Feminist Review

, Volume 115, Issue 1, pp 114–129 | Cite as

archive fanfiction: experimental archive research methodologies and feminist epistemological tactics



This essay proposes that subcultural practices such as gossip and fan writing are feminist epistemologies that can form radical archive inquiry and knowledge production, and creative outputs. Drawing on feminist new materialism and archive theory, I develop a set of principles for practice-based research methodologies that incorporate a researcher’s intersubjective relationship with archive matter (e.g. records, documents, classification systems, social-material contexts) and consider the production of knowledge from such research as forms of fabulation. Fabulation here is seen as part of a critically transgressive epistemological stance that expands feminist critiques of universalising master narratives and archive orthodoxies. My proposition, formed in part through a residency in the Woman’s Art Library in London, is to name such research gestures ‘archive fanfiction’, where experimental and practice-oriented method moves with feminist politics and activism.


archive research epistemology fan fiction gossip practice-based fabulation 

the Women’s Art Library

In 2014 to 2015 I undertook a practice-based research residency in the London-based Women’s Art Library. My aim for this residency was not only to produce a body of creative writing, but for the writing to be a dynamic byproduct of the research methodology. My intention was to create research methods and strategies that generated fabulations (see, Scholes, 1976; Barr, 2008) of the research objects; fabulations being paradigmatic texts that debate, analyse and critique the archive materials, and therefore enact a research that resists the ideological orders and hierarchical principles of the archive. Robert Scholes (1976, p. 47) defines fabulation as ‘fiction that offers us a world clearly and radically discontinuous from the one we know, yet returns to confront that known world in some cognitive way’. The forms of fabulation I used in the Women’s Art Library archive (referred to as ‘WAL’ henceforth) and theorise are non-scholarly knowledge systems: gossip, anecdote and fan writing, or fan fiction. In this essay I will outline how this literary strategy for counter-narratives works against the grain of patriarchal categories of information. I have named this experimental fabulative research method ‘archive fanfiction’.

Archive fanfiction, as a fabulative form of knowledge production, creates generative dialogues between practice-based and scholarly inquiry. My work at the WAL was to respond to the collection materials and its catalogue using a poetic practice. My literary mode of engagement used anecdote and gossip as methods to generate a collection of poetry, critical fictions and literary fragments that perform responses to the history and function of the WAL collection. The stories and fan fictions I generated segue through the archive of personal correspondence, artists’ slides and administrative papers, as well as a poster archive documenting exhibitions, parties and activism in 1980s art and late second-wave feminist movements. In short, I developed anecdotal, gossiped and mistreated histories to form aberrant narratives from an inverted mode of archival research.

As part of my work, I appropriated and fictionalised elements from across the extensive collection of slides: collections of personal correspondence and the collections of key figures, such as the British feminist artist Jo Spence. In Spence’s collection, I encountered images of her body, read notes about her relationship with her mother and her illness, and read reviews and reproductions of her work. In artist Beverly Skinner’s collection, I saw her birth chart and read a detailed account of her poverty. The curriculum vitae and flyers in the WAL collection of emergent and unknown artists contribute to an entangled network of professional, personal, practice and critical exegesis, the details and differences of which are too diverse and uneven for one course of evaluation. I purposefully worked with the intensities of narratives that run through the content and organisational structure, as well as the semiotics particular to the archive in its labelling, the preservation and the gaps. This process fed into a theory of practice-based archive research that I seek to elaborate in this article.

I propose in this article that the terminology of fan fiction and similiar forms of knowledge are rogue, creative, outsider and critically active. I argue that approaching fan fiction as a research method does more than animate a mode of knowledge production that incorporates the will and desires of the researcher outside the official frame of a document; it recodifies how documents constitute evidence and treats the archive as interactive apparatus of discursive materialities through which new narratives (e.g. fictional, romantic, desiring, satirical, transgressive) can be produced. Alternative research methodologies and imaginations that operate against the archive structure are therefore political strategy as much as research gesture.

research gestures

With regards to the theorisation of research methods that produce innovative knowledge structures from archive material, I turn to Nina Lykke (2010) who has outlined the ways in which feminist methodology (i.e. rules and principles of research) and method (i.e. applied practice) has problematised orders of ‘proper research’. Proper research refers to the citing of a common notion of an object of study and therefore assumes a common embodied subject position of knowing in a way that, as Lykke (2010, pp. 31–49) points out, is antagonistic to the work done by theorists such as Judith Butler to dismantle a singular and fixed category of ‘woman’. This politically motivated corruption of proper research is in keeping with historical forms of feminist epistemology as laid out by Sandra Harding (1986, 1987, 1991), where questions of gender inform conceptions of knowledge, the knowing subject and practices of inquiry. It is in consonance with this position that I intend to draw out a system of innovative research gestures in which methodology, embodied archive principles, politics and creative practice are combined.

As well as a research that problematises a stable a priori research object and method, I wanted this research to produce ‘situated knowledges’ (Haraway, 1988) that recognise the location and agency of the knowledge producer and that of the object of study. In terms of feminist archive research, this draws out information formed through lived struggles and synergies of bodily materiality, subject positionality, the in media res of archive inquiry, and the social conditions into which the researcher is formed. In doing so, what gets produced are multiple heterogeneous stories rather than one master narrative.

