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3am Interview

copyright Simon Barker 2002


"It's not about 'fucked up kids'. For me it's all about outsiders. There's something attractive about society's outsiders, loners, victims and those who are different, or choose to be different."

Andrew Gallix interviews Six


3AM: As a member of the legendary Bromley Contingent you were one of the original punks. Has punk influenced your work in any way?

S: Has punk influenced my work? -- yes. I still believe that the creative idea is more important than technique and that passion and originality is more important than qualifications and training. But I would also say that the reverse statement is true in that we also influenced punk. By 'we' I mean the hardcore of people at the very beginning of it all -- which I am proud to have been part of.

3AM: I believe you worked with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood at some point: did you learn anything from them?

S: So much.

3AM: Everybody is celebrating punk's silver jubilee at the moment: do you look back on those days with a certain amount of fondness or do you hate all this nostalgia?

S: I am not a nostalgic person.

3AM: Why did you opt for photography as a creative outlet instead of the more obvious music business or fashion world?

S: At the moment both music and fashion have lost any kind of direction, but both come together in film and photography anyway.

3AM: Is this ("Pervateen") your first important exhibition?

S: Yes. I had the chance to have this show put on a year ago in a top London West End gallery but they wanted to charge people entry which I felt unsure about, and then more recently I could have shown it at another West End gallery but here in the Horse Hospital it is just perfect. It has a true Dickensian atmosphere which gives my photos an almost Oliver Twist edge. I love this building and the people at the Horse Hospital are so easy to work with. Amazing.

3AM: Why did you choose Six (two letters short of Sioux) as a pseudonym?

S: Despite your first three questions, I didn't see my past as a good springboard for what I am doing now. More questions were being asked about living with Sid Viscous (sic), working with Malcolm and Vivienne, the Bill Grundy thing etc etc than about my photography. The name Six actually comes from the Banshees' Steven Severin and his previous girlfriend before he met Sioux -- cheers Steve. Sioux and Steve carried it on and now, after twenty five years, I have decided to use it. I like the anonymity it affords me. So much now is given over to the cult of celebrity. I would like my photos to be more well known than me. It seems so many photographers now prefer it the other way round.

3AM: "Pervateen", your current exhibition, is a series of photographs of very young drug addicts, dealers, prostitutes and thieves from Czechoslovakia. You state that there are probably similar kids in all major cities, so what attracted you to these kids in particular? Do you have a particular fascination for Czechoslovakia or for Eastern countries in general like, say, Bruce Benderson?

S: Part of the reason that first attracted me to the Czech Republic was its location. It actually is the heart of Europe and was a great base to travel from, but the more I spent time there the more I felt at home. Now I live half in London and half in Prague and with e-mail, mobile phone and the Internet it's a perfect set-up for me.

My initial curiosity was to the drug pervatin itself. I had never heard of it and wondered why it was only available in the Czech Republic. As I went on, the drug became less important and merely the common denominator that linked the people I chose to photograph. Their openness and rejection of everything that their parents had taught them was refreshing and was similar to how I felt when I was their age. It seems to be have been lost here in the West / USA -- with the brilliant exception of the anti-globalization movement.

3AM: In what circumstances did you meet these boys? Did you have to pay them (perhaps in drugs) to take their pictures? What kind of relationship did you have with them?

S: There wasn't one meeting that was the same. Some were just seen in the street and photographed there and then; others were friends of friends. Then there was those from the main station, which has always been a hangout for this kind of lifestyle and later I was shown billiard bars and after-hours clubs by friends that I had made. I never paid anyone with drugs although if I gave 200kc (about 4) to someone what they did with it was entirely their own business and I'm sure some did go and buy pervatin. Many people I met were just so amazed that someone wanted to take their portrait, even though they didn't have the latest designer clothes or Nike trainers, that they were more than happy to pose for nothing. It gave them a sense of self worth that some hadn't felt for a long time. Some I never saw again; others became good friends. Because I wanted to know their story, and not just take their portrait, it made them see me in a different light and this helped me to be regarded as a friend and not just some arty western photographer. As Franko B remarked when he saw the exhibition "I gave them respect".

