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Experimentation, risk and innovation: 25 years of the Horse Hospital with Roger K. Burton

[Image by James Lyndsay]

Anyone in the know of London’s underground scene will be familiar with the Horse Hospital (HH) a pioneering space that has been going since 1993, and indeed a place for first time encounters of avant-garde music, film, art, fashion and literature. It is an artist-led organisation housed inside a actual, former horse hospital, with an ethos for ‘experimentation, risk and innovation’ that has manifested in showing artists, designers, writers, performers, curators and musicians including Franko B, Beat13, Alex Binnie, Uncle Charlie aka Poster Child, Billy Childish, Rachel Kirkby, Frank Kozik, Peter Rigby and The Jolly Roger Video Company, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Mark Ryden, Savage Pencil, Sib Sibley, Nick Simpson, Six aka Simon Barker, Steve Stapleton, Mark Pawson, David Rage, Rough Trade, Jack Sargeant, Tai Shani, They Came From The Stars (I Saw Them), Marisa Carnesky, Dame Darcy, The Dragon, Bizarre Butterfly, City Limits and so on. 

Whilst the Horse Hospital might be familiar to some, the auteur behind it, Roger K. Burton is not a household name, but this remarkable fashion designer, stylist and champion of preserving London’s underground and counter-culture scene should certainly be recognised for the work he and his team have done in preserving this venue in a continually changing city, a city that seems to have little regard for independent venues. Roger talks to Run Riot about his beginnings in the London Punk scene, his fashion career and what keeps him going after over two decades of running the Horse Hospital.

Jareh Das: How did you first enter the world of costume design? What was the inspiration, or a moment in time, that marked this decision or realisation?

Roger K. Burton: After supplying most of the original mod clothing for the 1978 movie Quadrophenia, I decided to start a hire company specialising in street fashion for film, TV and fashion, and I was always styling photographs of clothes to promote the company. Clients seemed to like my eclectic ideas and displays and pretty soon I was being hired to style bands for music videos, albums and magazines. As the demand for more and more creative concepts grew, I sort of naturally fell into costume design and art direction as a progression of the styling.  

Jareh: From being involved in an underground fashion punk scene to establishing the Horse Hospital: did this arise from a need of a space for experimentation or rather, to disrupt or think differently about what an arts organisation can be?

Roger: Originally, I took on the Horse Hospital to store all my costumes, while also thinking it would make a great space for experimentation with art, film, music, fashion etc, actually my staff went even further, imagining we could create an equivalent to Andy Warhol’s Factory…

So, with that in mind we launched the building with ‘Vive Le Punk’, an exhibition of Westwood and McLaren’s most important punk creations from the 1970s. We decided to display them in a quite unconventional way on pink PVC body bags, which really seemed to upset curators from the V&A, as visitors could actually touch the clothes.. But I thought to hell with it you have got to trust people to be careful, and they were very respectful, so why should we adhere to the formality and strict limitations of art institutions, let’s throw the rule book out of the window and try and reinterpret what an art space could be, and most importantly, have some fun doing it!

[Vive Le Punk]

Jareh: The Horse Hospital’s scope is so broad in its approach to programming. How do you make decisions about what kind of artists and practitioners that you show, especially at a time when it seems like you’ve done it all - how do you keep things fresh and relevant?

Roger: Personally, I’m drawn to those untrained visionary artists and outsiders who are driven to create amazingly honest work for themselves which doesn’t have to pander to the art market. Much of our programming is done by instinct and an initial gut feeling so it’s important the work has something to say. I discovered a long time ago that the number of people who prefer to work outside of the mainstream was enormous, so by tapping into that other world, and supporting those artists, hopefully in turn, other like minds would gravitate towards us, and offer us their work, which is kinda what happens. It also helps to have had some pretty amazing staff curating and working with me over the 25 years.

Our strength is in our diversity and the fact that we don’t represent artists allows us the freedom to pick and choose exhibitions and events for our program that are always changing. Once we took away the traditional gallery idea that we had to make money by selling work, we found other ways to keep afloat, and one example was to exploit the buildings history and its unique ambiance by hiring it out to companies and individuals who are looking for an unusual venue to host their events and impress clients.

Jareh: Are you still excited about London with all its changes and evolution?

Roger: I feel very privileged to have been able to live and work here since the mid 1970s, I’m always discovering new things about the city and its people, so I never tire of it, and hopefully through our many events at Horse Hospital, we too have contributed in a small way to the cities rich history and evolution.

Of course, it saddens me that this excessive development fever that is going on in the city is tearing its heart out, so we are extremely lucky that we have managed to hang on to this little oasis for over 25 years, and have survived several battles with developers, but I’m also very conscious that it could be taken away at any time, although thankfully, we have built up an army of followers and supporters who I know will fight for its future survival.

Jareh: Is there specific person who you feel is contributing in a good way to the arts and culture of London?

Roger: There are pockets of individuals all over the city who are contributing in a positive way to the alternative London scene and forming a resistance against its commercialism and mediocrity, and many of them have had connections with the Horse Hospital at some point or another.

Jareh: What other spaces in London do you like to frequent?

Roger: To be honest I don’t have lot of free time to visit other spaces and so I tend to rely on friends’ recommendations for me to view new work in other independent spaces. I also try to see important shows at the bigger institutions.

Jareh: What have been your highlights in the 25 years of events and exhibitions at the Horse Hospital?

Roger: There are so many I don’t know where to start, but here are a few that touched me in some way:

Original Sin exhibition by Joe Coleman
Remote Control Laurie Lipton
Men Without Names – photography by Maud Larsson
CND and the art of protest
David J Smith “The Other Side of The Island” exhibition with soundtrack by the Stargazers Assistant
Storm Over Asia screening, with live soundtrack by Tuvan Throat singing band Yat-Kha
Noel Noir – A Panto performed by Cardboard Citizens
Devil DaddyMark Ferelli performed a special magic lantern screening of Blood on Satan’s Claw
The Subconcious Art of Graffiti Removal - Screening
Dame Darcy & Banjo Pete perform the Singing Saw live, plus screenings
Boxhead EnsembleStories, Maps and Notes from the Half-Light
Saturation 70 – stills from lost Si-Fi movie featuring Gram Parsons, Julian Jones and Michelle Philips
Every Beautiful Thing - An Exhibition of Socialite Michael Hochong’s Dazzling Costumes

[Joe Coleman]

[Laurie Lipton]

[Saturation 70]

Jareh: Is there any artist you particularly want to work with, or indeed one you would like to see return? (Personally, I would love to see Ron Athey again).

Roger: Like so many others, Ron is an important artist and contributor and welcome back anytime, but I have always wanted to show the amazing paintings of cartoon surrealist Robert Williams, who is an absolute genius at juxtaposition, however his art is handled by major dealers in the States who are not interested in working with the likes of us folk who do it for love. So, I continue to be excited by unearthing those old and new lesser known fellow travellers who we feel deserve some recognition…

Jareh: What can be done at a grassroots level to save and sustain independent London?

Roger: Support by the general public is vital, but it also requires a massive amount of energy, enthusiasm, positiveness, dedication and sheer determination by artists, curators and entrepreneurs to stand up for what you truly believe in. As Filmmaker George Kuchar put it: “You can do good, you can do bad, or you can do nothing!”

Jareh: And finally, what keeps you going?

Roger: A combination of all of the above…

Roger K. Burton

The Horse Hospital
Colonnade, Bloomsbury
London WC1N 1JD