I Got A Phone Call From Steve

I got a phone call from Steve Slater, a friend from Brighton who had worked with me helping to found a Super 8 performance collective – Situation Cinema. Steve had just moved to Glasgow and was working at the Third Eye Centre (as it was then called). I had moved to London on a wing and a prayer and was living in Hackney . I was on the dole but had £1000 stashed from some kind of benefit mistake from Hackney Council.

I was attending everything at the London Film Makers Co-op and was deeply fascinated by Melies, magic lanterns, zoetropes, experimental film and the magic of dark places, I wanted to be inside a film projector and find a way of controlling light .

With Situation Cinema (in Brighton) we had put some shows together with a rag-tag collection of Super 8 film projectors, live honky-tonk piano and Lancashire clog dances. We had built an all encapsulating environment with Super 8 film loops winding their way across walls and ceilings .

This gave me the impetus to take everything one stage further, to make light events mixing film, sound, shadow play, performance and installation. How to achieve this was another question.

We started Loophole Cinema from the ashes of Situation Cinema. We were a group dispersed through three cities (London, Brighton and Bristol) , all pretty penniless, so meeting was difficult and shows hard to organize. In the end the members all had other projects closer to home (or to their hearts)  and the momentum was lost.

This is when I received the call from Steve Slater. ‘Did Loophole Cinema want to do an event at the National Review of Live Arts?’ Somehow he had faith that we would do something worthwhile even if we were unproved, and I thank him for his belief. I said yes even though ‘Loophole Cinema’ had shrunk down to just one member – myself!

Next question : what to do and what to show. I decided to invest my £1000 in the project and fuck the consequences, it was all the money I had in the world.

I had to make some material, some film. There was no way I could pay for developing and printing on 16mm film, I didn’t even have a camera,  but I wanted to use 16mm because the light was so much stronger from the projectors than Super 8 and you can get right into the material in much more detail than with Super 8.I bought three 16mm projectors second hand from someone at the Film Co-op, and I already had 4 or 5 Super 8 projectors, collected from various junk shops .

I was at that time looking at pre cinema history and had come across studies on Javanese shadow puppets as an early form of cinema. This gave me an idea to recreate the shadow puppet but with real people . Separate the audience from the performers with a screen and create a shadow show using light sources behind  the performers. I was big into Russian Constructivism at the time: the diagonal, the framework, the artist as engineer, industrial materials and cityscapes.

This was all of course a vague notion and completely untried. I needed help to put all this together so I turned to my cousin Ivan Pope. Ivan had just finished a BA at Goldsmiths and knew practical things, like with hammers and screws, and he was very inventive, so he was in.

Remembering the Situation Cinema events, I thought a music/sound element should be added. I phoned Tim Hill, he was a saxophone improviser and we had been in a chaotic band ‘A1 Vegtables’ in Reading, just the man for the job. He agreed to come and so our gang was complete.

I started to work on the 16mm film. With no hope of actually shooting anything through a camera I investigated methods of cameraless film making, working directly onto the material using ink, Lettraset rub down transfers and masking tape. I bought 1000 ft. of clear 16mm stock and packets of Lettraset electronic circuit board symbols. I made the images by taping over the film with masking tape in random strip patterns and painting the remainder with black ink before peeling off the tape, this created chaotic flickers and shape movements when projected, leaving residual images in the eyes . I used the Lettraset to create a long abstract pictogram on the film stock, ignoring the individual frame areas and concentrating on a pleasing combination when I looked at the film foot by foot; as if it was a long thin composition. In this way I created hundreds of feet of film very cheaply. It also fitted sweetly with the shadow screen idea; the film was simply projected shadows in black and white, so the two elements would work in tandem.

We arrived in Glasgow in a borrowed car at three in the morning. We were billeted in a rambling house occupied by hedonistic art students experimenting with combinations of various narcotics; we settled in immediately.

