There’s a strange kind of […] obsolescence written into the film club thing which is that it takes a lot of energy to do it and you can’t make any money out of it. So you can do it for a while, but eventually you are going to be thinking you have got to find a way to sell this thing to make money out of it. But the thing is the Exploding is always going to be around, because we don’t care. We never wanted to make money and we never wanted to go into the commercial industry. (Reekie in Exploding Cinema, BBC Radio 4, 2011)

Art is political, not because of the contingencies within which it is embedded and the histories it necessarily incorporates. Art is political because we encounter it in the imposing museum, the hidden gallery, the exclusive auction house. The privileged and circumscribed context of the encounter with art is politically charged. Artists who imagine a different way of doing things and do not share the ideologies and discourses of established art venues are effectively excluded. Artists have responded to these exclusions by creating their own spaces, events and networks, thus practicing a negative critique of the predominant and naturalised bourgeois ideology that reigns in the art world. These include artist-run spaces, one-off exhibitions and screenings in warehouse spaces, organisations and networked practices. The problem, however, with many of these distributed practices, is that they often fail to grow to produce an enduring alternative culture for the production and distribution of art. There are various reasons for this: these spaces are often unsustainable and become co-opted in their struggle to survive. They are isolated within the broader sphere of the cultural industries and feel the pressure to conform and compete. They often serve as springboards to the mainstream and either disappear or become transformed when they have served their purpose. In many ways, these failures can be traced to a single factor, the artist’s desire for recognition:

Fame and success are important tools of affirmative culture; by casting achievement as an individual accomplishment, the artist is separated from the collective—the subculture—from which the work originally drew its power. This former power is replaced by the power of value and fame. “Genius” fills the void left by the elimination of work’s social base. (Bolton, 1998, p. 41)

Georges Bataille discerns this most “pathetic desire” in Manet: “What he yearned for was encouragement, official success” (Bataille, 1983/1955, p. 27). Manet assisted a revolution not only in art but also in the status of the artist in society, yet “his aplomb concealed a rankling bitterness. Few more charming men than he, yet few have suffered more not simply from their failure to gain recognition, but from being a target of public ridicule” (Bataille, 1983/1955, p. 23).[1] This public was a new public for art, a bourgeois public. And the artists of the modern world “were their own masters, their own sovereign. The ambiguous name of “artist” covered both a newfound dignity and a pretension difficult to justify” (Bataille, 1983/1955, p. 26):

In the confusion brought on by an almost overnight emancipation Manet appears as the symbol of all the conflicting inclinations a free man is torn between. (Bataille, 1983/1955, p. 26)

After 1848, the political climate in Europe began to change in favour of the bourgeoisie who were now the ruling class. How did this affect the artists? How did they react?

From its beginnings, the artistic avant-garde has discovered, renewed, or re-invented itself by identifying with marginal, ‘non-artistic’ forms of expressivity and display – forms improvised by other social groups out of the degraded materials of capitalist manufacture. Manet’s “Olympia” offered a bewildered middle-class public the flattened pictorial economy of the cheap sign or carnival backdrop, the pose and allegories of contemporary pornography superimposed over those of Titian’s “Venus of Urbino”. (Crow, 1983, p. 215)

The Impressionist movement effected a distinct rejection of society in the artists’ refusal to represent any value other than fleeting impressions. Impressionism coincided with the Second Empire, during this period “the bourgeois acquiescence to political authoritarianism was followed by the first spectacular flowering of consumer society” (Crow, 1983, p. 228). In his essay Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts (1983), Thomas Crow argues that emerging modes of commodity production determined the character of the modernist avant-garde. Crow discerns in the host of competing practices within modernism an attempt to construct a critical mediation of commodities (Crow, 1983, p. 233). He emphasises the central role in Impressionist painting of the “new spaces of commercial pleasure the painters seem rarely to have left”. For Crow, early modernist artists consistently identified with the “social practices of mass diversion—whether uncritically reproduced, caricatured, or transformed into abstract Arcadias”. He comes across the “debris” of mass culture in cubist and dada collage and discovers the “delighted discovery of American traffic, neon, and commercialized black music” in Mondrian’s Boogie-Woogie series (Crow, 1983, p. 215). This trend reached its climax in Pop Art, and continues to be a fundamental strategy for artists. Crow argues that innovation in modern art is due largely to a consistent sourcing of “non-artistic” forms, primarily from popular culture:

From its beginnings, the artistic avant-garde has discovered, renewed, or re-invented itself by identifying with marginal, ‘non-artistic’ forms of expressivity and display—forms improvised by other social groups out of the degraded materials of capitalist manufacture. (Crow, 1983, p. 215)

As consumption in the post-Fordist capitalist economy became self-justifying and began to play a larger role in social relations, there was a need to create expanded desires and sensibilities, and artists provided “the skills required for an even more intense marketing of sensual gratification” (Crow, 1983, p. 252). Crow argues that the artistic avant-garde provided the service of mediating between the differentiated strata of commodity culture, which he describes as a “necessary brokerage between high and low” (Crow, 1983, p. 253):

In its selective appropriation from fringe mass culture, the avant-garde searches out areas of social practice which retain some vivid life in an increasingly administered and rationalised society. These it refines and packages, directing them to an elite, self-conscious audience (Crow, 1983, p. 253)

High art is thus “an irreplaceable status indicator”, which guarantees its value and permanence (Crow, 1983, p. 253).

Functionally then, the avant-garde serves as a kind of research and development arm of the cultural industry: it searches out areas of social practice not yet completely available to efficient manipulation and makes them discrete and visible. (Crow, 1983, p. 253)

A close look at the histories of art and the histories of popular culture reveals intimate interactions between the two. Far from being discretely outlined, these two fields kept separate by respective discourses and markets, can be clearly seen to co-evolve in complex processes of appropriation, quotation, imitation and parody. Art and popular culture have endlessly recycled common strategies, techniques and ideas against a backdrop of social and political shifts. Beyond this cycle of exchange however, Crow sees a filtering system at work which moves in one direction: “appropriation of oppositional practices upward, the return of evacuated cultural goods downward”. Achieved largely by the legitimising function of art institutions, this process entrenches class bias and thus “modernist negation becomes, paradoxically, an instrument of cultural domination” (Crow, 1983, p. 255).

The Exploding Cinema Collective is a resistant subculture, its roots are not in art but in the underground. Thomas Crow defines resistant subcultures as “groups which articulate for themselves a counter-consensual identity”, they thereby convey “an implicit message of rupture and discontinuity” (Crow, 1983, p. 233). Exploding Cinema represents a progressive counterpoint to art institutions. Its original constitution was motivated by the activities of predecessors and informed by the potential disasters of official recognition and support. Exploding Cinema is not motivated by the desire for recognition from the established sector; it relies on the audience and the community of producers who send in their films to be screened. Exploding Cinema is unique in that this vision was never abandoned or compromised. The question rather, is how did it manage to survive?

I have been a member of Exploding Cinema since 2004 and this chapter differs slightly in tone from the rest of the thesis. My intention is not to valorise Exploding Cinema but to convey it as one more element in a vast sphere of creativity, productivity and community that does not aspire to distinctions and recognition within the art world.


Record attendances at the Tate Gallery are not a cause for joy. The Sermon on the Mount was a CON-TRICK. The performer-audience situation whereby, hopefully, some of the magic will rub off onto the multitudes is a substitute for DOING. THEM and US is wrong. The hierarchy of PROVEN WORTH is wrong; this worth is proved by pieces of paper (whether certificates or diplomas), by cash (whether salaries, wages, or grants) by END-PRODUCTS (whether coal, tins of beans, records, books or art objects); and the cash and the pieces of paper are directly dependent on the PRODUCTION of end-products, and if you don’t think that stinks then your future is bright, my boy, because I.C.I., I.C.A., C.I.A., Unilever, British Petroleum, The Ministry of Employment and Productivity (otherwise known as The Arts Council) and countless others are looking for people just like YOU. “You want unlimited money for research; then what’s the return? Nothing? Yes, well, show him out Miss White.” […] It is time to move the emphasis from end-products to PROCESS; to ACTIVITY with NO GUARANTEED RETURNS; this implies TRUST; the insistence on guaranteed returns implies MISTRUST. NO MORE LABELS. NO INSTRUCTIONS. NO PACKAGE DEAL. (Breakwell, 1969, p. 12)

This is not a contemporary manifesto, it is a hand-scrawled text by Ian Breakwell published in 1969, its polemical tone still echoes the reverberations of 1968. The fact that artists have denounced these powers ever since, seems to have made no difference whatsoever. Breakwell argues astutely that artists and their products are instrumentalised as the tools of the art industry, a blatant contradiction of the autonomy claim of art.

But there is another assumption in Breakwell’s text which is more significant. The assumption that the state should fund artistic production and the associated assumption that funding should be provided with no strings attached. These assumptions may be embedded in the liberal tradition, but they defy the laws of economics and politics, they are simply naïve. Breakwell’s text was published in the July-August 1969 issue of Circuit, which was a report on the Friends of Arts Council Operative (FACOP) Artists’ Conference held at St. Katherine’s Docks, London, 8th June 1969. FACOP was an artists’ group, formed to assess the Arts Council’s activities (Thomas, 2006, p. 463). The conference brought together 350 artists and activists to discuss the role of the artist in society and the problems of patronage, amongst other concerns. The conference was critical of the Arts Council’s priorities and argued for reforms:

FACOP’s central demand in 1969 was for the Arts Council to be replaced by an ‘Artists’ Council’, which would be democratically elected at meetings – such as those organized by FACOP. (Thomas, 2006, p. 463)

During the 1970s, Breakwell worked with the Artist Placement Group (APG), which was founded in 1966 and placed artists into government departments and industry (1968-75) with the expectation that they could bring a different perspective to these institutions and affect a positive shift in decision-making processes. Breakwell’s placements included the Department of Health and Social Security and British Rail (Steveni, 1983). For the founders John Latham and Barbara Steveni, the APG was one project amongst many within a concerted effort “to give art a purpose ‘outside’ its immediate and overly obvious remit in the art institutions of gallery and museum” (Slater, 2000).

Throughout Europe and the US in the 1960s and 1970s, against the backdrop of feminist, civil-rights and anti-war movements and the critiques of artistic autonomy that were emerging in conceptual art, artists’ groups coordinated their efforts against the ossified traditions of art institutions and art schools, and tried to bridge the gap between art and life. From the early 1960s, Fluxus challenged the reigning art world hierarchy, the separation of art from life and the status of the artist. Fluxus artists endeavoured to fuse art and life by taking art outside the established circuits to an expanded audience. They experimented with materials and practices, musical performances and happenings and challenged the professional and elite status of the artist (DeRoo, 2006, p. 45). Deploying Dadaist rhetorics, George Maciunas declared:

Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, “intellectual”, professional & commercialized culture […] Promote living art, anti-art, promote NON ART REALITY to be grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals (Maciunas in Smith, 1998, p. 3)[2]

The Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) was a New York based movement conceived in January 1969 to address the responsibility of museums towards artists.[3] The coalition of artists and critics delivered 13 Demands to Bates Lowry, Director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. What were these demands, and how might they be evaluated today? The demands draw particular attention to the rights of artists when dealing with institutions. The first demand required that the museum hold a public hearing on “The Museum’s Relationship to Artists and to Society” (Art Workers’ Coalition, 1969). This was not granted but the Open Hearing did in fact occur at the School of Visual Arts later that year and was a well-attended event, leading to further actions of the AWC (Lippard, 1970, p. 171).

