A History of The Basement Group to Locus+

1. The Basement Group

1979. Ayatollah Khomeini takes power in Iran. Militants seize US embassy in Tehran and hold staff hostage. Sid Vicious dies. Joy Division release Unknown Pleasures. Russia invades Afghanistan. Italo Calvino publishes If on Winter’s Night a Traveller. The Conservative party and Margaret Thatcher win the election.

In April I979, Northern Arts received a paper written by 'The Basement Group Steering Committee' outlining possible roles and functions for a new arts venue in Newcastle upon Tyne now that the Ayton Basement had closed. The committee was chaired by Mike Tilley, director of Spectro Arts Workshop in Newcastle, and consisted of Roger Wilson, the head of the Media course in the Fine Art department at Newcastle Polytechnic; Nigel Frost and Ron Cowdery, both of whom had studied at the Polytechnic and been involved with the Ayton Basement; recent graduates John Adams and Jane O'Shaughnessy and student representatives Andy Roberts and Helen Campbell. The committee's links to the Polytechnic reflect the school's central role in experimental and time-based art in the city at the time. The Media department in particular had a national reputation.

John Adams recalls: 'The Polytechnic was key. Staff included Alistair Park, Lloyd Gibson, Stuart Marshall, Mike Leggett, David Gray, David Dye, Stewart McKinnon (who had a teaching fellowship) and Roger Wilson, who was the catalyst that brought into being both the Ayton Basement and The Basement Group. He also brought up many influential visitors – Kevin Atherton, Tamara Krikorian, various film- and videomakers – who offered insights to the wider world.'1 The steering committee's paper includes an article written by Dave Edwards for Aspects magazine outlining the situation at the time: For more than eight months, the north-east has been without a regular venue for performance art, and it is with a view to changing this that a number of local artists have formed The Basement Group which is now based at Spectro Arts Workshop. In taking the decision to establish a new venue in a space provided by, but run independently of, the arts centre it is hoped that it will prove possible to reach wider, non specialist audiences than might otherwise be the case ...The new venue is intended to offer an alternative to the process of mystification which almost inevitably undermines contemporary performance work, especially in the traditional gallery situation. Although Ayton Basement did much to encourage the growth of interest in performance art in this region before closing last year, its obscure location among the warehouses of the Quayside and its distinctive double-barreled shape proved ultimately to be too much of a limitation for both artists and public alike. The group of artists, who now find themselves heir to those small but enthusiastic audiences, do not however, see their role as that of a new group retreading old ground, but intend on the contrary to develop through their activities and those of visiting artists the new creative possibilities that feel to be inherent in the new space.2 Spectro Arts Workshop was to become as central to the development of The Basement Group (and later Projects UK) as the Polytechnic had been. Having been set up in Whitley Bay by Mike and Norma Tilley, it received its first grant from the Experimental Panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1972. It then moved to Newcastle, acquiring the lease of a former office supply warehouse in Bells Court just off Pilgrim Street. This was converted using funding from the Job Creation Programme, Northern Arts and the Arts Council to house a visual arts gallery, private studios, an electronic music studio, a performance space, a screenprint studio and a complete photographic workshop. Spectro Arts Workshop and the Polytechnic not only provided access to otherwise prohibitively expensive hardware and support - well equipped photo facilities, video technology and audio-visual and photographic workshops -but also served as an occasional source of employment for members of the group. No small thing in a city where jobs of any description were increasingly difficult to find. At different times, for shorter or longer periods, Spectro Arts Workshop employed four of the six individuals who formed The Basement Group. This and signing on for unemployment benefit and social security payments when not working supported the low pay co-operative model that the group practiced.

The paper states: The venue [at Spectro] is to been seen as an Alternative art space ... alternative in the sense that although numerous galleries and museums exist in the region exhibiting work of a ‘static’ nature there is no single space for the regular staging of temporal and transient activities within the Fine Art tradition.3


John Adams first became involved with the Ayton Basement through showing his work A Magus In Real Time (1977) as a first year student. He recalls: First ye ar at the Poly, everyone had to paint and draw. I was painting canvases in oil daubing crosses or x’s in rectangles (which is about all I could manage). But I already had an interest in video and discovered performance from the students ahead of us: Keith Frake et al. So at the end of the first year I did a performance drawing x's and rectangles on a monitor rigged to display a delayed video audio feedback a few seconds later. I was speaking to the audience whilst drawing and the sound built to a cacophony over the period as the monitor display became gradually more abstract. That was my release from painting with the blessing of the tutors and I moved on to do more film, video, performance and installation for the rest of the course. Much of this work was done with Jane O'Shaughnessy, which was rather unusual on the course at the time. Student/artists were expected to work on their own. As it turned out by the end of the course in '79 a number of students were working in groups ...This was all part of the 'movement' (if that is what it was) though. Many of us didn't accept the idea of precious, commodity art.4

John Adams and Jane O'Shaughnessy had been asked by Roger Wilson to become involved with this new group and they had been running the programme with Ron Cowdery – who was about to depart to the Royal College of Art for a postgraduate under the aegis of Stuart Marshall – and Neil Armstrong. They then approached Ken Gill with whom Armstrong shared a house. Gill had been a student at the Polytechnic. He recalls: I got into Fine Art on the basis that I couldn’t draw and was into happenings, film and video ...I did a piece there -The Basement -in June '79 -the piece was the phone calls one [Public Performance (1979)]. John asked me to take over running the space, but I think I probably said no as I was daunted by the prospect, but then John K[ippin] got involved and the group thing sort of emerged instead.5 He also recalls that Adams and O'Shaughnessy's interest was primarily in their video practice and they didn't want to concentrate only on the space. Ken Gill then invited the participation of two second-year students at Newcastle Polytechnic, Jon Bewley and Richard Grayson. Adams: 'My other recollection is that I felt that I couldn't really take this on long term – and that was where Ken, you [Richard Grayson] and Jon [Bewley] stepped in to save the day.'6 Jon Bewley had studied for his foundation year at Trent Polytechnic where he developed an interest in photographic practice which then expanded into an involvement in filmmaking and cross-media work.

Richard Grayson had studied first at St Albans. He arrived at the Polytechnic intending to be a painter but ended up working between Sculpture and the Media Course, building objects and installations as well as making video works and, a little later, performances. He staged The Life Boat Boys at The Basement in November 1979. Bewley and Grayson shared student houses over the first two years of the Fine Art course and collaborated on the installation Elementary Cases Of Conflict (1980) at The Basement. John Kippin and Belinda Williams had just moved to Newcastle from London. Kippin remembers: Henry [Williams’s and Kippin’s first child] had just been born and I was living in an Acme house in Beck road with Kieran [Lyons] and Bins [Belinda Williams]. We moved to Newcastle because I had friends there and a job was on offer at Spectro. I thought why not? And that I would be there about 2 years max.7

Ken Gill recollects: Bins and John arrived in Newcastle in mid '79. They'd been involved in 2B Butler's Wharf. The group idea seemed to come out of that as John and Bins were keen to be involved in something. Both had studied fine art with Charlie Hooker and Helen Chadwick at Brighton and were members of the rock/performance bands The Fabulous Shitts and the Artistics.8

By late 1979 The Basement Group had constituted itself close to the form that would drive the organisation for the next four years. This was a co-operative system where the group was its own board of management and decisions were made collectively. The group consisted of John Adams, Neil Armstrong, Jon Bewley, Ken Gill, Richard Grayson, John Kippin and Belinda Williams. Armstrong left in 1981 to pursue his work as an artist and as musician in the band Fanheater. He continued to maintain links with the group, with video work being curated into the Projects UK video project Pieces II (1984). 38 The Basement Group The Basement Group 39


There was a history of experimental activity in the north east, albeit often heterodox and isolated. The region had maintained a slightly wary distance from metropolitan centres and discourses but fostered innovative practices, often informed by the trajectories of international modernism. Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton drew up the famous 'Basic Design' course at Newcastle University in the late 50s introducing ideas of form and function to Britain that European art education had been exploring for decades through the Bauhaus and associated schools. The course became the model for British art and design education up to the 80s. Pasmore and Hamilton also staged the 1956 Environmental Painting exhibition at the University's Hatton Gallery, exploring cross-disciplinary approaches that would later be called ‘installation’. Hamilton had already developed the influential Man Machine and Motion exhibition for the Hatton Gallery in 1955 and was responsible for the translocation of Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbarn wall from its decaying barn in Elterwater, Cumbria, to a specially designed site in the gallery under the aegis of his student Fred Brookes. In 1964 Connie and Tom Pickard established the Morden Tower on the city wall as a legendary venue for experimental poetry. Allen Ginsberg gave the first European reading of Kaddish there in the 60s and Basil Bunting, whose poetry fused high international modernism with regional imagery and language, premiered his major work Briggflats in 1965. In 1968, The Amber Film collective formed at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London. The group relocated to Newcastle seeking new ways to operate outside of the mainstream film industry, build engagements with community groups and represent labouring and working class cultures. In 1977 they set up the Side Gallery dedicated to politically engaged photographic practice.

