Rob La Frenais
48 min readMar 26, 2024


This Is Probably The Oldest Performance Artist In The World

Ken Turner in protest performance at G7 in Carbis Bay, Cornwall 2021. Photo Huw Wahl

Born in 1926, Ken Turner was in the British army during WW2, rubbed shoulders with Ferdinand Leger and Francis Bacon and co-founded the radical artists’ group Action Space with Mary Turner in 1968. He spoke with former Action Space member Rob La Frenais in his garden at St Ives, Cornwall, UK about his trenchant views on philosophy, politics, performance and painting and why he keeps performing and protesting. It’s a long read but he’s had a long life.

Ken Turner, 98 this year, in his garden at St Ives

What was the atmosphere like in, let’s say, 1964, 1965, that kind of time? And what did it feel like to be in London in that part of the art scene before you became disillusioned? And then how did the disillusion start to emerge?

It wasn’t disillusionment. It was horror. Horror, horror of what was going on. It’s really quite difficult to think back to that age. I mean, I was, what, 38? I was late coming into the art world anyway. What was the reason why I was late? I think it was because I was running a framing business with Mary. Mary was a gilder and designer. And I found it very satisfying because I had got a place at the Slade and I had got almost a place at the Royal College. I turned them both down and went to the Anglo-French. And remember, that was just after the war. And David Sylvester was the prime critic of the London art world. And he used to come to the Anglo-French Art School and give long, long lectures.

What was the Anglo-French?

It was run by Alfred Rozelaar Green, who had a French wife. And he was quite a remarkable person, really, because he had the foresight to take over this building, which was originally, I think, a flower or horticultural kind of centre. And it was in St. John’s Wood, in this sort of nice environment, large houses and expensive houses and things. I used to have digs in Hampstead. Used to get the tube to St. Johns Wood and walk through into the Anglo-French.

Let’s go back what happened to you in the post-WW2 era. During the war you worked in the mines then were in the army.

I did my service, as it were, to the country, which I didn’t really believe in. So the army was a horrible experience and I preferred the mines. But anyway, so I ended up in the army opposite Harrods, in a GHQ of the army, doing designs for their building. So, like a lot of other ex-servicemen, I came out of the Army, got a demob grant, went to art school to continue my studies. The Anglo-French was a remarkable environment because it was unlike any other institution in London at the time. I mean, for the Slade, the Royal College you have to go through all sorts of rigmaroles to find the person you want to talk to. I talked to John Minton. I didn’t talk to Coldstream. So when I entered into the Anglo-French, immediately I had a cup of coffee, because it was a cafe — first thing you entered, and the studios were behind, like, a French cafe. It was really marveous. I thought, ‘oh, I can relax here’. So I did a lot of painting there. And all these people from both London and Paris came and taught. I had a chat with Ferdinand Leger. He said I was a very English painter. And I said, well, I am English, so what do you expect? Anyway, it wasn’t accredited for a diploma or a degree, so I had to go to the Regent Street Polytechnic. I finished the course and made some good friends there. Well, I refused any kind of diploma.

We know that you founded Action Space in 1968. So what I’m interested in is the transformation of London and England and the arts in that four-year period, during the period you’d call the so-called swinging 60s and the London art world.

You see, I had a good view of what the art world was after the war. I could see it very clearly. I was going around the galleries, talking to them. I was even showing paintings to them. And one of the galleries said, you’re an interesting painter, but we couldn’t sell you. And another said, equally, you’re an interesting painter, you should have an exhibition somewhere. So I was being encouraged to come back and talk again. I was looking at the art world and going around the galleries, seeing what was there after the war, you know what was going on and seeing, you know, people like Francis Bacon and Graham Sutherland. Joe Tilson showed me around the galleries, introduced me to every dealer he knew, and he knew most people. He was just one of those people who knew everybody. There was Waddington, there was Kasmin, all these galleries. And in the end he said, you didn’t say anything when I introduced you. I said, what do you mean? What should I have said? He said, you should have said, do you want to see my work? I said, no, I don’t want them to see my work. I’m just looking at seeing what the people are like. And somehow I got the feeling, I just got this tremor or sensations that this was a world I didn’t really like. There was something about it which was stinking, actually. Thinking back to that era and what I was doing, I was fumbling around. I was dissatisfied with the condition of the arts in a sense. I mean, I couldn’t go into some sort of high or deep philosophy about the whole thing. But the gallery that I really liked was the Dover Street one of contemporary art, run by Herbert Read and Roland Penrose. And I met Penrose. I said, can I show some work here? And he said, yes, bring some in. So I took some in and he accepted it and exhibited me in the library. Now, lots of good people showed in that library, and Herbert Read was there, and I didn’t meet him, but I sat next to him. I think I was too frightened to talk to him. Anyway, they showed the work. I had a review in The Times and they said it was interesting and outstanding work or something like that. Then from there I got a show in the Heal’s upper gallery. There’s a Mansard gallery, a big show, almost like a retrospective. So I had done a lot of paintings and there were lots of abstract work and work that was dealing with the environment and dealing with, also, with devils and angels, surprisingly. People were saying, you’re on the road. You’re on the road to success as a painter. You’re becoming known as a painter. As I had these reviews and people coming into the workshop were talking about it, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, and so on, like people like that. And then I had a critic and a painter, Andrew Forge who came into the workshop, wanted something framed and then we talked about painting and showing work. And he said, I’d like you to — I was even then talking about environment. I was talking about outside, beyond the galleries to him. And he said, could you do a Third programme, BBC thing? And I said, yes. And he said, well, Maurice Agis as well was going to do it. So we both talked on the radio about — it must have been after the Lord’s gallery show, because the Lord’s Gallery show was called Environmental Structures.

So was Maurice Agis already doing environmental structures at that point?

Yes, he was not doing inflatables, he was doing constructions. Using primary colours. He came into the workshop, we talked about it. We were very friendly, he’s really a lovely guy. And Peter Jones also was good. I suppose that was the connection I was looking for. I found somebody that wasn’t talking about the art world, that was talking about something else.

So you met Maurice Agis whilst doing a radio programme.Then he started coming to the workshop. You started talking. So what next? What happened next?

I was teaching for about two or three years at the Environmental Design course in Barnet. And in Barnet I discovered ‘happenings’ in America. So I read Alan Kaprow’s book and that excited me at the time. Nowadays I repudiate it. I think he was totally wrong. But anyway, so there were several influences coming in, and at the same time you had London exploding culturally, in the fringe and you must remember that. So that was exciting. I must say I wasn’t interested in pop culture or pop musicians, but The Beatles meant something. I think they were tremendous. But I would never go to a concert.

