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Albie Thoms, THE FILM: Documentation, 1966 Albie Thoms, THE FILM: Documentation, 1966
image courtesy of National Film & Sound Archive
ALBIE THOMS WAS A LEADING LIGHT. MUCH HAS ALREADY BEEN WRITTEN ON THIS REMARKABLE MAN’S LIFE AS EXPERIMENTAL FILMMAKER, ORGANISER AND REBEL; AS ANARCHIST AND ARCHIVIST. TO THESE RECOLLECTIONS WE WANT TO ADD OUR OWN THOUGHTS ON ALBIE, WHO WE REMEMBER, IN PARTICULAR, AS AN EVENT-MAKER EXTRAORDINAIRE.

This is where our interest started with Albie—in his early life as a theatrical impresario. As a student at Sydney University in 1965, he devised, produced, and directed an ambitious multimedia event, The Theatre of Cruelty, which requisitioned Artaud’s wild theories to apply them to texts by other canonical surrealists—Tzara, Schwitters, Huelsenbeck, Marinetti, Dali, Soupault and Jarry, from whose work he would shortly derive the name for his experimental collective, Ubu. We were excited by Albie’s application of Artaudian logic to other key moderns like Stein and Kokoschka, to contemporaries and works representing the future—the plays of Peter Brook, poems by Beat idols Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg, a short story by Australian/NZ sci-fi writer Cherry Grimm, and the experimental music of La Monte Young. What especially thrilled us about this program of live theatre and other, spontaneous performances (a little note at the bottom of the program reads, “Martin Sharp has organised happenings”) was the mix of live bodily performance and multimedia projections.

We admired Albie’s boldness in filming a version of Artaud’s typically unhinged ultra-short play, The Spurt of Blood. And we were especially fascinated with the work Poem 25: the famous Schwitters poem, consisting of a rapid sequence of numbers and numerals, which Albie’s partner in crime and soon-to-be-Ubu-comrade David Perry photographed, animated, edited and projected onto the body of an actor, whose job it was to recite the numbers as best he could remember. We loved this early expanded cinema performance so much that we sought permission from Albie and David to re-stage it in 2006, at our second OtherFilm Festival (assisted by small gauge film maven Louise Curham, with Brisbane radio personality Jamie Hume as ‘the body’) and then again in 2010 at our International Expanded Cinema Extravaganza at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra. Literally re-enacting this work is one of the most direct ways Albie Thoms’ influence is evident in our practice, but we need to acknowledge the deeper resonances and reverberations too.

Learning about the live audiovisual environments created by Ubu (Albie Thoms, David Perry, Aggy Read, David Clark) was especially catalytic for us. The idea of generating an all-encompassing atmosphere humming with multitudinous energies—spaces of transformation alive with light, sound and movement—stuck in our collective consciousness. Shortly after coming together, we launched into staging events where we revived the spirit of these 1960s atmospherics, in concert with our own post-rave, experimental music optics. Projections in all dimensions, the spectator’s body invoked as a continuous perceptive surface: the central inspiration we took from Ubu’s lightshows was of film potential, not as a narrative vehicle, but as popular sensoria. Cinema as event and encounter, not industrial story-machine. Film as part of a synthetic magma ruled by—as Albie was so fond of quoting—the Artaudian notion that “theatre is a delirium and should be communicative.”

With practice and politics comes praxis: Albie’s work with the Theatre of Cruelty and then Ubu reminded us that, historically, avant-gardes do not distinguish between the practical work of making and other kinds of work (such as event-organising, resistance, agitation, conservative-baiting). Rather, these practices complement and condition each other; they make most sense—or so we think—in terms of a dialectical unity. The cinema may be ‘contracted,’ but this is only an effect of the various machineries—optical, ideological, narrative—put in place by capitalism. To stick a wrench in that machine, we need only to turn it away from its intended purpose: take the screen away, turn the projections back on the performers or audience, multiply, subtract, reimagine, expand. Moreover, Ubu’s smart bootstrapping and effective promotion proved that ‘experimental entertainment’ wasn’t a contradiction in terms: OtherFilm developed an event-based practice partly as a result of this inspiration. For us, the commitment to a resourceful, generative experimental practice is one of the key legacies we trace back to Albie Thoms.

Over Albie’s life-time, experimental film went from being an exciting aspect of ‘underground’ culture to briefly being recognised and funded (via the newly-formed Experimental Film and Television Fund, which Albie headed), to the brink of near-extinction, only to be revived as an artists’ medium with a distinct presence in the gallery and art museum. When we spoke with him about it in 2011, Albie initially found it perplexing that in an era of so much digital choice, there was a distinct landscape of artists choosing to work with antiquated 35mm and 16mm film: even in his day, coming up with the ‘scratch’ for film stock and processing was always a challenge (hence the fundraising films like Blunderball, as well as 1967’s Handmade Film Manifesto and Ubu’s support of participatory filmmaking). Nonetheless, Albie quickly came to sense in this contemporary film practice a rebellion his soul could admire—especially the part about not being sensible.

He fondly recalled the days of shoestring bucket-processing and enthused over the aleatoric effects that “filmers” (his term for filmmakers) could court with their fickle, demanding, wonderful medium. Albie was pleased at the long-overdue recognition of film as a plastic aesthetic force, a creative medium that he saw continuing to unfold in surprising ways in the medium’s—and his own—twilight years.

Albie Thoms was a true luminary; he will light the way for us for many years to come.


Danni Zuvela and Joel Stern, with Sally Golding, are the directors of OtherFilm, which dedicated its fourth OtherFilm Festival (2012) to Albie Thoms.

Sydney Underground Movies 1965-1970: Ubu Films DVD available through Art Films: www.artfilms.com.au. See RT107 for review.

RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. 15

© Joel Stern & Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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