Building a Hellibot – January 2021

There are many ways of describing Ian Helliwell, yet I feel none of them would be completely adequate. I could say that for about thirty years now he has made experimental films in a flat in Brighton. That this flat is proverbially packed with found objects, raw materials, bits of circuitry, and countless Hellimachines – indefatigably developed and perfected over time. I could ponder his homemade electronic music and the compelling logic of ‘intuitive electronics’, and speak about the unnervingly hypnotic sound of Hellisizers. Or perhaps I could mention his keen archival research into early British electronic music composers – as encapsulated in the 2016 compendium Tape Leaders (to be reissued by Velocity Press in the autumn). Finally it would be impossible not to evoke Ian’s distinctive presence and energy; his inspiring perseverance and gentle stubbornness; his secretly central position within the British underground experimental scene.

I could write all these things and more, and yet would never come close to portraying everything he does. In early June, Ian generously answered some of my questions, helpfully beginning to fill in the gaps…

Do you remember making and building things as a child? Can you tell me about some of your earliest DIY projects? What inspired you then?

Yes Lego was hugely important when I was little. It was pretty simple back then, and mainly just the basic bricks with a few extra bits such as wheels and railway track. I was always trying to make industrial landscapes, and this also involved Hornby railways which really appealed for their miniaturized realism. Both my granddads worked in heavy industry – steel and shipbuilding – and my dad had worked in shipyards in Barrow and Newcastle. Our holidays to Barrow to visit my grandparents were always a thrill to see the giant shipyard cranes in a fantastic industrial setting. This was a very strong influence and on reflection, from my earliest memories, I was always drawn to machines and industrial landscapes, that most people would find ugly or unappealing. To me they represented an amazing visual world that I only saw on those trips from our house in Durham across the country to Barrow.

The difficulty when I was a boy was that there was no encouragement to make anything. I had a mini-toolkit but couldn’t imagine what I might like to build, aside from bits to go with my train set. There was no understanding or appreciation of art in my family, and there was no motivation to succeed in anything. Art was basically painting as far as they were concerned, and I can’t really draw or paint in the normal way, and I didn’t take art as an option at school for O level. It wasn’t until the 1990s that I finally realised that I could build my own sound machines, and that I was capable of doing various other creative things, and that perhaps I was actually an artist.

The bridge between childhood in the 1970s and living in Brighton in the 1990s, was forming a group when I was at school in Weymouth in the early 80s, and this was the first step into a mature creative phase, though I was 14 when the band started. Punk and DIY alternative music were a great catalyst, and set me on a new path which kept me going through many years of unemployment, and still feed into what I do today.

I did save the Lego dockyard crane that I made when I was a boy in the mid-1970s, and a few years ago I improved the design and made another one to go with it from the remaining bits of Lego that I had left. These are on my writing desk along with a little bit of model railway.

For readers who may be discovering your vast body of work, would you be able to compile a small list of five or six moments (or artworks) which feel especially close to you, and could represent good entry-points into your work?

Probably the best way to provide pointers is via these internet links:

This collection includes some of my first work with direct animation on super 8.

The Spy Box is an example of a multi-media work which brings together a number of my continuing interests – electronic music; collage; sound and light activation; dioramas; history; and construction. There are some things in the box which I set out to find while I was building it, and also some bits I saved from childhood – an Action Man attache case and communications box plus a couple of hand grenades; a little 110 camera; and a model railway cable drum. It was good to give these elements a new lease of life in a creative context, after having kept them for about the last 45 years!

Practical Electronica is the most ambitious film I’ve worked on, and the first time I’d attempted a serious documentary. It tied in perfectly with my interests in making and listening to electronic music, as well as history and archiving; animation; sound visualisation; and experimenting within a narrative/documentary format. It took about two years to make, and as it went on I wanted it to develop as far away as possible from the formulaic talking head style – cutting between a series of pontificating interviewees – and more like a continuous journey through a particular era of electronic music-making, with FC Judd as the foundation.

Growing up I’d never even heard of World’s Fairs, but in the 1990s I became aware of the rich history and how much they intersected with some of the interests I’d been pursuing. Finding out about them is fascinating – particularly the 1950s-70s period when the kind of experimentation that appeals to me the most was at its zenith.

