10.0G  Volcano! Annual Film Festivals, 1996 to 1999[1]

'Volcano!' was the autumn festival of the London film groups that had arisen from the networking in the early Nineties in which Exploding Cinema was a central forum. This short study of the Volcano! Festival is intended to give some idea of the wider underground scene in London that came out of and was a context for Exploding Cinema activity. I was involved with the preparations and running of the 1998 Volcano and attended as many shows as was possible.[2] A more detailed report I wrote on this festival, which attempts to represent the scale and range of activity along with a few snapshots of actual works, is included in the appendices.[3]

Volcano seems to have arisen from an idea of Steven Eastwoods:

Steven Eastwood wants to set up a pan London Film gathering - defining an independent leagueƒ  We'd involve ourselves in a London-wide Indie Film Festival.[4]

By the middle of May 1996 the planning of an event involving all the film groups active in the underground was underway: OMSK, One Pinc Tuesday, Halloween, Films that make you go Hmmm, Cinergy, Critical Sync, and Vito Rocco are the groups mentioned at that time.[5]  

EXPLODING CINEMA is not an isolated faction, over the last five years a NO WAVE of new cinema groups has emerged including Loophole Cinema, the Kino Club, The Halloween Society, Films That Make You Go Hmmm, Speckled Eye, Red Dog Films, M2C2, Cynergy, One Pink Tuesday, Critical Sink and Peeping Toms in London, Vision Collision in Manchester, Head Cleaner in Birmingham and Conscious Cinema in Brighton. Two other EXPLODING CINEMA groups are also active, one in Brighton and most recently in Amsterdam.[6]

By July the name 'VOLCANO!' had been agreed as the name of the groups film festival. It was to run in parallel with the London Film Festival.[7] The first Volcano which ran from the 8th to the 23rd November 1996 and included the following London film groups: The Halloween Society, KingKey Movies (Vito Roco), Films that make You Go Hmmm, OMSK, My Eyes! My Eyes!, [SIC], Cinergy, Backspace, Kinodisobey, Renegade, Peeping Tom, Uncut, Shaolin and Exploding Cinema; with an additional international night at the Ritzy.

In January 1997 the network contact list of the Exploding Cinema stretched way beyond London, whilst some of the 1996 London groups had already disappeared. This was the impressive underground film scene in 1997:

OMSK, a club orientated event run by the charismatic Steven Eastwood,

THE HALLOWEEN SOCIETY with regular screenings at Notre Dame Hall in central London; run by Philip Illson and Tim Harding.

FILMS THAT MAKE YOU GO HMMMMM... were holding screenings at Samuel Pepys pub in Hackney, North London. This group was run by Mmoloki.

KINODISOBEY, a short film cinema that specialised in underground music video and held regular screenings at The Chamber of Popular Culture; the organiser was Ian White.

UNDERCURRENTS, an Oxford based documentary video group who bring out regular compilation videozines of radical protest and agitation; our contact was Ted Oakes. 

BACKSPACE, an underground media centre and 'internet web boutique' run by the new media entrepreneur James Stevens.

CONSCIOUS CINEMA, a Brighton based radical protest video group.

RENEGADE ARTS, an international underground film Exchange organised by Robert Robinson.

MY EYES! MY EYES! a short film and performance cinema based in Woolwich South East London, run by Grace and Clive.

[SIC], an eccentric performance cinema based in Islington north London.

HEAD CLEANER, a Coventry based screening group. A contact was Anne Forgan.

THE TERMINAL BAR, an underground cinema and cyber cafe based in Prague, in the Czech Republic; run by ex Exploder Danny Holman.

KINO TROTTER, a Brussels based Belgium film group run by ex Exploder Katia Rossini;

FAKE, an Amsterdam based no-budget film/video group who organise the ROUGH AND RUINED FESTIVAL. The contact given was Liz Wendelbo.

