Desire in Action: The Cube Microplex and the Future of Cinema

By Graeme Hogg and Chris Williams


Screen burn... the saturated colour film frame catches fire in front of our eyes as the intense heat from a 2K Xenon lamp dissolves a classic print in front of an engaged audience.

Cinema as a tactile, temperamental and explosive entity. Cinema as a means of production, cinema as a physical space, a production house? As an artist run public entertainment palace The Cube Cinema, Bristol, England has involved itself heavily with exhibition of all manner of art-forms to paying audiences. The real trick of the eye has been to pull this off while, slightly more privately, creating a very unusual allotment for the artists that inhabit the cubic structure to grow their work in.

Original Cube dreams concocted in the late ’90s included the crazed notion that the worker co-operative could make enough money and accrue some DIY production power (resources have always been scarce) that would translate into films being made or filmmakers being supported by The Cube. It quickly transpired that most finances, energy and kit needed to be put into keeping the building open and the programming process stimulating. Film making and crewing up was bypassed and fancy awards, egotistical actors and long credit rolls got shunted. The Cube tapped into some more primal artistic exhibition activities.

When it came to analysing this small, trailing edge arts organisation, its public, paying programme coupled with its ability to put on such a breadth of material despite receiving no core funding has been the main narrative to those exploring the Cube's legacy. However, sub-plots, over-lapping dialogues and experimental off-shoots grew from the artists that built the Cube. Behind closed doors, the workers exercised ideas, notions and half-thoughts that quickly became practise. The Cube has its own distinct style of working. This direct action, hands-on approach draws in a particular kind of artist, sympathiser and people that just get the bug. The building jams.

The Cube often seems to be 'like a film' rather than making or showing them. The monthly programmes had their own wayward logic, inspirational to some people but generally an anomaly in UK. We (ab)use the cinema for much more than just film exhibition. The Cube has more in common with pirate radio, continental squat culture, sports and social clubs or the Hacienda than the BFI, Lux or PictureHouse chain. This is maybe why the self styled 'Microplex' has been widely ignored by film distributors, funders, festivals and press mechanisms. Even in terms of paying artists, it has been mainly musicians that have benefited from a share of collective ticket/booze sales schemes. Did the Cube have anything to do with supporting a film culture?

From this one screen, 110 seat cinema (with its dressing rooms cum office, wooden dancefloor, neon bar and Zones and Voids – very Peter Greenaway) all manner of field research is carried out; sound art, live art, genetic crops, feral trade routes, guerrilla video projections, new formulas for coke drinks and innovative music festivals. It is a research space, an open source set of networks that can lead to some great works and lots of discarded ideas. The Cube does not brand itself alongside most of the work that evolves or comes out of the place and it's only now, after ten years, that we can begin to see its influence, what the seeds are growing into. There are also indications that it has been making its own visual and thematic impact on lots of artists, including film-makers. Things have slowly come into fruition with regard to its initial cinematic dreams. Moving image is seeping out of the building in many forms.

Jack Davies, who was one of the original founders of the Cube has his first feature Eve in the can. Will Pugh, who ran the production company Anxiety 8 from the Cube, was DOP on it. Ben Slater was a script doctor on it. Ben, once film curator at the Cube, has written about films for a long time, including his book Kinda Hot: The Making of 'Saint Jack' in Singapore. He now finds his time spent writing for film. Helen, the slow burning feature directed by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy and due for a theatrical release in 2009, was script edited by Ben. He is working in cahoots with Esther May Campbell on script development. Esther has regularly crewed up from the Cube and admits to being totally inspired by the venue. Her current award winning short September certainly has core Cubic qualities, especially in its use of music.

The Cube's influence can also be seen in Lady Lucy's art and films. She rambled into the Cube as a writer and illustrator and is now a fully-fledged artist with two short films exhibited, Don't Do Tricks and Ladies, All The Ladies. Visual artist David Hopkinson is a Cube aficionado, instigator and collaborator in a myriad Cube pursuits. His début screening of Cutting Up My Friends at the Cube was a highlight and celebration of the creative powers channelled through this volunteer organisation. Made in and around the space, the film has inspired other workers at the Cube to do something (not the same) but equally inspiring. François Marry, who travelled to Bristol to be close to Cube musical allies Crescent and Movietone, has produced some of the most poetic illustrated films imaginable. He cut them in the Cube's projection room. Other light manipulators who have progressed from Cube film jams and sonic experiments to pursue their muse include Rod Maclachlan, whose magic lantern like installations and live shows (as Flicker) are travelling the world; and Adam Faraday, whose photographic portraits of the Cube and the artists that visited is a project that should be continued. Documentation is not a Cube forte, it is too focused on creation.

