From March 1967 to November 68, the home of gallerist Paul Keeler – on Balls Pond Road in North London – became the headquarters of an art collective called the Exploding Galaxy, and a bona fide hippie commune. Here, Gemma de Cruz quizzes Jill Drower, author of a memoir, 99 Balls Pond Road: The Story of the Exploding Galaxy, about what it was like to belong to this commune, aged fifteen, and make artwork, with no commercial interest, in one of the greatest moments of creative freedom and possibility in recent British History.
Gemma de Cruz – One of the quotes from your book that I kept going back to was when you describe 99 Balls Pond Rd as going from being the “offshoot of a defunct art gallery… to a crowded commune”…
Jill Drower – That’s exactly what it was. Paul Keeler was co-founder of Signals Gallery, and he bought the house at around the time the gallery moved to Wigmore Street.
Paul had previously started a centre with David Medalla in Cornwall Gardens in Kensington. It was a mansion flat where they – Paul Keeler, art critic Guy Brett and artists David Medalla, Gustav Metzger and Marcello Salvadori started showing kinetic art. They realised they needed a shop front, and this coincided with Keeler Optics (the Keeler family business) moving to another premises and leaving a vacant building with a shop window in W1.
Did Paul himself live at 99 Balls Pond Road the whole time?
He lived there from the end of 1964 and throughout the time it was a commune [March 1967 to November ’68]. By the end of this period his life had moved in a completely different direction and the house was sold early in 1969. Paul had a more serious attitude to the other people living there because he had a commune living in his house; he would be legally liable for anything that took place there. In that sense it had been a serious responsibility for him.
It’s very common that one person decides to do something and then others join in, even though they may not have initiated it themselves…
In our case, we were inspired by two well-known artists, David Medalla and Gerald (Fitz) Fitzgerald. We ran with their ideas and developed more of our own. We used Fitz’s term, ‘invasion of ideas’ and enacted this in the streets and at home. The artist Michael John Chapman in particular was out there every day with his sound poems and his philosophical discussions with passers by. Our term for this was ‘activation’. We all took up the cause of activation.
The reason the house was so important is that it was just before squatting had fully come into the picture. The first wave of squatting in recent times was after the war, when so many houses were bombed out and deserted. The second wave didn’t come until after 1967. I’ve not done a PhD in squatting, but I’d say that from 1968, squats provided artists with valuable creative spaces, free of landlords and evictions. That’s why Balls Pond Road was so important as it predated that second wave of squatting and offered a place to stay, and a sympathetic environment for artistic exploration.
The house wasn’t home to all and sundry, although it sometimes felt like it in the summer of 1967. There was a core of us although Paul said one day he couldn’t believe it, he counted 60 people in the house. You can’t function like that, so by that autumn things had changed.
Paul Keeler married your sister, so you have a very personal connection to this story too.
I’ll tell you what I feel about Paul’s family and Signals. History is a version of the truth, it’s always somebody’s take, and it tends to be the triumphant ones or the celebrities who get to tell their story. Paul’s father was an engineer who specialised in developing optical instruments. He was of his time, yet despite coming from a completely different world, he funded Paul to start an art gallery – he had the faith in his son to do that. When the gallery ended, the story was that the father pulled the plug. He was cast as a nasty figure, but, in fact, he had effectively put his own finances at risk by supporting the gallery. That’s not the story that’s come out. The fact is that although these same Signals artworks fetch eye-watering amounts at auction these days, in 1965 and 1966 kinetic artworks did not sell. A gallery cannot keep going if it doesn’t sell work. In this sense, David Medalla, who had initiated the move towards kinetic art, was way ahead of his time.
Do you think, because you had this space where you could stay and meet, and live in this creative, if basic way, it made it possible to formulate ideas and make art?
We could not have functioned as a living artwork without the house. Paul Keeler was central to the Galaxy because he provided the space in which the whole aesthetic exploration could take place. The absence of consumer durables of any kind and the presence of artworks (I remember in particular several works by Soto and Camargo) as well as shelves full of books on art, philosophy and Eastern mysticism, led us straight into the world of imagination. Paul has used a metaphor to describe us: fascinated children staring into rock pools and finding everything enchanting. The channels to creative energy were one hundred-percent open.
One of the key traits of the Exploding Galaxy was that you were using the streets and public places, such as housing estates or Parliament Hill, to perform, turning them into your canvas or showing space. Did you feel that you were ahead of the curve in doing this?
