14.04.2010, Words by Charlie Jones

The Dummy Guide To The ICA

Such is our ideal – not another museum, another bleak exhibition gallery, another classical building in which insulated and classified specimens of a culture are displayed for instruction, but an adult play centre, a workshop where work is a joy, a source of vitality and daring experiment. We may be mocked for our naïve idealism, but at least it will not be possible to say that an expiring civilisation perished without a creative protest.

Herbert Read

Art and music have become interrelated to such an extent that an institution like the ICA can easily feature the likes of The Smiths and the Cocteau Twins and an exhibition by Bruce Maclean, or Sonic Youth, The Pet Shop Boys and a talk by Lyotard about post-modernity, more recently the hugely influential grime club night Dirty Canvas might be going on in one room, Mogwai might be completing a five night residency in another or you could find the filmmaker Derek Jarman hosting a retrospective of his work. It is a testament to the strength of the institution and its singular claim to the British avant-garde crown, that over fifty years since it was founded it is still going strong.

Just to recap; Anarchist poet, Surrealist and art critic Herbert Read founded the ICA in 1947, with a like-minded group of committed avant-gardists, including Roland Penrose, Peter Watson, Geoffrey Grigson and E.L.T. Mesens. From the beginning it was conceived of as a radical space, one that encouraged cross-pollination across all forms and styles. Its early programme traversed the worlds of art, exhibiting visual, sculptural and sound based art without distinguishing between them, only foregrounding and illuminating upon their shared avant-garde tendencies.

The ICA is a space where the purely radical elements that form the notional centres of visual art and music can overlap and lead to an exciting dialogue between the two mediums. I’d like to propose that the ICA has provided as much of a sustained attack upon the preconceived notions of popular music in Britain than any other institution or group, by providing a space where these radical assailants on popular culture could be based, from the Surrealists to Passolini, from The Jesus and Mary Chain to Don Letts to Steve Reich, the ICA has welcomed and made them comfortable, a little continuing corner of creative fertility in a sea of mediocrity and ersatz genius. Here are a few moments from the institution’s history.


In 1936 Herbert Read organised The London International Surrealist Exhibition, which placed British artists like Henry Moore, Paul Nash and Barbara Hepworth, who were slowly absorbing the continental influences of Surrealism and Cubism, alongside Salvador Dali, Andre Breton, Paul Eluard and Man Ray, the artists who were propagating them. The exhibition culminated on the 1st of July with Dali delivering a lecture, ‘Fantomes Paranoiaques Authentiques’, inside a deep-sea diving suit. The incident nearly resulted in his suffocation; only a quick thinking David Gascoyne, armed with a spanner, managed to rescue him. Also, part of the exhibition’s organising committee was the British pacifist and artist Roland Penrose, and the Belgian surrealist E.L.T. Mesens.

In 1947, they would conceive of a radical space for the arts in London, a place of communication between avant-garde tendencies, a place celebrating the most futuristic, the newest and the most radical movements that were developing in Europe and America in first half of the 20th Century. The 1936 exhibition, despite being shocking to the conservative British art world, didn’t turn into a sustained movement, and over the next ten years Moore and Hepworth were absorbed into grand humanist figures of tradition, becoming very public and accessible artists. The inspiration behind the ICA was to build a permanent home for what the International Surrealist Exhibition proposed – to further the radical tendencies of British art, and prevent them from dissipating. The first exhibition they launched was called 40 Years of Modern Art, and aimed to get the British public up to speed with the avant-garde developments occurring in the art world during the 20th Century.

The major upheavals that the ICA proposed in the field of music can be traced back to Erik Satie, a French composer active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Satie referred to himself as a measurer of sounds, or a phonometrician. In 1919, just a few years before his death, he started to associate with the Romanian poet, Tristan Tzara, and the DADA group based in Zurich. What ties this together with the ICA is in the development of the avant-garde in music. Satie’s influence, like that of Stravinsky and in DADA-ist sound collage and noise poetry, helped to move music out of the realm of the ‘popular song’ and into something more challenging. Among the many people enamoured by these movements was E.L.T. Mesens, one of the founders of the ICA. It is Satie’s original avant-garde approach to music that has influenced the challenging programming that the ICA has committed itself to over the last sixty years.


In New York City, in 1961, a group of artists started espousing a new form of audience / performer interaction inspired by John Cage’s 4’33”, (the famous piece of ‘silence’, with noise coming not from the performer but the incidental noise emanating from the environment or the audience), the group became known as Fluxus, and was ‘led’ by George Maciunas. In 1962 Fluxus made the trip across the Atlantic and staged a show at the ICA titled ‘Oh, What A Lovely Whore’. Fluxus used instructions to bridge the gap between audience and artist, often using the actions performed by the audience as the art itself. The instructions detailed the plan for the event that evening –

1. Prepare a wide range of activities with maximum participation incentive.
2. Light them with two or three (i.e. 1 is not enough) spotlights on stands with wheels, so that the audience can control them.
3. When the audience start to arrive hold them in a screened off area until they have all gathered.
4. Announce that you’re not going to do any event that night and if they want an event, they’ll have to do it for themselves.
5. Open screens or curtains.

The audience instantly took too their new roles as the makers of an interactive, boundary-less art happening; they jumped on trampolines, acted in and directed a play and projected films on the walls. The climax of the event was the destruction of a piano by the crowd, who then decided to rebuild a new piano from the salvageable parts of the old one, the audience then engaged themselves in continuously re-building and re-destroying the piano until the gallery of the ICA was filled with debris.