Was Yoko Ono around these circles, or were we talking about a different world? Because she was doing Fluxus at that point, before she met the Beatles?

I think I looked upon Yoko as part of the art world. That was where I was guarding myself against this horrible world of an extremely competitive market.

So you saw happenings at the Better Books Basement?

Yes, I saw the People Show, which was something that influenced me. I thought, this is terrific. It’s really getting at the guts and heartstrings as well, of the people, in a way that modern painting just wasn’t. Jeff Nuttall worked with us. He was a great, lovely guy. I mean, all these people were amazing. I even had the People Show asking me to join them at one point.

So here we have a kind of sense of how you’re moving towards the founding of Action Space (and rejecting the London art world) Because the art world also had this very decadent side to it.

Obviously, there were writers like Camus, the Outsider. So the outsider interested me, and that’s what I was. I was an outsider right from my birth.

You met people like Francis Bacon, but you didn’t end up hanging around in that horrible club they all went to?

No, it didn’t interest me. I thought it was just decadent.Well, I wasn’t after wholesomeness, but I was after a sort of pure sense of feeling. I mean, my understanding of aesthetics was very different to what the art world was doing. And the aesthetics actually was part of my moral judgment. Now, that was important. And I read the book, On The Aesthetic Education of Man (by Friedrich Schiller). Do you know that book? It was written in 1795, and he wrote the 26 letters to a client or to a prince, I think it was. Talking about aesthetics and the need for aesthetics to be actually active in your life before you made any other kind of decision to work socially into life. He said that you can’t make a moral judgment unless your aesthetics are established as something about beauty. This was about beauty. And beauty was like a dirty word at that time.

A process of alignment is happening, can I call it that?

I was setting my sights on establishing my own character and personality as strongly as I could with feelings. They were just feelings about something new. And on the BBC programme, I talked about the new sense of image-making in different ways other than the art world was doing it. Because it was linked with politics, it was linked with social ideas. And I do have a social conscience, but I wanted to balance that against the aesthetics of painting as a way of image-making. And that was my struggle right from the very beginning, and went through Action Space, actually and still is prominent in what I do. That is, the visual aspect was extremely important.

You’ve laid out the influences from books, reading, personalities, BBC programmes. Andrew Forge.

Forge was looking for something different as well, even though he was a painter himself, but quite a conservative painter, if I can use that term. Not a rebel or revolutionary in any way. I was saying to myself, I suppose I’ve got to find this path. I’ve got to find this way of opening up something where I can operate fully as an artist in the environment. To do that, I had to carry out some experiments and those experiments were happening in Barnet where I was teaching environmental design. I asked the people there teaching, I said, what is environmental design? And they said, there was rather lame painter who said, oh, it’s about doorknobs and what’s happening in the environment. I said, well, what is happening in the environment? So I said to myself, why not environmental art? Because of Kaprow I started to think big to make things happen. So, there were other painters in New York also doing happenings. I got heed of those, and I thought, that’s really interesting. Sort of breaking out of painting and making it three-dimensional and making it environmental. Wow. So there it is, that’s what I wanted to do. So I got these students to actually do this, not from painting, but from design. So I looked at the Bauhaus, which also had a great influence on me because it was dealing with art and architecture, and architecture is dealing with the environment. I saw this film from the Bauhaus and the Triadic ballet, and it was from, I think, Paul Klee, Kandinsky and so on.. This ballet was another sort of impetus to do something different, because it was ballet, but it was structure, it was sculpture use of space, use of form, colour, movement, music, everything. So it was total theatre in a sense. That’s what really interested me.

Now, what did you do? What actually happened?

I made sculpture, which I put into Lords Gallery. So that was like models of the environment. And I was working in PVC plastic which you could mould it, you could form it, you could weld it, you could stick it. So I made these things. But they were three dimensional forms, and most of them are kind of destroyed now, but I’ve got photographs, and they were looking at the space for performance, because I began to think about theatre and that’s where I came in contact with Joan Littlewood. So the idea of theatre and the environment began to come together and aesthetic form. So not forgetting that idea, that idea of aesthetic form has to happen before any kind of judgment, right? So that was in my head. So that kept me thinking about aesthetics and what form that would take was a driving force or a foundation for how my actions would develop. So I remained an artist. That’s the only way I was clinging on to being an artist, but a different kind of artist, not somebody who showed in the West End galleries.

So there were other examples of people of what you would call different kinds of artists coming together at that time.

Yes they were coming from performance, construction, and inflatables from architects like Jeffrey Shaw. So the culmination of all this happened in that show in the City of London, where I put up a structure using inflatables and rigid objects. Structures. Then when I was there, in that space that I’d constructed, I think I saw the possibility of performance happening within a structure that I built. So I was building my own theatre aesthetically, still there. Actually, people came. Some artists came into that space when it was there for two weeks, I think and they came into that space and performed. Somebody came and did performances, like tearing up paper or very simple things. But I could see that’s where performance was growing in my own mind. Could I do it? Could I actually perform in my own structures?

I’m trying to bring us up to the moment of the founding of Action Space.

The founding was actually at Joan Littlewood’s Blow Up City. Because I said to myself, I mean, when it was erected there and happening, it had music, people going through it, looking at it, those photographs and saying, what is this? Poking at it, touching the artwork. I thought, this is amazing. This is quite a revelation. I’ve constructed something where people are just going through it. Now it’s called immersive art. So that people were just in it and looking at it, touching it and sitting in it. That’s what showed me the possibilities. That was the beginning. That was the real spark after all this buildup of searching in my mind, experimenting, working outside in the streets with the Barnet students, all that. It was in the City of London festival. Next to All Hallows Church. It was a big paved area. And the People Show came, and they did a performance coming and driving a car into this area with John Darling standing on the roof of the van, shouting to everybody. I don’t know what he said, but it was so exciting. I thought, wow, I could do that! It was a dynamic moment..

I remember a similar moment seeing Welfare State in the shadow of Coventry Cathedral. In around about 1970.

Yes, Welfare State was interesting. But, you know, Welfare State was interested in entertainment, primarily. Because they had a band and the band actually led the whole movement of their movement and structures and ideas.Processions were made to gather an audience.That was their main reason for doing that. And they put up a tent or their structure. I called a tent, but it was more than a tent. It was going towards something extraordinary in a building. But it was primarily there for an audience to be entertained and not in participation.

I’d be interested to know what John Fox and Sue Gill would say about that

I had lots of arguments with John Fox. Really nice guy. And we had lots of talks about it. So I thought, well, having a band is quite important in the way for him. And Action Space doesn’t have a band. So we started gathering a band finally.

