Friday, 26 October 2012

Bruce Lacey at the Camden Arts Centre


Bruce Lacey is one of those characters who has seemingly moved in the peripheral vision of British popular and counterculture for several ages. His name many not be widely known, but once noticed, you find yourself recognising him in the background of or exerting his influence upon all manner of significant movements, from the 50s up until the present day. I first became aware of him in his professorial role (his self-awarded title of ‘professor’ Bruce Lacey fitting the mad scientist role which he adopted) in the 1967 George Melly scripted film about the not so fab 60s, Smashing Time. An electrical mishap unleashes his self-built robots on a helpless art gathering at a Roundhouse style venue, and he looks on with manic, gesticulatory glee from behind a lectern. He looks for all the world like Rotwang, the robot-builder in Metropolis, throwing silent movie shapes. This scene is probably still the best way to see his remote controlled robots in action. They’re hilariously inventive and at the same time a little bit threatening, as mechanical facsimiles of the human form generally are. I had also heard of him through Fairport Convention’s song Mr Lacey, which also sang a song of praise to his robots and his ‘loving machine’. The latter presumably referred to his orgasmatron-style sensory stimulator which he manufactured for the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at the ICA in 1968. This was an encapsulating pod in which the willing entrant was exposed to ‘non-specific erotic images’ whilst being massaged and caressed by an automated system of rollers and soft pads. It was a device to set against Kafka’s mechanical punishment machine from his story In The Penal Colony, one devoted instead to the fulfilment of the pleasure principle. There was an element of criticism or moral questioning behind the surface fun, however, as there was with many of his madcap actions and inventions – a constant assertion of the authentically human over the mechanical or simulated.

Knowing his place - Lacey prepares to gnaw George's lawn in Help
Had I but realised it, I also knew Lacey from his brief appearance in The Beatles film Help as the resident yokel gardener in the fab four’s surreal pad, trimming their artificial lawn with the aid of two pairs of nibbling false teeth. The Beatles’ patronage puts him in the lineage of other British oddball artists such as Ivor Cutler (who sometimes appeared on the same bill as Lacey in the 60s) and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, both of whom featured in The Magical Mystery Tour. Lacey’s connection to the Goons no doubt endeared him to John Lennon, but it was probably his previous association with Dick Lester (he’d appeared in his Goonish short The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film, for which he also designed the props) which led to his presence in Help.

Lacey has received renewed attention recently on account of The Lacey Rituals, a new 2-dvd collection from the bfi of his film work, both as director, performer and prop builder, and an attendant exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre, which looked back on the entirety of his profligate and restlessly mercurial creative life. I went and saw it on its last weekend in mid-September. The first of the gallery spaces you entered on the first floor was a spacious, light-filled corridor on whose walls a good number of framed posters and flyers were hung. These formed an effective and visually absorbing survey of Lacey’s work and appearances over the six decades, as well as offering an incidental insight into the changing styles in graphic poster design from the 50s to the present day. The range and mutability of Lacey’s activities soon became apparent through this introductory display. He was part of a Goonish vaudevillian troupe in the 50s and 60s called The Alberts. It was a name entirely apposite for their aesthetic of scavenging and using with irreverent and at the same time affectionate and sincere humour the junkshop flotsam of Victorian and Edwardian England. Their colourfully antique style anticipated the tatterdemalion motley of swinging 60s and summer of love fashions. The confusion and rapid changes between space-age futurism and a nostalgic resurrection of Edwardian and Victorian formal finery is also reflected in Lacey’s work – his robots and rockets set off against top-hatted, one-man band buffoonery.

