Vinca Petersen interviewed by Sheryl Garratt

No matter how controlled a society or system, no matter how conformist its people, there are always cracks, faultlines, overlooked spaces in the margins where people have been left behind, or choose to break away from the norm and experiment with different ways of being. These are the spaces Vinca Petersen has always felt most at home, the people and places she chooses to feature in her work as an artist. ‘Whether it’s my friends, or raves, or Romanians getting about with a horse and cart, they’ve always been the things that I think are beautiful, that I want to look at,’ she says. Sometimes, forces converge and these cracks open wide, or the edges come into sharper focus and start to fill out the frame. Often, we’re talking mere moments Raves&Riots: a brief rush of freedom and possibility in the middle of a crowded rave, a riot or a demonstration. Other times, it can grow into movements, markers for social or cultural change: Rosa Parks not giving her seat up on the bus, or New York’s LBGT community fighting back outside the Stonewall Inn instead of giving in to yet another police raid; hippies in Haight Ashbury, or punk anarchy in the UK. One such movement exploded in Britain at the end of the 1980s. Brewed from a heady cocktail of MDMA, house music, and youthful rebellion against the long, grey reign of Thatcher and Major, at its peak in the summer of 1989, the acid house/rave scene saw crowds of 25,000 people defying the police to dance in illegal all-night parties. Like most British teenagers, Vinca was swept up into this maelstrom; unlike most, she also took her camera along, to record it. She has always taken photographs. She got her first camera at the age of seven or eight and began taking blurry photos of her dad drinking whisky, or half of the family car. In her turbulent teenage years, it became her way of making sense of the world, a kind of visual diary.  ‘It’s a way of recording memories,’ she explains.  ‘I remember the things I experience very visually, I’ve realised.’ In 1990, at the age of 17 she moved to London, telling her parents she was going to art school. Instead, she moved into a squat, got involved in alternative politics as well as the rave/free party scene, and occasionally worked as a model in edgy fashion spreads and music videos. Through this she met the influential photographer Corinne Day, who became a mentor of sorts, occasionally giving Vinca cameras, film, and giving her more confidence to continue taking her pictures. In the meantime, the initial euphoric anarchy of the rave scene was contained, commercialised and assimilated back into the mainstream as these movements always are, with its more extreme elements pushed back into the margins. A new Criminal Justice Bill was introduced in Parliament to tidy up these loose ends, with clauses designed to make life far more difficult for the squatters, travellers and free party promoters who were Vinca’s friends. When it became law in 1994, many of them left the UK for a nomadic life in mainland Europe. Vinca soon joined them, remaining on the road until a few months before her son was born in 2005. They lived in trucks, setting up free parties in the countryside near urban areas, bringing a little mayhem and magic wherever they went. Throughout, Vinca took photographs, eventually collecting them into a book, No System. Published by Steidl in 1999 (to be reissued in 2019), the book provides a unique view into a largely hidden world. Vinca is no voyeur, intruding with her camera to examine and record. She is an insider, and her pictures are warm, intimate, complicit. Her eye is that of a participant, not a voyeur. But though her gaze is affectionate, it is also unflinching. As an artist, she is uncompromising: she doesn’t idealise what she sees. These liminal spaces are rarely neat and tidy; they’re not always pretty. But like all places where human beings play, they can be inspiring, joyful, fun, and she captures that, too. There are more books to come, the next Future Fantasy covering her teenage years in London. Vinca’s pictures tell stories, which is why they tend to work best when collected into groups. She has a sharp eye for telling details: the shadow of an AK47 burned into a sunbed in Ghana, airplane trails accidentally making an anarchy sign in the sky, the sheer joy on the face of a disabled man playing with volunteers in the Ukraine. Her photography is human and compassionate and most of all, joyful: she has a way of capturing those brief moments of freedom and possibility, of recording people at play. After the birth of her son Archie, Vinca settled down in Ramsgate, on the east Kent coast. (After one last, epic journey overland to Ghana, recorded in Africa with Bouncy Castle). She did a Fine Art degree, and continued working as a prop designer – the trade that has supported her art for some 20 years. From necessity, now that her son is in school, her journeys have been shorter, but she has still created doorways back into that world through her charity/social sculpture experiment Future Youth Project, which takes volunteers from the UK on ‘physical and emotional journeys’ to help – and play with – people in need across Europe. Whether she is dressing up for a demo or party, planning a journey, working on her art or raising money for Future Youth Project, there’s always a sense of playfulness and fun in Vinca’s work. There is, for instance, her alter ego ArtNurse, who popped up at the 2010 Paris Photo festival and subsequently at Arles Photo and Brighton Photo Fringe dispensing gold glitter and administering vodka shots by syringe as well as dancing with strangers and selling postcards to raise funds for FYP. ‘We’re not free, the way society is set up now. So my way of feeling free is to make fun, to play. It’s like jesting. I think that’s been taken away from images of people, and images of women especially. I don’t often see images of women looking comfortable and happy, in a non-extreme way. I want my pictures to be edgy and interesting, but people don’t have that much fun any more. So joy, and fun. That’s what’s important.’

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