Past Events

A Fading Memory and an Excel Spreadsheet – Researching Two Important but Overlooked Alternative Arts Venues from the 1960s

Research Lunch – David Curtis

  • 4 March 2022
  • 1:00 – 2:00 pm
  • This event is part of the Paul Mellon Centre's Spring Research Lunch series.
  • Paul Mellon Centre and Online

London’s two Arts Laboratories were artist-run spaces associated with some of the most innovative developments in the arts in Britain in the late 60s. Yet, until now, they have been missing from most published histories of the arts of the period. My book set out to chronicle their achievements and their struggles for survival.

The Drury Lane Arts Lab (1967–69) screened Andy Warhol’s 3¼-hour film Chelsea Girls, gave John and Yoko their first joint exhibition, hosted the first UK performance of Erik Satie’s 24-hour Vexations and was home to Jeff Nuttall’s many audience-attacking People Show performances and Jane Arden’s feminist theatre piece Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven. The Robert Street ‘New Arts Lab’ (1969–71) housed Britain’s first video workshop, TVX, the London Filmmakers Co-op’s first film workshop and a six-days-a-week cinema dedicated to showing new work by moving-image artists. It staged J G Ballard’s infamous Crashed Cars exhibition and was home to John and Dianne Lifton’s pioneering computer-aided dance and mime performances.

The Arts Labs clearly met a contemporary need and led to an explosion of artist-run spaces across Britain, many of them similarly short lived. My book records their achievements and the wider struggle to make the case for support for these new Lab-type spaces and associated new art forms (video, film, computers) – with the Arts Council hesitant to respond in the context of a tabloid press already hostile to ‘underground’ and experimental art.

I was one of the participants – I ran the cinema at both Labs – and my partner Biddy Peppin ran the Gallery at both (jointly with artist/writer Pamela Zoline). Fifty years later, as a researcher/historian, this degree of involvement has been both an advantage and a hazard. Memory is selective; our surviving records are heavily biased towards our own interests and still far from comprehensive. (None of those involved at that time seemed keen to keep records). So, I will talk about the challenges I confronted when trying to establish a comprehensive and balanced account, and the research tools I have used in its creation.

About the speaker

  • David Curtis Headshot Photo

    David Curtis studied painting at the Slade School, UCL where his interest in film led to his becoming involved with the Arts Laboratories (1967–71). He worked at the Arts Council of Great Britain for over 20 years, giving grants to filmmaking artists and organising exhibitions of artists’ works including Film as Film (Hayward Gallery, London, 1979). He has written on experimental film and animation and his books include Experimental Cinema (Studio Vista/Universe, 1971), A History of Artists Film & Video in Britain (BF1, 2007) and Artists’ Film (Thames & Hudson – World of Art, 2021). He was a Research Fellow at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London 2000–2010 where he founded the British Artists Film & Video Study Collection. His curatorial projects have included Midnight Underground (Channel 4 TV, 1989) and A Century of Artists Film in Britain (Tate, 2004–05).