10.02 Las Casas: June 1992 to December 1992

Las Casas was a working restaurant at 153 Clapham High Street. The first show seems to have been on the 9th April 1992. A further 13 to 16 shows were put on at fortnightly intervals. Jenet Thomas remembers Stephen Houston finding the venue when they were evicted from the Cooltan. It was a vegetarian restaurant run in a friendly non-commercial way. The sort of place you could sit around nursing a cup of coffee without being hassled. It was used as a gallery for local artists so it already had a kind of arts centre feel to it.

It was a long, thin, narrow space, trendily decorated (but) it didn't have the sense of a chain, or a style bar about it. It was like it had been decorated by the people that ran it, with a sense of joie de vivre. It didn't seat that many people; they crammed quite a lot of tables in, and when it was functioning as a venue, most of the time we were really jam-packed. We couldn't really take more than about 70 people, even that wasn't comfortable, but sometimes we would get 150 people turning up. (Jenet Thomas interview)

The over-crowding was solved by having standing room all the way back to the door. There was a convenient place to put projectors for loops and slides on a wooden construction over the stairwell that led down to the toilets. The projectionists had to crawl around in this space as it only had a few feet of headroom. There was no video projector at that time just a big TV as a monitor. This was mounted on a swing and attached to the ceiling with four chains.

Steven (Houston)° constructed this wooden stage, I suppose about the size of this carpet here.  Sort of 6 foot x 10° a wooden stage. He worked out a system for how it was assembled with sort of pins, and holes, and nuts and bolts, and each one had a number. You had to do it in a specific order. It was numbered and so it was almost like a puzzle, every time we did a show there, we had to get all these wooden bits out, and complete this wooden puzzle. (JT)

The effort put into this show the importance of live performance to the Exploding Cinema ethos.[1]

The first show at Las Casas that I found any archived trace of was on the general election night of 9th April 1992. There is no surviving programme but there is a poster[2] and the minute book records a show in which TV sets were covered with red, blue and green gels. Shane Collins, the Green Party candidate had connections with the Exploding Network.[3] The next show was on 27th April at Las Casas (no surviving programme).[4] A meeting minuted only as being in May notes Duncan as Chairperson with Jenny, Anthony, Cathy, Suzanne, Debbie and Donal attending. Each person is recorded as taking responsibility for a clear role in the plans for the next show: Donal Ruane is recorded as doing the programming, the projecting and putting together the printed programme; Duncan is the MC; Anthony is in charge of video and sound; Cathy is on the door and Jenny is doing 'stage' (floor manager) and transport. There is mention of surplus income being generated and plans to buy group equipment. The accumulated profit of c£300 was, at the time, kept in Duncan's Enterprise Allowance business account. A separate group account was not started until October 1992.[5]

The first show at Las Casas for which a programme survives was on June 4th 1992.[6] The programme has a pale, peach-coloured, paper cover and entries are typed. The layout is neat with a separation of graphics and text. Every one of the 16 pages has an image, one of which is an Exploding Cinema logo. The tidy design style would seem to imply that Donal Ruane, a trained graphic designer, was making the programmes during this period.

There are short reviews by 'Captain Pat Porteus' (aka Duncan Reekie) from the show two weeks previously. Half of the reviews are of films by collective members.  This show of 4th June has films by, Donal Ruane, Duncan Reekie, Colette Rouhier, Andre Stitt and Lepke B, who are all collective members, as well as work by Ken McDonald and Vivienne Dick.[7] The text on the front cover and inside front cover celebrates film as 'a magic process', 'a chemical conjunction of light and matter'. It goes on to explain 'the persistence of vision'. Further inside the programme are images of zoetropes and a very simple and effective 'Make a Film' graphic sequence which explains establishing shots and cut-ins. These references to moving image production techniques refer back to early cinema as well as relating to the Do-It-Yourself ideology of the counter culture.

