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London's Institute of Contemporary Arts (or ICA, as I'm going to conveniently abbreviate it to from now on) is a great venue for seeing interesting new art and cinema. I've been a member of the ICA for several years now, though you don't have to be a member to attend events or exhibitions there. The main advantages of being a member are that you get a programme sent to you each month, get free admission to the Institute itself, and receive discounts on ticket prices. If you visit the ICA as a non-member, day membership will cost you £1.50 on weekdays, and £2.50 at weekends, for admission to the institute's art exhibitions and the bar. Members get admission to the exhibitions and bar for free, for both the member and a guest. Membership costs £25 for a year, but there is a £15 concessionary rate. If you attend quite a few films, you can soon recoup the cost of membership, as membership entitles you to buy reduced-price tickets for both yourself and a guest. The ICA is conveniently located on Carlton House Terrace (the eastern end of the Mall), just a couple of minutes walk from Charing Cross Station, passing under Admiralty Arch from Trafalgar Square. A recorded information line on 020 7930 6393 is available, telling you what's on at the institute. There are four main elements to the ICA's activities; film; art exhibitions; talks and performance. FILM The main reason that I joined the ICA was to attend their film screenings. The ICA has two screens, both of which are licensed to show films that have not received BBFC (British Board of Film Certification) certification. This means that the ICA can show foreign films, which would otherwise not be shown in the United Kingdom (it costs money to submit films to the BBFC, you know!). It also means that the ICA can show banned films, are those which have been refused certification, Government permitting. Recently, for example, the ICA screened a series of banned films, including Sam Peckinpah's 'Straw Dogs' and Wes Craven's execrable exploitation flick 'Last House on the Left'. As far as I'm concerned, the ICA's main strength, is that it shows an impressive cross-section of movies. The institute's director, Philip Dodd, a former editor of 'Sight & Sound Magazine' ensures that each month's programme contains a variety of nationalities and genres. The institute frequently shows retrospectives of directors' and actors' careers. For example, since I've been a member, I've attended screenings of lesser-known films by directors including Wong Kar-Wai (Hong Kong), Takeshi Kitano (Japan), Wim Wenders (Germany), Edward Yang (Taiwan), Sergei Eisenstein (USSR) and Federico Fellini (Italy). There has also been a superb retrospective of the career of Hong Kong veteran actor Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. In addition to honouring specific directors and actors, the ICA will often have seasons of films from different genres – recently there was a series of films based on interpreting Zen philosophy (including King Hu's superb masterpiece 'A Touch of Zen'), and a season of Japanese animation. As if this weren't enough, of course, the ICA supports current movie making, often being the first cinema in the United Kingdom to screen foreign movies. Recently, for example, the ICA hosted the premiere screening of Edward Yang's stunning 2000 movie 'Yi Yi (A One And A Two)'. It also screened Japanese horror films 'Ring', 'Ring 2' and 'Audition'. Perhaps if one criticism could be levelled at the ICA's programme of events of late, it would be a clear leaning towards Oriental movies. Personally, I have no objection to this, as I am a great fan of Hong Kong, Taiwanese and Japanese cinema. However, I can understand that this might frustrate someone with different tastes. Certainly, the institute does a ttempt to present a very diverse programme, inevitably coloured by the personal tastes of its staff. The cinema's two screens are very different in size. The much larger Screen 1 is generally used for screening contemporary films or those expected to prove very popular. Screen 2, however, is much smaller, with only five rows of seats, and a smaller screen. Older films, shown in Screen 2, will frequently be shown from scratchy, old prints, which can be quite frustrating – but very often, this is because better prints are not available. In the case of 'A Touch of Zen', for example, the film has never been released on video anywhere in the world, and the only prints available are increasingly scratchy ones owned by national film libraries. Tickets for screenings at the ICA cost £4.50 (£3.50 concessions, £2.50 ICA members) before 5pm, and £6.50 (£5.50, £4.50) after 5pm. Not bad prices for cinemas in London, and particularly good value to see films that often aren't on release anywhere else in the country. ART EXHIBITIONS Of course, the main thing that the ICA is known for is its art exhibitions. There are two exhibition spaces in the institute, a large gallery (often broken up by partitions) on the ground floor, and a smaller one (made up of two rooms) on the first floor. Generally, exhibitions aren't overcrowded, and are well lit (by entirely artificial light on the ground floor and by mainly natural light on the first floor). The exhibitions can be extremely variable in terms of quality, and primarily, your enjoyment of them will depend on your opinion of contemporary art in general. Exhibitions generally run for a couple of months – recent examples include a retrospective of the art produced by a collective of artists known as 'City Racing' between 1988 and 1998, and a solo exhibition by Dutch artist Aernout Mik. The ICA is also the home of the Beck's Futures exhibition each year. This is the UK's largest art prize, generally recognising the work of artists less well known than those exhibiting in the Turner Prize are. Ten exhibitors take part in the exhibition each year, generally utilising a broad range of media. TALKS