September 26th to October 3rd 1998,
London's Volcano Film Festival is
the nearest that Britain has to a lowbudget film festival that is truly
independent from both public and commercial sectors. This year it was organised,
without any public funding, by six London based 'underground' film groups.
Volcano has a critical edge and raw excitement that other festivals, from
the BBC's lifeless 'British Short Film Festival' to the ponderous 'London
Film Festival', can never hope to attain. This year it had box office attendance
of over 2500 people who went to 19 events over 8 days. 280 films and videos
were projected, plus dozens of performances and many installations. It
was international, with attending groups from Germany and New York. Perhaps
the most distinctive thing about this festival and the London underground
film scene generally is the way that film isn't isolated as a media. In
Volcano film co-existed with music, performance, clubculture, publications,
market stalls, cabaret, installations, debates, food and what have you.
The films themselves are also as diverse as the contributing groups which
range from the relatively upmarket Hallowe'en Society, which shares some
of the 'production values' of mainstream short film culture, to the Kung
Fu cultism and no-messing street-wise attitude of Shaolin.
This is the festival's third year
and the first time there has been a base for guest shows in a single venue.
The Oval House Theatre in South London provided serviced space, box office
and cafe facilities in exchange for a 20% cut on ticket sales and the beer
and food takings. We didn't make any profit but it was good to have the
luxury of a base for all the guest shows. The organising groups each put
on their own shows around London in venues of their own choice--some days
this meant that four shows were going on simultaneously.
The first Saturday night of the
festival was dedicated to a Jeff Keen retrospective. This Brighton based
film-maker is a master of the multiple exposure, along with animation and
studio based performance. Veering wildly in style from raunchy home-movies
to exquisitely composed drum rolls of coloured light and collaged form,
his Super 8 films oscillate between the lyrical and the banal--retinal roller
coasters. Keen, who has been making movies since the early '60s, appeared
looking somewhat awed by the adulation of the younger audience. His film
works were avoided by the film establishment in the '80s and '90s, perhaps
because of his occasional pop art use of naked women and soft porn icons.
This was his first show in London for over 10 years. His most recent work
was a live multiple projection using stock he had digitally recoloured.
It appeared to be attempting an escape from the limits of the screen--jittering,
flashing and jumping the frame like a cinematic demon. It was this latest
stuff that the younger audience seemed to like most.
The next day saw the 'Death of OMSK'
in Hoxton. A danceclub/cinema hybrid run simultaneously in three venues:
the roomy '333' club and two nearby pubs--OMSK is a place were 'anything
can happen'. The organiser Steven Eastwood had decided to put this project
aside for the next year and make a movie, so this was to be the last in
the series. It had over 800 people on a Sunday night--what a way to go!
Just about every type of artist had a slot in this extravaganza, from poets
to VJs, with inbuilt cinemas in each venue running alongside dance floor,
bars and chill-out spaces.
Down in deep South London, Real
Fiction's 'kinetic candlelit cabaret', organised by Paul Johnson, showed
fifteen Gothik films and four ethereal performances above a pub in Balham.
That same evening, at the base camp at Kennington Oval, lanky Ian White,
who has made a name running the Horse Hospitals' Kinoculture programme,
put on his own 'transgressive' evening of hyper-camp with The Divine David
and author Dennis Cooper.
Monday night saw the Hallowe'en
Society do their regular show at the glitzy Notre Dame Dance Hall off Leicester
Square. Philip and Tim do things properly, right down to projecting from
a Beta VCR rather than the VHS machines most of the groups make do with.
Each film is introduced by an MC--who also runs a quiz with daft prizes--while
the audience sit around tables drinking, diverted by the occasional cabaret
Back at the Oval, hot off a plane
from Havana, Robert Robinson was running the Renegade Arts show in the
upstairs theatre. Renegade is an international exchange of work with an
emphasis on what slips off the mass media menu. It shared the Oval with
a double bill by Jack Sargeant who has a couple of books out by Creation
Books and is an expert in the area of mainly US underground which is obsessed
with death, schlock horror and the so-called dark side.
