ABC in Sound: The Late, Great Bob Cobbing

ABC in Sound: Bob Cobbing. Image © Andy Freeney, 2013

Rose Parish discovers a life rich with ideas, poetry and performance in this offbeat exhibition…

ABC in Sound is an exhibition about the late Bob Cobbing (1920-2002) curated by Biennial project curator Rosie Cooper and artist William Cobbing (his grandson). Bob was best known for being at the forefront of British poetry from the 1950’s; ABC in Sound is a book published by Bob in 1964 that explored sound and concrete poetry with print and audio experiments of the English alphabet.

Although this exhibition explores Bob’s love of language, it also opens up doors to his life in London and further afield during a time when art was being thrown completely off-centre.

There’s certainly lots of different places to explore in the exhibition that reflect this; audio recordings, film and interviews, a retro-orange panel re-created from Bob’s home called ‘Bob’s ideas board’. Then there are various prints, photographs, publications and paintings from his archive.

“The images and sound combine with her voice and Bob’s recorded poetry, echoing throughout the gallery”

Venturing into a room on the very first corner of the exhibition, I see a bookshelf and orange chairs that look like they have been taken out of an abandoned 1970’s classroom. I sit myself down and watch a film that is playing called Catalogue.

Made by London artist Holly Antrum, she spends the majority of time with Jennifer Pike in her and Bob’s London home; Jennifer was Bob’s wife and is now ninety three. I watch her performing some of Bob’s poetry, then suddenly she seems to take on a whole persona of her own. Images swirl in and out of Pike’s performances, with theatre masks and glittery tassels; the images and sound combine with her voice and Bob’s recorded poetry, echoing throughout the gallery.

ABC in Sound: Bob Cobbing. Image © Andy Freeney, 2013

I leave the orange chairs and stand looking at a history of Bob’s life on a giant orange board (orange is a consistent colour in this show). There are photographs of Bob performing with friends and other artists (I spot American poet Allen Ginsberg); there is one that appears to be his wife Jennifer, in a knitted hat that is covering her whole face, with sunglasses over it.

“I see cake smeared on some semi-naked bodies; crowds gathering outside desolate building sites”

Starting to flick through the correspondence and writings dangling off the installation, I’m drawn to a mini-publication called Destruction in Arts Symposium (DIAS). It was a three day symposium of destruction in 1966, of which Bob was on the committee, and took place in numerous streets, theatres and concert halls in London, including Bob’s Better Books bookshop (owned and run by Bob on Charring Cross Road).

Looking back up I notice an article written by London Life magazine covering the destruction; I see cake smeared on some semi-naked bodies (“Happening with coffee cake… spread on by Londoner Brenda Jordon”); crowds gathering outside desolate building sites (“Scrapyard happening … for Robin Page, a Leeds college of art lecturer”). There’s even a tiny review of an event at Better Books:

“From 8 September-1 October events happened, many simultaneously, all over London, beginning at the premises of better books where the manager Bob Cobbing allowed Robin Page, wearing an aluminium space suit, to dig up the basement in his Krow (read it backwards.) The whole sequence was organised by Gustav Mezka and John Sharkey of the ICA. Occasionally the police became interested as rumours of obscene films being show, and naked participants in happenings, spread around. There were, however, no arrests and a projector was confiscated, later to be returned.”

With said infamous projector returned, the Bob extravaganza continued. These are just some snippets from Bob Cobbing’s world, and there is certainly an awful lot to cover. ABC in Sound is in sorts a loving homage to Bob and his friends, and the art world they inhabited at a time of great change and innovation. It’s a bizarre experience, much like trying to listen to Bob’s weird poetry recordings for the first time.

Rose Parish

Images © Andy Freeney

ABC in Sound is the start of a year long project Bob Jubilee curated by Rosie Cooper and William Cobbing

Exhibition continues at the Exhibition Research Centre (John Lennon Art and Design Building) until the 22nd November, Monday to Friday 10am–5pm, free entry

Posted on 18/11/2013 by thedoublenegative