“Why, Mr Lacey, why d’you do the things you do?”, wondered Sandy Denny on the second track of Fairport Convention’s 1969 LP What We Did On Our Holidays. Bassist Ashley Hutchings wrote the song, called “Mr Lacey”, as a tribute to his near neighbour in North London – painter, sculptor, performer, inventor and satirist Bruce Lacey. “It’s true no one here understands now”, the lyrics continue over a loping blues riff, “but maybe someday they’ll catch up with you”. Following a retrospective exhibition at London’s Camden Arts Centre in 2012 and the release of The Lacey Rituals, a BFI double DVD collection of his film work, The Spacey Bruce Lacey, a compilation of soundtracks and improvisations put together by the Trunk label, is the latest bid to catch up.
“There’s always interest in something several years after it has been done,” Lacey reflects, drinking coffee in the kitchen of his characterful Norfolk farmhouse. “Not a lot of people can see what’s going on around them, at the time.” His house is crammed with externalised memories and projections of personal fantasy: childhood toys; music hall posters; African masks; marionettes and homemade robots; a wild array of hats and costumes; a ventriloquist’s dummy; Middle Eastern musical instruments; corn dollies, dream catchers and prosthetic limbs; mounted goat’s heads and vintage gadgetry. An archive room holds countless folders and shelves of recordings that document his participation in exhibitions, concerts, installations, happenings, festivals and fairs.
Across the decades, Lacey’s public identity has undergone a series of quite startling metamorphoses. Conventional labels don’t stick readily to his personality, but the multiple trajectories of his varied past cohere around an intense energy that still pulsates and flashes through his conversation. He skips back to the International Poetry Incarnation, staged at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1965, with Allen Ginsberg as the main attraction. “I was invited to do a performance. I had a full size plaster of Paris statue of the Venus de Milo and I wanted to do an anti-art thing, to come on stage pulling the Venus on wheels and then smashing it with a sledgehammer. Cinema-style usherettes would then sell fragments, while men in white coats would put me in a straitjacket and drag me away. But the poets said, ‘You can’t do that, it’s visual. And poetry is spoken word’. So I thought, all right you buggers! I made a radio-controlled robot out of aluminium, and called it John Silent. It came on stage and made farting and belching noises.”
Lacey admits that he was unaware, in 1965, of the emerging sound poetry movement. He briefly imitates Austrian poet Ernst Jandl’s word-mangling, phonemesavouring tour de force on the same programme at the Albert Hall. That performance took him by surprise; John Silent was maybe less of an outright provocation than he had anticipated. Neither for the first nor the last time, Lacey had stumbled unintentionally into the context of a new movement.
Working in theatre as a prop buyer, at the start of the 60s, he had become deeply irritated by the arrogance of some actors he had to work with and he looked for a way to vent that irritation. In 1962, for a performance at The Establishment, a jazz and satire venue in London’s Soho founded by comedian Peter Cook, Lacey created a pair of “electric actors”, robotic figures built from found materials, including parts of a vacuum cleaner. “I played a real actor who got flustered, forgot his lines and appeared to have a heart attack, then one of these robots started quoting Shakespeare and the other sang “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”.” These humanoid automata, dreamt up and constructed in reaction to pomposity, were the immediate precursors of John Silent, who would himself later evolve into ROSABOSOM (Radio Operated Simulated Actress Battery Or Standby Operated Mains), Lacey’s best known automaton. ROSABOSOM’s operational whirrs and clicks enliven the middle eight of that Fairport Convention track.
“I’m basically a bit of a piss-taker,” Lacey acknowledges. “But someone I’d known at the Royal College of Art, where I studied as a painter, told me there was a new art movement called Assemblage, making things from all sorts of junk. ‘You’re a sculptor,’ he said. So I had two exhibitions, in London galleries, in 1963 and 1965, and quite by accident I was hailed as one of Britain’s leading sculptors.”
Lacey was perhaps less unaware of this trend in sculpture than he now claims, but early on he grew to distrust the habit of the art world to feed on itself, to become self-referential and enclosed. He’s not a man to be locked into any notion of an artistic career. Insatiable curiosity, child-like playfulness and dislike of pretentiousness have provided much of the underlying motive power for his activities. In 1959 he worked for Granada Television, making and buying props. An American designer in the same London studio took him to an exhibition of mechanical sculptures by Swiss kinetic artist Jean Tinguely. “I met Tinguely,” Lacey remembers, “and he came back to my home. I’d recently taken the iron frame out of an upright piano and fitted it with a throat microphone – the kind that they used to have in army tanks – which I’d bought in a government surplus store. We spent the evening throwing nails into the frame, making tingling sounds.”
Recognising a sympathetic spirit, Tinguely invited Lacey to become producer for a performance he was presenting at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, then in Dover Street. “He made a speech in French about movement and machines, which an interpreter translated into English. Then I fired a pistol and two cyclists peddled bicycles, which had their back wheels propped up. Paper, a mile long and six inches wide, shot out from a roller and an ink pen scribbled all sorts of patterns on it. It covered the audience and was fed out of an open window into the street. Eventually, the police arrived and complained that it was getting in the way of the traffic. After that Tinguely wanted me to go round the world with him, as his producer, but I said no – I’m doing my own things.”
Lacey attended Hornsey School of Art in North London at the end of the 1940s, and then studied at the Royal
Still from Agib And Agab (1953)
30 | The Wire | Bruce Lacey
C our tesyBFI