The destruction of the piano forms a neat symbol for the role the ICA has played in the musical landscape of Britain; both deconstructing it then rebuilding it from the leftover pieces. In 1968 the ICA moved into new premises on the Mall. The year featured exhibitions with work by Picasso, Bacon, Hockney and Max Ernst, T. Rex and Pink Floyd played live, the ICA cinema opened and the first major exhibition of computer art in the UK was also staged. In one year, a year with huge significance globally, invested with the Situationist riots in Paris in May, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and the Hornsey Art School student protests in London, the ICA managed to bridge the gap between the past and the future with effortless ease.


On the track ‘Convincing People’ from their 1979 album 20 Jazz Funk Greats, Throbbing Gristle’s singer Genesis P. Orridge repeats the refrain ‘we don’t want to convince people’ over the song’s outro. It is evocative of much of what the band stood for during their short career, which lasted from 1976 to 1981. If the sixties in Britain where about hope and rebirth from the coldness and austerity of her post-war period, then by the time Throbbing Gristle formed from the remnants of COUM Transmissions in 1976 then they were out to prove that the future wasn’t as bright as the swinging sixties promised. Throbbing Gristle’s first performance was at the ICA, as part of the hugely controversial show, Prostitution, which drew a remarkably prescient quote from Tory MP Nicholas Fairburn when he referred to the group as the ‘wreckers of Western civilisation’. Cartoonist Garland presented a scene of a muse being mugged by Genesis P Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti outside the ICA’s premises on the Mall for The Daily Telegraph. The chairman of the ICA at the time, Ted Little, defended the exhibition and the controversy it caused, saying that the ICA had the a duty to help the contemporary avant-garde and provide a platform for it. It was a show that was designed, not to ask people to consider the merits of their shocking and inhuman approach to music and visual art, but just to create a parody of shock; COUM were an ideological and visual attack on popular culture, to Einsturzende Neubauten’s physical attack on the institution.


January 1984, the start of the year which George Orwell made the emblem of all dystopian, authoritarian, nightmarish futures; of Big Brother, Room 101 and newspeak. It was ushered in at the ICA by the German industrial band Einsturzende Neubauten, and what a fitting way to do so.

Einsturzende Neubauten is often translated into English as the apocalyptic sounding ‘Collapsing New Buildings’ – with Neubauten a reference to the architectural style that spread across Germany in the wake of the Second World War. Neubauten are not analogous to the utopian Brutalist movement that spawned such iconic buildings as the Heygate Estate in Elephant & Castle and the Barbican Centre. The German Neubauten represented the functional and the flimsy; they are an unadventurous rebirth from the siege of Berlin by the Red Army and British air strikes on Dresden and Hamburg.

Einsturzende Neubauten’s music was an attack on music, and in January 1984, in the theatre of the ICA, they physically attacked the stage, venue and audience in their Concerto for Voice and Machinery. The event involved a loose group of musicians, Einsturzende Neubauten regulars Mufti, Alexander Hacke and Mark Chung as well as Genesis P. Orridge of Throbbing Gristle – and a few other disparate people who’ve been resigned to history. For 25 minutes they launched an assault on the stage of the ICA with all manner of power drills, cement mixers, welding machinery and chainsaws. Glass bottles where thrown into the cement mixer, resulting in large shards of glass being ejected from it and into the crowd, who’d already been covered in sawdust by Mufti. After Neubauten and associates left the stage, the audience took up their own role in the night and tried to continue battering the ICA into submission. Hacke claimed the performance to be a utopian attempt, through violence and sound, to leave the venue through the floor.


It can seem strange to think of an institution as dedicatedly radical as the ICA not picking up on and capitalising on the Young British Artists and the massive booms in the art markets that rippled out of them. Apart from Damien Hirst’s debut solo show in 1991, the YBAs have had little presence at the ICA, and the impetus of contemporaniety has shifted away from it and towards Tate director Nicolas Serota and Charles Saatchi, who together have been setting the stylistic agenda in British art for the past twenty years. It would be fair to level at the ICA for not being at the most cutting edge of art over this past decade.

The most recent exhibition to take place there was also by the avowedly anti-YBA Billy Childish. But maybe this isn’t such a bad thing, and possibly even, despite its precarious financial future, positions it to better deal with the next ten years of art and music even if over the last twenty years or so it hasn’t necessarily been at its best. The ICA has never really associated itself with something as reductive and as media created as a ‘movement’ like the YBAs, it has always been more about gently probing and pushing at the boundaries; boundaries of taste, acceptability, art, culture and music. The 1990s saw its develop its musical programme with the likes of The Jesus and Mary Chain and Pulp both playing live there in 1994, and the Hacienda taking over the institution in 1993, and kicking off Britpop in 1989 with the Stone Roses or continuing its experimental tendencies with a festival of German electronica in 1999. Continuing onwards into the new decade the ICA has played host to the likes of Luke Haines, Daniel Johnston, Patrick Wolf, Mogwai, Patti Smith, Paul McCartney, Hot Chip and Amy Winehouse.

All the while the ICA has maintained its radical approach to music – in late 2009 they hosted Calling Out Of Context, a nine day festival celebrating the experimental approaches people have taken, and are taking, to music, and the vitality of the sonic avant-garde with the likes of Lucky Dragons, Alexander Tucker, Rhys Chatham and Micachu.

The ICA has, over the last 63 years, positioned itself quite uniquely in the British psyche, where the original waves of the avant-garde failed to take root in Britain, the Futurists, Surrealists and Modernists generally inhabiting the continent rather than our rainy island, it set itself the goal of promoting and sustaining them, and it is hard to argue against the success of the place as post-war British culture has developed. Calling Out Of Context was a return to the roots of the ICA’s musical programming, rooted in the avant-garde it is a summing up of the current state of the avant-garde, and thus the new, in music, and what has been achieved by the ICA during its existence.



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