EXPLODING CINEMA, 1991 - 1999:

culture and democracy.



In the packed back-room of a pub the place is dark, except for a crossfire of light coming from a multitude of projectors. The crowd of two to three hundred are yabbering furiously at the back, swigging beer, checking out the book and zine stalls from the 121 and 56a bookshops and the nutsoid offerings of mail art superstar Mark Pawson. Down at the front the people are attentive to the main film. It could be a short documentary someone's made on their pet hamsters; a paranoid sci-fi horror about the underground trains in London really being giant flesh eating worms; or some cataclysmic animation, with unnamable debris seething into chaotic life. There is undoubtedly some compere berating or coaxing the crowd between each film. (Mathew Fuller 1995)[1]


The Exploding Cinema can be described as a hybrid fusion of projection, performance and social space. It began in South London in late 1991.

Architectural spaces, transformed with the use of slides and loop film projections are used as an environmental context for a programme of short films and video. A 'master of ceremonies' sets up a dialogue with the audience and introduces the films. He or she encourages filmmakers who are present to speak or be questioned. The audience are even encouraged to make films themselves and invited to show them at future Exploding events with a promise that nothing will be rejected. By thoughtful programming this inclusive process of soliciting material, along with printed invitations and the work of the members of the group, results in a varied and lively programme which can regularly attract lively audiences of 100 - 300.

The Exploding Cinema has been run by a core group of six to eight people, helped by a wider network of friends and enthusiasts since 1994. In the last 9 years it has put on more that 100 events and shown the work of over 1000 filmmakers. It is unfunded, and supports itself entirely from admission prices of 3 - 4.

 Previously I had played a central or active role in other similarly inclusive groups. These included: Portsmouth Artsworkshop (1969-71), The Scratch Orchestra (1971-73), New Dance Magazine Collective (1977-79), The International Mail Art Network (1981-1986), Brixton Artist's Collective (1983-87), Bigos Artists of Polish Origin (1986-92), Working Press (1987-97). It is my involvement with these artists groups that have led to this thesis.

My foundational assumption is that democracy, in the sense of people inclusively participating in evaluation and decision making, is intimately connected to the processes of culture. I understand culture as the processes by which we evaluate, think and adapt to changing circumstances using all of our sense media.

My central research questions are, did these open groups of cultural producers, which often flourish on the margins of society, play an important role in cultural processes of adaptation and re-evaluation? Why are they, for various reasons, under represented within our accepted body of knowledge?

Of course there have been movements, networks and groups throughout Art history, which have been well documented. We can mention Dada, Fluxus and Situationism as large and important collective sites of cultural production, which have been widely influential.[2] However it was my perception that there were problems in the historicisation of the groups I had been part of. And that as a whole our perception of art is as an activity by a gifted individual rather than as a process which is often much more social.

To remedy this lack I propose to create the basis of a historical account of one such group, Exploding Cinema. And to do this using disciplined and considered methodologies which will allow this account to be legitimated by the accepted practices of communications studies and social sciences.

The study of the Exploding Cinema is used as material to locate and ground a theoretical investigation into the relationship between autonomous cultural production and models of culture that nurture or expand our notions of democracy. The theorist I have chosen is Jurgen Habermas, with a focus on his key work The Theory of Communicative Action. I will aim to provide a theoretical frame through which the significance of such groups can be evaluated.

My basic research method has been that of participant observation. I joined the group in 1997 and made my research from this insider position.[3] The Exploding Cinema also leaves traces of its history in written and published materials, as well as on video and audiotape. This allows the construction of conventional historical representations through the summary and analysis of these materials referenced to primary source documents. I have used content analysis and semiotics as methodologies with which to analyse this material. The existing archival material has been augmented with my participant observations and focused oral history interviews. From the sum of these materials I have generated an open-ended and multi-layered historical narrative of this group's activity.

The first two chapters of the thesis examine the interwoven historical provenances that are the background of this research. The first chapter is a set of short studies of the other inclusive cultural groups in which I have been active. Some of these groups may have had some influence on Exploding Cinema but the focus here is more on a reflexive construction of my research position. It also underlines the different forms that such groups have taken in the last twenty years and how little they have been studied and discussed.

The second chapter is a study of the film provenances of Exploding Cinema. I start by looking at early cinema. Exploding Cinema has empathy with the musichall background of early film and with the oral nature of its discourse. I chose to take this line further with look at amateur film in general, as a cinematic expression of oral culture. I then go on to outline its influence on and relation to the US underground of the late Fifties and early Sixties.[4] The US underground films came over to Britain in the mid Sixties and inspired the formation of the London Filmmakers Co-op. Politicised film workshops also appeared as autonomous production companies. Finally I make a case study of a film club started by a later LFMC member that immediately preceded Exploding Cinema and has many of the same characteristics - David Leister's Kino Club.

This is not intended to be a complete history of British Collective film endeavors. Notable amongst the omissions are the Workers Film groups of the Thirties,[5] and the Film Society movement, which started in 1925 but was almost a mass movement in the Fifties.[6]

Chapter Three opens my theoretical considerations with a preliminary discussion of the meanings of my key terms culture and democracy. A particular understanding of culture as a process of 'total qualitative assessment' is taken as central to this thesis.[7] Culture is then described as the agreements reached through the fundamental expressions of human sense media along with the meta-code of verbal language.

The main argument here is that culture is fundamentally about reaching agreements and it is such agreements based on ongoing qualitative assessments that provide the ground of any formal democratic discourse. This constitutes a call for a greater permeability between the categories of culture and politics.

The next chapter considers the use of Jurgen Habermas's Theory of Communicative Action (1981) to further theorise this concept of culture. This is then followed by a chapter that discusses the relevant critical responses to Habermas with an emphasis on a Foucauldian position. Having considered the historical provenances and the theoretical framework chosen I now move into the meat of the thesis with five chapters on the methodologies of collection and interpretation I have used.

