Remembering the 1960s Underground | Moments in the archives with artist activist Juno Gemes in Three Parts…| Part One
I = Interviewer – Paul Andrew
R = Respondent – Juno Gemes
Part One of a three-part series.
Juno Gemes was a collaborative director of multimedia happenings and events. An early woman pioneer of Performance Arts in the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia during the 1960’s .Later she became a filmmaker, photographer and publisher. Juno Gemes is one of Australia’s most celebrated contemporary photographers. In words and images, she has spent 40 years documenting the changing social landscape of Australia, and in particular, the lives and struggles of Aboriginal Australians.
I: Juno hello thanks for sharing memories, maybe a personal memory to begin with, the counter-culture… I mentioned to you on social media that when I was a child growing up in the burbs of Brisbane in the 1960s and 1970s, before I became involved with artist-run culture in Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra in the early 1980s, I was glued to anything and everything ‘camp’ and political on television, and for many like me the TV was a way for kids to access, and feel like they were participating in the underground, with an empathy for the personal story-telling around the counter-culture.
And, I remember playing hooky from school to watch midday television and The Mike Walsh Show, in particular, all the astonishing interviews with artists, influential writers and creatives, feminist writer and thinker Germain Greer was one. And Richard Neville, a regular vital and erudite commentator on that program provided an insight into the radical, counter-cultural aspects of Sydney of that moment in time. For example, the Yellow House, a collective of artists living and making together in Macleay Street (Potts Point) in the 1970s including Martin Sharp was always something that came up. My memory is that Richard would often frame the Australian underground through the publication Oz, a counter-culture zine he co-edited with Richard Walsh and Martin Sharp, and in a sense, his own personal perspective of arts, culture, psychedelia and drug culture, and what was happening in the political world at the time. Many of the commentators on mainstream midday media, at least, were largely male, women were commentating on that TV show about many other important things but what always intrigued me was about what women may have had to say at the particular cultural moment explicitly about Australian arts and culture, and the underground?
R: Alright well, let me give you a bit of background as a Woman Artist / Resident Founder Member of The Yellow House Collective let’s go further back – in actual fact I’m going to take you back to 1965 to the world of Performance Art and Underground Publications which was my world in the UK and Europe before I came home to take part 10 Cunningham Street Performance Space in Sydney and then The Yellow House 1970.
I: Great. Thanks Juno…
R: As a young rebels in our late teens, Martin Sharp and I grew up down the road from each other in Bellevue Hill, Sydney. This was the Viet Nam era, Australia was stifling under Menzies . We were a group of highly critical, questioning Rebel experimental artists. The group included Clemency Brown, Dickie Weight, Charlie Brown, Albie Thoms, Mick Glasheen Tom Barber, Laurel Fox; a fantastic performance artist who is not widely recognised, Brian Thompson, Jim Sharman, it was a fascinating group with a wide range of skills. Martin Sharp lived at Wirian, Richard Neville and many other collaborators friends , writers and visiting artists would call in , it was one of a number of open houses to all creative friends.
We were the new post war generation , questioning and creating new critical ways to examine our world – alive to all possibilities , reacting to a stiffing culture we really could not tolerate. We were ready to interrogate everything . We would met in pubs including The Windsor Castle, in Cafe’s and in Music and Film Clubs , at The Union Foyer or Honi Soir at Sydney University or NIDA or the Round House and Thuranka at UNSW, and of course in our homes.
I completely connected with these revolutionary times, throughout my life, wherever I went and worked in the world. We were a fortunate generation – who dreamed of Utopian Times. What was our best version of how we could be in a cooperative world ?
We opened up these questions and gave our youth to exploring , pretty fearlessly , all possible answers to them.
I came from a theatre background in Hungary actually. This is my background, in the first five years of my life I was sheltered by the strong line of matriarchy on my Mother’s side . That experience is so solid and strong in me – being shielded during the war by strong independent innovative Feminists- during the Nazi occupation of Hungary. While the men were away, in danger in various Work Camps run by the Nazi’s. Often it was the women who figured out how to save them. They certainly saved me.
I was five years old when we arrived in Australia , I spoke not a word of English . I was taught both English and the piano by Sacred Heart Nuns. I grew up as a critical witness to Australian culture, I was a critical questioner of Australian culture always as that was my nature and the cultural climate which surrounded me in strongly cultural home.
I could question everything it in a way that was natural to me yet unusual , because I had no history to defend . I was a new stranger who looked at a new/ ancient world with new eyes. Assuming nothing. Nobody could push me around in any way whatsoever. Even though I was clearly a European , an outsider – I found that position in fact had some un expected advantages .
