10.01 Cooltan and the Cinema Caf“: November 1991 to March 1992.

Cooltan was the venue for a large open artists collective in South London that followed the pattern set by the Brixton Artists Collective in the mid-Eighties.[1] An open collective, called Pullit, started to put on large-scale open-to-all art exhibitions. The 'Cooltan' was an empty suntan oil factory in Effra Road in Brixton that had been empty and derelict for a number of years. It was squatted by the Pullit group from June 1991 to February 1992. The factory had approximately 800 square yards of space so the exhibitions could be impressively inclusive.

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 serious drinking. (e file: Origins of the EC)[2]

Ken McDonald was something of an underground legend and had been doing his Reel Love shows since the Eighties.[3] Duncan Reekie takes up the story:

That was really exciting, because here was a room full of people watching Super 8 films. And what I really noticed about the event was that everyone was drinking and smoking, and this, in a way, kind of totally changed the atmosphere of the event because you had a kind of socialį  It was a night outį It was no longer this incredible sort of sacred concentration upon the screen. And people were talking to each other and it was actually fun, you know it was similar to going to a gigį or watching television. (Duncan Reekie interview 1996)[4]

It is interesting to note the influence of television on Duncan and other collective members.[5] This was as informal as watching television at home except now it was an open social event in which you could meet people like you might at a party. This was a dramatic change from the passive closed off social space that mainstream cinema had become.

The other exciting thing about what Ken was doing at Reel Love was that he was so inept. He was so incredibly inept. He would get the wrong films on, he would break the films in the middle, the machinery would break down for long periods... He would get incredibly stoned and talk over the films. It was just a complete fucking shambles. And whereas this irritated some people, to me this was amazing because you suddenly...  It was revealed to you that you could do this.  Anyone could do this. It was possible to do it! (DR 1996)

Ken's 'lack' of professionalism was part of this enabling atmosphere. It had a direct relation to the Punk strategy of widening access and stimulating a general creativity by debunking professional standards whilst promoting raw energy and enthusiasm. It was in Reel Love that Duncan Reekie met Stephen Houston and his girlfriend Cathy Gibbs who had already put up a notice about wanting to form a film group.

Duncan Reekie had previously joined the London Filmmakers Coop for a while at a time when it was in decline. He had been completely disillusioned by his experience of joining this group that had by then become thoroughly institutionalised.[6] He describes it as being 'dead'. He left the Co-op aware that something completely new had to happen if underground filmmaking was to be revived. It is easy to see how enthusiastic he would have been about the meetings started by Stephen Houston and he attended them on a regular basis. Only about three people in this initial group actually made films, or had made a film. In other words they were refreshingly outside of, what Reekie saw as, the 'cut throat careerism' and incestuous politics of the independent film scene of the time.

Then, when Ken McDonald's 'Reel Love' suddenly left the Cooltan in October of 1991 the Houston/ Gibbs group stepped into the breech. The core members of this group were:

'Stephen Houston, Kathy Gibbs, Jenny Marr, Danny Holman, Laura Hudson, Duncan Reekie, Suzanne Currid, Jenet Thomas, Anthony Kopiecki, Lorelei Lisowsky, Lepke B. and 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.'  (e file: Origin so the EC)


The constitution was agreed in principle in a meeting on 20th October 1991. It was formally adopted in a meeting on 27th October.[7] The first record of a show was on Sunday 10th November.[8] They ran shows on Sundays at 3pm, preceded by an open meeting at 1pm.[9]

But winter was coming on and the Regal was unheated and uncomfortably cold, so it was decided to move the screening to the Cooltan's caf“, which was in one of the office spaces on a first floor to the front of the building. The caf“ room was about 25 foot square. The move to the cafe is described by Lorelie Lisowsky:

The cafe was a big turning point and completely changed the way we viewed the films because there was food, drink and a casual atmosphere. It was warm. It also got the other co-opees involved more. Our first show in the caf“į I had programmed a line-up of films. We had spent a few days getting ready, making a screen by framing an old sheet/or canvas I had brought in, buying beer, posters, food - It was always crepes at the beginning. The cinema was part of the art co-op activity that happened in the building. The cafe had been the focal point for Cooltan, in the middle stood a giant wooden cable holder for a table. (email 26-6-2001)

As Duncan points out the thing about the cafe was that the chairs were around tables so people were facing each other rather than being in rows. When people turned from watching the film they were facing each other.