The second and third demands protested the exclusive selection and exhibition practice of the Museum, especially with regard to minority artists and communities. The fourth demanded an artists’ committee with a curatorial role in the Museum. The fifth demanded free entry into the Museum and extended opening hours. Subsequent demands included a rental fee for the exhibition of artists’ work, the acknowledgment of artists’ rights to refuse the exhibition of their work, a clarification of copyright legislation and artists’ legal rights (targeting copyright royalties), an open system for the documentation of artists’ work in the museum archive, the exhibition of experimental work “requiring unique environmental conditions at locations outside the Museum”, a section devoted to the exhibition of the work of artists without gallery representation, specialist technical staff for the installation of work, a museum appointed “responsible person to handle any grievances arising from its dealings with artists” (Art Workers’ Coalition, 1969). Almost all the demands were related to professional grievances, and they were all refused, with the exception of the fifth demand with which the coalition had some measure of success: one free admission day per week was subsequently instituted by museums in the US (Kirwin, 2010, p. 50).

Why did all these efforts fail to meet their objectives? What are the conditions that have relegated the activism of the 1960s and 1970s to obscurity? What are the factors that have contributed—since the expansion and experimentation in the art of the 1960s—to the current state of affairs, where art is ubiquitous but institutionalised, exclusive, safe and expensive?

A number of factors came into play, amongst them were the lack of solidarity amongst artists and their incapacity to self-organise;[4] the recuperation of anti-art as an aesthetic object by the art institution; and a naivety concerning the artists’ ambitions and their articulation.[5] In the case of institutional critique, critique was transformed into stylised activism within the museum, a kind of institutional self-vaccination. Although Hans Haacke’s work fulfils a critical role within the museum, it also has the aura of a work of art. Haacke’s work is first of all a work of art. The reason for the failure of artists’ radical/utopian ambitions throughout the twentieth century is due to the confusion amongst artists about what is actually at stake in the affirmation of artistic autonomy.


…Exploding Cinema is an anarchic long-running screening night where they show everything people want to show. […] I’ve shown there, and it’s fun if totally intimidating. The audience are supportive, but they’re also a little intense […] Exploding Cinema showed super8, expanded cinema and experimental things in hilarious locations before it became ten-a-penny to have ‘edgy’ screening places. I loved it then and I love it now. Possibly because as I spend a lot of time trying to help people with their financing and their deals, it’s quite lovely to get immersed in filmmakers who don’t care about any of that and get on with it in a beautifully wild way (Phillips, 2011)

In the autumn of 2004, after a long trek from Deptford in a storm that left us drenched, we walked through the side door of the Hatcham Social Club in New Cross Gate, across the courtyard and into the function hall. On the counter was a gutted television set with glowing letters that spelled EXPLODING CINEMA. We were greeted by the cheerful banter of founding member Jennett Thomas, she stamped our wrists and handed us our booklets and raffle tickets. The first impression of Exploding Cinema is that of a room animated by countless projected images on the walls, the ceiling and the audience. The cigarette smoke catches the flickering beams of light from Super 8 and 16mm projectors, video projectors, slide projectors, overhead projectors and solars. Just above the whirl of the Super 8 projectors and the babble and movement of the audience, your attention falls on the main screen. If you want to screen your film at Exploding Cinema, your work must compete with this activity to grab the audience. At Exploding Cinema, there is no polite reverence; attention is not granted in advance, it must be wrested from the audience.

You don’t go to Exploding Cinema to bow down in front of the screen. Film is there as part of other things. It’s part of drinking, it’s part of meeting people, part of music and atmosphere. It’s more something that comes in through the skin. (Audience member in Exploding Cinema, BBC Radio 4, 2011)

Unlike the self-consciously mute and ceremonial screenings of contemporary art venues, whether one-off screenings in galleries or video loops in little dark rooms in museums and biennials where viewing is a private experience, Exploding Cinema is irreverent and democratic, a fusion of life and art.

The films screened at Exploding Cinema are an unpredictable motley collection of experimental, documentary, animation, home videos, found footage as well as horror, comedy and video art. Exploding Cinema is an ideal context: a plural and inclusive space to view films, performances, installations, live music and comedy. It is a space of social interaction without divisions, a space of proximity between artists and audience, a community that is engaged and egalitarian. Exploding Cinema instantly made sense to me.

Exploding Cinema, “a hybrid fusion of projection, performance and social space” emerged in 1991 from the London underground scene (Szczelkun, 2002). Although it has generated critical literature,[6] Exploding Cinema itself is not well-documented. In his PhD titled Exploding Cinema 1992-1999, culture and democracy (2002), former member Stefan Szczelkun, who was involved in several other collective projects and inclusive groups, describes the collective as “complex and multi-layered, with multiple and dynamic authorship”, its discourse “largely informal, oral and unrecorded” (Szczelkun, 2002).

In fact, Exploding Cinema has passively resisted archival documentation of its events and the films screened at them. Although one could theoretically compile a definitive list of the estimated 2000 films shown at Exploding Cinema screenings in the last 20 years (Exploding Cinema, 2009/1998), this would require a complete collection of the Exploding Cinema programme booklets/fanzines handed to the audience at the door, and even then, films sometimes do not make it into the booklet. When Jennet Thomas and Paul Tarrago left the collective in 2005, we arranged alternative storage for the collective’s equipment but the archive of VHS tapes which they had amassed from previous shows filled 3 large bin bags and did not fit into the van. For Szczelkun, there are “strong grounds to argue for the need to collect, archive and analyse this body of work” (Szczelkun, 2002) and he made efforts to introduce archiving systems into Exploding.[7] When Paul Tarrago and Stefan Szczelkun submitted Exploding Cinema materials (a curated exhibition of flyers, booklets, posters) to the British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection (2000), this set a dreaded precedent for the institutionalisation of Exploding Cinema.

Archival documentation delegates events to history. As a practice, it is associated with the anxiety of collecting the legitimising credentials of a professional practice. The plurality of Exploding Cinema is not reducible to any summation, theorisation or archival practice.

The resistance that is built into Exploding Cinema against all forms of institutionalisation can be found in the collective’s constitution. When unprecedented conditions arise, these are evaluated through collective consideration and debate.[8] The Exploding Cinema Collective Agreement (Exploding Cinema, 2005/1991) lays out a limited number of restrictions: (a) the collective is committed to open access non-curated screenings for a diverse popular audience with the ambition “to break down the limiting divisions between maker and audience, theory and practise, amateur and professional”. (b) The collective has an open membership, anyone can join the collective by coming to a meeting. Membership is voluntary. (c) The collective is non-profit-making and does not accept funding under any circumstances. (d) Decisions are made collectively, the roles and duties within the collective are allocated on a rotational basis to promote skill-sharing and exclude specialisation and hierarchy (Exploding Cinema, 2005/1991).

The collective constitution of Exploding Cinema is by no means ideal. Unlike a team of film-makers—where every member has an allocated job-description—a collective is often subject to internal strife and antagonism. The informal hierarchies usually established in collectives are more difficult to address and challenge than formal ones. A tightly-knit group of collaborators often becomes a clique that is impenetrable to outsiders. Exploding Cinema has been through many transitions and incarnations. In 1994, Exploding narrowly escaped dissolution in a schism that warned the members about the likelihood of internal threats to its survival.

Exploding Cinema has two inbuilt mechanisms which prevent the collective form settling into a sedimented hierarchy. The first is the open membership principle; the influx of new members periodically changes the dynamic of the collective and unsettles the balance of power. The second mechanism is its job-rotation and skill-sharing ethos; the various jobs (programming, publicity, door-duty, AV desk, transport of equipment etc.) are shared and rotated. No job is privileged, there are no leadership roles and decisions are made by collective consensus following debates on specific issues. These two principles allow participation on the basis for freedom and at the same time they prevent individual members from claiming ownership. Individual members of Exploding Cinema are therefore also disinterested; they are tolerant of the different opinions, aspirations and practices of members within the collective and they do not have exclusive professional or material stakes in the activities of the collective. This amounts to a recognition that the collective is a plurality that cannot be owned, controlled or contained, which also means that we do not need to agree on everything. Exploding Cinema does not require absolute loyalty, the members assert their identity in other fields and spaces because Exploding Cinema is only one aspect of their identity.

Returning to Bourdieu’s concept of illusio, the collective belief and investment in the values of Exploding Cinema does not flow in one direction. Belief in Exploding Cinema is not a matter of “loyalty to the institution” (Bourdieu, 2000, pp. 158-159) because the members ascribe meaning and value to the stakes of the collective as they effectively contribute to their redefinition. At Exploding Cinema there is no hierarchy, apart from the constitutional rules there are no defining structures, yet the collective is held together as an institution. It does not limit the freedom of the members, it compounds their freedom. Members of the collective pursue their individual agendas collectively, these become the agenda of Exploding Cinema. The decision to organise a show or participate in a festival is made collectively but it is usually initiated by a single member. Exploding does not define or limit the activities of members or the film-makers. The flexible and open structure of Exploding responds and changes to accommodate different venues, new members, shifting priorities and audience feedback. Although Exploding Cinema remains committed to the core constitutional rules that were established at its inception, the collective agreement is open to additions or amendments.

Can the model of Exploding Cinema be transferred to art institutions? This is not the question, artists’ collectives spring about all the time. The problem is rather in their ambitions, which also provide the reasons why these collectives and artist-run space start up and why they subsequently become absorbed into the mainstream or disappear.


Exploding Cinema emerged in the early 1990s when the cultural scene was set for a number of artists’ collectives and independent activities. In 1991 a collective called Pullit were squatting the CoolTan building on Effra Road in Brixton, where they organised large inclusive exhibitions: “it soon became an Underground cultural centre housing a gallery, theatre, performance space, rave venue, café and office for the Brixton Green Party” and Ken McDonald held his Reel Love Super 8 screenings. Within this activity, a group of artists and film-makers came up with the idea to form a collective and organise open-access screenings (Reekie, 2007, p. 194):

From the very beginning we decided to be totally open and democratic: anyone could show their work, anyone could join the group, all you had to do was come to a meeting and get involved. We drew up a loose constitution: the group was to be non-profit-making, all work would be voluntary, no wages would be paid, all the money we made would be used to run our screenings and to buy equipment to be collectively owned. (Reekie, 2007, p. 195)

Within a year, Exploding Cinema was showing more than twenty films per show to an average audience of two hundred. Contacted by a “hidden Underground subculture”, the collective expanded. Some filmmakers began to make films specifically for Exploding and some began to experiment with film for the first time (Reekie, 2007, p. 196). Exploding Cinema members drew from a number of precedents and brought diverse influences to the collective. In his book Subversion: the Definitive History of Underground Cinema (2007), Duncan Reekie, a founding member of Exploding Cinema, traces the history of the underground film and video scene of the 1960s and 1970s. Amongst these were the London Film-Makers’ Co-op and the New York Cinema of Transgression. Stefan Szczelkun and Duncan Reekie cite David Leister’s Kino Club as the most significant contemporary influence, amongst “a cluster of sporadic and fragmented Underground activities around South London”, including the filmmakers at Ken McDonald’s Reel Love screenings, the Strand Super 8 Workshop in Brixton and Lepke B’s old-school visuals (Reekie, 2007, p. 194).

Though there were precedents and lessons to be learned from them, Exploding Cinema came together and continues to evolve through extemporization and collective interaction: “from material necessity, process, experiment and audience interaction” (Reekie, 2007, p. 195). Reekie describes the early days of Exploding Cinema as a series of improvisations as elements such as slide shows, performance and live music were included as part of the screenings.

Bored by the sedate and puritan format of established independent film and video screenings we began to develop techniques of combination and mutation, and to create a hybrid fusion of projection, performance and convivial interaction. (Reekie, 2007, p. 195)

Significantly, most of the work screened at the time was by the members of the collective. This had an effect on their production process, they had to speed it up and an element of this survives today. The work screened at Exploding is not always polished and the screening becomes part of the working process. The work itself is not a precious self-contained object but a means as well as an end that changes as it interacts with the audience.

