Saturday night (7 March 2009) in the city of the dead and I’m part of the small team organising Fiona’s Shoe; an evening of music, poetry and film at the South London Gallery. We’d obviously created a buzz coz we’d sold out three days before the event and on the night we were turning people away. Those that got in found themselves in a darkened room with a large DVD projection of a Jud Yalkut snippet. Next up was a 16mm print of Wholly Communion directed by Peter Whitehead, a half-hour documentary about the International Poetry Incarnation at the Albert Hall in 1965.
This was followed by a recreation of John Latham’s Juliet & Romeo, a piece of expanded cinema he’d intended to debut at the International Poetry Incarnation but didn’t because he passed out and missed his cue. The work takes the form of a battle between two figures, dressed head to toe in books and printed papers, to represent the Apollonian and the Dionysian, the classical and the romantic, hardback and softback books. The action takes place before a backdrop of two of Latham’s Force Field (1963–1967) – or blind – paintings. It begins with Latham’s film Unedited Material from the Star (1960) projected over the two figures and this backdrop. The work was performed once at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East towards the end of 1965, then twice during the Destruction in Art Symposium of 1966. Its final presentation during Latham’s life was at the Exprmntl 4 festival of expanded cinema in Knokke-Le-Zoute, Belgium, over New Year 1967-8.
Tom Marshman and Clare Thornton took the Apollonian and Dionysian roles at the South London Gallery and the piece still looked fresh and contemporary more than 40 years on from its last public airing. It’s a slow ballet, with each figure stripping the other, resulting in body painted nudity. Under the books, Marshman had been rendered in blue and Thornton red. Finally, Thornton decapitated Marshman, or at least his hardback headdress. The two figures then exited the stage and the abstract short Unedited Material from the Star ran again. The event was largely silent except for the rustle of paper, a loud pop when a balloon burst, and at the end some vicious amplified clicks from a pair of scissors. The movements of the figures were exaggeratedly male and female, with a subtle erotic charge between them. Much of the audience was mesmerised, a few seemed unsure what to make of it, and Richard DeDomenici told me he “was disappointed not to see Tom Marshman’s cock.”
The evening proceeded in an informal manner precisely because I didn’t want Latham’s work to come across as a museum piece. Works were not introduced, they simply unfolded. The audience had notes to assist them identify the pieces, but no running order or schedule. They could come and go but didn’t know what they’d see or miss if they chose to do that. A reading from an abridgement of the 1704 text The Battle of the Books by Jonathan Swift followed Juliet and Romeo. The text is a satire on post-Renaissance disputes about the relative merits of ancient and modern authors. It was read by actress Birgit Ludwig who had difficulty projecting to the large crowd, who nonetheless listened attentively despite the unsuitability of her breathy presentation to the acoustics of the space. I’d asked for a professional actress to read the piece because I’d wanted clarity; and I’d assumed that an actress would adapt what they did to the audience and the night. Ludwig trooped valiantly to the end of the text without altering her unsuitability ethereal approach to the space. It was impossible to follow the satire and many audience members assumed they were being bombarded with thirty minutes of random words as a demonstration of John Latham’s theory that the most basic component of reality is not the particle – as in classical physics – but the least-event. So although the performance was a failure from the perspective of what I’d wanted, it successfully kept to the spirit of the night.
Towards the end of Ludwig’s reading, free jazz legend Lol Coxhill came in underneath her on saxophone. He continued when she finished. The lights dimmed and Jud Yalkut’s 21 minute 8mm film diary of the Exprmntl 4 festival was screened from DVD. This included footage of a previous performance of Juliet & Romeo in 1967, and various audience members commented that from it they could see that our recreation of the piece was remarkably true to the original; this was down to hard work, with all available photos, film and and text consulted – alongside personal coaching for Thornton and Marshman from Latham’s partner Barbara Steveni, who’d performed the piece in the 60s. Our setting was informal and only a few chairs were scattered about the South London Gallery. To see the Yalkut film diary which was screened on a side wall, many members of the audience had to move from their previous positions. As they did so, some started talking. The intention had been for Coxhill to play throughout the film, and then continue on his own when the lights came up, with Ulli Freer eventually joining him for a combination of sax and poetry. Instead Coxhill announced it was pointless for him to play while people were talking. I was at the other end of the room from Coxhill but could hear him well enough despite the noise, and I wasn’t the only one listening, so it was a shame he stopped.
After the event one audience member emailed the following observation, which is fairly typical of what I heard from others: “really enjoyed last night, despite truncated Lol C set, was talking on the way home about how unmediated events, i.e. not MC’d, can create really good atmosphere of uncertainty and excitement. It felt very relevant to these times, nice one. The Whitehead film was beautifully presented with big sound. Maybe Mr Coxhill ain’t hip to his texting acronym type first name: laugh out loud, yeah but not while I’m playing…” That said, Coxhill’s reactions beautifully mirrored poet Harry Fainlight’s difficulties with the crowd at the International Poetry Incarnation as documented in Wholly Communion, so despite the fact he didn’t play for nearly as long as I’d have liked, his decision to throw in the towel did carry with it a sense of repetitive and ontological right-onness.
Coxhill did come back on with Ulli Freer after the Yalkut diary film, playing a few notes but mainly sitting with his sax across his knees. Freer impressed the predominantly art crowd both with both his conviction and the content of his poetry. He understood that to get across in the space he had to be loud and put a lot of work into projecting himself. That said, his use of words is actually very subtle! By this time the free drinks were all gone but we were still giving out free bagels. After Freer, the lights went down and the shorts Towers Open Fire (1963) and The Cut-Ups (1966) directed by Antony Balch and starring beat writer William Burroughs (who’d contributed a tape piece to the International Poetry Incarnation) were screened from DVD.
The last screening of the night was a 16mm projection of John Latham’s extraordinary coloured-disc animation Speak (1962), which anticipates the psychedelics of the high sixties. It is an 11 minute retinal assault with a circular saw soundtrack. Whenever I’d seen the film projected before the sound had been too low, but we had it jacked right up for maximum effect and the experience of watching it this way was a real groove sensation! The night ended with music from a CD I’d burnt of some of my favourite soul tunes of the 1960s: All Of A Sudden by The Incredibles, So Far Away by Hank Jacobs, New Breed by Ike Turner & His Kings Of Rhythm, At The Woodchoppers Ball by Willie Mitchell, Everybody’s Going To A Love In by Bob Brady & The Conchords, Karate Boogaloo by Jerry O, Think About The Good Times by The Soul Sisters etc. etc.
Aside from the above, there were a few other things going on during the night, like Brion Gysin Dream Machines in a back room for further drugless hallucinogenic highs. So all in all I was extremely pleased with the night. While not everything went as planned, that is in the nature of type of event I’d set out to create, within which discrete pieces also become an integral part of a larger ‘happening’. So to finish off, a big shout out to Elisa Kay and Anne-Sophie Dinant who invited me in to organise the night with them.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomescociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense.