Make Your Own Damn Film #4

Leytonstone Centre for Contemporary Art

Back in April this year I was asked to show a work-in-progress cut of my documentary about artist Bob and Roberta Smith at the ICA. I wrote about it here at the time.
Now that 25 minute cut has taken on a life all of its own. It’s currently looping in Pierogi Gallery’s Boiler space in New York where Bob has a show (there is also some more recent footage projected onto his Gotham Golem sculpture).
The film is also being shown this Sunday, 20th November at the Crunch Festival of art and philosophy in Hay-on-Wye with Bob doing a talk afterwards about his recently launched, Art Party – a bohemian reposte to the Tea Party.
The photo at the top of this page is the reason this film came into being – my desire to find out what happened inside that shed, the mysteries of the Leytonstone Centre of Contemporary Art. Now I know – I think.


Make Your Own Damn Film #1

The procrastination can continue no longer and I must sit down and start editing my documentary about the artist Bob and Roberta Smith. The final push has come via the invitation to screen some of the footage as part of an event at the ICA centred around Bob. I received an email yesterday saying that they need my ‘film’ delivered by 6th May.
This is only a work-in-progress cut running at about 20 minutes but it’s often daunting enough showing your closest, most trusted allies your unfinished work let alone presenting it in public at one of London’s most esteemed art institutions. It’s a great privilege though, the ICA is exactly where I’d love the film to end up so this is a kind of reversal.

Luckily I’ve shot some great footage over the last 20 months or so and my initial plan for the film to be a kind of bricolage looks like it works, which is a relief (for now). But this stage of an edit is a mixture of anxiety and excitement. Excitement that you are finally piecing together your film and seeing some great things in the footage. Anxiety over the inevitable technical hiccups to be resolved and the fear that you don’t actually know what you’re doing.

The diagram above is what you do inbetween the two states – I’m not sure it helps a great deal but you can look up and see it all there in little green bubbles, nod and then get back to the laborious task of transcoding hours of rushes.

Being as this is a fairly free-flowing profile of Bob, his work and his world filming never really stops – particularly as Bob is so active.

When I conceived of the idea of the film it was because I’d heard about this artist who lived in Leytonstone (where I also live) who had a gallery in his garden called The Leytonstone Centre for Contemporary Art. I had a vision of a short documentary about a man painting in his shed around the corner from my front door. We met for a pint in the pub that sits equidistant between our homes (and where I’m going in a moment). I got a call the next morning to film the opening of an exhibition that evening followed by a dawn assignment shooting Bob building a mobile brownfield site for the South Bank and it has carried on like that sporadically ever since taking me as far away from Leytonstone as New York, Walsall and Ramsgate.

Yesterday I was filming a protest in support of the imprisoned Chinese artist Ai WeiWei at Tate Modern. Bob was taking part in an ‘official’ protest outside the gallery when the spontaneous action in the footage above took place. It’s never dull with Bob.

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Through the ‘Urethra of London’

Weston’s map showing the Philly Brook

“Geographically Leytonstone is just a case of in one end and out the other. It’s not the end of the road like Whitechapel, nor is it the beginning of the end like Southgate. Leytonstone, if it’s like anything it is the urethra of London.”
Lenny’s Documentary, Ian Bourn (1978)

I came across the above quote from a film by Leytonstone film-maker Ian Bourn not long after I moved to the area. I quickly became aware that previous repeated viewing of the films of fellow Leytonstonian, John Smith, had left such a powerful imprint upon my psyche that they may well have influenced my decision to move out here to E11. I decided to further research what I then termed the ‘cinematic topography of the north eastern frontier’.