Tuesday was the turn of the Exploding
Cinema--the only group with a firm open access/ no selection policy. The
Exploding crew had taken over one of their old haunts the George IV pub,
near the infamous prison on Brixton Hill, swathing the interior in lights
from a myriad of slide projectors and Super 8 loops. More uncomfortable,
raunchy, and unpredictable than the Hallowe'en Society they showed 16 works
including four by collective members. Back at the Oval, James Stevens,
proprietor of the open access cyberarts workshop Backspace, was running
his chaotic Blink show--apparently programmed and organised on the spur
of the moment. Backspace, situated on the riverside near London Bridge,
is home to the Volcano web site amongst others.
Attracting a more youthful audience,
Wednesday saw Ben and Jap of Shaolin do their show at The Foundry near
Fleet Street. Along with the showcase of obscure Kung Fu movies one of
the things that distinguishes Shaolin are the live computer fighting games
which are projected on a big screen. An amphitheatre of virtual combat;
is this some kind of nascent ritual resolution of male aggression...? At
the same time in the way-out South East, My Eyes! My Eyes! run by Clive,
Grace and Damian, ran a show of home-grown underground classics to a mostly
local audience, built-up in the last two or three years. Clive was the
layout whiz who had designed our slick poster/programme which had given
Volcano a high profile front-end reminiscent of the old Scala Cinema's
The main international guests were
the notorious Filmgruppen Chaos, (est. 1975), who had come over in force
with members of the Munich based ABGEDREHT. For their Wednesday night show
they decorated the passage to Oval's main theatre space with a variety
of environmental projections: Rotating mirrors threw images over the walls
and ceiling. A chattering face was projected onto a polystyrene head on
a high shelf creating a surreal illusion. Inside the theatre large Gothic
picture frames contained lurid loop projections. The main show, with three
presenters, was a quirky mix of animation, cryptic drama, collage and found
footage made all the more interesting by the lively presence of the film-makers.
The same night at the Oval, Philip
from Hallowe'en had programmed a selection of short film and video from
the USA in the theatre upstairs--saturation point! Audiences varied from
the local to the 'cult'. One way the underground might be defined is by
its diversity and inclusiveness, especially to outsiders.
From here on in the Oval became wilder
and wilder. Next evening was taken over by the Frank Chickens who are now
a broad London based collective of about 20 Japanese women, cultural refugees
who not only show films but also VJ, sing, dance and do uncategorisable
performances. In parallel with the Jap-chick madness downstairs Hallowe'en
Society presented Rocketfish, the quirky films of Mark Locke and Guy Powell
from Tamworth, Birmingham in the theatre upstairs. Lower class suburban
culture at its most idiosyncratic and fascinating.
There was also a debate set up by
Duncan of Exploding Cinema at the Lux in Hoxton on the Thursday evening.
This was meant to confront the radical establishment and funding agencies
of the so-called independent film and video. Film-makers turned up in force
but the establishment didn't. Nonetheless, with just a few of them there,
it was like trying to have a debate about political change with the police
in attendance. For a while it revolved around the question of labels and
especially the fluffy notion of 'independence', a category which has come
to include major features and even high-tech ads. By the time I stood up
to speak I found myself shaking with rage, frustration and incoherence.
My outburst was followed by several people who, in the presence of funders,
wished to distance themselves from any 'political' intentions. In spite
of the atmosphere of timidity a few good points were made from both sides.
The academic Jon Thompson pointed out the need for writers who could articulate
a critical and historicising discourse. Jennet Thomas, of Exploding Cinema
made a good point about how the rise of the professional curator had meant
that art was mediated by a professional caste and that artists rarely had
control of resources. This led to what Colette Rouhier called an 'exhibition
lock-down'. The historically pernicious nature of a professional or elite
third party management of culture was pointed out but unexplored.
To my mind both the organisation
and context of the proceedings was counter productive. Underlining our
incoherence rather than producing the conditions for constructive expression
and discourse. The Lux is a prestige building which, as Mark Saunders pointed
out, was put up as part of the property development of Hoxton in which
Art became integral to a strategy for raising property values. It manages
the mediation of underground culture and its history, inheriting the radical
kudos associated with the early Film Makers Co-op which was, in stark contrast,
artist controlled and democratic. This new institution now sucks in much
of the funding resources allocated for this area and controls the presentation
and historicisation of underground film in an antiseptic environment which
is beholden to state funding and interests. Autonomous discourses are certainly
required, but in this form of debate very few people can speak. Speakers
are expected to be calm and restrained and arguments can never flow dialogically
because of the queue of people wishing to speak.