In 1968 artist Li Yuan-chia moved to Cumbria. Born in southern China in 1929, he arrived in the north of England via Taiwan, Italy and London. Yuan-chia engaged with the numinous in process based work that bore relation to abstraction and Arte Povera. He opened the LYC Museum and Art Gallery in his house and studio at Banks on Hadrian’s Wall, programming workshops, residencies and exhibitions there until 1982. With the support of Northern Arts he showed his own work together with that of over 300 others, including children, local and Chinese artists and European artists such as Hans Hartung and Takis and JR Soto. This geographically isolated enterprise attracted both national and international attention. Writing in The Times newspaper in 1974, Paul Overy wrote: The Northernmost part of England comprising the counties of Cumberland, Northumberland, Westmoreland and Durham, has a surprising number of enterprising small non-commercial galleries and arts centres. The survival of these is partly due to the support of the Northern Arts Association, one of the first and the liveliest of the regional arts associations, which so often act more humanely and intelligently than the bureaucracy of the Arts Council. But they owe their tenacity to the dedication of the individuals who have laboured to get and keep them going. It is probably no co-incidence that so many of these centres should have sprung up in the poorest and least privileged part of England. From the mouth of the Tyne to the Solway Firth, across the neck of Britain, are The Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, the Bede Gallery in Jarrow, the Sunderland Arts Centre, the Spectro Arts Workshop in Whitley Bay and several more springing up. Many of these are as much concerned with the performing arts as with the visual ones, but generally their origins, and those of the people who run them, lie in the visual arts.9

In Edinburgh, the Richard Demarco Gallery was making connections between Joseph Beuys, the LYC Museum and a more general trans-European avant-garde without refracting these through the lens of metropolitan London. It provided a luminous example of possibility to those devising similar approaches. Demarco himself was connected to the Newcastle scene through a friendship with Alistair Park, a Scottish artist teaching at the Polytechnic.

In 1976 Stuart Brisley was appointed town artist in Peterlee New Town -a residency organised by the Artist Placement Group of which he had been a founder member in 1966. The Artist Project Peterlee (1976–77) set up workshops where photographs and interviews relating to the area could be collected. These covered the period from 1900 and 1976 and were intended to return to participants a more active relationship to history and memory, together with a sense of ownership and control over their environment.

Between 1975 and 1977 The Robert Self Gallery ran a space in Newcastle, which at the time had no other contemporary commercial galleries. It showed the work of Hamish Fulton, Charlie Hooker and artists involved with the Ayton Basement. John Adams remembers of his own student days: There were some significant initiatives happening – The Robert Self Gallery was showing work by Bruce McLean, Gilbert and George, John Hilliard etc. At Washington Arts Centre, Brian Hoey organised some important video art festivals 1977-8. Tyneside Cinema was flourishing too. Side Gallery, Amber Films etc. They were all important elements and influences on the students at the Polytechnic.10 These initiatives may not always have received national recognition nor directly informed attitudes locally, but they constituted a strong background presence to emergent approaches and ideas. Most of the people who were to form The Basement Group had first-hand knowledge of only one or two, but their existence spoke persuasively of the power of locality as well as offering up a legacy that this new initiative might extend. And then there was Punk. And by 1979, the start of postpunk. Nearly all of the people in The Basement Group also had some involvement with music: Jon Bewley, Ken Gill and Richard Grayson performed together in the band A Different Beat; John Kippin, Belinda Williams and Neil Armstrong also played in groups. For the first time in a decade or so there was a surge of activity from provincial cities, an echo of the 60s ‘Mersey Beat’, where bands strongly and proudly identified with place and consciously differentiated themselves from a metropolitan mainstream. The catalyst of the Sex Pistols playing Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall firstly on June 4, 1976 and quickly followed by a second date, July 20, 1976, supported by The Buzzcocks (their first live performance), led to the rapid emergence of many other bands including Slaughter and the Dogs, The Fall and Wire, soon to be followed by second wave bands such as Magazine and the iconic Joy Division. The intense sense of place brought about by this activity was allied to an ethos of transformative amateurism. It was possible to make something valuable and important with only the means that were available to you. Neither rich record companies nor vast reserves of technique were necessary to make or distribute cultural product.


1980.The Face magazine launched. John Lennon murdered. Tim Berners-Lee writes the program that will enable the World Wide Web. Ronald Reagan elected US President. Talking Heads release Remain In Light. CNN launched as first 24-hour television news network. Pirate radio station Radio Caroline sinks.

The minutes for a meeting in early 1980 outline the operations of the new Basement Group. Paragraph four states: 'The group is to decide all policies of programme and general business. They will meet weekly (Monday evenings at Duke of Wellington).' The last paragraph reads: Bins has written to Anne Hayes, confirming show for June the 21st and explaining policy on funding of shows i.e. £30 fee £20 travelling expenses. Andreas Techler, publicity. Paul Burwell, offering September 13th or 20th for show. Dave Stephens, confirming June 7th. Stuart Brisley, suggesting he shows some work in September. Ian Hinchcliffe confirming date for October 24th. Chris Lloyd, offering a mid-week date and June 3rd or 11th. Silvia Ziranek and Roberta Graham asking if they are interested in showing some work. The next week the post of administrator is discussed: It was decided that Bins would be employed in this capacity for a three month trial period from May 1st. She will be employed for 20 hours a week split into four mornings – Tues, Thurs, Fri & Sat. Provisionally £2 per hour will be paid to Bins. This is all dependent upon contraction and talking to Peter Davies and Art Law.11

The fact that The Basement was able to establish this basic staff and fee structure owed much to the support of Northern Arts. That the regional funding authority was willing to engage such a left-field enterprise was in turn largely due to its Visual Arts officer, Peter Davies. He had a profound commitment to encouraging experimental practice in the region and supported The Basement and its activities in many different ways. This consisted of financial support (the first grant was £1,250, rising to £5,000 in 1980), attendance at events, and at one point even making a performance/installation, Administration Works (1982). The central idea of The Basement Group was that the venue should be open access – that anybody who made a proposal would be able to put on a performance or time-based event. The space showed work by established practitioners as well as experimental work by students and other interested parties. This reflected the group’s politics and non-hierarchical structure and was more or less maintained throughout the life of the organisation. Over time however, the policy became increasingly problematic for practical and curatorial reasons. Not only did there come to be a prohibitive number of applications, but the open access principle meant that it was difficult to maintain quality control so that the audience – always a fragile construction in a city the size of Newcastle – was not entirely alienated. To counter this, a curated strand of programming was established through which selected artists could be invited to show work.

The Basement Group was determined that it should be consciously 'of' the region, separate to the London art world, but not ignoring it, and that it should reflect and react to the conditions and demands of its environment. In a 1988 interview, Jon Bewley recalled:

We were also operating politically within a geographical context: we wanted to gradually foster the idea that there was an alternative to London and the South. By starting from scratch it took a while to create a ‘history’ for the practice, but by being out of the centre of the cultural market we found a surprising openness to what we were doing, not least from our funding body Northern Arts. Artists like Brisley could identify politically with such an initiative and were therefore more than willing to produce work.12

Time-based and performance practice in the UK had been developing a momentum and dynamism over the 60s and 70s. By now it was seen as a mature discipline with its own narratives and histories. Some artists and groups came out of the absurdist traditions of theatre, literature and Dada and used expressionist and nonsensical approaches to épater le bourgeois and explore models of liberation. Others worked within a visual arts tradition; Brisley for example redeployed existing sculptural vocabularies – and the Viennese Actionist tradition – to generate a Marxian critique of alienation in the social, political and aesthetic realms. Then there were those informed by structuralist filmmaking and the emerging critical engagements with media (Lyotard had published The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge in 1979). 'Third area' practice became important for artists exploring politics through the category of gender as well as class. Feminist practice was also an increasingly widespread field of enquiry, with artists attracted by its undefined history and openness to new articulations. The status of time-based and performance practice as a ‘metacritique’ of art and culture was reinforced by its ostensible existence outside the world of 'commodity'. Indeed, it was deemed impossible for it to become a unit of exchange in the economy and if it could not exist in the market it could not ‘sell out’.

As a 'progressive practice', time-based work in the UK defined itself largely in opposition to the still dominant practices of painting – and to a lesser extent sculpture – deriving from formal abstraction. Artists such as Bruce Russell, head of Painting at the Polytechnic, and Martin Ball, a tutor, featured prominently in magazines like Artscribe,which enthusiastically supported these traditional modes of practice against the new avant-gardes occupying the pages of Studio International. The lines of demarcation were clearly drawn and they shaped the wider art world. The 1979 Hayward Annual featured works by time-based artists such as Ian Bourn, Genesis P. Orridge and Victor Burgin; by way of an 'answer', the 1980 exhibition, selected by John Hoyland, showed paintings by Howard Hodgkin, Basil Beattie and Terry Frost.

It is clear now that these progressive approaches developed as part of a larger project stemming broadly from the liberal reforms enacted just after World War II. While these government led improvements may have elicited criticism and opposition from individual artists, their effect on society was undeniable. The progressive social contract allowed for the possibility – even if merely hypothetical – of the experimental artist’s agency in the wider social sphere. It promised that art could be an avatar of future social change; that it shared attributes with a historically inevitable class struggle for which it could also be seen as instrumental in some way. In retrospect, this utopian interpretation was to receive a significant check with the election of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party on May 3, 1979, but no one knew this yet. As The Basement Steering Committee’s paper to Northern Arts makes clear (with its stated desire to strip away the 'mystification' of Live Art), there was a belief that this work could talk to the wider world -influence and enrich a 'non-specialist audience'.