So there was a communication of ideas there.

Music inside a structure — Action Space Archive

Yes it was all interweaving, picking up ideas and trying them out. But what was important in Action Space, finally, when we were then after the City of London Festival, we went to St Katherine’s docks. Well, we built inflatables in St Katharines. But we went to Wapping for two weeks over two summers.

When one joined Action Space, people were still talking about what happened in Wapping. It was like a part of the growing mythology.

So Wapping was really the birthplace. I mean, I said that City of London with Joan Littlewood was the birthplace. It was the birthplace of an idea. But Wapping was the birthplace of the practice. Practice then was experimental and gradual.

And Wapping was the first time you were working in a place where ordinary people lived.

We engaged with the people, but it was difficult to call it an art project, although we had painting, we had games, we had people like Jeff Nuttall, AMM coming in.

Did you then move to St Katherine’s and start building inflatables? I just want you to describe how that physical transition took place.

Well, St Katherine’s dock was interesting because of the space itself,and it gave studios to loads of artists. Graham Stevens was there as well. So we asked him if we could come into his studio and make some inflatables.

Oh, okay. So your conversation with Graham Stevens was part of this process?

He understood what we were doing, and he said, yes, you can use my studio or equipment or know. He was working on inflatables with electronics joining things. And we said, no, we’ll stick to glue, Bostic. And so one of the students from Barnet made the first big air house in that studio. And we blew it up in the grounds, in the basin itself, outside the building, It emerged with this first big warehouse, a 20 foot square tube. We blew it up on vacuum cleaners. And we thought, wow, this is incredible! We can actually go from here to doing other structures. So that was me principally doing that. And the students. It was Richard Harper, one of the students. Actually, he got to make it because I was also working on the framing. And so he made it in the studios of Graham Stevens and blew it up there. And we were both excited by what we’d done. It was this first realisation that you could make structure suddenly blow it up into the environment and change the whole environment. At the same time the Wapping thing was happening. But we didn’t use big inflatables there. We just used small ones, small cushions, as it were. And we were experimenting with drama, with music. Alan Nisbet came. Alan Nisbet was a composer. I said, ‘that’s interesting -you’re a composer. What kind of music do you do?’ He said ‘my kind of music wouldn’t interest you’. And I said, ‘well, is it kind of very advanced? Can I call it that? Or experimental?’ He said, yes, experimental. Then I lost contact with him, and when I was doing the Joan Littlewood thing, he walked into the structure and I said to him, ‘oh, Alan, can you spare a moment? I’ve got something wrong with my speakers’. So he said, ‘okay, I’ll have a look’. And he looked and he got the sound working again. I said,’ thanks very much. Would you like to join Action Space structure?’ He said, yes. Okay. On the spot!

Anyway, so let’s just go back to that moment. You’re in the air house and Alan walks in and immediately agrees to join what you’re doing. It’s the same as when I met Action Space and said ‘Can I join you?’ They said, ‘yes come to London. Come and see us at Harmood Street.’ So literally, within two days, I’d got on a train, and walked around to Action Space and said ‘I met you a few days ago, I want to join’. Literally.

Ken and Mary Turner at Harmood Street with Kathy Geddes, cellist

Anybody could come in, yes. Well, part of that was the feeling that if people wanted to do something, they should do it. You shouldn’t stop them. So if you wanted to join or come in, we didn’t say, what can you do? We said, yes, come in and experience it and do what you can. Find out what you can do.

I think that’s part of the uniqueness. There were very few groups that actually had that approach, that anybody could walk in.

It was built on anarchy. It was also built on humanity, the idea of humanity. Everything was possible. And when I got a job at the Central School of Art, I was interviewed by the head of the department and we had lunch together and I told him about Action Space, which I’d just begun to do and I told him I was a painter. And he said, after having lunch and our conversations, he said, you’ve got the job. He never saw my work. And that’s because he was a Quaker. And Quakerism is very close to an anarchic principle. Anybody can enter and say things.

If you think about that, yes, everybody can speak in a Quaker meeting. You’re absolutely right.

If there’s anybody that said, I’d like to join your group or movement or whatever that meant they had some kind of desire. And that desire was very important to actually open up, that they had space to open up. iIt leads to education. That’s what you should say in education, in universities or early school, it actually happens in playgroups. And remember, Mary and I were working in playgroups. I read that here with our children and we could see the possibilities within people as young children, infants, what they could do and what they were allowed to do. So allowed to make a mess or do whatever they wanted to. And that was a principle of Action Space.

So could you talk about the thoughts you and Mary had about anarchy and how that worked in the way we were all recruited?

Yeah, I have a book called ABC of Anarchism (by Alexander Berkman). Written in 1929. Okay, it’s an interesting book in that t you don’t lose control. You have control, but it’s another kind of control. The control is the strength of your ideas so if you have strong ideas and are compatible with that, you have an empathy, So your feelings are very important. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead spoke about feeling as a deep sense of intelligent emotion. It’s something that if you say, oh, I have feelings. What does that mean? Feelings of love, feelings of lust, feelings of desire, feelings of transcendental ideas, feelings. And those feelings are incredibly important. As a painter, being a painter, I know about how to look and how to understand what you see and how to interpret what you see is incredibly important. And it’s about not only just physically seeing something, but also about feeling, about what you’re seeing. So the emotional experience is a valid experience. The emotional content, emotional feeling, the emotional condition in which you feel yourself, then that is the reality of your own personality, your own character, or. I don’t like to think of egos. I think of egos as something a bit evil. But your being is a much more important thing. That’s why I call myself a sense of being. That there is a life being Ken Turner. So the being is important and that’s a feeling of your other self or your otherness.

So how does that transform itself into a social organism like Action Space?

Well, it’s there as a base, which you don’t have to think about. It’s there. And I had it from early birth. Look, I hate to say it but it’s about good leadership and it’s about good teaching. When I was teaching, from knowing my students later in life, they knew I had a certain power or a certain knowledge. It’s not power, it’s because knowledge is power. And that’s going back to the philosopher. Knowledge and power are very dangerous things to bring together. And that’s what happens if you don’t have that faith, which binds it into something true, into something really. It’s then projected into the environment, it’s projected into, if you’re having a meeting. If you’re a leader with compassion and feelings, you could project that feeling. And it’s a kind of authority, but it’s an authority that springs from deep down into the desire for aesthetic moral behaviour. That sense of governing is passed to other people.So you hand over that power and other people take it up.