3AM: One of the most striking portraits is that of a boy taking off his T-shirt. His chest is bare but his head is hidden by the garment he is shedding. In the process of revealing himself, the model becomes anonymous. Apart from the aesthetic merit of the photo, I couldn't help seeing this as a comment on the anonymity of pornography. Any comments?

S: I tried to avoid making the photos dated and so when someone was wearing a T-shirt or baseball cap with a slogan on it that was of a particular time I usually asked them to remove it. This particular boy wasn't sure about being photographed when he was so obviously high and hid his face at the last moment. I respected that and, although I love the photo, saw him more as the 'unknown soldier' of these junkies / prostitutes. He represented all the others that are not in the exhibition. I didn't see it as having anything to do with pornography.

copyright Simon Barker 2002

3AM: Why were the subjects of the photographs not invited to the opening of the exhibition? Have they seen your work, and if so, how have they reacted to it?

S: I was going to bring about 4 or 5 over but changed my mind at the last minute -- although i regret it now. I became worried about the kind of reception they might get and thought that they could end up like goldfish in a bowl with art people/critics looking down at them -- not to mention the language problem. As it turned out, the people that came to the opening were so great and would have treated them like stars -- which is how I see them. As to their reactions to my work, some show no interest in their own photos although they love to look at all their friends' portraits. Whether this is a lack of vanity or just low self esteem I don't know. Others are really proud of them and will be amazed when they see all the press about the exhibition -- which has been unbelievable.

3AM: What is the fascination with fucked-up kids? Is it primarily the corruption of innocence, the mixture of innocence and experience, of the angelic and the devilish, the tainting of beauty, the demonstration that paradise is always and necessarily lost, that kind of thing?

S: It's not about 'fucked up kids'. For me it's all about outsiders. There's something attractive about society's outsiders, loners, victims and those who are different, or choose to be different. The Horse Hospital asked me to curate a night of cinema and the main film that I chose was Grey Gardens. The story of little Edith and big Edith Bouvier-Beale. Two reclusive older relatives of the Kennedy family, living outside of society, but shining as bright as anyone to have come out of Hollywood when they are in front of the camera. Which is how I feel about the subjects I chose for the Pervateen series. It's not an age thing -- it's an attitude -- it's how you are.

3AM: On the subject of innocence and experience, two of the models are scarred or wounded: does every scar tell a story?

S: Of course every scar tells a story: they're life's souvenirs. In the case of the two you mentioned, one was self-inflicted which is all the more fascinating / disturbing. Such a nice guy who, it seems, would rather hurt himself than someone else. I never got any real answers why. With Martin, the boy carrying the knife, it was the irony that he had what appeared to be a knife-wound scar on his stomach which is why I concentrated one photo on the knife and scar together. Crazy.

3AM: Larry Clark, Jean Genet or Joe Orton: are these valid points of reference? Were you influenced by any photographers in particular?

S: Points of reference -- yes. Influenced by -- no. Probably the best living British photographer for me is Anthony Crickmay. He can take photographs of ballet dancers, American movie stars and royalty without any predjudice in his approach. I worked a few times with him and learnt so much from him even before he had picked up his camera. I like Oliver Toscani and his campaigns for Benetton, challenging things from the inside, and also Nan Goldin for her honesty and complete lack of self censorship.

3AM: Tell us about the drug "pervatin" which you discovered in Czechoslovakia? Did you try it yourself?

S: No, I never tried it. I don't like drugs and they don't like me. I prefer to be completely aware and try not to miss any detail or forget any memory, but I don't have a problem with other people and drugs. Maybe alcohol sometimes when people are fighting and throwing up everywhere. This tends to be British people abroad. I know in Prague whenever I see a crowd of drunks heading towards me it tends to be some Brits sampling the local cheap beers on a stag night out.