Maria Tamboukou (2013) situates the archive as a spatio-temporal ‘research apparatus’ that co-produces meaning. For Tamboukou (ibid.), the distinct arrangement of an archive is an amalgamation of properties and forces that directly influence the formations of data and knowledges that are generated from it. Tamboukou uses feminist neo-materialist theories to frame the researcher’s questions and interpretations as ‘intra-actions’ of space/time/matter relations within the archive. The term ‘intra-action’ comes from feminist physicist Karen Barad’s (2007) theorisation of ‘agential-realism’, where things, objects, individuals and actions do not pre-exist their interaction as discrete entities or gestures; rather, they materialise through their intra-action and are configured as such through the connection. In my research, this material understanding of the modes in which data and information are derived from archive matter is about forces of influence. While I pertain to the agential-realist notion of intra-active subject and object, I include configuring details of personal identity, for instance the effects of gender, sexuality, memory and desire. Therefore, this set of principles that inform my understanding of innovative archive engagement are based on material relationalities, whilst including the swerves of desire that mutually impact on researcher and material. As Sarah Ahmed (2014, p. 13) states, ‘Research involves being open to being transformed by what we encounter’. Therefore, the researcher navigates and reconstitutes the records, whilst the archival apparatus influences acts of interpretation through organisational, ideological preconditions.

In her work on archive strategies and the process of ‘narrative phenomena’, which allow for the fields of experience that occur and inform interpretation in archive research, Tamboukou (2013) proposes that the material conditions—the social and physical situation of the mind and body in the space of a particular archive—co-produce the narratives that come out of the research as bodies of knowledge. Routines of travel to and from the documents, habits and rhythms of reading, for instance, add to the ‘material and discursive entanglements’ of meaning-making; this ‘entanglement’ of matter and meaning in ‘letters and diaries, archival practices, theoretical ideas and methodological strategies’ get reproduced in the written-up research (ibid., p. 17).

This terminology, which sees matter and agency as interrelated, helps figure the spatio-temporal networks of research gestures as formed through swerves of desire and pressures of influence. In other words, where things and feelings are mutually directing each other, the researcher’s motives are part of a complex scene of encounter and interaction. One such interaction is the place of archives, and the systems of power and institutional mechanisms that structure them.

archival encounters

To illustrate these discontinuities of investigation, I might ask a simple question: where is the Women’s Art Library? On one hand it is in the temperature-regulated stacks in a building in Goldsmiths, University of London in southeast London. Therefore, the signifying factors of the liberal art school, the urban borough’s jarring privileges and poverties, the car exhausts of the A2, and the joint-resident collections of Daphne Oram and Angus Fairhurst, might collaborate on the informational qualities of the WAL records. It is also the case that the WAL is in a network of similar archives that includes, for example, the Feminist Archives in Leeds and Bristol, or the Archive of Women Artists in Washington, DC. The WAL also belongs to any scene of discursive research space, formed in part by a given researcher’s routes and methods. These are the kinds of networks of signification that are ripe for new forms of meaning-making as part of a research methodology that shifts the frames of information.

This is to say that a research imagination can develop in such a way that its forms of knowing can occur by way of interaction with various agents of information. Considered in another way, frames of research can be seen as being created intersubjectively between the reader, the reading matter and the material contexts. Similarly, the practice of archive research has the potential to reveal the imperfect divisions between what is and is not part of research. In other words, embodied motives of re/searching can resist the normative lenses and functions of archive documents and prescribed relationships with them.

It is possible to see these relationships of resistance in Hélène Cixous’ (2007) work of theory and fiction, Manhattan, where the trajectories and shapes of research are formed through methods related to fandom or romantic desire. In Manhattan, Cixous (ibid.) discontinuously narrates a semi-autobiographical character’s experiences of study in major Western libraries of canonical literature. In the novel we are told that geographical location is subordinate to the desire paths, or unofficial routes of navigation, created by the protagonist’s reading:

In the USA I didn’t go from city to city but from one Library to the next, and even from one manuscript collection to the next. In my mind I took the boat that was moored between the columns of the British Museum for the monumental Beinecke Library, even if in reality I had to cross cities roads ports oceans and ports cities airports roads to get from Paris to London to New York to New Haven to Buffalo. (ibid., pp. 61–62)

Cixous’ gestures and passages of research that navigate between documents, through time and place, form a matrix of research gestures led by ‘feverishly’ motivated acts of engagement. The protagonist goes from one manuscript to the next, from Joyce to Shakespeare, from thought to feeling. Throughout Manhattan, the hunt and the desperation of research propels body and intellect through complexes of physical and sociopolitical spaces. It is a vivid portrait of the spatio–temporal grid created by every act and outcome of research, where the materials consulted (for instance, the Finnagens Wake notebooks in Buffalo) are in what Cixous (ibid., p. 60) calls ‘mad diaspora’.

The incongruities of research experience, and the affective turns that orientate the reading subject, interrelate to the material conditions and power dynamics of the particular institution as well as the instantiating authority of the archive. Cixous’ (ibid., p. 62) reader went to ‘interview the giants’. This is the heroic fantasy of archive research, where the scholar, on a lone tour of erudition, enters the temple and gains direct contact to historical figures of knowledge acquisition (see Steedman, 2001). But I want to move away from this model of intellectual discovery that looks to the core origin of knowledge (see Derrida, 1998; Cvetkovich, 2003; Gopinath, 2010). There is a much more practical and communal routine of communication that shapes a research project. I would add to the set of material conditions that inform researching and meaning-making as discussed by Tamboukou (2013): the significant relationship that the researcher builds with the archive custodian. Whether one courts a friendship or tries to maintain an objective quietude around the worker positioned there in the room with them, fetching and carrying boxes, the developed intimacy or lack thereof with the archivist, influences the relationship the researcher has with the material, guiding their interpretation of it. This personable scene of interaction is not to move away from the new materialist theories of Barad (2007) and Tamboukou (2013), but to consider them within a set of principles where all forms of communication are epistemically and ontically interrelated.

