History of Underground


the days of the London Film Underground 1966-70

History is like a cat because there’s more than one way to skin it but the process is always lethal, besides which, this particular cat has nine lives.

And this history is more messy than most, so I’m going to exclude a lot of people and organisations that were involved in a period of intense and diverse activity and I’m not going to talk about films or filmmakers. Apart from anything else the main historical chronicles weren’t written until the mid-seventies by which time the Underground was defunct and the authors were only interested in it as an early stage of the avant garde in which they were entrenched.

In 1966 London counter culture was gearing up for the revolution….the mods were mixing it at the coast, the radical student movement was beginning a cycle of sit -ins and occupations, drug use was becoming a form of rebellion, there was a steady influx of militant draft dodgers from the U.S. and liberational movements were coalescing around radical feminism, black power, gay liberation, ecology, squatting and the commune.

At the Better Books bookshop on Charing Cross Road the poet manager Bob Cobbing began screening American Underground film as part of a series of events that included work from the Destruction In Art Symposium and readings by poets including Alexander Trocchi. Out of these screenings emerged the London Filmmakers Co-Op on the 13th October 1966. The Co-Op based its structure on the New York Co-Op an open screening, open distribution collective formed in 1961.In its formative stages the London Co-Op was a coalition of disparate interests; U.S. film makers including Steve Dwoskin and Simon Hartog and British journalists, poets and would be film makers including Cobbing, Raymond Durgnat and Dave Curtis. Two weeks after its formation the Co-Op teamed up with I.T. , the International Times London’s first weekly Underground newspaper, and counter cultural organiser Jim Haynes to hold the Spontaneous Festival of Underground Film at the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre from Halloween to Bonfire Night.

Meanwhile there was a night of Underground film at the first Notting Hill Gate festival and this festival initiated the U.F.O. or Underground Freak Out Club, an all night psychedelic acid venue on Tottenham Court Road. Until it closed in October 67 the U.F.O. served as a rallying point for the expanding counter culture, there the first London light shows took place and Dave Curtis and others screened film loops and cut-ups to the music of Pink Floyd, Procul Harum and the Soft Machine. Under U.F.O. influence 3 vast 24 hour happenings took place fusing live music, lights shows, film and thousands of stoned youth. The first event at the Roundhouse launched I.T. , the next Technicolour Dream took place at Alexandra Palace and the last Christmas On Earth Revisited at Olympia.

The L.F.M.C. held regular screenings at Better Books until October `67 when new management sacked Cobbing and kicked out the CO-Op. During this period the Co-Op was riven with factionalism and personality clashes and this conflict eventually polarised around a split between those members who believed Underground film culture could be most effectively developed through screenings and distribution and this included Cobbing, Durgnat and Dwoskin and those who maintained that the C0-Op should concentrate on providing production equipment and facilities for film makers and this faction was based at the Arts Lab on Drury Lane.

The Arts Lab was set up by Jim Haynes in September `67 as a counter cultural arts complex housing a gallery, theatre, restaurant, bookshop, studio and workshop space and general crash pad. Following this example Arts Labs were set up all over the country, by 1969 over 150 were operating. The Drury Lane Arts Lab cinema was run by Dave Curtis , it held screenings six nights a week mixing Underground film with cult and European features. When Better Books closed the Co-Op began regular screenings at the Arts Lab but these stopped at the end of October and did not resume until the Summer of `68. With the exhibition / distribution faction of the C0-Op in exile the Arts Lab became the center of underground film activity, this marked a shift in audience towards the psychedelic anarchy of the counter culture and the ascendance of the production faction who began to construct printing and processing equipment under the direction of Malcolm Le Grice who joined the Arts Lab in the Spring of `68.

Meanwhile inspired by the radical American `Newsreel’ movement, the Italian `Cinegiornale’ and revolutionary action in Paris, Derry and Chicago London film makers formed agit-prop collectives including Cinema Action, Angry Arts, Politkino and later the London Women’s Film Group (1972) and the Berwick Street Collective (1972).

In April `68 P.Sitney Adams brought a major collection of American Underground film to London for a week of screenings at the National Film Theatre, but it was the tour of 12 provincial Universities prior to the NFT show and the subsequent acquisition of many of the films for distribution by the Co-Op secretary Carla Liss that created a University Film Society circuit.

Throughout `68 the Arts Lab film makers developed primitive printing / processing facilities , this was motivated firstly by the prohibitive cost of commercial facilities and secondly because the commercial labs would censor by confiscation any material they deemed subversive. Le Grice was at this time teaching art at Goldsmiths College and St Martins School of Art and many of his students joined the Arts Lab / Co-Op and used the facilities.<p> Although initially hostile to the B.F.I. the Co-Op unsuccessfully approached them for workshop funding in September `68.

In November the Arts Lab closed amid accusations of financial mismanagement and the Co-Op moved to share the offices of B.I.T. in Notting Hill Gate. The Binary Information Transfer was an Underground organisation which coordinated news and information on agitation, the Arts Lab movement, drug culture, communes…..Without a permanent base the Co-Op held irregular screenings at the Electric Cinema Club on Portobello Road which was an established venue for multi-media happenings.