Pervatin? I had never heard of it which I thought strange as the world is so small now and drugs travel so fast. I discovered that it was invented by the Nazis to help their troops fight longer and harder and was later sold by them to the Japanese military for their kamikaze pilots. It really is a crazy drug and many kids think nothing of being on it for three or four days in one go -- sometimes longer.

3AM: Why did you decide to use each photograph to spell out the title of the exhibition, "Pervateen"? And how did you choose the (Warholian?) colour tones of the prints?

S: In spelling out the word 'Pervateen' I was trying to show the irony of the Western advertising / fashion industry using imagery of emerging Eastern bloc countries while the youth cultures in these countries can only aspire to Western goods and consumerism. So spelling the word out gave it an ad feel and also reinforced the word, which has a real power to it. The reason I colorwashed the prints was my way of avoiding being seen as a documentary photographer. If I had kept them in full colour people might have seen them as some sort of social study. I am not trying to say this is a definitive account. I chose these people for their appearance and for their relationship with the camera and not as reportage. I wouldn't have said the shades were 'Warholian', they weren't that vivid, but were chosen for a more cinematic feel.

3AM: The portmanteau word "pervateen" -- which brings together perversion and teenagers -- is interesting. It seems to highlight the reversal of values upon which the exhibition is based: is the spectator corrupted by the spectacle, is it the other way round, or both at the same time?

S: That's why I love the word so much and why I changed the spelling. The double entendre has such an effect that sometimes it says more about the individual and how they personally interpret it than it does does about the subjects of the exhibition. What do you think Andrew?

3AM: "Pervateen" sounds like "pervatin". In the same way, the exhibition looks in many ways like a typical collection of gay erotica. Is it partially a send-up, just like the photo of the boy taking off his T-shirt seems to be a parody of soft porn?

S: I didn't set out to parody soft porn. That's been already done by the media with all the boy / girl bands and celeb photo shoots of pop stars' wives and aristocrats with nothing to do. They think they have some kind of star quality and sex appeal. My portraits weren't meant to be a send up of this situation but more a rival to it. I guess this comes from how I perceived all the Warhol stars when I was a teenager. They seemed more glamorous and more mysterious and more dangerous than the mainstream. Now you can read every little detail of every TV and pop star's life in all the Heat, OK, and Hello magazines. Nothing is left to the imagination. I did provide small biographies at the show of all the subjects to give a small insight into their personalities, but in the end the viewer must fill in the gaps. I want to bring back some mystery -- it's like the eternal question of what lies behind the Mona Lisa's smile. It's mystery -- that's how it should stay.

3AM: To what extent are these photographs intended to titillate? How would you counter accusations of paedophilia, sexual tourism and drug chic? Isn't there a risk that interest may be limited to the gay community?

S: Again this is down to the individual's perception of the exhibition. Of course there is a sexual charge to some of the portraits but if I had wanted to make them more graphic -- or pornographic -- I would have. As it is, there is little nudity, no actual drug taking and no moral judgements made on their lifestyle. I hope that doesn't make it sound too boring for anyone who hasn't seen the show. I see myself in a long line of portrait artists from Holbein to Ingres from Man Ray to . . . Six. I have been surprised at how easily shocked some people have been to the show. I regard it as really tasteful and classy but some national papers -- especially the supposedly more liberal ones -- have said that they thought it 'a bit strong' or 'too much for their readers'. I dont know why. Limiting yourself to one particular market is always a mistake, but so is trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. I just please myself and hope that other people will like it too.

3AM: Will there be spin-offs from this project -- a documentary, perhaps, or a book?

S: I would love to do a book but ultimately a film would be my goal -- but then I have got so many projects that I want to do. Being given the chance and the means to get exposure to these projects can be really hard in the world we live in now. Commercialism, orthodoxy and taste are without doubt the three enemies of art. Thatcher's children are at the controls of so many things now as well as all the ultra conservative American multinationals. But every so often something breaks through so I live in hope...


Six's exhibition, "Pervateen", is on at the Horse Hospital until August 10. The Horse Hospital, Colonnade, Bloomsbury, London WC1HX. Tel: (020) 7833 3644.

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