I am curating and collaborating on a rich series of interconnected events and exhibitions in Cambridge over the next two months. They all connect to the recent 50th Anniversary of the First Exhibition of Concrete, Kinetic & Phonic Poetry convened in Cambridge at St Catharine’s College from 28 November-5 December 1964 by Stephen Bann, Reg Gadney, Phil Steadman and Mike Weaver who were doing research or studying in Cambridge at the time with a shared interest in experimental forms of visual and literary practice. Whilst never a formal group they were all extraordinary – highly active and successful in writing, publishing and inviting well-known international writers and artists to send works to them which they showed in the exhibition at St Catz or published within magazines such as Form (co-edited by Bann, Steadman and Weaver) from 1966-1969 or in now very covetable catalogue insert in Granta in November 1964 designed by Philip Steadman listing ninety works arriving for the week-long exhibition from various countries from Austria to Venezuela.
Having curated an exhibition called Poetry, Language, Code as guest curator at the Ruskin Gallery in Anglia Ruskin Universiry in June 2012 (planned to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing’s birth) and having then edited Visualise: Making Art in Context which set out a curatorial approach which draws on layers of cultural histories of site and place I felt that the almost forgotten exhibition from 1964 would be perfect micro archaeological ‘dig’ for me. It became much easier when I was introduced by William Allen in London to Stephen Bann who quickly directed me towards Mike Weaver, who was the catalyst for the original show and who turned out to be living now in Oxford. Mike strongly encouraged me to steer clear of any ideas of reconstruction of the original show (unless I had a massive budget, time and institutional backing to secure loans of some of the now valuable works which had been sent to him in Cambridge back in ’64, stored in Magdalene College then wheeled in a trolley with the help of Phil Steadman to St Catz) and suggested I try to make the most of the Ruskin digital screens to curate a show that might enact the transformation of earlier concrete and kinetic material into digital form.
Understanding Mike’s points entirely it seemed wise to create a show that could offer something by way of original research into little known material and to go beyond digital transformation as an agenda (which can sometimes imply shifting negative to positive) and, to tackle the task slightly differently, which I am pleased to say has resulted in two shows that reverse engineer the notion of transformation revealing through material histories aspects of art histories which have been somewhat lost. During these days when we document everything over and over again it is refreshing to find that no images of what the first exhibition actually looked like and few if any documents exist other than those in Stephen Bann’s comprehensive archive and bits and pieces I have found elsewhere. The first show – a token of concrete affection – opened on the exact 50th anniversary at the Centre of Latin American Studies in Cambridge and featured amusing anecdotes from both Stephen Bann and Philip Steadman as well as an intimate display of works from Bann’s collection which I curated and will write about elsewhere. The second show is topic of next blog post and focusses on the intersection between graphic design, concrete and kinetic poetics.