In the autumn of `69 the LFMC established a permanent base at a new arts lab project called the Institute for Research and Technology in Camden. The cinema under the direction of Dave Curtis seated over a hundred and worked on a weekly cycle of three days of Underground/Co-Op film and four days of European features, independent shorts, student work and retrospectives from the avant garde tradition. In the early days of the Co-Op English Underground film was only really a potential but from the Arts Lab to the I.R.A.T. a culture developed and the percentage of English work screened amongst the American steadily increased, and most of this work was produced on Co-Op facilities , by 1970 professional printing and processing equipment was installed at the I.R.A.T. In September the Co-Op, the I.R.A.T. and a group of independent film distributors organised the International Underground Film Festival at the N.F.T., the festival was open and included work from Britain, Europe and America.

After 1970 the term ‘Underground’ was rapidly dropped to be replaced by “Avant Garde’, “Experimental’ and `Independent’ in both the mainstream media and the journals of the movement. The Co-Op’s own magazine “CINIM’ first published in 1967 folded after three issues but through the late sixties, early seventies a host of titles appeared including, CINEMANTICS, PLATINUM, CINEMA RISING, AFTERIMAGE and INDEPENDENT CINEMA.

In January 1971 the I.R.A.T. closed and the C0-Op sought new premises eventually moving to an old dairy on Prince of Wales Crescent, Camden.<p> It was here , isolated in it’s own self contained premises that the production/processing project became completely dominant. Curtis stopped programming and the new cinema was run by Peter Gidal who was to become the principal theorist of English Structuralist film. Screenings declined to twice a week and often once a week, seasons and retrospectives were dropped and the screenings became dominated by the latest work or work in progress.

As the seventies wore on the days of the Underground faded into adolescent memory and the Co-Op was integrated into the fine arts avant garde, there were screenings at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool, the Serpentine Gallery and eventually at the Tate. Art schools introduced film making and many Co-Op members became tutors. The B.F.I. and the Arts Council began during this period to recognise the avant garde and fund it’s film makers, and in 1975 the C0-Op received it’s first major B.F.I. grant for further production facilities. Dave Curtis became the Film and Video Officer at the Arts Council.

The agit-prop collectives founded in post `68 radicalism continued to produce campaign work pursuing a logic of state funding that led to the formation of the so-called Independent sector in the late seventies and its eventual disintegration into free-lance T.V. production companies in the eighties.

London’s Underground film movement was an integral part of the counter culture, it shared the same venues and ideology which was a coalition of psychedelic youth culture and anarchist and ultra leftist agitation. The experiments with image ‘distortion’ and erotic imagery which were in the seventies claimed as anti-realist formal techniques were in the Underground perceived as celebrations of hallucinogenic and sexual pleasure. The counter culture believed the revolution was immanent, that they were on the eve of a total transformation of British society, and when it failed to happen and the Underground became just another consumer lifestyle the manic energy of the movement fell away. In the case of the Co-Op this was compounded by the move to it’s own isolated premises.

The split in the early Co-Op which led to the dominance of production/ processing enabled a generation of makers to produce their own work but led to a Structuralist aesthetic obsessed with anti-realist image manipulation, an aesthetic that eventually rejected drama, narrative, entertainment and finally pleasure. Complicit in this narrowing of practise was the fine arts background of many of the Co-Op makers who were trained in a craft based tradition of image as ‘Art’ object and so evolved elaborate printing /processing based on painting and etching, and a concept of their audience as the silent and contemplative visitors to a gallery.

The dominance of production coupled with the shift in audience from the popular counter cultural to the specialised avant garde meant that the L.F.M.C. failed to develop the potential Underground distribution network that seemed possible in the sixties. Without commercial distribution the avant garde of the seventies came to demand and rely on state funding for it’s financial existence, in this way the former Underground moved from a broad based radical opposition to the state to become no more than an obscure state agency.

Above all, despite the bogus Marxist rhetoric of the Structuralists and the later jargon of the psycho-linguists the principal activists of the Underground and the subsequent avant garde failed to apply a political analysis to the very endeavour they were engaged in. As a new Underground emerges out of the last twenty years of stagnation and compromise radical makers must learn the lessons of the sixties, making subversive films and tapes is not a subversive practise if the work is then co-opted by the systems of repression you set out to attack, it becomes rather a means by which the state transforms dissent into a glamorous commodity and sells it back to the oppressed as a fashion trend. The Underground must develop it’s own integrated production, distribution and exhibition network and develop a practise so fucking toxic to the system that if it tries to co-opt it, it can only do so by bringing about its own destruction.

Forget art, forget funding,
start your own open cinema,
distribute your own dvds!

Some of this stuff is only available at the B.F.I. Library on Stephen Street off Tottenham Court, London, they charge you about £5 to get in and the bureaucratic atmosphere sucks but they’ve got some lush stuff…. Books……Film Is by Steve Dwoskin, Playpower by Richard Neville, ‘English Avant Garde Film; An Early Chronology‘ by David Curtis, Bomb Culture by Jeff Nuttall, The Future Of An Illusion by Constance Penley, The Assault On Culture by Stewart Home and The Most Radical Gesture by Sadie Plant. Magazines….Afterimage, Cinim, Cinemantics, Cinema Rising, Framework, Studio International (Nov./Dec. 1975). There is now a specialist Study Collection at Central St. Martin’s College of Art, which is free but you should pretend to be a postgraduate. Also there is now Duncan Reekie’s Subversion: the Definitive History of Underground Cinema and Peter Thomas’s The Struggle for Funding‘, derived from the Cultural Consecration and its Discontents: the Arts Council v. Film and Video Artists’ Organisations, 1975-present’ conference panel.