Derek Jarman at Bankside
In 1994, an episode of the BBC television documentary strand Arena focused on the queer English filmmaker Derek Jarman. It served as the premiere of Glitterbug, a compilation of Jarman’s Super-8 films, created in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Glitterbug was preceded by a brief contextualising introduction that included an interview with Jarman, in which he discussed the experience of making and screening his films in warehouse spaces in London in the 1970s: “It was a really amusing thing to do”, he said, “because everyone came to watch them. So I used to hold these parties, wonderful parties. And everyone would come. Nobody paid any attention to the films whatsoever. They were all there, they all brought cushions and lay on the floor. We showed a proper film – 16mm, something, you know, a proper feature film, and then we would end up with the Super 8.” This anecdote is often repeated, in slightly varied iterations, in histories of Jarman’s 1970s era – many of those repetitions admittedly authored by Jarman himself – recurring and sealing into lore a distinctive sense of a space and supportive queer group conducive to innovative creative practice.
In this short piece of writing, I want to focus in on Jarman’s film-making practices in the 1970s, and attempt to think through the warehouse as a distinct filmmaking space. My concern is not with the content of Jarman’s films, which have been discussed at length by various authors, but with the locations in which they were made, and the community surrounding Jarman that was involved in their production and consumption. Between 1969 and 1979, Jarman occupied three different warehouse spaces on the Thames riverside: 51 Upper Ground, from 1969-70; 13 Bankside, from 1970-1972; and a space on the third floor of Block A1 of Butler’s Wharf, from 1973 to 1979. All of these spaces were inhabited legitimately – rent was paid to landlords – but the state of their upkeep was variable, at worst rudimentary. Their shabby state, however, served as a generative geography for Jarman: he turned the run-down locations into sanctuaries, othered spaces, in which a queer demimonde of artists and personalities gathered, socialized, and fostered each other’s work. In Dancing Ledge, one of his many volumes of autobiography, Jarman notes that the warehouses “allowed me to slip quietly away… and establish my own idiosyncratic mode of living.” But what exactly was that idiosyncrasy, and how does it map onto the warehouse as a location that was simultaneously film studio, artist’s studio, salon and apartment?
In order to explore the idiosyncratic character and design of Jarman’s spaces for living and working, it is necessary to cruise the 1970s: we need to look backwards and askance at a form of communal living and creation that has now been lost, and attempt to seduce it back to life. Jarman’s warehouse dwellings during that decade took advantage of a particular housing opportunity: the occupation of borderline-derelict spaces, evacuated by industry but not condemned, and not yet bought up for transformation by rapacious landlords and property magnates. Here, I want not merely to draw on various archival sources to recreate the textures and atmosphere of Jarman’s warehouse studios in the 1970s (itself a complex undertaking), but also to identify and interrogate what has been lost. The queer model of sociality and creativity supported by Jarman’s warehouse studios, I want to suggest, was not only fleeting when it occurred but is difficult to account for today within existing understandings of both film-making and artistic practice. Attempting to capture that model allows us to think through ways in which, potentially, similar modes of creativity and interaction might be fostered in the present.
The first of Jarman’s warehouse spaces of significance for my purposes here was that at Bankside, as it was there that he began to experiment with the moving image. When he moved into Bankside, Jarman had to transform the space. As Tony Peake writes in his biography of Jarman, “it was extremely basic. Imagination was needed to realize its potential; imagination and money” – money which, fortunately, Jarman had from his work as the set designer on Ken Russell’s film The Devils (1971). Jarman innovated with basic facilities and infrastructure: he installed a bath that was not hidden behind partitions; he built a platform that stretched the width of the space, “so that”, he said, “people curled up on … cushions could watch the water below.” He installed a hammock, and erected a greenhouse as a sleeping space. Due to Jarman’s connections within the realm of design, the Bankside warehouse appeared in the pages of Italian Vogue in 1972, and in a book called Underground Interiors in 1973.
The idea for the greenhouse, says Peake, “came from Dugald Campbell, Jarman’s old schoolfriend and flatmate who, as an architect, had been asked to advise on how best to insulate the roof. Almost in passing, he remarked that if Jarman was cold at night, a small greenhouse would be about the same size as a double bed. Jarman pounced on the idea…” Matt Cook, in his book Queer Domesticities, offers a theoretical take on the greenhouse:
He slept in a green-house in the middle of the vast room for warmth. This was partly pragmatic but also prefigured the coming fashion for open-plan living and alluded to the iconic ‘Glass House’ that queer architect Philip Johnson designed and built for himself in new Canaan in Connecticut in the USA in 1949, and which Jarman had visited … in 1969. The warehouse was a light-filled space, an antidote to the closet, a paean to visibility and openness.