gossip, anecdote and aberrant method

In the WAL my research strategy was to be led, in part, by the collection custodian, Althea Greenan, and her memories and testimonies of the material. Greenan not only has a deep knowledge and critical overview of the material, she is also invested personally and professionally in the collection’s story, its political mandate and history. She is sympathetic to practitioner-researchers navigating the collection through diffused categories and protective of what the collection historically represents: a platform for the advancement of women in contemporary art. It is also relevant that she has a likeable, magnetic personality and is a natural storyteller. I am hesitant to draw Althea Greenan’s position in my project on the basis of her friendliness and the ‘care’ role she occupies, as I am aware of how women get caught in these reproducing stereotypes. My aim rather is to situate the personal testimony and the unofficial friendships, the collectives, the unauthorised systems of knowledge production and dispersal as having critical potential. This positioning of ‘informal’, fragmented communicative forms of knowledge interrelates lived experience and scholarly interpretation, such that material and socio-political conditions are mutually constitutive.

My aim was to devise a methodology that incorporated the entanglement of the WAL’s repository systems as well as its origin legend, myths and instantiating characters. The library was originally formed through an artist’s initiative to be a depository for documentation of women’s artwork with a membership system. It developed into a publishing organisation with a periodical of critical writing in the early 1990s. When this phase ended in 2002, what had been a multifaceted organisation became an archive, one of international significance that documents over twenty years of women’s art practice in twenty feet of archival files. Integral to the collection’s biography are clashes of intergenerational feminisms, funding bodies, management fallouts, and the physical move in 2003 to Goldsmiths’ Special Collection—a migration that came with material preservation principles and institutional practices (Greenan, 2007). The WAL’s documents relate to the theoretical and shifting political milieu of second-wave feminism and feminist art theories on the social, sexual and divisions of labour. Such shifts in feminist discourse are represented in the archives of the WAL’s own magazine, recently anthologised as a selection of articles in Twenty Years of MAKE Magazine (Throp and Walsh, 2015) that refer to historical relations between feminist art theory and feminisms of protest and liberation movements, as seen in articles such as Carole Enahoro’s ‘The other story’ (ibid., pp. 196–201) and Griselda Pollock’s ‘Trouble in the archives’ (ibid., pp. 226–231). When the library was started, it was in itself an act of resistance. It operated as a committee that was open, democratic, and based on friendship and self-preservation as practitioners (Greenan, 2007). Therefore, for me to orientate research gestures around mutual peer debate, informal chat and expert guidance, was a calculated research methodology where personal entanglements and radical tactics were put to work as critical knowledge production.

Conversing with Greenan, as well as following her personal memories of the material in a way that interweaves expert knowledge with personal relationship, is arguably a research gesture that creates new meaning and relationships to the archived materials. This is to instigate a technique of thought and knowledge that parallels the genealogies of the WAL archive and activates the value of what Michel Foucault (1980) has termed, ‘subjugated knowledges’. On the value of different strategies of discourse, Foucault (ibid., p. 82) argued for the legitimacy of unqualified or ‘disqualified knowledges’, that comes from the agents and practically, historically, entangled subjects of the field, rather than the authoritative orders of erudition, ‘such as that of the psychiatric patient, of the ill person, of the nurse, of the doctor - parallel and marginal as they are to the knowledges of medicine’. This is what can also be termed as ‘popular knowledge’ (le savoir des gens) and ‘particular, local, regional knowledge, a differential knowledge incapable of unanimity’, and therefore does not claim to produce a coherence of theory or science. It is through the activation of the so-called local popular knowledges and disqualified knowledges that we get a heterogeneous efficacy through which ‘criticism performs its work’ (ibid.).

It is also relevant to the practice of researching a collection such as the WAL, which documents political struggle and exists to combat relegation of gendered histories, that these subjugated, disqualified knowledges are, in Foucault’s (ibid., p. 83) words, concerned with the ‘historical knowledge of struggles’, where local memories of hostile encounters and conflicts that have since become marginalised, are given the potential to emerge as genealogies (or, in Foucauldian [1977] terms, as series of subjective interpretations and deconstructions of truth that include supposedly non-historical elements such as sexuality). Therefore, the tactics a researcher deploys have to be themselves discursive, anti-hegemonic and genealogical so that subject-orientated knowledges are thus ‘released’ and brought into play. In other words, research methods that activate subjugated, unofficial knowledges of struggle and popular experience, political activism and artistic practice, must operate on these terms. This approach to methodology incorporates the material conditions of the archive apparatus, its genealogies and subject relations.

Surreptitious modes of knowledge exchange and communication that run through the institutional corridors and cut across dominant systems of power, constitute transgressive criticisms and practices of interpretation. Strategies for reading and interpretation, as well as writing and reproducing, that harness these unclassified forms of information, have drawn from 1980s to 1990s postmodern theory that Irit Rogoff (2002, p. 58) describes as ‘structures of knowing and alternative epistemologies which are actually informed by the conjunction of subjectivities, pleasures, desires’. One such form of surreptitious knowing is anecdote. Anecdote functions as a particular form of oral knowledge and is etymologically an unpublished, unauthorised thing. Crucially, the anecdote places the speaker in a conflict of authorship and problematised dynamic within notions of truth and testimony. I argue that these are critically productive problems when looking for creative interventions in archival legitimacies.

