Tel: +44 (0)23 8059 2158 | FREE ADMISSION


John Latham: Time Base and the Universe

04 July 2006 - 26 August 2006

Art, throughout history, has provided a vehicle for ideas. British artist John Latham (1921 – 2006), applied this to the biggest subjects of all: what is the Universe? What is God? What is knowledge? Latham aspired that art could form a point of convergence for opposing beliefs within society.

This exhibition, conceived with the artist prior to his death in January 2006, allows visitors to explore major stages within his fifty-year career.

Works featured include a selection of Clusters, each one a compacted, globe-like mass of plaster, book fragments and wire. Suspended from the ceiling, these celestial objects evoke the aftermath of colliding forces. A range of Book Reliefs and Sculptures, including Soft Skoob, 1964, reveal the artist’s use of the spray gun, combined with the inclusion of books, whether burnt, torn, or stacked. Symbolising the bodies of knowledge that emerge from, yet divide society, they appear throughout much of Latham’s work.

Glass was another material favoured by the artist; tangible yet transparent, it embodied Latham’s theory of a ‘non-extended state’, or time at its smallest unit. Latham often combined books and glass to suggest how different belief systems can stem from a single source of enlightenment.

Latham’s theories bridged art, science and theology, and aimed to present a single, unifying explanation of existence. Based upon the idea of ‘Event Structure’, he proposed that time, expressed as a series of ‘least events’, could describe the structure of the world.

Time Base Roller, 1972 forms a centre-piece to the exhibition, and directly illustrates these ideas. Comprising a rotating cylinder, a striped canvas strip unrolls via motor to demonstrate the continuing passage of time. Inscriptions on the back of the roller represent the memory of the past, akin to a musical score.

Both acclaimed and vilified in his lifetime, Latham is one of the few genuine radicals of post-war British art. A selection of the artist’s films, spanning his career, will be shown in the Project Room.

'Interview with John Latham about the London Anti-University, his relation to knowledge, and what it means to chew a book.'
Flat Time HO, Peckham, June 2, 2003.

By Jakob Jakobsen
© Copyright Jakob Jakobsen 2006.


(Jakob): John, what I would like to ask you about is a very specific thing in your career as an artist. I saw a Prospectus from the London Anti University.

(John): The which?

(Jakob): The Anti -

(John): Oh yes! The Anti-University. When was this?

(Jakob): The late 60’s – 68’/’69

(Text on screen reads: “The London Anti-University was an experimental university set up by artists and intellectuals in London in 1968. In the prospectus John Latham advertised a course named ‘Antiknow’.”)

(John): I just remember it. I went there once and I took a piece in there which was quite an interesting piece, and I left it there and didn’t go back, and I have lost it. But the piece itself was one of the school demonstration models of life forms under a glass, and I had taken it to them to be, as it was anti university, that they would understand that, if one of the life forms was a little trunk of a book which was burnt, that would be part of the biological domain. Well people may have seen it and they may not have, but that’s how it comes to be in the place where you found it. But it’s very marginal to me.

(Jakob): I read in the Prospectus that you were meant to dissolute a book in sulphuric acid there?

(John): I didn’t do it there, but I was in St Martins as a part time teacher. I had got there by dint of having seen the Department and been refused. I found an opportunity to talk to the Head of the Painting Department at St Martins, and he was so pleased to be talked to I suppose, that when I said the real problem is that I need a job. ‘Oh you can have a job’ he said. So that got over the problem of not being able to teach. And I went into St Martins and I taught for about a year, and then I said ‘Freddy, the key to all the new art is that the students should understand time, and I have an understanding of it and I would like to introduce it to St Martins. And he said ‘Oh it is too complicated, you would muddle the students’. So he was turning me down on that occasion. And I thought, well that’s a bit unprofessional of the Head of Department because time and timing is of the greatest importance to any artist, and if they don’t understand the subtleties and the way that time carries dynamics, they will be just like everybody else.

(Jakob): You had the event with the chewing of the book at

(John): Yes, at St Martins.