Michael Charlesworth, in his biographical account of Jarman’s life, reads the greenhouse instead as a garden: it “provides a striking image”, he writes, “perpetuating the garden imagery that pervades [Jarman’s] life and works”. In addition to these perspectives on Jarman’s greenhouse, we could also read the space as one of mediation: it provided a glass lens within the studio that separated levels of activity, refracted light and heat, and perhaps operated as a place of (and for) observation. Perhaps we can even think of this greenhouse as a film camera. Certainly, Jarman acknowledged the cinematic nature of the Bankside warehouse: “it’s more like a stage set than an artist’s studio”, he said, “it looks as though it’s waiting to be filmed.”
Cinema has become central to understanding the importance of Bankside in Jarman’s evolution as an artist. Soon after moving in, he was lent a 16mm projector by the critic Nicholas Dromgoole, and began to hold screening events, mixing Hollywood with the avant-garde. “Nothing”, notes Tony Peake, “with the possible exception of The Wizard of Oz, was treated with deference. Funny Face was played out of sequence, slowed down and without the sound.” Around the same time, Marc Balet, an American architectural student who was visiting the warehouse, introduced Jarman to the Super-8 camera. Jarman was struck by the ease of use of the machine, and began to make short documentary films of the space, including Bankside (1972) – a short that Jarman himself described as “very much a painter’s film.”
It is evident from Jarman’s writing how much the Bankside warehouse meant to him; he called it “an idyll”, and described the character of the location in poetic and notably imagistic terms. “At night,” he wrote in an unpublished account, “the light reflecting off the water cast sinuous patterns all over the ceiling; at dawn the sun would come up over the iron railway bridge [into Cannon Street] and turn the river scarlet, reflecting in the facets of the greenhouse.” In Dancing Ledge, Jarman details the “continuous flow of people” who “stayed or lived in the studio.” He reminisces, rhapsodizes, about the goings-on there:
At Bankside there were film shows and poetry readings and parties. For Christmas 1970 we built a table the length of the room and sat forty people down to a three-course meal cooked by Peter on improvised calor stoves. The tables were banked with scented white narcissus from Covent Garden, and a ‘walky-talky’ telephone connected either end. At the end of the meal, joints wrapped in the American flag were served with the coffee, and then we played charades behind a beautiful collaged curtain…
What Jarman is identifying here is an alternative family, an extended network of supportive like-minded queer allies. Tony Peake suggests that Jarman’s first films should be seen as home movies: the Super-8 camera, he writes, provided Jarman with “a means of immortalizing the paradise he had created, of making movies of his home, his friends, his extended family.” Bankside, the film, despite its brevity, documents not only the contents of the warehouse but some of the bodies passing through the space, gesturing to the roster of pals, lovers and collaborators Jarman was surrounding himself with.
In September 1972, Jarman’s tenure of Bankside ended; in early 1973, he secured a space in Butler’s Wharf, the dockside property in which he spent the longest period of time – about six years. Butler’s Wharf was built in 1873. As Patrick Langley writes, it “was one of hundreds of warehouses in a dense and mazy sprawl that spread for miles. […] Slums pooled in the gaps between industrial structures, cramped, damp houses teetering over streams stained black by tanners’ run-off. If ‘Dickensian’ seems a lazy choice of adjective for such a scene, it is also accurate.” Butler’s Wharf was used primarily as a space for storing and shipping imported goods, in particular, teas and spices. With the rise of containerization in the 1950s, London’s shipping started to move east, and Butler’s Wharf started to dwindle and empty. Creative practitioners began to move into the space in the early 1970s. As Sarah Jury writes,
Towards the end of 1971… short leases for sections of the 200,000 square-feet were negotiated individually with artists, bookbinders, boot-makers, furniture-makers; anyone who would put up with the poor facilities and lack of any security of tenure, for the benefit of having a large and well-lit workspace. Those who rented the studios repaired the glazing, installed the walls and electricity themselves, or adapted what was already in existence. The Arts Council, which was initiating new programmes to support artists with individual grants and bursaries, gave studio conversion grants of £400 per artist to the first ones who moved into Butler’s Wharf.
Over 100 artists lived and worked in Butler’s Wharf during the decade; it was, writes Jury, “the largest community of artists in London.” This included the group 2B, whose history is still being written, but also Jarman and a community of like-minded creators, including the artist Simon Read, the architect Max Gordon, and the brothers Andrew and Peter Logan.
At Butler’s Wharf, Jarman continued to make short films, such as In The Shadow of the Sun (1974), and progressed to features, the first of which was Sebastiane (1976).