ALL NIZO RESTRICTED REVOLUTION PICTURES, a Hamburg based no-budget Super 8 group who specialise in outdoor screenings. The contact person was Lutz Kayser.

THE PINK PONY CLUB, a low budget film screening event in New York, run by Jane Higgins.

TOTAL MOBILE HOME, a San Francisco based 'micro' cinema. The contact was Rebecca Barton.[8]

The changing nature of these lists suggests that the scene was fairly volatile with groups forming and disappearing on a regular basis or at least network links changing. Filmwaves magazine regularly listed the current groups on its 'Film Societies' page.[9]

The 1997 Volcano! took place from 1st to the 15th November. By now it is just called a 'film festival' not an 'independent' film festival due to the problematic nature of the term independent which by now had come to be used to describe practically all non Hollywood filmmaking. The following London groups ran separate shows as part in the 1997 Volcano Film Festival: Exploding Cinema, Undercurrents, The Halloween Society, OMSK, Scooter, Shaolin, Pink Pony Club, My Eyes! My Eyes!, kinoKULTURE, Films That Make You Go Hmmm..., Renegade Arts and Backspace.[10]

I was now part of the Exploding collective and took part in Exploding Cinema's Volcano! show at the venue Strike on the 1st November. This was an arts space in an old sweatshop in Fashion street, East London. I also attended: the Pink Pony show in a riverside gallery near London Bridge; a Ritzy special showing of films from the British Independent Film Movement of the 1930s arranged by Duncan Reekie; a show by Scooter at the Spitz in Spitalfields which was enlivened by tea and cake served by women in C18th costume; My Eyes! My Eyes! Showed in a disused concrete mill in Greenwich with a live performance by John Bentley; The final show in a small warehouse behind Kings Cross station included a 'best of the festival' selection put on by all the groups involved but mainly using Exploding Cinema's equipment.

London's Volcano Film Festival was the nearest that Britain had to a low budget film festival that was truly independent from both public and commercial sectors. In 1998 it was organised, without any public funding, by six London based 'underground' film groups.

Volcano! In 1998 had a raw excitement that other festivals, from the lifeless BBC British Short Film Festival[11] to the ponderous London Film Festival, can never hope to attain. In 1998 it had box office attendance of over 2500 people who went to nineteen events over eight days. At least 280 films and videos were projected, plus dozens of performances and many installations. International in scope, there were groups attending from Germany and New York. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about this festival and the London Underground film scene generally was the way that film wasn't isolated as a media. In Volcano 1998 film coexisted with music, performance, club-culture, publications, market stalls, cabaret, installations, debates, food and what have you. This made it open to life rather than being a closed media form. The films themselves are also as diverse as the contributing groups, which ranged from the Halloween Society's short film promotion which merges with the calling card production values of mainstream short film culture, to the Kung Fu cultism and street-wise posture of Shaolin.

Volcano was successful because it is a concentration of skills and experience. The nineteen or more people who put unpaid time into making Volcano happen included skilled organisers, technicians, curators, copywriters, and graphic artists. This diverse agglomeration of talent seemed to work well in concert.

1998 was 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 of ticket sales plus the income from beer and food sales. Volcano didn't make much profit but it was good to have the luxury of a base for 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.[12]

In addition to all the film and performance there was also a debate set up by Duncan of Exploding Cinema at the Lux in Hoxton on the Thursday evening. This was intended to confront the radical establishment and the funding agencies of independent film and video. Of course filmmakers turned up in force but the establishment didn't. Nonetheless even with just a few of them there, it was like trying to have a debate about political change whilst under surveillance. Unsurprisingly the debate was generally mild if not stilted. For a while it revolved around the question of labels and especially the fluffy notion of 'independence'. However, in spite of the atmosphere of timidity a few good points were finally made by both sides. The academic John Thompson pointed out the need for writers who could articulate a critical and historicising discourse. Jenet Thomas, of Exploding Cinema argued that the rise of the professional curator had meant that art was mediated by a professional elite and that artists rarely had control of resources. This led to what Colette had called an 'exhibition lock-down'. The historically pernicious nature of third party management of culture, especially if it is professional or elite, was pointed out but unexplored.

