Hunt Emerson and the Birmingham Arts Lab

Hunt Emerson is the artist for our current chapter on D.H Lawrence, published on 8 September. Here our Script Editor Adrian Reynolds gives some context to the institution that would become the spiritual home of a generation of radical artists and thinkers.

Britain’s first Arts Lab appeared in London in 1967, born of the same creative spirit that had produced psychedelia. Think less of flowery shirts and music that panned from one speaker to another than cross-disciplinary experiments like The Free School, where locals took learning in their own hands in a building obtained from black revolutionary Malcolm X.

ARTS LABORATORY, 182 Drury Lane, Covent Garden, London, W.C.2. 28th October, 1969

ARTS LABORATORY, 182 Drury Lane,
Covent Garden,
London, W.C.2.
28th October, 1969 (Jim Haynes)

The Arts Lab itself was a building in Drury Lane, a space for people turning away from buttoned-down post-war austerity and the continued influence of classicism. They weren’t alone – in Germany, musicians were innovating what became known as Krautrock, which owed nothing to a culture shaped by occupying forces; and a new generation of directors was reshaping cinema in France.

Outside London, one of the most active and enduring Arts Labs was in Birmingham. Cartoonist Hunt Emerson was there from about 1973 when he moved to the city, initially going along to experiment with music. “It was a former gym and youth centre in the Newtown area, and it had the world’s most uncomfortable cinema (3rd hand cinema seating, no heating) showing art films – Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, “foreign” films, etc. There was also theatre studio space, experimental music workshops, painting studios, a dance troupe, poetry readings, and so on. The building was dilapidated and chaotic, the place was forever on the verge of collapse, and it was just great!”

Pretty soon, Hunt discovered the Lab’s art facilities. “The Lab had a silkscreen workshop printing posters, and a small offset litho press for film and theatre notes, flyers, etc. I wangled myself a job there in about 1975, operating the press – though I soon moved on to darkroom work, design and layout. Inevitably I started printing and publishing underground comics there, with a group of friends (none of whom, incidentally, were comics artists). We published a number of titles under the banner of Ar:zak, titles including Street Comix, Committed Comix, David Noon’s Moon Comix, and Heroine (Britain’s first wimmins’ comic), and we featured artists such as Steve Bell, Bryan Talbot, Kevin O’Neill, Mike Matthews, Chris Welch, Suzy Varty and Graham Manley. My time there was the most fun I’ve ever had at work, though it was also very frustrating and poverty stricken! We learned to improvise and make do with depleted resources, to not be “precious” about work, art and comics, and to develop a healthy anti-establishment attitude. We didn’t learn any business sense.”

review_artslabThat sense of being able to learn as you went along with other people doing the same thing was what comics writer Alan Moore experienced, shaping his approach to creativity in a big way. “I was involved in the Northampton Art Lab when I was 16 or 17, and that was incredible grounding because it was politicized right from the start. This was all part of the counterculture, which was in the air at the time. While it obviously had a lot of flaws in its execution, I still believe that the counterculture had some incredibly valid elements in it.”

Moore points to the Arts Lab as evolving his sensibility in ethical and political terms as well as aesthetically. “My agendas were set then, I’d like to think they’ve become more sophisticated and more complex, but the basic morality and ethics was probably determined when I was 18 or 19. And so with the Arts Lab, seeing as it was the 60’s, it had been almost an imperative to not simply say something for the sake of saying it, there should be a moral or a political dimension to it.”

Researcher Maggie Gray concurs, the précis of her paper Alan Moore’s underground: The formation of a dissident cultural practice going like this:

It looks in detail at the Northampton Arts Lab and the underground press as counter-institutions, and spaces in which Moore developed highly politicized aesthetic and creative strategies that he would carry into his later professional work. These included a commitment to the realization of non-alienated and collaborative artistic production, a partisan engagement with key political issues, an insistence on formal experimentation and an emphasis on a demystified and enabling relationship with the reader.

Opening page of Hunt's D.H Lawrence comic

Opening page of Hunt’s D.H Lawrence comic

That was then, this is now. There isn’t a comparable environment at this point. Art is all too often regulated by academics and curators whose definitions and preferences can have a crushing impact on creators who want to explore forms and techniques that are judged to be unacceptable. And even to experience that putdown means signing up for a long and expensive degree that is increasingly an option only for a wealthy minority.

Comics remains a medium that creators can experiment with on an inexpensive basis whether you’re putting your work out in photocopied form or online. Sure, academics and the media are interested in comics now in ways that would have been unthinkable at the time when the Arts Labs operated. The ability to just get them out there on some sort of scale without reference to what others think makes them a creative outlet that continues the spirit of the Arts Lab into the 21st century.

D.H Lawrence Zombie Hunter was published on 8 September. You can read it here.

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