Leytonstone at one point had the largest population of artists of any place in England. The building of the M11 Link Road was both the cause of this Left Bank blossoming out east, through the empty properties it produced after compulsory orders were served, and then the construction of the road some years later brought about its end. The artists only moved on after a protracted stand-off with the road builders and a prolonged eviction. The M11 Link Road Protests loom large in the psyche of the area and have luckily been well-documented.

underground stream near Wood Street

But this was not the subject for our Ventures and Adventures expedition through Leytonstone and Leyton. We chose to chart a less contentious and mythologised feature of the landscape – a small, underground stream running a course of just under two miles beneath the streets. The Philly Brook seems to have been virtually forgotten and is recorded merely in the name of a street, Fillebrook Road, and that of a house near the Leyton Orient football stadium, Brook House. The stream can be heard gurgling through the street irons on Southwest and Queens Roads. Otherwise the only clue lies in the valley it has carved out of the local terrain.

The solitary reference in literature I could find was in The Story of Leyton and Leytonstone by W.H. Weston published in 1921 which has two hand-drawn maps showing the course of the stream. So I decided to have a rummage in the archives at the Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow.
The Vestry House staff greeted my research enquiry enthusiastically and when I arrived, there was a small pile containing all their references to the Philly Brook, or Fille Brook. One was cream envelope marked ‘Uncatalogued Ephemera L13.7 The Fillebrook’, and inside was a photocopy of an article from the local newspaper printed in 1994.
The other direct references in text came in the form of series of handwritten notes and cuttings made sometime in the interwar period by local antiquarian Frederick Temple.

Nick looking for the source

It was with these clues that Nick and I set out to follow the course of the Philly Brook. To add an element of genuine erudition to the walk we arranged to meet local historian David Boote half-way along the route. David has also researched the stream and had a fairly solid idea where it runs.
I met Nick at Leyton Midland Road overground station and it was clear that the journey from Gospel Oak had seduced him to the charms of this beguiling train-line. I recently found a great article by Bruce Jerram and Richard Wells published in 1996 passionately defending the significance of the then “much derided” North London Line. Fourteen years on and it is now a vital part of the transport infrastructure feeding into the new city arising around the Olympic Park at Stratford.

I’d got the idea from one of the newspaper articles at the Vestry House that the Philly Brook rose, not near James Lane as it commonly assumed, but further north near Wood Street in Walthamstow. So there we headed.
Two hours later and after the exciting discovery of an underground stream running between some garages and a 19th Century cricket ground, and Nick broke the news that what we had found was a quite different, but unmapped, water course that most likely ran through Walthamstow to link up with the Dagenham Brook or Coppermill Stream further towards the Lea Valley.

Source of the Philly Brook near St Andrews Church

And so we effectively restarted our walk and ambled across the edge of Epping Forest to where the Philly Brook rises at the end of James Lane near Whipps Cross Hospital.
I ducked into the cafe at St Andrews Church to grab a cup of tea. When I told the ladies working there what we were doing they said that the building of some flats behind the church had caused a spring to come up in the basement or crypt. The Philly Brook lives! I thought. Apparently, flooding of basements was common in the area until the building of the Link Road, which seems to have displaced not only the E11 avant garde but also tamed the rising waters of the stream.

We made our rendezvous with David Boote a mere two hours late and then took a walk through the valley of the Philly Brook that meandered as the stream once did – taking a whole three hours to complete the final mile-and-a-half. Much verbiage was spilled along the banks of the brook, plenty of it highly entertaining but unbroadcastable on the radio show (due to time and not inappropriateness).

looking down the course of the stream

Finally at the end of the walk, and after forgetting to pay homage to composer Cornelius Cardew who had lived and died not far from the river’s run, we reached what we thought was the end. But as the stream no longer appears above ground we would have to be content to leave this to conjecture. And then Nick squinted through the gloom at his Village London atlas and proclaimed that the Brook met the Mill Stream right near where we were stood on a traffic island near Dunedin Road. He disappeared into some undergrowth and then yelled out – here was the stream. And there we believe it was, running meekly through a concrete culvert beside the allotments, still unseen and unheralded.