These are some of the electronic sound generating machines I’ve built – a selection of Hellitrons, plus the Percussimate and Helliwah.

This is the family of Hellisizers – mutli-circuit synths which are a little more advanced than the Hellitrons in their construction and circuitry.

What drew you to the film medium, and to experimental cinema? How were you able to assemble your equipment and your technical knowledge of film over years? What were the biggest challenges?

The initial draw was partly through the equipment; I liked the operation and look of slide and cine projectors especially, and wanted to experiment with them. My mate Adrian Shephard and I had formed a group, The Giant Clams, in 1988, and we were full of ideas and enthusiasm for music as well as projections for our gigs, and interested in expanding into other related areas. For me this included light shows and also animation and filmmaking, which I was very keen to explore as I had no experience in those areas at all. At that time video was expensive and completely out of reach, so it was through simple 35mm slide projectors and then cine film – which was widely available and relatively affordable – that meant it was possible to assemble old domestic equipment and play around with it. I’ve always been happy working away on my own on things – experimenting and tinkering to find a means to develop my own methodologies. More often than not a little bit of knowledge goes a very long way, so it’s not necessary to do lots of studying – it’s far better to do lots of playing!

The problem back then was almost the opposite to what it is now in terms of image making equipment. Video, aside from simple VHS, was inaccessible and way too expensive; while super 8 film was very costly per foot of footage, yet the projectors, cameras, splicers and editors could all be picked up far cheaper than any video gear, and there was also the great potential of cameraless film and found footage. Discovering other people’s home movies to edit and reimagine, continues to be a source for new film ideas.

Jumble sales had long been around to find second hand devices, and then when car boot sales started to appear, there was much greater scope for coming across all sorts of intriguing pieces of gadgetry. Some things were unclear how they worked, but cheap enough to buy to experiment with and find out if they might be adapted and used in some way – perhaps quite different from the way they were intended. (The Megatherm is a good example of this – an old piece of hospital equipment reimagined as a light sensitive sound machine activated by a special super 8 film which is projected directly onto it.)

The great advantage of cine film was that it quickly became apparent that you didn’t need a camera to make a proper film. That was liberating right from the outset, as a short abstract film made without shooting or processing or indeed any budget, could conceivably be as good as an equivalent made with higher end, semi-pro equipment and professional film processing. The big problem was the final projection. For a direct animation film covered in ink or bleach on a narrow 8mm gauge, with the soundtrack on a separate format, it’s not at all feasible to have that projected. Therefore I’ve always done my own telecines and mixed film with video. For some purists that I’ve encountered this has been anathema – as if it’s an outrage or sacrilege to be working on film, and then have the sheer impertinence to mix it with video. To me it’s all about being pragmatic – what’s possible to achieve without a budget or support. I’ve always tried to make things that work creatively, and can be presented to an audience to a standard I’m happy with.

Although I did make some short narrative films early on which were great fun and a useful learning experience, they would always betray their lack of production values and were dogged by simplistic plotting, acting and characterisation. This confirmed my natural predilection for an experimental form of filmmaking, in which the lack of a budget is of no real consequence, actors are unnecessary, and the images and sounds can fuse together and transcend the highly limited production values. I’d started making experimental electronic music around the same time as getting into filmmaking, and it was evident that here was a perfect match. Trying to use dialogue and narrative seemed pointless when the electronic music could provide a sound domain totally different from regular films, offering a truly audiovisual experience for the viewer. Ditching storylines to focus on colour, movement and electronic sounds, made filmmaking feel like it was opened up to so many unexplored possibilities. Abstract film and collage offered a world beyond trying to explain in literal terms what something ‘means’. That realisation was definitely liberating and a crucial early revelation.

When I first saw your films at the Cambridge Super 8 Film Festival in 2010, I was very moved by them but also by the humble, gently empowering introductory speech you gave. It was electrifying and inspiring to hear you say we shouldn’t wait around to do things, or hope for elusive funding to materialise. Could you tell me more about this? How have you managed to remain (or become) so free and independent – to liberate yourself from the expectations, limited horizons and consensual dullness of the system we live in?

