Q&A with Mark Webber: Little Stabs at Happiness

Roberto Rossellini, 'The Machine that Kills Bad People' (La Macchina ammazzacattivi), 1952

Back in late 2000, Little Stabs at Happiness, a monthly club night and screening programme at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, ended its three-year run. Today, it is experiencing a one-off reprise as the launch event for the LUX/ICA Biennial of Moving Images. Institutions change. In the early days visitors could expect, “Quiet Music. Films.” followed by, “Loud Music. Dancing.” What better way to celebrate the inauguration of a biennial that brings experimental film in from the margins? 

Organised by Mark Webber, Little Stabs at Happiness takes its name from the pioneering 1963 film by Ken Jacobs. Fellow filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas, writing in his ‘Movie Journal’ column for the Village Voice, named Jacobs among a generation of New American Cinema that achieved “disengagement and new freedom”. For Mekas, these filmmakers opened up “sensibilities and experiences never before experienced in the American arts… a world of flowers of evil, of illuminations, of torn and tortured flesh; a poetry which is at once beautiful and terrible, good and evil, delicate and dirty”. I quote at length, performing this little archaeology because, abstracted from Jacobs, Mekas’ words frame Webber’s screening programme perfectly. Webber’s programme explores the intensities of banality and visibility, pleasure and assault.

Celebrating its return and the opening of the biennial, Little Stabs at Happiness reflects on its old community as it gains a new one. It is tempting to post-rationalise the achievements of Webber and his friends in art-speak. Yet, as he reminds us, there never was, nor is there now, a theory or curatorial rationale. It is just about watching great films, listening to great music and having fun.  

JONATHAN P WATTS: At the LUX / ICA Biennial of Moving Images, Little Stabs at Happiness is the inaugural event, but you and the ICA have a history. Between 1997-2000 Little Stabs was the name of a screening and dance club you ran in the theatre there. Back then, were you the sole organiser?

MARK WEBBER: It ran from December 1997 to November 2000. There were four of us who made it happen: Gregory Kurcewicz, a friend from school who still lives up north; another very close friend, Zoë Miller, who is more of a music person; and BR Wallers, then the leader of The Country Teasers. Usually, Zoë would do organisational work such as press, and the three of us – the three men (I say this for Ian White’s benefit!) – would play the music. I programmed most of the films.

JPW: Did you approach the club from a shared cinephile background?

MW: Everyone was interested – maybe Gregory and I more so. Certainly, there was no theory involved.

JPW: Were you aware of creating a community around the club nights?

MW: People didn’t talk in those terms back then.

JPW: But couldn’t disco dancing after a cinema cinema screening be described as a social activity by contrast?

MW: Definitely, but organising things was just something I did. The first public event I organised was a concert with some local bands (including Pulp) when I was 15 years old. Later, a friend and I ran a club in Sheffield, 12 miles from where we grew up, while we were still underage. Living in London in the late nineties, there wasn’t really anywhere I wanted to go out. It was either super-noisy dance clubs – I don’t dance – or the cinema, where nobody speaks. We wanted to make a place with different components: at the beginning, music is quiet so people can talk to each other, a feature film is screened, and then there’s a disco with proper songs that can people can dance to.

JPW: You were behind the decks avoiding dancing.

MW: Yes, I didn’t have to excuse myself from dancing because I provided the entertainment.

JPW: Was the music in the auditorium? Did that mean clubbers had to dance between the seats?

MW: Originally, we had the seating set up ‘cabaret style’, which is round tables arranged as they would be in a cafe. People would also sit on the floor. It turned out the ICA didn’t have a license for that kind of seating arrangement, so we just had some loose rows of seats at the back of the hall. After the feature film, the seats were whipped out. People were free to come in and out and there were no introductions or contextualisations. Many people just came for the disco, or for the feature film and disco.

JPW: I noticed in the Biennial Reader that quiet music will accompany the experimental film. Is this true to the original format?