Yes, we had that with Extinction Rebellion. Somebody says, ‘oh, why don’t we do an action like this?’ And they say, ‘you do it, you plan it, you get on with it’. There’s this philosophy saying, ‘you do it’.

Who did the opposite? Ed Berman (Director of Interaction) He had omnipotent power. Because of his ideas and speech, and because he did come from a drama background and he knew how to handle people and he pursued it to an endless sort of dominance.

That’s why he disliked Action Space so much.

Because we were open. He was that close like that, directing. All his drama was directing like that. Principles of, you can join in or go! But we said, come on in. Come in, please. We’re happy for you to be doing what you want to do. We had the power to set it so that it was that liberal, even though I hate the word liberal, but open is a better way This is why I called it a university. Finally, as opposed to the actual universities set up by the government or educational situations. I know from people like Amanda, who works in Manchester, has now retired, Jane in Brighton, and how my own school, the Central and St. Martin’s, I understand how they worked, and they were just oligarchies.

Yes, I never went to university, but Action Space was my university.

I mean, it turned out to be like that, but it wasn’t the initial ideas. It just grew. And it grew from the idea of sharing and sharing knowledge and experience and so on, in a practical sense. And so it gave people confidence to grow within it. And that’s all you can do. You say to people, grow, just use the ideas we’ve set, or seeds we’ve set, and see what you come up with.

There’s the historical fact that Joseph Beuys was sacked from Dusseldorf Academy for inviting anyone who wanted to come in from the city to his lectures.

When they came from in from from art school, music school, drama school, ballet school, that was in contrast to the control that those universities had. Which speaks for itself. You had to communicate it either through, first of all, through ideas and words, then by action and then they would get the confidence of the other people. So that’s what you had to do. And that’s why we had a firm bond, as it were. You had to bond with people through ideas and through action.

Then there was a slow transformation within Action Space physically to become an organisation even though it had these anarchic principles with people living in the short life housing, getting together every morning, eating together, having meetings and it became a more complex organism, if you like.

Well, I could answer that, because the build-up with Mary and myself was very important, that we were a bond together. We knew what we were aspiring to. Myself, really, as an artist, I knew that there was something there very important to do and it was backed up by my rejection of the art world. So that was so powerful, to actually step outside the art world into the street, playgrounds and gardens and so on, that was the excitement. And from my idea of doing that, it must have influenced the people. If you have a spark or a germ of an idea and that idea has this humanity, a sense of humanity and humanity as a relationship. Being human is not enough. Just being human is material and you’re existing and that’s all. So you have to have this. And going back to my ideas of feeling and imagination and play, so if you have those working together, it influences people. So, from that little germ of an idea, which is very powerful, you transmit it unconsciously, sometimes, to the other people coming in. So the people didn’t come in in crowds and hordes of people, they came in individually or as couples. And that then was like feeding, feeding the original ideas. So there would be a correspondence between the new people coming in, and they would be added to the pot, as it were. That growing sense of concepts, of how new ideas and arts could function, that was important. But you see, we didn’t have the Internet. Which is amazing because we were able to communicate with our actions just by physically being in a local situation, because we were involved with the local area, in Kentish Town. We used to go to the neighbourhood meetings. So we were part of that.

Action Space in Kentish Town in the 70s

In those (pre-internet) days you’d only find out where to be by being in the right place at the right time or the wrong time, and talking to somebody.

As I said before about the Charing Cross basement of Better Books.They understood what was happening, and they let their basement out to artists doing things and the People Show was one of them. And I went there and was inspired. So it’s a matter of inspiring people with your actions. The actions speak louder than words.

I wonder if it could ever be replaced in the virtual.

No, because, only if there’s a revolution. Because I have a dismay of what’s going on globally. And I think that the internet is so powerful and it’s actually based on knowledge, and knowledge is power, and that’s how they look at it. That’s what happens. Politicians talk about misinformation, but it’s not misinformation, it’s information of power. And people are grabbing the power wherever they can and using it. Just look at Trump. He’s just using the power of the Internet and that’s what works. He gets to people. So that’s what you have to do if you want to change the world or make the world a so-called better place. And politicians are saying all the time, we’ll make the world a better place. The Labour party says the same thing. The Conservative party says the same thing. They’re all saying the same thing. They’re up the wrong path. They’re using outdated language, ways of using language, which is like imperialistic language. Trump does that all the time. This is where I come back to aesthetics, because very rarely do I find a politician who thinks about the aesthetic of politics. Jacques Ranciere talked about it a lot. So it’s like a politicisation of aesthetics, or is it an aestheticisation of politics? Which way round is it? And I think that’s important. So I see aesthetics being a moral code, and you do the right thing because you have that moral code.

We had to connect to local politicians, we had to present ourselves to the Arts Council. We had, to some extent, some pressure on us to deliver.

We didn’t have to pressure it. It happened automatically. I was invited on to a Council meeting, a Council conference. And I was given the lead in one of the, what do they call, they take the whole conference and then they had several leaders who did breakouts or whatever. I had one of those, and I was sitting right, I was the leader, and I had all these councillors around me, and I had to lead it, and I was inexperienced, so I couldn’t do it properly. They were very scathing of how I led it. And I failed in that. I absolutely failed. I wouldn’t fail now, because I know what to do. But that is the sense of I didn’t have the power in that situation, which wasn’t like a conventional institutional power, wasn’t real power. It was an institutionalised power, and it wasn’t aestheticised. So I failed. But it was interesting that they asked me, because i was an unseen pressure of what my actions were. So the Arts Council were looking at us and thinking, oh, they’re doing something quite interesting and different. So because of that different thing, which is going back to Derrida, really the difference is important. So thinking differently was something that got us into, like the Arts Council would be asking us. We were influencing the Arts Council, but in the wrong way. They were taking it the wrong way and calling it community art when it wasn’t community art. We were artists who were trying to find alternatives to the art world simply as that. And that was very powerful. But it could be misunderstood, which is how the Arts Council looked at it. And they made this awful mistake of pursuing community art and making art workers instead of artists. So if you’re an art worker, you don’t have ideas of changing society, you just have ideas of ministering to a sick society.

Yes, this hybrid of community arts was an unwelcome hybrid, in my view. It was kind of politically convenient for certain people.

Joseph Beuys said everybody is an artist. And even my son questioned me on that and said, if everybody’s an artist, why are you working? Everybody’s an artist. They can appreciate art. Which is a complete misunderstanding of what Beuys meant.

He actually said, every human being has the potential and capability to become an artist.

What he said after that was everybody is born unequal with talent. That’s right. And it wouldn’t work.

He also went on to say another thing that I thought was important was not only that everyone has the potential to become an artist, but every human activity has the potential to become art.