The contacts that John Kippin and Belinda Williams had in the south of England were central to expanding the field of The Basement Group's activities. Charlie Hooker, who had studied with them both, proposed the scored and structured percussion and motion work Percussion Walk (1979) whose performance at the space marked the start of an ongoing relationship. The links that Kippin and Williams had with artists such as Kieran Lyons encouraged contact with the community of artists inhabiting the Acme co-operative houses in London's Beck Road. Others had been involved with the Polytechnic and Ayton Basement and returned to show work at The Basement, as David Critchley did with Me, You? Them(1980). Soon The Basement was regularly host to the work of leading practitioners from outside Newcastle, all of whom came for a small fee and an even smaller travel allowance, soon encouraging others to do the same. Stuart Brisley made a very long durational work, Little Celebration of Normality (1980); Bruce McLean presented the trademark choreographed work Action at a Distance (1980); Silvia Ziranek made Rubbergloverama, Drama (1981), a new work, for the venue; Marc Camille Chaimowicz performed Partial Eclipse (1982); and Paul Burwell and the Bow Gamelan Ensemble introduced The Basement Group to artists such as Anne Bean and Richard Wilson.

Time-based and experimental practice had evolved in the UK largely outside of institutions, with artists building organic and informal structures of support and exhibition which fast evolved into a dynamic network of communication and exchange. The progressive political agendas which informed much of the work also shaped the way that artists – and they were largely the people driving this, rather than curators or administrators – developed these new organisational structures and models of practice. In Britain those ranged from highly programmatic and conceptualised formations such as Art and Language and the Artist Placement Group to more ad hoc artists’ initiatives such as 2B Butler's Wharf, London Video Arts and The Midland Group, Nottingham. The Basement Group was to make relationships with all of these in one way or another. This British circuit was part of a wider global network of groups and individuals united in their engagement with a progressive agenda. From western Europe and Australia to the USA and ‘Communist block’, horizontal structures were being shaped that were far more creative than the mainstream institutional order whose hierarchies, gatekeepers and protocols curbed the flow of exchange. The contemporary practice of Mail Art, for which this exchange between nodes was definitive, helped energise and illuminate these networks; it also anticipated -in pre-electronic form -the structures of the World Wide Web and Network Art. One of Europe’s most energetic Mail Artists Robin Crozier, was operating out of Sunderland just down the road, and soon included The Basement in his mailings.

For The Basement Group, the potential that these horizontal structures offered was both exciting and liberating, and, from early on the group's participation in them centred more on artistic exchange than it did on its capacity to provide a platform or venue. These networks remained central to The Basement Group and the organisations that grew out of it. At first, most of the interest in the The Basement came from outside the UK and the group showed work in venues across France, including Cairn Coopérative d’artistes, Paris, A La Limite, Dijon, and Espace Critique, Lyons. In 1982 The Basement Group was invited to exhibit at the Paris Biennale; it also repeatedly participated in France's massive Polyphonix festivals, classed as important cross-generational events exploring concrete poetry, performance and other inter-media practices.

The work that The Basement Group made as artists was shaped by the exposure to contemporary time-based practices they gained while running the space. In many ways, a common approach evolved in reaction to certain earlier expressions of the form, particularly when it came to performances' duration and questions of gender. The Basement Group shows adopted a revue model -distantly based on variety shows and the Stiff Tours of the 70s -to present a series of short screenings and performances one after another (each was rarely longer than twenty minutes and usually considerably shorter). The work tended to be reflexive -aware of its existence as a construction and even more so of its relationship to the audience. Humour and irony were paramount and collaborations between individual members occurred frequently, blurring the idea of signature. The work was also shaped by feminist practices. In 1980 Belinda Williams's work The Way We Are was curated into About Time, the influential ICA exhibition on women's practice; although she was the only woman member, much of The Basement Group's work shared her concerns, including the construction of identity, the interrelation of personal and political, and the refusal of overtly monolithic or macho expressions. Another mutual concern was the manner in which language shapes the social and personal self, as manifest in Williams'sThe Way We Are (1980), Gill's First Painting: Seven Bore (1983), Kippin's Elsdon Mystery (1983), Bewley's Cradles (1983), Adams' Sensible Shoes (1983) and Grayson's 3 Real Things (1983). The American High Performance magazine noted: 'Much Performance and Video work of artists in The Basement Group is involved with the deconstruction of language forms. John Kippin states; "Language is our most direct form of communication and our group locates itself outside of mystification." '13

1983. The Compact Disc is introduced. New Order release 'Blue Monday'. Ronald Reagan announces the Strategic Defence Initiative (Star Wars). ‘The Hitler Diaries’ are published. Frankie Goes to Hollywood release 'Relax'.

By 1983 The Basement Group operations were getting more ambitious and it started to develop off-site projects. Looking to find new and interesting locations in which to develop projects, it identified Gateshead's multi-storey car park as a possible location – its previous claim to fame was as the site in a famous scene from the film Get Carter (1971). The Basement Group approached Charlie Hooker to see if he was interested in making a proposal for the space. The work that developed, MAINBEAM (1983), involved a characteristic structured walk but also included choreographed cars sychronised in their movements by Citizens' Band (CB) radios. Delivering a project of this scale necessitated a level of engagement with structures and bureaucracies which represented a quantum leap from the normal operations of the space: The Basement Group sought the advice of local CB radio enthusiasts, liaised with Gateshead council to obtain the relevant entertainment licenses and worked with staff on site to secure the venue for this one night event. The public location of the work was to draw unprecedented audiences.

The Basement Group worked incredibly hard -overall it presented roughly an event per week and between 1979 and 1983 it showed the work of over 230 artists. A look at the calendars and posters gives an immediate sense of the density of activity. After four years of regular operation, both as a group of artists and as a venue, it had become -in its own under-funded and contingent way -established. Once or twice a week during the academic term a loyal group of students, artists, staff, musicians and friends would go to the dark room off Bells Court to watch a performance or film and video programme and then carry on to the Bacchus pub, High Bridge, to talk to the artists. Not only had The Basement built a local audience but it was developing a national one, and was featuring in the pages of the specialist art press, in particular Performance Magazine, whose editor Rob La Frenais invited the group to make a work for the magazine’s celebration 25th issue in September 1983. The Basement Group responded by making a collaborative single, ‘Logorrhoea’, released as a green flexi-disc inserted into the magazine. To get an idea of the programme's intensity, we can take a look at a typical three-month segment from 1983:

22.01.1983 - Fiona Templeton
29.01.1983 - Elizabeth Kozmian-Ledward
02.02.1983 - Ian Boddy
03.02.1983 - 04.02.1983 – Roberta Graham, Campo Santo
05.02.1983 - Julian Maynard-Smith & Miranda Payne
09.02.1983 - Four Artists From Paris
12.02.1983 - Mineo Aayamaguchi
15.02.1983 - 17.02.1983 – Peter Margerum
19.02.1983 - Ian Walker, Nat Pinkerton and My Favourite Things
22.02.1983 - 26.02.1983 – The Basement Group, Live Art From Newcastle – Arnolfini, Bristol
23.02.1983 - Stuart Marshall
26.02.1983 - Brian Cunningham
02.03.1983 - Craig Sisman, Naming the Capital City of the Birds and other Unresolved Activities
05.03.1983 - The French are Coming: Mogly Spex, Frank Na, Eric Clermontet, Elisabeth Morcellet, Daria Fain, Orlan
05.03.1983 - Simon Herbert, Language Lesson
09.03.1983 - Gerald Newman
12.03.1983 - Nan Hoover
16.03.1983 - Thomas Kampe, Lighting a Candle is More Sensible than Complaining about Darkness
19.03.1983 - Joel Hubaut
23.03.1983 - Dave Sturge
26.03.1983 - Jim Whiting, Purgatory … which is 21 events (including a group show by The Basement Group) in nine weeks.

This level of operation was taking its toll. The open access policy was becoming impossible to maintain and the group increasingly unwilling to support the organisation as constituted. But how were its members to find a way in which The Basement could move on without betraying the approaches it had exemplified? In June 1983 Margaret Thatcher was re-elected with a massive majority on the back of the Falklands War. Her brutal monetarist policies had broken the previous social contracts, unemployment across the country was reaching three million and the north east was particularly hard hit. There were increasing reports of an unknown disease affecting the gay community in the USA. It was very hard to maintain optimism, either in the rhetorics and dreams of art practices that The Basement represented, or in the possibilities open to The Basement Group as an organisation. It was time for a re-think.

1. John Adams, e-mail to author (2006).
2. Dave Edwards, 'Proposed Article to be submitted to Aspects' in The Basement Group Steering Committee, Proposal to Visual Arts Panel, Northern Arts, April 15, 1979.
3. The Basement Group Steering Committee, Proposal to Visual Arts Panel, Northern Arts, April 15, 1979.
4. John Adams, op. cit.
5. Ken Gill, e-mail to author (2006).
6. Ibid.
7. John Kippin, e-mail to author (2006).
8. Ken Gill, op. cit.
9. 'Museum on Hadrian's Wal'’, The Times, September 4, 1974, quoted in Guy Brett, Li Yuan-chia: tell me what is not yet said, inIVA, 2000, pp. 130–131.
10. John Adams, op. cit.
11. The Basement Group Meeting Minutes, April 7, 1980.
12. 'PROJECTS UK: Interviewed (Jon Bewley and Simon Herbert)', Variant, Vol. 1,No. 4, Winter/Spring 1988, p. 14.
13. Linda Frye Burnham, High Performance, No. 25, 1984, pp. 73 –75; 96.