An anecdote is performative of a certain ‘witnessing’ and works on the basis of the speaker inserting themselves into narratives, thereby giving form and persuasive force to what is disparate and ephemeral (see Loveless, 2011; Motamedi Fraser, 2012). Significant to the expanded notion of research being drawn out here is that the anecdote is provocatively tied in with what Joel Fineman (2005, p. 61) calls, ‘the effect of the real’, and comes with a potentially problematic authority over the story. As peculiarly literary items, anecdotes conflate narrative and historicism, in that they are a ‘compact of both literature and reference’, thereby they write history through an operation that is ‘literary, contingent and referential’ (ibid., p. 57). However, rather than imposing master narratives that radical feminist epistemologies seek to dispose, the anecdote will only ever produce illegitimate notions in conflict with the fundamentals of archive science wherein documents are icons of objective evidence.


The anecdote’s potential as unclaimable, promiscuous and gendered, offers a generative link between sexuality and knowledge outside the established operations of academic archive knowledge production. In her treatise on quotidian narrative, Jane Gallop (2002) introduces this critical potential of the anecdote as part of the formation of critical theory, wherein the anecdotal puts the relationship between lived experience and critical theory into play. In a scene of entanglement of testimony, intellect and sexuality, body and affect, Gallop (ibid.) calls for an intersection of deconstruction, psychoanalytic theory and feminism; therefore, anecdotal theory as a practice does not replace impersonally abstract theory with the overtly personal, but rather provides a complex of ‘theory in the flesh of practice’ (ibid, p. 158). We can take from this that anecdote as research method, where body and affect are not divorced from the narrative formations that take place in the archive, creates a scene and event of knowledge production that again involves material conditions and social entanglements. For example, in my WAL research project, I created narratives linking archive materials and documents that only have abstract, ‘meta’ connections on the catalogue, drawing on Greenam’s anecdotal associations between items. Such co-joined materials included a letter from Rachel Whiteread refusing to be included in a special feature of the collection, and a selection of slides depicting paintings on the subject of motherhood. Like conventional research, the anecdote as method crafts a story from the material, but here any systematicity behind the archive documents is rehearsed as a literary effect of reality, rather than systemic truth. Therefore, an alternate knowledge is crafted through personally willed connections.

The sexual and affective excessiveness of gossip similarly provides a radical paradigm for plural categories of knowledge that postmodern, poststructuralist, new materialist and current archival theories seek to propagate. As a cultural narrative technology of problematising male doctrine (see Spacks, 1985), gossip is a kind of surreptitious epistemology, activated through oral culture, constituting queer and female communities. It exists through repetition, subversion, communication and relation. Rogoff (1995, 2002) has observed how gossip mobilises and constitutes communities, as well as how gossip provides genealogies according to Foucauldian critiques of preserved historical realisms which allow anything outside the official validated archive to be understood as gendered phantasmic projections.

In terms of research gestures, Rogoff (2002) specifies that following trajectories of gossip is necessary when researching women’s art practice at the margins of Modernism’s historical avant-garde where uncanonised artists, mistresses and illegitimate children are lingering. In other words, female and queer histories are already archived in gossip, in unsubstantiated rumours. This gesture alone reveals the ‘limitations of the archives as the sources for historical evidence, the categories by which they order their materials, the periodisation and historical and generic nominalism by which documents and facts are marshalled’ (ibid., p. 8).

Other theorists have used the given synergy between gossip and art history as a critical tool of investigation that is situated within a cultural scene or object of research. Gavin Butt’s (2005) queer art history of the New York art scene between 1948 and 1963 uses gossip to research the intersections of aesthetics, personal relationships, the art market and homosexuality. Here gossip as methodology creates an extended model of historical evidence, where traditional historical chronicling is mixed with gossipy fictions and sexual experience. On the other hand, Jan B. Gordon’s (2015, p. 242) figuring of the topologies of gossip in classic nineteenth-century novels is revealing of how the tactics of the gossip and the novelist, and I would add the archive researcher, follow similar moves of will and verve: ‘Like the novelist, the gossip makes patterns of meaning where only “thought and speech vortices” exist’. Therefore, figurations of plot and meaning-making found both in the practice of gossip and research gestures, rely on situated knowledges and transformative intensities of information. So to use gossip literally (e.g. activate the gossipness of the Whiteread letter) is arguably an ordinary tactic of archive research, but to create plot from disparate matter and to anecdotalise obscure index connections between materials, is to use gossip as method. While it has been argued that epistemes originating in the archive are founded on phallocentric and imperial systems of knowledge (see Smith, 1999), I am suggesting here that to use methodologies such as gossip and anecdote is to cut across the catalogue arrangements of a collection, to manifest counter plots and radical activity along the territory of the index.

While the technologies of gossip run subterranean to the technologies of the archive, we already practice the habits of a gossip when conducting archive research, eavesdropping on the scene as it takes shape. Where gossip has to be charged with a desirability, gossipy archive material is that which pertains to relationships (e.g. interpersonal, professional, romantic, parental, marketable) and the broad relationality of materials and actors in the activity of research. In other words, where the materials relate to each other and interpellate persons involved (including the interlocutor, the archivist, the researcher, all the people effected by the scene of events), the archive material becomes gossipy; its relationality becomes heightened and we feel ourselves in relation to it.

