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“Fetish culture is a lot less taboo”: an interview with Charlotte Hellicar on the present and future of Torture Garden


Image: Charlotte Hellicar at the TG DJ booth

Charlotte Hellicar has been the Managing Director of Torture Garden – the world’s largest fetish and body art club and a staple presence for the alt/fetish London communities – since 2019, when David Wood (TG co-founder) left the club after three entire decades. It was a moment in time when an unprecedented infiltration of fetish culture and its signifiers into the mainstream was taking place; it was also just one year before the appearance of COVID-19 and the huge challenges the pandemic would bring to the club nights and general nightlife.

On the occasion of their Halloween mega comeback, with three events lined-up for next month, Natalia Damigou Papoti takes the opportunity to discuss with Charlotte Hellicar about how TG survived the multiple lockdowns, their uncompromising commitment to making space for work that artists cannot show elsewhere, the increase of people who are willing to explore (and of those who attend events just to post on socials), as well as Torture Garden’s newly launched fetish and body art app that provides a safe online home to the scenesters and all TG communities.

Natalia Damigou Papoti: Your involvement with Torture Garden goes back twenty years: you were initially working at the door, then joined the team full-time in 2003 and you are now the Managing Director, overseeing all the TG events and projects. When was the first time that you attended Torture Garden? What memories do you have from that night?

Charlotte Hellicar:
Torture Garden was actually one of the first clubs I ever went to, when I was far too young to be going to places like that. I remember being nervous, I had heard all these urban legends about what went on then, and this was before you could hop online and check out what happened behind the closed doors, so there was a lot of anticipation. The party was at The Leisure Lounge in Holborn and it felt like walking through a movie set – I specifically remember a guy in full gimp suit that joined our group, I had never seen anyone in real life dressed like that before. I must have enjoyed it though as I kept coming back!


Image: Cynth Icon

Natalia: TG is the world’s largest fetish and body art club. What was your personal vision for TG, and what did you want to bring to the events when you undertook the role of the Director?

Charlotte:
The ethos that David Wood and Allen Pelling started the club with still stands, and Allen is still very much hands on with the running of the club. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, but a change in roles is a good opportunity to relook at things. The big change was really the process of how we work: lots of people don’t know that aside from Torture Garden nights we also run a production company – TG Productions – that provides décor, creative design and tech production for other events; we have brought that side of the TG team into the planning for the nights, so we now start with an idea around which we brainstorm as a group. Our head creative, Sally Hughson, takes a concept suggestion and evolves it into something I would have never thought doable, which then inspires ideas for performances as well as for the décor and overall feel of the night. We now incorporate many more installations in the club besides presenting the main stage shows. Τhis has made the whole night much more immersive, and gives each party a stand-alone memorable feel – we’re lucky to have partygoers who regularly attend TG, so we want to make each experience unique. Treating all the elements of the night as key parts of the programming was the main change that was brought in.

Natalia: What do you think has changed the most in the events throughout the years you’ve been involved with TG?

Charlotte:
The crowd has definitely changed, as has the acceptability and the accessibility of what we do. People are more exposed to fetish and talk more openly about subjects that used to be taboo. When they step through the doors for the first time they often aren’t naïve to what might be going on, so we have to work harder to still show them something new, but it’s a good thing that boundaries have been pushed.


Image: The Pearl Necklace, live show and supper club

Natalia: The pandemic has been excruciatingly difficult for event organisers and club nights. How has this period been for TG? Did you get any support?

Charlotte:
I cannot express how grateful we are for the support that we have received. Like everyone we thought it would be a month or two of closing our doors, and we were in a position that we could ride that out. We were making plans for the summer of 2020 fully expecting to be back at work and then we went through the real crash of the whole industry and we had to scrap everything having no idea when we’d be open again.

Initially we started our immersive supper club nights, the Pearl Necklace, as three months into lockdown we really needed to be doing something creative – and also try to generate some income. That was a big pick-me-up: TG has been a hamster wheel of parties, so we took this opportunity to do something new during our time out from the club.

