2016 - 2018
The E.L.S.C. FILES is a collaborative artists’ book project by photographic artist Julie Cook with the East London Strippers Collective. It evidences the activism of a group of six women, juxtaposing the language of photographic portraiture and other ephemera with performance set within an East London warehouse awaiting demolition. The files challenge the notion of ‘progress’ in many ways. The content includes not just portraiture, but evidence of activism via social media and more traditional public networks. The documentary files present this work in a series of folders that play on the theme of institutional, paper, record keeping, perhaps with sinister overtones. The information is collected and presented alongside the portraits and other more publicly available information and promotional material.
The aim of the collective is to challenge stigma and stereotypes that are linked to the industry, question their changing conditions of work and oppose the closure of their historic work environments. They see themselves as victims, but not in the work that they do, but the lack of regulation and recognition of their work as ‘work’; the social role that they play in society and themselves as creative individuals.
They have seen their industry continually threatened by politicians, property developers and objectors. The sanitisation of areas of London (particularly Soho and East London) resulting in the closure of public venues and driving them toward more ‘underground’ events. They also question and explore their own position to contemporary feminism and sexual freedom and collaborations with other sex worker groups both within the UK and internationally are providing an ever louder, clearer, unified, voice.
The space of an East London warehouse in Whitechapel was used as the site of performance and demonstration of themselves ‘at work’, whilst more intimate portraits deconstruct and expose the sexualised body. A constructed working environment, where the relationship between the viewer and the viewed is carefully manipulated and controlled, is normal within striptease establishments. The performers are well aware of this construct and participate in this exchange. There has been significant research in this area: dancer and anthropologist Katherine Frank suggests that the pleasure and satisfaction of her customers was not just from the detached observation of the dancers but also in the change of scenery from everyday life. The portraits in the files remove the performers from their ‘normal’ work environments to perform within an old industrial warehouse, also shortly to disappear.
The collaboration between the subject and artist Julie Cook results in a layered offering to the reader, its many facets asking the reader to consider this collected evidence for themselves. It also aims to position the collective members as active participants in the presentation of themselves; a narrative of activism.