Friday night at the Oval was a double
bill of Arthur Lager and VaVaVoom downstairs and Jane Gang's personally
presented selection from the New York underground upstairs. The VaVaVoom
evening had been set up by Colette of Exploding. This outfit is Brighton
based and is a kind of sleaze cocktailbar cabaret with swamp/ Goth undertones.
Lots of skulls and writhing around half naked. I'm not sure they were at
their best in the Oval theatre, as there was not enough room for a table
based audience, nonetheless they did provide the perfect environment for
Arthur Lager's first retrospective. Arthur is a kind of suburban greaseball
'90s version of Jeff Keen the beatnik. His Super 8 films also use goofy
pop imagery along with multi-layering and animation. There is a lot of
coarse and comical sex between unlikely creatures and seaside pier humour.
All of which comes at you like a luminous freight train sometimes accompanied
by live drumming. Arthur has been an Exploding favourite for years and
Colette's inspired programming with VaVaVoom made it an unforgettable occasion.
Nevertheless Mr Lager was, contrary to his presence on screen, his usual
surly nervous self. Upstairs, the tattooed lady, Jane Gang had her New
York 'Zipper' show. Two of the film makers had come over and where somewhat
shocked at our lack of basic hospitality for international visitors. US
underground festivals can be much better resourced although they don't
sound as much fun. Nor do they include the transmedia live dimension that
made Volcano so alive. The Zipper show, which was a 'best of' selection,
veered from the darkly comical to the horrifically vulgar. Annie Stanley
and Patty Chang produced 'Hub Cap' in which two women have sex in a motor
car. Cut! Their limp and naked bodies are draped across the seats. The
cops arrive. Horror enough? No way! A cop then proceeds with a variety
of graphic necrophilic acts. Too plainly unpleasant for any metaphorical
appreciation. But, well made. Oh God...
On the other hand, Mr Mean's 'Glamour
Puss: How to Keep Your Man Happy' was a delightful and funny celebration
of sexual seduction for the over seventies. Mrs Means enjoys trying a variety
of increasingly creative and hilarious seduction techniques on her newspaper
hugging spouse. Finally he cracks. Yippee!
Upstairs and down, this was a wild
night indeed. The large Oval cafe was packed and even had market stalls
selling wares which ranged from dominatrix bone china mugs to second-hand
super eight cameras. Sandwiched in this cacophony of commerce was Mark
Pawson with his lurid selection of publications and pop trash ephemera.
VaVaVoom had brought their own Techila cocktail bar and an inordinate amount
The final night's Aftershock was
curated by Grace of My Eyes! My Eyes! Every corner of the Oval House building
was used for installations and a continuous series of performances. The
range of work on show that night was mind boggling. In a dark room a weird
group, including a eight year old girl with a false beard, played cards
around a table bathed in red light. Behind them was an audience of rigid
(dead) rabbits seated on raked chairs. Very strange and unsettling. This
was 'Toolroom Salon'. Just around the corner Tim Flitcroft had a sound
lab in which recordings of the previous evening were transferred to film
mag stock which was looped and passed through a series of table mounted
professional film editing pick-up heads. The resulting sounds were then
modulated by a small team. An evocative electronic music experience which
seemed like it had come straight out of the '70s arts lab scene. And so
it went on, in every corner of the building, using the full firepower of
Volcano's combined projection resources. The ambience was of a cross between
some underworld street market and a primitive pagan festival of light.
This third Volcano was a milestone
for autonomous film distribution in London. Of the 280 movies shown at
Volcano 1998, and the 1200 works shown by the Exploding Cinema since 1991,
almost all are unavailable. Little of this rich body of work can be accessed
for study or pleasure. It will not be a part of film history and so anything
but the barest outline, understanding and representation of autonomous
grassroots film production will be lost. History is now a question of multiple
viewpoints not just the over bearing narrative of the high and mighty.
Counter to this is the view that the underground scene is an oral culture
defined by its very outsider status. A culture which relies for its immediacy
on a mythopoetic compositing of its past--whose organic traditions reside
in human form rather than in institutions.