Butler’s Wharf served as a key location for these films: open courtyards were used as sets, and materials shot “at home” were folded into the complete works, incorporated into their content. After six years Jarman had to move on from Butler’s Wharf when a fire ruined the building; the conflagration brought to an end Jarman’s decade of warehouse living.
At the start of the 1970s, shortly after Jarman moved into the Bankside warehouse, Daniel Buren wrote his seminal essay “The Function of the Studio”. For Buren, the studio is a private place that curators and critics might visit in order to select works for exhibition. As he glossed his argument several decades later, “The function of the studio is the making of a work of art for an ideal place, a work which may be endlessly manipulated. If you work most of the time in a studio you produce works that are destined to be installed somewhere else. …in a studio you produce work to be shown anywhere… and you must work with a preconceived idea of what these rooms might be like…” The central tenets of Buren’s thesis cannot account for much of the work produced by Jarman in his warehouses. Jarman’s short films were screened within the warehouses to friends for entertainment, as part of social activity; they did also show in particular (more legitimate) venues, but they did not primarily function as instances of creative capital. They were made with and for those who appeared in them. The warehouse was not only a place of fabrication, but a venue for ad hoc exhibition.
Jarman’s warehouse film production has been compared to Warhol’s Factory – also an industrial space repurposed for creative practice. But there are key distinctions: Jarman’s warehouses hovered more precariously on the cusp of illegitimacy than Warhol’s various studios. Warhol did not live at the Factory, whereas Jarman was filming his home. Warhol mimicked Hollywood models of industrial production, allocating roles, whereas Jarman’s films were more egalitarian in spirit, produced communally. Indeed, it is difficult to position Jarman’s collaborative film practice within understandings of moving image production: this was not production by a collective, such as that explored by Greg Youmans in his book on Word Is Out; it was not standardized making with distinctly allotted contributions. Perhaps Jarman’s warehouse films of the 1970s are best thought of, somewhat paradoxically, as communally-produced film poetry – stamped with the director’s name, yet multiply authored. A rich yet fragile infrastructure of interpersonal ties – a spun sugar lattice of delicate connections – enabled their production. All too easily, however, that infrastructure crumbled under pressure; only motes of its existence remain. We can, through laborious acts of imagination, reconstitute these spaces; and the labour is of political value if it can resurrect modes of film practice, grounded in forms of queer sociality, that appeared to have been lost to history. They seemed to have burnt to the ground, but look: the embers are – just – still glowing.
Glyn Davis is Reader in Screen Studies at Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh. He is the Project Leader of the three-year HERA-funded ‘Cruising the 1970s: Unearthing Pre-HIV/AIDS Queer Sexual Cultures’ project (www.crusev.ed.ac.uk). Recent publications include the co-edited Warhol in Ten Takes (BFI, 2013) and the co-authored Film Studies: A Global Introduction (Routledge, 2015), as well as contributions to the journals Aniki, Cinema Journal, MIRAJ, and Screen. Glyn is currently completing a book manuscript entitled The Exhausted Screen: Cinema, Boredom, Stasis.
 Derek Jarman, Dancing Ledge (London: Quartet, 1984), 96.
 Tony Peake, Derek Jarman (London: Abacus, 2001), 161.
 Quoted in Peake, ibid., 160.
 Norma Skurka and Oberto Gili, Underground Interiors: Decorating for Alternate Lifestyles (London: Macdonald and Co., 1972).
 Peake, op. cit., 161.
 Matt Cook, Queer Domesticities: Homosexuality and Home Life in Twentieth-Century London (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 230.
 Michael Charlesworth, Derek Jarman (London: Reaktion, 2011), 37.
 Quoted in Peake, op. cit., 167.
 Peake, op. cit., 168.
 Quoted in Peake, op. cit., 180.
 Quoted in Peake, op. cit., 161.
 Jarman, Dancing Ledge, 105.
 Ibid., 204.
 Peake, op. cit., 179.
 Patrick Langley, ‘The Worldwide Wharf’, in Patrick Langley, Naomi Pearce and Susannah Worth (eds), After Butler’s Wharf: Essays on a Working Building (London: Royal College of Art, 2013), 21-2.
 Sarah Jury, ‘Tracing Labour Through Bricks’, in Patrick Langley, Naomi Pearce and Susannah Worth (eds), After Butler’s Wharf: Essays on a Working Building (London: Royal College of Art, 2013), 57.
 Ibid., 59.
 Daniel Buren, ‘The Function of the Studio Revisited’, in Mary Jane Jacob and Michelle Grabner (eds), The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists (Chicago: School of the Art Institute of Chicago / University of Chicago Press, 2010), 163.
 Greg Youmans, Word Is Out (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011).