To celebrate the launch of THIS IS NOW: FILM AND VIDEO AFTER PUNK, a new major touring programme curated by William Fowler (BFI Archive) that looks at British artists’ film and video from the post-punk era (1978–85), we present John Maybury’s trip elegy to club culture, Read Only Memory.
The early 1980s saw an explosion in alternative and independent moving image production. Clubbers, art students, new romantics and members of the post-punk scene used cheap domestic technologies to subvert the mainstream media and to find new modes of expression. Independent VHS tapes were released, stridently bypassing censorship, and Super 8 film was embraced as a cheap yet lyrical new medium. The DIY approach of punk was powerfully reborn.
In his Super 8 and video works, painter, film maker and influential pop video director John Maybury frequently re-visits old footage, visually elaborating it in the course of editing. An epic dance/trance video, Read Only Memory creates a portrait of his friend, the performance artist and gay icon Leigh Bowery, who died four years before this video was completed. As Gary Morris writes, “Maybury is always generous in his homages (Maledicta Electronica, for example, is a tribute to British wartime code-breaker Alan Turing), and Read Only Memory is no exception. The opening sequence resurrects the famous psychedelic split-screen light show from 2001, and for good reason. As in the Kubrick film, this is the trippy intro to a fabulously weird, drug-addled psychic landscape. Maybury’s mindbending tour hits all manner of cultural hot buttons: gender politics, anticonsumerism, cultural imperialism, AIDS, bizarre computer art, trance music and imagery — if you can think of it you can probably find it somewhere in here.”
John Maybury (born 1958) studied at North East London Polytechnic, where as part of his course, he shot his first films on Super 8 in and around London’s punk scene. He was introduced to Derek Jarman, who was looking for new talent, and designed sets for Jarman’s Jubilee, and worked with him on The Last of England, War Requiem and The Tempest. By the early 1980s, Maybury was a leading light of the British underground film movement. Along with his equally precocious contemporary Cerith Wyn Evans, Maybury pioneered a style that was unashamedly exotic, with influences from Kenneth Anger to Jean Cocteau. The movement’s first major show, entitled A Certain Sensibility, was at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1981. 1983 saw a one-man show at the ICA entitled Cultural Impotence of Stupid Boys.
Initially associated with Super 8 filmmaking, his mastery of video technology was quickly evident in a series of music videos (Neneh Cherry, Boy George, Sinead O’Connor) and longer works for television, such as Remembrance of Things Fast (1993). Following the success of his fictionalised biopic of Francis Bacon, Love is The Devil (1998), he is now mainly active as a feature film director.
Gary Morris’s essay Lysergic Landscapes: John Maybury’s Read Only Memory for Bright Lights Journal, 2009
Interview with Will Fowler for BOMB magazine