(Jakob): At St Martins and -

(John): Yes, it was when I was turned down twice with the time. I presented just a piece of paper like that, and the Principal, who I gave it to, took one look at it and said ‘well um’ - and he opened a drawer and there was a ceiling of a very high room - and slipped it in there, and I said ‘Freddy you are not going to even read it’ and ‘No’ he said ‘ it’s lunch time anyway’. And it made me so mad that they should be so uninterested in so vital an idea as I had in my mind, and I thought that this is the vital idea of the time and it is very very difficult to get across, but to be thrown out and told to be a carpenter... if you were a carpenter we could use you, but no you confuse everybody. But I had then to organise this - a little jeu de sprit, it’s been called - this is to take a book out of the library and Barry Flanagan was a student there, and Barry was the one student who did understand what I was talking about. And he would meet me in the Pub at lunch time and we would talk over a beer at lunch, and wouldn’t see each other because I was employed in the painting department and he was a budding student in the sculpture department, and it wasn’t the thing for the two departments to have anything to say to each other. And I was trying to say look, the dimensional framework is simply misunderstood. Three dimensions of space is inert and it is purely for the business of measuring up the house, and the bits and pieces of the house and for going down the street, and getting round the world. Otherwise it is not what’s going on. It doesn’t show us what is going on. And that was the meat of what I wanted to put into the School. But I also again happened when I invited – Barry and I invited a number of these members of the College to my place to party, and the party was called ‘Still and Chew’. I knew what was going to happen. And they were presented with a book out of the library by Clement Greenberg and it was called ‘Art and Culture’, and I had picked it as one of the relevant titles to have them chew up. And they were asked to tear a page off, and chew it and put the residue in a little retort, not a retort, a flask. And the party came to an end. It was a cheerful enough occasion. And I had signed for this book in the library’s register, and it took them six months to tell me that they wanted it back. And it was only then that I was able to get the distillation going, and took it back and presented it in a little phial - I had to even squirt the liquid in there. Anyway I said ‘this is the book’ and the Librarian, of course, said ‘well if it turns up’. And I said ‘it won’t turn up, this is the composition it has now in this phial’, and not being too baffled she just said, ‘Oh well I don’t know why you students do such daft things, people want to read this book’ and I said, ‘I was aware that was what they wanted to do, but it won’t do them any good’ and left the room. And she was left with the phial. And by the post in a couple of – the second post after I had done that, I got a little postcard saying ‘I am sorry, I can’t invite you to do any more teaching’, signed the Head of the School. Well I lost the job! That was the outcome.

(Jakob): When did this take place?

(John): The party took place, I think, in 1966. And I took it back at 1967 and got the dismissal in 1967. When all communication between myself and the Head of the – the senior staff had broken down - it wasn’t that we weren’t friends - he just wouldn’t listen to what I had to say. And I had to do something that would be interesting, and not damaging anything. I’ve never damaged anything, but people say that I burn books and am liable to set fire to places. And I have set fire to little monumental towers of books. The Arts Authorities have taken a very dim view of what I was doing, and have not said honestly to me, ‘look, you should not do this thing’; they have conspired to make sure that I don’t get anywhere where I would need to go. So I had no employment.

(Jakob): But there must be

(John): I have gone through all kinds of ways of getting work made, by getting into new situations which are stimulating enough to be able to make something.

(Jakob): This discussion about knowledge - you must be engaging now, you are using books in a very physical way; your work is ruining books, by pouring sulphuric acid on them and burning them and chewing them; in what perspective is that to be understood, if you think of this as a way of criticising the use of books and the use of knowledge?
(John): I was only concerned with the process. I had checked out how paper reduces to alcohol and sulphuric acid was the way that the lignum in the paper would reduce to sugar, and the sugar would then covert alcohol. The only reason the acid came into it was that I should be able to get the alcohol from the sugar which resulted from it. It stimulated the students – the story – and I hadn’t contrived the story. It happened as stories do happen by chance. Things happen that are unexpected, and they are a lot of fun if they are not very annoying…. But there were certain people who were outraged by the attitude of a person who didn’t treat a book with the greatest respect. And when I first had the idea to do it, I had the same sensation. I was looking for a flat surface, manageable; the painting period that I had been through had come to an end and was exhausted, and I had a piece of wavy material and I wanted to make that flat, as the first thing to do formally. And the book, sitting on the table, was a mysterious apparition to me. It was the right size and it had black marks in lines, and that was the key thing that made me say ‘it’s got to be done’, because the other kind of black marks were done by constellatory means from the spray painter, and here is a white sheet which has become a volume and has time in count time. Count time is not the same as musical, rhythmic and sound time, and the idea of time as event was gaining a lot of excitement in my nervous system, if only because it was sensible in art.