It’s very important I believe to follow your own instincts, and not be led by what other people are doing and what they want, and what they expect you to do. It can be extremely difficult to forge you own path, as people without privilege are up against so many obstacles, one of the main ones being financial. However, if you can reconcile to working with cheap materials without relying on funding, it frees up all sorts of other pathways, and there is a route forward. A fundamental part of this is to find your artistic medium. This could in fact be one or several different media to work in, but the important factor is to find areas which you feel intuitively drawn towards and can express yourself in.

There is no set formula for achieving independence – some of it happens by accident in that you don’t fit into regular conventions or organisations, and by default are left outside. This can be an isolating feeling, but on the other hand there is a liberation through being unconstrained and not having to work to someone else’s rules and deadlines. For me, creativity represents a way of living and being in the world. It’s not driven by commercial concerns and so rarely makes any money, and frankly the audiences are tiny, but it feels productive, pleasurable and worthwhile, and propels me to look forward to thinking up ideas and working on each new project. 

There is a price to pay for not following the accepted path of applying for funding, ticking the right boxes, befriending the right people and toeing the line. The film establishment doesn’t want outsiders who fund themselves – I know this from personal experience – and this realisation is hard to swallow. Nobody wants to be sidelined and ignored, but putting that to one side, there is a much deeper connection to your own individual creative wellspring when following your own instincts. This is ultimately far more significant and enriching than getting bogged down by the petty hierarchies that have been created by the film establishment. For me it means that working away at home on whatever stimulates my interests and passions is sustainable on a permanent basis, and won’t be deflected by the vagaries of other people’s tastes, priorities and budget allocations.      

Each of your projects seems to be teaching you new skills – you are constantly learning, researching, experimenting with new materials, fields and ideas. Could you tell me more about your ‘intuitive electronics’ approach? What led you to build your own Helli-machines?

As mentioned above I always had an interest in building things, but hadn’t found a way to get started with anything in particular. Wanting to make electronic music, and enthused with the idea of having unique tone generating machines to make the sounds, meant I had the reason and motivation to get building that I lacked as a youngster. Constructing or adapting circuits naturally led to them needing to be housed in some sort of container or cabinet. I started to seek out interesting old boxes that I could modify, and then began to make new control panels to make them look distinctive and as well made as possible. After a while, labelling and naming became more important, and I remembered the childhood Dymo label printer that I used to use with Lego, and the Helli prefix that could give an individual identity to each new machine.

At the start I had no idea about electronics and quickly realised I was never going to learn the subject properly. Nevertheless, I knew I wanted to explore electronic sounds, and I really enjoyed soldering and putting things together. A friend showed me a very simple multivibrator circuit that could be repeated over and over and then interconnected. The sounds were terrific and unlike anything I’d heard from a manufactured synthesizer. I realised that I could touch wires on this 9v circuit board and the sounds would change, and could be made even more interesting. New interconnections, controls and components could be added, and the sound capabilities of the circuit were completely transformed. That new awareness was something of an epiphany, and I thought of it as ‘creative soldering’. Instead of trying to study what seemed an arcane subject, I could use ‘intuitive electronics’ to play around with battery powered circuits to my heart’s content, and this tremendous field of electronic possibilities opened up. With that simple knowledge at the start of the 1990s, ever since then I’ve looked out for hobbyist electronics kits to build and adapt, and sound generating toys to creatively solder.

A new Helli-machine is essentially a project in two halves – the circuit building and creative soldering, and then the cabinet construction; fitting everything inside and designing a control panel and a mode of operation. Over the years this has developed with different interfaces to activate sounds: photocells and special light effects; adapted metal detector circuits; sound and light machines; and more recently electronic sound making robots.  

Do you have favourite materials and techniques to work with? (I noticed how for instance you keep returning to collages, across all media…)

Ah yes, soldering is fundamental to so much of what I’ve built in the last 30 years. It’s endlessly rewarding to play around with circuits and try and discover new sounds or images. Running concurrently with my work in film, has been experimenting with video and televisions – adapting circuits; modifying TVs; and playing with video feedback.