A History of The Basement Group to Locus+

2. Projects UK

In September 1983, Ken Gill prepared a paper for The Basement Group named 'A Strategy for the Future: Or How To Sound Pompous and Self Important'.
It starts:
I think that we are all agreed that to go on as we have been doing for the last three or four years is now not possible. I also think that we are agreed that a projects based strategy is the favoured direction for us to move into. I have therefore formulated a number of propositions which I would like to hear your opinion on with a view to formulating a concrete and definitive plan for the future. 1) Firstly I do not see the need for us to have a space necessarily. i.e.: an office of reasonable size is more important, and a space secondary ...I feel we must move out of Spectro and into new premises. I think it is very important to strictly define our independence ...The way I see it is if we don't do it now we will never have the chance again.

2) Our name and identity would be different. I suggest we call ourselves 'Projects (UK)' which to my mind sounds more like RTZ than 'Woolly Jumper Arts'. If you see what I mean. We would retain the name Basement Group for arts shows by us as a group. The way I see Projects UK being is an international organisation which is based outside London (very important). So it is provincial in geographical terms but international in real terms. Therefore I would see funding coming from all sorts of sources. He ends: 'Please make notes about what you think. The alternative to this is to carry on as we are which I am not interested in.'1

This is the outline for what was to be the first office based arts agency in the UK. The Basement Group/Projects UK worked with Bruce McLean and Angus McGubbin assisted by the Whickham Synchronettes -a local group of synchronised swimmers -in staging Breaks from the Bridge in Elswick swimming pool in October 1983; November brought a project with Eric Bogosian, Voices of America (1983), to the Balmbras Music Hall, Newcastle. These were to all intents and purposes the first Projects UK commissions and represented a more focused relationship between the work and the site. In an 1988 interview in Variant, Jon Bewley said of Projects UK: 'We had two initial aims: to encourage the presentation of Live Art outside of the "art space" (which The Basement, to a certain extent had become) and draw in a potentially larger audience and, most importantly to allow artists access to alternate methods of production, presentation and distribution.'2

1984. First mobile phone (weighs 2 pounds). 1984–85, the Miners' Strike. Rupert Murdoch launches Sky Television. First Apple Mac computer released.

The Touring Exhibitionists (1984) was the first project travelling solely under the Projects UK banner. Artists Anne Bean, John Carson, Joel Hubaut, Alastair MacLennan, John Maybury, Nigel Rolfe, Marty St James and Anne Wilson, and Silvia Ziranek were taken on a coach around the country to make performances in the revue format favoured by The Basement Group. They performed at the Zap Club, Brighton; the Diorama, London; the Arnolfini, Bristol; the Rochdale Art Gallery; the Midland Group, Nottingham and Newcastle’s own Balmbras Music Hall.

The same year, The Basement Group and Projects UK co-edited Doc(k)s, a French publication which focused on the experimental art of a different country in each issue. Managing the UK representation, The Basement Group incorporated work by artists who had showed at the venue together with others who had not, such as Maureen Payley and Ian Hamilton Finlay. Together with a description of The Basement Group, it included a page on new organisation 'Projects UK', where the text proclaimed: 'Outside of Art we mean business.' In July 1984 Projects UK moved into its own office space in 5 Savile Row, Newcastle upon Tyne. Richard Grayson had left Newcastle in September 1983 for residencies at Reading University and the Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, Australia. As a group of exhibiting artists, The Basement Group started to wind down. Its final appearance was at Het Apollohuis in Eindhoven in October 1983. Ken Gill recalls: 'The two (Projects UK and The Basement Group) ran in parallel until after Touring Exhibitionists (which was June ’84) and in the end we had a ten-minute lunch meeting in the gallery office upstairs and agreed to call it a day.'3 By this time Gill had also decided to depart, moving first to Berlin in February 1985 and then to Glasgow. John Adams remained in Newcastle to continue his own practice as an artist and filmmaker and to teach in the Media Department at the Polytechnic, while Belinda Williams moved on to make films in the trades union and community sector and John Kippin moved to Northumberland to work on a Northern Arts/Forestry Commission fellowship at Kielder Forest.

Spectro Arts Workshop moved premises from Bells Court to Westgate Road, changing its name to New Media Workshops and offering Projects UK, with Jon Bewley as director, the possibility of being part of this larger structure.

In April 1985 Projects UK advertised that it was 'looking for a young and enthusiastic person with an intimate knowledge of current visual art activity, to engage on a one year contract of employment to initiate new projects with artists in Performance, Installation, Video and Unclassifiables.'4 In October that year Simon Herbert, who already had a history of involvement, joined the organisation.

Simon Herbert had first encountered The Basement as a student:

I was up in Newcastle in the summer of 1982, to be interviewed for the Newcastle Poly BA Fine Art Course. The infamy of The Basement Group had spread to Winchester School of Art (where I had completed my foundation) and the concept of The Basement very much influenced Newcastle as my first BA choice, so I was delighted to hear that there was an event during my visit. I remember seeing [Richard Grayson] and Ken Gill perform through a kitchen window in Dilston Road [Wayne and Eddie Are Men of Destiny (1982)], and didn’t have a clue what the event was about, but thought that it was one of the coolest things I had ever seen.5 Whilst at the Polytechnic, Herbert performed Language Lessons (1983) at The Basement and worked as a volunteer on The Touring Exhibitionists project. When his studies ended, he knew where to go:

I graduated from the Poly in 1985, and pretty much went straight to Jon [Bewley] to see if I could volunteer at what had become Projects UK. The first project I worked on was a video window of art in the local DER that ran for a week or so ...After that I pretty much helped out full time, as I was on the dole, and wanted the experience. There came a point when it was obvious that Jon needed a full time assistant, so I applied for the job, got it, and started officially on October 1st 1985.6

Those at Projects UK envisioned the organisation working simultaneously as catalyst and means of delivery for works in which the site was to be a constitutive element. Projects UK focused on commissions and facilitating them as professionally as possible. Being run by practicing artists meant this approach could be directly informed by their insights into the problems of making. The new levels of ambition also demanded a different order of financial and material resourcing than that available to the quotidian operation of The Basement.

1986. STS-51-L, Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrates 73 seconds after its launch. The Smiths release The Queen is Dead. Major accident at the Chernobyl Power Station in the Ukraine. Iran-Contra arms for hostages affair revealed.

In 1986 Projects UK staged the first New Work Newcastle performance festival with 13 new pieces. This was the first in a series of important curated projects and commissions selected both through national open submission and direct approaches to artists. The festival included Peter McRae, Sarah Jane Edge, Nick Stewart, Tara Babel, Monica Ross and Gillian Alnutt, and – as a consequence of his having secured the commission before applying for the job – Simon Herbert. The works of these less established artists were complemented by commissions from Stuart Brisley, Mona Hatoum, Alastair MacLennan, Nigel Rolfe, as well as a performance by the American writer Kathy Acker at the recently opened Newcastle music venue, The Riverside. Simon Herbert: 'It gave us a very visible (two events a week for three months of the year) vehicle to continue to demonstrate Projects UK's commitment to regional art performance/live art practice.'7

The festival saw the organisation initiate a strategically important collaboration with Mike Collier, curator of the Laing Art Gallery -Newcastle’s major arts and crafts museum -which continued throughout the New Work Newcastle festival programme. The Arts Council’s ‘Glory of the Garden’ policy sought to direct funds to diverse activities outside London and this enabled Tyne and Wear Museum Service money to be directed via the Laing Art Gallery to the project. As Herbert recalls: 'It took a big commitment from Mike in what was his first year on the job at the Laing, and I think it was, in retrospect, an extremely important event for that reason alone -I think it gave them the confidence to initiate their own commitment to the 1990 garden festival stuff, to be honest.'8 The project was accompanied by an extensive education programme for sixth formers and younger children, with talks and workshops as well as an exhibition of two-dimensional works donated by the artists that offered further insight into performance as an art form. This was the first time that the organisation had fully engaged with programmes like these and it marks a shift into it addressing the institutional requirements attached to significant levels of public funding.