It needs a hell of a lot of schooling and education to change ideas or to implant ideas, and because they’re prejudiced because of their education. And the education system is so bad that it leaves out the idea of aesthetics completely. It doesn’t understand what phenomenology is about. It doesn’t understand philosophies of looking and seeing and understanding and feeling and so on. So you’re against a steel wall of resistance, automatic resistance, in trying to implant ideas. And that’s why Action Space found it so difficult to do that. And they could only do it through the penetration of imagination through art, like Herbert Read’s book, ‘Education Through Art’. Because Action Space only went so far. It didn’t go far enough. And I said there was so much action, there were not enough ideas, not enough thought. Action over thought. So you had to bring the two together and it never brought them together. So what should have happened in Action Space was that you had sessions where you discussed ideas and philosophies and we rarely did that. Because the action took over. The action was very physical and the physicality took over from the mentality. I often think about that and was sad about it because it’s something that I didn’t have the capacity in my intelligence to think about it that much. But after Action Space, I thought about it. And the way that I was dealing with it was to concentrate on performance. And that’s why when I left Action Space, I did loads of performances.

People wanted us, places booked us. It did too much action. We had teams going out in vans and ambulances and taking part in events. We did discuss what we were going to do beforehand, but it was, in the end, as if we were on a bit of a treadmill of action, this kind of rolling action made it difficult to ‘stop moment’, as Goethe says, to go into the contemplative and to think a bit about what we’re doing.

It should have been my job and Mary’s job, to actually bring us into that state, which is totally different to the action state. So it would not be Action Space, but idea space and philosophical space. I didn’t have the knowledge, but since then I’ve got the knowledge through reading philosophies, and I can understand more about what should have happened. And that, as you say, it should have been more contemplative, sort of summing up what that action after the action, we should have come into discussion about summing up its purposes, its evaluation.

Yes we should have made space for that. We were too exhausted, one of the reasons.

But we should have done it. We should have allowed the space to happen. And we had that space in Harmood Street and the Drill Hall. We had that space to go into a room and say, okay, let’s now try and understand and analyse actually more deeply how we can further this action with ideas, rather than just action, action, action. So it should be ideas, action, ideas, action. Turning it over and over like that. And that would have made a huge difference if it became a real university. That’s what would have happened. But not, hopefully, to a university where you have critical thinking. So it wasn’t critical thinking we wanted to go into, which I’ve now realised it’s a whole absurd fantasy. Critical thinking is absurd and based on snatches of philosophy and not deep thoughts about what should be ideas.

So an ideal thing. I mean, in this kind of parallel universe model of Action Space could have been that we were more like a free university where we also had to go out into the world and do these events. But we also had to analyse them and maybe write about them.

We didn’t realise that we crashed Action Space completely. So we crashed it and destroyed it because it rested on both of us actually pursuing ideas and developing them. And it would have developed because I was starting to read Heidegger when I left Action Space, I started reading Heidegger. And if I’d been allowed to do that within Action Space, it would have changed.

Then there was a kind of implosion followed by an explosion in 1979.

It’s like crashing. I think it was a crash. The egg opening and scattering it, and ideas were flying all over the place and there’s no control anywhere. No belief anywhere. It’s gone. It was interesting, as you say, an implosion. That actually sums it up really well because you can’t bring it back again. You get something that’s just eking it out and exploding it outside. So, in retrospect, you see, when we’re talking about it now, because I’m older and because I have more experience in understanding things through my painting and through reading, I can do this quite easily. As I said, I can answer every point and say, no, that’s not what happened. No, this is what happened. This is how it went.

We didn’t give ourselves enough time to think about what we were doing and why we were doing it. I think that’s the fundamental thing.

I think we understood it innately, but we didn’t speak about it, we didn’t pursue it. And that was the failure, really. That’s why I talk of failure. And it was on the basis of philosophical ideas. It had to be, because I can’t think of painting without thinking about philosophy. And I think painting is philosophy itself. It is about philosophy of life. Action Space was about a philosophy of life. It wasn’t just a drama school or environmental school or anything like that, really. That was only incidental. That’s what the mechanics were. But the basis, the deep seated ideas, faith in something was through philosophical ideas. And I was only just beginning to think about that in that way. And that was my failure, which became the failure of Action Space.

I don’t think we can call it a total failure. I think what we can call it is an attempt to change history that didn’t fully succeed, but which did set off ripples that have had effects.

The Russian revolution is the same thing. 1917 in Russia, the black square was either a symbol for revolution or a retreat from aesthetics. And it was, in Malevich’s words, it was a retreat. It said, don’t change, don’t change, don’t revolutionise yourself. This is important. It’s the art that counts, not the revolution. And the rest of them went into propaganda constructionists, which weren’t leading anywhere, and people wouldn’t understand it anyway. The only good thing they did was to paint a train and push it through Soviet Russia, proclaiming that this was the new ideas of living. And when Stalin came in, he know, the people don’t like this bloody art. It’s all abstract and nonsense.

Well, it’s tragic. We’re seeing all that again after this massive explosion of contemporary art in Moscow and it’s just completely been destroyed and replaced by Putin’s propaganda.

John Berger was trying to go into Russia and find artists working now. I knew Berger, as you know, we were friends. And I think Berger was up the wrong street. He just missed it altogether because he didn’t have a real philosophy. He had a political idea, which wasn’t a real philosophy. I mean, you can’t have politics without a deep-seated philosophical idea about what humanity should be concerned with. And that’s what Action Space was. But we didn’t understand the philosophy. We were making it.

Drawing for the Citadel by Ken Turner — Action Space Archive

I wanted to go into how Action Space connected to contemporary art institutions as opposed to galleries. And we have two examples. One is the Serpentine and the other is the ICA. And I think key to that engagement was Action Space and yours and Mary’s decision to actually collaborate with those institutions might have come from the individuals involved. Sue Grayson Ford for example, who is still active. I remember you launched an inflatable rocket at the Serpentine in Kensington Gardens.

Yes, Royal parks. It was beautiful weather. Bank holiday, three days and setting up. Four or five days setting up because we had the scaffold inside the arena and as a photograph show with performances. It was the end. It was 1978, right at the end. That’s when I resigned. To the shock and horror of everybody. It was the culmination of my dream, actually. Not so much the philosophy, but it was all there. And the. The cooperation I had from everybody there, even though they knew I was ending it. They all collaborated and performed and made things. And a whole set of Arts Council guys were sitting in the gallery. In the gallery looking out to the garden. And then we as Action Space set the rocket and did a launch, and I climbed right at the top and looked out to the Serpentine itself, and they said, oh, it’s lovely. They really like the growth, the erection of this almost phallic rocket. But we did a performance of astronauts afterwards, and they said they didn’t like that. So that was performance art.

