And this is Now: Reflection on Eight Months of the Lux Cinema

By Helen de Witt


The London Film Makers’ Co-op (LFMC) has seen much change in the last two years, giving rise to great celebration and a little regret. External and internal pressures were brought to bear to effect the changes that saw the LFMC (although not constitutionally a co-operative since the late 70s) change its staffing structure and move from the dilapidated, but fondly remembered, building in Camden to the spanking new Lux Centre in Hoxton. With the move came a closer working relationship with London Electronic Arts and the new cinema space. The cinema moved from one screening a week to between twelve and fifteen per week and obviously questions of programming policy were keenly discussed by board, staff, and film makers. Broadly the new policy is intended to retain a key focus on contemporary artists’ film and video practice, whilst making links with the history of the avant-garde and looking for connections with other forms of independent cinema. This is not a static or unchanging process and the programme is designed to be diverse but integrated, changing to meet the needs and desires of artists and audiences alike. The Lux may provide the LFMC with an upgraded home but structural problems with funding persist and the change in Government has, against expectations, led to increased uncertainty for all involved in moving image practice.

The Lux Centre opened last September at a moment of great optimism. The National Lottery project, with additional support from the European Regional Development Fund, Dalston City Partnerships and others, along with the organisation’s regular funders, the British Film Institute, the London Film and Video Development Agency and the Arts Council of England had come together to provide the LFMC and London Electronic Arts (LEA) with a new purpose-built, state-of-the art, shared premises that incorporated provision for both organisations’ core activities; equipment hire and in-house production facilities, educational and training programmes and distribution.

black-milk-jamika-ajalon.jpgBlack Milk by Jamika Ajalon

The centre, for the first time, provided LEA with a gallery, and the LFMC cinema, renamed the Lux, had three times the capacity of the old Gloucester Avenue space and was equipped to screen all major formats and gauges, still retaining the flexibility of a flat floor and removable seats for performance, music, cyber-cafe and other kinds of events. The opening film for the Lux cinema was Andrew Kotting’s Gallivant. Nothing could have been more appropriate. Andrew had been a long-term member of the LFMC, making many of his early films using their equipment and facilities. Gallivant was his first feature which extended his unique style and vision to the whole of the British Isles as he accompanied his granny, Edith, and his little daughter, Eden, on an odyssey of personal and national discovery. No other film better typified the idea that it was now OK not to be ashamed to be British. Our diverse and creative culture that had been held under so effectively during the Tory years was re-emerging with new energy and, we all hoped, adequate financial support. Again Gallivant seemed to be heralding the way, the first feature to be completed under the new National Lottery scheme with BFI Production, and it was an artist’s film. Could the thrust of British feature film making be moving away from white flannel and northern grit to encompass the vitality and formal experimentation found in artists’ moving-image work?

Just a few months previously the Labour Party had swept to power with a massive majority, and for a long and idyllic summer, cynicism and caution about the New Labour project was put on hold while the nation let out a huge collective sigh of relief and enjoyed the sunshine. The death of Diana moved (some of) the most stoney-hearted republicans and further united the nation in the push for a new society with new values. That, as they say, was then.

After the extremely successful run of Gallivant, the Lux opening programme, curated by Sarah Turner and John Thomson, concentrated, firstly, on the survival story of British experimental film and video during the siege years of the 80s, programming films from the independent and Channel Four-supported workshops and work supported by the Arts Council’s collaborative schemes with television; and secondly, on a round-up of contemporary practice, from the first International Transgender Film and Video Festival to the Beyond Technology week of CD Rom, Internet and cyber-art. Artists invited to give presentations included Andrew Kotting, Nina Danino, Tina Keane, Georgina Starr, Clive Gilman and Alex Bag. New film makers participated in the programme screening work in the Film Couch event.

untitled-fall-95-alex-bag.jpgAlex Bag Untitled (Fall 95)

During the course of the launch programme a couple of metaphorical cracks appeared in the cinema itself. Obstreperous contractors failed to provide staff with training on the ventilation system; somewhat ironically for the Co-op, audiences started to swelter. The purpose-built auditorium was found to have sightline problems. After some rear-guard engineering, both problems have now been rectified.  

