Words by Jess Ralph
Underground speaks to the director of the film, Kevin Hegge
Hi Kevin, so how did the idea of making Tramps! come about?
I was in London for the last movie I made [She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column, 2012) when I met the DJ, artist, and archiver Jeffrey Hinton. I already had an interest in Michael Clark and UK Subculture. So, I met him, and we were talking about the legendary Warren Street squat and its links to Leigh Bowery, Princess Julia, all these people on the scene, and his archive of video from that time. I thought it was interesting how it housed this intersection of artists and young people. So, it evolved from the Warren Street squat to thinking about this broader culture of students and artists in this community, how this hub of the squat created a space where this intersection of young creatives could flourish. More than this pop cultural idea of the New Romantics, as that did not really exist yet. It developed around this group of people spending time together.
What were you hoping to explore in the film, and were there any misconceptions you wanted to challenge?
When I started out, I was not really trying to do something about the new romantics, that was just the dominant culture that came out from this group of people. They had all been into techno. I just wanted to expand on what we thought that scene was about; reposition it into this art context. I did want to debunk the idea that it was just this fluffy pop culture MTV thing – it was a relevant and important art movement. For example, looking at the clothes they were wearing – BOY London, Bodymap. And then that led onto “Oh, Judy Blame was the stylist that put that Bodymap on everyone.” Looking at these aspects, just zooming on interesting things.
There were so many exciting and innovative contributors that were prominent at the time but have been forgotten, and I wanted to dissect all these parts and links.
How did you choose who you wanted featured in the doc, and how did you seek them out?
I first spoke to Princess Julia and Scarlett Cannon, Philip Salon. Princess Julia knows everyone and everything, she was just spinning names- speak to this person, that person- pointing me in different directions, I could hardly keep up! Preliminarily, it was just a case of seeing who I could contact, and a lot of people did not end up in the film, because it was about character, and availability. Even now, there is so many people I have discovered that I wish were in the film, but I did not know about them at the time- people like Andy the furniture maker, or Dave Baby, who was close friends with Judy Blame. Also just reading Boy George’s book and learning the names of people who were around through that.
It is weird because now, when I am in London, I am hanging out with all these people who were in my mind from this mythological place; everything is just very linked and still present. There was definitely no shortage of people to speak to, as there was also so much going on at that time. Everyone thinks of The Blitz Club, but there were other parties going on like White Trash, which was POC focused.
We also talked to a lot of people who did not end up in the movie but were still very insightful, for example this London Historian who had done a lot of work surrounding the history of squats and squatting culture in the city post war. We talked to Denzil Williams, who had that club White Trash, Juno Birch who was in the band The Raincoats, and we talked about the early days of Rough Trade and indie rock.
You are based in Toronto, where did this fascination with the new romantic subculture come about- coming from both the perspective of an outsider, but also Toronto’s legacy of the queercore movement?
I had always been around the queer art scene in Toronto. My first film was about queercore – Bruce LaBruce and G.B Jones. It is actually finally coming out now! I always thought only queers make art, like I am always surprised when I find out an artist is straight! People are always like “Oh, you’re focusing on the queer elements” and I am like “There are other elements?” For example, Mark Le Bon who is in the film who turns out to be straight. It is just the case that most cool stuff happens with the queers first – or actually, it happens with Black culture first, then the queers steal it, and then straight mainstream culture steals it.
I was into video art, and Charles Atlas who made this movie called “The New Puritan” about Michael Clark and his world, and the people in it. So, I had these names from his film as reference, and once I met Jeffrey, I was just rattling off the names and asking “Who is this? To see more, know more and find out more.
I met Charles Atlas at a film festival and told him about this film I was planning to make and all the people I had discovered through The New Puritan. He ended up being super supportive and letting us use footage from it, which was an absolute pleasure as it is rare that he allows that. Maybe it is just because I have been stalking and harassing him for the last ten years, so he was forced into a position of helping me out, ha!
In most people’s minds, “New Romantic” evokes pretty boys in frilly shirts, and radio friendly synth pop. Was it your intention to highlight the lesser known but especially important queers, female, and transgressive artists in the scene?
Well, I was never a Spandau Ballet fan! It was not that I was trying to focus on lesser-known people, I was focused on them because that is who I found the most interesting, and who were major to me. Like Judy Blame is everything to me! Princess Julia is iconic! These were my superstars.