My great aunt, Dame Hetteny Aranka was the director of the National Theatre (Budapest) in Hungary and she was gay, in 1930, and out. Running the most sacred institution in Hungarian theatre, her husband Emile Nadenyi, my great uncle was the owner and editor of the 8 o’clock News, the major evening newspaper in Budapest and he was also the private secretary to the Prime Minister of a free Hungary before the Nazis came.
In 1964 I graduated from NIDA, the National Institute of Dramatic Art, but there was no Australian theatre at the time. Jim Sharman was a year behind me and we wanted to create a new theatre, a new Australian theatre that spoke to a country without an acknowledged history. I worked with Jim on a theatre piece called Terror Australis a collaborative theatre piece with actors Helen Morse and Garry MacDonald among others – we were collaboratively creating the script for the show. The work was staged at the Jane Street Theatre, and was possibly the first examination of Australian history, from a radical theatre perspective. It was the 60s, women and men were experimenting, and trying for equality. I directed Zoo Story by Edwards Albee which was so well received, by audiences and critics alike, it was transferred to play at the Palace Theatre in Sydney for three weeks. I loved Edward Albee I was mad about Edward Albee.
When I was in London in the 60s Martin Sharp lived in The Pheasantry and I lived around the corner in the World’s End in Chelsea. I was writing for the underground newspaper the International Times, founded by Jim Haynes rather than for Oz magazine edited by Richard Neville, Jim Anderson and Martin Sharpe. Because of my Hungarian background I felt European. I found my place easily in the counter-culture in London. I’ve got chameleon qualities so I can fit in pretty much anywhere I need to. Whether it’s with Pitjantjatjara people in the central Australian desert or in a grand house in Buckinghamshire, or a radical squat in Notting Hill Gate, I can feel at home in any locale.
I met Jim Haynes who was the founder of the International Times and I was looking for some work in radical theatre. In fact, I met him earlier the Traverse Theatre in Edinburg with Richard De Marco. Jim Haynes made a lot of things happen, his interests were broad, from radical theatre, to light shows, underground clubs like UFO, to visual art to publishing. Jim was facilitator to lot of people’s talent including theatre director Jack Henry Moore. Jim took me along to a dress rehearsal of Bertolt Brecht’s play Mouther Courage, and I said, “yes, that’s great, I love Brecht, that’s not it, that’s not what I’m here to do”. Jim replied, “I think I know what you’re here to do”. (Laughter) He took me to Indica Bookshop, a counter-cultural book shop and gallery in Mason’s Yard where, there in the basement they were putting together the International Times.
Jim introduced me to John Dunbar, who ran the Indica Gallery and Michael McInnery, one of the editors of the International Times along with Barry Miles and they invited me to write about experimental theatre in Europe. There was an experimental theatre festival coming up in Belgrade. In fact, it was Jim who actually gave me the gig. It was exciting for me because I was able to meet two the most radical theatre companies in the world at the time, The Living Theatre from New York and Gerry Grotowski, from Krakow in Poland, with his Theatre Laboratorium and both companies were going to perform in Belgrade.
When I met Judith Malina and Julian Beck from The Living Theatre they invited me to take part in a happening they were planning together, one that was going to open the festival. Of course, this was unbeknown to the festival organisers. All the members of The Living Theatre were asked to dress completely in black. We went to the Belgrade Town Hall to the opening ceremony of the festival, and we dispersed throughout the two hall. Each of us took up a pose in the hall and consciously held that pose for an hour. Stillness. It taught me the power of stillness, and how stillness with an improvisational theatre piece would provoke a reaction.
I was also fascinated with Gerry Grotowski’s Theatre Laboratorium. His approach was the exact opposite, highly- structured, mainly non-verbal, entirely different to The Living Theatre piece, still experimental, and Gerry would spend a year or more in making a theatre work. I continued my friendship with both theatre companies for several years. I was also a guest at the Theatre Laboratorium for several months a few years later.
Before this time, in London, Jim Haynes had introduced me to Joe Boyd and John “Hoppy” Hopkins who ran the UFO. I worked there in the UK with Charles Maravich, directing experimental theatre pieces which were presented at UFO club as multi-media happenings, liquid light shows and events. The whole of the music scene and the counter-culture was there on a Friday night. It took place once a week from ten o’clock till dawn on the Tottenham Court Road in London and was an essential part of the British counter-culture during the 1960s. And the whole of the English music scene, the whole of the counter-culture came along there to take trips, take acid.
And together we would create this phantasmagorical environment for people, and our house band was the Pink Floyd. They played there every week, they’d play a set that would go on for four hours or more along with the light shows, or The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and the Soft Machine, another house band. Mark Boyle along with Joan Hill did the liquid light shows, and they were incredible, in fact Mark invented light shows there, and also has art works in the Tate Collection.