The programme has continued to increase its audience figures, with over 1000 (different) people coming to see Gummo in April. First-run films are important, not only because of the move of experimental film makers towards feature length work (we are awaiting films by John Maybury, Nina Danino, David Larcher, Steve Dwoskin, Maureen Blackwood, Sarah Turner and others), but because of the increased public profile a distributor’s publicity campaign can give to the venue. Despite the Lottery capital grant, core revenue funding is at a standstill from Gloucester Avenue days and the Lux cinema overheads are substantial. New audiences need to be attracted and introduced to the kinds of film-making that they may have not previously considered. Meanwhile traditional Co-op audiences are now able to experience a broad range of international independent cinema under their own roof.

As other cinemas and distributors will testify, press and publicity are key. It can no longer be assumed that audiences will seek out the best in international cinema. Cinema competes with a myriad of arts and attractions in the naked city. Every new release has to be an ‘event movie’ in order to be successful. Fortunately, there are a number of interested and committed critics on nationals and weeklies without whose support these kinds of films would not be able to survive. The press too, is vital for the Lux as a new venue. Sadly, the extensive coverage for the launch concentrated on the building itself and not on the artistic programme, or indeed, the strategic importance of organisations like the LFMC and LEA. Recently more column inches have been devoted to our programme, provoked, to an extent, by our range of special events and seasons, such as the Pan Asian Film Festival and the Pinnacles of Canadian Cinema. April’s Abstract Art on Film season also attracted healthy interest. Club culture’s interest in light shows and visuals has given us a new audience for Brakhage, Belson and the Whitney Brothers. Time Out’s commitment is invaluable, their reviewers tirelessly view the tapes sent them for Lux listings and the cinema is rarely out of their Rep of the Week top five. In a recent article bemoaning the fate of repertory cinema, the Lux was cited as London’s second best cinema (after the Riverside). For a core LFMC audience, many of whom are film-makers or students themselves, this may not be relevant. To establish and develop new audiences for experimental and independent work, not just at the Lux but across the land, however, good critical coverage is an invaluable aid and a stimulus for further debate in our art form.

last-of-england-derek-jarman.jpgLast of England by Derek Jarman

The Lux Cinema programming is designed to have a structure comprising several flexible strands, with a commitment to artists’ work very much at the core. Since January we have had presentations from Catherine Elwes, Guy Sherwin, Joshua Oppenheimer, William Raban, Jerome Carofi, and appearances by Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen for the twentieth anniversary of Riddles of the Sphinx. To come will be Robert Breer, Ken McMullen and David Rimmer in May and June, with Canadian film makers Atom Egoyan and Guy Maddin in conversation. Other artists lined up include David Finch, Tanya Syed, Terence Davies and Richard Kwietniowski. Let me use these pages to invite film-makers with new work, or who wish to present to an audience, to contact us. It is not always possible to keep up with who is available and who is finishing new work. Young film-makers host our regular Film Couch slots. The cinema is given over to a film-maker or a group of film-makers to host an evening of their own choosing with films, chat and, sometimes, performance. Anyone can have a film shown at the Lux in the popular Roll Your Own evenings. These events are not curated but open to anyone with a film, or excerpt, under fifteen minutes.  

Other key features of the programme are film-makers’ retrospectives. In June Peter Gidal will have his first retrospective for many years. Other key film-makers from the history of the Film Maker’s Co-op will follow, Steve Dwoskin is planned for later in the year or early next. This will coincide with a collaboration with the BFI over their British avant-garde video series with a programme curated by Al Rees around his forthcoming book. Other seasons planned include Jack Smith for July and the US Underground 40s to 60s in October, in conjunction with the Barbican’s year long America festival. In 1999 the Lux hopes to present a Gregory Markopoulos retrospective. Historical programmes such as these are invaluable to contextualise the work of the present and draw formal, aesthetic and political links across time. It is essential that as well and looking forward, the LFMC respects its radical past and continues its commitment to alternative practice at all levels.

