Programme: Art - PhD/MPhil

Start date: September 2016

Mode of study: Full time

Research title: Every Contact Leaves A Trace: A Forensic Feminist Investigation into Women Administrators, Gentrification and the Artist Studio.

Naomi Pearce is a writer and curator who collaborates with artists to produce essays, podcasts, books, exhibitions and events. Recurring themes include the politics of artistic production and gentrification as they intersect with feminist legacies, death and discourses of desire.

Recent projects include OSTEON, Matt's Gallery, London and Every Contact Leaves a Trace, Scottish Sculpture Workshop, Lumsden. Her essays, reviews and fiction have been published by The Happy Hypocrite, The White Review, Film and Video Umbrella, Art Monthly, Art Review and SALT Magazine, amongst others. From 2009 she co-founded the Woodmill, a studio and gallery project based in Bermondsey, South London until 2014.

In the early 1970s, artists in London worked together to establish studios in former industrial buildings across the city. This model, and its role within gentrification, has been well-documented in scholarship. Women administrators, often pivotal figures in the infrastructure of such organisations, and the impact of their work, has been largely ignored. My practice-based thesis challenges this marginalisation from the perspectives of Letty Mooring, Shirley Read and Rita Keegan; women working within studios who supported themselves financially through administration.

To conduct this enquiry, I developed a forensic feminist methodology combining archival research, interviews, critical fabulation and situated writing. This embodied approach explores the shifting status of material evidence by re-tracing the residue of past events, attending to feelings in archival documents, and connecting my own experiences as an administrator to those of Mooring, Read and Keegan. The aim is to cultivate a somatic knowledge of cultural memory, producing new forms of interdisciplinary writing that evidence encounters, working to impress feelings and sensations onto the reader as an act of commemoration. The question driving my methodology is: what can be learned through our body and our senses? To inform this somatic approach I observed cadaveric dissections and forensic anthropology practicals at a teaching mortuary in Scotland. Definitions of mortality and remodelling, learnt during this fieldwork, are transposed onto studio sites, whilst mortuary practices are used to question issues of visibility, ethical responsibility and agency in the archive.

The thesis has four parts:

Every Contact Leaves A Trace: Skeletal Argument outlines my forensic feminist methodology alongside a selection of fieldnotes from the mortuary. These re-construct the site in textual form as a space for the reader to pass through before entering the archives investigated in the thesis. 

Casebook is made up of three casefiles, each focused on Mooring, Read or Keegan. This  stages the studio as a crime scene complicit with violent acts of gentrification, racial prejudice and sexual oppression. Sites investigated include St Katharine’s Dock, The Dairy, Prince of Wales Crescent and 10 Martello Street. The political legacies and limitations of artist registries the AIR Index (1968 – 1975) and the Women of Colour Index (1987 – 1992) are also analysed.

Every Contact Leaves A Trace: Summary returns to the mortuary to reflect on dissection’s relationship to archival research. In lieu of closing the cases the mystery novella Martello Street is proposed as an experimental vehicle for critiquing an epistemological pursuit of truth (Munt, 1994).

Martello Street, fabulates material from the Casebook to produce counter-narratives. In doing so I take up historian and literary scholar Saidiya Hartman’s call for artists and writers to challenge archival loss by ‘imagining what cannot be verified’ (2008, p. 12).

By addressing the lack of critical scholarship on the role of women administrators in the artist studio, my practice-based research offers tools for re-thinking this site and its legacies in order to expand the category of what an artist and their place of work might be.