MW: Yes. There were occasions when we showed silent films, and sometimes it just seemed a bit too precious for the situation, so we would creep in a bit of music to help the film along… which is something I completely abhor in principle – if a film is silent then it should be shown silent, or films should be shown with only their original soundtrack. Some people thought we were playing music over the films, which was really not the case.

JPW: Was there talking during screenings?

Irm and Ed Sommer, 'Nitsch', 1969, 16mm, 14m.

MW: Often during the short films. One of the more memorable screenings was showing Malcolm Le Grice’s Threshold (1972). It has a very slow beginning – like, nothing happens. Then there’s some colour. Then nothing. A bit of sound. The sound stops. People were talking. When they thought something was happening they’d go quiet, then start talking again, and realised it had already started when the film was nearly finished. That was great. People are more respectful now; I don’t think they will behave like that this time round. Essentially, people can do whatever they want. If someone came to a cinema screening of a film and started talking I’d throw them out, but with Little Stabs at Happiness it’s really informal. Another nice thing about the format, which at that time was not anticipated, was that if someone came to see Fahrenheit 451, for example, they also encountered avant-garde film that maybe they had never experienced before, for better or for worse. Maybe they just came to the disco and arrived early, but it meant they would see this unexpected material. The disco was a bit of a reward for their patience.

JPW: What you’re saying about screening etiquette is pertinent. The Live Journal team will be tweeting from events. I hope not to be escorted out.

MW: You shouldn’t have your mobile phone on in a screening!

JPW: That’s our contribution to bad viewing behaviour. The list of works you screened during those three years is quite extensive.

MW: Yes, and what is difficult to appreciate now is that many of those feature films were impossible to see at the time (obviously nothing has really changed for the short films). Some would maybe exist on VHS but it was largely before DVDs, a format that was just coming in towards the end of Little Stabs. There was still a couple of repertory cinemas in London, but it wasn’t particularly easy to see the kind of films we screened.

JPW: Did you have difficulty sourcing films? Was it important that they were screened in their original format?

MW: Not quite original — everything was shown on 16mm prints except one which, at the last minute, we had to show on DVD. It was a very sore point. It was important to show it on film with the projector in the room. In the late 1990s there was the BFI’s distribution collection and a company called Filmbank, which had relationships with all the main studios and would take 16mm prints for non-commercial use. At the time, the ICA was a members’ club so it was technically a film society; we weren’t promoting the films as cinema screenings.

JPW: Was “music you can dance to” tunes liked by you and your friends?

MW: Basically. We were in our mid- to late-20s. We felt a bit nostalgic for the discos of our youth.

JPW: Do you mean school discos?

MW: Totally. When I was 13 or 14 there would be a school disco at the end of term. You’d enjoy that type of music then because it’s in the charts and you’re yet to develop your own interest in music. When you do acquire a taste, all chart music sounds like complete shit. A little later you realise Supertramp had great songs. ‘99 Red Balloons’ by Nena, and The Proclaimers — all great songs you can dance to. It was before (and maybe, in part, accidentally responsible) for the whole school disco phenomena. The first big commercial school disco started later in Vauxhall, I think.

Tony and Beverly Conrad, 'Straight and Narrow', 1970, 16mm, 10m.

JPW: Are you talking about those large-scale nightclubs where people dress up in tiny schoolgirl skirts?

MW: Exactly. That may have started a year after we had been doing it. The 333 in Hoxton also had a club that played that kind of music. A lot of it was chart music from the 1980s. Then there was stuff like the Velvet Underground and the Beach Boys, the cool bands we all still love. I don’t know how the young people of today are going to react to Supertramp. They’ll probably just think I’m an old fart.

JPW: Pulp never made an appearance?

MW: No live music. Jarvis would DJ sometimes. I just really hope some normal people come this time. I don’t want it to be a party for poncey art and film people. We want real people to be there too.