We had two days to prepare our performance. Steve had secured an industrial basement for us in Renfrew St., down the road from the main event. This suited me fine, I was pretty nervous about doing the gig and wanted to be away from the crowd, to be a bit secret, to be underground in every sense. No one knew who we were anyway, so if it failed it could fail away from the bright lights.

The space was all we had hoped for. It was large and empty with several adjoining areas and concrete pillars supporting the roof. The entrance was down some steps from street level and through a large door. When you shut the door  there was a complete black-out, a darkness so total that you couldn’t perceive your hand in front of your face. This was ideal.

We designed the space in three sections. First we constructed the shadow screen, which we stretched  floor to ceiling opposite the entrance. This enclosed the audience in a tight space at the start of the event, they had no idea of the lay-out of the basement and we wished to reveal the architecture to them in a slow procession. Behind the shadow screen we constructed a framework with lengths of timber and metal recovered from builders skips in the surrounding streets. This installation would cast its shadows as well as our own onto the screen, it also worked as a percussive instrument – we came armed with drumsticks to effect a sound track to this section of the event.

We installed the 16mm projectors in the second area. There were no screens, the abstract ink and lettraset images were cast directly onto the brick walls of the long corridor-like space which formed a ‘u’ around the initial shadow screen area.

The 16mm film loops (each 80 to 100 feet in length) were routed up to the ceiling and hung on wire along the length of the space. They were illuminated as they snaked along by the ambient and reflected  light of their own projection.

In the third and final space we constructed a Super 8 labyrinth using about 8 projectors, all fitted with short loops which stretched to the ceiling and back (I cant remember the exact nature of this film material). We hung screens in such a way that our audience had to process around the whole of this area before coming to the exit.

To my amazement the whole thing worked. Our audience was appreciative, and  audience numbers grew with every performance. I realized we were doing something which intrigued people, it wasn’t proper live art, it wasn’t a proper film and it wasn’t a proper installation. It managed to fall between all the art stools. Lovely stuff.

The audience were ushered in to the initial ‘holding’ space in front of the shadow screen. In fact they were surrounded by screen material on two sides and brick wall on two sides. The door was closed and they were plunged into an impenetrable blackness.

We kept them waiting until they began to nervously cough and giggle, no one knowing which way to look or what to expect. We began the event slowly, lighting matches behind the screen and intermittently striking the wood and metal objects. The shadow show gradually got brighter and louder, we used an assortment of light sources; first matches, followed by domestic bulbs (switching on and off) and finally powerful halogen work lamps. We were casting our own shadows as well as those of the various objects hanging around us. The result  had something of Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’ about it, with wildly distorted shadows growing then shrinking along with the discordant live sound.

At the end of this first shadow play all suddenly grew quiet and dark again. In the darkness Tim began playing low grunts and whispered tones on his saxophone from behind the screen.

I turned on the first 16mm projector, with its looped abstract ink images and drew back the side screen. This was a tricky moment because we were unsure how to get the audience to process from one area to another and we didn’t want to usher them or instruct them specifically. In the end it all worked a treat, the audience simply followed their own inquisitive instincts.

We continued to turn on projectors ahead of the audience and they followed the images (and Tim’s impro sax ) around our event route, without us having to instruct them in any way.

At the end of the long corridors of 16mm loops was a doorway leading to the last area, containing the Super 8 labyrinth. While the audience were milling around in the 16mm area Ivan was frantically plugging in all the Super 8 projectors, which lit up the space with an ethereal flickering light that only comes from this beautiful small scale medium. The audience had never actually seen us, or only as silhouettes in the shadow play.

We opened the door to this last part of the event, with its lit screens hung up like sheets on a communal wash day. As the people came in and perused this new environment, we quietly exited and left them to it. Then we turned to each other and asked ‘how’s it supposed to end?’ ,’how will they know when to go ?’

We decided to give no sign and leave this last part running as a final installation, a policy we adopted for many subsequent shows. It meant in a way that the ‘thing’ never ended, anyone could stay or not and it left the whole action open-ended and unresolved.