(Jakob): In that way you were using books, the time in a book, in a text - that’s the time you are erasing when you are burning or chewing.

(John): Well, I never… I won’t say never, but there are occasions when I nearly used a new book. But very, very rarely. Mostly, they are junk books thrown away for people just to pick out and put what would be a few pence towards. They’d throw them in the bin and they would be – the ones they thought were better, were like 20p and the others were only 5. That was a source of my material, when what I was looking at was one book fitting into another, indicated a world in which information of great complexity hits another and the intersection between two worlds, was as simple as that. It was the relationship in space. The metaphysical space between a book which has been simply put face down and put into plaster, so nobody would ever find it, but it had the form of an organic development which had taken many many thousand of millions of years to arrive at perhaps. And the thought of the a-temporal aspect of a book, not there to read, as an object, was very interesting compared to the act of reading it, and compared to the appearance of a constellatory black mark, in relation to a linear black mark which had hieroglyphics going across it. Wonderful. It was simply a fascinating – Like Duchamp’s object Truvee? … It was just like – there for me to do, without having bothered to have any skill about it at all, it fell together. All these things rolled into there, one thing after another after another. And this is where we are at the moment, with that piece of construction going through the window, or apparently going through the window.

(Jakob): Now I have been interested in this Anti University, where you didn’t do much obviously, but I saw where it must link into in your kind of relationship with St Martins, and the way you were exited there, and at the same time your engagement with books and a group of, I think it was psychiatrists or anti psychiatrists who said that -
(John): There was was a writer called Alex Trocchi.

(Text reads “Alex Trocchi was a beat poet and writer, and a former member of the Situationist International. In 1965 Alex Trocchie proposed the Sigma project that was a cross cultural organization involving artists, writers and other people from counter-culture.”)

Alex Trocchi came into my place, invited by a friend, and it wasn’t a very fruitful meeting at all. I wasn’t interested in what he was interested in. But he had written a kind of paper called ‘The Insurrection of a Million Minds’, and that he wanted me to join.

(Jakob): But you worked with Alexander Trocchi on the Sigma project.

(John): Sigma and Jeff Nuttall and myself did join up with the Philadelphia Trust, Ronnie Laing, who was the far out – the writer Ronnie Laing, with his Philadelphia organization (was it psychotherapy activity?). And Alex Trocchi wanted to try and get us together and he had us all turn up in a house that you could hire in the Oxford region, area, and you could hire it for the weekend, so that overnight you could have talks, and be relaxed and understand where the one type of activity would overlap with another. And it never happened. And what I did there, if I may tell you, what I did there, was to see it had to be a gesture, of the kind which would be arresting. And I had a spray gun there, I had a book, and I had plaster. And early morning I made on the wall there, I made a very large black mark, black spray mark, with this book in the middle of it, and got in my car and left. And I only heard what they had found. They preserved the work for a long long time but they said they couldn’t maintain it as a work after about 10 years, because it had 10 years there before they took it down.

(Jakob): And that was your involvement with Sigma?

(John): That was my contribution to the way that Alex Trocchi was trying to get it together with the Philadelphia Trust and the psychoanalytic initiative. It was a Ronnie Laing initiative and an Alex Trocchi initiative, which had again got the intent to get a language together. And, I don’t know, I just had the thought during the night that what I would do, would be to make my gesture, you would never get these worlds together, they are completely separate worlds which are talking at each other, and it’s a nonsense.

(Jakob): Ronnie Laing and Alexander Trocchi made courses at the Anti-University later on.

(John): Maybe they did. Maybe they did..

(Jakob): But you don’t remember it as very significant, as the Anti-University..

