Back in February 1991 London was snowbound while Gulf War I 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 1993, then by Film London in 2002). 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 sparse and 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 legitimisation.
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.
The only glimmer of hope was a cluster of sporadic and fragmented underground activities around South London, notably the work of the filmmakers at the Strand Super 8 Workshop in Brixton, Lepke B.'s incredible club visuals, Ken McDonald's REEL LOVE Super 8 screenings and David Leister's KINO CLUB an amazing one man cinema cabaret.
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 and cafe. 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 Stephen Houston, Kathy Gibbs, Jenny Marr, Danny Holman, Duncan Reekie, Laura Hudson, Suzanne Currid, Jennet Thomas, Anthony Kopiecki, Lorelei Hawkins, Lepke B., 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.
As winter approached the Pullit group and Reel Love left the Cooltan and the organisation was taken over by a council of representatives from the various activity groups who were working at the building. The film\video group took over the Regal and we 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 we moved the cinema to the Cooltan Cafe and began to hold fortnightly open screenings called 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 industrial cable spools 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 music, 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 intervention or funding 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 eighteen years we have screened more than two thousand 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, 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). We showed a programme of work at the 6th Annual New York Underground Film Festival (March 10-14 1999), and done screenings in Brisbane, Australia (2005, 2006, 2007), and Malta (2009).
And the EXPLODING CINEMA is not an isolated faction, since the early nineties a NO WAVE 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 was also a key organiser of the VOLCANO!!! Underground Film Festival (1996-2000) 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.