Thursday, February 11, 2016


One of Amazon's biggest sellers following the death of Bowie was (or is) this paperback memoir written by one of his lovers, who lived and worked, with him and others, to inspire, create and launch the Beckenham Arts Lab in 1969 in a local pub. They also organised a free festival in the park, that same summer during which 'Space Oddity' hit the charts and man walked on the moon. 

Mary Finnigan writes in an assured and readable fashion, her skills honed by decades of mainstream journalism and broadcasting, about a tender period which was full of love, poetry, song, reefers and tribal activity. She makes it feel real whereas much writing about this period is cringeworthy.

I and my friends had our own Arts Lab - the Worthing Workshop - and there was a network of others all over the country. Here are some of us are on a Saturday selling underground newspapers and making our presence felt     We were the FREAKS !!

THE GENERALIST archive contains Issue 1 of the Arts Lab Newsletter, produced by BIT Information Service (then resident at 141 Westbourne Park Road) in October 1969 which contains information and listings from each Lab. 

The entry for Beckenham reads: 'contact David Bowie at 460 6489. Mary finnegan (sic), Nick Godwin and others have left the Lab.' The Newsletter begins:

THE ARTS LAB MOVEMENT 1970 Vision: May 150 Labs bloom!

1969 Facts; 54 Labs: just under a dozen fully-fledged ones in Britain - about a dozen and a half Labs without permanent premises but nevertheless active - and well over two dozen Labs at an early stage, sometimes no more than a nucleus of people meeting and planning their first benefit concert.


Jim Haynes of the Drury Lane Lab tells it like it is: "I feel that an Arts Lab has the following characteristics:

(a) a Lab is an 'ENERGY CENTRE' where anything can happen depending upon the needs of the people running each individual Lab and the characteristics of the building.

(b) a Lab is a NON-INSTITUTION. We all know what a hospital, theatre, police station and other institutions have in the way of boundaries, but a Lab's boundaries should be limitless.

(c) Within each Lab a space should be used in a loose fluid MULTI-PURPOSE way - ie. a theatre can be a restaurant, a gallery, a bedroom, a studio, etc. etc.

(d) I am interested in creating a fluid COMMUNE situation where a group of people live and work together. At the Covent Garden Lab we have 15 to 20 people who live and work together 7 days a week. No one is paid - "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs"- We have space, food, ideas, work, etc.

Now may I say something about politics. People ask me if the Arts Lab is political. Anyone who is interested in changing anyone's attitude to anything is committing a political act. We at the Covent Garden Lab have certain philosophical attitudes to the world, and we hope to show others by word and deed that these political/philosophical attitudes can be transmitted via non-political media. Every person is a medium; use it carefully.

AS FOR ART.. .we are more interested in bringing people together in a real involved way; not very interested in "marketing" art or anything else for that matter".

ARTS LABS SOLIDARITY July 27th, '69; Arts Labs met and divided themselves into 8 regional co-operatives with a co-ordinator for each region. Earlier in the year, Jim had proposed a support system for Labs which he named ‘Arts Labs in Great Britain Trust’. The Trust, launched 5 months ago as a sub-group of a registered charity called Community Development Trust, is administered by a committee of elected Arts Labs representatives and Arts Council observers, and meets every two months in London. Its aim is to help Labs over legal hurdles and in their negotiations with local authorities, and to raise something like £1/2m for Labs from Industry, the Arts Council, Foundations.'


My mates and I formed the WORTHING WORKSHOP, which was part of the South-East Arts Lab Co-op and I wrote the following report of our activities ( I was 19 at the time) which was published in this Newsletter:
Premises: None permanent at present time. Previous activities held in hired pub room and common room of local college of design (via 'Student's Union') - liason with bureaucratic hierarchy minimal. Also St John's Ambulance HQ at times.

Technical and other facilities: Silk-screen press just started; light show (Crystalline Foetus, presented by Ian) - liquids, film and static slides; electronics expert - designs and builds group and hi-fi maps and speakers, light equipment etc,; Discotheque - equipment and approx. 200 records plus regular DJ, sundry Musicians, artists etc.

About 5,000 people turned up for their free concert with Steamhammer in August and this gave them a great burst of publicity; their name is now down on council list for premises; recently their World's First Bubble-In was on TV.

On Saturday October 19th at 7:30pm at the Norfolk Hotel for only 5/- you would get the Entire Sioux Nation + lightshow and discotheque. Lots of other things happening too.

They are opening a head shop soon, one half newspapers and jewellery, the other half a 24 hour coffee bar, with free music all day. They hope this will provide an outlet for art student's work and people like this. The Council meet to consider the proposal on October 26th and they hope to open in mid-November. [This didn't happen, by the way]'

This was first posted up on The Generalist on 31st August 2006. I ended the piece like this:



Here in 2016, I'm asking the same question again.


Emil Thompson said...

Hi John, it would indeed be wonderful to see a resurgence of arts lab culture in the UK. Its a shame that many burgeoning creative scenes are now finding it difficult to flourish and sustain themselves in the face of exorbitant rents and restrictive bureaucracy - the sad debacle of the Phoenix project in Lewes springs to mind.

pema said...

I didn't leave the Beckenham Arts Lab. I went to India for 6 months then came back. By that time the Arts Lab had morphed into a film club and had lost its mojo.