Download the podcast of this episode here

Some links and further reading

Platform’s work on London as a city of watersheds

Cornelius Cardew’s Great Learning Performed in Leytonstone

Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society


Walk to Brooklyn

On my two previous visits to New York I had failed to venture beyond Manhattan, it seemed more than enough for me and I had little idea what lie beyond it. This time I had a motivation to cross the water – to interview Joe at the Perogi Gallery for my ongoing documentary about Bob and Roberta Smith. This was also a chance to cover a bit of ground on foot beyond my habitual drifting.

Downtown from SoHo all is quiet, sun out, an April like the first time I came here in ’98. As warned Brooklyn Bridge was heaving with walkers – at once a brilliant and heart-sinking sight. Is this what the pedestrian highways I once proposed to Wycombe District Council would look like – a sweating mass of agitated perambulators.
From the bridge I got a very different sense of what New York appears to be – I think it’s often easy to forget that many cities are defined by what is at the periphery; so caught up are we by the buzz around the urban core. Maybe that’s the city dweller’s fear of nature – the force in that water so evident when looking down from the bridge; we scamper inland to cower behind bricks.

On the other side of Brooklyn Bridge I am without bearings for a bit and follow my nose. I have a strong image of Henry Miller wandering round here implanted by several readings of Tropic of Capricorn.

I want to find the apartment that Bob lived in on 3rd Street and amble in that direction.
Smith Street is a real hive of activity – loads of heaving cafes – people really lunch here eh? I go into Book Court and literally the first book I see is Alfred Kazin’s ‘A Walker in the City’ – “When I was a child I thought we lived at the end of the world”, he writes of Brooklyn.
The literary version of Brooklyn I’d built up was of somewhere rough-and-ready work-a-day and I see straight away how out of date that has become because at times I feel like there must have been a mass photo shoot for American Apparel in the neighbourhood. It’s a nice vibe though, a comfortable place for a wander.

I turn into 3rd Street and the mood soon changes – becomes run-down industrial, deserted except for a few cyclists. I stand on the bridge over the Gowanus Canal and suck in the rust. I don’t find Bob’s apartment – must have been knocked down. I move on round the corner to Perogi on 9th Street, hungry and stiff legged now.

This is the Brooklyn of my imagination.
The American Legion club, people milling around outside Liquor Stores. 177 9th Street is a locked industrial unit. I ring Joe, “North 9th Street Williamsburg” he corrects – miles away – but only about 4 subway stops from my hotel it turns out. I laugh, my walks are always wild goose chases – mis-guided excursions following after lost scents. People had very kindly offered to show me round Brooklyn but I know at heart that I need to get lost to find what I’m looking for.

I jump on the subway back to Manhattan then over to the gracious Joe who gives me a great interview at Perogi, complete with accounts of the show he did in Bob’s shed – The Leytonstone Centre for Contemporary Art. Strange how a walk round the corner from my house in London one evening led me here to Brooklyn.

Cornelius Cardew’s Great Learning in Leytonstone Woolies

This was an incredible event that I feel privileged to have attended. The avant-garde-cum-Moaist-folk-revivalist composer Cornelius Cardew lived and died in this neck of the woods and at last year’s Leytonstone Festival there was a fitting tribute to this geographical association as members of his Scratch Orchestra re-united for a performance at the old Green Man pub.
But this event took the Cardew link to another level I felt (with Luke Fowler’s brilliant Cardew film so recently installed in the Serpentine Gallery) – being as it was a 10 hour long participatory performance that took in several local locations including the Green Man Roundabout. I coaxed my 6-year old along to part of the performance in St.John’s Church where he sat in awed (or shocked/ bemused) silence for 15 minutes as James Bull skillfully played a metre of plastic ducting and led a series of synchronicised sniggers. There was also some artful clarinet and tuneful singing throughout.
The Woolies paragraphs (see below for Cardew’s score that was used) took on a rather more ethereal vibe in this vast cream empty consumer tomb – the sounds all vocal and measured pacings marking the aisles where I have variously purchased Power Rangers, a teapot, gel ink pens (pack of 5) and a pear tree.
The Leytonstone Avant-Garde is alive and well it seems – in Woolies at 9pm on a Saturday.