Exploding Cinema creates unpredictable spatial, visual and conceptual contrasts and juxtapositions of all kinds. It radically transforms venues and unconventional venues offer themselves readily to appropriation and subversion, as did the office space of the squatted Reuters Data Centre in Shoreditch (May 2007, Temporary Autonomous Art), the Peckham Car Park (August, 2006), the Area 10 warehouse in Peckham (2004, 2006, 2008), the Blockbuster store in Catford (April 2012, Tapescape). With an audience of 2000 people, the legendary Dive-In Show at Brockwell Park Lido in August 1993 established Exploding Cinema as an underground institution (Szczelkun, 2002). There are the visual combinations and juxtapositions of 1980s sci-fi projected onto VHS Disney animation superimposed with black and white Super 8 loops and roving solar projections. Then there is the programme of films. Exploding Cinema receives films from all over the world, they are either posted, uploaded to a server or handed to the collective. We screen all the films that we receive, but we do programme the shows. It is well-known that the effect and meaning of any film depends on its position in the programme and how it follows from and builds up a narrative together with the other films. Everyone brings something to the show, so the outcome is always unpredictable.

Undoubtedly the singular most influential precedent for Exploding Cinema was the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative (LFMC). The early days of the LFMC served as an inspiration and set the precedent for Exploding Cinema’s open access constitution, its emphasis on distribution, its activism and democratic organisation. The subsequent dissolution of the LFMC served as an example of how an independent organisation can be captured and destroyed by its growing dependence on financial support. This knowledge informed the constitution of Exploding Cinema.

The LFMC was formed in 1966 with an emphasis on film distribution. The first shows were organised in conjunction with the underground newspaper The International Times (1966). Within the year, the LFMC organised several open-access screenings and a festival, and provided visuals for the UFO Club “alongside lightshows, bands, jugglers, performance artists, food stalls and so forth” (Thomas, 2006, pp. 461-462). The LFMC was initially a screening and distribution organisation for underground cinema, not an artists’ organisation (Reekie, 2005). Between 1969 and 1975, it evolved into a voluntary, non-profit, open-access democratic collective committed to the alternative production, distribution and exhibition of experimental film (Reekie, 2007, p. 5). Indicatively, when the BFI offered to take over the distribution arm of the LFMC, they declined on the grounds that it would threaten the LFMC’s independence (Mazière, 2003):

Most of the Institute’s suggestions threaten or impair the independence of the Co-op as an organisation run by film makers for film makers, and for this reason alone, they must be declined. (LFMC letter to the BFI, 1970 in Mazière, 2003)

In the same letter, the LFMC however emphasised that they continued to demand funding and recognition for experimental film. Between 1969-1970 the LFMC—with its emphasis on distribution—merged with the UK Arts Lab (1967), which was spearheaded by David Curtis who ran the cinema and Malcolm Le Grice who focused on production and equipment (Mazière, 2003). The merger brought about a transition as the film-makers “not only made films, but also built and maintained equipment, and organized and promoted shows” (Thomas, 2006, p. 462). In their book Reaching Audiences: Distribution and Promotion of Alternative Moving Image (2011), Julia Knight and Peter Thomas describe this as a shift, which “finally brought together production, distribution and exhibition in the same organization”:

…a new activist philosophy was propounded whereby, in an attempt to break down the alienating effects of the film industry’s division of labour, the filmmaker would operate in and be responsible for all areas of film work (Knight and Thomas, 2011, p. 42)

By the early 1970s, “independent film” defined a broad range of movements and interest groups of film-makers and media workshops producing an equally broad range of films from documentary to animation and avant-garde film (Reekie, 2007, p. 2). In 1975, the LFMC received its first major BFI Grant (Mazière, 2003), and from then onwards it became increasingly dependent on direct and indirect state patronage (Reekie, 2007, p. 5). In his article The Struggle for Funding: Sponsorship, Competition and Pacification (2006), Peter Thomas argues that shortly after the LFMC received its first subsidies from the BFI and the Arts Council “the urge to omnivorous volunteerism which had created and sustained the LFMC visibly subsided”, and eventually this meant “the evisceration of that milieu and ethos which had been the source of the films, the ideas, and the energy” (Thomas, 2006, p. 466).

Peter Thomas locates the source of the problem in the conflict between the LFMC and the funding agencies concerning “who would control cultural production and provision, and what means would best deliver it” (Thomas, 2006, p. 465). Duncan Reekie locates the problem in a schism between two different attitudes towards experimental film-making within the LFMC. The underground film-makers were interested in exhibition and distribution. The artists, associated with the Arts Lab, were interested in the provision of workshops to make films so they wanted the LFMC to go into production. The two factions were also therefore interested in radically different audiences. These disagreements, according to Reekie, culminated in the triumph of the artist faction, which marked a shift away from counter-cultural activism towards the art institution in search for recognition with its ensuing normalisation, academisation, professionalisation and bureaucratisation (Reekie, 2005).

Reekie’s analysis of the conflicting attitudes within the LFMC indicates that for the activists, the problem was not a question of production; the open-access ethos affirmed that anyone could make films. Production was significant for the artists because they approached film-making as a profession which had to be sustainable. While for the activists, everything was staked on the imminent revolution (Reekie, 2005), the artist’s stake was a personal and professional risk. For the artist, art is an investment because there is an expectation of return, regardless of how long it will take to arrive (Bourdieu, 1993, pp. 66-69, Graw, 2006, p. 139).

If a state agency funded your work then they would distribute it to state funded art centres, cinemas, festivals, art schools and Universities. Or maybe your work would be co-funded by T.V. and screened at 2 a.m., on a Wednesday in a lack lustre short film compilation. Once your funded work had been distributed you could use it to apply for more funding or to get yourself a teaching post in an Art school or university where you could screen other funded work to your students who inspired by the work could apply for funding to make their own work. If you were really successful you could be appointed to a funding panel in one of the agencies or even become a career administrator in the funded sector. And the absence in this autonomous circuit was a popular audience. (Exploding Cinema, 2009/1998)

In the industrial, technological and administrative transformations of the 1980s, the broad independent film movement lost its sense of identity (Reekie, 2007, p. 2). With the guarantee of state funding and distribution through the production arm of the BFI and Channel 4—and increasingly private production companies, which were commissioned to produce content for the BBC, cable and satellite television—“the concept of independence from a commercial mainstream became ever more difficult to rationalise” (Reekie, 2007, p. 3):

To be an independent film/video maker was no longer an act of conscious political autonomy or radical opposition; it was to be a free-lancer in the deregulated media industry. (Reekie, 2007, p. 3)

In 1991 “the L.F.M.C. was locked into an endless series of feuds, schisms and scandals, mostly concerning money, power and the possibility of a move to new premises (The Lux); its screenings were sparse and often deserted” (Exploding Cinema, 2009/1998). The gradual shift of the LFMC from “underground” to “avant-garde” culminated in the 1990s when the term “artists’ film and video” was adopted by state agencies (Reekie, 2007, p. 3). In his research paper Institutional Support for Artists’ Film and Video in England 1966–2003 (2003), Michael Mazière maintains that by the mid 1990s the Arts Council and the BFI did not only fund a broad range of organisations such as LFMC, London Electronic Arts (LEA, established as London Video Arts in 1976) and Umbrella, but they played a leading role in production, distribution and exhibition within the mixed-market economy (Mazière, 2003).

The LUX Centre on Hoxton Square was purpose built in 1997 to house the LFMC and the LEA (Reekie, 2007, p. 4). As a condition of the move to the new building, the LFMC had to abolish its open access constitution in 1995 and adopt a standard bureaucratic structure. It however continued to accept new members as well as membership fees (Reekie, 2007, p. 6). In 1999, the LFMC was forced into a merger with the LEA to form the LUX Centre for Film, Video and Digital Arts, (Reekie, 2007, p. 6, note 7). The LUX suddenly closed down in 2002, the LUX distribution collection survives and continues to be funded by the Arts Council.

What remained of the avant-garde and the independent film and video sector had become a closed circuit of state agencies, desperately underfunded workshops and an elite circle of established artists and production companies locked into mutual self legitimisation. (Reekie, 2007, p. 194)

The fall of the LUX proved damaging for British experimental film and video and the LFMC. According to Reekie, it signals the failure of “the most ambitious project in the history of British experimental film and video” (Reekie, 2007, p. 7). From a truly independent field of experimental film and video in the 1960s and 1970s, the LFMC became the “audio/visual element of a broader state project engaged in the integrated production distribution and exhibition of a legitimate film/video culture” (Reekie, 2007, p. 3):

What remained of the avant-garde and the independent film and video sector had become a closed circuit of state agencies, desperately underfunded workshops and an elite circle of established artists and production companies locked into mutual self legitimisation. (Reekie, 2007, p. 194)

The significance of this in relation to the field of contemporary art is that it reveals how in a short time the forces that play a supporting role, eventually control the productive field. This process is now so naturalised within the field of art that it is indisputable and unchallenged. For Reekie, the question is “how did a radical voluntary collective organisation get fatally involved in a commercially incompetent public/private partnership” (Reekie, 2007, p. 7) and why, despite the proliferation of academic theory and analysis, debates and peer reviewed journals “British radical filmmaking and the independent film and video sector had become politically, culturally and industrially wretched” (Reekie, 2007, p. 4). Reekie locates the problem in the fact that the LFMC did not make any money. On the one hand, this was because they relied on funding.[9] On the other, it was because their films were not appropriate for mass consumption; the main audiences for the films were art schools and regional film theatres. The Arts Council proceeded with the logic of a bureaucratic cultural organisation informed by state policy, whereas the system of cultural distribution is capitalist (Reekie, 2005).

In due course, a similar fate befell the ICA as it became increasingly dependent on private funding and even abolished its entrance fees.[10] Anthony Davies argues that in the 1990s corporations began to interact with the public through their association with cultural institutions. The alliance between art and business was sold to artists as an alternative to the elitist gallery system (Davies, 2001). This has now become conventional with the proliferation of agencies and consultancies that mediate and distribute the work of artists and film-makers.

Inasmuch as any work of art becomes increasingly superfluous under the conditions of total reification because it has lost its function of a critical reflection of social reality, it approaches a state of either mere objecthood or mere aesthetic voluntarism, i.e. decoration (Buchloh, 2000/1981, p. 132)

The instrumentalisation of art by museums, corporations and government institutions is a well-documented problem within the art world and beyond; art is recast in public relations and marketing jargon and government policy. The question rather is why do artists continue to participate in and supply these promotional mechanisms? The simple answer is that artists will use any opportunity to produce new work, and they are not always aware of what they hand over in return. In Free Transit (2005), Pierre Bourdieu claims that cultural production exists by virtue of the public funds that are channelled via cultural institutions and argues in favour of state funding:

We cannot leave cultural production to the risks of the marketplace or the whims of the wealthy patron. (Bourdieu and Haacke, 2005, p. 69)

Public funding however comes with no fewer strings attached than private sponsorship or the market. Funding bodies have agendas too. Publicly funded art often amounts to the functionalisation of art in the name of institutional policies, whatever the particular terms of the agenda. If artists accept financial support, they are in effect legitimising both the values affirmed in the terms of funding bodies and the functionalisation of their work. According to video activist Sue Hall (TVX, Fantasy Factory) arts funding in the 1960s was ubiquitous and independent artists accepted public and private funding as a matter of fact. In an interview with Peter Thomas, she relates

…the situation really changed from independent or independents to dependent or dependents. The more the arts funders talked about the independent sector, the less independent it was […] we allowed ourselves to be sucked in by the lure of the money and we didn’t realise that our freedom was disappearing, until it was too late. You could say that it was naïve, and yes it was naïve, but our attention was elsewhere. (Thomas, 2010)

Reekie argues that by the mid-1990s the movement was already being historicised, while the relevance of the concept of independence was under question:

Nevertheless, although the movement has lost its ideological integrity there remains a complex national network of independent film/video agencies and institutions which is now so dependent on state funding that it can be identified as a sector of the state. It is the ‘independent sector’ but it is not independent. (Reekie, 2007, p. 3)

The logic behind the founding of Exploding Cinema was along the lines “what can we do to make sure this does not happen again”. The LFMC were forced to change their constitution twice, why did they accept these conditions? It is much easier to judge from a distance, but when you are involved in a day-to-day process, the decisions you make lead to consequences that are impossible to evaluate. In the case of the LFMC, this process was documented. Artists complain about their grievances in private but not in public. This fosters the mystification and normalisation of the art world, prolonging its function to individualise artists and re-direct their efforts to externally determined purposes.


