J’ADORE LE DOUX DINGUE BRUCE LACEY

22 Nov

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If you think you’ve never seen or heard of the mad, genius, artist, shaman, filmmaker, musician and visionary that is Bruce Lacey, I politely suggest that the reverse may in fact be the case. If you somehow missed the recent hit Camden Arts Centre show or BFI DVD set, I suspect you’ve already seen him on TV, in a film or may be just felt his palpable influence indirectly. That was certainly the growing feeling I had after meeting him at his Norfolk farmhouse some ten years ago. Unpicking his history and trotting out his list of connections, activities, films, performances and friends is a daunting task. He’s been busy. Collaborators include the Goons, the Beatles, Ken Russell, Fairport Convention, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Ivor Cutler, Lenny Bruce and many, many more. And there’s of course his art career, with its hip solo shows, experimental artist films, happenings in Swinging London, plus other performances both before and since.

He remains a restless creative force. Looking at his films at the BFI, I was struck by how he would often work both in front of and behind the camera. So if not working with directors Richard Lester, Bob Godfrey (the man behind Rhubarb And Custard) or Joe McGrath (as he often did), Lacey would set the light levels and then load, shoot and edit the film himself too. To top it off, he’d often perform again as the movies were being screened – as he still does today – sometimes talking over the top or offering insistent commentary both before and after. Such screenings became an integral part of the provocative lectures he delivered to wide-eyed art students in the 1970s. He urged them to ignore their usual tutors and do exactly what they wanted. Rock climbing was once encouraged. Films were also presented at the Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, the ICA and at the BFI’s National Film Theatre where he tried to initiate a kissing competition.

Lacey was always ahead of his time. In the 1950s, with The Alberts, and in parallel with the Goons, he pioneered a surrealist British sense of humour that Monty Python and others later ran with. “Professor” Bruce Lacey and his mock-Edwardian friends dressed up like soldiers from a failed British Empire and mocked it utterly, savagely – and from experience, given their time in National Service and almost nihilistic disregard for authority. Their 1962 comedy show ‘An Evening of British Rubbish’ was a smash hit. Its poster consisted of a desecrated Union Jack with cut out newspaper lettering – a Sex Pistols graphic from before the punk band even existed.

These performances and screenings led to a more overtly expansive form of multimedia theatre developed by Lacey and his then wife and creative partner Jill Bruce. They were multi-media pioneers. 1970s shows The Electric Element and Stella Superstar and Her Amazing Galactic Adventures combined live music, 16mm film projections, bright homemade set-design and much Glam-rock style costume changes to impressive if not always smooth effect. The residue of posters, photographs and scraps of 16mm make them look like excellent fun, like mutant hybrids of experimental theatre and an old time, “sci-fi music hall” that never was.

In 1972, they toured A Journey Through a Black Hole to a Coloured Planet, a bouncy, black, inflatable, galactic space romp for children. It can be seen in the Arts Council documentary ‘Outside In’. Coloured lights whirl and flash in the dark while sirens scream and other electronic noises pulse with sinister urgency. Narration, slides and other projections also feature. It looks scary and intense to me, like an abrasive Throbbing Gristle performance from a few years hence. The children, however, throw themselves into it and scream with delight. But don’t ignore the similarity to what came later. The synthesizer and other devices that propel insistent, jagged sound waves were operated by John Lacey, in conjunction with his dad. Known as John Gunni Busck, John also played with Coum Transmissions, the playful, confrontational performance group led by Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni-Tutti before forming TG. (Lacey senior was also caretaker of the SPACE artist studio that Genesis and co. renamed ‘the Death Factory’. It was through that connection that a variety of different parties met).

Throbbing Gristle pursued an often deliberately ambiguous agenda, mixing powerful symbols with shock tactics and confrontation. Bruce Lacey was upfront with his moral agenda but also subtly insidious – in a good way. He uses absurdity and a kind of willful amateurism to confuse and confound even the most cynical of audiences. Any “mistake” – if it is indeed a mistake – can be co-opted back into a performance, or amplified beyond all proportion. At the same time, he used homemade robots, constructed environments and theatrical events to confront and amaze, to achieve similar states of openness and uncertainty, but on these occasions through awe and wonder.

