Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film

David Curtis has had a pivotal role in experimental film culture since the 1960s, sometimes called the ‘underground’, the ‘avant-garde’ etc., although his favoured description now is ‘artists’ film’. He did so first of all by his programming work at the two Arts Labs, which introduced my generation to an utterly different way of making films from the commercial or mainstream cinema. Secondly, he was Film Officer at the Arts Council of Great Britain from 1977 to 2000 during which time he was able to ensure that artists’ film received state support, with very positive results in terms of creating different film practices outside the conventions of the film industry. Finally, with the creation of an archive at Central St Martins he has ensured that this period is available for proper study and reappraisal. The story is a strand of Britain’s cultural history in the latter half of the twentieth century and opening of the twenty-first.


Nor is it a dry official history. David talks about the Slade and Thorold Dickinson, countercultural London in the sixties with Bob Cobbing, Jim Haynes, Jack Moore, Peter Whitehead, Robert Fraser and many other figures in this landscape. Plus Better Books, International Times, the Arts Labs, the London Film-makers’ Co-op. John Lennon and Yoko Ono make a guest appearance too.


Then there are the film-makers: Kenneth Anger, Gregory Markopoulos, Malcolm Le Grice, Peter Gidal, Lis Rhodes, Guy Sherwin, Annabel Nicolson among a number of others.


In the seventies onwards, there is the work and politics of a state institution, the changing cultural scene, the importance of Channel 4 in the eighties and nineties, the role of Tate Modern, the Central St Martins archive, all the exhibitions David has been involved in mounting (especially ‘A Century of Artists’ Film in Britain’), and his two books, ‘Experimental Cinema’ and a ‘A History of Artists’ film and video in Britain’ (2007).


I talked to him one afternoon in July 2014 about his life and career, and this is an edited transcription of our conversation, 16,000 words long, 30 pages.


It is downloadable as a pdf here.


Table of contents


1 ORIGINS: SCOTLAND

2 THE SLADE: AN EDUCATION IN PAINTING

3 THE SLADE: AN EDUCATION IN FILM

4 EXPERIMENTAL/COUNTERCULTURAL LONDON: THE FIRST ARTS LAB

5 THE NEW ARTS LAB

6 THE MID-SEVENTIES

7 THE ARTS COUNCIL OF GREAT BRITAIN

8 ACHIEVEMENTS

9 THE TATE RETROSPECTIVE

10 TWO BOOKS

11 CSM ARCHIVE, OTHER EXHIBITIONS

12 ENDNOTE: ANIMATION