The art audience is the worst audience in the world. It’s overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s out to criticize, not to understand—and, it never has any fun. […] So I refuse to deal with that audience, and I’ll play with the street audience. That audience is much more human, and their opinion is from the heart. They don’t have any reason to play games; there’s nothing gained or lost. (Hammons, 1991, p. 28)

Guy Debord’s situationist critique of the Society of the Spectacle (1967) is a precursor and backdrop for the staging of current debates on participation. The spectacle according to Debord mediates the extreme separation that characterises social relationships, which are no longer directly experienced but mediated in spectacular representation. The spectacle is “pacifying and divisive” (Bishop, 2006, p. 12), it reunites the separated “only in their separateness” (Debord, 1967, p. 16). Film-makers from Eisenstein to Debord were concerned about the passivity of the audience. If the spectacle delegates social subjects to subjugation and prevents their self-determination, then the injunction to activity through the construction of situations would eventually dissolve the audience function (Bishop, 2006, pp. 12-13). This notion of ‘constructed situations’ is adopted by contemporary artists[11] in the effort “to produce new social relationships and thus new social realities” (Bishop, 2006, p. 13).

Participatory art usually involves audience participation as a component of the work. The artist is the director or manager and the audience is used a vehicle or test subject for the artist’s ideas. This type of art is usually exhibited in the form of installation, inviting the viewer to enter and participate, thus becoming part of the work. This notion of participation is crucial to the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija (Bourriaud, 2002) and Thomas Hirshhorn (Bishop, 2004). Frequently, the participatory work of art takes place in a remote location and it is the documentation of the event that is exhibited (House Project, The Land (1998) by Rirkrit Tiravanija; Supergas (1996) by Superflex). These projects are usually hosted within or supported by institutions that additionally promote the notion of participation in the form of workshops, family days and school visits. Alternatively such projects are commissioned in the form of community art by local authorities and government sponsored initiatives to compensate for the lack of social cohesion in urban centres.

Amongst the concerns and motivations that have informed participatory art since the 1960s, Claire Bishop discerns three categories: activation, collectivity and community. The first is the desire to activate the audience, to empower individual subjects with experiences of “physical or symbolic participation” that will hopefully enable them to exert more control over their own lives. The assumption is that there is a causal relationship between engagement with a work of art and individual or collective agency (Bishop, 2006, p. 12):

Sometimes politics are ascribed to such art on the basis of a shaky analogy between an open work and an inclusive society, as if a desultory form might evoke a democratic community, or a non-hierarchical installation predict an egalitarian world. (Foster, 2006/2004, p. 193)

The second value prioritised in participatory art is collaboration because it emerges from and produces non-hierarchical social models. Bishop suggests that the relinquishment of authorial control in collaborative production is considered more democratic than individual authorship and has the additional “aesthetic benefits of greater risk and unpredictability”. But she also points out that these qualities are neither particular to participatory art nor are the values associated with them particularly justified, concluding that: “As an artistic medium, then, participation is arguably no more intrinsically political or oppositional than any other” (Bishop, 2006, p. 12).

The third argument follows the Marxist critique of capitalism, it perceives a “crisis in community and collective responsibility” and takes issue with the alienating effects of capitalism. For Bourriaud the motivation for participatory art is to “fill in the cracks in the social bond” (Bourriaud, 2002, p. 36). Bishop articulates this motivation as “a restoration of the social bond through a collective elaboration of meaning” (Bishop, 2006, p. 12). Originating from a position of privilege however, these projects often assume a patronising attitude, with the intention to educate and transform. Artists “working with live events and people as privileged materials” (Bishop, 2006, p. 13) entertain the conceit that they can manipulate “sociopolitical relationships” in the way that traditional artists manipulated materials. Wochenklausur aim to bring about “recognizable and sensible change” in social relations “just as the Baroque master made an effort to realize his plan for a ceiling fresco in a cathedral, regardless of whether he personally put his hand to the task or not” (Wochenklausur, 2008). Bourriaud expresses a similar view in his ambiguous concept of “relational form” as the articulation of political ambitions in relational art (Bourriaud, 2002, pp. 13-14)

Bishop discerns two different approaches in participatory work, both of which address the issue of political commitment in art. On one end of the spectrum is the category of “disruptive and interventionist” events prefigured by provocative Dada actions in the street. On the other, is the category of “constructive and ameliorative” projects, which according to Bishop, harks back to the propagandist Soviet mass spectacles of collectivity (Bishop, 2006, p. 11). Francois Matarasso’s 1997 study, Use or Ornament? The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts, contributed significantly to the current consensus among policy-makers in Britain regarding the value of publicly funded participatory arts programmes (Merli, 2004, p. 17). Matarasso claims that the true purpose of the arts is “to contribute to a stable, confident and creative society” (Matarasso, 1997, p. v), his study advocates the funding of participatory arts programmes on the basis that they can produce positive social effects at a low cost:

In economic terms the case for supporting participatory arts projects arises principally from their contribution to social policy objectives. […] participatory arts projects are different, effective and cost very little in the context of spending on social goals. They represent an insignificant financial risk to public services, but can produce impacts (social and economic) out of proportion to their cost. (Matarasso, 1997, p. 76/81)

Matarasso evaluated the social impact of participation in the arts according to a research model that measured the potential changes to individuals and communities (Matarasso, 1997, p. vii). In a critical review, Paola Merli sheds doubt on Matarasso’s research methodology and the ideology that frames his assumptions. She questions Matarasso’s main claim, which advocates the use of participatory arts as a “form of governance to promote social cohesion” (Merli, 2004, p. 17). Merli argues that the reasoning behind this evaluation is flawed and the research data fails to support the conclusions of the study because Matarasso’s method of assessing the social impact of the arts has little bearing on “social development and cohesion” (Merli, 2004, p. 18; Matarasso, 1997, p. vii). She points out that the questions in the survey do not reflect criteria that have the potential to change people’s lives, but “only ‘help’ people to accept them” (Merli, 2004, p. 18):

However, making deprivation more acceptable is a tool to endlessly reproduce it. Social deprivation and exclusion arguably can be removed only by fighting the structural conditions which cause them. (Merli, 2004, p. 18)

Merli argues that amongst the fallacies in Matarasso’s study are the perception that promoting inclusion is the way to combat exclusion and that the researchers’ own culture and values are suitable standards by which to judge the personal development of individuals in the studied communities:

Such a commitment to changing people’s ideas and behaviour does not solve problems because it leaves the structural conditions of deprivation untouched. (Merli, 2004, p. 19)

Merli concludes that Matarasso’s study is informed by a desire to restore social stability and control by means of enculturation. His revival of 1960s socially-engaged art as a cheap and innovative social policy objective is therefore “simply a new way of achieving the old “civilising” objective of cultural policy” (Merli, 2004, pp. 19-20).

Unable to allow participation on terms other than its own, the spectacle propagates the image of participation and invites everyone to ‘join in’ with the happy whole whilst at the same time ensuring that this totality is illusory and unattainable: a strong, appealing, but empty image. In principle, one can have anything, do anything, be anything, and go anywhere, but one cannot choose or define the whole in which these abundant choices are made. (Plant, 1992, p. 25)

In his 2004 essay The Emancipated Spectator, Ranciere challenges the viewpoint that spectatorship is inherently passive, and questions the conventional binary equivalences and oppositions on which it is premised (Ranciere, 2007, p. 279, 274). Oppositions between “looking/knowing, looking/acting, appearance/reality, activity/ passivity” are effectively “a partition of the sensible”, which divides individuals into those with capacity and those with incapacity and thus promotes inequality. These “allegories of inequality” persist in the relationship between master and student, or performer and spectator by delegating the learning process to an “endless verification of inequality”. For Ranciere, “Emancipation starts from the opposite principle, the principle of equality” (Ranciere, 2007, pp. 275, 277). In other words, equality is based on the assumption that we can all respond to a work of art and generate our own interpretations and meanings. Ranciere argues that there is no need to suppress the work of art in order to suppress the distance between the artist and the audience in the misguided search for communitarian immediacy because distance “is the normal condition of communication”. He refers to the chorus of Greek tragedy, where the chorus represents the incorporation of the community/audience into the play or ritual. The chorus is not physically active, but neither is it a passive audience, it can discuss, critique and foretell the consequences of the action onstage. The chorus also has privileged information that the players onstage do not have (Ranciere, 2007, pp. 276, 274). Ranciere argues that the spectator is equally able to “contemplate ideas, foresee the future, or take a global view of our world”. He argues that the gap that separates the audience and the performers is what in fact connects them via the work of art and makes communication possible. However, it also “prevents any kind of ‘equal’ or ‘undistorted’ transmission”. In other words, the work of art is open to interpretation and hence “crucial in the process of intellectual emancipation” (Ranciere, 2007, pp. 277-278).


…the challenge of exploding cinema is “you think its rubbish, show us yours” (Matt Lloyd in Exploding Cinema, BBC Radio 4, 2011)

For Stefan Szczelkun, the key aspects of Exploding Cinema are its open-access principle, its independence and financial basis and its group identity (Szczelkun, 2002). Like the context of the art institution, the context of Exploding Cinema—the screening process, the presentation, the association with other films on the programme or projected onto the walls, the audience interaction—sets the work up and frames it. The open access programme of films and performances, their juxtaposition and variation, the MC and the Q&A between the audience and the film-makers, the punters chatting at the bar or heckling in front of the stage. Exploding cinema is a space of creative exchange, where casual encounters take place and collaborations are struck up. Szczelkun and Reekie emphasise the importance of the conviviality at Exploding Cinema as an extension of the original intentions of the collective to be open and inclusive and to challenge the gravitas of the institutional screening.

Factors that have contributed to Exploding Cinema’s continued existence over the last twenty years is the open-access principle and the tolerance of its open membership structure. If absolutely anyone can join the collective, then it does not matter what views they hold, this is what amounts to Exploding Cinema’s resilience and pluralism. Exploding Cinema encourages the audience to make films by eliminating the selection process. Through its open membership, it encourages new members to join the collective and share the equipment and skills:

If the audience found the work ‘boring’ or ‘bad’ we encouraged them to make better work themselves; if our equipment broke down we asked the audience to help us fix it and we discovered that if you created a space where anything could happen, and if you included the audience into the action, then it didn’t really matter what went wrong. (Reekie, 2007, pp. 195-196)

Participation as an unspoken priority is a crucial principle governing the structure of Exploding Cinema. Experimentation and participation inform the purpose of the entire venture, without preconceived ideas about the outcome. Exploding Cinema is an unhierarchical and inclusive context where artists, film-makers and performers can contact an audience directly. Film-makers are invited onto the stage after their film is screened for questions from the audience. This opens up discussion and debate as audience members provide their feedback and film-makers have a chance to talk about their work. According to the artist and film-maker Philip Sanderson, Exploding Cinema continues to be relevant for a number of reasons, but mainly because it provides film-makers with access to an audience. He explains that in the 1980s and early 1990s there were limited opportunities for film-makers to screen their films. Although in theory the LFMC was open access, in practice the screenings were thematic and in effect curated. This also limited the film-makers’ chances of access to funding which further limited their potential to make new work. Sanderson points out that several museums and galleries in London currently organise regular screenings, which are inaccessible to most film-makers: “programming in these galleries is tightly controlled by a small group of curators answerable to nobody but themselves” (Sanderson, 2010).

