The Exploding Cinema and
The New Underground 1991-
In February 1991 London was snowbound while the Gulf War raged. At the height of the air strikes a desperate seance was held at the Riverside Studios in the Hammersmith slush and this was called the BP EXPO a festival of British and International Student Film and Video. Amongst those linking hands were Artists, Independent filmmakers and delegates from London's three main funding bodies; the BFI, the Arts Council and Greater London Arts ( replaced by the LFVDA in 1992 ). They were trying to raise the spirit of 'Independent Film'. Debate was minimal, the fact that the event was sponsored by a multinational oil company during an oil war caused only slight ironic embarrassment.
Meanwhile the L.F.M.C. was locked into an endless series of feuds, schisms and scandals , mostly concerning money, power and the possibility of a move to new premises (The Lux) ; its screenings were often deserted.
What remained of the Avant-Garde and the'Independent' film/video sector had become a zombie graveyard , a closed circuit of state agencies, desperately underfunded workshops and an elite circle of established artists and production companies locked into mutual self justification.
No-budget short film/video makers were trapped between the gallery aesthetics of the artists and the "Broadcast Quality" censorship of the media industry and without an effective means of exhibition or distribution those who didn't give it up were forced to spend their time and energy competing against each other for funding from state agencies who had become so disengaged from economic and public accountability that they had become both the critics and the audience of their own product. If a state agency funded your work then they would distribute it to state funded art centres , cinemas , festivals, art schools and Universities. Or maybe your work would be co-funded by T.V. and screened at 2 a.m. , on a Wednesday in a lack lustre short film compilation.
Once your funded work had been distributed you could use it to apply for more funding or to get yourself a teaching post in an art school or university where you could screen other funded work to your students who inspired by the work could apply for funding to make their own work. If you were really successful you could be appointed to a funding panel in one of the agencies or even become a career administrator in the funded sector. By creating a vertical state monopoly the "Independent sector" had at last become truly autonomous. What got funded was good, what was good got funded and what did not get funded did not get screened.
And the absence in this autonomous circuit was a popular audience.
That summer an arts group called PULLIT squatted a derelict suntan oil factory on Effra Road in Brixton, this was the COOLTAN and it soon became an underground cultural centre housing a gallery, theatre, performance space, cafe, and at the very back of the ground floor a cinema was built into what was once a cold storage room with a sliding steel door. On the door in red wooden letters was spelt out THE REGAL. Around June, Ken Mcdonald, filmmaker and impresario moved his REEL LOVE show to the Regal. REEL LOVE was a regular screening of Super 8 films punctuated by technical breakdowns and drinking to excess.
Out of this activity a group of no - budget film\video makers began to hold weekly meetings at the Cooltan with the idea of forming a South London based media collective, these meetings developed into open screenings where anyone could show their work and slowly a hard core membership developed which included me, Stephen Houston, Kathy Gibbs, Jenny Marr, Danny Holman, Laura Hudson , Suzanne Currid, Jennet Thomas, Anthony Kopiecki, Lorelei Hawkins, Lepke B. and William Thomas. From the very beginning we decided to be totally open and democratic , anyone could show their work, anyone could join the group, all you had to do was come to a meeting and get involved. We drew up a loose constitution, the group was to be non-profit making, all work would be voluntary, no wages would be paid, all the money we made would be used to run our screenings and to buy collectively owned equipment. I drafted the constitution myself and I based it on the radical democratic model of the L.F.M.C., but I tried to incorporate safeguards against the careerist manipulations, factionalism and bureaucracy that dogged the Co-Op.
As winter approached the Pullit group and Reel Love left the Cooltan and the organisation was taken over by representatives of the various activity groups who were working at the building. The film\video group took over the Regal and held public screenings of no - budget film and video, but it was cold , damp and it stank, even with their coats on the audience froze, so the screenings moved to the Cooltan Cafe and began to hold fortnightly open screenings called the CINEMA CAFE.