I have discussed how gossip is represented and used as plot mechanism, and how it can be researched as field information and counter-art history. As it is also my aim to theorise experimental forms of research gestures for creative practice, I will now give an account of how gossip and anecdote, as effects of the real that reveal motivations of desire, can form a method of textual production or even a method of composition. Given that gossip gives form as much as it distorts its own material, it is apt for experimental writing strategies. As an example, I offer a long poem written for my book of research-driven creative texts in response to the WAL, Go to Reception and Ask for Sara in Red Felt Tip (Pester, 2015). This ‘Poster index poem’, as the title suggests, was composed by taking the titles of over one-hundred posters as labelled in the index in the WAL poster collection. These titles were then rearranged and reconnected into miniature arrangements of meaning. This was a process of pattern-matching, weaving the text into little stories where gossip as method meant reacting against the hierarchies of information, of archival content and official language. Accidents of textual organisation become gags in a comedy of recognition, and deliberate fabulations between statements become character and event:

She took off her clothes and danced

at the Drill Hall in October

Give me Love Sonnets

try self-defense

A woman’s cycle



screen-print it

Where have all the feminists gone?

The landscape of Cornwall (ibid., p. 8)

In this example, new phenomena were revealed (and also obscured) in the archive. Here the material within the given frames and the frames themselves interact to become consequential plot. This tactical interaction of frame, content, material and personal will is germane to the poster collection itself. The poster index is not simply a ‘snapshot’ of UK feminism from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, but rather a non-hierarchical set that whispers regarding struggle and dissent. By advertising a range of distinct events and activisms, the index itself mixes a complex site of different social and political movements: Irish Centre openings, Women of Colour exhibitions, benefit discos, Marxist reading groups, sexual health clinics, domestic violence awareness events, Artists’ Union meetings, cabaret nights, tarot card readings, nuclear arms protest marches, equal pay rallies, LGBTQ collectives. This indexing operation creates a strange platform to discursively read through the material survival of women as art practitioners, workers, mothers, as well as the historical discontinuities of these categories. The geography, social milieu, equipment to hand, and my interpretative genealogies all bleed into this text of what Anne Carson (2001) would call ‘polluted boundaries’. My poem is written to reveal the archival apparatus by which the index is governed, and it is also a work of fan fiction, as I will now discuss.

fan fiction and archive fabulation

I will proceed in this exposition of archive research by signalling the shared function, as I see it, between fan writing and innovative knowledge production. As well as observing the comparable gestures of craft and critique in both practices, I will also seek to argue their potential for political resisting and challenging archive hegemony. While the tradition of writing new versions of Star Trek, Harry Potter, The X-Files and other pop-culture plots may not sound like radical critique of normative discourses, works of fan fiction are now recognised to have the capacity to make significant interventions on cultural power (Chander and Sunder, 2007).

Mary Sue, a fan-fictional female captain of the starship Enterprise from 1974, now stands as a metonym for characters and narrative quirks created by fan writers. A ‘Mary Sue’ is often the insurgence of a female-led plot line, but can include same-sex romance or non-Western settings, as in Kirk and Spock homoerotica or Harry Potter in Kolkata (ibid.). Such rescripting tactics are not necessarily meant as aggressive statements, but as the desire of marginalised groups to see their own identity and conflicts reflected back in the cultural products over which they enthuse. Yet Mary Sues represent important epistemological mediations ‘confronting the traditional production of knowledge by reworking the canon to valorize women and marginalised communities’ (ibid., p. 601). Apart from this problematising of the canon, a consequence of Mary Sues is the interrogation of copyright laws and rules of fair usage, which are often pushed and re-evaluated off the back of fan fiction. Such troubling of the economic and power structures that govern the commodity from which fan writers craft imagined realities is a clear example of how the innovation of desire-led and aberrant methods create material transformations. The radicalising work of fan fiction reveals the desire for mimetic identities in readers. Such work serves to corrupt ‘official memory’ with new scripts (see Appadurai, 2003). What I want to focus on is the joining of archive mechanisms with processes of fabulation as a means for critique.

The researcher as archive fabulator can be said to create paradigms that stray from the initial parameters of the source within which to debate with the appropriated materials. This is a methodology found in science fiction where fabulation becomes a deliberately feminist, anti-racist, literary strategy for ‘re-envisioning patriarchal societies’ (Barr, 2008, p. 142). This can be seen in the prototype realities in the novels of Octavia E. Butler and Marleen S. Barr, where a devised paradigm generates counter-narratives in examinations of race, gender and class. I would add that, where the documents pertaining to certain ideological orders are fed into fabulations rather than smoothed out into hierarchical principals, the research methodology is itself a feminist strategy, working against the grain of patriarchal categories of information. This creates and mobilises new models for social and material realities.

Alternative imagining against the archive structure and narrative is, therefore, a political strategy as much as a research gesture. It is significant to observe how these methods feed back into creative practice and, in turn, the circulation of document-archive-response. I take my cue from artists who have used various forms and mediums, such as essay, fragment, fiction and epistolary frameworks, to reimagine the archive’s cultural technologies. For example, contemporary arts collective The Otolith Group, in their works Otolith I (2003) and The Ghost of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective, 1982–1998 (2007), create works that merge fictions with documentation in order to radicalise the archive and its power over temporalities and utopia (Power, 2010).1 I want to focus on archival tactics that draw on fan-led alternative structures of knowing, unacknowledged knowledge production, fantastical interpretation and generative fictions.