So perhaps it was more this frustration at the seeming impossibility of getting one’s work shown/seen rather than a lack of audience that was the impetus behind the Exploding Cinema. That such a pert up demand was there was evident at the early Exploding screenings when both unknown film and video makers rubbed shoulders with more experienced hands who though able to get their work on at the more established venues picked up on the immediacy, atmosphere and the excitement of the Exploding Cinema. (Sanderson, 2010)

Rose-Marie Kivijarvi, who joined the collective in 2010, described Exploding Cinema as a “free film school, without the exams and without the tutors. It is sort of a peer-led film school” (Kivijarvi in Exploding Cinema, BBC Radio 4, 2011). Film-maker Asif Kapadia shares this view:

For many people who submit their work to be screened at Exploding, including me back in the day the shows work almost like filmmaking workshops. People screen their work there to learn from the audiences’ reaction and from other filmmakers, who at Exploding are of course, more often than not, one and the same. (Kapadia in Exploding Cinema, BBC Radio 4, 2011)

The open-access principle of Exploding Cinema is an unconditional refusal of selection. Exploding Cinema screens all the films that are submitted, there is no censorship. If the audience objects to a violent or sexually explicit film, Exploding Cinema appeals to free speech and equally the right of the audience to make up their own minds. In January 2010, Exploding Cinema was the subject of a BBC Radio 4 programme, the presenter, film director Asif Kapadia posed the question:

The value to filmmakers in showing their work at Exploding Cinema is clear, but what about the assertion the group makes that anyone can make a film and should have the opportunity to screen it? As noble as Exploding Cinema’s no selection policy sounds, what does it mean for an audience? Do they really want to sit through a random sample of film with no quality control whatsoever? (Kapadia in Exploding Cinema, BBC Radio 4, 2011)

Ben Slotover, Exploding Cinema member and low-budget film-maker who ran his own screening events, the Blunt Club (2002, with Paul Elliot) and Shaolin (1996), replied:

Well it’s funny because sometimes we show a film and I don’t like it […] and I’m complaining of course to someone about it and then they’ll say “My god that was the best film of the evening”. So what do I know? We let the audience decide. At Exploding it’s a bit like a stock-ticker for what’s coming off the end of the production line. These are all new films and people are trying things out and saying “look, what if I attach a camera to a dog” or something. And they make something and maybe it’s rubbish but the main thing is it has been made and it is like a snap-shot of films that people are making right now and right here and everyone is watching all of them, unless they walk out during one of the rubbish ones. (Slotover in Exploding Cinema, BBC Radio 4, 2011)

The concept of “quality control” or curatorial selection is at best a subjective judgment and at worst it is censorship, cultural exclusion and political enculturation. Essentially it stands for and carries out the function of institutional legitimation. Curatorial selection prioritises the expert’s taste over the audience’s reception of the work, patronising and disempowering both the audience and the artist. In the most obvious sense, art is “served up” to the audience as fait accompli. Selection is carried out as a service by institutions on the presumption that a small proportion of cultural products need to be differentiated from the mediocre totality of what is produced at any time. But most low-budget amateur films screened at Exploding Cinema are better than funded productions and this is something the audience responds to. Selection is both subjective and largely unsubstantiated, based as it is on subjective criteria and expressed in institutional terminology. In fact, we see that the same artists are shuffled and re-shuffled in exhibitions worldwide. No sooner does an artist appear on the scene in New York before we encounter the same artist in London, Berlin, Hong Kong and so forth. This outcome betrays much about the laziness and the lack of imagination that characterises the function of curating. Legitimisation provides artists with exhibition venues, funding and crucially, an audience, which encourages artists to produce more work. It also opens up more opportunities, either officially through internal routes, or unofficially via curators and other institutional figures who haunt the exhibition circuit. Within this circular process, artists continuously improve and expand their practice. Without the initial legitimisation, artists are likely to spend their entire lifetime in obscurity. The audience is left out of the process altogether, they don’t presume to understand or have the capacity to evaluate art because they have already been told that this is the province of experts.

Exploding Cinema provides a platform for the circulation of films, performances, installations etc without distinctions between media and genres, professionals and amateurs or political versus aesthetic intentions. This empowers the artists who are provided with access to an audience unconditionally, it also empowers the audience members who bring their own subjective judgement to bear and provide feedback directly to the artist. Exploding Cinema hosts regular shows in pubs (the Hatcham Social Club in New Cross 2000-06, the Half Moon in Herne Hill 2006-09, the Cross Kings in Kings Cross 2009-10) where many people in the audience are local punters out for a drink on Friday night. The diverse and egalitarian environment of Exploding Cinema is probably very close to what the avant-garde artists had in mind when they conceived of the ambition to fuse art and life.

Anyone who has been to art school or film school was involved in a collaborative creative learning environment. In art school, we learn to look at art and to talk about art when it is half-formed, participating in its emergence. The work of art is constantly emerging through its reception, revision and re-contextualisation. Bourdieu does not hide his frustration when he speaks of the enduring myth of the individual creator or genius. This myth serves to conceal the levels of collaboration functioning to create the work of art. Art is the product of a collective effort between artists, actors, technicians, educators, agents, critics, theorists and audience (Bourdieu, 1993, pp. 34-35). Works of art emerge through a process which includes the exchange of feedback; a collaborative aspect of art practice that is never acknowledged. At Exploding Cinema, this process is public and part of the reception of the work, it includes and empowers the audience. The contemporary art world elevates the work of a fraction of practicing artist to universal importance. Of course, most of this work merits our attention. However, it also disempowers us and removes us from first-hand experience of the work and its context. Art institutions, curators and galleries mediate jealously between the artist and the audience by selecting, framing and contextualising the work. These decisions are essentially made beforehand by legitimizing and instituting the work at its inception, in project rooms and commissions, residencies and fellowships.

In his essay Conversation Pieces: The Role of Dialogue in Socially-Engaged Art (2005), Grant Kester articulates a concept of art as a dialogical encounter that promotes conversation. Considering the practice of artists and art collectives such as Suzanne Lacy, Wochenklausur and Temporary Services, Kester regards artist and audience as equals. The collaborative activity between artists extends to the audience’s encounter with the work. Addressing the problem of evaluation in such work, Kester points out that enlightenment philosophy “rejected the idea of an aesthetic consensus achieved through actual dialogue with other subjects because it would fail to provide a sufficiently ‘objective’ standard of judgment or communicability” (Kester, 2005, p. 81). It follows that if we cannot judge art according to objective and universal criteria, then we need experts to make decisions on what counts as “good” art and is therefore appropriate for public display. But the claim for the universality of aesthetic criteria collapses if we consider that the apprehension of a work of art is dependent on the audience and their perceptions or beliefs. Kester argues that a dialogical aesthetic is consensual, local, provisional and collective, more specifically it is:

…based on the generation of a local consensual knowledge that is only provisionally binding and that is grounded precisely at the level of collective interaction (Kester, 2005, p. 82)[12]

The idea of consensus is potentially volatile because it transfers power to the individual. Consensus plays a crucial role and in the public reception of art, without this consensual judgement, art becomes subject to the criteria of authority and the monopoly of the definition of art. We establish aesthetic sensibilities and values collectively in socially and historically determined contexts, our perceptions and values are contingent and therefore relative.


Now that it is possible for anyone to show pretty much any film online via video sharing websites like YouTube and Vimeo what does that mean for a group like Exploding Cinema, does it still have a place? (Kapadia in Exploding Cinema, BBC Radio 4, 2011)

New digital technologies have made the means of production more accessible, breaking down the distinctions between professionals and amateurs. The internet provides a publishing platform for everyone. It has been suggested that the advent of YouTube has eclipsed the need for collectives like the Exploding Cinema. Audience figures at Exploding Cinema were at a low when I joined in 2005. The following two to three years saw them drop even further and the three shows we had at Hoxton Hall, east London in 2006 drew a very small and timid audience. Things picked up when we returned to South London in 2007 for a series of regular and one-off shows. Since 2009, when we moved to regular venues in King’s Cross and east London the audience numbers have increased remarkably.

We did at one point think that the whole YouTube phenomenon was going to render redundant the likes of Exploding Cinema but it absolutely hasn’t. In some ways it has made it all the more necessary because people are getting all of their culture sitting in front of their screens in their bedrooms and people really do want something else. (Jennett Thomas in Exploding Cinema, BBC Radio 4, 2011)

The availability of film-making technologies to a wider public has increased the need for spaces like Exploding Cinema, with its inherently popular structure. This is also evident in the proliferation of profit-oriented enterprises such as Secret Cinema and consulting agencies such as Artprojx, which organise film screenings. YouTube is not an alternative for Exploding Cinema, it is an immense random database with the potential to replace traditional promotional media, but not traditional screening venues, which are social spaces. Rather than a space of exchange, YouTube is a space where videos can be showcased, notably as a springboard to the media industry.[13] The popularity of “user-generated” content available on sites like YouTube and Facebook attracts advertising.[14] These companies generate revenue without having to produce any content. Corporations take advantage of “consumer-generated content” and create links to their products and services, taking advantage of the viral transmission of data on the internet.[15]

The media and cultural industries control of the terms of cultural production, taking advantage of the social and aesthetic value of cultural products. Works of art, films, theatrical performances and graphic novels provide entertainment, they have a pedagogical function, they help us to create meaning for ourselves, they enable understanding and communication, they teach us about other people’s experience, they present us with different ways of seeing and thinking and their representations inscribe themselves in our sense of identity.