I was often the only woman artist working in this situation. There weren’t that many women working in the scene. Until I was invited to meet with Yoko Ono when she was making Bottoms , a film made in 1966. Tim Rudnick her cameraman, was a really good friend of mine. Tim Rudnick and his Robin were working with Yoko and making this film together in Belgravia. They rang me and said, ” we want you to come over, we want to put your arse on film”, and “we’re inviting members of the underground to take part in this film. And we are going to put everyone’s arses on film, and the interview them about it, it’s going to be fabulous”, they said. They had rented a house in Mayfair and in the front room were all the performers who were going to participate, and waiting their turn. On this particular day I was there, the performers included Pete Townsend, the Duchess of Argyle, the publisher John Calder, who was Jean Genet’s publisher, and who was mid-way fighting a censorship case to publish Jean Genet in the UK at the time. These people were luminaries in the counter-culture and all were invited to put their “arses” on film.
The process was that you were invited into the set located in the sitting room, there was a Japanese screen, and behind that you would disrobe from the waist, coming out into the room you would see on the floor, on the carpet was a large wooden circular turntable, and from the marble fireplace extended a wooden rod from a balustrade which you could grab hold onto when you stood on the turntable.
When you stood on the wooden turntable and began walking slowly , Tim would be able to film a tight shot of your bottom in motion as you walked. These were the individual shots which make up Bottoms film. After the shot was complete and you got dressed, you’d be asked to record your response to that experience on a sound tape recording of your response to the question “ what did that experience mean for you?’
I remember answering that for me it was like experiencing a Zen parable, that although you were moving, you were already where you were going. Yoko liked that description of my experience.
I saw Yoko as a kind of woman Zen Master. She spoke in very clear, parable lines. That day we immediately got that we were both rare as two women artists who were taking part in public performances in what was a pretty male dominated London underground of the time. And we were holding our own. We weren’t taking any shit from anybody and it wasn’t all that easy, but, we worked on our own terms. From that day we recognised each other. We went to dinner in Chinatown and she said look I really would like you to be involved, can you drop what you’re doing for a while and come and work with me on the Bottoms film, there’s much more to do.
Yoko was living in an apartment with John Cox who was her then partner, and together with her daughter Kyoko. Tim and Robin Rudnick were also living there. I too moved into the Regents Park flat. Soon Yoko invited me to be in performances with her. There’d be performances once a month. She had this piece called The Scream, you might have heard of, where one partner, which was me was just seated still in a chair and Yoko would bandage me up. This meant that all that was really was uncovered were my eyes and my mouth and then she would take, took up this microphone and, firstly, ever so gently she started sobbing and then she started screaming into it. Screaming. It turned out that people in the audience, some men of the audience totally flipped out, they started boo-ing, somebody in the audience pulled the cord out of the microphone, so the performance was sabotaged.
The police were called, it was in the papers the next day: Yoko One Performance Sabotaged at The Perfume Garden in Covent Garden. It was a riot incident in the underground. It was described as where two women artist performers did something that was so unbearable to the men folk that they (the men) had to sabotage it. To this day we still don’t know who sabotaged the performance.
Another performance which I directed at Joan Littlewood’s theatre in Stratford East was part of an event called 24 hours of Happenings and Events at Stratford East with an Australian actor from Melbourne named Laurence Burke, the piece was called The Nature of Romance. I found a tailor’s dummy along a kerb side throw out, in a dumpster from memory, we cut a hole in the tummy of the dummy, we dressed her, and we put all this offal inside her. Laurence took her onto the stage in a very dimly lit theatre, recited Shakespearean love sonnets as he disembowelled her. As the director of this happening, these were my reflections on sexual freedom at the time, because, well because there was a dark edge to it all.
I loved the immense freedom of it all but I knew that we were dancing in some pretty dangerous territory and we had no road maps, none whatsoever. I had expected the audience that night to cry out “stop, stop” but instead the audience, a very stoned audience said, “more , more” and cheered Laurence on.
It was after this performance when I get a call at three o’clock in the morning from Tim Ruddnick. Tim explained that Yoko has locked herself in, inside her apartment bedroom. He added, “ and there’s a knife in the door. Tim described that Yoko was asking for me to come. So, I go running back to the flat. I sat outside her door, telling her I was there. And, at four o’clock in the morning Yoko came out of her room, the two of us went for a walk in Regents Park together. She told me the story of how she had fallen in love with John Lennon and that her partner John Cox had found out and that he’d lost it and explained to me that’s why there was a knife in the door.
I remember that Yoko had a lot of compassion for him, for John Cox, and she said, that men were so vulnerable in this situation because they had their sexual organs outside of themselves and women whose sexual organs are interior could contain that kind of conflict, in a very different way. I mean that’s how she thought. Yoko was always a really extraordinarily original thinker, someone who spoke in parables. I really love that about Yoko to this day.
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