The relationship between Projects UK and the Laing Art Gallery was not entirely without its problems: the Laing Art Gallery relocated Simon Herbert’s work To Poker To Poker (1986) – about sexuality and gender – from the gallery to an external warehouse and insisted that Mona Hatoum wore a body stocking rather than appear naked and covered in river mud in her performance Position: Suspended (1986). However, the festival allowed established institutions to see that there was mileage in supporting this experimental practice. As noted by Tracey Warr in an article for Performance Magazine, John Millard of the Laing Art Gallery commented at the time that northern institutions were starting to see this type of work as their province – a way of creating a cultural identity outside of London at a time when the north-south divide grew ever starker: 'We can’t compete with London over big historical exhibitions. We don’t have the resources to mount the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition. But we can compete on new ground – like performance art.'9 There was also a feeling that the regional narratives of the miners' strike and long-term unemployment might shape a particular context for this work, as Warr’s article also mentions:

Simon Herbert of Projects UK sees much performance work as being about political and social issues which he feels can be more pertinent to a Northern audience and the North can be more appropriate as a creative environment for this kind of work. A number of the artists in the ’87 season are producing work about or inspired by an environment. Julie Stephenson’s work deals with violence arising from experiences in her native Ireland. Janusz Szczerek’s Newcastle performance is entitled Take Coal and moves from a manual worker smashing a large boulder of coal to a dinner-jacketed diner grinding and eating the coal.10 The New Work Newcastle 87 festival expanded its geographical range by touring to venues in Manchester and Bradford. Projects UK took a strongly proactive role in championing Live Art at a time when the aesthetics and discourses of postmodernism were increasingly shaping contemporary practice, allowing for all sorts of unexpected ‘returns’. In the early 80s, painters David Salle and Julian Schnabel had brought back the figurative image as a crucial arena for the investigations of art. This enthusiasm for figuration came to be intertwined with a boom in the art market -in the USA at least. While artists like Alan McCollum were fźted for work which analysed art as a surrogate for exchange value, contemporary canvasses fetched record prices at new galleries such as Mary Boone. In the UK this resurgence of object-based practice was reflected in the opening of the Saatchi Gallery in St John's Wood, London, in 1985. A decade before, it would have seemed inconceivable that a 30,000 sq. foot space dedicated to showing new contemporary art should be privately funded. Combined with the irresistible rise of the stock market on both sides of the Atlantic and the brash triumphalism of consumerism everywhere, it made for an increasingly difficult environment for live practice -especially that which espoused a radical political agenda. In this context, Projects UK saw its geographical and ideological location outside the pull of the market, and its support and facilitation of Live Art as political in and of itself. The New Work Newcastle 87 catalogue positions 'live art' in direct opposition to the forces of commodification, which ...transform[s] artworks into art objects to be bought and sold and, therefore their original meanings are often corrupted or lost. A performance work however, is produced outside of -if not in opposition to -this process; after its completion it cannot be bartered, save as an exchange of memories and opinions on the part of those who have seen it, heard it and felt it ...In short, performance art reflects a particular facet of our potential for life and energy, and the choice to be engaged in an active -as opposed to passive -viewing experience.11

The essay ends with an injunction that, 'performance art is rooted in the notions of both personal presence and questioning; responsibilities that we must allmaintain through our own actions if we are to continually re-affirm our presence and our voice.'12 This is a considerable distance from the cool observations that high theory offered an art world already entranced by the postmodern idea that change was impossible in a world composed of signs, images and commodities. Projects UK had a long-standing relationship with artists working in Eire and Northern Ireland. The Basement Group had toured there and both The Basement and Projects UK had worked with Nigel Rolfe, Alastair MacLennan, and André Stitt, making ongoing links with the Orchard Gallery, Derry, and Catalyst Arts, Belfast, as well as other alternative venues. Even when their work seemed primarily engaged with aesthetic concerns, it was inevitably inflected by the complex political and military situation of the ‘two Irelands’. This symbiosis of communicative registers shaped the ways that Projects UK understood and imagined the possibilities of progressive art practice. MacLennan’s work involved long-durational performances – sometimes lasting days on end – and used dramatic installations and visual elements to explore models of resolution between opposites, as well as what role art and artists might play within them. He was influenced by the sense of seriousness and possibility in European practices such as Joseph Beuys’s, but adapted these to include a strong evocation of locality. André Stitt’s practice had an aggressive aesthetic exploring ideas of threat and abjection to confront the audience; the performer was presented as a subject shaped by forces outside his control but expressing opposition and refusal – hopefully reaching some form of catharsis together with the audience.

Contacts were made with overseas artists who likewise investigated areas between the personal and political, in this case through questions of gender and identity. As noted, New Work Newcastle 86 had featured Kathy Acker, whose work combined queer theory, techniques of appropriation and a streetwise, postpunk aesthetic. New Work Newcastle 87 also marked the start of a long relationship between Projects UK and American artist Karen Finley whose provocative performances used nudity and confrontation to challenge the audience’s attitudes towards difference, AIDS, and sexism. Finley’s performance of A Constant State of Desire (1986) at London’s ICA had led to conflict with Westminster Council and the attentions of the Vice Squad. In 1987, she performed the piece at Newcastle’s Live Theatre as part of the New Work Newcastle festival’s central programme of women artists, which included Anne Bean, Rose Finn-Kelcey, Annie Griffin and Anne Seagrave – all of whom were to have a distinct influence on the agency over the next few years.


Projects UK was working increasingly with artists who reflected upon their work's location; projects where the event, object or intervention itself, not necessarily the body of the artist, was 'performative'. These works were usually temporary, reflexive and part of an evolving engagement with ideas of ‘site’. They were also coextensive with influential European projects such as the 1987 exhibition Münster Skulptur, which explored similar concerns.

That same year, Stuart Brisley and Maya Balcioglu collaborated on The Cenotaph Project (1987), for which they built several one-fifth-sized chipboard models of the Whitehall Cenotaph and placed them in a variety of different locations, including a council flat in St. Cuthbert's Village, Tyne and Wear; the Kettle's Yard Gallery, Cambridge; Dean Clough, Halifax; the Chisenhale Gallery, London; Aspex Gallery, Portsmouth and The Pearce Institute, Glasgow. In each site the cenotaph was differently installed -sometimes with sound, sometimes with text, sculptural or photographic elements -all designed to put the work into dialogue with its environment.

Still in 1987, Projects UK participated in the country-wide sculpture project TSWA 3D, presenting Richard Wilson’s work One Piece at a Time (1987) in the interior of the south tower of the Tyne Bridge. Wilson set up a complex site-specific sound installation using hundreds of chrome car parts suspended high in the tower. The wire that held each element aloft was cut by a blade on a timing mechanism so that each part crashed noisily to the floor in a temporal reversal of the Johnny Cash song 'One Piece at a Time', where a car is constructed over a long period. TSWA 3D was an indicator of the way that practices which up to this point had been seen as experimental or marginal in the UK were gradually moving towards centre stage, certainly as regards the sort of resourcing and finance they were able to attract. TSWA 3D was an initiative between the TV station Television South West and the public funding body South West Arts and manifested a uniquely large budget. Similar initiatives were to receive a boost as government invested in regional cultural initiatives and ‘garden festivals’ in response to the widespread rioting and social unrest that was happening across the country. In the non-government sector, London’s Saatchi Gallery caused ripples by purchasing Richard Wilson’s oil pool artwork 20:50 (1987), first shown at Matt’s Gallery, as a central part of a private, rather than public, collection.

1988. CDs outsell vinyl for the first time. Damien Hirst curates the exhibition Freeze. American Psycho published. George H.W. Bush elected US President. PAN AM flight 103 blows up over Lockerbie.

In 1988, as well as staging the New Work Newcastle 88 Festival, Projects UK curated the British component of the EDGE Festival in London, commissioning new works from Tina Keane, Alastair MacLennan, Nigel Rolfe and Rose Garrard. EDGE Biennale Trust was initiated by Performance Magazine editor Rob La Frenais and conceived to be 'Britain's first Biennale of Experimental Art'. Projects UK was constantly broadening its network of collaborators, seeing the generation of relationships with different organisations as crucial to the workings of a regional organisation. The relationship with EDGE however came to be of a different order and rapidly developed into an ongoing exchange, until early in 1990 when Jon Bewley left Projects UK to become a co-director of the EDGE Biennale Trust. The organisations remained close, with Projects UK -where Simon Herbert was now director -helping deliver and document the ambitious EDGE 90 event. They also shared the same Newcastle office, though each remained autonomous with a separate board of management and staff. EDGE 90 (Art and Everyday Life in the 90s) was the best realised of the EDGE festivals. It was curated by Jon Bewley and Rob La Frenais and took place largely in a disused warehouse on Newcastle quayside designed by John Dobson, northern England’s pre-eminent 19th century architect. The commissioned work concentrated as much upon site-specific installation as performance based work and drew from an international spectrum of practices. Artists included Karen Finley, Bill Henson and Mike Parr, Black Market, Marina Abramovięc, Guillaume Bijl, Guillermo Gómez-PeĖa, Isaac Julien, Cornelia Parker, Orlan and Richard Wilson among many others. It succeeded in giving a compelling presentation of some of the most incisive and influential practices of the time. Not only was this a project of great curatorial ambition, but it was organisationally and logistically groundbreaking. Along with the The Tyne International: A New Necessity (1990) -which Projects UK was also involved with – it was one of the first major contemporary art events the region had seen. There was as yet no pool of expertise for projects of this complexity, making the successful staging all the more remarkable. All in all, 1990 was to be an extraordinary year for Projects UK as regards the scope and ambition of the activities that it – and the people attached to it -orchestrated. The year was to profoundly shape the possibilities for, and the future thinking of the organisation. Projects UK was also involved in developing works for the 1990 TSWA Four Cities Project which further developed relationships between the organisation and a number of artists. The Basement Group and Projects UK had previously worked with Mona Hatoum; forAlive and Well (1990), a major installation deep inside Newcastle’s Victoria Tunnel, she constructed a large steel chair made entirely from heating elements that glowed red as an electrical current was fed through them. It was an imposing work that spoke of dark deeds and subterranean forces and fires.

Projects UK had also worked with Stefan Gec on Bitter Waters (1989); for Trace Elements (1990), a project selected from open submission, the artist developed his concerns with nuclear power and his Ukrainian heritage on a far greater scale. Gec took metal from decommissioned Soviet nuclear submarines that were being dismantled at Blyth, melted it down, and recast it as a series of bells. These were then hung from beams surrounding the support of the High Level Bridge over the Tyne at a height where they would be covered and revealed by the flow and ebb of the tide.

The first time that the organisation had worked with Chris Burden was during the production of The Sailing Destroyer (1990). For TSWA Four Cities they brought Burden together with the warship HMS Cavalier. The artist had delivered a complex proposal to adapt the destroyer with sails, rigging and leeboards so that it could use wind power to propel itself silently through the seas. At first the intention had been to physically install the masts, sheets and sails, but when the very first costing for an underwater metallic stabiliser came in at 25 times the total budget it was decided that a detailed maquette should be constructed instead. The model of the new hybrid vessel was exhibited in the bowels of HMS Cavalier, moored on the quayside of the River Tyne at Hebburn, Gateshead. In 1991 Projects UK organised the exhibition project Burning the Flag together with Where do We Draw the Line? – a conference developed in association with the New Statesman magazine. Both took censorship as their central theme. Burning the Flag featured a number of American artists who had been at the forefront of a bruising engagement with the National Endowment for the Arts over freedom of expression. Under pressure from the moral majority and leading Republicans such as Jesse Helms, this federal fund for the arts had withdrawn or refused support to artists like Karen Finley. This was more than a local issue as the same forces were expressing themselves in the UK under the Thatcher administration – as could be clearly seen in the passing of the infamous Clause 28 amendment to the 1988 Local Government Act, prohibiting any ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by a local authority, and was regarded as a clear move towards censorship by an increasingly illiberal and reactionary government. Burning the Flag presented works by Annie Sprinkle, Karen Finley and Tim Miller, all of whom had been in the shooting line of the new censorship. Both the performances and the conference caused a local and national furore, gaining coverage in The Guardian and The Independent newspapers and alarming the trustees of Projects UK. Despite Projects UK’s successful engagement with larger organisations, which had allowed them to undertake projects of great ambition and complexity, both Jon Bewley and Simon Herbert – in their respective positions at Projects UK and EDGE – were now directly experiencing the problems, shortcomings and limits of large bureaucracies in ways that were to fundamentally influence their approach.

Projects UK had been effectively annexed as a department by what had once been New Media Workshops; fusing in this way was a condition of funding imposed by Northern Arts and across the UK the trend was for regional arts boards to consolidate small organisations within larger infrastructures to seek economies of scale. For Projects UK however the new situation proved deathly. New Media Workshops renamed themselves as Projects UK in 1988 to benefit from the organisation’s greater profile, and in doing so proceeded to financially constrain and limit the operations of what it now described as its ‘Events Arm’, placing Simon Herbert in perpetual conflict with the trustees. It was against this background that the last few 'Projects UK' events took place: the music project Earshot (1990), Burning the Flag (1991) and Force Ten (1990), an artists' flag project in association with Glasgow City of Culture. Simon Herbert was squeezed out of the organisation in 1992, soon after which it was shut down by Northern Arts. He decided that it was time to explore situations other than those of the north east and went to Canada to take up a post as guest curator at Plug In, Winnipeg. Similarly, Jon Bewley was finding the experience of working on EDGE 92 increasingly problematic. The operation was getting mired down in money problems and its irregular administrative structures prevented him dealing with artists and delivering their projects in the manner that he wished. Increasingly he found himself in conflict with its staff and operations, which finally resulted in him parting company with EDGE several months before it staged its final, problematic festival in London. He returned to Newcastle to recuperate and ponder his next move.

Projects UK had achieved considerable influence in the ways that relationships between organisations and artists were imagined and modelled. The simple fact that it was non-gallerybased and focused on the needs of the artist and the individual project rather than the (institutional) narratives of curator, collection and exhibition, had a profound impact, as can be seen in initiatives as diverse as Artangel, London, The Laboratory, set up by Paul Bonaventura at The Ruskin, Oxford, and Eventspace (and later Tramway), Glasgow. The approaches Projects UK developed had become part of the language of contemporary art. At the same time it had maintained a distance and separateness from the self-defined centres of cultural practice and refused to become institutionalised or homogenised. This to an extent reflected its base in a northern city in possibly one of the most centralised and parochial cultures in Europe, but it also reflected a determination to maintain a rigorous independence and integrity.

A History of The Basement Group to Locus+

3. Locus+

1992. The Maastricht Treaty is signed, founding the European Union. Betty Boothroyd elected first woman speaker of the House of Commons. Bill Clinton defeats George H.W. Bush in the US elections. Republic of Yugoslavia breaks up. Elizabeth II describes the year as an Annus Horribilis (horrible year).

In 1992 Jon Bewley and Simon Herbert approached Peter Stark, the director of Northern Arts at the time, and Peter Davies, its Visual Arts officer, to discuss a new organisation to operate in Newcastle upon Tyne. A paper outlining its operations was part of a bid that Northern Arts was developing to host the Year of Visual Arts Culture 1996: '...we are not suggesting a re-launching of the Events Department of Projects UK per se, but the creation of an artists led organisation and resource that builds on the successful elements of Projects UK, takes into account changes within and beyond the region and addresses the broadening requirements of artists practice through the nineties.'

It goes on to state that: 'Locus+ will be distinct from other organisations that appear to be similar because of its access and resource structure. It will not be curator but artist orientated … It will be based in the North but operate and promote its projects nationally and internationally.' Crucially, after Jon Bewley’s and Simon Herbert’s individual problematic experiences with larger bureaucratic structures, this new organisation was envisaged as an ‘office based operation with low overheads and a small staff. The organisation will not administer an exhibition space and will require only sufficient office space for minimal office equipment.1


Northern Arts gave the proposal one year's trial funding, Simon Herbert returned from Canada as co-director and Locus+ was launched.

John Kippin and John Adams from The Basement Group had been invited onto the board of trustees, but in its approach the new organisation soon proved itself very different to both Projects UK and The Basement Group. This was in part owing to its change of remit, but more so to the shifts occurring in visual arts practice, which required new responses. One of the catalysts of change was the emergence of a generation later known as the young British artists (yBa). The first significant event in this narrative was Freeze (1988), the exhibition Damien Hirst put on in a warehouse to represent work by himself and his friends. Out of this event emerged a cultural and social wave that reshaped Britain’s perception and understanding of contemporary art. While rooted in an experience of the Thatcher years, much of this new work seemed to lack any direct – or voiced – political engagement outside that symbolised by its abject, post-punk aesthetic. This presented a challenge to Locus+; both The Basement Group and Projects UK had been expressly committed to programming politicised art practice. The yBas, pace Thatcherism, seemed to have no hesitation embracing the commodification of the art object (although this too tended to be qualified by the ‘grunginess’ and paucity of the materials used by many). The making of ‘things’ had clearly returned as part and parcel of being an artist, a condition normalised by the arrival of new galleries and expendable wealth. The dramatic growth of markets and enormous private investment in art in turn reinforced the centrality of London.

At the same time, 'live art' and performance-based practices which had previously seen themselves as de facto radical or engaged were succumbing to exhaustion. Having been 'oppositional' for so long and seen no shift either in the social or aesthetic fabric, live-art practices were reduced to a ghetto of theatrical and symbolic expression that engaged fewer and fewer people. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 also undermined some of the deeper held assumptions of 'avant-garde' practice; not only was the existence of an alternative system to that of late capitalism problematised, but so was its desirability. Any potentiality the 'alternative' might have had seemed increasingly to be denied by events in the world.

Differences between 'objectified' and ‘performed’ practices were becoming blurred. Locus+ sought to encourage approaches in which the development and production of work was itself an act -performative and durational, with the site cast almost as mise-en-scŹne. The collaboration between organisation and artist was in this context itself an 'action'. Meanwhile, work by the yBa generation turned increasingly towards the 'theatrical' -playing to an audience with a profound awareness of how art can function as a media and publicity event.

Locus+ further poeticised and problematised these performative qualities by echoing another trope of Live Art -consciously and unconsciously. As Ian Breakwell points out in his 'Eight Notes towards an Essay', included in this book, often the event itself is nearly invisible or immaterial and exists largely (or only) in the documentation and the narration.

Locus+’s first major commission, Search (1993), exemplified many of these ideas. The project, by Pat Naldi and Wendy Kirkup, showed how an agency can collaborate with an artist to deliver works that would otherwise remain outside their individual reach. Search also demonstrated a political and social engagement without being didactic or excessively editorial. Newcastle was one of ten authorities in the UK pioneering centrally-controlled networks of cameras overseen by the police to trace and record the movements of citizens on their everyday activity; most other UK towns did not develop similar systems until in the wake of two-year-old James Bulger's death in 1993. Michael Howard subsequently announced the 'City Challenge Competition' to allocate two million pounds of government funds for open street camera systems. For Search, Locus+ negotiated with the Northumbria Police for the two artists to access footage (from the CCTV network) of themselves executing a choreographed walk around the city. The video recording, with its tell-tale time codes and camera location indicators, was edited and broadcast in 20 ten-second sequences during the commercial breaks on Tyne Tees Television.2 The artwork momentarily transformed the television set into a security monitor, making the domestic space of the home into the centre of a panoptican and revealing the reach of video and surveillance technology into everyday life. This was at a time when such footage -outside the Bulger tragedy -was still rarely seen on TV screens; Search suggested surveillance technology possessed complex political, psychological and gender loadings. In 1993, Search was an exciting project, but the rapid spread of surveillance into the everyday -the UK now has 20% of all the world’s CCTV cameras -and the increasing media penetration of the concomitant camera images, as well as subsequent work made by other artists on comparable themes, has defined this work as seminal.