GP 2005
Ivan Pope adds:


I don’t remember the call from Greg. I don’t remember what he said or what I thought we were going to do. I had finished my BA and was wondering what to do next. I either did or didn’t have any work. I get the feeling I had some sort of job with computers.

I hadn’t seen any Situation Cinema work. I had stayed/lived with Greg on and off when I first moved to London. I had known him since I was born. I trusted him to make something interesting happen. I signed up.

Greg turned up with a dodgy red Ford saloon. None of us had cars in those days. It looked alright, a bit dodgy. We loaded the boot with dozens of projectors and piles of fabric. I remember feeling glad that it wasn’t me who was supposed to know how to work these things. We drove out of London to Reading, where we spent the afternoon in a chaotic hippie house as Tim organised himself into action. Finally, as the day waned, we drove out of Reading on the long road north. I had no idea how far it was to Glasgow or how long it might take to get there. Greg and I shared the driving and Tim sat in the back and entertained us. He may have rolled a joint or two along the way. Day stretched into night as our amazing mission rolled its way up the M1 in the vague direction of Glasgow.

Greg told us we were staying with some students. The night rolled on and we realised that we were going to be horribly, impossibly late. By now we were a unit on a mission, there was no beginning and no end. All we had to do was get to Glasgow. We knew we would get there eventually.

Finally, in the early hours of the morning we rolled out of our red wagon and into an elegant student flat, which was just rocking with the remnants of that nights partying.

The NRLA of 1990 was based from the old Third Eye Centre on Succiehall Street. I loved it as soon as we walked in – it was so obviously a hangover from the seventies, living then on borrowed time. The centre was a buzz of activity with artists coming and going. It was good to be a part of a larger whole – and it was also good not to be showing in such a managed space. For the first time we learned something very important about our work, that it could happen anywhere outside a clean space. But not in the clean space itself. In the galleries of the Third Eye Centre lurked an incredible installation performance by Alistair McLennan, Still Tills, which involved trees, sheep heads and a very quiet immobilised McLennan for 72 hours. I’d never seen anything like it, never have since.

We were shown to our working space, the basement of an industrial building at the bottom of the street. It was accessed from the street by way of a wide straight staircase that seemed to descend towards hell. The space itself was wonderful and really suggested the show to us. This was site specific at its best. We’d never done this before and we’d never worked together before. Over the next few days we rigged curtains, power, projectors and lighting. Tim tootled on various wind instruments. In the evenings we went out drinking with the festival crowd. Each morning we returned to our basement with a hangover. The basement closed in on us. We constructed an alternate world. We had no idea how or if it would work, it was done on instinct. We didn’t even know if anyone would make the trip to see the show.

I don’t at this distance even remember whether we did the show more than once. On the first night, we opened the doors and a sizable crowd flooded down the stairs and filled the first space. We shut the doors, hermetically sealing the space. Anyone prone to panic in dark spaces would panic now. We did whatever it was we did in the first space. We turned on lights in the second space and learned a great lesson: audiences are like sheep and you can control them with light. Lovely. Tim made ethereal noises on an ancient clarinet. The audience drifted lost through a grey world, confused and amazed, enfolded within our creation. We took them on a short loop around the space, but they all thought they had been through a huge maze. We knew we’d done something special and that there was a lot of potential in the Loophole effect.

Over the next few years we put these lessons to good and bad use, culminating for me in a vast empty steelworks in the Ruhr Valley, where the tricks learned on that night of bricolage came into their own.

Loophole could only hold together by actively moving on. Every show took us somewhere new.

We left Glasgow a few days later in the same red wagon. A huge and encompassing rainstorm engulfed us as we climbed over the mountains, leaving me in fear for my life as we overtook endless lorries. Further south, Greg filmed huge shadows as we passed outside Lockerbie.

IP 2005