The Lacey Rituals is the sort of release that shows why we’re very lucky to have the British Film Institute. It’s a collection that will never appeal beyond a niche audience, but is something it’s more than worth collecting together and digitising for posterity. And without the BFI it’s unlikely it would ever have happened.
Bruce Lacey is seen by many as a seminal figure in the emergence of performance art in the 1950s and 1960s, with his influence perhaps best felt in those around him, such as The Goons, Ken Russell, Richard Lester, Peter Cook, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Monty Python. Things such as his work with the Albert Brothers (a small bit of which is included here, but which largely went undocumented) pointed the way towards a new form of anarchic, slightly homemade comedy, with a surreal bent but genuine thought and ‘meaning’ behind it. Lacey describes this is ‘the triumph of the amateur’, something that’s true of much of his career.
The Lacey Rituals brings together all sorts of films made by or involving Lacey, stretching from 1951 right up to an exclusive new documentary about the artist. The two discs are split into various sections, starting with ‘Early Films’ that are largely movies made by others but which feature Lacey either behind or in front of the camera (or both). Things kick off with the slightly ethereal mood piece Head In Shadow, but it’s the 30-minute Agig And Agab that first shows the playful, no boundaries approach that later came to typify Lacey (although to modern eyes it does steer a tad too close to racism). This section also includes The Goons in the Running Jumping & Standing Still film, which features Bruce, who also provided all the props and effects. This film alone was a seminal influence on Monty Python. There are also other interesting bit and pieces, such as the bizarre and rather muddy Battle Of New Orleans and the clever and amusing Everybody’s Nobody (which is allied to another of Lacey’s lifelong passions, robots).
The next section features Lacey’s ‘Human Behaviour Films’, many of which were ostensibly made so that if the human race died out, extra-terrestrial visitors would have a document that showed what human life was really like, rather than having to rely on the tropes of mainstream film. Despite this professed mission statement, they have a mischievous sense of humour with a touch of silliness, as well as a frankness that was highly unusual in the late 60s and 70s. There’s a fascination with the normally ignored rituals of life, from getting up in the morning to having a bath. However they also display the fact that while there seems to be an obsession with normal life, what Lacey is documenting is a bohemian, rather freeform existence far removed from most people’s. It’s an interesting facet of Bruce that his entire life seems to be an outpouring of middle class eccentricity, which is masked by a dislike of everything middle class, and a rejection of the ‘oppressive’ nature of modern civilisation (while taking advantage of the freedom and avenues for expression allowed by the society he seems somewhat antagonistic to).
The ‘Human Behaviour Films’ section is closed by the explicit Double Exposure, which features Bruce and his then wife making love, but cleverly done so that they were filmed separately and then superimposed on top of one another. It’s smart, provocative, simple and yet inspired. Indeed compared to many of his other films, Double Exposure is a hint at why Lacey is often seen as a footnote in the counterculture, largely because while he sometimes had the capacity to hit something fascinating and profound, these things tend to stand in isolation from one another.
Around them is a lot of stuff that’s interesting and often funny, but doesn’t go very far. His thinking is perhaps not as penetrating or revelatory as he sometimes seems to think it is, but what he undoubtedly has a gift for is trying to turn his ideas into something visual, and also for having the balls to put it out there. Indeed it is probably here that his influence was greatest, showing everyone from actors to artists that you can put yourself out there as a performer and do things that others will think are stupid, worthless, pretentious or dumb, but if you feel it’s an expression worth making, then go for it. Others may have since taken this and run a lot further and deeper than Lacey did, but right at the birth of performance art, these films show how he helped pave the way.
The next section is ‘Performances And Documentation’, which takes a look at some of Bruce’s pieces, from a surreal and amusing 1965 ‘happening’ where Lacey and the Albert brothers made a tongue in cheek attempt to get into space, to a 1972 living sculpture at the Serpentine Gallery where Bruce and his family ‘re-enacted’ daily life in a replica living room. It’s all pretty interesting and includes footage of what Lacey is perhaps best remembered for, his robot R.O.S.A. B.O.S.O.M (Radio Operated Simulated Actress, Battery Or Standby Operated Mains), which even won The Alternative Miss World pageant in 1985.
There are also a few ‘Performance Inserts’, before the collection moves onto ‘Earth Rituals & Later Films’, which shows Bruce fascination with all things New Age. Here again he was seminal, as while much Paganism is/was about looking back to rituals and things of the past, Lacey shows you can create something that is both old and new, and partway between performance, art and religious ritual. Many will undoubtedly look at a lot of this as Hippie nonsense, and indeed there is something more self-indulgent about these pieces than much of his other work, but it’s intriguing nonetheless.
The final piece on the discs is the hour-long documentary The Bruce Lacey Experience, which features recent interviews with Bruce about his eccentric life and what he was trying to do. It’s very interesting, although perhaps not a revelatory as you’d hope it would be. Indeed this is a slight problem with the entire collection, as unless you already know a bit about Bruce it’s tough to properly appreciate what you’re seeing, especially as it’s all rather eclectic (another reason that Lacey is perhaps not that well remembered, as he’s slightly all over the place). Thankfully the release includes one of BFI’s excellent booklets giving background on Bruce, each of the films and many of his collaborators, which certainly helps anyone who’s interested to piece things together.
As I said at the beginning, this is only going to be of interest to a limited amount of people, but it’s well worth seeking out for those of an arty bent, especially if you’re either at or thinking of going to art school. The collection shows a man who was never afraid to put himself out there and never censored himself due to fears of what others would think, something that’s of importance to all modern artists. Lacey was there at the beginning, doing performance art before it had a name, and while he was perhaps too early and perhaps a bit too easily distractible, this collection show he was a seminal influence and someone it’s well worth delving into.
Overall Verdict: An interesting two-disc set for a seminal performance art figure. Lacey’s work is perhaps lacking compared to later practitioners, but it’s still interesting and often funny, and he certainly pointed the way.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac