In the 1990s, Jessica Voorsanger forged a career from her unabashed love for David Cassidy. And David Bowie, The Brady Bunch and Micky Dolenz (from The Monkees). And John Lennon, Dennis Quaid, Rutger Hauer, Robin Williams (from his Mork days) and Treat Williams (after he was in Hair). And Andy Warhol. She served time on The Big Breakfast sofa for stealing Bob Geldof’s garbage, though her most embarrassing moment was running into David Hockney at a gallery opening while dressed as his lookalike. Now a bona fide cultural icon herself, Voorsanger reflects on what went wrong with celebrity and how the need for fandom is now greater than ever. Her most recent project, Peckham Heroes, will run from January 19 – March 26 at Peckham Space.
Can you tells us about your project for Peckham Space?
It’s called Peckham Heroes. Peckham Spaced always work in partnership with a community groups, and I’m going to be working with Harris Peckham Academy.
Is that the new school on Peckham Road?
Yeah, and they’ve got a nail salon in there, and a hairdresser, I just love the idea of it. I’m going to be working with the A-level art and music groups. The kids are going to be the ones choosing who the heroes are – there are certain people I really want to include, but the final selection is going to come from them. They will be doing performances which are going to be part of the exhibition. And they’re going to be doing an off-site project. For this they’ll choose ten local heroes to celebrate in a poster project that will be all over Peckham. The work in the gallery will focus on heroes famous outside of Peckham, but the posters might celebrate heroes known locally, people who’ve made a real impact on the community.
Do you have a hero list yet?
That will come from the students, but I have some ideas of who I’d like to be on it. I’d really like someone like William Blake to address a time span. When I put the whole project together I was thinking about Michael Caine – but he’s not from Peckham!
He’s from Elephant and Castle…
But he went to school in Peckham, to Wilson Road. Whether or not he can be included is something I have to discuss with the kids: should a Peckham hero be someone who has had a large impact in the area, has lived in the area, or is from the area? George Michael once lived in a squat in Peckham.
George Michael might be back there soon!
The exhibition itself is going to be in the style of a nightclub lounge. There will be a bar, tables, a stage… and karaoke. There will be ten portraits of famous Peckham heroes, oil paintings that I’m going to do. And there will be costumes of those ten heroes – the visitors to the exhibition can get dressed up and become the hero, and perform karaoke. There’ll be a song attributed to each hero – so if it’s say, Michael Caine, it might be Alfie, but again that’s going to come from the kids, they’re going to select the music. On the preview night they are going to put on a musical extravaganza. The bar will serve coffees, teas, soft drinks, cakes, that kind of thing. I’m really hoping it will become a local hub where people come in all the time and use the exhibition as a place to dance and sing or just hang out.
In your research who have you found who’s famous from Peckham?We were thinking about it and the only person we could come up with is Robert Peacock Gloag, the guy who introduced the pre-rolled cigarette to England.
William Blake, Rio Ferdinand, George Michael… John Galliano also went to school at Wilson Road. Thomas Tilling, who first arranged bus stops, and Christopher Wren – I don’t think he’s from Peckham but there’s links to him. My initial list includes: Robert Browning, who went to school there. Oswald Chambers (the church minister). Chris Eubanks, Oliver Goldsmith, Matt from Bros, Giggs – but his lyrics might not be appropriate for the school – and Josie Long.
[looking at JV’s list] Andy McNab is from Peckham?
I need to double check some of these because there’s people like Anish Kapoor. . .
He has a studio in Peckham.
Vernon Kay. . . The thing is the list is really male-centric, but I’d like to have a real female presence as well.
Did you have any preconceptions about Peckham before you started your research?
Just it being a bit rough. I knew Camberwell having gone to Goldsmiths when it was still located on Flodden Road, and I teach at Camberwell, at Wilson Road, but I didn’t really go down to the other end. The Damilola Taylor tragedy made Peckham very visible but not in a positive way. When I started to do the research for this project I was really overwhelmed by how nice Peckham is – it’s really diverse. It’s culturally really interesting and the architecture is lovely, the houses are phenomenal. I’m also impressed by how much Peckham residents love Peckham. You don’t get hat in Leytonstone or Hackney, you don’t get that pride in one’s area or history. Whereas everyone I’ve ever met who lives in Peckham is really excited about it. And people are knowledgeable about the area as well. At the project launch I had three post cards where I was inviting people to write their heroes on them. and really interesting ones came up. One of them was a police man who had been on the beat for years, and one that I thought that was fabulous was [censored: discussion of highly illegal activity]. It would destroy the entire operation if we were to focus on this person but it was that kind of thing that I found fascinating.
How did you get into karaoke?
I’ve been making work about celebrity for 20 years. It started because of my relationship to David Cassidy. I was looking at the relationship between fans and celebrities, the really unequal balance of how when you’re an obsessive fan of someone your entire life is focused on them. All you want is to be near them and all they want is to be nowhere near you – how incredibly painful and tragic that is. This whole concept of what celebrity is and how celebrity is perceived has slowly changed. It used to be that celebrities evolved from actually being able to do something, they could sing or act or were amazing sports heroes, they really earned their celebrity status. Because of reality TV that doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s more about notoriety. Around 2007, I decided I couldn’t make work about this anymore, it’s too tawdry, nasty and horrible. It’s about Heat magazine and seeing people’s underwear and I just don’t want to go there. That’s when I decided to flip it on its head and look at how celebrity now has become virtually interchangeable. My first karaoke piece was at South London Gallery. That was the first time I’d seen how effective karaoke is. Costumes are incredibly effective at getting people involved. Once you have a wig on you’re somebody else.