The honeymoon period is over for New Labour; cuts are still being made to social services and student grants, unemployment and hospital waiting lists are up, the millennium dome is a farce, comedians and pop stars are withdrawing their support. Jack Straw is calling for greater government control over the British Board of Film Classification, making Britain the only European country with state cinema censorship. Police with riot shields are back on the streets, this time breaking up Arsenal fans’ peaceful Championship celebrations. It seems that the ‘80s revival is well and truly upon us.

gallivant-andrew-kotting.jpgGallivant by Andrew Kötting

In the arts, we find the BFI cut by nearly £1m, with the Production Board touted to take the brunt; the Arts Council awaits its fate, the LFVDA (under new chief executive Gill Henderson) and London Arts Board are uncertain of their role and funding status under the new office of the Mayor for London. This leaves a funding and support vacuum for artists’ film and video. Forward thinkers at all organisations are seeking to establish a new body with a specific remit for artists’ moving image work. We can only support this move and campaign for it to become effective, especially as the government’s Film Policy Review Group document about the future of film, The Bigger Picture, only has interest in the commercial industry. With Oscar(TM) nominated Mrs Brown and The Full Monty cited as models for British cinema, we have not moved far from white flannel and northern grit.

But the Lux is here and will remain an invaluable resource bringing artists and audiences together. It is certain the programming policy will continue its commitment to artists’ work, but the manner that this work is presented and the events that surround the core programme are always subject to debate and change. In October 1997, Sarah Turner convened the conference Is British Film-Making as Volatile as the Weather? Looking at the current state of artist-led film production in this country. British film making is as volatile as the weather. It is changeable, unpredictable, provides unexpected delights and is never boring. The problem lies in its support structures which are also changeable and unpredictable, a situation that the Labour administration has exacerbated. The Lux, as an exhibition venue, can provide exposure for finished work and the LFMC, as a film making based body, along with LEA and other partner organisations, needs to keep campaigning for consistent and adequate infrastructural support at all levels of production, distribution, exhibition as well as in training and education. The traditional unofficial, but inadequate, bursary for artists, the dole, is threatened by the demands of the Job Seekers’ Allowance. Word comes to us that the music industry has negotiated a special dispensation for aspiring musicians. The artists’ film and video sector needs to pull together to argue for similar provision of our own and an acknowledgement of the cultural and creative importance of the moving image.

The LFMC and LEA are looking at ways of moving closer together, benefiting from each other’s knowledge and experience as well as economies of scale, particularly in the distribution and educational areas and, of course, benefiting the artists that both represent. Debates in film and video aesthetics and technology and changing relationships between cinema and gallery spaces have brought us to the point that the distinction between the two media has become increasingly arbitrary, if still interesting. The next conference the Lux is to host, with Vertigo, From Expansion to Explosion: New Media, New Contexts, will look at how aesthetic, technological and cultural shifts have affected the way film, video and new media are made and viewed. Jon Jost, longstanding champion of independent film-making has been invited to speak and to screen his new digital work made for the cinema. The arts infrastructure and funding support are undergoing extensive change and the results remain uncertain. Nevertheless, the moving image itself is undergoing exciting transitions. Digital equipment provides film-makers with economical high quality images and is forging a return from the gallery to the single screen. It is the aim of the Lux to be at the forefront of the exhibition of critical debates around this vital work.  

As other cinemas and distributors will testify, press and publicity are key. It can no longer be assumed that audiences will seek out the best in international cinema. Cinema competes with a myriad of arts and attractions in the naked city. Every new release has to be an ‘event movie’ in order to be successful.

Helen de Witt, LFMC/Lux Cinema Curator.