London’s Arts Labs and the 60s Avant-Garde

London’s Arts Labs and the 60s Avant-Garde
by David Curtis

John Libbey Publishing, Indiana UP, Bloomington, IN, 2020
212 pp., illus. 60 col., 40 b/w. Paper, $32.00; eBook/PDF, $31.99
ISBN: 0 86196 748 3; ISBN: 0 86196 979 1; ISBN: 0 86196 980 7.

Reviewed by
Stephen Partridge
February 2021

David Curtis’s account of the Arts Labs at Drury Lane (1967–69) and Robert Street (1969–71) is a timely contribution to understanding the art and culture – and especially the so-called underground – of the mid 1960s to the early 1970s. It is a somewhat troubled history, the often anti-establishment stance, drew the ire of the press and establishment figures and impacted upon any long-term sustainability of both art labs. In his book on Channel Four, One in Four, Michael Kustow commented: “Sometimes it helps if there is a rival scapegoat for this apparently unassuageable need to attack the new. For the ICA, the Dury Lane Arts Lab drew the fire….” [1]

The term ‘seminal’ is much over-used (and too obviously gendered for contemporary tastes), but it cannot be avoided when reading this book about the 1960s activities of a London-based movement, or more accurately, series of initiatives in the avant-garde and counterculture. It is very much a personal history, as Curtis is at pains to inform the reader, but is likely, nevertheless, to become a touchstone for future scholarship in this area, having been rather neglected by other authors and research over the years.

At the 1963 Labour party conference, Prime Minister Harold Wilson had set out Labour’s plan for science, promising a Britain “forged in the white heat of this revolution” with “no place for restrictive practices of or outdated methods”. Science and technology were seen by many as the engine of progress, a driving force for industrial innovation and economic prosperity. The terms Cyberart and Cybernetics were forged in response to this background and culminated in the influential exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity, curated by Jasia Reichardt at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, England, in 1968, which then toured across the United States. Many Art Lab members were involved, and many influenced by the show which helped to develop their new aspirations for art, science and technology.

Curtis (re)contacted and cites many of the now legendary personalities at the heart of the movement. Jim Haynes, the founder of the Drury Lane Art Lab famously said that ‘my artistic policy was to try to never say no’. This eventually led to its closure when all the staff, including Curtis, walked out in protest at Haynes’ lack of consultation over programming. Before his recent death (January 2021), Haynes gave his blessing to the book.

Despite the arguments, sometime chaos, lack of finance, and venue issues – the list of events, screenings, filmmakers and artists involved, participating or otherwise – is truly impressive, including anonymous interventions from John and Yoko, J.G. Ballard’s ‘Crashed Cars’ exhibition; Carolee Schneemann, Andy Warhol, Jeff Keen, Ian Breakwell, John Hilliard and Mike Leggett, Valie Export, John Latham, Takis, Peter Weibel, Jeff Nuttall, David Medalla, Graham Stevens, David Bowie, Steven Berkoff The Exploding Galaxy, Ken Turner, Mark Boyle, Mike Figgis, Carla Liss and Kurt Kren. Curtis’s partner, the artist and printmaker, Biddy Peppin is central to the artistic programming and organization of the arts labs, and one suspects, the background research for the book.

Another key figure who crops up again and again is the photographer, journalist, researcher, political activist and underground figure, John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins. In an interview coinciding with his retrospective exhibition at Street Level Photoworks Glasgow in 2009 he rather modestly disavows his importance: “…it was more like a cultural wave which many people were surfing.” [2] However Hoppy was instrumental in establishing the concurrent publication International Times, the International Free School, the UFO Club, the links with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones (and their consequent patronage), the intellectual underpinnings (including early media research via IRAT- Institute for Research in Art & Technology), and crucially cultural and social experiments in video technology aimed at emancipating the television medium.

The arts labs became the model for other labs springing up across Britain and Europe and led to the National Arts Lab Conference in January 1969 – a gathering of about 150 Arts Lab groups including David Bowie’s Beckenham Arts Lab and Alan Moore’s (The Watchmen) Northampton Arts Lab. The next generation would develop these and new initiatives into the artist-run exhibition spaces and studios, many of which still existing today.

Curtis is naturally, most detailed over the film screening programmes, which he organized at both Drury Lane and the breakaway Robert Street Arts Lab, but also offers a comprehensive mostly chronological account of the variety of activities between gallery, performance space, film space, and café space. Robert Street also mixed in production with the establishment of the London Filmmakers Coop.

Lavishly illustrated with photos, posters and drawings, although sometimes reproduced a little too small to discern details. Some fifty years on, the historical relevance of these groundbreaking initiatives and developments continues to resonate in both contemporary art and our digitally driven world.

Notes

[1] One in Four, Michael Kustow, Chatto & Windus, London 1987, p6.

[2] John 'Hoppy' Hopkins - Talking Liberties, Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow Interview Oct 7, 2009 – retrieved 19/01/2021 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FzvwlqSuGpk.