60s Counterculture in Birmingham: The Arts Lab

Birmingham Arts Lab film posters

Flatpack Festival

Dates: 21-31 March 2013

Various venues, Birmingham

Flatpack website

Shortly after I moved to Birmingham, the Museum and Art Gallery held an exhibition of Arts Lab posters. Set alongside august oils and wispy Pre-Raphelites, these artfully slapdash screenprints were a revelation, living, multi-coloured proof that the city had once had an underground. It seemed inconceivable that people had gathered in a converted back-street youth centre for performance art and Oshima movies. The era of New Labour felt like a long way from the countercultural tumult of the late 60s when Arts Labs sprang up all over the country, inspired by the example set by Jim Haynes at Drury Lane. David Bowie started one up in his local pub, and commented to the Melody Maker: ‘I never knew there were so many sitar players in Beckenham.’

Ad hoc collectives wary of any form of administration, the majority of these places fizzled out or splintered within a couple of years. One of the main things that sustained Birmingham’s Arts Lab through the decade was its film programme, led by local boy and Lab co-founder Tony Jones along with Peter Walsh, a student from Ireland who had got a bit of a name for himself showing Andy Warhol films at college. They cobbled together a rudimentary cinema from local building sites and fleapits, and began screening the kind of work that wouldn’t get an airing elsewhere in the city: their opening festival in 1970 included Dušan Makavejev’sLove Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967), Joe Massot’s Wonderwall (1968) and shorts by Jonas Mekas and Ed Emshwhiller.

For more information about the Arts Lab events at Flatpack, please go to the Flatpack website.

Wry editorials in the Lab’s print publicity give you some idea of the financial and logistical challenges they faced, describing how postal strikes and press disinterest had helped limit that month’s admissions. ‘Needless to say,’ they continue, ‘both Flesh and Danish Blue did not seem to suffer from any of the difficulties listed above,’ a nod to the importance of sex (or the faint promise of it) in attracting punters. Happily the Lab managed to build a film audience beyond the soft-core crowd, drawing ‘middle-class culture vultures’ as Pete Walsh described them, as well as the more regular denizens who could more often than not be found sleeping on the premises too.

Part of what attracted me to the Lab was its multidisciplinary nature, but I was quickly disabused of the notion that this was a melting pot for art forms; like many such places, it was pretty territorial. According to Pete Walsh, ‘it was an unusual bunch – I don’t think people held similar views across the board at all,’ and given that film accounted for a good chunk of revenue and helped to subsidise the music, visual arts and theatre programmes, it’s no surprise that there were tensions between the different areas. There were times, though, when these parts came together to form something greater. One-off happenings took over a canal basin or half-built library with music, fire and projections, and on a smaller scale Tony Jones remembers creating a perforated cinema screen for Bruce Lacey to jump through during one of his performance pieces.

The way the film and print workshop sparked off each other was an example of this process at its pragmatic best: as Pete Walsh put it, ‘we liked their work, and they were interested in film, so we would ask them to do posters’. Like the cinema, the press was built from scratch with various pillaged materials by two science students who had taught themselves how to print. The free-wheeling, fragmented results make today’s film marketing look pretty tame by comparison, and it’s easy to imagine the incongruous effect they had when plastered in concrete underpasses.

The Lab posters are often in the back of my mind when we produce our own flyers and brochures, perhaps with half an eye on posterity – when the events are a dim memory, people will still have marketing materials to remember us by. One advantage we have today, of course, is the internet. Postal strikes are unlikely to knock a hole in our audience figures, and the web offers a cheap route to international connections and visibility. On the other hand, plenty of things have not changed. This brave new digital phenomenon of crowd-funding is not a million miles from the Lab’s campaigns to buy a new projector or repair the roof, with the common thread a desire to provide an outlet for the unexpected.

Following the film programmes through the 1970s and into the early 80s, you can see the shift in focus from the avant-garde to auteurism. The increasingly chunky bi-monthly catalogue includes extensive programme notes on the various seasons – some of them honest enough to slate the films they’re supposedly advertising – and can lead to wistful daydreams about a Sunday afternoon double bill of McCabe and Mrs Miller followed by an Ivor Cutler show. There’s even a Dennis Hopper retrospective and photo exhibition in there, with the vaguely optimistic note ‘possibly including a visit by the man himself’. In fact Mr Hopper did materialise in Birmingham, AWOL from a screening at the NFT and trailing an enormous entourage which included his parents.

This legendary misspent weekend became an expensive last hurrah in the Lab saga. By that point it had made the tricky transition from DIY volunteer-run outfit to West Midlands Arts’ biggest client, but on the horizon was a cost-cutting merger with Aston University, which would see the organisation stripped right back to a single-screen venue and film workshop. Tony Jones had already moved on to set up a cinema in Cambridge, which would go on to spawn the Picturehouse circuit recently purchased by Cineworld for £47 million. Pete Walsh continued to programme the place, now known as the Triangle, until its closure in 1994 when he moved on to the Irish Film Institute in Dublin. The legacy for Birmingham was not the glistening three-screen arthouse picture palace they might have dreamt of, but a generation of film lovers marked forever by strange and wonderful movies.

Pete Walsh died in December 2012, and the quotations in this piece are taken from an interview recorded in Dublin in 2009.

Ian Francis