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Soft Floor, Hard Film

Revisiting the radical model of the London Film-Makers' Co-op, 50 years after it was founded

The establishment of the London Film-Makers’ Co-op (LFMC) was announced in October 1966 with a telegram: ‘LONDON FILM-MAKERS COOP ABOUT TO BE LEGALLY ESTABLISHED STOP PURPOSE TO SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT STOP NEVER STOP […] IF YOU WANT TO MAKE FILMS I MEAN FILMS COME ALL YOU NEED IS EYES IN THE BEGINNING STOP.’

Founded by a group that included poet Bob Cobbing, filmmaker Stephen Dwoskin and artist and filmmaker Jeff Keen, the LFMC started life as a series of film screenings held at the counter-culture bookshop Better Books on Charing Cross Road. In 1967, the bookshop closed and LFMC screenings moved to the Arts Lab, a pioneering multi-disciplinary arts centre on Drury Lane, where there was a basement cinema run by David Curtis and gallery space co-curated by Biddy Peppin and Pamela Zoline. By 1968, the LFMC had evolved via the New Arts Lab to house production facilities, a distribution catalogue and a cinema.

The co-op model was proposed as radical and egalitarian: member­ship was open to all upon depositing a film for distribution. The 1968 LFMC constitution called for: ‘provisions for liberal division of labour, and shared equipment and facilities’. Production was primarily on 16mm, thanks to the group’s access to a film processor and a step printer. The facility drew out experimentation as much from economic necessity as from a desire to push aesthetic forms. The means of production also gave rise to the political and aesthetic position that would become most dominantly associated with the LFMC: that of structural/materialist film. Resolutely anti-representational, the essence of the structural/materialist film was a desire for a truthful image and politics, ‘film as film’, which refused the psychologized and illusionistic grammar of narrative cinema. Films such as Malcolm Le Grice’s Yes No Maybe Maybenot (1967), Peter Gidal’s Clouds (1969) and Annabel Nicolson’s Slides (1971) exemplify work from this period. The LFMC members also produced expanded cinema work, taking the focus of the filmic experience away from the cinema screen and using multi-projector installations and live performance elements, as seen in Gill Eatherley’s three-screen Hand Grenade (1971) and Anthony McCall’s projection through smoke, Line Describing a Cone (1973).

The yearning for a counter-cinema had been expressed in the ‘The First Statement of the New American Cinema Group’ in 1961: ‘We don’t want false, polished, slick films – we prefer them rough, unpolished, but alive; we don’t want rosy films – we want them the colour of blood.’ The Group, later to evolve into the New York Filmmakers’ Cooperative, was started by Jonas Mekas with other artists and directors, and keenly charted the mood of change in world cinema culture as the 1960s unfolded.

There is some disagreement over the exact degree to which the American filmmakers influenced the London group. In 1966, Le Grice had already made Castle 1, his Kafkaesque found-footage montage, which expands Brechtian concepts of alienation by placing a flashing light bulb in front of the projected image. The thematics of Castle 1 – lack of individuality, industrialized production and modern warfare – echo the earlier Frankfurt School’s concept of the culture industry. It also proposes an important Marxist principle for the LFMC: owning the means of production, which was something that would set it apart from other film co-ops around the world.

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Poser for Annabel Nicolson's film performance works, London Film-Makers' Co-op, 1974

Poser for Annabel Nicolson's film performance works, London Film-Makers' Co-op, 1974. Courtesy and design: the artist; with special thanks to Mark Webber

The LFMC ran a distribution catalogue with an open submission policy and mounted a regular film programme, often showing films made that very day. Over the years, funding was found and lost and found again via the Greater London Council, Arts Council, British Film Institute and other supporters, with much of the day-to-day running dependent on admissions from the cinema and film rentals. Door policy was very strict: no one got in for free, or else the LMFC would have had no money. David Curtis’s model of the ‘soft floor’ cinema, established at the Arts Lab, endured as a template for the subsequent Co-op cinema set ups: mattresses on the floor and little heating. ‘Soft floor, hard film’ could have been useful shorthand to explain to visitors what to expect on most evenings.