Well, there was actually quite a big prejudice in the Arts Council against performance art at one point. So let’s go on to the ICA now. I remember the friendly person there would have been Ted Little, the director at that time. And like all ICA directors, he had a lot of problems and ended up leaving. But it was as if he had invited Action Space in for a building takeover.

The Soft Room (at the ICA) was really quite amazing. Because Caroline was doing the introduction as people came in, and she had these sparkling eyes and boring into people. So we were performing as individuals as well as we did outside and inside that gallery. We took it over. The performance was people going in and the performance was the inflatable to themselves inside a blow up structure. with lots of big spheres and big objects, things flying around. And I think Robert Stredder disrobed.

Yes Robert took his clothes off. He’s very much from the counterculture. Very different.

Well, he did, because it gave him the freedom to come in and do what he wanted to do. Just like that. And it was great. I mean, his bicycles and his circus things were amazing. He was a good raconteur.

So the nature of the engagement with the ICA — was it problematic? Was it easy? Was it difficult? I’m trying to remember — nothing’s easy.

It was more comfortable. And then we invited the kids from Wapping. Do you remember that? They broke the windows and stole from the cafe, but the ICA took it on the chin. They didn’t complain, they just said, ok, that’s what it is. So the kids from Wapping were amazing. They loved us, we were their heroes. And they said, oh, we’ve come up to London, we’re going in the ICA and we’re going to Trafalgar Square and do some pickpocketing.

This is something I remember about working on the estates. They were so separated, those council estates, even though geographically they were about as central as you could possibly get in London. Even though it was close, it was like going into a different country.

Yes, it was like an invading. It was like an invasion group going in and getting spoils from people’s pockets. They said, they came back when we were in Wapping, they came back and said, look, sunglasses — worth a fortune!

Very funny. And also, I remember we marched up to Trafalgar Square and did something up there, didn’t we?

We did an event. We got permission from the council, because you can hire it or you can just say, I want to use it. And they say, okay, fix the date and you can use it. So we did. And we gave speeches from the plinths, from Nelson’s Column and had a microphone set up there and told the crowd about the arts and what was happening in the arts and that we were avant-garde and all that kind of stuff. And we did jousting in Trafalgar Square, which was amazing, the photographs of this crowd. But that’s the thing, you see, it drew people in and, okay, we were at the same time spectacle and entertainment, but they didn’t know we were artists. That’s a sort of really interesting thing, because we had the confidence of being avant-garde artists, if you like, or going back to revolutionary days of the arts. And whether it was from Russia or Paris and Dada or Bauhaus, that was our link. We were linked up through centuries back to Russia.

At the ICA, during that conference that we organised and invited people we knew would object to our position, such as Ed Berman, for Interaction. We had a conference on art and the community. That was the moment when that battle, if you like, was formally declared, I felt, is that not right?

It was officially pronounced. This is a viable form of discipline in art as a community artist. But they downgraded it finally to ‘art workers’ .It was working for social benefit and not for artistic advancement. So they opened up a big rift between the artists who were performing firstly as revolutionaries or rebels, working outside the arts scene and going into streets and parks and whatever, schools. Don’t forget that we went to schools and we were carrying a banner which said, we are artists in a new realm, in the new territory of the outside, from the gallery system and the corruption that goes on there and all the argy bargy of money. So, the Arts Council was showing their ignorance of not looking at the possibilities that we were setting up — not just Action Space, but Welfare State and even Ed Berman, if you like. But people like us were doing things which were spearheading some kind of real modern movement and development, relating back, as I said, to Russia, to Bauhaus, to all those things that had been going on. And it was also part of the 60s spirit where we were anti-institution.

Now, of course, after Brexit, we see this excessive instrumentalisation.

What they were actually doing was putting a kind of knowledge around that artists could work in the community and they could work in the community to the benefit of the community and themselves and to the artists. That was the idea. But it failed with the artists because the artists were second-rate. All they were interested in was craft and design. It’s what Boris Groys said about design and art, he said that’s what happened in the Russian revolution. It became design rather than art.

I’m not sure if it comes down to artforms or genres.

It is! It’s not like design or ‘I design this object’, it’s design in the mind. It’s a philosophy of design. So the philosophy of design is very different to the philosophy of art. And that was where we separate. So the community artworker is a designer. He designed for the community using aesthetics. Because they want you to design things rather than artistically form things autonomously, intuitively. imaginatively. And be autonomous. Painter. I’m a painter. I’m autonomous. Nothing interferes with my work. Right?

It wasn’t about going in with a formula. Isn’t that right? It’s intuitive engagement.

Intuitive is a funny word. I mean, where does the intuitive come from? Where does the message come from? Where does your direction comes from? It comes from a deep feeling about an unease, about an established position, the establishment. And that unease propels you because you’re pushed out of it.

You would come up with a response that would maybe surprise and shock people, but you would intuit the correct thing to do. You knew the correct thing to do. That’s what you were trying to say. Is that not right?

Yes. Well, you had to. You had to rely on your own resources, and your resources were something deeply felt within you. Call it intuitive, you call it unconscious desires or whatever, but it’s like improvised dance. So when you’re doing improvised dance, you see the space before you go to it. And so that is how it works. It’s using your mind and your facilities of your brain to actually envision something real beyond yourself. Right. And beyond the situation that you find yourself in. So if you call that intuition, fine, that is the definition of intuition.

At the conference at the ICA, Ed Berman and others stood up and said, we can’t go on like this. Basically, he said, you can’t carry on doing what you’re doing. You anarchists, you don’t have a methodology that’s suited.

He was a sensationalist. He would say anything that caused a sensation, a vibrant sensation. But the conference was organised by Action Space. I let him speak! Because I should have got up and realised that he was going to take over, like a domineering spirit. He wasn’t an anarchist, he was a plutocrat. So he goes and gives a whole speech, stirring like a politician. Artists are not politicians. They don’t play with words like he did. It’s rubbish. Just rubbish. Rubbish, concerned with what real art forms are about.

Well, the main thing is he worked with actors, and they would go into these community situations with a script.

They had a script formula. Like a book of games. We made up our own games as we went along. And that going along with our own ideas of a game meant that people became involved in it quite naturally and organically. It was an organic sort of situation between people.

Well, that’s what I thought we were doing with the events in Action Space. We were trying to create other realities for a moment.