Apart from this didactic theme there is an odd letter to the Daily Mirror (dated 1937) which purports to tell of the effectiveness of 'capital punishment' on three seventeen year old schoolgirls by a schoolmistress.[8] The programme also contains an odd anecdote about a home movie that is said to have been made by John F. Kennedy two months before he was killed. The subject of this fictional amateur movie is purported to be an assassination. Headed 'Ripley's Believe it or Not' it is probably 'disinformation' which reflects the counter-cultural interest in urban myth. This reference to home movies glamorises the amateur genre and asserts its historical significance.

By now the Exploding Cinema formula is already well established and there are regular shows every two weeks with a paying audience of 50 - 100 or more.

The next show was on 18th June. In the programme, 'Captain Porteus' reviews the show on the 4th June declaring it a 'great success' and talks of an 'encouraging and energetic' audience. Mention is made of impromptu music by The Murphys, showing films at the wrong speed and unexpected power failures.

This programme continues the didactic theme. Inside the front cover is a found text defining the underground, first with an unreferenced quote from Marcel Duchamp; –The only solution for the artist of tomorrow is to go underground”. It then quotes a text on film in the US beat scene of 1959. Although I have not been able to find the source of this quote it shows how the history of the underground was associated with Post-War USA scene. The centre spread contains a short text about the gruesome Manson Family rituals with Super 8 and dog's blood.  Further on is a Union Jack with picture of the queen, corsets, and the text 'ENGLAND R.I.P.' Clearly, ten years after 'Anarchy in the UK' the punk spirit was alive and well in the Exploding Cinema collective.[9] These references to punk and hippie antiheroes are all somewhat retro in the context of 1992 when the contemporary underground was involved with music raves and techno music but they serve to give the angry and threatening tone of Exploding's oppositional posture.

The cover graphic of the programme of the 2nd July show is a pastiche of the famous Black Panther photograph of an armed and bereted black man peeping through a curtained window. In this crude drawn copy, signed by Donal, the Black Panther is holding a home movie camera instead of a gun: 'Liberate our minds, by any means necessary'. A found text in the inside cover talks about how the exclusiveness of the mainstream cinema is tied up with the large amount of money required to get the slick illusionistic narrative. He ends by calling for a compelling alternative. The programme includes a documentary about William Burroughs by Ellie Jeffreys[10] to complete the parade of retro Sixties underground signifiers.

Returning again to the punk era the centre-spread text is a reproduction of Nick Zedd's 'The Cinema of Transgression Manifesto', which had first appeared seven years before.[11] Captain Porteus' reviews start off by exhorting the audience to get out there and make new films; 'Don't be shy, even if you haven't made a film before, all you have to do is point the camera and shoot, Go for it!!!'. Several eye dissection graphics throughout are clear metaphorical exhortation to see things anew.

Donal, Jennet, Lepke, Andre & Duncan seem to be prolific moviemakers. They all have something in the show on 20th July. The centre-spread of the programme of that date contains a much-reduced DIY graphic guide to the subject of drawing directly onto film.

Captain Porteus describes the last show as 'a heady mix of High Art, camp trash and documentary expose'.  Marc Conway's Super 8 film 'Mantis Part1' featured footage from the last year's Anti-Poll Tax riots in Trafalgar Square.[12] Contacts given are Duncan or Jennet who both live in a short-life terrace house in Rodwell Road in East Dulwich. They continue to live there until 1998 and during that period it becomes the main Exploding Cinema headquarters.

In an undated but minuted meeting that followed this show, the collective decided to limit the number of longer films to a maximum of one half-hour film per show. The MC, live performers and games are agreed to work well to break up any possibility of monotony. A healthy bank balance of £420 is reported.