The most difficult challenge for creative soldering I’ve encountered is to adapt old TV games circuits to create abstract patterns activated by sound. This is something I’ve returned to over and over, as reaching truly satisfying results is extremely difficult and requires a vast amount of patience. After lots of only partially successful outcomes, I made the Hellivisor 2 in 2019, and this is wired into my CD player and television, and creates orange patterns on a lime green background that dance to the sounds from a CD. Sound visualisation has been a theme in my work throughout, and I’m always on the lookout for ways I can achieve it.

That’s right about collage too. It’s one of those beautifully accessible mediums where a lot is possible with quite limited means. I do like the way that it can migrate across, and be applicable in various different forms – sound collage; film and video collage; paper cut-out collage. Even in machine building there is a very strong aspect of bringing together disparate elements and making them somehow belong and work together. Over the years I’ve dismantled so many things to tinker with and reimagine, that I have lots of spare parts – miscellaneous bits and pieces that might be useable and could come together to make something new. Collecting and serendipity is a large part of this collaging process, which means being alert and keeping on the lookout, and having an eye for a bargain!

More recently, you’ve started to build your own ‘Hellibots’. How do you feel about robots and the automatisation of everyday life?

As with most things invented by humans, the issue is how they might be used rather than an inherent problem or danger with the technology itself. (I hasten to add things such as nuclear weapons are unequivocally dangerous.) In a world organised by capitalism and enforced by heavy policing and the military, with authoritarian and populist governments in various countries, the problems created from the use and misuse of digital technology are more manifest than ever.

Having lived half my life without computers, the current ubiquity of laptops, tablets and phones, plus all the information technology that goes with them, is startling and disturbing. The way the internet has changed just in the past few years; social media has exploded into all areas; privacy is no longer quite the same to most people; life has changed and become so much more dominated by technology. These are all worrying developments and I can’t see things ending very well.

However, I love the idea of robots, and my Hellibot and its Mark 2 follow up currently under construction, are completely benign and friendly, and designed to make electronic sounds and somehow present a positive outlook.   

What kind of machines do you use most in your day to day life?

There’s no escaping computers and I have to say that the benefits they have brought have been immensely useful – for creative work, research and communication. To me, using technology is about finding a balance between different types, and I definitely try not to be stuck looking at a screen all day long. I don’t have a smartphone and don’t carry around a mobile everywhere I go, and I feel that is a much freer way to live. I like to mix and match and use old and new technology as and when I feel like it. For my film and video making I have a laptop using the same software and operating system installed 11 years ago. Without it being connected to the internet it runs perfectly well, and I don’t need to follow the commercial imperative of constantly updating to the next version.

You’ve collaborated with many people over the years, and of course you are also patiently documenting the works and lives of others (with the Tone Generation audio series and the book Tape Leaders for instance). Yet there is also a definite individuality and obstinate originality to everything you make. Who are the people who have inspired and nourished you in the course of years?

That’s the most challenging question you have asked! I hope it doesn’t sound arrogant or solipsistic to say that there’s nobody in particular that has given that kind of inspiration or nourishment. There are many people that I greatly admire or like very much, but I don’t see them as inspirations as such. I can’t view my life in those terms, as I’ve simply carried on regardless over these past 30 years trying to plough my own furrow, and explore the things that excite and fascinate me personally. Of course there have been long term friends and some occasional supporters who have been a great help at times, but it’s difficult to really single people out.

Your work is palpably informed by enthusiasm, love, and profound respect for the legacies of amateur recordists and filmmakers. How did you first realise their lives had to be researched and recovered?

Ah this is much easier to answer as it was essentially through researching the work of Fred Judd for my Practical Electronica film, that opened up a whole area of amateur activity that has either been ignored or generally sidelined as being unworthy of investigation. Part of Fred’s important contribution to electronic music was through his proselytising and encouragement for hobbyists and amateurs to become involved. This brings me back to the point about abstract film – amateur experimental work can easily be the match of that made by professionals with access to much more sophisticated equipment. Who is to say what is better and gives a more satisfying result to watch or listen to? A false hierarchy has been created to maintain the position of certain artists or composers approved of by the establishment, and that automatically means those outside of this artifical canon are therefore deemed to be of much lesser quality or importance.