What is the relationship between the cube and these artists? Spending so much time in an atmospheric, large screened cinema surrounded by cinema lovers seems to engulf them in the joy of light, how it moves through the air and cuts the darkness. This basic quality can be seen in the playful, cinematic way the visual artists control their pallets. Intensive dialogue and close TV framing are by-passed for visceral pursuits. There is none of that careerist, media-obsessed fixation amongst Cube workers that you notice at other more strategic 'creative hubs'. White-walled galleries and mainstream TV schedules are not getting much from the Cube. Instead you sense and see, within their work, the romance and magic that comes with growing up in an indie cinema and an arts organisation that is constantly fighting bigger forces and ugly fashions. There is a certain visual sensuality and political independence that can be seen in all these moving image makers.

In terms of budget, The Cube is a bums on seats enterprise, pure punk in its ability to turn limited means into an aesthetic. Despite its programme being normally pigeon-holed as 'art film', 'quirky'or 'experimental', it is clearly a much broader church. The programme is inspired by those that abide in the premises and naturally is has a powerful cultural influence on them too. X-Men or Anne McGuire, independent environmental crusades or celebrating The Smiths are all well within the remit. To understand the content and style of the Cube you have to note that when the cinema showed Warhol's Chelsea Girls it actually covered the costs of paying MOMA and shipping it from New York. The Cube had a full house. Most of the visual artists and film-makers that have grown up around this form of risk-taking share a sense of abandon about budgets. Desire comes first, then the means.

Feedback, appraisal and collaborative analysis run deep at The Cube. Support goes hand in hand with proper socialisation and the Cube is an ever morphing team that gets on with it. Film-making relies on such basic qualities. No altar worship, just a bunch of amateurs and auteurs, ten years of them.

A decade is a long time and the cultural landscape The Cube operates in (especially locally) has changed in this time, partly due to the Cube’s own efforts. The Cube’s DIY and inclusive cultural player agenda and its freedom from the restraints of public funding has had a wide, infectious impact on creative groups and individuals across Bristol. Now, however, the times have caught up with the Microplex and it finds itself increasingly asking whether it has any relevance.

Any week nowadays you can find an assortment of 'screenings' of films and programmes in numerous venues city wide, many interestingly operating in ignorance of the need for licences and rights clearances. DIY galleries, small scale music and art event spaces are also enjoying a period of increased activity in Bristol. This is a response to the cheapening of necessary equipment, namely video/data projectors and the need for pubs/clubs to widen their activities but, more than that, it reflects the shift away from consumerist modes of activity (going to the Cube to 'see' something) to a more DIY, self-managed, self-resourced and self-controlled system, operating through word of mouth networks and specialised interest circles. If the Cube once had a pioneering role, what purpose does it have now? And what will inform this review besides the obvious need to survive? It can no longer rally against the lack of exciting or experimental events, it seems surrounded by them.

Production was once a word encapsulating many dreams early in the Cube's history. The business of a cinema was thought sufficient to provide funds for creative projects. Of course in practice it wasn't, so the notion of production was extended to mean anything we did. Maybe now it's time to mutate, to make the Cube more a 'large studio', a platform for integrated production/entertainment programmes. Should The Cube give extra space to independently focused research with longer runs, residencies and developmental plans for all its artists? If the organisation’s missions are to be reinvented, they will surely be departed from but something will happen. The Cube makes things happen, even films.


Graeme Hogg is an original Cube founder and currently works in various mediums including sound (, film and video. He is developing a 16mm screening programme based at the Cube as a response to the growing dominance of digital, commercial and corporate cinema culture.

Chris Williams, former actor/ghost writer, currently composer, curator and producer in Blackout Arts and QuJunktions as Chiz Williams, plans to turn back to acting and then forward to become an actor / director.