With the money we began to make on the door we were able to buy our own projection and sound equipment and become self-sufficient without state intervention or funding of any kind. (Reekie, 2007, p. 196)

Artists are engaged in a relentless struggle for recognition; they compete with each other for this recognition, indicated by exhibitions, reviews, awards, grants, commissions and other forms of institutional legitimisation. A common anxiety amongst artists is the difficulty of showing work, many artists profess that they collaborate or curate exhibitions just for the chance to exhibit their work. It is precisely this difficulty that constitutes the structure of the art world: an artist must have some form of consecration in order to exhibit and to produce new work. In fact, the production of new work has become almost entirely dependent on an artist’s consistent exposure and recognition within the art world:

Unfunded experimental filmmakers were effectively excluded from all the established routes to distribution and exhibition, and those who did not desist were forced to spend their time and energy competing against each other for funding from agencies who had become so disengaged from economic and public accountability that they were both the critics and the audience of their own product. By creating a vertical state monopoly the independent sector had at last become truly autonomous. What got funded was good, what was good got funded and what did not get funded remained invisible. (Reekie, 2007, p. 194)

Artists are resigned to this state of affairs as though it were a form of natural selection. If artists refused to enter into unequal and compromising relationships, the art world would become transformed. Lucy Lippard’s article The Art Workers’ Coalition: not a history (1970) is an impassioned account of the early days of the AWC. Lippard describes a moment of turmoil in the art world, when artists were called to stand up to museums and their trustees, and museums were called to answer to the artists’ grievances. A battlefront emerged in the New York art scene; Lippard confronted the artists and critics who remained silent, those who wavered and proffered excuses and those who condemned the AWC. The recurring theme in Lippard’s text is the artist’s status: “if he measures his success against his compromises, he is asking for a downer” (Lippard, 1970, p. 174). Significantly, the AWC was accused of the “politicisation” of art, although it was essentially a political organisation—a union—and offered no opinions on aesthetic matters (Lippard, 1970, p. 174). However, the barriers that the artists failed to break down were aesthetic:

…if aesthetic differences are a barrier even to a successful artist’s understanding or working with equally successful colleagues, as artists for artists’ rights, maybe there’s no ballgame. Maybe artists will have the unique distinction of being the only vocation in the world that can’t get together long enough to assure their colleagues of not suffering from their mistakes. (Lippard, 1970, p. 174)

The airing of complaints from the assembled artists, film-makers, architects and critics at the AWC Open Hearing (1969) at the School of Visual Arts was a “picture of frustrated violence”. This surprised no one but the parties it was aimed at because “art world complaints are made loudly but in the relative privacy of studios and barely in public” (Lippard, 1970, p. 171). Amongst the many speakers at the Open Hearing, Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Gregory Battock and Seth Siegelaub expressed radical positions. Carl Andre expressed the most comprehensive polemic of all.[16]

The solution to the artist’s problems is not getting rid of the turnstiles at the Museum of Modern Art, but in getting rid of the art world. This the artists can do by trusting one-another and forming a true community of artists. (Andre, 1969, p. 30)

He argued that artists must reject the institution of art entirely and withdraw from public exhibitions, cooperation with museums[17] and commercial representation to create an alternative and democratic sphere where artists would have more control over their work (Andre, 1969, p. 30).

No more “scene.” No Vogue, Time, Life, Newsweek, interviews. Artists who permit themselves to be used this way are not in the true community of artists, who are universally hostile to such public humiliation. (Andre, 1969, p. 30)

Robert Barry urged the artists to abandon the museum. He questioned the movement’s protest against the Museum of Modern Art. Acknowledging the museum’s influence, he argued that the museum does not reflect the values of art although it appears under arts’ guise.

Why bother with the Museum of Modern Art? Why not work outside it and leave it to those who want it. If it doesn’t serve us, why not let it be. […] The spirit of the museum and the spirit of art are two totally different conceptions. The Museum is a huge artistically impotent superstructure of something other than art, but with great influence. Under the guise of art, and without art’s spirit it is even opposed to the true art spirit. And most of all it is unfortunately mistaken for the actual reality of art. (Barry, 1969, p. 69)

Carl Andre and Robert Barry urged the movement to completely abandon the institution in favour of a community of artists that would establish direct contact with the public. Although, as Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen points out, “the identity of the artist as artist was never really in question”, the artists were not in favour of abandoning the art institution and the “relative autonomy of art” (Bolt Rasmussen, 2009, pp. 37, 45). The institution however is not the custodian of the autonomy of art; the autonomy of art is up to each individual artist. The institution accumulates artists’ commitment to autonomy as a form of capital. If artists abandoned the institution they would not be compromising their autonomy, on the contrary, they would be asserting it. It was not the autonomy of art that they did not want abandon, it was the prestige of the institution:

…the majority of the art world is afraid to take its bullshit out of the bars and into the streets, afraid of losing the toehold it got last year on the next ring of the ladder, but at the same time afraid that the ladder will have been burned, toppled, or blown sky high just as they get near the top (and there’s no fury like that of a man who hates himself for compromising… (Lippard, 1970, p. 174)

What prevents artists from working collaboratively and in their own interests? There is a set of restrictions associated with the special aura of the artist, and these increase with the artist’s success. The more an artist becomes dependent on the institution, the dealer, the collector, the more the artist has stakes in those relationships. The ideas promoted by Andre and Barry threatened to break down the invisible network of power-relationships that keeps the machinery of the art world in motion. Artists are trapped within their guarded autonomy and their dependence on the institution. Individualist and mistrustful of other artists they invest all their trust in the institution and back themselves into situations where they have no leverage and essentially no freedom or independence. The failure of the AWC to achieve its objectives proved that if artists do have any power in the art field they are afraid to show it.

Anton Vidokle’s E-flux projects remind us of John Searle’s argument that the purpose of institutions is to create new forms of power relationships. E-flux is establishing itself as a powerful institution in the art world. Responding to the need for a distribution system for information in the “international art scene” (Lind, 2009, p. 22), e-flux disseminates information in the form of press releases from museums, galleries and organisations all over the world. Maria Lind regards e-flux as “one of the simplest, yet most influential contributions to the art infrastructure in recent decades”, although she acknowledges that e-flux “news digest” announcements are not inclusive of the activity in the field because they are essentially paid advertisements (Lind, 2009, p. 23). E-flux has a popular base of 50,000 subscribers, which it contacts daily via its announcements, it also publishes a journal and it organises artists’ projects such as E-flux Video Rental (2004), Martha Rosler Library (2005), United Nations plaza (2006-07), Time/Bank (2009), and recently applied to manage the .art domain (E-flux, 2012).

In his article, Art without Artists? (2010), Anton Vidokle promotes the idea that artists need to aspire to sovereignty in their practice. For Vidokle, this implies that in addition to producing art, an artist must produce the conditions that enable this production, i.e. “its channels of circulation”. Vidokle argues that these conditions are sometimes so critical to the work that they become the work (Vidokle, 2010). In fact, Vidokle does not think of e-flux as an artist-run space, but as “a long-term artists’ project” (Obrist, Vidokle and Aranda, 2007, p. 18).

Vidokle’s New York Conversations (2010)[18] was filmed in black and white on 16mm in a Chinatown storefront, documenting three days of conversations between artists, critics, curators and the public while Rirkrit Tiravanija cooked and served food. The film is a record of these conversations, displayed as text over black and white high contrast film with a soundtrack. The conversations drift through a range of topics albeit with a focus on working conditions in the art world and so-called “precarious” labour, with a meditation on the difference between material and immaterial labour. They compare themselves to immigrant workers who become displaced in order to find work, but neglect to mention the important differences between cultural and economic immigrants.[19] They discuss the possibilities for non-alienated life, the feasibility of artistic freedom, and whether the particular event itself was in fact an artwork.

An advocate of autonomy, Vidokle prefers Boris Groys’ term “sovereignty” and believes that artists can negotiate their dependence on the institution on a case-by-case basis (Vidokle, 2010). This is as much as artists can normally do. Although our dependence and complicity is precisely in every decision we make, we still need a set of criteria by which to judge each case, because concession and compromise lies in the unanticipated consequences of every decision.

Maria Lind describes E-flux as “institution building” which she thinks of as a “less direct” phase of institutional critique (Lind, 2009, p. 28). In particular, it is the “self-appointed responsibility for setting up an organisation that involves a considerable number of people and [that] give it some sense of stability and continuity”. Lind adds that institution building involves some sort of relation to “a local context and a specific community, be it geographical, social, cultural, or other” (Lind, 2009, p. 25). But how is the international art scene a “local community”? And who does E-flux as an institution serve? As Monika Szewczyk observes, E-flux is essentially a network that provides a distribution service for other institutions (“to publish their plans and propaganda”) (Szewczyk, 2009. p. 58). This tends “to make the existing institutions matter more, since e-flux’s increasingly broad channels allow them to reach a broad audience, one that is encouraged to correspond and converse” (Szewczyk, 2009. pp. 57-58). All the better because E-flux also publishes a critical journal. Rather than being a controversial “institution of its own legitimation” (Szewczyk, 2009. p. 61), E-flux is an institution for the legitimation of other institutions, and it receives legitimation in exchange, in the same currency.

Maria Lind and Monika Szewczyk point out that the many activities of e-flux have been possible because E-flux is a business, they also observe that “critical” sectors of the art world have discounted E-flux as “too complicit with capitalism” (Lind, 2009, p. 24) and that “to call it art, e-flux cannot be profitable, cannot be the institution of its own legitimation, cannot produce value in the given culture” (Szewczyk, 2009. p. 61). But the financial independence of E-flux is the secret of its success and the source of its autonomy from these other institutions, it is not where its complicity lies. Theodor Adorno argues that works of art have been commodities all along:

Pure works of art, which negated the commodity character of society by simply following their own inherent laws, were at the same time always commodities. (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002/1947, p. 127)

What is the persistent (if hypocritical) disavowal of commercial gains for artists based on? Artists need to make a living too. Why is this commonplace fact—together with the fact that artists make a lot of money when they make any at all—disavowed and obscured? The stubborn pursuit to detach art from its commercial aspect can be traced back to conceptual artists’ misguided attempt to resist the fetishization of the art object, but it has only succeeded in making the process of ascribing value to art more mysterious. The more obscure the value of an object is, the more priceless it becomes. Every innovative reflex of resistance to capitalist reification has the potential to become its opposite and generate fantastic amounts of capital.

Adorno argues that autonomous art was a commodity from the moment of its inception (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 239). Even as a negation of the social utility of the market, the freedom of art remains essentially bound up with the premise of a commodity economy (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002/1947, p. 127). Commodification is not resisted by removing the possibility of selling or buying art. The culture of commodity logic is fuelled by other types of capital, not just financial capital. Museums trade in cultural and symbolic capital. Everyone needs some form of capital in order to participate. They can trade prestige, connections, ideas, skills, techniques, knowledge, networks, time etc. They can exchange these for other forms of value in the exchange network of capitalism. Stewart Martin argues that the commodity form does not limit the critical potential of art. On the contrary, “Art functions ideologically here precisely by presenting itself as a space that is free from capitalist exchange”. Capitalist exchange value is not constituted at the level of objects because it is a measure of abstract labour: “It is the commodification of labour that constitutes the value of ‘objective’ commodities”, not the other way around. For Karl Marx, the commodity form reflects capitalist exchange, it does not constitute it. To locate the source of value in the commodity would be to make “precisely the error that Marx calls fetishism” (Martin, 2007/2006, p. 378):

If we avoid this fetishism, we are stripped of any delusions that the simple affirmation of the social within capitalist societies is critical of capitalist exchange; it simply draws attention to the social constitution of capitalist exchange, exposing it directly. There is no freedom from capitalist exchange here, merely the confrontation with it, face to face. (Martin, 2007/2006, pp. 378-379)

The commodity character of the work of art does not limit its critical potential, and the eradication of the materiality of the commodity does not eradicate capitalist exchange, as conceptual artists discovered and Siegelaub knew all along. Which brings up the question, if commodification does not divest art of its critical potential, then why is it a problem? After all, artistic autonomy is so-called because it marked the liberation of artists from the oppression and control of patronage. The commodification of art is one consequence of this liberation. Why are artists, who otherwise consider the sale of their work as a mark of prestige, reluctant to admit that art is a commodity? Commodification is the prerequisite for autonomy, just as heteronomy is the consequence of patronage. Bourdieu’s analysis of the power struggle between autonomy and heteronomy in the field of art leaves no doubt that the art field is currently characterised by a very low degree of autonomy. Art institutions are being redefined as cultural businesses, their economic structure overhauled to generate profits, while sources of funding come increasingly from private corporations. Thus in Bourdieu’s terms, the heteronomous principle currently reigns unchallenged and losing all autonomy, the artistic field disappears, becoming “subject to the ordinary laws prevailing in the field of power, and more generally in the economic field” (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 38).