Pre-punk graphics - The Alberts' lost album
Centred around Lacey and the Gray brothers, Tony and Douglas, the Alberts’ enthusiastic demolition of early jazz and novelty tunes, gleaned from the cracked and dust-filled grooves of rediscovered 78s, paved the way for The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Roger Ruskin Spear’s kinetic robots and automata, and the many theatrical props incorporated into the Bonzo’s stage performances, may also have drawn on Lacey and The Albert’s example. The Alberts, whilst remembered with great affection by those who witnessed their unpredictable, chaotic but energetic and committed shows, endure as an obscure footnote to 60s London pop culture. This is largely due to the lack of any substantive documentation of their performances. In the new documentary on Lacey, The Lacey Experience by artist Jeremy Deller (who also co-curated the Camden Arts Centre exhibition) and film-maker Nick Abrahams, included on the bfi discs, he reveals that The Alberts recorded an LP for EMI, produced by George Martin. EMI objected to the cover, a union jack with torn out lettering from adverts ornamenting the red crosses of St Patrick and St George. As Lacey elucidates out in the documentary, he regarded the flag as representative of the lingering arrogance of British imperial attitudes, and the messages mischievously attached point to its negative associations and paint it as a redundant symbol. The ‘ultimate toilet paper’ byline suggests a possible alternative usage. The rough, collaged graphics and provocative use of the flag resemble Jamie Reid’s God Save The Queen cover for The Sex Pistols, and punk graphics in general, to a striking degree. Lacey refused to compromise over the cover, and the album remained in the vaults (although Lacey states that he has a copy in his possession too). George Melly, in his 1970 book on Swinging 60s London, Revolt Into Style, offers his own perspective on why the Alberts were destined to obscurity. ‘As to why they have survived in the shadows while those they engendered swam out into the light’, he stated, ‘I believe the reason is that they are totally serious. Surrounded by extinct musical instruments and ancient machinery, dressed in daily life as if they were Victorian lifeboat skippers or First World War German pilots, they preserve a grave courtesy which holds mockery at bay, but at the same time worries people’. Melly also makes a prescient connection with the punk generation to come when he describes Lacey as being ‘barely in control of his hatred for whatever seems to him to be unloving or morally dead…with his rolling eyes and filthy Edwardian evening clothes…he gives off an aura of real if ludicrous menace’. This sense of underlying violence, of a savagely satirical and slightly despairing outlook on the dehumanising aspects of the technologised post-war landscape, counterbalances the charmingly whimsical and childlike aspect of his creations.

Flight of fools - doomed Hampstead launch
A hint of the barely contained anarchy of their performances can be found in the short film The Flying Alberts, included on the bfi disc. This documents and attempt, clearly doomed from the outset, to launch a rocket from the slopes of Hampstead Heath, piloted by a gasmasked Lacey with the brothers Gray in tweedy tow. The whole endeavour ends in sopping ignominy in one of the nearby ponds, and can be seen as a tribute of sorts to the hopeless dreamers whose inept early attempts at flight are captured in bathetic turn of the century film footage. A celebration of British failure. The marching band whose ragged fanfares give them a wavering send off includes future Bonzos Neil Innes and Rodney Slater, revealing an even more direct link between Alberts and Bonzos. Perhaps The Humanoid Boogie, Innes’ infectious automaton pop number for the Bonzos, was influenced by Lacey’s robots too. The film also displays Lacey’s skill at making imaginative props out of whatever he could lay his hands on, props which were often treated in a less than gentle manner (shades of Gustav Metzger’s auto-destructive art, violently impinging on popular culture via Pete Townsend at about the same time). Lacey had made or found props for Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine’s post-Goon TV shows, and props from his personal hoard (kites, spyglasses, Victorian cameras, amusing hats etc) can also be seen in Dick Lester’s short The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film. This was made in 1960 with a half-Goon cast of Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, Leo McKern acting as a more than serviceable Secombe stand-in. Lacey himself himself appears briefly as a music lover, laying his chosen LP down onto a treestump ‘turntable’, producing an old gramophone arm and stylus connected to a trumpet speaker, and running around the stump in a giddy circle, pressing the needle into the groove and the speaker against his ear.

Lacey's DIY gramaphone method - The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film
Lacey’s antic role within the Alberts’ set-up is hinted at in the poster for the 1950 Carnival of Jazz held, appropriately enough, at the Albert Hall, and headlined by Chris Barber with the late Ottoline Morrell. The design is a simple two-colour textual delineation of the bill of artists, with an announcement at the bottom that it will be ‘compered by The Alberts and interrupted by Professor Bruce Lacey’. The Alberts staged a number of shows which pre-empted criticism by announcing themselves as ‘An Evening of British Rubbish’. It’s a billing which manages simultaneously to fly the flag and make a mockery of it. As they used to proudly declare when the whole thing shambled to its conclusion, the smoke of exploding dummies drifting from the stage, ‘I know it’s rubbish, but by jingo, it’s British rubbish’. The rubbish could also be the Victorian detritus, wartime surplus equipment and health service cast-offs which Lacey cobbled together into comically grotesque anthropomorphic automata (junk people) or Heath Robinsonesque props destined for noisome destruction.