In so doing, I argue for the potential of the fan as an interloper in the space of an archive—for the potential of the presence of the yearning fanatic in the archive at odds with the academy’s configuration of its visitors as rational, objective readers with scholarly ambitions. This scenario of disjunctive objectivities initiates the productive complication of orthodox knowledge acquisition. It is also necessary to make clear that the intervention of the fan has the potential to occur within the entangled subjectivities of an individual researcher. In other words, the identities of fan, scholar, feminist, artist (indeed lest forgetting the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class in subject formation) are often only some of the plural agencies congealing in an individual researcher (see Grant, 2011; Eichhorn, 2013). That the enthusiasms of a fan can and often do intervene in archive motivations and research decisions is important to recognise and, therefore, formulate into a theory of experimental research methodologies.

Kate Eichhorn (2013) draws out a useful scenario of the relationship between fan work and archival practices in The Archival Turn in Feminism. In a research mode that she herself describes as ‘dirty’ and ‘surreptitious’, Eichhorn (ibid.) stories the occasion of the Riot Grrrl papers entering the Fales Library and Special Collections held at New York University, outlining a series of events that saw the papers of key figures in the punk and feminist activist movement (primarily Kathleen Hanna) accessioned into the official sanctum of the academy. It was an event that caused waves of excitement and controversy in the active and passionate Riot Grrrl fan community; when news of the acquisition went ‘viral’ via a departmental newsletter, questions of access and the personal attachments of the fan-scholar were prompted (ibid., p. 94). Eichhorn (ibid.) overall paints a scene where, intuitional practices and critical theory merged into the scene of archive and desire: ‘The dialogue generated by news of the collection’s development revealed the extent to which the collection, despite its location in an institutional setting, is part of an affective economy in which souvenir, memorabilia and archival objects circulate’.

The Riot Grrrl papers, representing 1990s feminist activism, likewise represented that era’s blurring of critical theory and grass-roots feminism producing a generational dialectic that makes personal friendships, collective experience and political affiliation live tensions within this archive. For me, the issue of fandom outlined by Eichhorn (2013) reveals the archive to be a spatio-temporal site of influence, with every element having potential to feed back into practice. The complex relations of the fan’s affective desire and the lineages of political thought produce the conditions of praxis.

I would now like to connect this scenario of the fan in the archive to the issue of the fan specifically in relation to feminism. Catherine Grant (2011) in her essay, ‘Fans of feminism’, determines the figure of the feminist fan as a mode of contemporary art practice in which performances of staged identities and fictions form rogue and productive analyses. Grant (ibid., p. 277) situates the era of second-wave feminist art and activism as the focal point for current fine art practice that looks back to 1970s political resistance and artworks in the modality of fan, critic and practitioner; she writes that artists use this time ‘as a starting point for a consideration of inequality and politics in a much broader context’, one in which the act of being a fan ‘leads to an interrogation of how to be an activist’. In other words, it is the very excesses of fandom that bring out the dialectic between second-wave and contemporary feminism. It is the wry and ‘violent aspects of the desire to embrace feminism’ (ibid., p. 272) that the fan brings up, which makes artworks such as The Advantages of Being a Lesbian Woman Artist by Nicole Eisenman and A.L. Steiner, aka Ridykeulous (2006), published in LTTR Journal,2 produce new angles and forms of knowledge as opposed to ‘straightforward re-enactment, or scholarly research’ (Grant, 2011, p. 272). This embodied, fan-led engagement illuminates the discontinuities in critical feminism, thus generating political interaction and new information on practices of activism.

I would argue that the generational dialectics of second-wave feminism in contemporary practice, motivated in part by fandom, provide a way to critically frame and extend debates that, at the same time, resists the historicising, museumification and, ultimately, freezing of the work done by those historical activists, artists and theorists. For Grant (ibid.), this current engagement with the historical period of feminism in contemporary practice is a ‘re-animation’ of feminist politics. For me, this is also about radical treatments and communicative extensions of archive matter in relation to politics. Therefore, within the interrelated ethics of archive research, I am hesitant to use the term, ‘re-animation’ regarding archived voices and materials. I likewise hold back from terms such as ‘give voice to’ and ‘un-silence’, as these terms point to the traditions of imperial excavation of archive material and the kind of power trip that places the researcher, first, in a supposed position of objective reader and, then, dominant narrator. In other words, it is important to undergo innovative archival research strategies that avoid the recolonisation of the archive matter. I see the modality of the fan as a way to cut through this convention—to trespass on and recodify the document matrix according to an intersectional feminism.

My position is in consonance with the ‘radical reforming’ that Grant (2011, p. 269) takes from Henry Jenkins (2013, p. 18) as a description of what the fan fiction writer does to the fan object as a ‘rogue reader’ and ‘re-writer of the text’. This is to say that the reader devises new paradigms from the source material to produce fantastical and surreptitious connections without the guise of rational, detached interpretation, but rather within the role of emotive, embodied fabricator. The principles of research gestures that I am mapping here, and name ‘archive fanfiction’, owes something to the act of claiming and radically disseminating that the text is a way to produce ‘fictional narratives that expand the boundary of the official source’ (Bacon-Smith, 1999, p. 112). Archive fanfiction therefore, is a research gesture that excessively breaches the borders of the archive and its catalogue, polluting the categories of truth, reality, practice and knowledge. The heterogeneous stories that are thus produced are in recognition of the multiple voices and identities, subjugated and fringe, entangled in the archive matter.

