Exploding Cinema 1992 – 1999 Extras 1 Stephen Houston

I couldn’t get in touch with Stephen when doing my research but he has got in touch recently with fascinating information about himself and the 16mm film ‘That Stage’ that he had made. He also has new information on the pre-Exploding Cinema Reel Love film club cinema in Pullit, Brixton, 1991. Stephen writes:


“I haven’t made anything as substantial as That Stage since.  I did however enjoy working in the no budget collective manner in the Exploding tradition when I returned to live in Adelaide, South Australia in 1993. I started working with a similar group we started up there called The Obscene which enabled people to screen their hard-to-show work and to make work expressly for the ‘opened up’ audiences attending.

Via this I enjoyed a couple of years of opportunities to present work which would otherwise have been impossible to show or even to do, things that would be put together in the space of a couple of weeks or a few days because you had the opportunity to present regardless of other people’s potentially negative thoughts: something between you and the audience. This was the way of working I found most inspiring, but the group and the venue just like the Exploding Cinema was what it was all about. There’s a style of no-budget work that can’t be done any other way. It’s an entirely different politic, and I firmly believe the collision of motives in open exhibition collectives usually brings about the most interesting albeit often compromised or accidental outcomes, and often all the more rich in social and aesthetic complexity.

The work I refer to is difficult to describe. I haven’t tried to before, having had no reason to. I usually use a few slides or some super 8. It can just be a few bits and pieces to go with what happens live. I did a couple of pieces where the screen action/character and the live action/character interact or converse and so become a kind of interplay of live and recorded action. That can be fun. When I lived in Amsterdam for half a year after leaving London I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the problem of memory and recording and technological evolutions of our sense of keeping hold of things.

I stopped being so active when I started studying and being a parent. My partner as of 1994 came with a little boy and the necessary changes we make to care for kids. I did a BA International and Regional Studies at one uni then went to another and did a year of linguistics then an honours year of Politics and Linguistics for which I wrote a thesis about George Taplin a British colonist who became a key missionary superintendent in South Australia responsible for ‘conquering’ the Ngarrindjeri people of the River Murray lakes region. I was interested in Derrida’s ideas about writing and some post structuralist arguments about inscription. South Australia was a colony built on the idea that if you can write things clearly and properly you can do anything, including take the land right from underneath the feet of the people who are already living there: if they can’t show their written justifications and withstand your violent force. The system of surveying this land and selling it in London as real estate product in a pre-sale system commissions from which paid for the passage of working class is a prime example of purposeful liberal writing that has the potential to take over the place no matter what’s in its way.

I am currently working on a short collaborative script with a friend to be performed by two people (probably us) with backing slides lasting for about 6 minutes in a venue we have yet to decide. I’ll let you know more when it’s finished.

I need to get a digital copy of That Stage to send to people like yourself. I’ve got a 16mm copy and a 1″ video copy somewhere that I haven’t touched for ages. There are some VHS copies that might be viable for viewing, I’m not sure. I should try to appreciate it more and remind myself that it belongs just as much to the 8 people who appear in it, not just me.

I’ve been sadly preoccupied with the high cost of living here in Sydney since I moved here in 2003. I work in a jail as an English teacher part-time and try to complement that with various income sources including more recently teaching as a relief teacher in high schools, ESL and Society & Culture, Modern History and Geography.

Then more: That Stage was made let’s say in a completely different place than most of the other films shown and the difference is an important complication with one of the main tenets of EC, i.e. funding. This film got money from the Australian and later the South Australian governments. I received a $1000 grant to make it from an Australian federal government source, the Australian Film Commission’s No Frills Fund; fell into years of unplanned, unfunded, uncertain Super 8 to 16mm optical printing (at home) and 16mm additional footage production and post production with heaps of work on the sound, then when people noticed what had come of it, it got “completion funding” from the South Australian government, to the tune of the thousands of dollars (can’t remember how much exactly anymore) it would have taken to get a professional sound mix in a full feature film mixing studio. Apparently, it was an unusual, interesting and perhaps worthy film. It actually got an award at the 1990 St Kilda Film Festival – Best Short Film – General Category (donated by the Dutch-Australian film maker Paul Cox and his company Illumination Films. This use of funding is very un-Exploding of course. But it’s not to say it doesn’t have a place in this kind of exhibition because it was made with precisely this inclusive engagement politic that drives EC I believe. The fact that I had no interest in becoming a feature film director/producer is also important. I was very uncomfortable with exhibition in the big professional settings where I was being asked by the then emerging film culture to compete for my right to be “a film maker”.

“The Regal”, the little makeshift teared-floor cinema that I and another guy involved pretty marginally with Pull-it (in Brixton 1990) as an exhibiting artist and whose name I am afraid I can’t remember built for the Reel Love show in the disused cold-room in the back of the Cooltan factory, showed me an extraordinary promise for the potential exhibition politic which involved the audience in part of the making of good cinema. That is for making the moment come alive with the screen together with the whole room. For example, there was one very instructive incident in the Regal, the fateful screening of a super 8 no-budget classic, Dr. Death and the Psychopathic Bloody Murder Bastard in its original and only S8 copy which caught and burnt out in the projector gate in the midst of its perhaps third re-screening because of everyone crying encore so they could find it in themselves to give their best possible screaming and gagging horror sound FX to its excellent gore and action (including of course the film maker himself). He was overcome with emotion in this incident and felt it was my fault the projector had damaged his movie. It was a crucial learning opportunity for us. We encountered each other maybe a year later at the till in a counter restaurant in Old Street where I worked and just stared at one another, mute, unable to speak. It was probably best. That was a very special film night at the Regal, albeit very upsetting because of the damaged original film.

Film making remains a potentially very live activity that brings people together dare I say like “a campfire” huddle with so much potential to stir people and fulfil some very basic sharing functions. And so now for people to sit in cinemas quietly and walk out at the end of screenings, perhaps without even saying boo to someone else, is to me a crying shame. Through ExC, therefore, I got the sense of a conversational medium I’d been toying with but never got the chance to actively participate in before. The Obscene offered this in Adelaide but I lost touch with that group slowly due to study mainly and people moved in many different directions. Some of those shows were very good all the same worthy of any ExC expectations.

Reel Love was obviously a great inspiration. See:

http://www.stefan-szczelkun.org.uk/phd1001.htm