The LFMC existed between the art gallery and the cinema: mainly populated and propelled by artists, but embodying a cinephilic devotion to film material and technology. Though most often associated with a dominant ‘style’ that grew from the optical printer and critical prominence of structural film, the LFMC was not a strict monotheistic structure but could be a very broad church. It is true, however, that the anti-­representational polemic could be problematic for those who had real issues with representation or, rather, the lack of it – such as women, queer and non-white filmmakers. The 1970s at the LFMC saw many moves for gender equality. Despite the egalitarian politics, women were often in the shadow of male filmmakers. Sally Potter, for instance, claims she always felt like an outsider there. 1979 saw the formation of Circles – Women’s Film in Distribution by a group including Tina Keane, Annabel Nicolson, Lis Rhodes and Felicity Sparrow. Rhodes’s 1979 essay ‘Whose History?’, written on the occasion of the exhibition ‘Film as Film’ at London’s Hayward Gallery, accompanied the withdrawal of work by female film artists in protest at what they saw as a denial of their role in the story.

In the 1980s, the LFMC became more genuinely diverse with regards to race and sexuality, with queer and black artists producing important work there. (Although, as John Akomfrah and Sarah Turner both recall, many did not identify with the formalist politics of early Co-op members.) Isaac Julien was a member in the early 1980s, before founding Sankofa Film and Video Collective. In that same decade, the introduction of Super 8 and video perversely liberated filmmakers from the supposedly free ‘means of production’ of the 16mm optical printer – work could be made outside of the Co-op and the space used for performance and exhibition.

The LFMC ceased to existas a sole entity in 1997 when, along with London Electronic Arts (LEA), it became part of the Lux Centre in Hoxton Square. Notorious mismanagement and rapidly rising rents in east London saw the Lux Centre collapse in 2001 and only the rapid formation of LUX, in 2002, by Benjamin Cook saved the distribution collections of the LFMC and LEA. LUX has been central in establishing a culture of artists’ moving image in the UK since the millennium. This has led to huge recognition of the practice of artists’ film and video over the past decade.

A trio of films about destruction, deconstruction, demolition and, ultimately, death, from different periods of the Co-op’s history, offer a reflection on things lost through the life of the LFMC. Nicolson’s performance-film Reel Time (1973) – in which she destroys a filmed image of herself as it passes through a manual sewing machine and then a 16mm projector – is one of the least seen and most discussed works from that era. A few black and white photos of it being performed remain, along with the memories of those present. Anna Thew’s L.F.M.C. Demolition (2004) uses footage of the demolition of the last Co-op building, on Gloucester Avenue, in 2000. The space was, for over 20 years, also home to the London Musicians Collective, whose members contributed the soundtrack for the film. Gidal’s Assumption (1997) pays tribute to Mary Pat Leece, the filmmaker and a founding member of Four Corners Film Workshop, an inclusive-access independent film centre in Bethnal Green, who died in 1997.

Assumption cites the opening lines of Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (1970): ‘Everything about art has become problematic: its inner life, its relation to society, even its right to exist.’ Adorno says that art resists definition, as it is ‘a historically changing constellation of moments’. Looking back on the LFMC, it is difficult to cover the full diversity of people and work that it produced in 40 years of existence. The radical politics of the 1960s and ’70s still dominate our relationship with art and film; half a century later, we remain entranced by its potency. Owning the means of production has become an intangible question for artists in the digital era and analogue practices risk fetishizing the aesthetic of work that was inherently political. The LFMC’s most impressive legacy appears to be the force with which it both defined a film culture and produced the voices to articulate its own criticism, thereby creating a pluralistic dialogue around artists’ moving image that feels necessary today and for the future.

Shoot Shoot Shoot: The First Decade of the London Film-Makers Co-operative 1966–76, edited by Mark Webber, will be published by LUX this month.

Watch Matthew Noel-Tod's video for frieze, looking back on 50 years of the London Film-Makers' Co-op, here.

Lead image: Gill Eatherley, Hand Grenade, 1971. Courtesy: the artist and LUX, London

Matthew Noel-Tod is an artist and filmmaker based in London, UK. He currently runs the Moving Image course at University of Brighton, UK. His work was screened in ‘Co-op Dialogues 1966–2016: Matthew Le Grice and Matthew Noel-Tod’, Tate Britain, London, earlier this year.

Issue 182

First published in Issue 182

October 2016
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