The Roger Ely Experience: Notes On A Polymath, by Lois Keidan

The Roger Ely Experience took place at Toynbee Studios (London) on Friday 30 September 2016, and was a celebration of the life of artist, curator, publisher and teacher Roger Ely, who died in December 2015. LADA’s Co-Director Lois Keidan presented the following text at the event.


Notes On A Polymath
By Lois Keidan

I knew of Roger long before I knew Roger. I knew of him in the late 1970s/early 80s as my friend Chris’ exotic cousin. Performance artist, junkie and living in squalor in Brooklyn – back in the day it didn’t get more glamorous than that.

But then it did … when Chris went to Roger’s Final Academy event with William Burroughs and gang in 1982 and stayed with them all in a warehouse in London, and when I found out more and more about his life in New York, London and Brighton, the festivals and events he organized, the magazines he published, the people he knew.

Then we met. It was in the bar of The Place. I can’t remember what show we’d all seen but I heard someone – maybe Neil Butler – say Roger’s name and we embraced like long lost relatives. And ever since then I knew Roger more as an artist than as Chris’ cousin. We presented a performance of The Devil’s Chauffeur at the ICA in the mid 1990s and kept in irregular touch. At some point after we set up LADA and our Study Room research library, Roger gave us a complete collection of Primary Sources – edited by Roger, the magazine was one of the first to profile interdisciplinary performance practices and was the precursor of Performance Magazine (and my favourite cover is the one featuring Kenneth Williams).

In 2014, LADA worked with Roger and Dave Stephens on the DVD of HINCH, the wonderful film by Matt Page about Ian Hinchliffe who died in 2010. We launched the DVD in October 2014 in an event with Roger, Dave, Rob La Frenais and Nikki Milican. We’re based above a craft brewery in Hackney Wick and the audience (and the speakers) was well fuelled before the event even began. As many in the audience were Ian’s contemporaries of a certain age, I described the evening as like being on a Saga holiday to a drunk tank. But I don’t mean to be disrespectful to my elders as the evening was also an exhilarating reminder that age does not wither artists, especially performance artists.

But I’m not here to take you on a trip down my memory lane. I’m here to say a few words about Roger the polymath – about his extraordinary and influential work as a publisher, an archivist, a curator, and a collector.

Roger had been talking about his personal archive for years, and given the heightened recent interest in performance histories and his own health problems, we all agreed that it was a project that needed urgent attention. In November 2014 I went to visit him and we tried to start the process of making sense of the materials he had and what he’d like to do with them. I knew Roger had done some amazing things but had no idea just how amazing until that afternoon as we sat surrounded by boxes and boxes and boxes. And in those boxes were –

  • film, audio, photographic documentation of all kinds of events curated or performed or attended by Roger.
  • posters, fliers, brochures, tickets, freesheets and promotional materials for events he’d organised.
  • artworks.
  • books, magazines and journals, including rare and out of print items.
  • personal art-related documents, letters and notes.
  • interviews both published and non published, including the audio of his interview with Kenneth Williams.
  • ephemera, relics, and traces of performances.
  • reviews and articles.
  • event production notes.

What was equally staggering about the materials in the archive was the range of disciplines they represented. This wasn’t just an archive of performance but of the alternative or counter or DIY culture in the 70s that went on to change the world. A culture where there were all kinds of crossovers, collaborations and connections across and between disciplines as artists set out to do things differently and were inspired by each others’ ideas, forms and approaches – where stand up comedy and performance art bounced off each other, and filmmakers and musicians swapped ideas. The Taboo event Roger curated for The Zap Club that we saw the poster for earlier this evening single handedly represented this interdisciplinarity with its line-up of Marc Almond, Kathy Acker, Lydia Lunch, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Cerith Wyn Evans, John Maybury, and the Neo-Naturists.

And so it made perfect sense that Roger’s archive included stuff about experimental filmmakers such as Derek Jarman and John Maybury, visual artists like Cerith Wyn Evans, performance poets, stand up comedians, and writers like Kathy Acker, experimental musicians such as Throbbing Gristle and other punk and post punk artists like Lydia Lunch, heaps of materials on identity politics and alternative cultures, and yes the audio tapes of his interview with Kenneth. Williams, Burroughs, Jarman, Acker – who else would have these icons in one box but Roger Ely?

The assembled documents and documentation of artists, moments, movements and practices contained within his personal archive reflect many of the seismic cultural shifts we’ve experienced since the 1970s. Collectively they represent a unique body of materials that characterise a critical but relatively unwritten about period in UK cultural history, and one that laid the foundations and assembled the building blocks and jigsaw pieces for NOW.

Roger received an Arts Council grant to develop his archive and was working on it with Edd Hobbs until his death. His archive is a national treasure and I very much hope that the work will continue, that it will be put in order and find the home it deserves. But Roger’s archive, like the best of them, was part record and part recall. Roger had a ton of materials but also a ton of tales to tell and although the archive is a brilliant resource it will always be profoundly diminished without his animating, captivating presence.

Thank you Roger. You are much missed but your legacy lives on.

Banner image credit:

Primary Sources

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