(John): I am sure it was all connected. Yes. That was the little group of people who I knew and had remote sort of contact with. They mainly came - because I did think it was my books that appeared to them as anarchic and as probably a gesture of anti-something, and I had a very clear idea of what I had done, which was to introduce a highly cerebral idea which had no gesture about it at all. So time theory is on the diagram. The T-Diagram behind me was made in 1995, it’s a much later development. But it came off the fact that a painting, when rolled on the canvas, shows you two sides of the canvas and I had already made a two sided canvas, because pressing paint through the warp and weft of the texture of the canvas made a very interesting comparison, and I went on with it and the piece was preserved and it has been in an exhibition in Stuttgart and it has been in the Tate I think.

(Jakob): Maybe there is the one?

(John): Just the one. This is a development from it. Now, I hope I can get this together... (presses switch) And you see on there if we look at this … in the roller you will see things start to change… and at the side there are things going on… and the letters at the top are about the same as the letters here, and I find that each one is standing for a range of time frequencies. Well the boundary between one and the next was something like 14 to 15 times what it had been before, and so that with 36 bands I had a very very big expanse of time, which would do for that range, which has got 10 to the minus 23 seconds as the time base of a quantum of action, as I thought if it at the time. Well it is really the time it takes light to cross the diameter of a classical electron, and an electron doesn’t have that kind of a diameter. Nevertheless they knew that it occupied the space, and you couldn’t tell where its components were. It’s an amazing discovery. What electrical - I don’t understand it myself, but I can say that it establishes a position relative to light, and that was the important starting point of having that kind of spectrum line, where a very very short event had not applied to an enormously long event, and we were right in the middle of it and couldn’t understand why. We never could work out what we were doing here and still asking the same questions as we did from the very start of the idea of asking questions about anything. The language had it built into it apart from the… there were two functions for the language; one was to do business with - what are we in, what are the stars? What are the stars? Of course they are planets moving. And that is where the mystery was for the ancients, and my black marks were very interesting to the astronomer. Because it wasn’t about his stella universe, it was about a universe that goes on inside his head. Or it goes on independently of the head. We don’t know. Memory may be nowhere near the head. It is picked up by the head and processed, but the information is everywhere. Our business as artists is to roll this thing through a very very badly diseased organism with enormous power to deal with its – I am talking about the Bush-type power. George W Bush knew that he could drop a bomb on that flask if necessary. If the thing is programmed he could come as close as that to obliterate it. And technology is doing that now. The satellites that we have are giving us too much power. And if we get too bumptious and too arrogant altogether outside of… beyond the pale, that’s what will happen. And people are like that anyway.

(Jakob): So in a way you are criticising knowledge.

(John): Yes definitely, it’s not knowledge you see. Knowledge isn’t – what is served as knowledge; it is not adequately presented. It needs to be converted into Event Structure and what I am calling Flat Time. That is flat – that is a flat thing. And flat time is all there, everything that you need to talk about is mappable, not flat. I know the computer would be able to do it. When it gets into computing one will be able to decide what time boundaries we are going to be able to – we want to look at and perhaps pick up one from way out and bring that in. Computers are so phenomenal in what they can do. They are being more powerful every day.

(Jakob): Just to finish and return to the Anti-University. Do you remember the place 49 Ribbington Street?

(John): I barely remember it at all. I remember – somebody I did know who went to it and came to my - my lecture, there was only one. I am sure I didn’t give more than one, and I produced this demonstration piece for schools and it was because it had a book in it, that that would introduce them to something which was teaching in the orthodox way, that here was the non-orthodox, which was a book which had burnt. I was trying to get people to understand. What had happened was that we were talking and reflecting, and being intuitive and how we didn’t understand intuition. All those things were developing in my mind and I wanted to - I thought that if people wanted to go to an anti university I don’t mind going in there and seeing whether they are listening, whether there is any use. But I came to the conclusion that I was wasting time as well. Like I’d got my own act together sufficiently to be able to convey to them what had to be conveyed. And that was perhaps my fault as well as everybody else’s. But it was too difficult a project. They should never had had an anti university.

Alex Baker Interview

'John Latham: What can be said to be going on here? '
Interview between John Latham and Alex Baker, 2001.
Copyright Alex Baker, 2006.

I came to the art world as a brush painter. I had a show in the late forties, came out of uniform having been in the Navy for six years, did my bit as a student in Chelsea, Chelsea College of Art.

Went to live in the country but got an introduction from the priest, who conducted a sort of seven o'clock in the morning ceremony. He looked in his register for the address and he said, "oh yes if you're going down there you must meet...” And then he named two scientists who were…he'd known, and they were crossing categories. Well, I went to see them and after a little while they came and said, “we’re going to have a party for Halloween night and would you like to do us a mural for our Halloween night party?” And as a brush painter I didn’t think much of that, so what I said then was, I wonder what this outfit could do with? And the thought came to me that I’d got a mechanical/electrical spray gun in my kit to do a spray creosote on the outside of a timber coated bungalow, which I was going to live in and I thought well, that’s really absolutely the thing for them, constellations and constellations, brain wise, mind wise and everything. And just think of that as a painters dream instrument. Later I thought about it and eventually recovered enough to ring them and say, I’ll come along and do this mural, and they said, “fine, you come along any time you want to.” Ok this evening? “yes yes this evening.” And so I bundled up the gear and they gave me a site of the ceiling, so it was going to be a ceiling painting. And I put it together and it was the first time I’d ever used this instrument for visuals, and so I was just experimenting on what would happen with wet paint in point marks, and what happened if you drag a dry brush across it and force, you know, an immediate wind-type force, which could be brought into it. So an informational connection system was immediately coming into view which was also associated with a cosmological image.

When I was met after having done this mural, they said, “well we’ve got quite some way since you were here, we’ve got a new theory, we’ve got a new format for a book that we’re going to write and we’ve registered the building as an Institute for the Study of Mental Images and, number four, would you be an honorary founder member of the Institute.” And I thought that’s very fantastic as an idea which suddenly occurred like that and I said, “well, I also see a good ten years worth of work in my area that’s visuals and it’s great that you should take this on, because I don’t have to say anything now about it. You do all the talking, and I’m absolved from having to excuse anything. Talk about it, like what I’ve done.” Well, they published a book five years later called The O-Structure.

Between them they were trying to put the world that belongs to people into the world that belongs to physics. I’m the now sole surviving member of that institute and I’ve found that the reason they didn’t get through is WORDS. Language forces people to think in terms of spatial entities as the real world is generated, after all, from visual images and people, when they get off visuals and they loose tangibility, they loose precision, and they go to mathematics, and they go to stellar mythics. What they started was called Psycho-Physical Cosmology. And it didn’t work because their mapping was not the mapping which physicists are brought up to take seriously. That so happens that physics knows very well that it’s on a knife edge, where they can’t solve the joining up point between Einstein and quantum mechanics/ quantum theory. And quantum gravity is, what is called, that knife edge.

But where I’ve got the sole property really is where the point mark in the history of art links up with what had gone on two or three years before, which was zero action art work - John Cage, a work which had no sound in it a concert with no sound, silence. Rauschenberg, who put up a zero action stretched canvas which wasn’t a monochrome, if you follow me. Monochromes had been done; he did some and realised to close that whole session down, if it wasn’t a monochrome, it was going to be just a stretched canvas as a work, capital W, and that was as far as critics could cope - the language wouldn’t handle inaction, it couldn’t say anything about nothing. It couldn’t describe a world in which nothing was the greatest. Now, there are precedents for that; Leonardo da Vinci had said of all things in nature, nothing, capital N, Nothing, I don’t know how he said it, “niente” or what ever it would be in probably Latin, “Nihil is the greatest.” And he has a magnificent paragraph on the subject, it’s a long sentence. Nobody else has written about it but a lot of artists have presented work in the context of the idea Nothing. What they haven’t done is see the dynamics in the idea Nothing which is legitimated by Einstein. Einstein’s general relativity has got a…one of the print out which you get from relativity says, given a certain density of matter in space, everything will collapse to nothing and, by nothing, people didn’t realise how serious that was.

Beyond the end of time, gravitational collapse, the greatest crisis ever to face physics.