This third Volcano! Was undoubtedly very successful. It raised the profile of autonomous film in London but may have been its high point. Voluntary effort on this scale may have worn out the participants.

The next year the 1999 Volcano! was smaller in scale. It had a little base in The Annexe in Dean Street, Soho, for early evening free shows by people such as Chip Karney and Ian Robertson. But little sense of occasion was generated. There was no big poster, fewer shows and none of the visitors from abroad. OMSK put on a show in the Hoxton Hall, an old and unspoilt musichall, which had its moments. There was a show of George Kuchar's 'The Devils Cleavage' at the Horse Hospital.[13] The Exploding Collective put on a show at the Union Tavern. The set-up included an interesting argument as to whether we should be getting the maximum number of people seeing the films by putting the chairs in rows, or whether we should stick with the more social arrangement of chairs around tables.[14]

I didn't attempt to attend all the Volcano shows in 1999, so this report is based on seeing less than half of the shows. There was another Pow Wow organised by Duncan, this time at Backspace near London Bridge. Jenet made a point about the lack of critical discourse on almost any of the work. Duncan put forward an imaginative proposal for shifting national filmmaking resourcing from production to enabling the whole population to make short films through local access facilities.[15] Steven Eastwood suggested that Volcano should become an all-year-round institution with a building but he found few backers. There is a lack of any strong agreement about future collective directions. The underground consensus seems to be wary of hard-edged proposals that do not have a groundswell of opinion behind them.[16]

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[1] There was a Volcano! From November 18th - 24th 2000 but was no Volcano in 2001.

 

[2] My presence in the collective from 1997 results in a change of style in my narrative about this final period (1997 - 1999). There is a less archival approach and my own authorial voice as a witness comes to the fore.

 

[3] Short interviews with selected leaders of the participating film groups were videod at the Oval House and are part of my own archive record. (Originated on Hi8. Duration 60 mins) A longer version of my account of Volcano 1998 was published by Variant in 1999 LINK?

 

[4] Minutes of 25-2-96

 

[5] Minutes of 12-5-96

 

[6] E file: ORIGINS OF THE EC, May 1996

 

[7] Minutes of 7-7-96

 

[8] e file: Contact Sheet, Jan. 1997

 

[9] See also Filmwaves Issue 2, November 1997 pp 7/9

 

[10] The posters and other ephemera from Volcano are bound within the poster /flyer collection that is part of the archive that will accompany the presentation of this thesis.

 

[11] See Filmwaves Issue 5 p7

 

[12] 'Erupto' the 1998 festival zine programme contains further information and a short history of independent film in Britain by Duncan Reekie. A version of my detailed report on the 1998 Volcano! was published in Variant (Spring 1999) and is included as an appendix to this thesis.

 

[13] Logbook 3 p350 'The Devils Clevage' was cinematically dull but often texturally interesting. It compared poorly to the recent Dogma film Mifune (1999) which I had recently seen.

 

[14] Logbook 3 p347 I videod a portrait of each member of the audience as they came in and then showed it back to them two hours later with Duncan improvising slides on top. The Bohman Brothers, a well-known improvised music duo, accompanied a silent 16mm film to good effect.

 

[15] A copy of this proposal is included in the Appendix.

 

[16] The decline of Volcano as a high-energy festival in 1999 is not easy to put down to any one cause. The Festival happened at a similar energy level in November 2000 and did not occur at all in 2001. Filmwaves still listed twenty-seven film groups at the end of 1999 but most do not seem to be very active. (Filmwaves issue 9, Autumn 1999) The subsequent collapse of the Lux Centre in 2001 may indicate a general malaise in the creative end of film culture.