At the time, postcolonial societies such as Canada and Australia were developing discourses on difference, multiculturalism and cultural constructions of 'centre' and 'periphery' that were far more sophisticated than those unfolding in the politically parochial UK. Locus+ saw these as offering radical models for the cultural expression of diversity and decentralisation and the relationships with Canadian artists and organisations which Jon Bewley and Simon Herbert had nurtured since 1988 now generated two further projects with a strong political charge. Works like Synapse (1993) by Sutapa Biswas, and Feng Shui,(1993) by Lani Maestro, Henry Tsang, Paul Wong, and Sharen Yuen interrogated the cultural status quo and ideas of difference. Sutapa Biswas's work looked at the specifics of movement across cultural, social, and national spaces. In a performance at the Plug In gallery, Winnipeg, the artist borrowed 29 saris from members of the local community. Each had a short text attached relating in one way or another to the donor, and these in turn were combined with a series of seemingly unrelated spoken narratives. Out of this, a central strand emerged weaving together ideas of personal history, displacement, wellbeing, health and diaspora. Feng Shuiwas a collaborative installation and performance at All Saints Church in Newcastle. It juxtaposed ideas of social and celestial harmony, which lie at the heart of the Chinese practice of feng shui, with the orderings and cultural values manifested in the architecture of the church. The work suggested the possibility of harmony or resolution between these two conflicting forces.

1994.Pulp Fiction released. Kurt Cobain commits suicide. Sony Playstation launched. John Smith leader of the Labour Party dies. Massacres in Rwanda. IRA declares ceasefire in Northern Ireland. White House launches its website.

Temple of my Familiar (1994) by Nhan Duc Nguyen sited a 100-foot-long and 15-foot-high painted mural at the Blackstaff Community Complex on the Falls Road, Belfast. The location of the work highlighted similarities of form and shared concerns underpinning the practice of mural painting. In the context of Northern Ireland where murals are used to mark the myths, histories and overall evolutionary narrative of groups (whether Republican or Protestant), Nhan Duc Nguyen, a Vietnamese/Canadian, depicted a personal narrative pertaining to his own life and spiritual journey as an artist. Occurring at the same time that the IRA announced the ceasefire in Northern Ireland, signalling the start of the end of 'the troubles', the work created parallels between different histories of conflict and diaspora.

Crash Subjectivity (1994) by Lloyd Gibson was a project developed with an artist who had taught much of The Basement Group at the Polytechnic. Like other Locus+ commissions at the time the piece centred on a contingent sculptural object, a marmoreal hermaphrodite figure combining not only male and female characteristics but also those of adult and infant. The statue was installed at three different sites in Britain and Ireland; two of these were religious in their significance -the bell tower of All Saints Church, Newcastle and the bell chamber of the Carlisle Memorial Church, Belfast – while the last, The Dublin Institute of Technology, was associated with rationality. Each inflected the shifting figure with simultaneously specific and contextual meanings, encouraging it to occupy contradictory positions with ease and fluidity.

The approaches developed by Projects UK, Locus+ and others were becoming the central languages of contemporary art in Britain. This was most clearly underlined when Rachel Whiteread's Artangel project House (1993) became the centre of a storm of controversy, hurling comparable models of art practice into the media and in turn general consciousness. Whiteread won the Turner Prize that same year after being nominated for House. This marked an attitudinal shift as to who (and what) might constitute an 'establishment practice'. Previous winners were artists such as Malcolm Morley (1984), Howard Hodgkin (1985), Tony Cragg (1988) and Richard Long (1990). Subsequent winners included Damien Hirst (1995), Douglas Gordon (1996) and Gillian Wearing (1997). In 1994 Locus+ collaborated with a commercial gallerist Anthony Reynolds and the artist Mark Wallinger (to be shortlisted for the Turner Prize the following year) to commission a limited edition multiple. The funds raised by the sale of Locus+'s 50 die-cast statuettes of the horse and the jockey -in his livery of green, white and violet, the colours of the Sufragettes -was directed into the costs of buying the horse. Locus+ had been one of the shareholders in Wallinger's earlier project A Real Work of Art (1994), owning one-twelfth of the racehorse. Unfortunately, A Real Work of Art was hurt on its first outing and was retired from racing.

Locus+ developed projects with artists whose work lay largely outside the changing commercial environment; some turned into long-term relationships, very much in line with the sustained engagements with particular artists' practices that had characterised the organisations that preceded it. While André Stitt is perhaps the only artist to span The Basement, Projects UK and Locus+, artists such as Richard Wilson, Charlie Hooker and Mona Hatoum have been involved in an ongoing discourse with one or two of these organisations over many years. Another such example is Stefan Gec, whose installation Natural History (1995) was developed with Locus+ to memorialise the first six firemen who died trying to contain the fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986. Liaising with representatives from the Northumbria Fire Brigade, giant, photographic portraits of each of the men were hung above the faćade of Pilgrim Street Fire Station. Each portrait echoed the stern heroic images that used to look down on Soviet parades in a moving work that spoke of heroism, iconography and the communities of work and service. The piece was later toured to the SAW Gallery, Ottawa (1996) and the Ukranian Cultural Centre in Winnipeg, Canada (1998).

Buoy (1996) extrapolated the logics of Gec's and Locus+'s evolving exchange into the work itself by redeploying the base material of the Projects UK commission Trace Elements (1990). There, Gec had recast into bells the metal reclaimed from Russian nuclear submarines scrapped in Blyth. This new project -a collaboration between the artist, Locus+, The Laboratory, Oxford, and the Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast -reconfigured the bells, melting them down and recasting the metal to form a fully operational sea-going navigational buoy used to mark shipping lanes and warn of hidden marine dangers. This massive object, which was unveiled as a sculpture by Peter Mandelson in Hartlepool, toured various sites in Europe before being committed to the sea. Soon it occupied the international shipping lanes of the Atlantic Ocean, Norwegian North and Barents Sea -water that, in a different political world, it had moved through as a submarine.

In 1995 Locus+ worked with artist and writer Ian Breakwell on Hidden Cities, again in collaboration with The Laboratory in Oxford. Breakwell had been involved with the Artist Placement Group, whose operations had helped inform Projects UK and Locus+, as well as previously working with Projects UK on a collaboration with the composer Ron Geesin, Christmas Carol (1991). This time he undertook a residency at Durham Cathedral and presented an alternative, personal, tour of the city, first on the Prince Bishop river cruiser and then in the body of the Cathedral itself where, from the pulpit, he read 'In The Cathedral', a chapter from Franz Kafka's book, The Trial. In an unpublished diary entry, Breakwell mused on a certain Boy's Ownmagazine quality in some of the Projects UK and Locus+ commissions; a fascination with models, maquettes and machines.3 This can certainly be seen in Gregnik (Proto 1), (1996), where artist Gregory Green built a model of Sputnik as a radio transmitter, and also expresses itself in more contemporary projects such as Chris Burden's Ghost Ship (2005) and Layla Curtis's Polar Wandering (2006).4What unites these projects is Locus+'s interest in the performative possibilities of objects, a wider fascination with technology and a desire to trace the ways that it colours our society.

This engagement is clear in Nach Chernobyl (1996), where Cornelia Hesse-Honegger used the medium of scientific water-colours to unpack the narratives associated with our 'promethean' technologies and to represent their actual impact on the environment. Hesse-Honegger trained as a scientific illustrator at the Zoological Museum of the University of Zürich, Switzerland, and carried out her own research on insects living and breeding in the areas of Europe worst affected by the fallout from the explosion at Chernobyl. After finding a large number of mutated insects, she extended her research to areas surrounding Sellafield, Cumbria and Three Mile Island, USA, where she found similar effects. Hesse-Honegger documented her enquiries in beautifully detailed paintings redolent of Victorian nature studies, picturing the new world and nature that technology had brought into being.

In 1996 Locus+ worked with Irish artist Shane Cullen to exhibit Fragmens Sur Les Institutions Républicaines IV (panels 1–48) at the Tyneside Irish Centre. This vast installation consisted of dark green wall panels covered with texts drawn from the 'Comms' -messages smuggled out on cigarette paper from hunger strikers during the Long Kesh protests of 1981. Cullen had painstakingly hand-painted each word in a serif font typical of classical public inscriptions, thus problematising the way content and carrier might be indexed to conflicting legal categories of 'legal' and 'illegal'. This work addressed an ongoing political struggle, often disregarded by the mainstream of British culture, tracking the historical tendencies inherent in legal orders, together with the shifting dialectic by which 'outlaw' groups move from the margins into the structures of nation, government and law.