In her 2009 essay, The Institution of Critique, Hito Steyerl makes timely reappraisal of the function of institutions and the “institutions of critique” within them (Steyerl, 2009, p. 14). Steyerl points out that cultural institutions were originally established with the specific task of legitimising and representing the identities of newly formed nation states. Their function was political and they reflected the democratic constitution of the nation states founded on the political mandate of the citizens. Museums were therefore instituted on similar principles of political participation and representation; they were required to represent the idealised public sphere of the state, which was “implicitly a national one”. It follows that these institutions were also funded by state taxes: “museums had taken on a complex governmental function” (Steyerl, 2009, pp. 15, 14). In the nineties, artists practicing institutional critique tried to reassert the public identity of the museum, but their protests according to Steyerl fell on deaf ears, because in the mean time:

The bourgoisie had sort of decided that in their view a cultural institution was primarily an economic one and as such had to be subjected to the laws of the market. The belief that cultural institutions ought to provide a representative public sphere broke down with Fordism… (Steyerl, 2009, p. 16)

Steyerl points out that artists’ claims to the public status of the museum (and to public funds) are no longer legitimate because it is now sufficient for the state and its institutions to represent the public symbolically rather than materially[20] (Steyerl, 2009, p. 17). The reproduction of national identity and cultural heritage is no longer crucial for social cohesion, but it does serve to provide “international selling points in an increasingly globalised cultural economy” (Steyerl, 2009, p. 16).

Thus, in a sense, a process was initiated which is still going on today. That is the process of the cultural or symbolic integration of critique into the institution or rather on the surface of the institution without any material consequences within the institution itself or its organisation. (Steyerl, 2009, pp. 16-17)

Steyerl describes the predicament of cultural institutions within the current political and economic circumstances as a challenge to perform “both within a national cultural sphere and an increasingly globalising market” (Steyerl, 2009, p. 18). She maintains a faith that “critical institutions” are crucial and a sense that they are under threat:

…while critical institutions are being dismantled by neoliberal institutional criticism, this produces an ambivalent subject which develops multiple strategies for dealing with its dislocation. It is on the one side being adapted to the needs of ever more precarious living conditions. On the other, there seems to have hardly ever been more need for institutions which could cater to the new needs and desires that this constituency will create. (Steyerl, 2009, p. 19)

Exploding Cinema, which celebrated its 20th Birthday in 2011, seems uniquely equipped to deal with these circumstances. Self-funded, flexible, nomadic it seeks out and adapts to different contexts, as long as we consistently break even there will always be another show. Exploding Cinema does not rely on funding or institutional validation, it relies on an audience of producers.


…nothing can have value, without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value. (Marx, 1976, p. 131)

In the first chapter, I argued that Theodor Adorno’s faith in the critical value of autonomy is based on its potential to shield art from functional imperatives in a society where everything is subjected to functional demands. However, the political, ideological and financial instrumentalisation of art by institutions, corporations and governing bodies has evacuated this argument because art plays a functional role in society.

Karl Marx argues that in the process of exchange, products of human labour acquire a “socially uniform objectivity” or exchange-value, which is distinct from their use-value, their “sensuously varied objectivity as articles of utility”, or the particular ways that different things are used (Marx, 1976, p. 166). The use-value of a commodity thus accounts for its material qualities as distinct from its economic (or social) value. The circulation of commodities is a means of carrying out the “appropriation of use-values, the satisfaction of wants” (Marx, 1976, p. 253):

A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity. Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use-values, but not commodities (Marx, 1976, p. 131)

Art’s so-called functionlessness is a normative demand, a prescription not a descriptive statement because art is useful. Art is valuable because of its use value, not its exchange value. If we cannot use art in our lives then it is superfluous. Adorno states that in the subjugation of human desire to capitalist circulation and industrial production, freedom is expressed in the satisfaction of needs through use-value (Adorno, 1997/1965, p. 16). He argues that the social (purposeful) character and the aesthetic (purposeless) value of the work of art are in a dialectical relationship (Adorno, 1997/1965, p. 8) because art represents “a contact with things beyond the antithesis between use and uselessness” (Adorno, 1997/1965, p. 17). By subjecting everything to the law of profit, bourgeois society has debased the concept of usefulness, thus for Adorno, autonomous art fulfils a social role by demonstrating that only useless objects can conjure the existence of useful ones. Use-value thus contains the promise of liberation from the alienation of capitalist production. Even in the midst of that alienation, art can potentially assert itself as a negation of exchange-value.

In Art Incorporated (2004), Julian Stallabrass argues that the autonomy of art was a particular reaction against the orthodoxies of its time and avant-garde artists did not count on recognition in their lifetime. Autonomy came at a price and this is ultimately why Adorno stores so much faith in its critical and emancipatory potential. The autonomy of aesthetic judgment inheres in its freedom—its non-prescriptive character. Stallabrass argues that artists no longer enjoy this freedom while “sufficient autonomy is maintained to identify art as art” (Stallabrass, 2004, p. 200). Although art can conjure a utopian and “less instrumental world”, it also serves as an ally to oppression:

In these circumstances, it is works of evident use that press on the contradictions inherent in the system of art, that seek to liberate themselves from capital’s servitude. To break with the supplemental autonomy of free art is to remove one of the masks of free trade. (Stallabrass, 2004, p. 201)

To privilege the use-value of art is to affirm that art is what we use it for, the use-value of art is its meaning. Although this leaves the door open to the political and commercial instrumentalisation of art, the claim of autonomy has not prevented these possibilities either. At the very least, as Stallabrass argues, it would “unmask” the conditions of this instrumentalisation. While art with overtly political objectives is subject to the criticism of externally determined purposes, the posture of neutrality that institutions maintain raises them above any such suspicion. It also raises them above any social responsibility. Peter Bürger has already indicated that the condition of autonomy can no longer describe the conditions for art. He maintains that the avant-garde confronts artists with the question of ambition:

…with the question of what it is that one does when one produces works of art. The necessity of always seeking anew an answer to this question […] and of pursuing this search not alongside artistic production, but as an integral part of the latter, deeply alters the problem of autonomy. (Bürger, 1998, p. 178)

What are the ambitions for artists today? Can artists only aspire to professional ambitions—awards and participation in biennials—as the art establishment would have us believe? Walter Benjamin’s essay The Author as Producer was addressed to the Paris Institute for the Study of Fascism in 1934. Benjamin states that artists are autonomous (whether they realise this or not) only as far as they are free to choose which class of interests to serve (Benjamin, 1969, p. 220). He argues that debates premised on a generalised concept of art are pointless: if social relations are determined by relations of production, art must be considered within its “living social context” (Benjamin, 1969, p. 222). To gauge the critical vigour of a work of art it is not enough to ask: “What is the attitude of a work to the relations of production of its time?” but rather “What is its position in them” (Benjamin, 1969, p. 222). Benjamin promotes the politically radical idea that artists must not supply the existing productive apparatus without attempting to change it:

What matters […] is the exemplary character of production, which is able first to induce other producers to produce, and second to put an improved apparatus at their disposal. And this apparatus is better the more consumers it is able to turn into producers—that is, readers or spectators into collaborators. (Benjamin, 1969, p. 233)

Benjamin essentially proposes two related ambitions for artists: he argues that the work of art should incite the consumer to become a producer, while at the same time making accessible the means and techniques.[21] The avant-garde ambition to transform society is more urgent than ever, but not by using the same means. We need to overcome the identification of ends with means and develop strategies that are appropriate in the current context. By flicking through a lifestyle magazine, John Berger demonstrates in Ways of Seeing (1972), that collage does not perform anything on images that the media do not perform themselves. The clash between sophisticated advertising imagery and documentary photographs of war and conflict that Martha Rosler documents in her series of photomontages Bringing the War Home/House Beautiful (1967-72), already circulates in millions of magazines. For Victor Burgin, political art is the new orthodoxy but artists do not depart in “content or analysis” from what is already familiar to us from the media, he argues that in fact that, what is “documented” in these works are the media themselves: “Artists making ‘documentaries’ usually encounter their subject matter not at first hand but from the media”. According to Burgin the media play a crucial role in the “production of subjects”, the task for art therefore is to provide a critical alternative (Burgin and Gelder, 2010):

…what is now fundamentally critical to the western societies in which I live and work is the progressive colonization of the terrain of languages, beliefs and values by mainstream media contents and forms – imposing an industrial uniformity upon what may be imagined and said, and engendering compliant synchronized subjects of a “democratic” political process in which the vote changes nothing. (Burgin and Gelder, 2010)

In Empire (2001), Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that the place for resistance is within the structure of capitalism and emancipation can occur only through the reconfiguration of that structure “with no possibility of any even utopian outside” (Hardt and Negri, 2001, p. 65). This is because the dominance of language, communication and immaterial labour blurs the traditional distinctions between productive forces and relations of production, thus:

Social subjects are at the same time producers and products of this unitary machine. In this new historical formation it is thus no longer possible to identify a sign, a subject, a value, or a practice that is ‘outside’. (Hardt and Negri, 2001, p. 385)

The consumers are also the producers, and artists are also caught within this cycle. Artists can play a crucial political role by disseminating encounters of alterity through their work, but also by materialising that alterity and showing that a different way of life is possible, even within the oppressive systems of capitalism. They can do this by sustaining a practice that is not cynically complacent and unproblematically complicit. Because the instrumentalisation of art would not be possible without the complicity of artists.


What is compelling in Adorno’s conception of the illusory autonomy of art in the concealment of its social character and terms of production, is that it does not presume a space outside of society. Adorno’s autonomous art thesis constructs the possibility of creating within society the space of the “outside”. Adorno claims that whether the work of art is political and socially engaged or not this has no impact on the autonomy of the work of art because the concept of autonomy is always relative and does not preclude heteronomy. Today however, the notion of autonomy has been usurped by the institutions which define the field of “international contemporary art”, and predetermine its activity. Equally then, the concept of autonomy is the product of a culture which defines within itself a territory where its rules do not count.[22]

Although art may be a positive model against the dehumanisation of labour and the instrumentalisation of everything in society, it also masks the instrumentalisation of this resistance. Critical art plays a strategic role in the legitimisation of the critical profile of the art institution. If art is the critical alternative to society as Bürger, Marcuse, Adorno and Ranciere believe, then it cannot function within its own internal politics like the rest of society. Adorno and Habermas argue that art is part of society and cannot be immune to its failings and the means by which it functions. This may sound like an ethical problem, but it is a political problem. It is the confrontation of one type of politics with another, a politics of collectivism, collaboration, inclusion and equality against a politics of competition, adversity, territorialism and distinction.

The emergence of the aesthetic as a theoretical category is closely bound to the rise of the bourgeoisie and capitalist production, and at the same time, to the material process through which cultural production became separated from the political sphere and the social functions that it traditionally served (Eagleton, 1990, p. 9). Eagleton suggests that, from a radical political viewpoint, the notion of autonomy within aesthetic discourse is disabling. Art is thereby “conveniently sequestered from all other social practices, to become an isolated enclave within which the dominant social order can find an idealized refuge from its own actual values of competitiveness, exploitation and material possessiveness”. He adds, that the “entirely self-regulating and self-determining” notion of autonomy “provides the middle class with just the ideological model of subjectivity it requires for its material operations” (Eagleton, 1990, p. 9). However, Eagleton points out that the

…concept of autonomy is radically double-edged: if on the one hand it provides a central constituent of bourgeois ideology, it also marks an emphasis on the self-determining nature of human powers and capacities which becomes, in the work of Karl Marx and others, the anthropological foundation of a revolutionary opposition to bourgeois utility. (Eagleton, 1990, p. 9)

Liam Gillick shares Eagleton’s view; together with a belief in modernism’s incomplete legacy of autonomy: “an almost Adorno-like belief that you should continue to produce a form of heightened art, a kind of melancholic art of refusal and abstraction” (Slyce, 2009, p. 6). In a recent interview with John Slyce, Gillick expressed an affiliation with the notion of autonomy as the precondition of the “potential of art as an exception within the culture” (Slyce, 2009, p. 4). The notion of autonomy in art might offer a measure of freedom, empowering artists to create subjective and insular systems of signification, nevertheless, this is where “affirmative culture” is at its most successful, it objectifies and commodifies the artist’s subjectivity, so the intended critique fails.