That was right. (laughter) I laugh when I think about it.Do you remember the time we sent the Bubble out in Stratford on Avon? The Bubble went out and Caroline went into the bubble and waved to the Queen as she passed in her launch. There probably were scuba divers underneath. But nobody was around to touch to stop us doing this! It was hilarious. I couldn’t stop laughing when I saw the Queen coming. Put the thing out! Come on, Caroline, get in there! It was amazing. And there were no police about, nobody stopping us doing anything. We could have launched a bloody submachine gun or something. Oh dear.

Can I ask you about what happened to Maurice Agis and what happened with the accident with the inflatable and the subsequent trial?

I should have gone to court and defended him. I was so horrified. And he died. It’s just tragic. He was such a good technician. He was doing a lot of commercial work as well. Building inflatable elephants. That was a great shock. I should have gone because he was a friend of mine, really. And I don’t know why. It’s because London is so far away.

I mean, you’re this age and you’re down here and I don’t think you can blame yourself for that but tell me what you would have said.

Well, I would have said, look, I’ve known him for several decades, and we kind of collaborated, but only in ideas. And I knew him and trusted him. And I also trusted him as a really absolutely fine engineer and technician and the way he built things. I think he built very complicated structures in inflatables by electronic means, not gluing. I would say he was one of the finest technicians of that discipline. And I would vouch for that. I would swear on it. He was one of the first to face the GLC with fire regulations and he invited the GLC into one of his inflatables. He quite dramatically got the Times newspaper, set it alight and put it into the side of the inflatable inside and it burnt a hole and the air rushing out, put the flame out. So I would have actually stated that because that was a detail of his competence, really.

The problem is, when you’re in the field with a lot of people, some of whom may be a bit rough, you do always have the issue of potential vandalism.

I think, as you remember, the reason why we did performances around the structure was to police it. The last thing I did was the Citadel. And when I did that, I had to manufacture it in a field just outside London that belonged to my accountant. Actually. It was a Scouts field. And he said, go there and do your work. So I did that. And then when I was in the field and I had a tent and I was cooking some sausages, and a man in a suit approached me and gave me a letter and it was a summons to the court, the Bow Street court. The GLC has said — I learnt later — that they said that we have to take you to court because we believe that your structure is unsafe. And I said, okay, I’ll appear in court. So I appeared in court at Bow Street, and I stood in the foyer for a moment or two, thinking, how should I face the judge and everything? I didn’t have a solicitor. I thought, well, I can argue this case on my own. I can say how I deal with the safety regulations and so on. And then a couple of guys came up to me from the GLC and said, can we come to an agreement? Because they didn’t want to go into court.

They settled out of court?

Yes. I said, well, what is the agreement? What are you suggesting? And they said, would you say and stipulate that you would only let professional people into your environmental structure? I said, yes, of course I would. That was the end of my contact with the GLC. When I put the structure up, I put a big notice up and said, only professionals allowed in here and they include unemployed and so on! A whole list of professionals. (laughter) And they didn’t get at me. They let it go. I mean, I knew immediately. They said, only professionals. I said, yes, sure, that’s great. Yeah, I’d do that. A big occasion I can also recall was when Joan Littlewood was setting up a program in Victoria Park in London against the Vietnam War, and she asked me to join in her football match, Americans versus Vietnam. I said, yes, I’ll join in, but only momentarily, because I’m setting up an inflatable. And that was interesting because we set up just a square, big, square house, just the red one. And I got ballet dancers from the London school of Ballet to come, youngsters. And they went circling around this inflatable object. And I had a white rope, a nylon rope around, held by the public, held to keep everybody out of the arena, as it were. And then very gradually, this rope came in, into the inflatable. I had flares, the old flares, orange flares in my pocket. And some of the boys larking about, pinched them from my back pocket and lit them. So we had orange flares. And then the boys, about ten of them, closed in into the inflatables. And so you had then a performance of those boys. With the dancers and the audience a little back from it. Giving them space to be involved in that way, whether they wanted to do it or not. I was saying to them, I was talking to them like mad. Yes, okay, that’s very good. I want you to enjoy this and join in with the dances. And they actually tried to do that instead of puncturing it or having a running battle. And then I gradually let the inflatable down. And as it went down, they all piled on top of it. And it was just a happy occasion, finally. But the police actually said afterwards, we could see that you were handling that incident very well. So we didn’t interfere. But they were there because we had told them we were there.

In Kensington Gardens, late 70s. Action Space Archive

One of the things I remember very well was that we used these psychodramas in order to diffuse situations.


Well, I call them psychodramas that were dramatised in a certain way that also involved their own problems where they were. And those problems kind of got redirected through this anarchic focus in a sense.

I mean, their problems were alleviated because it was about spectacle and it was also about drama and theatre. It was kind of an open theatre, environmental theatre, if you like. As I was an environmental artist as I call myself, not a community artist. That was powerful enough to subdue or to change the direction of thought, feelings. It was about feelings saying, oh, what’s that figure doing? What’s that figure? And doing this. And then they would talk to the figures. That was then involvement within the drama of the whole environment.

Exactly what I’m saying. And one had to also use, like you did with those boys, strategies in order to distract people.

Well, the strategies on the spot. Sometimes you had to be intuitive, you had to be wide awake, and you had to sort of rely on your own courage, actually, and be fearless, you see? And that was exciting. That was exciting for me because I thought, well, I could deal with this. And in a flash of a moment, you could do this or that or anything to stop something awful happening. Although at the same time, we’d always say to the police where we are and what we’re doing. And in Sloane Square, for example, we could see them parading police dogs on the edge of the Square and they weren’t going to interfere until something happened- and nothing happened.

I’m thinking of more situations where we were perceived as posh or outsiders or something like that, where we really had to fight hard to actually get accepted.

Can you remember anything like that?

Yes a lot. Quite a lot. I can remember being beaten up (In Liverpool).

I was faced with knives, but then miraculously, nothing happened, in Wapping. I was challenged because not on the field or what we were doing outdoors, but inside the youth club. I took four women, including Mary, into the youth club, there was Marion and Catherine and two other people, I can’t remember, there was a youth club and the Wapping youth club had invited people across the river to come and join in. They had bands or celebrations of some kind. And then during that evening, and there were sort of low lights and music and everything, and I looked around and said, where are these ladies I brought in? They’re not here. So I went into a corridor and they were all kissing, being kissed by members of the invited group. And so I tapped everybody on the shoulder and said, come on, Action Space, we are now leaving. And so they disengaged themselves and I went into the open and the leader of that group — I described it like a Western in the book — and the young West Indian or whatever sort of leader of the invited group stood in front of me and challenged me to a fight! The whole gang of people, audience as it were, retreated and left us two facing each other like that. And he said, I’ll only fight you alone, nobody will interfere, which is quite wrong. That was just a lie. And then I thought, how do I deal with this? I’ve done some jujitsu, how can I deal with this? And just at that moment, I wasn’t frightened. I just thought I was amazed, my amazement at what the ladies had done, being acquiesced to being taken off. And I just was annoyed at that. And I was just thinking, what could I do now? And I thought, well, I could use some of my techniques, which I haven’t really practiced, but will it be a fair fight? And I thought, no, it won’t be. And then just that moment, the locals, big boys of 17, 18 years old, crowded around me and crowded around the guests. And he took me out and the guy, the guest guy, said it would only be me he would be fighting!