JPW: Explain the circumstances around the rather abrupt ending of Little Stabs at Happiness.

MW: I don’t think it was inexplicable; we didn’t give reasons but there was no need to. It ran its course. We did it every month for three years, that’s a long time. We worked with a really good person at the ICA – their live arts person – but with the rest of the institution, there was always difficulties. And the club nights were often completely packed but we would rarely see any of the money taken for the tickets. You can only do something like that for so long: it shouldn’t become a battle, or a job, or a duty. We were just doing it for fun really.

JPW: So it was a combination of the club night running its course, you all losing interest and some problems with ICA.

MW: And we were running out of available films!

JPW: Given how it was left with the ICA what does it mean to return now? There’s a sense of celebration as the launch event of the biennial, although I did detect a quiet violence about your screening selection.

MW: If it has got a violence then it’s unconscious, which is perhaps more telling! The ICA has been through several rounds of personnel changes since we began Little Stabs. I had thought about doing it again in the interim, especially when the tenth anniversary came around. LUX asked if I wanted to curate one of the cinema programmes, or do something else, or do this. I’m also in that pop group and, after being dormant for twelve years, we got together again last year and played some concerts. I’m re-living my past life at the moment, so it seemed “well, why not?” If Pulp was being revived why not Little Stabs too?

JPW: All of the short films in your forthcoming screening were shown in the original club night. The exception is Roberto Rossellini’s feature The Machine That Kills Bad People (1952). Is there a curatorial rationale?

Manuel de Landa, 'Incontinence: A Diarrhetic Flow of Mismatches', 1978, 16mm, 18 min.

MW: No.

JPW: Are these favourites then? Was there ever a rationale to your programming?

MW: Not for the club, other than to show great films which were difficult to see. The choice was always limited by the availability of the film prints. We were lucky that some prints, although in bad condition, were still around. Filmbank no longer exists. The BFI’s 16mm feature collection has been diminished. This time there really wasn’t much choice. I wrote a list of 15-20 titles and there were only three still available on 16mm. Fortunately, the Rossellini was one of them. Amazingly, it has never been released on DVD, so it remains relatively obscure. I was nervous about showing it in this context after all this time, given some of the crap we showed originally (I say “crap” in an affectionate way). Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine (1978): not a great film, but fun; or Arthur Penn’s first film Mickey One (1965) … I don’t want people to think that now Little Stabs at Happiness is coming back for an “art festival”, all highfalutin’ with its inclusion of a Rossellini film. But after all, the film is a comedy, really funny and clever.

JPW: What about the short films?

MW: We thought it would be nice to revisit some of the favourites we had shown before. Straight and Narrow (1970) is reliably great. I can still remember being in the room watching Irm and Ed Sommer’s Nitsch the first time round. It felt disturbing, dangerous, and grubby. The Manuel de Landa film Incontinence: A Diarrhetic Flow of Mismatches (1978) is also extreme in some ways –   optically, psychologically assaulting. There were three films by de Landa distributed by LUX, but they were withdrawn for preservation. This is one of the new prints from Anthology Film Archives.

JPW: After your programme do you think the audience will be in a fit state to dance?

MW: You might want to dance to cleanse yourself. It’s important to realise there’s no real timetable. Things gradually happen as it changes from quiet music, to a film, to more music, then unexpectedly another film, and then a feature film. There’s not going to be any collective memory among the audience. I hope people don’t all arrive at eight o’clock and just sit there attentively for hours.

JPW: Isn’t that the problem of re-staging events? Expectations and behaviour, among many other things, are necessarily different.

MW: It had a momentum back then, and people got the idea of what it was all about over time. Now, it’s coming out of nowhere. I just don’t want people thinking it is a curated event, because when I do curate I’m completely precious about my way of working. Little Stabs at Happiness is really just a party with some nice films.

Little Stabs at Happiness, Thursday 24 May 2012, 8pm-1am, ICA Theatre.