For Castoriadis a “politics of autonomy” would have the task of enabling “the collectivity to create the institutions that, when internalized by the individuals, will not limit but rather enlarge their capacity for becoming autonomous” (Castoriadis, 1996, p. 134). The object of autonomy is thus an autonomous society:

I call autonomous a society that not only knows explicitly that it has created its own laws but has instituted itself so as to free its radical imaginary and enable itself to alter its institutions through collective, self-reflective, and deliberate activity. (Castoriadis, 1996, p. 132)

It is not institutions we need, just like we do not need ideologies, slogans or leaders. We need self-sufficient communities, actual as well as virtual. As long as artists and their institutions continue to aspire to the recognition of the museum by subscribing to its values they will always be caught within heteronomously defined or alienated conditions. Rather than pursue inclusion with the art historical canon, artists can write and disseminate their own histories and compile their own archives. Referring to the example of the circulation of pirated Xerox editions of Horkheimer, Benjamin and Feuerbach which were out of print in the 1960s and early 1970s, Susan Buck-Morss argues that “spontaneous cultural dissemination is proof that there can be readers of theory and receptions of art without marketing departments”. Buck-Morss sees within the current potential for circulation via the media “nothing less than a grass-roots, globally extended, multiply articulated, radically cosmopolitan and critical counter-culture” (Buck-Morss, 2003, p. 72):

In it, artists would relinquish their impotent power as residents of the gated community of the artworld in return for social relevance, relating to publics not as their spokespersons, not as ethnographers or advocates who represent to a global artworld the underprivileged and excluded, but as part of a critically creative global context, where aesthetic experience manages to escape not only the artworld, but all “worlds” as disciplinary regimes. (Buck-Morss, 2003, pp. 72-73)

But to do this artists must detach themselves from reliance on the legitimising structure of the art world. This means that they must also readdress the discourse of art and the values that it implicitly promotes and reclaim the complex and contradictory histories of art and of artists from their recuperation. It means that they have to devise means of independent production, to contact their own audiences and to collaborate with other artists in these goals. Bourdieu called for an “Internationale of intellectuals” to defend the autonomy of the means of cultural production:

…it is especially urgent today that intellectuals mobilize and create a veritable Internationale of intellectuals committed to defending the autonomy of the universes of cultural production or, to parody a language now out of fashion, the ownership by cultural producers of their instruments of production and circulation (and hence of evaluation and consecration). (Bourdieu, 1996, p. 344)

Bourdieu says that we shouldn’t be surprised to hear that “this autonomy is very severely threatened or, more precisely, that a threat of a totally new sort today hangs over its functioning” (Bourdieu, 1996, p. 344). The various facets of this threat have been analysed in this thesis, but it is far from inclusive. Bourdieu, Siegelaub, Osborne, Steyerl and others identify this threat in the transition of art institutions from the control of the public sphere to corporate and neoliberal agendas:

The threats to autonomy result from the increasingly greater interpenetration between the world of art and the world of money. I am thinking of new forms of sponsorship, of new alliances being established between certain economic enterprises (often the most modernizing, as in Germany, with Daimler-Benz and the banks) and cultural producers; I am thinking, too, of the more and more frequent recourse of university research to sponsorship… (Bourdieu, 1996, p. 344)

However, the function of art institutions as public bodies is no less instrumental and ideological. Autonomy is contingent on financial independence and self-determination. Artists cannot assume positions of political neutrality beyond any form of power struggle. Exploding Cinema is a space for consensus and disagreement, it is both a critique and a way of life. It is a model of the kind of society we want. Society is a web of relationships, networks of power and conflicting interests that do not change from one moment to the next without great upheaval and instability. Sedimented structures, conventional practices and power relationships change over time. We can contribute to the type of society we want by making changes on the local level in which we operate. By building models of the type of society we want, in artist-run spaces, collective projects and local communities we can make improvements in the present and these will function more effectively to undermine the status quo than any negative critique.

There is necessarily a plurality of arts, and however we may imagine the ways in which the arts might intersect there is no imaginable way of totalizing this plurality. (Badiou, 2003)

It is possible at any time to have plural, multiple definitions of art and to regard them as simultaneously valid. One form of art does not invalidate another and the pluralism of art does not presuppose a distinct audience for each form of art.

Dave Beech proposes that to contest the cultural field, independent or artist-run spaces need a “stronger brand of independence” (Beech, 2006, p. 10). This can be accomplished by pursuing pragmatic short-term goals with self-sufficient means. For artists this means establishing sustainable practices and independent networks. This should not be confused with a desire to supplant the mainstream, but to bypass it entirely with a terrain of diverse approaches, small organisations and institutions.

Exploding Cinema inspired the spontaneous emergence of an underground film scene in the mid-1990s, in London and throughout the UK and Europe. Although they were not all collectives or open-access, they all screened short low-budget films and incorporated live music, cabaret installation or performance into their shows. London-based clubs included The Halloween Society, Films That Make You Go Hmmmmm, Kinokulture, Omsk, My Eyes My Eyes, Cinergy, KingKey Movies (Vito Roco), Shaolin, Renegade Arts, Peeping Toms, Kinodisobey, Uncut, Scooter and many others. Beginning in 1996, they collaborated to organise the Volcano Film Festival (1997-1999) which turned out to be a major event with groups from Europe and New York (Szczelkun, 1998; Szczelkun, 2002; Ilson, 2005).

Since the late 2000s, a number of film clubs host regular screenings in pubs throughout London. However, it is lamentable that with the exception of groups like Kino London and Another Roadside Attraction, most of these clubs screen feature films: Cinema Colorama, Deptford Film Club, The Duke Mitchell Film Club, Midnight Movies, Full Unemployment Cinema, Aorta Burst Film Club and others.

As discussed in the first chapter, Sadie Plant raises a pertinent question about the difference and the connection between forms of critique and ways of life (Plant, 1992, p. 89-90). A way of life can also be a form of critique. We can perform critique by practicing alternatives. But any alternative is an alternative relationship and difficult to establish. Artists establish these relationships across different fields. Artists can create an independent network of organisations to ensure their mutual freedom and survival; they can diversify the field and its discourses and create new possibilities by practicing different models. The monopoly of mainstream art destroys this freedom, as do extraneous agendas, which govern from within the entire field of art, and the way it functions.


[1] A letter by Berthe Morisot describes him as “embittered to the very end by the blind incomprehension of the art public”. He even challenged his friend Louis Edmond Duranty to a dual on account of an unfavourable review in Paris-Journal. Their friendship was restored when Duranty wrote another, favourable review (Bataille, 1983, p. 23).

[2] George Maciunas’ Fluxus manifesto was delivered to the audience as part of Ben Patterson’s Paper Piece, at the Festum Fluxorum Fluxus, Düsseldorf Art Academy in September 1962 (Smith, 1998, p. 3).

[3] The AWC was originally formed by Hans Haacke, Tom Lloyd, Willoughby Sharp, Takis, Tsai, John Perrault, and Gregory Battcock (Volpato, 2010).

[4] See Lippard, 1970 and Forkert, 2006.

[5] Howard Slater argues that the industrial placement of the APG redefined the artist’s role in the context of social research. Although, in contrast to the object-based aestheticism of the art institution, the placement comes across as a radical practice, it also reveals a naivety concerning the role of the artist in the professional sphere: Latham redefined the artist as an “incidental person”, who was subsequently legitimised and redefined as a responsible employee, a professional (Slater, 2000). The APG model was later adopted by the Arts Council in the form of the “artist in residence” which was “far less radical, because it reverted to a more passive model of the artist (sometimes engaged to beautify the surface environment of an organisation, rather than to question its mode of operation)” (Mason and Davidson, 2007).

[6] At least three current and former members of Exploding Cinema, including Peter Thomas, Duncan Reekie and Stefan Szczelkun, have written PhDs, books and articles on Exploding Cinema and the British underground and independent film and video sector.

[7] Szczelkun has compiled a catalogue of films shown at Exploding Cinema 1991-1998, see Szczelkun, 2002.

[8] These occasions have included debates on whether or not to accept invitations from Tate Modern and the V&A to participate in their programmed events on underground cinema and art collectives, in both cases the decision was no.

[9] Adorno picks up on the problem of funding: “Currently official culture grants special funds to what it mistrustfully, half hoping for failure, calls artistic experimentation, thus neutralizing it. Actually, art is now scarcely possible unless it does experiment. The disproportion between established culture and the level of productive forces has become blatant: What is internally consistent appears to society at large as a bogus promissory note on the future, and art, socially dispossessed, is in no way sure that it has any binding force of its own” (Adorno, 2002/1970, p. 37).

[10] On the funding crisis in the ICA see Charlesworth, 2010.

[11] It is also consequently recuperated by institutions, see Bourriaud, 2002, p. 19.

[12] This also implies the apparently radical concept—which is never affirmed—that every work of art can and does establish the criteria for its judgment or communicability on it own terms. In other words, because of their singularity, works of art cannot be judged by universal criteria.

[13] Examples include Ataque de Pánico! (2009) by Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Alvarez: “I uploaded [Ataque de Pánico!] on a Thursday and on Monday my inbox was totally full of e-mails from Hollywood studios” (Anonymous, 2011). Video of Ataque de Pánico! available at <>.

Nick Haley’s television commercial for the iPod Touch (2007), demonstrates that the “idea that you do not have to be a professional to create a good commercial is becoming widespread, in a trend known as consumer-generated content” (Elliott, Stuart (2007). Student’s Ad Gets a Remake, and Makes the Big Time. New York Times, Oct 26, 2007. <>). The advert is available at <>.

[14] On the potential traffic generated by viral video clips and its optimisation see the MarketingExperiments website <>.

[15] On the re-direction of YouTube’s focus from amateur videos to corporate broadcasts, see Hudson, 2011.

[16] According to Philip Leider, editor of Artforum at that time, it was in fact he who wrote Andre’s speech to the Open Hearing (Newman, 2000, pp. 267-268).

[17] “They make ‘shows’, get everything wrong. ‘Will you lend a painting?’ ‘No.’ So they will borrow a painting from a person to whom an artist has sold a painting. Fine. At least the proper relations between artist and museum have been established, the proper distance between what museums do and what artists do is maintained” (Andre, 1969, p. 30).

[18] New York Conversations (2010). 16mm film transfer to DV, 66min, e-flux films. Commissioned by the Brussels-based art journal A Prior, this film documents a three-day event organised by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Nico Dockx, and Anton Vidokle, with the participation of Liam Gillick, Jorg Heiser, Miwon Kwon, Monika Szewczyk, Jan Verwoert, Lawrence Weiner and others.

[19] Nomadic artists and curators make conscious choices and calculated risks when they re-locate in order to take up a temporary post. The plight of immigrant workers involves uncertainty and exploitation; many immigrants are indentured labourers, while illegal immigrants are entirely at the mercy of slave-traders and corrupt officials.

[20] Steyerl cites for example the symbolic integration of minorities in a sphere of social and political inequality (Steyerl, 2006, p. 17).

[21] See for example the zero budget and DIY instructional video DIY Dolly Zooms (Blunt Productions, 2009) from the series Zero Budget Filmmaking Tips (2009) by Paul Elliott and Exploding Cinema member Ben Slotover.

[22] The idea of “context as content” (O’Doherty, 1976) challenges the notion of the autonomy of art, because if one must account for the context of the work, this puts a condition on the work that subtracts from its conception as an ideal unity. The demand that artists contextualize their practice also negates their autonomy.