Swingeing London

Date: 13 April 2007 | Season: Swingeing London

13-19 April 2007
Filmhuis Den Haag

For a few years after the Beatles first shook Britain out of the Dark Ages, it seemed like London was the place to be. Maybe the seeds of this cultural Renaissance were sown a little earlier, towards the end of the 1950s with the Free Cinema movement, and British Pop Art, first seen in “This Is Tomorrow” at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956. Artist Richard Hamilton, who had created the iconic collage “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?” for that exhibition, produced a series of prints titled “Swingeing London”, which reproduced a newspaper photo of his hip gallerist Robert Fraser handcuffed to Mick Jagger following their arrest for drug possession in 1967. By this time, England’s capital city had been characterised as ‘Swinging London’ by Time Magazine, and the artist’s satirical play on words references the severity of the sentence bestowed on Fraser by the fearful establishment.

At the end of the decade, Hamilton collaborated with filmmaker James Scott on an eponymous self-portrait that perfectly encapsulates the artist’s spirit and sources of inspiration. The exuberant film is featured in this season which explores the embryonic counterculture that developed as ‘flower power’ blossomed and faded. As counterpoint to the feature films screening in the “Swinging London” series, “Swingeing London” excavates the underground.

It took the presence of a few key Americans in London to really get things cooking. William Burroughs lived in London from 1966-74, and had already made Towers Open Fire together with exploitation film distributor Antony Balch. The film remains the purest cinematic realisation of Burroughs’ distinct writing style. New Yorker Stephen Dwoskin was one of the founding members of the London Film-Makers Cooperative, and his fellow countryman Peter Gidal was a central figure of that organisation throughout the 1970s. Kenneth Anger lived in London after exiling himself from the US in 1967, a move prompted in part by his opposition (and fear) of the war in Vietnam, the same motive that brought Carolee Schneemann across the Atlantic. Another part-time Brit was Yoko Ono, who often resided in the apartment of artist John Latham, and famously bagged herself a Beatle.

With a little encouragement, the English shook off their innate reserve and embraced the new freedom and prosperity that modern life had to offer. London played host to several indicative and fundamental gatherings of the tribes – the International Poetry Congress at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965 (featuring Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Trocchi, documented in Peter Whitehead’s amazing verité Wholly Communion), the Destruction in Art Symposium (very little footage circulates from this 1966 performance series), and the Dialectics of Liberation psychology conference of 1967 (captured in the documentary Anatomy of Violence by Peter Davis). The music scene was a central focus, with concerts such as the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream Festival at Alexandra Palace (1967) and the free Rolling Stones show in Hyde Park (1969).

As portable 16mm equipment made cinema a more affordable and impulsive medium, many of these events were documented on film. As in the USA, where Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas, Bruce Conner and others were already using cinema as a mode of personal artistic impression, British filmmakers soon moved in this direction. Inspired by a similar organisation in New York, the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative was founded by a group of enthusiasts in 1966. Initially a film society that met in the basement of the progressive Better Books shop to view the classics of world cinema (this is before alternative distribution circuits, vhs or dvd), the LFMC soon developed into a dynamic centre for the exploration of film as an art medium under the guidance of Dwoskin, Gidal, Malcolm Le Grice and others.

During this formative period ‘underground films’ were often to be seen projected before or during concerts by bands such as the Pink Floyd or Soft Machine at the UFO (Unlimited Freak Out) club or at all-night raves in the dilapidated Roundhouse. Artists Mark Boyle and Joan Hills (of the Boyle Family) formed the Sensual Laboratory, developing their experimental slide shows, which were already being performed in an art context, into full-blown complements to psychedelic rock concerts. Unlike the American light shows, Boyle and Hills’ visuals operated independently of the music, rather than being a synchronous, visual accompaniment to it.

Photographer John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, a legendary figure on the London scene, was a founder member of IT (the counterculture newspaper International Times), UFO, the Notting Hill Festival and the London Free School. Despite this central organising role, he spent the Summer of Love in jail for marijuana possession. The recently rediscovered short film Poem for Hoppy shows Soft Machine and the Sensual Laboratory collaborating on an improvised howl of support.

After his release, Hoppy turned to the new medium of video, using one of the earliest Sony Portapaks. Working together with the TVX collective, he attracted the attention of the BBC and was invited into the studios of Television Centre to perform a live videomix happening with a group of artists, musicians and freaks. Videospace was not broadcast, but a surviving excerpt demonstrates some of the visual invention and playful creativity that took place at this unique event. Lutz Becker also experimented with the new video technology, creating feedback loops for Horizon, a work covered in detail in Gene Youngblood’s book “Expanded Cinema” but rarely seen today.

Though psychedelia dominated the pop scene, few films made in England in the sixties could truly be described as psychedelic. Mare’s Tail is a prime exception – a long, strange trip into inner space made by maverick filmmaker and photographer David Larcher. Mare’s Tail is a two and a half hour, abstract journey deep within. It was the first film shown in the cinema at the New Arts Lab (aka the Institute for Research in Art and Technology), where it ran for two successful weeks.

The original Arts Lab, on Drury Lane in the heart of Covent Garden, had been established by Jim Haynes and Jack Henry Moore in 1967. Incorporating a café, bookstore, gallery, theatre and cinema within a single building, the Arts Lab provided a venue and meeting point for different artistic groups. Haynes, another American who galvanised London’s counterculture, was also a co-founder of International Times and the Amsterdam based sexual freedom newspaper SUCK! All scenes feed into eachother.

The naïveté and optimism of this underground explosion didn’t last for long. In the US, Woodstock failed to live up to its promise and Altamont turned the hippie dream into a homicidal nightmare. England had Phun City and the Isle of Wight Festivals: No fatalities, but they were disastrously organised and showed that the idealistic hopes of the sixties generation were unsustainable without some form of structure to balance the spontaneity. As the ‘white heat of technology’ cooled down, unemployment set in and, during the seventies, glitter was liberally applied to cover the cracks in the youth culture.

SWINGEING LONDON 1: Sat 14 Apr & Tue 17 Apr 2007
SWINGEING LONDON 2: Sun 15 Apr & Wed 18 Apr 2007
SWINGEING LONDON 3: Sun 15 Apr & Thur 19 Apr 2007
SWINGEING LONDON 4: Fri 13 Apr & Mon 16 Apr 2007

SWINGEING LONDON is curated by Mark Webber.

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