Even if you put it into a computer and try and get it down to something, you get smoke coming out of the computer, his way of saying it, it begins to pphhwwaa, can’t do it. The end product is a state of zero space, zero time and infinite heat. Well, you can’t have infinite heat, nowhere and you can’t have a vacuum, nowhere. They still use the word vacuum in current physics; that’s one point that I’m able to pursue endlessly, why do you use this word vacuum? You can’t solve the quantum gravity problem, why do you use the word vacuum, why do you not go to event? The word event, they say, has no gravity in it, it doesn’t imply gravity and we have gravity in all our equations. So there’s the big… that is the great crisis I’ve just described; gravity is incompatible with the word event and event is the only solution to the potential that lies in zero space, zero time, infinite degrees centigrade.

This is important introductory stuff, because I'm the only person who’s noticed it, and I’ve only been able to notice it because I’ve worked from the spray gun painting became smear painting, one second drawing. From that smear paintings and constructed people, constructed body images which are half formed - there’s one in the Tate, you may have come across, a smear painting with a bit of brush marking here and there. It brought in an image of a formative person, not as a body event, but using the body event image as something which is self forming. So it’s not the body that we’re talking about.

If you go from zero space, zero time, infinite degrees centigrade and you go to what the structure of music is, you find that people fish out a piece of paper and they say, oh this is interesting, it’s a score, this is interesting and it doesn’t change in time. What they’re wanting to do is to organise what it’s saying on the score, which is to make frequencies in time. Time frequencies vibrate and get to your ears, and you make sense of them and you say fantastic, or you dismiss it, you say take that noise out, I’m not listening. There’s a whole range of profundities and stupidities with sound that all fit event structure. Here you’ve got the three kinds of time. One doesn’t change, a score; it has the ordering instructions like a genetic coding for a performance, which is a frequency performance. And that happens in a bit of clock time, which is what we call time is of course clock time, we don’t have a time coding for either score; we say well it’s always there, it’s got a different kind of time in it. And we don’t realise that musical form, to get to the ear, has got to have timing from the whole, down to the split second, the frequency of a high note for instance and it’s got to order itself to make sense. Otherwise nobody’s going to listen. So that’s the model which, in physics, they say well, where’s the space in it?

And what one says to that is, take that down to the bottom level of what your physical world is, see it as an event structure which is insistently recurrent and think back, for instance, to the first moment when somebody said, I heard a sound, do it again and do it again and interesting, we’ve got something that’s interesting, well do it again and we’ll vary it and it becomes what we know as music. That is a model origin of how communications start - somebody makes a noise, it’s associated with a thing, it becomes a language and we use it, we take it for granted. Now physics doesn’t bother with that, they say ah well there’s energy, and they think that energy’s locked away in an atom. Atomic physics was product of the observations from pre-Einstein electrical engineers, Faraday and Maxwell and no doubt many others, where they were bringing in a force field, the idea of a field. And then you have this extraordinary equation that comes out in special relativity at 1905: e=mc2. All mass will reduce to energy and mc squared. The square of the speed of light seems to be weird because you can’t square the speed of light. So why does it work? And you have to then cross over and see why physics is in a pickle. There is no way that they can get to resolve quantum gravity in those terms.

We’ve got two kinds of time to feed into quantum mechanics… two kinds of time to feed into quantum mechanics, they didn’t have it before. We know of three kinds of time. Ordinarily, we’re up against it all the time, only we haven’t yet clued into just what the structure of music is doing, as a model for the way everything is structured. If you go down to the unit of mark which came after the zero action canvas mark, 1950, 1951, I was not there, it just happened in America. But I heard about it much later, I didn’t tie it up. But the unit of mark coming out of a spray gun was an instant, consistent history of itself. You can see it as a complexity, a universe that is complex, arising from one which is simple. One point mark, two point marks, three point marks and you’re into universe no.1, universe no. 2, universe no.3, and they all go back to the same score.

It re-enacts a scene which is so interesting that it’s got to happen again. And when it collapses, it collapses with new information and it re-enacts, and collapses to new information each time and it’s a great way of explaining and accounting for what humans are doing here. They are a part of the zero action. The state nought score is given a theological context mainly, but it is also given a context in physics called vacuum. And people are saying the vacuum is the source of everything and the words are screwed up you see, its just the language doesn’t work. And it's the model that has to be physical and therefore spatially present, spatially identifiable. Well, you can’t identify the impulse that comes from wanting to make something new on what you’ve known before. That just doesn’t go into a spatial model at all.