ROSA on the rampage - Smashing Time
Lacey’s professorial qualifications were self-bestowed, and indicated his penchant for rubbish dump invention and mad scientist affections (a disconcertingly intense and abstracted gaze, manic glints of sudden inspiration, disarrayed clothing and electrostatically charged hair). This culminated in the multi-purpose robots he created in the early to mid-60s, powered by old aircraft voltage motors and lent limbs and extremities by courtesy of the NHS. These made their appearances at various countercultural London hotspots in the swinging summer of love 60s – places like the Roundhouse at Chalk Farm and the Middle Earth club in Covent Garden. His star robot was probably R.O.S.A B.O.S.O.M. (that’s Radio Operated Simulated Actress, Battery Or Standard Operated Mains), who was best ‘man’ at his wedding to Jill Smith (Lacey’s regular collaborator under the name Jill Bruce). It’s fairly typical of Lacey’s refusal to make a distinction between life and art that he should turn his wedding into another performance. As he tells it, he simply couldn’t leave her at home, regarding her as an integral part of the family. ROSA can also be seen trundling about the Middle Earth dance floor in a short film on the dvd, Lacey discretely manipulating the antennaed control box from the shadows. She went on the rampage (along with a battalion of Lacey’s other robots) in the 1967 film Smashing Time, menacing our Rita (Tushingham) with big wet smackers from her extendable red sponge lips. Lacey observes the mayhem his mechanical offspring cause with hysterical, bug-eyed delight, playing the mad scientist to the hilt. Showing little signs of her age, ROSA also ended up winning the Alternative Miss World Contest in 1985, snatching a crown usually claimed by an outrageously inventive drag queen.

ROSA was initially created for the theatrical show The Three Musketeers at the Royal Court in 1965, where she, Lacey and The Alberts appeared alongside the likes of Valentine Dyall and Rachel Roberts. A mutated version of The Alberts, genetically re-engineered (in name if not dress and outlook) for the times (1967 by the looks of it), appeared at The Marquee with the pre-Kraftwerk robots in what the psychedelically bedazzling poster styles as ‘An Antique Freak-In with Pink Albert’s Collapsible Orchestra, Bruce Lacey and the Red Army Combo’. Having mocked the lingering tatters of British Imperial bluster, Lacey and the Alberts were happy to extend the privilege of being the target of their piss-taking to the linguistic affectations of the counterculture. With an evening of such unpredictable delights in prospect, tickets were a steal at 6/- for members and 8/- for guests.

Lacey’s artistic credentials were given substantial recognition through several appearances at the ICA from the late 60s onwards, including participation in the Cybernetic Serendipity symposium in 1968. Our backstreet, homegrown professor took his place amongst the heady company of Professor Herbert Brun, Professor Lionel Penrose and the avant-garde composer, mathematician and architect Iannis Xenakis. The ad for this august gathering was in the style of Polish surrealist film posters, with the central image definitely based around Lacey’s robots. A 1975 exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery suggests that he was now firmly established, earning a career retrospective looking back on ’40 years of assemblages, environments and robots’. That forty year span makes it clear that Lacey traces his creativity back to his childhood, and makes no clear distinction between mature and ‘juvenile’ work, valuing early efforts as much as the work of his adult years. He was born in 1927, in the South London borough of Lewisham, so counting back from 1975, the Whitechapel exhibition would include things he made when he was 8 years old.

A Robot Lilliput reproduction
The first room of the Camden Arts Centre exhibition proper (if we regard the poster hall as a prelude) looks at his early work, life and influences, and is perhaps best summed up by the declaration, included in the introductory remarks, that you should endeavour ‘never to lose the child within you’. Various relics of Lacey’s childhood were on display, precious personal artefacts safely encased in museum glass. At the far end of the room, by a window which lent it backlit prominence, a wooden fort was placed on a table, with a note from Lacey telling us that it had been built by his dad. It was the perfect stage for a young boy’s imagination, and a demonstration for him of what could be created from the sawn-off discards of the lumber yard. Its placement at the rear centre of the room made it a natural starting point for a journey through Lacey’s life, a progenitive object which sowed the creative seed in little Bruce’s imagination. Also present were some of his childhood toys (part of Lacey’s art lies in a natural hoarder’s tendency to curate their own lives). There was Robot Lilliput, an early Japanese version of the wind-up tin robot toy, one of the first to be produced; and an Indian doll (of the Native American variety) which, as he told us on one of the neatly handwritten cards he placed beside each artefact, ‘I took to bed every night as a young boy and cuddled’. Here in nascent form, in these objects placed side by side, were two of the enduring, counterbalancing poles of his artistic obsessions – visions of mechanical men and the space-age future, and an instinctive embrace of a pre-industrial worldview as filtered through popular culture, and re-interpreted in personal terms. A 1953 sketch of ‘my ventriloquist dummy’s head Tommy’ suggested an early facility (or need) for adopting alternative personae, and also forged a link with fellow eccentric spirit, explorer of personal mythologies and stubborn follower of his own path Ken Campbell, who would carry out his own distinctively interrogatory ventures into the ventriloquial arts in his latter years.

