11 Jul 2007 SWINGING 60s LONDON
I received an email from Sandrine Meats, the Sorbonne student who interviewed me last year about my nefarious past. This was for her dissertation on performance art in the UK in the 60s and 70s. It was a roaring success and she has been awarded a scholarship to undertake a PhD. Also she been asked by the leading contemporary art magazine in France to write a lengthy article about WHSHT (the loose grouping of artists to which I belonged and whose multi-media and street theatre events I produced).
Now is a good time to respond to Clive’s request for a blog piece about my early career!
WHSHT – THE WORLD HEALTH, SANITY AND HYGIENE TRUST
It seems surreal to contemplate that while I was having a ball in the avant-garde art scene of late swinging 60s London, the Neocons were starting to put together an agenda that would capture American politics more than thirty years later.
The ball started for me a few years earlier during my time as a student at Hornsey College of Art in north London. I was part of the Light/Sound Workshop which created light projections on screens or in spaces, to improvisational sound accompaniment. I cite it as one of the inspirations for the rock concert lightshows which were pioneered by the Pink Floyd. Mike Leonard, an architect and Light/Sound Workshop’s creative wizard, taught Roger Waters and Nick Mason at architecture college and the Floyd would come into our studio from time to time and play to the light projections we created. I eventually took on the role of colourist, providing the colour programmes, notably when the Workshop was commissioned to do the décor for Frederick Ashton’s Sinfonietta at the Royal Ballet.
During my last year at college I helped organise an exhibition in a London square and a three-day Think-In at the London School of Economics. This was devoted to the work of the inspirational American designer and thinker Buckminster Fuller. I had first encountered him at Hornsey College. He was known for his long and always fascinating lectures and the lecture he gave that day was true to form. Unfortunately it was cut short by a member of staff. This so appalled me that I wrote a letter of apology to Buckminster Fuller, which led me to meeting and working with his UK associates.
During my last year at Art School I produced the first of a series of multi-media art events staged at the Middle Earth Club in Covent Garden. A fellow student, Peter Dockley, and one of my tutors, Stuart Brisley, were involved, as were art students from elsewhere and other artists known to us, including two with more established reputations – Bruce Lacey and the late John Latham, who had already taken part in art events or ‘Happenings’. Our group acquired the name WHSHT.
Musicians, dancers, poets, sculptors, painters, film-makers, even an orator from Speakers Corner and an East End barrow boy, would collaborate and the venue would be transformed by tunnels and structures, or through the use of strobe lighting. There was no seating. The audience would move from event to event and thus have a more direct relationship with the performers. Food was the focus of a few events, never more so than when two students from the Slade School of Art created a life-sized jelly lady. She was cut up and fed to the audience. The mould was a casting of the female student and the jelly was filled with fruit. The ribs were made of bananas.
I had enrolled in the Fine Art course at college. My main subject was painting. But I felt that as the twentieth century wore on it was increasingly difficult for artists to achieve something original using paint. That was one of the main reasons why I became involved in multi-media and performance art.
From the Middle Earth we ventured into the street. Our most ambitious piece of street theatre was a day of events at a dozen locations in central London, among them Regents Park, Hyde Park, the Middlesex Hospital, the Law Courts and Portobello Road. On another occasion, in bizarre outfits and doing bizarre things, we ‘invaded’ Fortnum & Mason, a favourite food emporium of the Establishment. I was well dressed but led a live hen on a string through the store. My recollection is that the hen was very good-natured and did not appear to be distressed. To a crescendo of alarm bells we were firmly yet politely asked to leave, which we did.
What drew many of us together was a sense of disillusionment with the conventional art world and a desire to experiment with different media in a peformance situation. We felt that fine art at the professional level was elitist, because the prevalent private gallery system which sustained artists, tended to commodify the art work, making it affordable only to the wealthy. We had a jaundiced view of the part played by art critics in creating this state of affairs. In our view, the public galleries did little more than echo the assessment of the private galleries in creating and confirming reputations. We felt that the fine art scene exemplified by the commercial galleries, was not interested in social issues or in engaging with the wider community. The ephemeral nature of performance art greatly appealed to us because it was the antithesis of art becoming a monument.