We were incredibly lucky for the funding that we were able to access. Furloughing staff and getting grants from our local authority got us through the first few months, then as it became clear that we wouldn’t be up and running for quite a while yet – fetish parties were always going to be one of the last things to start up after a pandemic! – we applied for the Arts Council England Culture Recovery Fund. That was a total game changer, both in helping us to survive and in enabling us to start different streams of the business that weren’t dependent on restrictions lifting. ACE wanted cultural organisations to use their existing skills/brands to find ways of trading that were covid-proof and for us this meant developing our own social media app, TG Social, as a way to keep the community together while we couldn’t meet in real life, plus generating work for performers and educators who provide content. Covid restrictions definitely made us (and everyone) realise the fragility of relying on events. It feels like many people have left the industry in the last 18 months, so we are beyond thankful to have made it through.

Natalia: Tell us more about TG Social! How will it look like? What were the challenges and difficulties of making this happen?

Charlotte:
TG Social will have everything that you would expect from a social media site: you create a profile, add friends, have a feed that you see updates on. Once you have friended someone you can share private albums with them which don’t have the same censorship rules as the ‘regular’ social media. The profile albums stay SFW, so no one is exposed to content they don’t want to see as they scroll – so apart from this being great for individuals, it’s a really good way for performers/designers to share their work to a big audience online without worrying about their account being deleted. We also have a ‘gesture verification’ system, where everyone mimics a gesture that they are sent to prove they are an actual person, as well as the age and gender they claim to be; and if you screen grab a chat the other people in the chat gets notified, as we’ve extensively thought about customer privacy and safety.

There are people who are curious about what we do, or about what happens in the fetish/body art communities, but may not live somewhere from where they can easily come to an event – or parties might not be their thing – so the app allows a lot more people to access what we do. Likewise, people who are already part of our world will have a way to connect with like-minded people in other cities, take a workshop or a masterclass, attend online events. The app is basically an extension of what we can deliver in real life.

The biggest difficulty – all things technical! Luckily our partners take care of that side of things, but we’ve had some obstacles so it took longer to launch than planned. We’re up and running now though.

Natalia: Do you see these online spaces as more of a substitute for when people can’t meet, or do you think that they can exist autonomously?

Charlotte:
I think the legacy of so many things turning to online spaces will stay. For some they were just a filler while they couldn’t access real life spaces, but new communities have been formed. There are a lot of people who have never been able to access the pre-covid options and so will continue to benefit from these new areas that were quickly developed once the restrictions came into play.

Natalia: We saw a proliferation of online performances during the pandemic but I’m not sure that this was also the case for more extreme acts such as the ones that TG hosts. How do you find the move of performance to the online sphere? What were the best performances you’ve seen?

Charlotte: Honesty, I didn’t watch that many online performances. At first logging on and watching a performance was something to do, a little taste of our ‘normal’ life, but the atmosphere, the connection to the crowd and the performer just wasn’t there for me. I was happy to support people, but online performances never filled that void. One of my favourite things was The Peepshow in Berlin, curated by Billie Rae – I loved the concept and how she programmed it – but in general I didn’t log on to many shows after the initial excitement of things moving online passed.


Image: TG Red Light District

Natalia: In the last few years fetish culture has been more mainstream than ever before – with so many people interested in it and eager to attend fetish events. What do you make of this growing interest, and how do you explain it? Do you think that people are more open-minded and willing to explore their fantasies and sexualities, or just hungry to consume experiences that they don’t necessarily take seriously?

Charlotte:
All of the above! Fetish culture is a lot less taboo. Fashion, film, photography and literature have all opened people’s eyes and made them want to explore, but there certainly is a culture of consumption – some people just want to find content to post of themselves being ‘extreme’. In TG we’ve always attracted a mixture of people who participate and voyeurs, so that hasn’t really changed, but there is generally a wider pool of people seeking something to push their limits compared to the earlier days of TG.


Image: Venus Raven

Natalia: Performance art has been at the centre of TG since its inception, with the night having hosted legendary artists, always with an emphasis on absolute freedom of expression – David Wood once said in Run-Riot that he “never wanted TG to make the world a nicer place. [He] wanted it to make the world a more exciting place”. What is your vision for this aspect of TG?

