“Vinca Petersen is a photographer, installation, multimedia, and performance artist who works in the area of social practice. All of her works, including her photography, emerge from her deep social and political engagement with underrepresented communities in order to give them a voice and recognition”.
– Dr Mark Bartlett
No System in the diaristic book display at Tate Modern, 2019
Vinca Petersen: New Experiments in Collectivity
Vinca Petersen’s work is inseparable from a set of ethical ideals about how we should and could relate to each other. Her body of work has incorporated activism and direct action, leading a self-initiated charity, international aid work, and unorthodox publishing and exhibiting projects. She remains one of the few artists to successfully integrate a way of life and art practice fully.
Some aspects of her work deserve to be far better known. In 2010, Petersen created Future Youth Project (FYP), to “take people on physical and emotional journeys” whether close to home, working with children in Thanet, Kent; or internationally, especially in the Ukraine, where provision for children with learning difficulties has been limited. In Petersen’s words, the Future Youth Project is “a small model for great change”: it should be seen, as all of Petersen’s work should be, as an experiment in collectivity, in asking what needs to be done. Such projects show how lives can be transformed through creative activity, rather than result in art objects for a gallery. Similarly, before FYP, Petersen persuaded the founder of Maharishi, Hardy Blechman, to design and donate a monumental inflatable to take across Europe and Africa. Petersen travelled to orphanages and schools through Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and later to Romania and Ukraine. The castle offered an “inexhaustible” source of joy, as a temporary meeting place and a focal point for communities of children.
These are, to date, lesser-known areas of Petersen’s work; it is her photobooks that have secured her international attention – so far. But in all her work she is far from a documentarian, nor merely an activist, but a catalyst. Her photobooks began with No System, with Steidl in 1999: she remains the youngest female artist to ever work with legendary publisher Gerhard Steidl – and the only one to persuade him to release their book below cost price (so that travellers and ravers could buy it). In 2019 No System was included in one of the first ever displays of photobooks at Tate Modern; Petersen was one of only five UK artists to feature in the entire Tate Modern displays at that time. The work is also in national collections including the V&A.
More recently, the experimental photobook Future Fantasy profiled her earliest work and tested the limits of the photobook medium. It brings the moment of ‘the second summer of love’ into vivid life as “the last moment of genuine freedom” when young people could come together en masse. The ‘second summer of love’, was a moment when EM Forster’s call to “only connect” was adopted by an entire generation; this idea runs through all of Petersen’s work. Deuce and a Quarter, is an astonishingly evocative photobook presenting a road trip across the American South made with two girlfriends, taking a playful look at the myths of American individualism, and the relationships between young women. Both Deuce and Future Fantasy take the form of testimonies, of stories told in the first person, but the first person plural. They both remind us that to reach out to others is an act of imaginative empathy; and only this creates a life worth living. Accordingly it makes sense to imagine her whole body of photographic work as a kind of ‘expanded portraiture’ capturing a generation’s collective identity.
We might also say that since the 1990s, Petersen’s work has remained the voice of the authentic European counterculture, or what remains of it. It provides a model of how a genuinely ‘alternative’ space can exist outside of enslavement to waged work. Her photographic work shows us life as lived with a camera that merits the label of ‘auto-ethnography’ – of the attempt to make an entire subculture visible. No System and the series Raves and Riots invite us to become part of a strange, magical subculture, and become part of its ethos, rather than merely look at it as if from outside. We should see Petersen’s photographs as portals into another state of being, rather than ‘records’ of a subculture – vehicles to become something else, someone else. If there is one thing we become aware of when encountering Petersen’s work it is this: there are no ‘others’ – but we can become other people, ourselves.
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.
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, subversive fun. 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.’
PROJECTS & EXHIBITIONS
2020 – (Forthcoming) Martin Parr Foundation, Bristol, UK.
2020 – (Forthcoming) Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art, Sunderland, UK.
2016 – No System Excerpt, Vortigern Gallery, UK.
2011 – Future Youth Project’s Bus Gallery, Margate Photo Festival – a social sculpture project.
2011 – Northern Soul, by Elaine Constantine. Vehicles.
2000-2009 – Journeys, a social art project.
2003 – Reload, Gallery Van Der Voort, Spain.
2002 – Gallery Marta Cervera, Madrid, Spain.
2002 – Reload, Halles aux Poissons, Perpignan, France.
2002 – Down the Rec, Paul Stolper Gallery, London, UK.
2001 – Still Looking, Rolls Royce Gallery, London, UK.
2019 – (Forthcoming) Rave – Saatchi Gallery, London, UK.
2019 – (Forthcoming) Seaside Photographed – Turner Contemporary, Margate, UK.
2019 – Diaristic Books – Tate Modern, London, UK.
2019 – Paul Stolper & ICA Editions – Paul Stolper gallery, London, UK.
2013 – Africa Series – Photo Art Fair London, UK.
2011 – Something That I Never Really See, by the V&A, National Gallery of Modern Art, India.
2011 – Notes to Workmen, Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland, UK.
2010 – Nothing is in the Place, curated by Jason Evans, Brighton Biennial, UK.
2010 – Nothing is in the Place, curated by Jason Evans, Photomonth in Krakow, Poland. (C)
2009 – The Kiss of a Lifetime (part 1), Rogue Artists Studios, Manchester, UK.
2009 – Kiss of a Lifetime (part 2), VANE (Print Biennial) Newcastle, UK.
2009 – Something That I’ Never Really See, Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford,UK.
2008 – Companion Piece, London. curated by Phillipa Adams (Saatchi Gallery), UK.
2008 – 2009 – Victoria & Albert Museum, Contemporary Photography touring exhibition. Touring to: The Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, Norwich; Arts Depot, London; The Herbert Read Gallery, Coventry; Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford.(C)
2007 – Victoria & Albert Museum’s, Questions of Landscape, touring UK venues. (C)
2006 – Full Frame, Vienna, Austria.
2006 – Rave Review, The Little Cinema, Vienna.
2006 – Et Maintenant…, CRAC, Alsace, France (C)
2006 – Rave Review, Brick Lane Film Festival, London, UK (with Zena Merton).
2005 – Habitat, Brick-5 Building, Vienna, Austria.
2004 – Now Is Good: Ne Travaillez Jamais, Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland, UK. (C)
2002 – The Armory Show, New York, USA. 2001 – Art Tube 01, London Underground, London, UK.
2001 – Questions of Landscape, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK.
2001 – Cab Gallery, London, UK. 2000 – The Art of Photography, New York, USA.
( C ) denotes that a catalogue was published in conjunction with the exhibition.
2018 – Deuce and a Quarter, Monograph, IDEA Books, UK.
2017 – Future Fantasy, Monograph with design by Ben Freeman, Ditto, UK.
2006 – Whatever You Do People Will Talk, Flux Space, Flux Magazine.
2006 – Okupe Backup#1, DVD publication, France.
2005 – Disruptive Pattern Material, published by Maharishi, London.
2004-05 – We’re Back, Adbusters Magazine.
2003 – You Lose, Adbusters Magazine.
2003 – Issue A3, Richardson Magazine.
2000 – No System, Monograph by Petersen, published by Steidl, Germany. Others : Flash Art Magazine, Dazed and Confused Magazine, ID Magazine, The Big Issue.
Permanent collection, Victoria & Albert Museum.
Permanent collection, The Monsoon Collection.