I had never heard of Bimbotown in Germany until British comedian Martin Soan told me about it last night. He was raving to me about the joys of Leipzig.
“It’s a genius place, John,” he told me. “It’s full of such beautiful architecture. the central nervous system for 19th and 20th century music conservatoire education, great resistance against Fascism throughout the Second World War, the Green Lung.”
“The Green Lung?” I asked.
“Hitler created it,” Martin explained. “The Saxons were building the largest navigable waterway from the south to the north. The two parts ended up 300 metres apart. Hitler came to power, hated Saxony and stopped the construction and, to this day, those two canals stand 300 metres apart. But all the land in between and around was given over to the infrastructure – warehousing and goods yards, train systems – and it all turned into ruins in the Second World War. When they came out of it, it just grew up as a park.
“So now, in Leipzig, wherever you go, you go through glorious countryside. And Bimbotown’s there.”
“Bimbotown,” Martin confirmed. “Probably the world’s greatest semi-automata-automated-automaton of a club. It’s genius. Run by Jim Whiting.”
“Ah,” I said, “I met him in London in about 1986, I was looking for people to be on Game For a Laugh and went to his first floor flat in Archway Road and, going up the stairs, I think there were moving robotic things on the walls and, in his flat, I think there were things moving on the walls and a mechanical man sitting on the sofa.”
There is a clip of his 1986 flat and work on YouTube.
“Yeah,” said Martin. “Jim Whiting’s in Leipzig now. Plus there’s this other art guy called Henrik Håkansson who has ensured that the Turner Prize winner gets exhibited second in Leipzig: so it’s now shown in London, then Leipzig, then New York.
“Leipzig’s becoming a hugely important cultural place. I’ve not been for a few years and I’m slightly worried that the romantic, slightly-decaying, forgotten East German aspect which is Saxon – they consider themselves completely different from West Germany obviously – might disappear.”
“And Jim Whiting?” I prompted.
“Genius artist,” said Martin, “dealing in welding, machinery and anything to do with the finer aspects of engineering. He does beauty on an industrial scale, but he’s also a fine engineer on a tiny scale too. Wide vision.”
“So what’s Bimbotown?”
“It’s a concept he came up with. It’s a club with music, bands, comedians. But incorporated into his club are things like…
“You sit down at huge, sweeping unusual-looking bars and stools are installed which are bolted to the ground and they have tractor-like seats. Very comfortable. They incorporate your bum. So you’re sitting on one of these and suddenly – WHOOSH! – your seat zooms upwards and you’re sitting up in the air on this seat and everyone’s laughing.
“Another thing was when I was standing at the bar and everyone had pints of beer. I looked along the bar and everyone simultaneously grabbed their drinks and took them off the bar. I thought What’s that about? and suddenly my glass was just – WHOOSHKKK – knocked over… There was a wire above the huge, sweeping bar which had six East German greatcoats moving round the whole club forever and ever and ever so, when people at the bar saw the next greatcoat coming, they just lifted their glasses off the bar.
“In one part of the club, you’ll be sitting down on chairs over here with a live band over there and suddenly everyone goes WHOOOOAAA! and the whole area with the chairs is on a false floor and suddenly you are sitting there on the chairs moving round the club.
“There was actually one bed ride where you got on these East German beds and it took off and you went round art instalations. Absolutely amazing.
“The people who push the buttons to make all this happen are just ordinary people sitting on armchairs with a table in front of them with BUTTON A, B, C, D. It takes them a while to work out what the buttons do. So they press this – What’s this? – There’s nothing happening! – But, when they press one button, a bar stool is rising with someone sitting on it – rising up into the air. Absolute genius! Loads of stuff.”
“Did you perform there?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Martin. “Three times.
“I met this guy in the club, an old guy – and he had a shopping trolley. He had his whole life in this shopping trolley. He had books and all the significant things in his life. He had a hat on his head, was wearing sunglasses, had a huge beard, a greatcoat, was hunched over this shopping trolley. And people were coming up to him and talking to him; some people were slightly abusive to him, trying to make him react. But he didn’t do anything. He just listened to them for a while, then just moved off. He went through the whole place like that. Enormous club.
“In the end, I actually went up to him and said: Man, you’re doing a fucking genius job. I’ve been watching you for about twenty minutes. I’m stoned, I’m drunk but – I tell you what – that doesn’t take away from my keenness and observation. You are a fucking performance genius.
“He just listened to me and moved off.
“But, as he moved off, there was the flash of a strobe light – because there were lights all over the club flashing and strobing – and I saw he had no legs.
“It was just an automaton machine going round the club. It took me in. It convinced me. I was drunk and stoned and the lights were flashing and the music was great and I thought it was real. I thought he was real. But it was a machine.”