Correspondence as Care: Writing to Bessie and Cookie (October 2021)

A presentation and discussion of work in progress by Gemma Blackshaw and Alice Butler.

Wednesday 6th October 2021, 16.00 to 17.30 BST (work in progress – this session was not recorded).

Bessie Bruce, a dancer, singer and portrait sitter, was born in 1886 in London’s “lung,” the industrious (impoverished, infectious) East End. A TB health tourist from the age of nineteen, travelling across Europe in search of a cure; hemorrhages would not kill her until the age of thirty-five. 

Cookie Mueller, a dancer, actress, writer and portrait sitter, was born into the suburbs of Baltimore, USA, in 1949. It wasn’t the name her family originally gave her, but “Somehow,” as she writes in “My Bio—Notes on an American Childhood,” “I got the name Cookie before I could walk.” In 1989, on the night the Berlin wall came crashing down, she died of a cardiac arrest caused by AIDS. 

Bessie and Cookie are our sick women correspondents, born a century apart but brought together in the contagious proximities and temporal slippages of our cross-historical letter writing. Following recent queer and feminist work on reparative and erotic temporalities and caring in and through time, we ask: how can we reach them, even feel them, in affective relation? How can we come to know them, if we ever can? Could they come to know each other via literal, figurative, and typographical understandings of correspondence? And how—in reaching, feeling, almost-knowing—might we care for each other back in time, in the here and now, and hoped-for future, expanding our understanding of feminist art history as praxis, as care, and of the literary forms of care feminist praxis in art history might take? 

These questions have led us to letter writing as a method, to creative modes of feminist art historical research, to correspondence as material, site, and metaphor, which we will perform, theorize and reflect upon as embodied-theoretical practices of care. Our presentation and discussion of work in progress will comprise a collage of different materials: letters, pictures, papers; traces, pieces, voices; memories, histories, fantasies. Cut out, pieced together, juxtaposed, our collage will engage with confabulation not only as feminist method but also as feminist form.

Professor Gemma Blackshaw is an art historian, writer and curator at the Royal College of Art, London. A specialist in what she terms the “clinical modernism” of art in Vienna 1900, she works on the intersection of modernist portraiture and figuration with clinical medical cultures in early 20th Europe. Feminist archival, curatorial and writing practices which revolve around care, attention and reparation are central to her research, as demonstrated in her current and recent projects: Clinical Modernism: Art, Medicine and Experience in Vienna 1900, a monograph in process, CARE(LESS), a publication on the activation of creative research methods as means of caring, and The Body Electric, an exhibition at the Leopold Museum, Vienna, on drawings she discovered by unknown queer artist/patient Erwin Osen. 

Dr Alice Butler is the 2021/2022 Terra Foundation Centre for American Art Postdoctoral Fellow at The Courtauld Institute of Art, and she also teaches in Critical and Historical Studies at the Royal College of Art. An interdisciplinary scholar and art writer, she specialises in the intersections of feminist art and writing to explore questions of sickness, sexuality, and gender, via feminist and queer perspectives and experimental approaches to archive and autotheory. She is currently working on a number of research projects: a monograph on the sick desires of Kathy Acker and Cookie Mueller’s interdisciplinary art writing, an edited collection of essays on gesture and feminist art, and a new project investigating the interrelation of textiles, sickness, and perversion.

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