Amazing. So what were the women doing? Were they using some sort of distraction technique? Why were they kissing? What were they doing? Maybe this was an early feminist kind of action. I think when we went into an event, this is my memory, we bundled into the back of the vans and the ambulances, no seatbelts and all that. We’d drive in and on. And in a funny way, it was a little like berserking or going into battle. You had to build up a sense of anticipation.

It was. We knew that if we saw tall tower blocks and little areas of scrubbed glass, we knew that it would be tough.And all the time I was thinking to myself, bloody hell, is this what an artist should be doing? Yes, we should, because there’s a motive behind this. It’s probably idealistic, but it is something that drives us on. And the excitement of the encounter, also.

There was also this issue that I feel that this public, the council housing, the way it was designed, was to almost re-emphasise the drabness of these people’s lives.

The criticism was that we would only be there for an afternoon. But in Wapping, we were there for a week. And that worked. Because the mothers, the families, understood what we were doing. The bigger boys understood what we were doing, and the men, the fathers, understood what we were doing because we knew that they had a pub just outside Wapping. And we scraped one of their cars and we dashed away hoping they wouldn’t know. But they followed us. And they said, we know you’re doing good work, but just pay for the damage and we’ll call it quits. I said, okay, there was a bond. You could build up that kind of bond and trust and that was the reason why I was escorted out of the youth club. Otherwise I wouldn’t have that bond. But if I did, then they honoured me. I mean, they realised that it would be a disaster if they let it happen.

I also want to bring this good and evil thing in because I was looking at Mary’s book and I saw this very startling picture of myself dressed as one of the Rippers. Jack the Ripper. And I was thinking, what were we playing with there? What was that about, this is violence against women?

Do you know where I was? I was up in a flat above, looking down. And all the people up there were Arts Council people. The flat of Adrian Heath, the painter. So I knew him. So I got access to it to look down on what was happening. And I could see what was happening. And I said to the audience in the flat, I said, I’m just going down to turn round the audience. And they looked at me and said, turn around. Wow! So that they could have a better look at what was going on. And I went down and moved the rope. Just by moving the rope, it moved the audience. So that the upstairs window could see what was happening. But it was serious. We had two mirrors. And it was about that, the two mirrors reflecting what was going on. So it was like looking into the mirror and seeing another reality. That’s what it was about. It was a philosophical approach and an artistic approach to it. So that was the aesthetic. It had the moral right to perform. That was important. And the performance was conducted in such a way that it had a geometrical structure of figures moving in space. So it was both a drama in space and an idea behind it. According to the mirrors. And why the mirrors were used. If Jack the Ripper approached, he would face the mirror and see himself. And see himself doing some harm to people. I’ve got a book with about 20 or 30 outlines of performances for Action Space. And they were quite detailed, saying, entrances and exits and structures. Some idea of the title of the piece, what it was about.

I just think that in terms of depicting things, particularly political and historical things, using them for the dramas that we set up around the structures, one of the issues for me with Action Space was sometimes this can lead to a form of burnout. Sometimes there was too much. Too much in-role emotion and action, that it becomes too powerful. It goes out of control.

This is my painting. I can be terrified with painting. When images occur, quite kind of almost by magic, they come through the paint. The way I use paint is that I manipulate it so that it is allowed to speak for itself. And I think that’s what happens in any kind of drama. You go into a drama as a character or another personality, and that personality takes over and you step into it, but you know you’re in control. And I know I’m in control or with paint, but I’ve made a video recently, asking the paint to tell me something. I’m putting it into the Dada thing in St. Ives, and it’s saying, tell me. Tell me, show me how. What can I do? Tell me, please. I need you to tell me what to do with the next image and that’s done in a very dramatic way. It’s very powerful because that’s kind of a principle of painting and really allowing your instinct, intuition and imagination to come through to play with this. And play in Action Space is very important. So this idea of play, which you can get from Derrida and Heidegger, how important it is, because it’s the imaginative creativity. It’s not just being creative, it’s the creativity of play, which a child knows about intuitively and is drowned by successive years of education. And so that’s why playgroups are important and why we were interested in playgroups. It works.If you go in with the strong idea and you’re quite buoyant yourself, you know you’re going to enjoy it. And you know that. You know that the audience are going to enjoy it. How do you make it work? That’s the thing. So your entrance is important. It’s like any kind of drama. Entrance, or the first sentence in a book, first, where you set the scene. So if you set the scene, then you can go on from there. But if you don’t set the scene, it’s weak. So you had to be very strong. And that’s what we did. The strength, actually was partly the inflatables and partly the voice. And I had a voice, if you remember, and I could go into any situation and talk to people in such a way, in almost a shorthand voice. You use your voice. I used the vehicle, I remember driving the ambulance around a field and we had the audience all set up already there because they’d been advertised. The whole thing had been advertised. We went round this field, I circled it twice, sounding my horn, making a noise, pulling up, got out and said, ‘Hello, everybody!’ and said, ‘I want young children to come here with me to help unload this van!’ And they came. I got their confidence and they worked with it and then they were excited. When it blew up and everything, same thing. So it was easy in some instances, but another instance, yes, it was a bit difficult often, You need to plan, which is we talked about it, we got together, the group members, the meeting, remember, you’d meet about it, how to do it, where to enter, who had roles and so on, and who handle the sound or the fans, the electricity, the cables. Everybody had a role to play as well as their own role as a specific character. Then they could be individuals or we could work together as a drama which was sometimes spontaneously exploded.

Yes, I remember that.

So that was how we did it. It’s actually the mechanics of how such an operation should happen. And I believe, I mean, circuses know how to do that, outside entertainers know how to do that. But we were more than that. We were an art group!

Drawing by Ken Turner of an Action Space environment

You can visit the Action Space Archive at the University of Sheffield, UK here



Rob La Frenais

Rob La Frenais is an experienced independent curator, writer and lecturer who has recently returned to art practice. Find out more on