Duncan Reekie's rant 'FUCK OFF AVANT-GARDIST' takes the centre fold in the next programme (see illustration 11). [13] There is also reference to the world's most famous home movie: Abraham Zapruder's amateur footage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. [14]   Captain Porteus comments on how the audience, "was engaged in top gear, cheering, hurling insults and arguing amongst themselves over the merits or demerits of the work on view". [15]

Cathy Gibb's Super 8 film and loop 'Scratch in the Park' was a double projection° A simple but highly effective piece achieved by scratching onto the surface of some footage, shot in a London Park on a summer's day. The Loop projection, of a bird's head, was constantly moved around the space, sometimes even projected onto the audience itself.[16]

In spite of the apparent high energy of this show the minutes of a meeting on the 2nd August[17] reflect some boredom; 'It went on too long° (There were) too many projected works'.

The inside cover of the next programme on the 13th August shows us 'How to Make a Zoetrope' again.[18]   The centre-spread is copied from  'A Directory of Alternative Society Projects' (1973). It gives detailed advice on '8mm and 16mm FILMS FOR SHOWING IN PUBS'. 'Paddy Payne' (aka Donal Ruane) has taken over the review section. There is another rant entitled 'DEMOCRATIZE ART!' which is a tirade against the passive audience.

Democratize Art! Audience, what a shame it is that you are constantly travelling from venue to venue and once arrived you are forced to sit in the darkness or wander around sterile galleries. Audience, how lamentable it is that you are all the time confronted with closed sacred objects produced by ambitious professionals. You are excluded from the art process and the trouble is that if you seek to end this exclusion by becoming an artist you will no longer be a member of the audience. Rather, this blissful union of art and audience must take place at the venue.[19]

A democratic spirit was certainly part of the collective ethos. Minutes of a meeting at the beginning of October mention a 'New constitution and positive discrimination to get all members to voice their opinions'[20]

The programme of the 27th August has a 'Fuck Off Avantgardist' graphic signed by Donal (no other Exploding Cinema graphics are signed). Inside the front of this programme is an unreferenced text about Punk filmmakers, including Vivienne Dick, who rejected the academic formalism of the earlier Seventies avant-garde and made 'a partial return to the underground of the 1960's'.[21]

The show on 10th September has another surrealist style programme cover graphic signed by Donal with the text: 'WE WILL RENDER YOUR SYMBOLS MEANINGLESS'. Inside there is a witty and subversive glossary, as an 'Independent Film A - Z', E.g.:

Experimental: A type of avant-garde film made by artists who think they're scientists. 

Underground: A seething rabble of no-budget film/video makers who don't give a fuck for the 'independent' film industry. 

'Ripley's Believe it or Not!' is a story alleging the Queen Mother had an affair during the war.[22] 'Paddy Payne' starts off the review section by addressing the audience; 'If you need any assistance or equipment just ask. Don't be afraid, anyone can do it'. The back cover graphic has the word 'ANGRY' under an eerie drawing of a child's doll.

An unusually well minuted meeting on 13th September was critical about the last show which was considered 'a bad show', in which a member of the collective got drunk and insulted the audience. 'Sloppy° Some films too long°  Started too late°  The team is becoming complacent°' A mail-out to filmmakers was mentioned. Publicity for shows is being circulated to Student Unions, Independent Cinemas and record shops. There was a prescient mention of the need for a policy regarding the lending of vital pieces of equipment.

In a meeting on 20th September a door price of £3 with £2 concessionary rate was voted in. It was also decided that musicians and other live performers should get their travel expenses reimbursed.[23]

The programme of a show on 24th September shows the image of a young girl's face on the front cover: 'A fairy inside, Mummy?'  The style of this goes back to the more handmade scribbly style of the earliest surviving programme. This seems to indicate the period in which Donal made up the programmes on his own. Indeed there is a minute of 4th October which suggests that the programmes are now being made at collective meetings.

