Julian House: The New Spirit Happening
Graphic designer, composer, record label founder and lover of ‘a very British kind of weird’, Julian House talks to Neil Cooper about his first visual art exhibition
The future as we imagined it floated into view somewhere between 1950 and 1975. This was when a peculiarly English strain of science-fiction emerged, fuelled by postwar possibilities and Cold War paranoia. Quatermass and The Pit and Village of the Damned set a tone of implied spectral horror that was picked up by Dr Who in its behind-the-sofa, BBC Radiophonic Workshop years. These things – along with the subverted rural idyll of The Owl Service and the creepy foreboding of 1970s public information films – filter into The New Spirit Happening, an exhibition of imagined ectoplasmic ephemera by designer/composer Julian House.
‘We’ve created slightly weird and wrong fragments hinting at something relating to an event or happening in the fictional village of Belbury, but without ever being specific,’ says House. ‘It’s something almost cultish that might have gone a bit wrong, and using the language of a religious folk cult or something.’
House’s parallel universe first came into view via Ghost Box records, the label he founded on swathes of retro-futuristic musical and visual ephemera. It went beyond 1970s clip-show fetishism – and what House calls the ‘blokeish, Nuts magazine’ approach of Life On Mars – to create its own blurred landscape of pseudo-scientific sense memories.
Visually, releases by imaginary artists such as Belbury Poly, the Advisory Circle and House’s own Focus Group recall 1970s science textbooks. The Belbury Poly’s recent From an Ancient Star album even went so far as to include its own booklet of Look and Learn-style discoveries. All of which mines a vein of what House calls ‘a lost Britain’, one in which old television, music and books are ‘evocative signifiers’ of something ‘specific to a time and place, which co-exist even though they don’t seem to fit’.
‘There was so much going on at that time, with technological changes, climate changes and so on,’ he says. ‘We’d just come out of the 60s and an age of psychedelic folk, and the people involved were getting jobs in the media. Storylines from Nigel Kneale were being popularised through Dr Who, where people were also being exposed to experimental electronic music in a populist fashion. In this way, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were more influential than The Beatles.’
Beyond Ghost Box, House has a day-job as a designer, providing record covers for kindred spirits such as Broadcast and Stereolab, as well as less obvious clients such as Oasis. The New Spirit Happening runs throughout Le Weekend, the leftfield music festival at Stirling’s Tolbooth, where the Changing Room gallery is now housed.
Coincidentally, Broadcast were due to headline the festival but were forced to pull out, while Drew Mulholland (whose own adventures into electronic esoterica as Mount Vernon Arts Lab influenced Ghost Box) will play a set with Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley. A couple of years ago Ghost Box re-released MVAL’s long-lost Quatermass-inspired album The Seance at Hob’s Lane. The ghosts in the machine, it seems, are working overtime.
The New Spirit Happening, Changing Room Gallery, Stirling, Fri 1 May–Sat 6 Jun.