Like the anecdote, ‘fanfic’ is unauthorised and not published through normative legitimating channels. Its existence and mechanisms represent the willfulness of the fan and the productivity of their emotional attachment in the innovative production of knowledge. Archive fanfiction therefore can mean a research product that develops radical fictions and paradigms from archive matter in order to generate a flexible criticality and situated knowledge to scholarship and practice. It is also necessary to state that far from being flippant on the subject, there is a great deal of expertise generated by fan labour, which is mostly free and unattributed. On one hand this links fan fiction to the ‘traditional’ graft of archive work, often lonely and without the glory of ‘original thought’. Yet this is also another way in which feminist politics and research gestures can intermesh. For example, the debate of fan labour is active within the content and the institutional footprint of the WAL, which documents conversations around domestic labour, equal pay protests and all the invisible work done by those outside privileged systems. The labour of archive fanfiction, therefore, is also part of its meaning and politics. The gesture of archive fanfiction is one that holds a critique of invisible labour.

Two examples to broaden this link between fan work and experimental archive research can be seen to investigate historical feminism through irony and reenactment. Both works also happen to perform modes of engagement and respond to archives in a way that is bodily and performative of affect. Nina Wakeford’s (2014) video work, 484 14th Street, is formed through her research trip to the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York, a repository of Stonewall era, lesbian, trans and queer feminist activism records, memorabilia and personal collections. The archive is community-based and was set up in order to provide what could be called an instantiating source of origin for the early LGBTQ movement.

Wakeford’s (ibid.) video features her hands holding images from the archive while her voice can be heard muttering free-association prompted by the image until she breaks into song. She repeats this process with the next photograph and sings a new song. The links uttered and then sung by Wakeford are not about the image, or what is evidenced by the document in her hand each time. They are trashy 1980s pop songs that do not reflect on the document beyond the chain of wordplay. We witness a materialised thought process that departs from scholarly engagement or interpretation and instead creates a radical trajectory into a new space of knowing. This is not a ‘re-animation’ of what was imagined to be there in the material, but a fiction that does not privilege the voice of the document nor the researcher, but their mutual agency and communication.

Another example is Sonia Boyce’s Devotional (1999–ongoing) project, which includes The Devotional Collection (2013–ongoing), a growing archive of CDs, cassettes, vinyl records and other ephemera relating to black British female musicians and pop stars, and her Devotional Wallpaper (2008–ongoing), a collection of illustrated wall sheets depicting the names of 200 female luminaries. The work, described as a collective ‘memorialisation of black British women in the music industry’ (Iniva, 2013), has been developing through a community of contributors since 1999. The Devotional Collection as an archive is itself an act of fan work in that it is unofficial, created outside conventional, sanctioned means and then exhibited as artwork. The systems of archival categorisation are appropriated to create a spatio-temporal situation of knowledge and devotion, a tactic Holly Ingleton (2015) has described as counter-archival strategy. The collected material relating to black British female musicians and singers, by means of a collective memory, is not to rescue the named stars from the gaps of official archives—at least it is not just to bring them into visibility. Boyce (2013) has stated that the project is more about the fans as a collective authoring community: ‘It’s really about an unplanned way that a diverse range of public listeners have built a collective memory’.

Both Wakeford (2014) and Boyce’s (2008–ongoing, 2013–ongoing) projects represent a kind of witnessing that is communal and critical. Each perpetuates a fan’s enthusiasm for the source material, thus allowing agency of the materials and that of the discursive interpreters to contribute to meaning-making. These innovative practice-led archive acts reveal the transformative and radicalising potential in research gestures that fabulate new narrative connections. To do research in this way with verve and political desire that incorporates anachronism, speculative fictions and situated knowledges is to reconstruct research as fabulation.


In this paper I have argued for a methodological principle of archive research that incorporates fan fiction and subjective positionality (e.g. body, sexuality, desire, communicative drives) as a deliberate reading strategy, alongside gossip and the literary mediation and testimonial tension of anecdote. Archive fanfiction as part of critical resignifications makes room for a diversity of subject positions.

I am arguing for a discursive archive method that puts subject desire and embodied politics into a position of agency, and therefore on a level with the likewise resignified material conditions of the archive apparatus. This is neither to promote so-called subjective and emotional aspects of the research encounter above all else, nor to signal those aspects as significantly feminist. Similarly, it is important to note the potential problem of drawing on marginalised and ‘illegitimate’ discourses in that such gestures do not seek to ‘grant’ them legitimacy. To put it another way, such methodology as I survey here should be a gesture of decolonisation rather than that of appropriation, enacted so as to reveal and displace informational hierarchies. I argue for a topology of knowledge producing factors where subject and object agencies, as well as material and socio-political influences, are all recognised as forming epistemological structures. It is my assertion that by way of this model of research gesture, a non-didactic but productive treatment of archive collections can be revealed as having value in creative practice and scholarly knowledge. The use of fictions, fabulation, humour, playful strategy and feminist tactics makes ‘archive fanfiction’ an experiential category that extends critical and creative work done in the past and offers a space for future aberrance.


  1. 1.

    See Nina Power’s (2010) ‘Waiting for the future’ for an analysis of the politics of The Otolith Group's archival methodologies.

  2. 2.

    The Advantages of Being a Lesbian Woman Artist (Ridykeulous, 2006) is a satirical reworking of the Guerrilla Girls’ (1988) famous intervention, The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist.