The Cafe was housed in the old factory canteen, the far wall held a sweeping wooden counter behind which lay a vast iron stove. For tables there were several giant spools for industrial cable laid horizontally, the place could hold about 75 at a push. We held our screenings on Friday nights, we showed Super 8, Standard 8 and 16mm on a screen above the counter and VHS video on a TV in the opposite corner, most of the equipment was lent by members or their friends. The Cafe had a hi-fi system so we borrowed a microphone and took it in turns to M.C. the show. We cooked and sold hot food and cheap beer. One night a projector broke down and so to fill the gap Jenny Marr sang a couple of songs. After that we introduced regular performance work, live dialogue with film, shadow puppets. In the early days most of the work and performances came from members of the group, which meant that we had to constantly produce new work, but through publicity and word of mouth non-members work began to fill the programmes. After a few shows we gave up previewing the work and just showed whatever makers wanted to screen and let the audience judge for themselves. Bored by the sterile trance-like format of traditional film/video screenings we began to develop techniques of combination and mutation and to create a hybrid fusion of projection, performance and carnival.
We projected 35mm slides and Super 8 loops on the walls and windows of the Cafe, we screened home movies, splatter, experimental video, drama, porn, documentaries, scratch Super 8, rave visuals, kitsch melodrama, animation and found footage back to back. We introduced the makers and encouraged them to debate their work with the audience, we produced a programme\fanzine for each show, we distributed leaflets and propaganda all over London. If the audience found the work "boring" or "bad" we encouraged them to make better work themselves, if our equipment broke down we asked the audience to help us fix it and we discovered that if you created a space where anything could happen and if you included the audience into the action then it didn't really matter what went wrong.
As our events evolved and mutated we changed our name to THE EXPLODING CINEMA and began a cycle of venue changes, moving on whenever things got too easy. With the money we began to make on the door we were able to buy our own projection and sound equipment and become self sufficient without state funding or intervention of any kind.
At the beginning, a show consisted of ten films with an audience of around thirty, within a year we were showing over twenty films per show to an average audience of two hundred a night.
Over the last eight years we have screened more than fifteen hundred unfunded no-budget films/videos in squats, pubs, clubs, cafes and church halls, we have staged one off shows in disused factories, a circus tent and in a squatted Lido in Brockwell Park, Brixton, an event which attracted an audience of over two thousand. Internationally we've staged shows in Dublin , New York, Prague (1997) , Cologne and Frankfurt (1998) and toured Germany with the Kaos Film Gruppe (1994) and toured Belgium and Holland with Kino Trotter, a Brussels based underground film group (1995). Most recently we showed a programme of work at the 6th Annual New York Underground Film Festival (March 10-14 1999).
And the EXPLODING CINEMA is not an isolated faction, over the last eight years a NO WAVE 22 of new cinema groups has emerged inspired by the Exploding Cinema including The Halloween Society, Films That Make You Go Hmmmmm, Kinokulture, Omsk, My Eyes My Eyes, Cinergy, Shaolin, Renegade Arts and Peeping Toms in London, Vision Collision in Manchester, Head Cleaner in Coventry , Junk TV in Brighton, and Dazzle ! in Plymouth . Two other EXPLODING CINEMA groups are also active, one in Amsterdam and most recently in Frankfurt. The EXPLODING is also a key organiser of the VOLCANO!!! Underground Film Festival (1996-1998) an annual event in which most of the London Underground film groups come together for two weeks to stage a London wide multi venue celebration of low/no budget underground film and video.
Parallel with the resurgence of Underground Cinema has been the production and distribution of agit-prop protest video compilations, principally by the Oxford based Undercurrents group, and Conscious Cinema group of Brighton. Undercurrents is a biannual 2 hour video tape of news/documentary for and about activists involved in road protest, green politics, animal liberation , squatting and anarcho/liberation. Although the video activists aren't directly involved in exhibition there is an informal underground network of screenings often at raves, festivals and at the Underground cinema clubs.