The first caf“ event seems to have been on the 10th December 1991 ('Subreal Film Presents') which was followed by another on the 18th of the same month. There were then shows on the 10th and 24th January, and then on the 7th and 21st of February.[10]

We made food... The kitchen itself was in the room with the films, so that all through the film me and Stephen Houston - we'd both worked as chefs, so we did food. And there was like frying noises and saucepans being banged together and stuff like this. And there were smells as well, and that was one thing we always used to say was like, you got all your senses are catered forį So there we are, we're showing Super 8 films and home videos. I mean, we were different from Reel Love in that we'd got a monitor and started showing video. (DR 1996)

Most of what characterised the Exploding Cinema for the next eight years seems to have evolved in the Cooltan Cafe. Some people had bought a couple of cheap projectors at a jumble sale and they discussed what could be done with them. An older improvising musician called Lepke B was quick to experiment with whatever was at hand. He would do things like put up mirrors and project off of them. Fairly early on it was decided that someone had to introduce the films:

We had to have someone to introduce the films, so... they would introduce the filmmakers and get the filmmakers to come up and talk about their films.  Then... the projectors would be constantly breaking down and everything would be breaking down the whole time, so it would help if the MC would do something entertaining. So you either had to improvise, like just talk to the audience for long periods. There was a girl, Jenny Marr, who used to be in the group and she would sing unaccompanied. And we would say to the audience, is there anybody in the audience who can sing or can play the guitar or whatever? (DR 1996)

So there was this freewheeling atmosphere in which nobody was into imposing their own will on the proceedings. The meetings were also almost laughably egalitarian and would go on for hours so everyone could say what they needed to. They were open meetings and sometimes they had to put up with people who weren't entirely focused or even 'completely deranged'.[11]

The 5th Cinema Cafe programme. An illustrated programme for the show on 21st February 1992 is the earliest surviving programme. The back cover declares 'an evening of film video food and frolic'. Jennet Thomas, Duncan Reekie, Susanne Currid, Kathy Gibbs and Lorelei Hawkins are given as contact names. Films and videos are shown by Jennet Thomas, Lepke B, Marion Galton, Nick G. Smith, Dominique, Duncan Reekie (with live text), Ian Haley, Jenny Marr, Susanne Currid, Anthony Kopieki and others. Ten of these were films (mostly Super 8) and five or six were videos. There was a video from Victoria Mapplebeck listed and then scratched out.

The style of this programme was a crude collage of images and hand-written information in a doodling fanzine style. It was photocopied black onto white paper with self-cover, A6 size. (See illustration 10)

It included a menu: 'Coffee, tea, juice and sweet and savoury pancakes... (Head Cook Stephen Houston)'. Host and compere was Sarah Adout and songs were sung by Jenny Marr.[12]

There seems to have been regular meetings on Sundays at 2pm in which a move to a new venue in Electric Avenue was discussed but seems to have come to nothing.

There seems to have been one or two more shows in the caf“ at Cooltan in March but by the 9th of April the Exploding Cinema, as it was now called, had moved to a restaurant in Clapham High Street.[13]

So, much of the format was evolved around these early showings in the Cooltan cafe but it was the next stage that showed just how popular and powerful this format could be.




[1] See the section on Brixton Artist's Collective & Gallery in Chapter 1 of this thesis


[2] See Appendix: Early flyers, 'Regal' (undated)


[3] Ken McDonalds still occasionally turned up at Exploding Cinema events. Here is an account, based on notes in my log book, of his appearance at the show in Blue, a club in a railway arch, on 27th August 1999: My highlight that night was finally seeing Ken McDonald, who did a long and rambling reading. He started with a long, easy going, shambolic introduction before launching into what Thomas described a blood and sperm reading. It was accompanied by what appeared to be Super 8 'found' footage of some Far Eastern land. Lots of luscious blurred shots of tropical landscape. He asked three musicians present to improvise and they did a good job.

Ken cuts a real underground poet figure - black man as beatnik. Duncan was holding a torch aloft onto his manuscript which he hunched over swaying and turning away from the audience as he read, apparently lost in his text.' (L3 p327)


[4] The transcript of this early interview is included along with the 1999 interview transcripts in the archive materials, which will accompany the presentation of this thesis.


[5] See Chapter Nine for oral histories.


[6] See Reekie's account 'From the Circus to the Office: the days of London film underground 1966 - 70' in Filmwaves (Issue 1 August 1997 pp4/6)


[7] From the diary of Catherine Reekie. See also appendix: Collective Agreement 1991


[8] Diary of Jenet Thomas.


[9] See undated flyer included in the appendix: Early flyers


[10] See appendix: Early flyers.


[11] This is reminiscent of early meetings of the Brixton Artist's Collective (See Chapter 1)


[12] Duncan remembers the audience numbers being around 30 - 40.


[13] According to Duncan Reekie, Lorelei Lisowsky, recorded at the time as Hawkins, may have been the person to think up the name Exploding Cinema.

See also Parker Tyler's 'Underground Film' (Secker & Warburg 1971) which contains a chapter 'The Exploding Peephole of the Underground'.