Regeneration? Part II: The Lux Centre: Eastward Ho!

By Sarah Turner

Sarah Turner profiles The Lux Centre, the new home to The London Film-Makers’ Co-op and London Electronic Arts which opens in September in Hoxton Square


After years of desperately searching to find suitable premises to rehouse the London Filmmakers’ Co-op (LFMC) and London Electronic Arts (LEA), the new LUX centre will open in Hoxton, East London, on September 19, 1997. The LFMC’s lease expired on its Gloucester Avenue premises as far back as 1988. Railtrack, formerly British Rail, were not interested in entertaining the idea of renewal, because that would have required refurbishment investment and, sadly, they were content to allow the building to run itself into the ground, presumably as the land itself is more valuable. Situated next to the Euston railway line, parts of the Gloucester Avenue premises are actually listed – the building is built over tunnels designed by Brunel and its original use was a Railworkers Variety House, complete with the Engineer pub over the road and an industrial launderette underneath.

Only the Co-op could have survived years working in a building with such a truly romantic legacy but in filthy and sub-zero winter conditions. Hardcore cinema audiences knew that the only seat worth sitting in was the one next to the ancient funnel heating system, which, even if it did obscure the sound of the movie, was preferable to freezing to death. Others, preferring their soundtracks without additional ambience, took along hot water bottles and whiskey. Film editors worked with two pairs of gloves on - not good for peeling off persistent splices - or rescheduled their shoots for summer edits. In the final years at Gloucester Avenue the only other building occupants were a pigeon colony, and it was at the point when the roof fell in on an artist's head during a performance (in true style, and much to the amusement of both the audience and passers-by, she completed the performance on the street) that it was finally decided that enough was beyond enough and that temporary relocation was now to be seriously entertained.

Two other sites were identified over the years, but both fell through in the critical last minutes. It wasn’t until early in 1996 that building work started on the LUX centre and the LFMC moved into its temporary premises around the corner from the LUX on Hoxton Street. (LEA had long moved to its ‘transitional’ Camden site.)

In total contrast, the LUX centre, designed by architects MacCreanor Lavington has been described as a purpose-built state of the art centre for high profile exhibition of the moving image arts. It’s certainly the first purpose-built arts centre to be funded by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of England. And it wasn’t just Lottery money, the list of funders is impressive: The European Regional Development Fund, the Foundation for Sport and the Arts, London Film and Video Development Agency and, let us not forget, the British Film Institute.

Let me describe exactly what 'state of the art' means. LEA has its own first-floor gallery dedicated to video and new media art - an impressive, light-drenched space on the scale of a small ballroom. The LFMC will own and manage the cinema, designed by Stephanie Fischer (of architects Burrell Foley Fischer). The cinema is located on the ground floor. Its projection box is designed to serve two areas: the foyer which, replete with four video monitors laid into the floor, labelled ‘the pits’, has become a serviceable installation space, with the fascinating potential of any ‘transitional area’ and the auditorium itself. This is where it gets really exciting. The auditorium, for the first time fully accessible and induction looped, holds 120 moveable seats on its non-raked floor. The floor is sprung, allowing not only for conventional projection, but also for projection as an integral part of performance, dance or live music. The projection facilities incorporate a matrix system which allows for video projection from multiple sources; Beta to VHS to Data. Film projection ranges from super 8, all variations of 16mm and up to 35mm. Add to that, a variable acoustic to accommodate the required range from live music to film soundtracks and speech - achieved through panels on the wall, hinged to rotate through 180 degrees, with a reflective surface on one side and an absorptive surface on the other. The panels also act as shutters to windows which provide natural light when the room is in use for workshops or conferences. Gloucester Avenue is indeed a distant dream.

And, despite the voices of a few old guard dissenters (who I'll get onto in a minute) it’s hard to imagine this new centre failing. There’s enormous cultural goodwill to the LFMC, now 31 years old, and the cohabitation with LEA has been approached in a spirit of optimistic collaboration. This should finally lay to rest the tedious debates around medium specificity, which have always obscured more pressing concerns. LEA and LFMC occupy approximately one-half of the new LUX centre, the remaining spaces are let out to related cultural and arts organisations. The potential for this new space is enormous - a gallery, a cinema, a cafe (to be leased by Acid Jazz) and, most importantly, Hoxton square itself. The LFMC finds itself located in the heart of an area in Hackney buzzing with cultural regeneration. The Blue Note night club, our immediate neighbours, is one of the most exciting spots for experimental music in London. East London itself is a culturally diverse area with the highest concentration of artists’ studios in the whole of Europe, and Hoxton is at its heart. Add to this, the general weariness with an overpriced West End whose function these days doesn't seem to go beyond the dual role of being a showcase for Americana-dominated multiplexes and a stamping ground for rich tourists, and the cultural ascendancy of the East End is assured.

The LUX Centre opens at a significant moment of change in British filmmaking, both in terms of independent work and within the industry as a whole. Changes in the political and cultural climate have given us a new optimism with which to address all the possibilities of the future. Boundaries have been traversed between the traditional avant-garde and independent narrative filmmaking and between existing filmmaking practices and the new digital environment that now surrounds us all.

If I sound partial it's because I, along with my colleague John Thompson, had the unenviable - or enviable depending on your perspective - task of curating the opening four months of the new LFMC cinema and addressing its new, revamped identity. A phoenix rising from the ashes or a leap into the flames I also worked at the LFMC in its Gloucester Avenue days, and have used its workshop and cinema consistently

The agenda of the Co-op has changed and the cinema launch programme reflects that, but that’s only one aspect. Along with the cinema upgrade, there has also been a massive investment in re-equipping, which has extended the potential for training, production and post production. And there are other structural changes that have caused some concern. The London Filmmakers' Co-op remains a Co-op in name only. After repeated calls (some from the staff and members, others from the funders), the Co-op's board finally conceded to introducing line management, and, yes, that probably appeased the Lottery, too. This was actually voted on at an open general meeting; few turned up and those protesting most loudly now are culpable for their lack of interest at the time.

