In October 1966, a group of Londoners composed a telegram to Jonas Mekas, founder of the flourishing five-year-old Film-makers’ Co-operative in New York, heralding the emergence of its English equivalent: “LONDON FILM-MAKERS COOP ABOUT TO BE LEGALLY ESTABLISHED STOP. PURPOSE TO SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT NEVER STOP.” Inspired by reports of the U.S. underground film boom, this crew of art students and amateurs kick-started avant-garde cinema in Blighty through bookshop screenings, and were soon projecting light shows at all-night Soft Machine and Pink Floyd concerts. The organization’s motley collection of equipment (including a processor home-made from vacuum cleaner parts) would prove decisive. While most Co-ops served exclusively as distributors, the London Co-op became a unique no-budget lab for rugged, rigorous experimentation.
“Shoot Shoot Shoot” resurrects this heady first decade through eight programs of films, nearly all newly struck from originals and many never before seen in the U.S. For avant-cinephiles, it’s a landmark event—a privileged journey through an alternate history. Bereft of the mythic psychodrama and flouncy camp of the American underground, the British works delve into cinema’s basic materials, forging an unromantic workshop aesthetic. “People were encouraged to work with the material hands-on,” says curator Mark Webber. “The printer and the processing were as much part of the work as the camera.”
While the Americans grooved on cinematic analogues of human consciousness, the London materialists deployed the motion picture apparatus as an instrument for perception-jamming, toying with the gaps between human sensory intake and machine-made patterns. In Malcolm Le Grice’s Brechtian Castle One (1966), a staccato industrial montage is interrupted by a flashing lightbulb dangling in front of the screen. Lis Rhodes’s Dresden Dynamo (1971) extends animated blue-magenta op-art grids into the unseen optical soundtrack. The image becomes translated into electroshock bursts of rhythmic fuzz: a stunning meeting of Bridget Riley and Throbbing Gristle. Notably, Webber is also a member of Pulp; many works investigate sound and performances as much as image.
Raw space and time are also obsessions; the London scene drew inspiration from written accounts of Warhol, though the actual movies took a few years to get to England. Studies like David Hall’s superimposed Phased Time 2 (1974), Peter Gidal’s Focus (1971), and Mike Leggett’s Shepherd’s Bush (1971) prove more visually complex than Warhol’s loose-limbed dope operas, verging on a kind of empiricist psychedelia. Self-reflexivity is another Brit kick, semi-spoofed in The Girl Chewing Gum (1976), in which artist John Smith directs street-level passersby via post-synched voice-over, then bids buildings and the sun to move through the frame. Smith takes the piss out of mainstream auteurist ego, but provides proof of the underground ethos: Even with meager mechanical means, the artist can command the universe.