I want them to see that dimensions, dimensionality is not three spaces, 2d or 3d or 1d point mark. In event framework you don’t have three dimensional forms, so 3d is a nonsense. It just so happens that there are 2 co-ordinates in flat time and a turning cylinder, which gives you the passing time effect. It’s very comprehensive, flat time can tell you what people mean by everything that they’ve ever been interested in or thought or dreamt or what ever it is. Given enough information you can begin to plot it in point marks, on a time base grid.

Coming to your question, “where does it fit now?”, it makes a program for a type which would be called artist in the old fashioned way, but we have called it the incidental person to identify a generalist, who happens to be sensitive to media, rather than linguistic habit. Language habits force you back into spatial analogies and spatial metaphors, and that’s not to say they aren’t useful, except for understanding basics.

In the book reliefs I was making in the late fifties and sixties, I made one that had…there is a remake of it because it got lost, I think it got stolen in a crate in America somewhere, the original of that. But you see it’s got one group of books which are chaotic and another one outside it which is orientated towards the group where it’s chaotic. And that is an equivalent in form for one’s own sense of observing the daft things which one does, as a genetically programmed body event. And from which you say to yourself, we’ll overrule those instructions and we’ll do something else, we’ll do something more interesting and from that interest, that greater interest, you’ve got a society. Society doesn’t come together because there’s a mass of people, they’re there because they’re interested in being together. Of course there’s copulating, that is biological body events. But apart from that, society is trying to get above itself, to get outside itself. At the moment (now this is your question), at the moment, what we’ve got is a language-determined society which is so misled by its compulsive language dependency and it can’t have laws, for instance. It can’t have a parliament without depending on verbal exchanges and it doesn’t know, it has very little access, until very recently, the artist has coming into…well, what does it mean, why are they doing all this stupid things, is it interesting? It might be interesting. Well, what we did from 1966 was recognising that the art track had come to a dead stop with the zero action. The proper relationship between the artist and the establishment which was word bound and the artists who were media bound couldn’t talk for the life of themselves, couldn’t account for themselves. Was to know that one is event structural and the other is object and space structural. The object in space structural society is like the literate society and very clever I’ve no doubt they are and enormously erudite. But they are not intuitive unless they’re artists. You get poetry and you get up to Shakespeare for instance. James Joyce is one of my key people of the recent past who know what the flaws in novel writing are and they go to a stratagem which is an event, make them interested in what’s going on now and they both had a different stratagem, Joyce had his redo the whole of grammar and syntax and vocabulary and screw it up so that you do recognise bits going on that are very, very real. And if you can cope with it, spend the time on it, it’s very rich.

Events aren’t necessarily performances; it’s a fallacy to say oh you mean performances when you say event structure. It is that anything is an event and any imaginable object or fantasy or unidentified flying object is an event structure, even if it didn’t exist; it’s a fantasy, which doesn’t come to consciousness. And consciousness is all there on the map, you can see precisely what people are talking about and you can see what a mess they’re making of it in the sciences. That’s my opinion that they’re making a mess of it, but it remains an opinion until we have it out.

But it does all map out in a modern way, as opposed to it being fractured and just outgrowing like a fairy circle, where funguses only grow out from the circle, they never relate to what’s gone on, that they’re there at all. They get bigger and bigger and bigger and eventually die off, like the scenario for this universe, which seems to go on for ever expanding and what happens, does it ever happen again? Well, there’s an accounting factor in that. It either collapses to nothing, in which case I’ve given you how that works out or it goes the other way. And nobody knows from the observation which way it’s gone.

John Latham: Time Base and the Universe is a collaboration between John Hansard Gallery and P.S.1. Contemporary Art Center, New York, curated with David Thorp. Funded by The Henry Moore Foundation. Project Room films courtesy of Lux.

The John Hansard Gallery wishes to thank the following for their generous loans in support of this exhibition: John Latham Estate, Lisson Gallery, Tate, Arts Council Collection and private lenders.


John 1
John Latham, Cluster No.11, 1992. Courtesy John Latham Estate and Lisson Gallery, London.

Events By Date

Event Categories