Karaeoke is this trickled down idea of celebrity where authenticity becomes irrelevant. It’s enough just to simulate something, like that’s an aspiration in itself. I’m interested in how all this relates to history?
I was recently invited by Louis Vuitton to do a project with their new academy, which will show at their New Bond Street salon in December and January. The kids I worked with ranged from 14-22 and coincidentally the ones from South London go to the Harris Academy in Peckham, so I’ve worked with two of the students already. I was celebrating the arts, so it was all about artists. Instead of having visitors dress up as famous artists, I had well known actors do it. There was Amanda Root, who was in BBC’s Persuasion, Julian Rhind-Tutt from The Green Wing and Clive Rowe – he’s a comic genius! The photographic restagings were a great way for the students to engage with art history. They researched the artists: the way they behaved, the way they were. They went on research trips: to the national theatre to rent costumes, to the MDM [prop makers], a workshop to discuss authorship. Actors are professional imposters, so I wanted to have something that was quite intentionally wrong with the images, so there is always a gender or race cross-over. Clive Rowe was Picasso, he was so imposing, and Julian Rhind-Tutt was Sofonisba Anguissola, the 16th century mannerist painter, and Amanda Root was Andy Warhol. For Peckham Heroes we will be looking at how places change, how people change the shape of a place.
Do you think that how kids think about celebrity has changed?
I think the key thing for kids today isn’t that they don’t respect their heroes as much as we did — I think now there is this absolute concrete belief that they can do that too. There’s no reason why they can’t be football stars or models. You ask kids what they want to be and it’s always something very visible. When I was a kid everybody wanted to be a vet; I wanted to be an airline pilot. I grew up in New York and celebrity was all over, but it still felt so far away. I was so painfully shy that I never considered talking to these people if I actually saw them. It’s so different now, it’s so accessible. In that respect it has changed, but I don’t think children’s respect has changed. I think its questioned as they get older because of how much these people are in the press now—the papers are mostly celebrity gossip, it’s that or petty crimes.
Malcolm McLaren had this great saying about how we live in karaoke culture now – all of society is karaoke culture.
The thing I love about karaoke is that it’s an avenue for people who can’t sing to still be able to perform – and that’s me! I really can’t sing but I do try. I really enjoy singing, but I’m terribly shy and getting up on stage is kind of scary. That’s why the costumes are important. Karaoke is theatre and it works best when somebody doesn’t just stand there and go “Ialalala”, but if they actually put something into it. There’s a really interesting possibility of ‘that could be me!’. If anyone is successful at karaoke the audience also share the success. When someone is really terrible, you feel their discomfort reflected in the audience. Karaoke works in a way that other theatre doesn’t.
Do the people who come from a place create a portrait of that place in a way? What do Giggs or Rio Ferdinand or Andy McNab say about Peckham? It seems funny when you add someone like William Blake into it, but somehow it fits and adds to the portrait.
Most people have very positive relationships to the places they come from. Rio Ferdinand still has a lot to do with the area; he’s constantly going back to his estate and has a very high profile presence there. His participation in the community has made him more of a local hero than a football hero. In terms of reading Peckham by the people who come from there, it appears incredibly diverse but also incredibly creative.
The thing about heroes is they’re always about you; it’s about what you value and not the actual hero. A celebrity just becomes a place to put that, for people to find their own identity.
I think re-enactment is a way of understanding something. I did a project called Fan-o-grams where the viewer became the artwork. The people who received the fan-o-grams were always nominated by someone they knew. It was based on the idea of a telegram but instead of receiving a message they would receive a fan club. We’d create a certificate so the recipient would know who it was from. It’s always done in a crowded place and it becomes evident throughout the day that the person being hounded isn’t really a famous person. It starts out with the first “Oh my god, it’s Patti!” – with teenage girls running after you, hugging you, getting your autograph, and everyone turning to see who you are. By the end of the day, it stops being ‘who is it?’ and becomes ‘oh my, god it could be me’. The really interesting experience is the one where it becomes internalised.
Celebrity has become more democratised, is your work taking this to an extreme?
My work’s coming full circle. It started out as fantasy – with David Cassidy – and it’s going to go back to fantasy. The next project after Peckham Heroes is going to go back to TV shows and characters. I’m doing a show in April or May at Bethnal Green Museum Of Childhood. I’m going to create an installation of a TV show set, and the visitors can become the characters; the show will be screening live. I haven’t decided exactly what kind of show – I’m torn between The Partridge Family, The Brady Bunch, and Rhoda at the moment. One of the things that had always been really exciting for me about celebrity was that it was a fantasy world; it was a merging of reality and fantasy. The more tawdry it gets the more it moves away from the thing that I really love, which is escapist culture. I think I’m going to be moving back to escapism. My comfort zone is really birthday parties and bubblegum.