Perhaps we were a little arrogant in thinking our aesthetic was more developed than anyone else’s. In all honesty, I think a whole lot of things happened at the same time. If you saw what was happening as a kind of collective unconscious… You had the very straight 1950s, where young people tried to dress and do their hair like old people; then you had a change. There was the music in America, the artists coming out of the RCA, the Aldermaston marches and suddenly everyone was saying, ‘We don’t have to live like this, we don’t have to do it their way’. I think that a raised consciousness was emerging and bubbling up all over the place and it happened a lot in London because London was ‘swinging’; it attracted film directors like Polanksi and Antonioni, and lots of other creative people. I don’t think we could say we invented anything.
Certainly there was this idea that art should leave the galleries; we took it to an extreme, but I think there were other people taking it to extremes, too. There were definitely lots of people ripping up the rulebook, like Jeff Nuttall and the Situationists.
You talk in your book about not caring about making objects in the sellable sense, not caring about having a physical ‘product’ as an outcome. There is something very important about art not always having to result in an end product; that belonging to a community or having an experience can be ‘products’.
The fact is that we saw the whole of life as an artistic exploration, and it was not about creating a product with permanence. Like many in the mid-’60s, we believed anybody and everybody was potentially an artist. One or two have since sought recognition, saying, ‘I did this’ and ‘I did that when I was in the Exploding Galaxy’ – note how the word ‘we’ has changed to the word ‘I’. Actually it was the exact opposite of that; the value was in the shared process, it wasn’t in the product at the end. For this reason, no costumes from The Bird Ballet [performed at the Roundhouse] exist; no banners or flags from our street celebrations and no ‘scrudges’ [the Galaxy’s term for art made from discarded materials]. The only things I have seen preserved are Michael John Chapman’s beautiful poetry ledgers and a painting by Eve Ridoux. We wanted our art to be truly ephemeral and so that’s how we made it.
In the book you mention the artist Tjebbe van Tijen who “drew his way across Europe” in 1966. The quote from photographer Clay Perry reads: “Tjebbe drew a continuous line from Amsterdam to London. He took the line into the interior of a KLM plane. He continued in London, drawing over our flat in the Portobello Road, also over Maggie and Sarah and many other people and places”…
This guy was amazing; he was a perfect example of taking art out of the galleries. He wasn’t the only one doing this kind of work. There was also Graham Stevens with his inflatables and many others. Again, everybody was having similar ideas at the same time. I think we were in a little bubble; we probably didn’t know everything else that was out there. But, actually, if you look back at history, you can see similar creative experimentation in lots of different places. We were connecting with both the Flower Child movement and the kinetic artists. The biggest example of this is the work of Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, who was doing exactly parallel things. He was taking art out of the gallery and into the Favelas in Rio de Janeiro, and having people dance in garments that he’d made out of old bits of plastic – he was doing this at the same time we were doing it in London.
There was no internet back then to check what anyone else was doing, but there was communication and an empathy and the sense that we were all working towards a goal and a common idealism; it was something we shared with the Brazilian Tropicália musicians like Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. It’s very sad now that very few people have this sense of idealism, the sense that you were really achieving something and that you were going to change the world peacefully, through art and music – we really did think that was possible.
Change the world from what to what?
From being a materialistic, consumer society to some sort of idyllic place where possessions and ownership didn’t matter. It had its other flawed side of course, but we really did live that for a while, certainly in the Exploding Galaxy house. We really did what we set out to do – to live as a work of art.
It was like going to an anti-finishing school where you were able to turn all the things you’d been brought up with on their head. Having a meal, for some of the people, meant getting up in the morning and going out and scavenging vegetables at the nearby Ridley Road market. So it really was a non-materialistic world, and what satisfied us was living by the aesthetic principle. One thing that was revolutionary about us was the way we left a very low carbon footprint – something not many of us would have thought important at the time.
Back then, London was filled with little craft workshops, leather factories, shoemakers, handbag makers… and if you looked in rubbish bins you’d find punched out bits of leatherette and so on that you could use to make artworks. We weren’t the only people doing it; Gwyther Irwin was working with bits of old rubbish in the late fifties. We took it to its logical conclusion, and our name for it was ‘scrudging’.
So you used these discarded materials to construct new work rather than treat them as readymades?
It’s similar to working with found objects and comes from the same tradition as Duchamp and Rauschenberg. Duchamp chose his readymades precisely because they were nondescript; they had to be something you could ignore. We were the exact opposite. The reason for this was that we were very influenced, as a whole generation, by LSD. When you picked up some old scrap of rubbish and looked at it under the influence of LSD, it became super-special; so we were more like magpies. We especially liked old pieces of sparkly fabric or brightly coloured bits of wire that we found and used to adorn both our living space and ourselves.
The LSD element is interesting, especially in that you saw creative benefits springing directly from it.
The whole thing about the Flower Child movement is that it had the two extremes. It had spectacular innovation, for example interest in person-centred psychotherapy, architectural innovation, a growing awareness of the dangers to our little planet, interest in organic agriculture and diet and alternative ways of approaching life. All of this grew and bloomed. But the other side of the coin was how incredibly selfish and callous it could be. LSD is an example, it could reveal a lot, but actually it depended on the ‘centredness’ of the person. The idea, in April 1967, that by ‘turning people on’ you could make them nice individuals was very short lived. People could regularly travel the astral planes on lysergic acid and still remain the nasty piece of work they always were. With all the loving and giving, there were plenty of opportunities to exploit the innocence, even from within the movement.
In the book, you talk a lot about the extreme reactions that people had to drugs, from bad trips to these amazing creative epiphanies…
Personally, I think very few people should take LSD, or at least perhaps there should be highly structured ways of taking it, as in tribal societies. Albert Hoffman, the father of LSD from the Sandoz Pharmaceutical company, said the drug was really only appropriate for people in their fifties or sixties, because they’ve lived life and they’re more likely to cope. Pete Brown, the musician, and I were eye to eye on this – he is forthrightly anti-drugs and alcohol, saying how it has destroyed so many clever young and talented musicians. I am in agreement, but it’s all very well for me to say this, having taken it, particularly as I do hold LSD in a special place because it is an extraordinary thing; but the people who take it every day are going to fry their brains. It is definitely a dangerous drug, in my book.
The Exploding Galaxy became very anti-drugs. There were reasons for this, which I have explained in the book. The decision that there should be no drugs in the house became part of our modus operandi. Everybody saw drugs as just another kind of addiction, another kind of ‘not living right’. The Galaxy was very against any kind of addiction, which is why we did things differently. For example, Edward Pope might come downstairs by climbing down the outside of the house. Doing things differently became important. The other issue for us was that we couldn’t have functioned if we’d been smoking dope; we’d have just been lying around stoned all the time, so it was also practical to avoid drugs.
It might be a bit arrogant to say it, but we were actually counter-counter-culture in some ways. Everyone was smoking joints and we were not. People were taking their clothes off a lot, and by the autumn of ’67 we in the Galaxy were putting clothes on. When we did our performances we weren’t doing them naked anymore – at the beginning, yes, but by that autumn we were covering ourselves, turning ourselves into sculptures. In that sense we did go slightly against the grain.
One thing that I had to keep reminding myself as I was reading your book, was how young you were when you were involved with the Galaxy, spending all this time with much older people somewhere so far away from your family home.
What was so interesting was how safe I was. My parents did worry; but they knew we were sensible – as a parent I might have acted slightly differently – but they believed in us. I do think, ironically, if I had not been in the Galaxy household, which got so much tabloid publicity along the lines of, ‘Would you let your daughter befriend these people?’, I would have been far more vulnerable. For a start, I managed not to be date-raped; so many women were in the ’60s, because, if you didn’t want to have sex you were seen as frigid, or as someone who didn’t understand the philosophy of sharing. You didn’t have the defence of, ‘Well, I might get pregnant’, because the Pill was there, so a lot of women got railroaded into having sex with some unattractive intellectual when they didn’t want it. Some did want it, of course, but the stories of sexual exploitation I came across when researching the book were truly shocking, and all perpetrated in the name of peace and love. I remember exclaiming in 1968 after some sordid account, ‘So this is how the beautiful people live!’ I was definitely protected from harm by hanging out with the Galaxy.
Did you feel the reason you did avoid anything like that within the Galaxy is because the men respected you?
No, I think it’s because, in the Galaxy, there wasn’t that kind of bullying; it had its faults, it was very class-ridden. This didn’t dawn on me until later, that the privately educated people tended to live upstairs and the not so posh were downstairs – perhaps this was to do with confidence – but I never saw sexual bullying.
But had you only been interested in the fun element you could have had a completely different experience.
I was terribly innocent and I was carried away by the aesthetics and the intellectual challenge that there was this new way to live. Living with these aesthetics as a principle meant that everything else fitted into place. So, actually, sex was less relevant than one would think, looking back. This was my take – I can’t speak for other people.
I can see how, when you’re 15 and you meet older men, it can go either way – they’ll prey on you or they’ll want to protect you…
Caroline Coon is the most eloquent person about that time and how women were treated. She was gorgeous and a talented artist and she succeeded, despite male attitudes. When she started RELEASE [an agency set up to provide legal advice and arrange legal representation for young people charged with the possession of drugs], my goodness, there was so much jealousy. [The musician and writer] Mick Farren raided RELEASE and took it over on the basis of Caroline being ‘privileged’ and a woman, and, of course, found himself instantly out of his depth. So she calmly took over once more.
Was Mick Farren in your group?