Charlotte:
Giving a space for artists to create and show work that they couldn’t show elsewhere is essential to TG. Visitors should expect to be challenged; they might see things they don’t like or that shock them, but if you come to TG that should be what you are looking for as this idea is central to what we do. If we pandered to what people are comfortable with, we would be doing a disservice to the club.

Natalia: How do the younger and less familiarised audiences react to more extreme performances?

Charlotte:
TG isn’t for everyone, we’ve never claimed to be, but plenty of people that have their eyes opened at a first event come back for more wanting to see something even more extreme, though I’m sure some leave wondering how to unsee some of the full-on shows!


Image: Torture Garden, first time back post pandemic. 'Lazarus' at Scala. August 2021.

Natalia: Your first in the flesh event since the start of the pandemic was on the 14th of August at Scala. How did it feel after so long? Do you agree with those who predict that a second Roaring Twenties will (eventually) follow the restrictions and lockdowns, or do you think that the pandemic will put further pressure on the already hard-pressed London nightlife?

Charlotte:
We honestly didn’t believe it was really going to happen until the doors opened, there had been so many false starts! It felt like going home… It was quite emotional after such a long break, it was so good to see familiar faces and to get the buzz of putting the night on.

We are definitely seeing a divide in people who cannot wait to go out – and many newbies who decided during the lockdown to try something new – and people who are going to need a bit longer to feel ready to party again. We all have to take this at our own pace.

It has been such a hard time for venues and promoters, this can’t help but impact London nightlife as not everyone was able to keep going after lockdown was lifted. But at the same time there is a lot of new energy, so hopefully we’ll see a wave of creativity and excitement after the enforced hiatus.


Image: Party-starters at TG Halloween

Natalia: The annual Halloween events have always been some of your biggest. What do you have in store for us this year?
 
Charlotte:
This year we are putting on three full-scale parties, on October 29 and October 30 at Scala in Kings Cross with ‘Halloween Carnivale’ theme and ‘TG Laboratory’ on November 5 at Electrowerkz in Angel – I cannot wait! Both venues will have full-scale production, stage shows and installations, so anyone planning to come should check the shows and DJ line-ups to find which one is right for them. We’ve got a lot of TG family plus a lot of debut TG performers in all of the nights. Not being able to do Halloween during the lockdown was one of the times that we really missed the club, so it feels like a massive relief to be back this year and it looks like we have finally moved on from the bad times of lockdown.

Natalia: Two-questions-in-one for closing: what is the one thing we will never see in Torture Garden while you’re directing it, and what is the wildest thing you’d like to organise in the future?

Charlotte:
I can’t say never! Even things that I think are total no-no's can work if they are done right... As for plans, we missed out on our big 30th anniversary celebrations in 2020 so will have to commemorate that in the future. We’ve never been traditional so maybe 33 and a half years will be the big one, who knows, but we had things in the pipeline for that which we’d hate to shelve completely. We were so excited for those plans, we’ll definitely bring them to life at some random date in the future.

You can get tickets for all upcoming Torture Garden events here.

PLUS! A delicious EXTRA for Run-Riot readers: Free access to the app, via this link: app.torturegarden.com - includes 8-weeks of premium account (valid from the moment you sign-up). NOTE: To access the app correctly, register your account via your desktop browser first.


Natalia Damigou Papoti is an independent writer, mainly interested in sexuality, desire, feminist politics, and gender. Since 2017 she has been working in Live Art festivals and events and since 2019 in the Live Art Development Agency.

Natalia was the co-founder of the interdisciplinary UNCENSORED Festival (2019, London) that explored pornography at the intersection of art and activism, and reflected on the existing and forthcoming legislation regarding sexually explicit content in the UK. She was also a member of CUNTemporary/Arts Feminism Queer.

She has a background in journalism and cultural criticism.



Image: Charlotte Hellicar at the entrance of The Pearl Necklace
 

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