1. The Pre-History of the London Filmmakers' Co-op
2. The Foundation of the London Filmmakers' Co-op
3. The American Underground Film
4. A New Generation: The London Arts Lab
5. A New Constitution
With the opening of the London Arts Lab in 1967 the second phase of the London Filmmakers’ Co-op began. The Arts Lab was a short-lived attempt by the American Jim Haynes to combine all arts - drama, film, fine art and music - under one roof. The Arts Lab was part of the mushrooming of independent arts and film organisations in the late ‘60s. Radical political film collectives such as Cinema Action began to florish all over the UK. Artists started organisations such as SPACE, providing studio spaces, Release, providing legal advice and Air, an archive and information centre for young artists. The Arts Lab was located in Drury Lane in Covent Garden. When Better Books closed in October 1967 the Co-op screenings were held at various places like the ICA but also the Arts Lab.
Cobbing: The Co-op immediately moved into Drury Lane after Better Books closed down. We ran a lot of versatile film shows in the Arts Lab in Drury Lane. The headquarters of the Co-op did not exist after November 1967 until we got into Long Acre in January 1968. We had just come back from Knokke-le-Zoute, we all went to the film festival at Knokke-Le -Zoute and we came back and they said we are going to start working on the premises of Long A cre and that became the head quarters of the Co-op.
Dusinberre: On whose suggestion did the Co-op screenings at last move into Drury Lane?
Cobbing: I think there was a general togetherness between the people at Better Books and the people who started the Arts Lab in Drury Lane.
Seemingly, there was a smooth transition of the Co-op screenings from Better Books to the Arts Lab. But at the same time the sudden closure of the Co-op’s base also provided the opportunity for radical changes. The encounter of David Curtis, the Arts Lab cinema programmer and Malcolm Le Grice, the artist, was fundamental in the future direction of the Co-op. Le Grice’s first films, Little Dog for Roger and Castle One introduced a new, material and critical way of working with film.
Le Grice: I must have spent a year in relationship to the Arts Lab and in that situation the first person who was really interested, Dave and then John Henry Moore, Jack Moore, who was a video freak, and he was very encouraging. He was very interested in the film and I showed Little Dog for Roger there first in ‘67 as a loop film and he was totally crazy about it, Little Dog for Roger, which was very encouraging. It was the first two screen film I had ever done. As I recall it I got very frustrated in making Castle One with the repeated sequences. I mean I did not really like sending them to the lab. I had written a long paper about the organisation of our media, I think ‘64/’65 I have been writing it while I was at Goldsmith where I developed quite an intricate sort of political theory about the structure of media and the alienation, I mean fragmentation, of jobs within media. I still have this paper and it is very long and very bad but it still contains the germs to which I hold to politically and ethically. And I saw the commercial structure system of the film industry as being extremely reactionary. Right away as soon as I was working on this film I knew, and so I talked with David about this. When I first showed Castle One I wrote a piece which was actually a handout, which I don’t have a copy of, in that it relates the films to Brecht and talks about the different problems of alienation of film language and media.
LeGrice’s criticism was symptomatic of the political debate amongst the so-called ’68 generation. His attack on the division of labour, the passive consumerist audience of Hollywood cinema and the alienation of the film viewer were typical leftists arguments at that time. These arguments were mainly published in the New Left Review. Key points of discussion were the crisis of Althusser’s ideological apparatus: family, education, the media and marriage. Further, the debates were based on a re-reading of Marxist theory, the critic of ‘culture industry’ by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment and the Brechtian notion of ‘epic theatre’. LeGrice’s disaproval of the Hollywood studio system was directly linked to the anti-capitalist criticism of the Fordist working model. Typically, Fordism was condemned as mechanical and inhuman by young middle class students.
In order to continue working critically the Co-op members were first of all concerned with finding appropriate equipment such as developing machines and optical printers.
Le Grice: I talked to Dave about this a lot and we kind of came to the conclusion that we ought to set up some sort of film laboratory. There was a guy at the Slade as well, he was in the printing department. What was his name? He built a printer. Dave must have said there is a guy working with a printer at the Slade, so I went and saw him and he told me few things, which I half understood but enough to have to a go. And then Jack Moore and Dave and I went up to Harringay Photographic to look for a projector which would be suitable. We bought an Ampro, which Dave still has I think. I remember Jack Moore throwing pennies on the tube lines sort of dropping money out of his pocket and throwing it around. We bought an Ampro and then I brought that back here and did some experiments with printing stock, and did processing in a bucket getting short lengths and that’s when I started to put Little Dog for Roger together using that system. And I did a little film, which disappeared … the first one where I did this negative/ positive superposition of people rowing a boat. I don’t know what happened to this film it was very short, one minute long, which was the first experiment with that technique before I used it in Yes No Maybe Maybe Not. That must have been all done either very early ‘68 or late ‘67.
And then we had no developing equipment. And this is when Ben Yahya came in. We had a series of meetings at the beginning of the workshop with John Collins. And Ben. And Dave. None of the others are on my mind. Of course also at that time Fred Drummond had also started to make film at St Martin’s, and he was beginning to become interested, but not in processing. And Ben and I put together the developing equipment which was a very bad system with huge rotating drums which went from tank to tank. I developed all my material for Tala all the negatives and Ben developed or failed to developed all his Seven Day War stuff, he lost it all.
