The entrance into The Shunt Lounge was an unmarked door in London Bridge station. A passer-by might wonder why, at certain times of the week, there was a queue of hundreds wrapping around the station hall and into Tooley Street; maybe they didn’t realise that behind that door lay one of London’s hidden treasures.
What was on the other side changed from visit to visit. The first time, I was confronted by a blank black wall with a jagged crack running up the middle from the ground, that each person had to contort themselves to fit through; beyond that there was inky blackness, with a guide rope, to feel your way in the right direction. Another time, the door opened to reveal a series of rooms: an old arcade full of retro games machines, a bar that looked more like an apothecary inside a person-sized birdcage, a gallery space with projected video flickering on the far wall and echoing music coming from somewhere far away. On one occasion, there was a long tunnel of silver balloons and a narrow canal. Each entrant had to put on a boiler suit and helmet, climb aboard a small barge, and be punted down the corridor to the other side, receiving a lecture on how they were passing through a machine that created infinite potential, and when they came out of the other side, everything would be different.
Once, the naked space was revealed - a vast, vaulted brick tunnel with high ceilings, spectacularly up-lit - there was a dining table that must have been a hundred feet long, with a macabre harlequin at each end, and a naked performer lying in the middle of the table draped with grapes and vines, about to become their meal.
I fell in love with the place from the start. It was a dizzying, challenging, endlessly stimulating environment. Within the huge network of vaults and tunnels that had at various times in it’s history been a bank vault, a wine cellar or a bomb shelter, there were theatres, cinema spaces, halls full of tatty sofas; you might find yourself watching firebreathers one second before being whipped into a dadaist dance performance; watching the barman who’d just served you a mojito suddenly climb a rope to do an acrobat show, high above your head. Like Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms, to enter Shunt was to lose yourself in dream space.
I spent some time trying to reach the people who created this place, to find out if we could get involved in some way, and eventually reached Hannah Ringham - one of a circle of eight curators who programmed the lounge, designing and overseeing the installations and concepts, together with a dedicated and mindblowingly talented cabal of helpers who made the ideas a reality. I introduced Brainlove Records to her and Nahum Mantra from the team: an art-pop record label, founded to foster and promote imagination, spirit and creativity. Happily, Hannah fell in love with our label and extended family of bands in return. Before long, we were programming live music in weekend-long stints - we had We Aeronauts play to a hall packed with maybe five hundred people, blossoming into the Arcade-Fire-ish live proposition they can be when in front of that sort of audience. Gaggle, the 20-piece female choir, filled a theatre with their loud cowls and louder voices; Mat Riviere played in an atmospheric, dusty room, spotlit against a blank brick wall that stretched far upwards, his bleak poetry echoing round the space, as did Pagan Wanderer Lu and Stairs To Korea. By the end, most of the bands on Brainlove had performed there.
The Shunt guys were generous, both in payment and in hospitality. These drinks tokens were each worth three drinks of any kind, and we were never short of them.
I carried this one around in my wallet long after the space had finally closed.