Jenet was MC for the first time at this show.[24] The show is described in the following programme with the usual hyperbole: 'The night was a sublime mixture of poets, films, impromptu performance, edible opera, high noon shenanigans and curious goings on involving much rubber and human flesh'.[25]

'After weeks of talk Anthony is going to buy a (video) projector' with help from £50 loans from collective members Andy, Suzanne, Donal and William.[26]

A show programme in November is undated but has a cover graphic which declares Guy Fawkes is 'a Hero', so it will be early November if not the 5th. The programme has a satirical cartoon of 'Malcolm LeGrice, on Arts Council grant, researching sprocket holes in the Amazon Basin (1972)' (See illustration 12). There is a short report on Exploding Cinema's multi-screen contribution to 'Fanny Adam's Big Ball' in the West End. These smaller excursions to contribute to other events tend to go unrecorded but could have been an important part of getting Exploding Cinema known to a wider non-experimental film audience.

The minute book shows there was some excitement at the possibility of a continental show coming up in Amsterdam, which indicates that international contacts had started to bear fruit and that the influence of Exploding Cinema had already spread beyond London.[27]

On the 17th December 1992 there was a one-year anniversary show. [28] The programme contained an acknowledgement of all the contributors so far. [29]   (See illustration 13) In this first year there were around 13 people taking regular active roles. The series of events at Las Casas had established an identity for the group, which became quite separate from the mother collective of Cooltan/ Pullit. The regular events twice a month at Las Casas seem to have tested and developed the basic format of Exploding that had evolved in the Cooltan Cafe; the core network of filmmakers and the cultural presence of Exploding had expanded enormously. It had developed a kudos, which was to induce a continued expansion and subsequent fracturing in the coming year or two. In many ways it was to become a victim of its own success.

The founder, Stephen Houston, left the group to return to Australia having shown only one of his own works. Lorelei Lisowsky had also left to start her own 'New Cinema' in the South West Of England.[30]

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[1] See later section on performance

 

[2] See poster in Appendix

 

[3] Jenet Thomas' diary

 

[4] Jenet Thomas' diary

 

[5] No records are yet found for any show(s) in March or May 1992. By all accounts there were shows every two weeks on a Thursday night with meetings on the following Sunday.

 

[6] The programmes may be retrieved in electronic form from the CDRs, which are part of the archive record that will accompany this thesis. They are in files identified by a date.

 

[7] A well-known Super 8 filmmaker who was Irish but worked in New York.

 

[8] I assume this is an ironic and affectionate reference to the sensationalism and sexual innuendo of the tabloid press.

 

[9] Much of this punk influence could have emanated from Donal Ruane.

 

[10] Ellie Jeffrey's 'Seven Deadly Sins' (video 7 mins 1992).

 

[11] Quoted from Underground Film Bulletin (Issue 4, 1985).

 

[12] Marc Conway (Super 8 4 mins) Shown again in the next show. This is one of the ways in which the Exploding Cinema could be a direct cinematic mouthpiece of a wider counter culture.

 

[13] IP 30-7-92

 

[14] See article by Michael Chanan, 'On Documentary: the Zapruder quotient' (Filmwaves 4, Spring 1998 pp22-23)

 

[15] IP 30 - 7 - 92 see p13

 

[16] IP 30-7-92 p13. Cathy Gibbs', 'Scratch in the Park' (Super 8 3 mins 1992)

 

[17] Attended by Jenet, Duncan, Londie, Danny, Donal & Andre.

 

[18] IP 13-8-92

 

[19] IP 13-8-92 p12

[20] Minute Book 4-10-92

[21] Referring to Jack Smith, Ron Rice, Ken Jacobs, the Kuchar brothers and early Andy Warhol.

 

[22] IP 10-9-92 p9

 

[23] A practice that continued throughout the Nineties and is the only instance of anyone getting travel or any personal expenses paid.

[24] Jenet Thomas' Diary, exact date not recorded, probably the 5th.

 

[25] November 1992

 

[26] Minute Book 1. 1st Nov 1992

 

[27] Minutes of 8-11-92.

 

[28] A flyer for the Dec. 3rd and 17th shows still calls the show 'Cinema CafÒ' although there is also a smaller Exploding Cinema logo in the bottom right hand corner. See Appendix: Early flyers.

 

[29] Programme of 17th December 1992

 

[30] Email from Lorelie Lisowsky to author 2001.