Each month, the ICA organises several talks, where representatives from different backgrounds discuss major issues. Recent examples include discussions of Hacktivists (political activists making their points online), New Labour, Unionism in Northern Ireland, the human genome project, and the 'theory of everything'. Recent speakers have included Tracey Emin, Boy George, John McCabe, Trevor Baylis, Tony Benn MP, Irvine Walsh, Zadie Smith and George Monbiot – a cross-section of writers, performers, artists, politicians, inventors and economists. In addition to discussion talks, the institute will generally have one event at which an individual artist or writer will appear in conversation with someone familiar with their work. Recent individuals taking part in these talks include artist Bill Viola, musician Brian Eno (discussing Conway's Game of Life), designer Bruce Mau, and digital designer John Maeda. Tickets for talks vary in price between about £6 and £8, with appropriate discounts for concessions and members. PERFORMANCE Every month the ICA hosts what it calls a "Paradigm Poets" evening, at which contemporary poets present their work. Generally, these involve a live link-up with a bar in New York City, and accompany the poetry with music and video. Other than this, the ICA hosts all manner of weird and "wonderful" performance artists. If you have a vague idea of what performance art is, then you're going to help me out a lot here. Basically, performance art is art that involves you watching someone doing something, generally something odd. I think a recent example will serve to give you the idea; <br>"Legendary performance artist Tehching Shieh is making his first visit to Britain to present documentation of his six performance works: five of which lasted a year each and the sixth 13 years. ... His performances involve a particular constraint and a particular mode of being. These have included living in a cage, punching a time clock every hour, and staying out of doors, for an entire year. ... Although Shieh never explicitly explains his rationale for his pieces each of them implicitly raises profound personal questions about life, art and being, and what it means to live in the world." I mean, please. Seriously, though, I must confess that performance art leaves me cold, for the most part, and it's precisely this sort of thing that puts me off it. I have, however, attended two performance events at the ICA. One involved comedian Simon Munnery presenting his Perrier award-winning 'League Against Tedium' show, which was extremely funny, and one which involved a couple of Canadian musicians presenting a piece of music entitled 'Symphony No. 2 for Dot-Matrix Printers', which was surprisingly entertaining. As if this all weren't enough, each year the ICA receives a visit from the Mime Festival, which probably won't appeal to you, if you're of sound mind and body. Very occasionally, pop acts will perform at the ICA. Since I've been a member, the institute has played host to gigs by Ash and Gaydad. The cost of attending performance events at the ICA is between £5 and £12, depending on the scale of the production, with appropriate reductions for ICA members and concessions. CLUB NIGHTS Every month, the ICA puts on several club nights running from evening through to the early hours of the morning. The most popular of these are 'Batmacumba', a Brazilian event involving a DJ playing Brazilian music, and short films in the cinema; and 'Little Sta bs of Happiness', consisting of short films and school disco-style music, selected by Pulp's Mark Webber. Admission to club nights costs between £6 and £8, with reductions for concessions and ICA members. BAR The ICA has a truly excellent bar, with Japanese Kirin beer on tap, and an impressive collection of spirits, including several brands of absinthe. Unfortunately, the prices reflect the Bohemian (read pretentious) nature of the place, and the bar quickly becomes crowded with self-important media types keen to share the trivialities of their day with anyone within hearing distance, as the evening progresses. Food is available most of the day in the bar, from the Philip Owens café. However, (recalling the words of a mailshot I received from the ICA once), the "street food" is intended for "browsing". Having only eaten there once; a variety of stomach-shrinkingly small portions of Central American dishes, involving unexpected combinations of banana grass and ground beef, I've got to report that the food is excellent, even though the portions are disappointing. The menu changes regularly, offering bizarre combinations of world cuisines to tease any palate. The bar is also quite a good place to star spot, I've seen Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, and comedians Stewart Lee and Robert Newman here. SHOP The ICA has an excellent bookshop, excellent that is, if you're looking for books on art and film theory. Not much good if you're looking for anything else unfortunately. It's stocked with magazines that you won't find in any newsagent, filled with arty pictures of semi-naked people posing in unexpected locations, and bearing pretentious titles like 'Urbanique' and 'Spore'. In addition to this, you can purchase limited edition pieces of art by artists that have exhibited at the ICA over the years. CONCLUSIONS The ICA is a great place to see and, if that sort of thing's important to you, be seen. The ICA cinema shows some absolutely superb films from around the world which otherwise wouldn't be shown anywhere. Their retrospectives and seasons of movies are particularly impressive, often showing many little-known movies. The ICA is best known for its art exhibitions, which can be a bit hit-and-miss, but invariably include at least a few interesting pieces. Overall, the ICA hosts an interesting range of events, from a broad range of genres, and has something to interest most people, and not just art and cinema enthusiasts. -- All costs correct at time of writing.