But then there was stuff like the Neo- Naturists; I have never been into naturism, as I have always been interested in worlds where clothes and performativity are central. But there were artists like Grayson Perry who engaged in that movement, and standing in the club butt naked – not everyone was walking around looking like they stepped off the catwalk of Vivienne Westwood’s Pirate collection!
It was more about diversifying the narrative of what that scene was, then just picking ‘niche’ aspects.
You had the opportunity to speak to the legendary Judy Blame, before he passed. Could you talk about this experience?
I was obsessed with Judy Blame, and I am really happy he is becoming more of a household name. I did an interview with him at his studio – after months of trying to track him down and begging people for leads- and remember walking in and he was sitting there smoking and snarled “Well, you finally got me!” Talking to Judy was like being in heaven, just so open, so cool, so punk and was not taken at all by the pop culture narratives of celebrity or “fashion icon;” was just passionate about creating art. His whole house was filled with jewellery he was making for Rei Kawakubo [Comme des Garcons], and I got the opportunity to try it on before she did.
Seeing the way his work permeated so many strands of pop culture, from music videos to Bjork’s album cover to Boy George- Judy’s presence is everywhere! I am a big Bjork fan, and he was telling me about the jumper she is wearing on the [Debut] album cover is Margiela, I had always just presumed it was a shitty old sweater from a discount store! He was able to recognise my excitement about everything, without making me feel like a stupid fan girl. I found it really joyous to be able to connect all these dots and work out from this one person their influence had permeated culture to such an extent it reached me as a teenager growing up in a small town in Canada; the whole machine of pop culture and how it worked. Like what someone is wearing can be unpacked to give you so much information, it is never just about the clothes, and Judy really represented that to me. I am really sad he was never able to see the film, as it would have been the peak of my life and work to make something that Judy was proud of.
Though it was after this incredibly sad event that I was able to begin working with the [Judy Blame] Trust. Looking through his photographs, sketchbooks, and personal ephemera was rather strange, but I think because of that the final cut of the film does have an intimacy to it that would not exist otherwise.
Arguably, the socio-political climate of the Thatcher era is not dissimilar from that of Britain today. However, as you have said, squatting as well as free university education was integral in allowing the artistic scene in the 80’s to flourish, things which the young creatives of today do not have access to. What are your thoughts on this?
I did make these observations, and when I was in London and speaking to everyone for the film, we spent a lot of time reflecting on this, all the impossibilities young people face today when trying to grow as an artist. Thatcher was a psychopath and there are undoubtedly links between the awful socio-political climate both then and now, however the reason this time was so special is that it did resolve in people being able to squat, and eventually being able to buy their council houses. How the era did come with lots of opportunities, but simultaneously was very oppressive.
With whatever neo-conservative bullshit is happening now, there seems to be no upside for young people. I am not trying to look at the past through rose tinted glasses, more point out how fucked up it is now! Young people now must have twenty jobs to be able to scrape their rent, when would a young creative have time to make art? Sew your clothes, paint a picture, pay back your fashion school debt?
When I was hanging out with Julia and Jeffrey at The Glory [gay bar in Haggerston, East London], I had the opportunity to meet Charles Jeffrey who is, of course, this amazing young designer who’s become successful, and I couldn’t help but think, “Thank god he made it!”. Because so many brilliant and talented young creatives just do not, and cannot, the way things are now.
So, I hope in the movie this message comes across, saying that things today are fucked up. I want young people who are in art school now, or struggling to make it, to see the film and feel seen. People who cannot pay their bills but are still trying to make art.
What do you want people to take away from the film?
It just takes someone to be interested in interesting things to be an interesting person – that is what I learnt from hanging out and meeting everyone through the course of making this film. It is not about being ‘attached’ to a certain scene or being a certain age. That is what I especially loved about London; how intergenerational the creative scene is today. Interesting people will just find each other. And that interest and curiosity can be sustained.
Also, that if you want to be creative and make art, however fucked up and difficult the world around you is, you will find a way of doing it. It is not about being delusionally optimistic, but also, it is not about drowning in despair. Misery needs company, and I wanted the message to be uplifting to any young creative watching the film; if that creative drive is in you, and making art makes you happy and gives your life meaning, stick at it.
Tramps! will be released in the UK soon.”