The new generation’s call for a more practice-based Co-op structure was at odds with the original Co-op members’ interest in film screenings and Cinim, the film magazine. This created a power struggle, which turned into personal disaffection and visa versa.
Cobbing: Another dispute. There were people who felt we should not be running a magazine. I mean this was part of it. We from Cinema 65 were involved in a whole range of activities including reviewing, responding and the magazine and so on and so forth, discussions about films, whereas the Arts Lab people on the whole. When Cinema 65 and Arts Lab its very much a generalisation. One lot were not at all keen on running a magazine and spending the money on the third issue of the magazine.
Dwoskin: There was an enormous battle between the action at the Better Books Co-op and what became the Arts Lab filmmakers, and it was a real, I mean they had a better situation than we did. Bob got in trouble for...
Dusinberre: ...he had to close?
Dwoskin: ...he was not allowed to show certain books on the shelves and …tape unclear… independent publishing people forced out of Better Books, and seeking a new home we could not get into Arts Lab because it was blocked. And then Bob Cobbing found a bookshop up the other end of Long A cre. When he just got the finance for it, it went. John Collins threw a party up there before they signed the contract or whatever, the landlord and the police came, and the landlord got frightened and never allowed the lease to go through which left the Co-op at Bob Cobbing’s house. Distribution ? …tape unclear…? And the Arts Lab maintained itself as something separate.
We proposed things like mergers with the Arts Lab but we even had trouble storing our films there. I mean we did get a so-called Co-op film show night at the Arts Lab regularly, which we operated, but it was a kind of patronising effect from the Arts Lab point of view. But it was one of the Co-op night that people like Peter Gidal were found as it were. He showed his first film, he was at the Royal College then and he showed at the Co-op open night thing that we were running at the Arts Lab.
Gidal: I was reading in IT and saw something about a Co-op meeting in some old (tape unclear) somewhere and I went there with Simon Hartog and Steve Dwoskin and David Curtis and Malcolm. (tape unclear) And that’s how we all met.
Dusinberre: And what films did you have?
Gidal: I had one film.
Gidal: And showed it at the Arts Lab. Curtis asked me to show it. And I showed it. He was anyway greatly encouraging about it. And I showed it. And then heard from him that Malcolm and Simon and Steve and himself really liked the film. And I then saw…by this time I had a chance to see Malcolm’s and Steve’s films and liked them. It was all without knowing each other, we liked each other’s work, that’s the point.
Dwoskin: But Malcolm was very faithful to the Arts Lab but he was not in sympathy with the filmmakers as it were, he was more faithful to Dave Curtis as it were and then John Collins became part of the thing totally.
I was quite hostile I mean inwardly to David Curtis, I could not figure out what he was trying to do. I didn’t think that he had a serious interest in film if there was because there was so few films around it seemed quite a ridiculous idea to attempt to destroy the two outlets in one blow. I mean not allowing the Co-op to become part of the Arts Lab there was a kind of natural relationship between the two since there was so little film anyway and it seemed to me more of an ego trip rather than an interest in film. I did not quite understand it. But it seemed to go on and I only reckon it had to do with either jealousy of the American involvement, what they thought was the American involvement in the Co-op …tape unclear… English thing. But that did not make sense to me because Jim Haynes is American and the Arts Lab was principally American-run and yet all that was American but they did not want the American films, they kept talking about American films not being British and all this business. And then Peter came via the Arts Lab, too. It was all kind of lots of words but it did not seem to connect.
Durgnat: Things are getting so personal. There is a highly emotional meetings between highly emotional people and one person just says three long sentences and they become enemies for life. There was a generational question, too.
Dusinberre: So the different personalities definitively did affect the success or at least the direction of the Co-op?
Durgnat: Yes. I think they totally stopped it from getting off the ground. And the whole Co-op did go ahead after I left. When the Malcolm Le Grice and Curtis side took over because they were more dedicated and they had more time and they were more narrow-minded. So they were able to do something. Also by then the British Film Institute came so they actually got a lot of support from that as a result of other people tripping away and not getting it. And the Arts Council also. So after a year or two all the big organisations had turned round.
Malcolm Le Grice who was on the ‘winning side’ as it were, has more friendly memories.
Le Grice: And so I think it must have been around the time when all that was going on that we were getting in touch with the Co-op people, and the next thing was that Dave and I and a couple of people had a couple of private meetings with the Co-op, Steve and Simon and a few others. And on the whole the Co-op people were extremely neurotic about a liaison with the Arts Lab, they thought getting involved with the Arts Lab was some kind of take over. Steve was pretty open about it and Simon was pretty open about it, all the rest were very neurotic, especially people like Bob Cobbing. They saw it as a take over? I don’t know. I suspect, I mean maybe I am getting more credit for Bob than I ought but it might be that he saw the Arts Lab like a way of influencing American work or dominance of American work, but I can’t really believe that because the earliest catalogue had a lot of terrible West Coast films, I mean really awful stuff, so I don’t think this could have been the motive. I think it was just simple paranoia that they felt the Co-op was something difficult to establish and that they did not want people to muscle it all in or something. But anyway they had nowhere to show and they were showing at the Co-op [he means the Arts Lab here].