Could you tell readers more about the forthcoming revised edition of Tape Leaders with Velocity Press?

This is an exciting development as I’ve been hoping for an improved second edition for the last couple of years, and this is now finally going ahead with the new publisher. There’ll be a new appendix featuring a dozen extra composers not featured in the first edition, plus some new images and various updates and corrections. The launch in the autumn will be accompanied by some events in different parts of the country, which are currently being organised.

You are extremely industrious and appear to be disciplined and unfailingly motivated. Do you have a strict daily routine?

No! I get up when I wake up and go to bed roughly when I’m tired around midnight usually. Having several projects on the go at once always means there’s something to get on with, and only very occasionally will there be strict deadlines, though at times things do have to be prioritised. I can take as long as I want with most projects, and because I love doing what I do, that’s a built-in motivation. I enjoy constructing things and want to see them made properly, and get them finished off to the best standard that I can manage.

Are there projects which sometimes don’t come to fruition, or which are left aside for months or years before reaching completion?

Yes, sometimes there’s a practical hold up; I don’t have the materials I want so that can mean a lot of searching around trying to collect the right bits, and this can occasionally take months, even years. Other times I just haven’t found the right solution for making something work, and I need to ponder it further to try and find a way forward. That can often mean it stays on the ‘workbench’ so that it remains in my thoughts; while other times I realise I have to pack it away and make space, so that I can get on with other things and return another time.

Is it okay to leave things open and unfinished?

I always like to finish projects off because the results are so satisfying, and my flat is full of things I’ve made, which gives me a lot of pleasure. There are inevitably things that I try out – especially circuits where intuitive electronics relies on chance and serendipity – and they can go awry and not work out as hoped. So rather than leave something unfinished and never to be returned to, I either scrap it off completely and salvage anything useful, or plan to return another time with fresh eyes on whatever the stumbling block happened to be.

My one example of something unfinished is the deliberate intention behind the film ‘Holes’. When I started collecting one second sequences of hole punched standard 8mm film in the early 1990s, I had the idea that I would go on collecting and assembling the film for the rest of my life, and it would gradually grow and evolve and only be finished when I could no longer add to it – either through injury or death!

Could you speak a little bit about your particular involvement with Brighton? When did you first move there?

I moved here as a teenager in 1985 after having left school and needing to leave home and Weymouth. I had no job, no prospects and no money!

Has your relationship to the city and its spaces changed over the years (if so, in which ways)? How does it feel now?

Inevitably things change and move on. People and venues come and go and favourite buildings are knocked down or spaces are changed and no longer in use. Brighton is quite a lot different from how it was in the 1980s, and that is reflected across the country – everything is much more commercialised and there’s so much focus on consumerism and sport. There are cafes, restaurants and empty office spaces all over Brighton, and many of the characterful old buildings I liked have been demolished.

Opportunities come and go and there’s no real sense of continuity or community. I’ve lived in this rented flat for 30 years so that has given continuity on a personal level, while everything changes around me! I was involved with a DIY cinema, Brighton Cinematheque, and that was great for doing all sorts of screenings and events and run by a small team of enthusiasts. It finished in 2004, and aside from one-offs with the Cinecity film festival and Colour Out of Space festival, there’s been very little for me to get involved in for a long while. It’s a shame when the creative energy and any alternative counter-culture evaporates, or is so hard to find you don’t even know it’s there.

The truth is that I have no role here in Brighton.

How do you store and archive all your work? Have you compiled a thorough ‘Helli-catalogue’?

I try and display as much of it as possible around my flat, so over time the rooms have become a sort of art gallery. In the 1990s I was not thinking about cataloguing and dating, so unfortunately things like 35mm slides that I made back then are impossible to accurately date. However, in the past 15-20 years everything I’ve made has the date of production, and I have an old box of index cards for all my electronic music compositions. Ideally a thorough Helli-catalogue would be made to accompany a thorough Helliwell retrospective exhibition! There’s no prospect of that happening anytime soon, so I’ll have to make more space at Helliwell Hq!


— Published online on the 15th of June 2021.