Magazine article Art Monthly

Better Books: Art, Anarchy and Apostasy

Magazine article Art Monthly

Better Books: Art, Anarchy and Apostasy

Article excerpt

Flat Time House London 29 June to 29 July

Focusing on a rediscovery of the period between 1962 and 1967 when, as the exhibition notes claim, the 'artistic ferment generated by Beat counterculture in London was at its apex', 'Better Books: Art, Anarchy and Apostasy' presented an archival display that enhanced a feeling of what it might have been like to experience the seminal Charing Cross Road bookshop's multi-disciplinary and collaborative approach to film, poetry, sound and performance first hand. Any historical 'completeness' or 'chronology' was avoided in favour of a more informal and anecdotal approach, and this was important when one realises that specific accounts are increasingly in danger of being lost or forgotten. Two deaths of key filmmakers connected to this period, for example, occurred during the short run of the exhibition. Stephen Dwoskin died of heart failure on the opening day aged 73 (obituary p20) while Jeff Keen died aged 88 in mid July.

To continue this timely and overdue exploration of a scene, an imaginatively designed exhibition poster-cum-booklet contained reproductions of a selection of surprisingly fresh-looking invitation cards, photographs, posters and printed matter by the various contributors, together with a well-researched synopsis of key historical moments. To recap: Better Books was set up in 1946 by Tony Godwin, who subsequently opened a paperback section in 1964 on New Compton Street with a first-floor cafe that held poetry readings, lectures and meetings with the aim of replicating the impact of stores such as San Francisco's City Lights. Godwin appointed Bill Butler to be its manager; he was quickly followed by Barry Miles and then the poet Bob Cobbing. As an important centre for discontent and creativity, as well as a playful focus of artistic production and destruction, it was critical as a catalyst to the development of political film, expanded cinema, concrete poetry and performance in the UK. Events and collaborative organisations such as sigma (formed by the poet Jeff Nuttall - the idea for sigma came from Situationist Alexander Trocchi, who urged Nuttall to hold a conference in Oxfordshire around ideas for a spontaneous university with RD Laing, Cobbing, John Latham and others), sTigma (where Criton Tomazos and others created an environment based on Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty as a nauseating experience to bring awareness of the dangers of the atomic bomb), the London Film-makers' Co-op, Writers Forum, Nuttall's People Show, John Latham's 'Book Plumbing' and Gustav Metzger's 'Destruction in Art Symposium' were all initiated at the venue.

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The exhibition itself provided an eclectic mixture of photographs and ephemera packed into vitrines, as well as films and documentary footage of the aforementioned collaborative organisations, events and happenings. Dusty old figurative objects, such as Bruce Lacey's Why Did Joshua den Panther Die from 1966 (with a knowing quirk, 'cobwebs' was listed as one of the object's media), were also shown and, with this in mind, the space could have looked slightly lifeless; however, it was animated by a bright social atmosphere. In part, this was created by the show's curator Rozemin Keshvani - who, on the day of my visit, was spending time with Metzger, whose remake of his first venture into experimentation with liquid crystals, Earth From Space 1966 (revisited), 2012, shown originally at Better Books, was included in the show. At the same time, Flat Time House director Claire Louise Staunton was busily discussing the show with visitors. …

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