Meet Johnny Anaconda and his dastardly friends

Take a stroll through the underbelly of London as two of the capital’s artists pool their dark sides together in honour of saving The Horse Hospital

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Jamie McLeod The Horse Hospital

London is awash with change right now. Over the past month we've seen a number of closures across the capital's most loved venues, ones that have become ingrained in the fabric of London and anchored to its identity. Madame JoJo’s and The Joiners Arms are some of the latest to fall to redevelopment, being flattened in honour of a new set of luxury flats, all the while East London haunt The George Tavern leans dangerously close to the same fate. Others are still fighting, such as iconic arts venue The Horse Hospital. A venue which once played host to the now-infamous Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren Vive Le Punk retrospective in the early 90s, and set the backdrop for an extremely rare film of the same name captured in the hours before the opening and only viewable through a personal screening with Roger Burton himself, the man behind the landmark.

“With a long reputation for supporting outsiders and people who want to practice outside the mainstream, it is really important for us to convey a positive non-judgmental message about the work we show and the way we show it,” Burton tells us. “We have always nurtured and embraced like-minded souls, and in many ways we have become a home for those artists without a home.” The latest in a series of fundraisers and artists jumping on board to help save its legacy is a collaboration between photographer Jamie McLeod and poet Jeremy Reed. A match made in gritty, grimy heaven; the duo's work takes us on a visual journey through the wrong side of town and the seedy faces that populate it. As the show prepares to launch this weekend, we speak to McLeod about ‘death ditties’ and a man called Johnny as Reed showcases one of his aptly titled poems.

What impact do you feel the Horse Hospital has had on the art world and artists alike?

Jamie McLeod: It has championed so many important talents and shows. The ones that had to forge their own way without being co-opted by the established art industry. Roger has made this platform a unique one and possibly the only one left with this amount of integrity coupled with it's amazing history as an old horse hospital. It's been at the core of the underground art world in London since 1992. I know words like 'underground' and 'outsider' have truly lost their real meaning by being so overused but, in a way, that is who the Horse Hospital has truly catered for.

“It has championed so many important talents and shows. The ones that had to forge their own way without being co-opted by the established art industry. Roger has made this platform a unique one and possibly the only one left with this amount of integrity” – Jamie McLeod

Could you tell us a bit about the photos that you're showing here?

Jamie McLeod: The photos for this series are a mashup of images that I've made over the years. They may or may not have a relationship with one another but I think en masse they create the story I wanted, depending on the viewers reference points. I like to see them like cinematic stills; flashbacks with narratives using the semiotics of the street and symbols of my desires. Signifiers for moods and references for places and experiences. Themes such as erotica, youth, decay, sin, and madness are all rendered in a very film noir grayscale.

What is it that inspires or influences you? Last time we spoke you told us it was down to the “drama of life and having an overactive imagination”…

Jamie McLeod: I think ideas are like mini-operettas that we either create from scratch or envision, and then sometimes we find that scenario in the world to represent our emotional state and fantasies. But I guess one thing that gets my imagination ticking is being on the road, on a night train, on a trip. It's usually then I can think very clearly and realise my place in the world and feel the inspiration through the flicker of night lights. I try to not look so much at a lot of the work of photographers apart from photo journalistic stories. I don't want to be perverted by the works of others [laughs]. I will always be in awe of the cinematic work by Alejandro Jodorowsky like Santa Sangre and the book called the Hustler never cease to amaze me.

Where were these images taken? And who are the people you name as Anaconda Johnny, Jack off Johnny, Roko Le Koko, Criminal Lovers and other such characters?

Jamie McLeod: Criminal Lovers and Jack off Johnny were previous shows I made amalgamating the essence of various archetypical people I had been involved with, and the theme of criminality that underlies certain artists and those who have incorporated this dual personality, like Jean Genet, into their work. The stray dogs and the under dog. The dog that will be as loyal as hell and then ultimately hurt and deceive you when your back is turned type thing.

The whole Johnny idea stems from the cliche of that word Johnny, like a John, a sex punter. It could be anybody, like a Tom, Dick or Johnny, or like a man eating serpent if you prefer. Old classic Johnny songs like “Johnny Remember Me”, recounting the real or imagined haunting of a young man by his dead lover. The ‘death ditties’ that populated the pop charts in the early 60s. It is distinguished in particular by its eerie, echoing sound (a hallmark of the Joe Meek production style) and by the ghostly, foreboding female wails that form its backing vocal ). The song was banned by the BBC, along with many other ‘death discs’, which were popular at the time. This type of music is the soundtrack to my images. I like to champion the “nobody stars”  that I find in a world full of useless celebrities and a star system that makes me physically ill. I find these types in places as disparate as London, Istanbul and Mexico.

Soho Johnny

Wisteria boas a trajectory –

blue tassels lipping lilac tusks

outside my basement, NW3.

May back again, another year

underwritten like a scar,

you missing and your viral load

at last contact optimal,

HIV and drug-induced psychoses

wiping your system, you offline,

anonymous as the concourse

at Piccadilly Circus underground.

Your poems feed me gritty craft –

2 books from a co-operative

signposting youth, neutrino speed,

your cloning fix on a singer

whose bed you shared on Brewer St.

Tantrums and karaoke scenes,

he threw knives at you in between

diva spectaculars

recording Vermin in Ermine.

You’re like a quantum particle

existing simultaneously

in two places – dead or alive

body-bagged in a mortuary,

or living, blasted by your cells. 

Your letters scored in orange ink

read like a Burroughs narrative,

a drugs lab pharmacology.

Your poems, 2 or 3 winners

don’t come better and stick with me

in what I remember when out

city-busy and giving space

to deep probe issues, they come up

as comforters, familiar lines

like street names mapping out a place.

Anaconda Johnny will run at The Horse Hospital from 13 December – 20 December, 2014. The venue kindly ask for a £5 donation on the door. For more information, click here

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