‘When we met Bruce Lacey we were entranced – a modern day magus in brightly coloured clothes….It was as if Dr Dee had been reimagined by the Goons’ said Nick Abrahams, co-director with Jeremy Deller of the 2012 documentary The Bruce Lacey Experience. Bruce Lacey and Jill Bruce embraced more overt forms of magic by the late 1970s. They called themselves environmental coordinators and influenced in part by Alfred Watkins’ ‘The Old Straight Track’ and John Michell’s writings on astro-archeaology, sought to re-sanctify the natural environment, and themselves. They visited stone monuments, undertaking rituals as they went, and in 1979 exhibited the documentation in a show entitled Ancient Forces at the Acme Gallery. “We believe that so-called pre-historic art – the art of ancient man – was the true art – when it wasn’t done for aesthetic reasons, but for a specific purpose – to really make something happen” they said. Where once he had dreamed of becoming an astronaut, even going as far as to make his own space outfit for the performance British Landing on the Moon, Lacey now came back down to earth. Sort of.

He composed electronic recordings inspired by the places visited and powers which he now felt he was in contact. In their words: “we have continued to relate to the same energies as ancient man did, in our own way.” He did briefly renounce electronics in the early 1980s but until then his synth, tape delay and other devices were used to illustrate and amplify these abstract forces and stages in personal transformation. Using a variety of private totems – including a football rattle and two Viking costumes – he explored his deep family history with the ritual The Re-Awakening of My Ancestral Spirits in 1987, later overlaying the track “Ancient Forces 1” onto the video documentation. He walks like a spider here, circling his prey of objects, preparing for a spell of mythic storytelling actualized by his body.

The sounds are propulsive and aggressive, more disorientating and lysergic than other electronic tracks from the period. Restless melodies rub up against hard, unresolved electronic patterns. This is not escapist music. Cycles of the Serpent shares its name with an exhibit mounted by the Laceys at the Serpentine Gallery, London in 1981. The installation took the cycle of the year on their farm as its basis and featured decaying organic matter, including “several varieties of turd and dropping” as proudly stated in the display text. This created considerable controversy amongst the mainstream press and was symbolic of how far the UK had come since the 1960s. It was Thatcher’s time now and alternative living was deeply political. Bruce was very involved with the New Age scene and medieval-style fairs in Norfolk.

The other tracks on this release Kissing Film and Double Exposure derive from 16mm works made earlier in the 1970s with Jill. (Kissing Film being a lurid, colour remake of the black and white version from 1967). Reflecting Lacey’s perennial interest in the body – its functions and its mutability – both movies confront the viewer with forms of intimate acts willfully over-performed. Respectfully, we get sustained kissing in tight close-up, with food introduced along the way, and then a kind of alchemical, ghost sex, effected by rewinding the camera and shooting the film through twice (hence a “Double Exposure”, though the couple are also naked). The acts and their renditions are visceral, natural yet also otherworldly. The soundtrack was composed again electronically and then as the film was projected, played back on cassette.

“1960” or “Music From Everybody’s Nobody” presents that film’s tactile, rasping, sounds, effects and melodies, without its droll narration (though a remnant emerges at the very end to sinister effect). Recorder, xylophone and detuned guitar vie with effects and percussion derived from all manner of different objects, and details such as the striking typewriter take on newly heard timbres and rhythms that complement the overall sound. Originally distributed by the pro-CND Quaker organization Concord, the complete picture savagely critiques the alienating effects of industrial capitalism, whilst also highlighting the threat of nuclear annihilation. Bruce Lacey plays the Everybody’s Nobody, a “synchronized, pressurized, energized, moisturized moron” or Mobile Absurd Non-entity, a.k.a. M.A.N..

While he used to be a frequent sight on British TV, Bruce Lacey has been and remains a figure of the underground; a visionary artist who is well aware of the political and moral failings in this world – and the need to address them – but one that also remains committed to joy, play and the power of fantasy and the imagination. He’s been salvage punk and cyberpunk, reusing objects, changing their function, re-imagining different futures. He was a mock-Edwardian in the 1950s and 1960s – way before this became a fashion – and in the New Age movement, a kind of “paleo-cybernetician”, exploring inner worlds, outer worlds and the “real reality” to quote his exhibition of 1981.

Historically, he has not been not widely known as a filmmaker – a situation we have attempted to address at the BFI with the double DVD: The Lacey Rituals: Films by Bruce Lacey (and Friends) and a series of 35mm film restorations. Now quite rightly comes the turn of his music. Back in 1973 Lacey said he wanted to be pop star. The electronic tracks here may not constitute pop songs but unlike a lot of more spiritual forms of music, each piece is short and pithy, a few minutes long in each case. They are direct, insistent and unpredictable. Just like the great man himself.

William Fowler, Curator of Artists’ Moving Image, BFI National Archive

 

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