The rapid and widespread (r)evolution of Underground Cinema is the most significant development in British independent media since the underground film movement of the 1960's, in fact the underground of the 1990's is far more significant in terms of audience attendance, active participants and film/video production, it has screened the work of hundreds of film/video makers which would otherwise have remained unseen. And yet within the direct descendent of the '60's Underground, the state funded Independent sector , which is effectively now the dominant mode of the British tv/film industry, and within the institution of Film/Art ' Theory ' , magazine and book publishing, conferences and educational institutions, Underground Cinema is both industrially and theoretically nonexistent. There has been no acknowledgement of the Underground in any of it's journals (eg. . Coil and Vertigo), there has been no contact from any of it's institutions (eg.. Channel 4, the British Film Institute etc. ) and no attempt has been made to represent it any of its festivals (eg.. the I. C. A. Biennial , Pandaemonium etc.).
This total absence cannot be attributed to the obscurity or hostility of the Underground scene since Underground activists have adopted a spectacular and populist strategy to media publicity with interventions at debates and festivals, interviews on national T.V. and Radio and articles in the Guardian, the Independent, the Observer, Time Out, the Face, the Big Issue, Sleaze Nation, Screen International and Variety, and an internationally acclaimed network of web sites. Neither can it be attributed to a lack of resources or commercial flair in the Independent sector since in the first instance the sector has a comprehensive network of highly educated professional researchers and theoreticians and in the second instance since the advent of the new underground in 1991 the Independent sector has responded to the underground resurgence by producing TV programmes (Midnight Underground Ch. 4. , Expanding Pictures BBC 2) and events (Dirty And Dangerous, at the I.C.A '97, Underground America, at the Barbican '99) which attempt to fabricate the 'trendy' 'subcultural style' of the Underground whilst actually screening their own state funded institutional products amongst now safe Underground 'classics' from the 1960's.
The invisibility of the Underground is not due to inefficiency or the result of an elaborate conspiracy , it is because the Independent sector and particularly that section of it which is engaged in analysis and observation, THEORY , cannot recognise the Underground without recognising that the Independent sector has become more repressive than the 'mainstream' cinema it purports to oppose.
This text is about Underground Cinema, the Avant-Garde and radical film theory and cultural studies. By RADICAL I mean that cluster of Marxist, Marxian, socialist, and libertarian ideologies that seek to transform society. Nowadays the bookshops are loaded with books of radical film theory : Marxist analysis, Post-Marxist analysis, Structuralist analysis, Post-Structural Deconstruction, Psychoanalytical film Theory, Feminist Film Theory, Gay Film Theory, Black film theory, Cultural Studies, Postmodern analysis, Post Theory...most of these books are written by academics from the ever expanding Theory institutes, Universities and colleges. I studied film at college and at University, I studied film because I loved it and I wanted to make films and I thought that if I learnt how to deconstruct films I could use this technique to construct new films of my own. But the radical film theories I encountered were composed of arcane jargon and intensely complex linguistic, psychoanalytic and philosophical references, it seemed to me that they were riddled with fundamental paradoxes, I couldn't understand how these radical theories related to radical filmmaking and I was constantly frustrated by the constantly shifting fashions and terrain of contemporary Theory. After University I gave up film theory and started to make short no-budget films and to apply for state funding only to discover that the established English Independent film sector was legitimised and structured by the very theories I had struggled with as a student. With this revelation I began to make films which were designed to subvert and implode theory and it's industry of institutes, funding bodies, journals and academics. This subversive project forced me to investigate and engage with the industry I loathed. I became an academic so that I could understand why in spite of row upon row of sexy shiny books , in spite of the scores of dedicated professionals with their intensely complex theories and scientific language , why in spite of the conferences and the courses and the endless articles in respected journals, why British radical filmmaking and the Independent sector the had become politically, culturally and industrially wretched.