  1. Ahmed, S., 2014. Willful Subjects. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Appadurai, A., 2003, Archive and aspiration. In J. Brouwer, ed. Information is Alive. Rotterdam: V2, pp. 14–25.Google Scholar
  3. Bacon-Smith, C., 1999. Science Fiction Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Google Scholar
  4. Barad, K., 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Barr, M.S., 2008. Feminist fabulation. In D. Seed, ed. A Companion to Science Fiction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 142–155.Google Scholar
  6. Boyce, S., 1999–ongoing. Devotional. Series of performances, artworks, archive and ephemera.Google Scholar
  7. Boyce, S., 2008–ongoing. Devotional Wallpaper. Printed wallpaper.Google Scholar
  8. Boyce, S., 2013–ongoing. The Devotional Collection. CDs, cassettes, vinyl records and other ephemera relating to black British women in the music industry.Google Scholar
  9. Butt, G., 2005. Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World, 19481963. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Carson, A., 2001. Men in the Off Hours. New York: Vintage.Google Scholar
  11. Cixous, H., 2007. Manhattan: Letters from Prehistory. New York: Fordham University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Chander, A. and Sunder, M., 2007. Everyone’s a superhero: a cultural theory of Mary Sue fan fiction as fair use. California Law Review, 95(2), pp. 597–626.Google Scholar
  13. Cvetkovich, A., 2003. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Derrida, J., 1998. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  15. Eichhorn, K., 2013. The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Fineman, J., 2005. The history of the anecdote: fiction and fiction. In J. Fineman, ed. The Subjectivity Effect in Western Literary Tradition: Essays Toward the Release of Shakespeare’s Will. Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 59–87.Google Scholar
  17. Foucault, M., 1977. Nietzsche, genealogy, history. In D.F. Bouchard, ed. Language, Counter Memory, Practice. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, pp. 139–164.Google Scholar
  18. Foucault, M., 1980. Two lectures. In C. Gordon, ed. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. New York: Vintage, pp. 78–108.Google Scholar
  19. Gallop, J., 2002. Anecdotal Theory. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Gopinath, G., 2010. Archive, affect and the everyday: queer diasporic re-visions. In J. Staiger, A. Cvetkovich and A. Reynolds, eds. Political Emotions. London: Routledge, pp. 165–192.Google Scholar
  21. Gordon, J.B., 2015. Gossip and Subversion in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.Google Scholar
  22. Grant, C., 2011. Fans of feminism: re-writing histories of second-wave feminism in contemporary art. Oxford Art Journal, 34(2), pp. 265–286.Google Scholar
  23. Greenan, A., 2007. How images are the making of the Women’s Art Library/Make. Art Libraries Journal, 32(1), pp. 4–9.Google Scholar
  24. Guerrilla Girls, 1988. The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist. Poster. Held at London: Tate Modern.Google Scholar
  25. Haraway, D., 1988. Situated knowledges: the science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), pp. 575–599.Google Scholar
  26. Harding, S., 1986. The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Harding, S., ed., 1987. Feminism and Methodology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Harding, S., 1991. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Ingleton, H., 2015. Sounding out archival interventions. Presentation made at Gender and the Archive: Conversation Across Disciplines and Practices, 30 January. University of Roehampton, London. Available at: https://soundcloud.com/dept-humanities-uniroeham/panel-2-stories-voices [last accessed 15 May 2015].
  30. Iniva, 2013. Scat: sound and collaboration. Press release. Iniva, 18 April. Available at: http://www.iniva.org/press/20131/scat_sound_and_collaboration [last accessed 13 April 2015].
  31. Jenkins, H., 2013. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  32. Loveless, N.S., 2011. Reading with knots: on Jane Gallop’s anecdotal theory. S: Journal of the Jan van Eyck Circle for Lacanian Ideology Critique, 4, pp. 24–36.Google Scholar
  33. Lykke, N., 2010. Feminist Studies: A Guide to Intersectional Theory, Methodology and Writing. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  34. Motamedi Fraser, M., 2012. Once upon a problem. The Sociological Review, 60(S1), pp. 84–107.Google Scholar
  35. Pester, H., 2015. Go to Reception and Ask for Sara in Red Felt Tip. London: Book Works.Google Scholar
  36. Power, N., 2010. Waiting for the future. Frieze.com, 1 March. Available at: https://frieze.com/article/waiting-future [last accessed 20 April 2017].
  37. Ridykeulous, 2006. The Advantages of Being a Lesbian Woman Artist. LTTR, 5, p. 53.Google Scholar
  38. Rogoff, I., 1995. Gossip as testimony: a postmodern signature. MAKE Magazine, 67, pp. 6–9.Google Scholar
  39. Rogoff, I., 2002. Gossip as testimony: a postmodern signature. In A. Jones, ed. The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 58–65.Google Scholar
  40. Scholes, R., 1976. The roots of science fiction. In M. Rose, ed. Science Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, pp. 46–56.Google Scholar
  41. Smith, L.T., 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London and New York: Zed Books.Google Scholar
  42. Spacks, P., 1985. Gossip. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.Google Scholar
  43. Steedman, C., 2001. Dust. Manchester: Manchester University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Tamboukou, M., 2013. Archival research: unravelling space/time/matter entanglements and fragments. Qualitative Research, 14(5), pp. 617–633.Google Scholar
  45. The Otolith Group, 2003. Otolith I. Video. Available at: http://otolithgroup.org/index.php?m=project&id=5 [last accessed 20 April 2017].Google Scholar
  46. The Otolith Group, cur., 2007. The Ghost of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective, 1982–1998. Exhibition held at Liverpool: FACT, 2 February–1 April.Google Scholar
  47. Throp, M. and Walsh, M., 2015. Twenty Years of MAKE Magazine: Back to the Future of Women’s Art. London: I.B. Tauris, Limited.Google Scholar
  48. Wakeford, N., 2014. 484 14th Street. Video installation. Exhibited at London: Legion TV, 10 July–9 August.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Feminist Review Collective 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of LiteratureFilm and TheatreUniversity of EssexColchesterUK

Personalised recommendations