The Exploding Cinema keeps its own records simply within the domestic environs of its members. To use these records for the academic production of knowledge they need to be gathered together, ordered and brought into the public realm so they can be referred to by future researchers who would undoubtedly bring their own interpretations to the primary source material. This was one of my first tasks to fulfill the goal of making a historical assessment of the Exploding Cinema possible in the above terms.

Once these materials were collected I analysed them using two methodologies. Chapter Six uses Content Analysis to measure attendances at meetings and uses these to follow the ebb and flow of participants. A similar approach of measuring intensities of involvement is used with filmmakers. Chapter Seven uses semiotic analysis to further understand the complex use of imagery in the programmes and how this conveys a group ethos.

The next two chapters deal with the two methodologies I used to collect new data. Chapter Eight reports on Participant Observation and uses the observer notes written up in logbooks to discuss key aspect of the group. These are, open access, independence and its financial base, and questions of group identity. Chapter Nine considers Oral History using the transcripts of the interviews to show how the precedents of Exploding Cinema can be seen reflected in the biographies of the participants.

Unlike the London Filmmakers Coop of the Seventies the films shown at Exploding Cinema have not been archived or made available for distribution.[8] I did not study the films directly for two main reasons. Firstly because the diverse films shown at Exploding Cinema would constitute an entity by the context that the Exploding Cinema has given to them. It would be necessary to have this context mapped out before setting out to understand the films as a set. This thesis does this preliminary work and should provide strong grounds to argue for the need to collect, archive and analyse this body of work.[9] Secondly, before this study could occur there is considerable archiving work required.[10] Within this milieu there are rarely multiple film prints and sometimes the show copy may consist of a spliced edit direct from the camera. There are similar problems with video. The material shown has been VHS copies, which are currently considered unsuitable as archive material. Obtaining a satisfactory archive copy of the edit master tape is often a complex and expensive process both technically and administratively. With up to one thousand films to archive, this is a project well beyond the resources of an individual PhD research programme.

Finally Chapter Ten is an account based on the archived materials. This translates a mass of raw data into a readable account without rendering a banal simplification. As I have said I joined the group in 1997. At this point the style of the narrative changes from a translation of archive materials to a use of my own account as a witness. I also make occasional further use of the oral history transcripts to investigate areas in which little or no archive records exist.

I hope the reader will bear with a few such changes of style in reading this thesis. From the account of my own experience of past collectives in Chapter One to the more academically distanced historical account in Chapter Two and from there to the abstract theoretical reasoning in the next three chapters. The styles of writing required by each methodology also vary. This variegated style seems appropriate to deal with the hybridity of my subject.




[1] An interview by Mathew Fuller entitled 'Now Make a Film: The Exploding Cinema' published in The American Book Review (V 16 No 5 Feb 1995 p7). The 121 (Railton Road) and 56a (Crampton Street) bookshops were South London, broadly anarchist bookshops.


[2] Dada was an influence as soon as I went to college in Portsmouth in 1967. Apart from the practice of collage it was the performance and 'cabaret' aspects of Dada that were of most interest. See the chapter in RosaLee Goldberg's Performance: live art 1909 to the present (Thames & Hudson 1979).

Fluxus was really a contemporary and live influence on both The Scratch Orchestra and Mail Art, which I write about in Chapter One. The relationships are complex and could not be accommodated within the scope of this thesis. Contemporary accounts that influenced me are Adrian Henri's Environments and Happenings (Thames & Hudson 1974) and Udo Kultermann's Art-Events and Happenings (Mathew Miller Dunbar 1971). Perhaps more fundamental texts are John Cage's Silence (1961) and A Year from Monday (1967).

The texts of the Situationists have a constant companion or irritant since the heady days of 1968. On my bookshelf are such volumes as: Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord (Black & Red, Detroit 1970); Leaving the 20th Century: the incomplete work of the Situationist International, Translated and edited by Christopher Gray (Free Fall Publications 1974); and The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem parts 1 & 2 (No publisher or date given, probably early to mid '70s). More recently many younger colleagues have published studies of aspects of Situationism. E.g. James Burch 'Situationist Poise, Space and Architecture' in Transgressions, A Journal Of Urban Exploration, (Newcastle 1995), and, 'Divided We Stand: an outline of Scandinavian Situationism' by Howard Slater with Jakob Jakobsen in (Infopool, No4 Copenhagen, 2001). I prefer to give these more personal references than to choose authoritative collections of writings.


[3] Participant observation is a research position that has been critically examined in ethnography, which will be considered in more detail later.


[4] The US influence is evident throughout early Exploding Cinema programmes. See Chapter 10 section 2


[5] A programme of these was curated and shown by Duncan Reekie as part of the Volcano Festival 'Film on Fire' programme 9-11-97. The programme notes, included with the archive materials that accompanied the presentation of this thesis, were derived from Don MacPherson's compilation of articles, Traditions of Independence, BFI 1980.


[6] The Film Societies movement of the Fifties has no authoritative study as yet. Articles can be found scattered in the specialist magazines of the time such as Amateur Movie Maker, Amateur Filmmaker and Amateur Cine World, some copies of which are archived at the BFI library.


[7] This idea of culture is traced back to Raymond Williams (1959) to show an English background to my later discussion of Habermas' idea that culture can be seen to be elementally composed of communicative actions.


[8] Exceptions are the 1996 Vacuum compilation tape (See chapter 10 and the appendices) and individual artists showreels.


[9] As we shall see even theorists sometimes seem to overlook that the context is actively produced by human agency as much as the work itself is.


[10] I often harangued the collective on the need for consistent archiving of the work shown but it was never seen as a priority.