Art as impulsive therapy - 1980s Earth Rituals
Costumes from childhood gave a foretaste of a life spent dressing up and playacting. Indian, harlequin and clown outfits hung from the wall next to a red post-box one-piece, an early indication of a sense of the surreal and the absurd. The centrality of wartime mythologies and the dreams of flying were represented by his Uncle Jim’s helmet and goggles from the First World War. Lacey himself went into the Navy in 1945, his one brief voyage largely spent in cramped conditions below decks, where he contracted tuberculosis. He was confined to a TB ward, where he was rendered immobile for a period, and witnessed the confinement and decline of others whose cases were far worse than his. Some of his later assemblages using health service odds and sods, crutches and body-covering plaster casts draw on his experience of this time. It was in the ward that he started seriously sketching and developing his interest in art, as several sketches of his immediate surroundings, and of ranked skeletons attested. He also set up an episcope projector, which could throw magnified pictures of his fellow patients’ photos onto the walls. Again, the roots of his future gadget building ingenuity and improvisatory instinct for going beyond the standard boundaries of ‘serious’ art and entertaining and surprising people through whatever means were available or came to mind were plain to see. Lacey, in the documentary on the bfi dvd, talks about having taken up art in the ward as a kind of therapy, and there’s something of that therapeutic impulse which has persisted throughout his life. Certainly, when he talks in the documentary about the ritual to the Earth Goddess he performed at a festival in 1982, which was a naked (literally) public act of ceremonial rebirth after the end of his long-term partnership with Jill Bruce, he is still palpably emotional about it. It was his way of coming to terms with a great disruption in his life, creating a performance piece almost as an incidental side-effect. The experience of war and of the drawn out death of the TB ward is reflected in his truly horrific assemblage Wartime Marriage from 1965, in which two bodies are tied onto a camp bed with lengths of string. Their skin is covered with sores and open wounds, and parts of limbs have been messily snapped off. The woman’s face has become fused with a gasmask, and the man’s arm is raised, as if in a futile gesticulation for help. They look like fossilised Pompeii-esque relics from the far future of a post nuclear catastrophe. In a wartime gas ‘cradle’, a baby’s face can be seen peering innocently out; another of Lacey’s disturbing uses of dolls. This is a work which amply demonstrates that Lacey, beneath (and sometimes coexistant with) his whimsical and madcap persona, could draw on and give powerful expression to deep-seated personal and political fears, anxieties and terrors.

On the near wall hung some of the paintings he produced after leaving the Hornsey College of Art to study at the Royal College of Art from 1951-54. They are surprisingly subdued, even drab in tone, and realistic in their depiction of everyday scenes and landscapes. Their rather depressing air of brownness is maybe a reflection of a general disaffection with the shattered, weary world of post-war austerity Britain. Or maybe the paint has just faded and lost its colour with time. Suspended above all of these representative markers of his childhood and youth was a sculpture which spanned most of the upper space beneath the ceiling. A large prick in a spectrum of primary colours was outlined in framework form by broken, bent and rejoined hula hoops, ceremonially bedecked with ribbons to add a ritualistic air. White tubes issued from its tip to swirl and spiral out across the room’s upper expanse. Baby girl dolls of varying size and shape were attached to these looping pathways at different intervals, new life launched off into the world. Just as Lacey’s story begins below, they are setting off to create new stories, and to build up their own personal mythologies along the way. It’s a cyclical symbol of generative forces, the straight male member issuing its brief cannonade before giving way to circular forms with their conjoined female travellers – the daughters of Albion flying away into a new world very different from the one laid out below them.

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