In reality it was the 80s that proved the real turning point and challenge for the Co-op, and began the process which is the re-manifestation we see now. The politics of race, gender and sexuality heavily impacted on the limited formal concerns of the 70s and this was crystallised in debates around representation. The spawning social movements that had perhaps been edgily assimilated or gone elsewhere in the 70s were the implicit agenda of a younger generation who were confidently emerging from art schools and the workshop sector. Playful new forms of narrative experimentation were embraced by a generation bored and marginalised by the rigorous orthodoxy and humourless debate that characterised perceptions of 'Co-op work'. However the external perception of the Co-op as a rarefied group of people having rarefied debates largely amongst themselves, endured. The LFMC in the new LUX centre is certainly not what it was. What it is to become is the challenge for anyone that ventures there to take up.

For all those that laud the widening cultural agenda of the Co-op there are still those that wish it had remained in the past. Only a few weeks ago, I attended the Mary Pat Leece memorial ceremony at Four Corners Film Workshop. It was a stormy Friday evening and I was standing in the back garden thinking about a woman whose generosity and integrity epitomised the vision and creativity of the London independent sector. I won’t mention names, but I was approached by one of the said 'Old Guard' who proceeded to express his 'fears' over the direction the Co-op was taking, and in the same breath asked me (in reference to the appointment of the new curator Helen de Witt, formerly of Cinenova) if I thought that someone from a background in 'women's film' was capable of programming the Co-op cinema. This is the persistent assumption of, and I hate to say it, a generation of white, middle class, heterosexual men. That what they do is the general and everybody else the specific. It points to a tedious and tiresome fear of difference, which in certain circles is still thinly tolerated, but it's also as pernicious as that other enduring cultural phenomenon - laddism. This version masquerades as a kind of intellectual opposition to the tits and tarts variety but, nevertheless, it operates along strikingly similar lines. Nostalgic, prescriptive, humourless and deeply reactionary to anyone (and that is most of us) not in on the joke.

The Launch

We open the cinema on the September 19, with Gallivant, Andrew Kötting’s first feature film. Kötting is a lad without the -ism. He has a big and all inclusive heart - and he doesn't need to behave badly. Gallivant is his irreverent and observant gallop around the British coastline, the world he unearths is the Britain well beyond the PC barometer. These are the other - and often forgotten - margins; the economic detritus and weird eccentrics of a rural Britain largely populated by Thatcher's dispossessed. Kötting's project is a kind of cultural retrieval, filtered somewhat tangentially through the representative eyes of two equally disenfranchised generations, his nine year- old daughter and his octogenarian grandmother. Gallivant is an extraordinary piece of work, made by a filmmaker who has long associations with the Co-op. (The LFMC distributes his early shorts.) The two week premiere is not just about the avant-garde coming home - after years of insecurity we finally have premises that can do justice to the work - but an indicator of what is to come. The Co-op cinema will now be screening first-run repertory of culturally challenging work from all cinematic traditions. Gallivant can be seen alongside a rotating programme of our 'One Minute' Commissions.

After Gallivant, we’re running a series of programmes that skim through the multiple voices comprising some of the most innovative and challenging work of the political era we've just left behind. The opening four weeks conclude with a debate that examines the issues that face us as we look to the future; a strong European cinema that represents a challenge to the cultural hegemony of American product that has dominated our screens for far too long; a new government that has already put in place structural schemes that should help to restimulate the British industry. Monies that for so long have floated above our heads are now within inches of our grasp, Gallivant was in fact part funded by monies from the National Lottery.

In the light of all this, the Co-op still represents a potential paradigm for the way forward. Integrated practice, which has remained our model for so long – combining the workshop, with distribution, exhibition and education – is a significant cultural strategy. If the new structures of Lottery funding, tax breaks, etc. are going to have any discernible effect, then a lot can be learnt from the Co-op model. Certainly, many new films will get made in Britain over the coming years but without viable distribution and exhibition structures, their visibility for audiences remains uncertain.

In the coming weeks, the LUX cinema will host a series of radical collaborations with diverse cultural groups including the First Transgender Film & Video festival. There's a substantial transgender community in London right now and girls who become boys or boys who become girls or those that feel that both definitions are useless and remain simply ‘transgendered’ are the true radicals of gender politics. At a time when lesbian and gay politics feels like one long competition to appear in a Benetton ad holding a baby, the transgendered community remain truly on the edge, reclaiming debate in an age content to be complacently queer.

After the Transgender Festival a ‘Beyond Technology’ week will see the cinema transformed into a cyber-gallery, and a two-day collaboration with The Blue Note night club - including live performances - explores the cross-fertilisation between film and music. The cinema will be redefined again in the closing weeks of the launch as our two Performance Commissions by Helen Paris and Pascal Brennan reshape the cinema space. In the interim weeks you can see a tribute to New York's Mix Festival, a conference on Turkish cinema run in collaboration with the Rio Cinema, some of the hottest experimental film and video from across mainland Europe and, in collaboration with the Institut Français, a retrospective of the work of the private film financing body, the Fondation Gan.

Our launch season runs until the end of December. It is an opportunity to see some of the most adventurous, radical and innovative work being made today, from a diversity of moving image traditions. Part of the function of the launch programme was to explore protocol for the future running of the cinema. Considering the general demise of repertory cinema and multiplex dominance elsewhere in London, the LUX centre is a timely and long overdue intervention.

Sarah Turner is a filmmaker.