He had a fling with one of the Galaxy members; he was always around at UFO, where the house bands were The Soft Machine and The Pink Floyd. He was always asking [UFO promoter and Floyd producer] Joe Boyd to give his band a chance. We performed regularly with Arthur Brown, The Soft Machine and Graham Bond, but I don’t remember Mick Farren performing with the Exploding Galaxy. We all went to the same places – it was such a small community. The 14-Hour Technicolor Dream, the 1967 musical ‘happening’ at the Alexandra Palace, attracted ten thousand, it was claimed. But actually, the core of the scene was very, very small; every time you went to UFO on Tottenham Court Road you saw the same people.
There’s something interesting about your account of this story, from a female perspective. You will often see women’s names mentioned in the histories, but it’s usually in connection with male bravado, and you rarely hear what this meant from the centre of women’s liberation. You talk about the way women have been written out of this period, yet the men that did that were supposedly enlightened.
It was complete hypocrisy. You look at history and think ‘how could people have behaved like that?’ But we only have this vision in retrospect. It’s very easy to think that now, but when you are living in that time and looking from within a particular mind-set it is difficult. Having said that, men should have known better.
I remember once being at the French actor Pierre Clémenti’s house near Paris; it was a converted fire station, and there were all these beautiful people there. I can remember the women hoovering while the men were talking about politics and oppression, lifting their feet so the women could vacuum underneath. That was so typical; men just didn’t see it because it was extremely convenient for them not to.
Despite that, do you feel that they ‘needed’ and appreciated the women being there?
We were totally compliant; the political commentator Monica Threlfall has described we women as ‘wallpaper with ears’. We chose to be wallpaper and the men wanted our ears – our empathy and our support. The singer Carol Grimes has lots to say about cooking on a grotty stove in the Grove and then serving it to men in the full lotus position. It got to a point in the late ’60s when it was just too outrageous, and, I have to say, Germaine Greer really did blow it all apart with her book, The Female Eunuch. A lot of women were thinking the same feminist thoughts, but hadn’t quite formulated this into action. You could say that women of the counter-culture stopped colluding after the ’60s.
Do you think that what the women contributed either through sex, creativity or anything else greatly contributed to the art that was made?
I would say, in the Galaxy, there was a sense of equal partnership, but whenever people interviewed us they latched onto the men. There are two elements to this: one is that women were generally quite reticent at this time, and tended to undervalue their contribution, and the other is that it was men who mostly wrote for the magazines and publications that recorded and archived the late ’60s, and even where women’s names were stated or spelt out, they got erased from the final copy. I have found very few female by-lines or female accounts of the period, something which compounds the maleness of ’60s history.
In the book, you talk about the 14-Hour Technicolor Dream being listed as one of greatest ever gigs of all time and you ask if this is “because of what it represents now rather than how it actually felt at the time” – something that I feel could relate to so many so-called ‘landmark’ events. My question is about mythology; in the same way you talk about your art not having a ‘product’, do you think mythology can be commercialised?
Absolutely. Completely. For the Exploding Galaxy in 1968, the greatest event and non-event was raiding an old bakery in Dalston and finding all these old cake papers and turning them into costumes. Now that was a real momentous occasion, whereas the Technicolor Dream was a lot of disappointment. If you talk to someone like Barry Miles, who was editor of IT magazine at the time, he was pretty negative about the event. I remember on our way home the next morning, several of us were on the tube and there was John Peel, discussing it. We described it to him as a ‘technicolor yawn’ – I remember those words – the event was uncomfortable, cold, with nowhere to sit or lie down, with complete organisational chaos, with an invasion by skinheads and 14 whole hours to kill. The event has definitely become something else in the telling. We like to romanticise moments that have been flagged up as significant.
Many from the in-crowd (especially those who worked on IT and OZ magazines) said at the time that the Technicolor Dream marked the end of the Flower Child era in London. That was said time and again in May 1967 – and we hadn’t even reached the famous Summer of Love.
Going back to your question about landmark events and fabricating myth, people have this strong need for a history that is furnished with important people and important events and other significant items to be revered. We are attracted to reverence. Once these things are established, it is very hard to then knock them off their historical perch. This is in direct opposition to what we stood for in the Exploding Galaxy.
Closer to Galaxy thinking is the traditional art made around the world that is truly ephemeral. For example, in Tibet, they make wax mandalas that soon melt and disappear. This is also very common in tribal cultures, where you make a meaningful ceremonial work but it doesn’t have to exist beyond that moment. Nowadays, value is placed on celebrity and on making your mark as an individual artist – on having and owning. Of course, this is nonsense. Our world is in such danger, and we are in a collective state of denial because we cannot face the lack of permanence. I learned these notions as a 15 year old in the Exploding Galaxy. It is interesting that most of those young Galaxy members took away this same understanding, and are still carrying it around with them today.