The next year Locus+ staged An Indian Shooting the Indian Act (1997) by Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun at the National Rifle Association range in Bisley, Surrey, and on a private estate in Northumberland. In a sophisticated act of mirror-play, this ritual engaged with history and resistance, reversing a tool of domination -the gun -onto the legal text responsible for sanctioning colonisation. The 'Indian Act' had helped enforce the subjugation of the Native American and was now shot in the ‘native’ land of the coloniser.

Stuart Morgan in a 1996 essay about Locus+ writes: ... important topics -privilege, government, religion, sexuality, history -are never shirked nor is the audience's intelligence underestimated. The mixture of races and creeds in the North-East is respected and the attempt to create a greater public for art is quiet, persistent and successful -not because crass issue based options are entertained, but rather because a deeper sense of relevance is the goal.5

1997. Dolly the Sheep cloned. The Verve release 'Bitter Sweet Symphony'. AOL reaches 10,000,000 subscribers. Tony Blair and The Labour Party defeat the Conservatives. Princes Diana dies. The Hale-Bopp comet makes its closest approach to earth.

Since Stuart Morgan wrote those words, the roles and contexts for art in Britain have developed and notions of 'relevance' become multiple and problematic. In 1997 Tony Blair's 'new' Labour Party came to power, ending 18 years of Conservative hegemony that had outlasted The Basement Group and Projects UK and formed a backdrop to the activities of early Locus+. The sense of jubilation that this occasioned both across society and within the arts soon changed as it became clear that New Labour was to attach instrumental criteria to support of the arts. These were to be seen as an expression of specific values and attributes – an approach famously given expression in the vacuous enterprise of the Millennium Dome. In 2000 Tate Modern opened -a monument to the institutional embrace of contemporary arts practice. This, together with the explosion of the commercial sector, represented new challenges for an organisation constantly seeking ground for meaningful engagement.


Locus+ continued to work with artists from the commercial sector to facilitate works that stood to one side of their gallery practice. Cathy de Monchaux made a large permanent photographic installation for Cullercoats Metro station, Tyne and Wear -The Day Before You Looked Through Me (1998). Repens (2000), a Locus+ commission by Anya Gallaccio as part of the Art in The Park programme for Compton Verney, enlarged a motif taken from a Robert Adam ceiling design and mowed this into the lawns surrounding the country home. As part of the same programme, Locus+ commissioned Simon Patterson's project Landskip (2000); colour coded military smoke canisters were detonated at intervals, animating the carefully landscaped gardens in a series of controlled explosions. In 2000 Jonty Tarbuck joined Locus+ full-time after working on a project basis since EDGE 90. Jonty recalls:

I came to Newcastle in 1989 to study the History of Modern Art degree at the Poly -I chose Newcastle partly to do with the course but mainly to do with what was coming out of the town -I was aware of the work of Projects UK and in particular Richard Wilson’s One Piece at a Time (1987). I packed the course in – to take up a Fine Art degree at the Poly the following September – this gave me the opportunity to get involved with EDGE 90, where I met Jon and Simon for the first time -along with Rob La Frenais. I was fairly surprised by the relatively relaxed and organic decision making processes – if anyone had a good idea -they were able to voice it and were listened to on more or less any level ... In September 2000 I became based in the Locus+ office full-time -Simon was off on his six-month sabbatical in Jan 2001 and I was to take over his responsibilities.6

During these years, Locus+ heavily expanded its publication programme. Sometimes publications documented the work of a relatively well established artist who had not yet been offered the opportunity to create consolidated documentation of their work – as with Anya Gallaccio’s Chasing Rainbows (1999) and Simon Patterson (2002). Othertimes they brought an occluded or otherwise little-known practice to the fore so as to encourage its penetration into the discourses of the art world and market – as with Cornelia Hesse-Honegger’s The Future’s Mirror (1997) and the André Stitt publication Small Time Life (2002). This interest in promoting and publishing the work of artists – in both books and multiples – led Locus+ to attend the art fairs Arco, in Madrid, and Art Forum Berlin, representing its activities to new audiences.

2001. George W. Bush is sworn in as the 43rd President of the United States. Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia, goes online. The iPod is launched. The UK foot and mouth crisis begins. Almost 3,000 are killed in the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, New York. The Allied Forces invade Afghanistan. The Euro is launched.

The regional conditions in which Locus+ operated were changing. In 2002 Gateshead’s BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art opened with four floors of exhibition space dedicated to contemporary visual art. The BALTIC was an initiative of Gateshead Council and part of an ambitious regional regeneration plan for which EU-funded cultural provision acted as the fulcrum. Those involved hoped to reap benefits for the region’s profile and economy similar to those Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum had delivered to Bilbao, the erstwhile economically depressed Atlantic port town enjoying unprecedented tourist numbers and a concomitant cash injection to the service industries. The commissioning and construction of Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North between 1994–98 had started a process that was to result in the construction of Norman Foster’s music centre, The Sage Gateshead as well as the conversion of the Baltic Flour Mills. It had been a long process, and one that the operations of Locus+, Projects UK and even The Basement had prefigured and helped prepare. Locus+ had put forward Richard Wilson’s neon sculpture The Joint's Jumping (1996–99) to be placed on the faćade of the new gallery as a central part of the BALTIC's bid for lottery funding. The project was accepted and the bid successful, but the sculpture subsequently dropped. The presence of this high-profile and cash-intensive regional initiative has shaped and altered the regional environment in which Locus+ has its roots. The BALTIC's difficult and uncomfortable first four years of operation have made it difficult to determine quite what its effect or ‘foot print’ will be. But even acknowledging darker scenarios, where the funding situation changes such that the region’s hard-won diversity of activity is reduced rather than expanded, its presence grants Locus+ the potential to imagine future operations in a new and radical manner.


In October 2002, Simon Herbert left Locus+ and Newcastle upon Tyne for the west coast of America seeking to develop his interest in writing for film.

In 2003 Nathan Coley was commissioned to produce the work Show Home, which required the construction of an object reminiscent of an ideal cottage or Scottish croft. The artefact was to be entirely convincing from many angles, but was in fact a three-wall shell made to be displayed and marketed as a 'show home' on new housing developments on three different locations on North Shields. The sculpture was subsequently shown in Milton Keynes, Dublin and Newcastle. Show Home investigated the myths and cultural charges surrounding real estate, the construction industry and home ownership in contemporary Britain.

2004. The Republic of Ireland bans smoking in all restaurants, pubs and bars. Armed robbers steal Edvard Munch's The Scream from the Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway. Morrissey releases his first solo album in ten years. The Scottish Parliament is officially opened. Hundreds of artworks are lost in the Momart warehouse fire in East London. John Peel dies. A massive tsunami devastates coastal areas of the Indian Ocean killing over 186,000 people.

As regards the histories and debates of culture, the position from which Locus+ initiates and commissions new works is perhaps more central now than at any time over the last 30 years. However it remains conscious of, and shaped by, the critical distance it maintains from the ‘centre’ and in so doing determines its own territory. Whilst ‘established’, it has refused to become 'establishment', a position which others have gladly occupied or indeed had thrust upon them. Locus+'s security is contingent on an increasingly predetermined, commodified and 'safe' cultural environment – in both the public and private spheres – but it nonetheless allows the organisation to maintain the freedom and flexibility that has always been its most important and vital quality. The situation in Newcastle and Britain is very different to that when The Basement Group first assembled to discuss the plans for its future. But the 30 years of work generated by The Basement, Projects UK and Locus+ has helped these materialise without the organisations becoming co-opted, corrupted or used by others. Through a principled engagement with the artist and artwork, and a clear idea of how art may engage an audience and the world, Locus+ and its antecedents not only shaped the region but national understandings of the potentials offered by creative relations between organisations and artists. As their approach becomes unremarkable, part of the cultural ‘mainstream’, the challenge of context renews itself. Only by defining and measuring itself against these new realities can the organisation continue to create new relationships with artists, new work and new understandings of art.


On a wet and blustery afternoon in July 2005 a self-navigating sailing boat moved slowly up the grey river Tyne. This was the end of its long voyage from Fair Isle far to the north of the Scottish mainland, down the coast, and then up river into the city of Newcastle upon Tyne. Chris Burden’s Ghost Ship passed in front of the BALTIC, under the new Millenium Bridge that had been specially raised for it, and drew up to moor at the navy training facility HMS Calliope in front of The Sage. It had been built in association with Southampton University, where systems were developed for the boat to detect wind direction and speed and to perform navigational adjustments. The vessel was followed up river by a trawler that had been behind it from the start, bringing it into shore each night with a crew that included Jonty Tarbuck and Matt Hearn from Locus+. Together with many other people along the river bank, all were tracking the small and fragile vessel as it finally came to the end of its difficult voyage, safe in the city of Newcastle upon Tyne. A city that, once again, was the genesis, site and host for another extraordinary event in 30 years of extraordinary events brought into being by the Ayton Basement, The Basement Group, Projects UK and Locus+.

1. Application to Northern Arts Concerning the Establishment of a New Visual Arts Commissioning Agency, Jon Bewley and Simon Herbert, January 1993.
2. This occurred between June 21 – July 4, 1993.
3. Ian Breakwell, unpublished Diary entry.
4. Layla Curtis, Polar Wandering
5. Locus+ 1993–1996, Locus+, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1996, p. 11.
6. Jonty Tarbuck, e-mail to author (2006).

Richard Grayson 2006