Portsmouth Arts Workshop

I gained a place in the School of Architecture at Portsmouth Polytechnic in 1967. It was a time of worldwide cultural ferment but not much was going on in Portsmouth. After visiting Jim Haynes's Arts Lab in Drury Lane, London and spending a few evening and nights witnessing the body shock of the People Show, enduring the meditative challenge of Andy Warhol's films or the heavenly cacophony of John Steven's Spontaneous Music Ensemble - I was inspired.[1]

The Arts Lab was supported by the underground paper International Times which Haynes had also helped set up and which sold upwards of 20,000 copies every fortnight. In his autobiography Haynes talks about how the events were secondary to 'bringing people together' and how he and Jack Moore would 'play host, look after our guests, introduce ourselves and introduce people to one another'. It was probably this that made the Arts Lab such an influential organisation.

One of the interesting things about the Arts Lab was the number of other Arts Lab-like places that grew up in Britain within six months of our opening. People were arriving from virtually every town in Britain - to consult us about setting up an Arts Lab in their won towns. (Haynes 1984 p168)

I went back to my provincial town and started a weekly 'Arts Workshop' in some old stables loaned by the 'Poly'.[2] People were doing similar things in provincial centres all over the country. Guests like Roland Miller, The Exploding Galaxy, John Stevens and Mark Bolan came down on a shoe string to lead the evening. Yoko Ono was about to come when she was romantically distracted by John Lennon and had to cancel. But the rest of each show was provided by local artists, poets and musicians for which we were an open showcase. Each week a booklet collection by a budding poet was published on an old Gestetner spirit printer. The printing plates were waxed paper into which letters were impressed with a caste-iron typewriter. An 'environment' was made with black polythene and found materials. People 'did their thing' - whatever that 'thing' was, it was welcomed. The events were a celebration of everyone's creativity. There was a sense that we were radically challenging culture, society and ourselves with these events. This was the counter culture - the beginnings as we saw it then, of a new alternative society. Our efforts were imbued with tremendous hope, optimism and utopian zeal.

Occasionally we broke out and put on some street theatre. A realisation of Apollinaire's 'House of the Dead' was memorable: Acting like corpses in front of the War Memorial; Being strewn with flowers; Awakening as if from a deep sleep we burst through shopping areas; disrupting the prevailing complacency with masks and various antics.[3]

 The evenings between events were taken reading American beat poetry, listening to groups like Captain Beefheart, thinking up what to do at the next event and making preparations to do it. 'Do it!' was the hip slogan of the moment.[4] People had ideas and got to realise them. Everyone was welcome to do whatever he or she could dream up.

Seeing the Exploding Galaxy was the second great influence after the Arts Lab. The Galaxy presented a new form of communal creativity. They had their own form of writing (known as 'Scrudge'), costumes, food, shelters, rituals, play, art work, poems and most of all large scale performances. They were a living artwork - Life as art. Led by the Philippino David Medalla and the Irish Gerald Fitzgerald they made an instant tribal culture from the waste materials of the city. They had little money and few patrons or public grants. They were outsiders in every sense.

After the Exploding Galaxy period, David Medalla made a series of participation artworks called 'propulsions':

Ideas originating in the Galaxy period, when a group of people lived and created works of art together, here became focused through physical structures erected in a public space and open for any passer by to enter. They simply grew and expanded by welcoming any number of contributions from any number of people. For me they are the most brilliant works of avant-garde art of the period in Britain. (Brett 1995 p90) [5]

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[1]  "One of the things about the Lab, unlike a lot of spaces, was that people didn't come to see something specific. But they would say, 'Let's go to the Lab and see what's going on tonight.' When they arrived, there would be a big black board, like a menu, showing all the different things going on that evening. Quite often I wouldn't know until the last minute. There would be so many spontaneous events." (Haynes 1984 p151)

 

[2] Helped by Peter Jones and Mel Croucher, two other students of Architecture.

 

[3] Directed by Mark Holborn who was then a local poet/student, later an author and editor, a specialist in Japan and photography.

 

[4] Do It! : scenarios of the revolution, (Simon & Schuster, 1970) was the title of a best selling book by Jerry Rubin (1938 - 1996).

 

[5] In spite of its title, Exploding Galaxies: the art of David Medalla (1995), Brett's important book has very little on the Exploding Galaxy as a whole. A limited edition book on the Galaxy entitled 'Planted' (1969) is held by the National Art Library. In 2002 Medalla was still active promoting open access art organisations with his 'London Biennale', a do-it-yourself version of the Biennale format.