely related to these critiques as they intersected with photography in the 1970s and ‘80s. Under the rubric of the ‘politics of representation’, practitioners and theorists challenged the truth claim of the photographic image. This new theory emerged from various centres internationally including the Polytechnic of Central London where, as a student, Boffin was tutored by Watney and through him encountered the ideas of writers like Victor Burgin and John Tagg. As Boffin and Fraser gathered material for Stolen Glances, they argued that the denaturalisation of photography as a medium of evidence and epistemic violence and the denaturalisation of lesbian identity were conceptually compatible projects. The legacy of the moment is one that is broadly felt, not just in photography education in the UK but also in the theoretical insights of what can be retroactively identified as the nascent project of queer theory as it developed, differently, on both sides of the Atlantic. The work of Boffin, Fraser, Volcano and many others testifies to the precarious ways that cultures emerge and find meaning both within and outside of the historical moment to which they belong. It is in this sense that we might ask what types of politics emerge when lesbian appears – that is, what lesbian does – rather than focus on the conditions of appearance alone.

Flora Dunster lectures in Critical Studies at Central Saint Martins, and at other institutions across the UK. Her research focuses on the politics of queer and lesbian photography in Britain during the 1980s and 1990s. In 2019 she completed a PhD at the University of Sussex, and in 2020 was a Paul Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow. A recent essay on Sunil Gupta is published in the Third Text issue "Imagining Queer Europe", and a chapter on the pamphlet series "Lesbians Talk" is forthcoming in the volume Resist, Organize, Build : Feminist and Queer Activism in Britain and the United States during the Long 1980s (SUNY, 2022). She is currently finishing a book on Tessa Boffin, Del LaGrace Volcano, and queer British art.

Laura Guy is a writer and curator based in Glasgow where she works as a lecturer at Glasgow School of Art. Her research on queer and feminist art has been published widely. She is editor of Phyllis Christopher, Dark Room: San Francisco Sex and Protest, 1988-2003 (Bookworks, 2022) and co-editor with Glyn Davis of Queer Print in Europe (Bloomsbury, 2022).

Mason Leaver-Yap works with artists to produce texts, exhibitions, and events. He has recently been working with Ingrid Pollard, Renée Green and Free Agent Media, Renèe Helèna Browne, Onyeka Igwe, Lin+Lam, Uri Aran, Oreet Ashery, Iman Issa, Jimmy Robert, Jamie Crewe, and Beatrice Gibson.

Radclyffe Hall is occasionally a concomitant group of artists and writers dedicated to exploring culture, aesthetics and learning through the lens of contemporary feminism. In Deep Down Body Thirst (2018) and Hot Moment (2020), Radclyffe presented Tessa Boffin's photographs, personal archival materials, and other ephemera drawn from Boffin's Estate and other special collections. Without fixed membership or base, Radclyffe has no named individuals. Radclyffe’s activities also occur anonymously or under other names.