Underground, Overground: OMSK and tank: Stories of our Times

By Philip Ilson


Hot on the heels of Subversion, the Wallflower Press book on underground cinema by Exploding Cinema co-founder Duncan Reekie, comes another volume with its roots in the mid ’90s alternative film scene in London. My own Halloween Society short film club was affiliated with both Exploding Cinema and Omsk, among other such clubs as My Eyes My Eyes, the Blunt Club and Films That Make You Go Hmmm…, as we got together to form the annual Volcano Film Festival in 1995. This umbrella festival was designed to celebrate the vibrant alternative film exhibition scenes at that time.

I was particularly close to Omsk as its co-founder Steven Eastwood and I shared an office in the maze that was Panther House in Mount Pleasant near Clerkenwell. Co-incidentally, I moved from Panther House in 1999 to take office space in a dilapidated room on the top floor of the 333 Club in Old Street. It was here throughout the late ’90s that Omsk had many of its greatest triumphs, many of which are described in loving detail in the new OmskBook. To the uninitiated, and in a simple sentence, Omsk is a multi-media performance-based club night. Their mantra is ‘nothing goes to plan and everyone has a good time’. Although Omsk’s early days were a mix of short film screenings and live comedy, courtesy of co-founder Paul Elliot at venues such as Conway Hall and the strange German restaurant The Rheingold Club (we all certainly found some odd places in those days), Steven moved the emphasis towards more a cross-arts sensibility, so as to build a collective of performers, musicians and filmmakers and create a multi-platform space with which to experiment. Steven and DJ Omsk’s (Jamie Bargeman) defining years were spent on the DIY rave scene of the Essex / London borders, and this sensibility was definitely evident in the new Omsk.


The move to 333, which had been known as The London Apprentice, a hardcore gay club lost in the dark depths of the then desolate Shoreditch, was a ‘right place right time’ moment for Omsk. The three storey venue was full of nooks and darkened crannies, where, to be honest, you weren’t sure what you were sitting on or touching, but which leant itself to surprise performers and surreal lunacy. 333 owner Vicky Pengilly was open to ideas in this new climate of arty Shoreditch and Omsk definitely filled a brief for unexpected excitements. Omsk truly had the feel of a happening, on a par with Warhol’s Factory. (Maybe Omsk was better, as we only know about the myth of The Factory from what we read and reconstructions in films such as Factory Girl, and I Shot Andy Warhol.) The OmskBook lovingly documents these times with flyer reproductions and also a stunningly beautiful full-page photo at the start of the book where Steven is immediately recognisable centre stage surrounded by mayhem – animated smiley people clapping something unseen, with comatose bodies in the foreground. This image for me sums up Omsk far more than much of the performance that was on show.


Helen de Witt’s excellent essay helps to put Omsk in perspective, as well as also remembering many of those classic events. But of course, Omsk is not a thing of the past. The Collective continues with new members, and the launch for the book itself is included in the calendar of Omsk events from 1995 to the present day. Although 333 was a benchmark, such events have gone to Japan, Norway and across the UK. Also, Omsk has specifically asked previous collaborators to come up with new work to feature in the pages of the book, making the thing itself like an event (the way Factory Records gave everything catalogue numbers from buildings to badges as well as their record releases), and these artists have responded in print as well as in sound and image with an accompanying DVD and CD.

In a similar vein, a new DVD release from tank.tv, Fresh Moves: New Moving Images From The UK, brings together a selection of artists’ work, some of whom have Omsk backgrounds, not least Steven Eastwood himself, who features in a surreal filmed interview with LUX head honcho Ben Cook. Elsewhere names known to me through my own Halloween screenings, such as Andrew Kötting, Max Hattler, Ann Course and Ben Rivers, are featured with short film work. To me, these familiars are the strongest pieces on show, particularly Kötting’s hilarious monologue about his recently deceased father told in Dennis Hopper Apocalypse Now style. A surprise highlight is David Blandy’s miming of a Lee Scratch Perry reggae classic on a crowded tube train. But, like all short film compilations, short film screenings or Omsk itself, it’s all very hit and miss. With a DVD we skip forward to the next film, just as at an Omsk event you could move to the next room to check out what madness was happening there. And what sweet madness it was…

OMSKBOOK is now available in select bookshops and on-line at www.omsk.org.uk. Fresh Moves is out now and available via www.tank.tv

Philip Ilson has been involved in the New London Underground for a long time. He wears numerous hats in his advocacy of short film and is co-director of the London Short Film Festival