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25 years of Torture Garden exposed - the worlds largest fetish club

[Image: DJ set by David TG, photo by Marcus T.]

From dungeon playrooms to goldfish in knickers, Torture Garden co-founder David Wood prepares to celebrate two and a half decades of running the world’s largest fetish club at their 25th Birthday Ball at The Coronet, Saturday 23 April 2016. It’s the performance art playground for the likes of Paloma Faith and Dita von Teese and a hotbed of haut, experimental fashion, performance and body art. Not only has Torture Garden become a successful global brand, but also a bold community for the most glamorous, brazen freaks seeking a little excitement - and danger! He’s seen it all, and now David unzips Torture Garden for us to enjoy. Saddle up and enjoy the read, you sick puppy.

Samantha Sweeting: First off, I would like to acknowledge your achievement in setting up and running Torture Garden for 25 years. From the outset, it's provided an open space for sexual experimentation that has defiantly questioned attitudes towards gender and sexuality. What have some of the challenges been?

David Wood:
We’ve continuously pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable and legal - what is actually legal is a grey area, open to interpretation. In the early years we were exposed by the tabloid press, and venues were harassed by the authorities - many wouldn’t want to hold our events.

Now, as large scale clubbing has gone out of fashion and London rents rocketed, many London spaces have closed down. In the last 8-years we've lost all five of our large scale venues: SeOne, Mass, Bagleys, The Colosseum and soon The Coronet (Jan 2017).

Also, as the fetish scene has become more mainstream and acceptable - a less underground crowd has started attending, such as men wanting to see women in fetish outfits, but who themselves make the minimum effort to dress up. By maintaining a strict dress code, we stop the wrong crowd from getting in.

And finally it’s a huge challenge to keep Torture Garden fresh and contemporary after so many years. It’s up to us to stay in touch with the latest creative trends and scenes and to stay ahead. The club is as old as it looks and as long as we’re evolving and still putting on cutting edge line-ups of the best music, performers, fashion and installations, it can remain a radical and exciting experience for the new generations now attending. I don’t like to linger in nostalgia for the good old days! Every event can be the best one ever. But in reality, an event of this scale is never perfect and so there's always something to change and improve. When it's perfect we'll have to stop!

[Image: Performance Artist Fakir Musafar, photo by Manolo]

Samantha: Can you tell me about how Torture Garden provides a setting where seemingly ‘bad’, violent, harmful acts can be experienced as care and nurture. Do the rules of conduct allow us to be liberated?

I never wanted Torture Garden to make the world a nicer place. I wanted it to make the world a more exciting place, and sometimes dangerous things can be exciting. S&M activity could be seen as negative or dangerous, but in the context of a fetish club we’ve always promoted it as being about freedom of expression. What we do is about dressing up and transformation, exploring and experimenting with diverse sexuality and fantasies - with full respect and consent at all times. I still feel that fetish clubs in general are the most open minded, respectful, friendly and safest environments - especially for women.

[Image: Performance Artist Masuimi Max, photo by Mark Bennet]

Samantha: From your observations, how have people's sexual tastes and fetishes changed since you began in 1990 and has the Torture Garden ethos trickled out into the wider world?

I think peoples tastes and fantasies haven’t changed much. The big change is that fetishism and experimentation in sexuality has become so accessible and acceptable to the mainstream. When Torture Garden started the fetish scene was very underground, people would generally keep it a secret if they attended fetish clubs or explored experimental sexuality. Now everyone seems to know about fetish clubs - or know someone who attends - and generally people are much more open minded and unashamed.

Samantha: Torture Garden has hosted some extraordinary artists and performers over the years. Are there any particular acts that stand out in your memory?

We’ve put on so many amazing performances over 25 years. The first time Dita von Teese performed in Europe in 1999. The Tiger Lillies on a small cabaret stage in 1993. One of the best fashion shows was by eGarbs who made amazing surreal leather costumes (a little like Alexander McQueen) and suspended the models on a pulley going up and down the catwalk off the floor, some upside down. Modern Primitive Godfather Fakir Musafar. The first public hook suspension in the UK by Xed. Body Artists like Ron Athey, Franko B and Suka Off. US Performers like Masuimi Max and Porcelain Twins. Pop Star Paloma Faith when she was a performance artist wrapped in bandages and pulling live goldfish from her knickers! Some performers who grew up with Torture Garden then became regulars over the years and toured with us around the world - people like Lucifire, Empress Stah, Vivid Angel, and Chrisalys - to name a few.

[Image: Performance Artist and Singer/Songwriter Paloma Faith performing at Torture Garden, photo by Mark Bennet]

Samantha: You began with a background in conceptual art and experimental film, which is clear from the importance you place on visual imagery and installations. How do you keep alive this spirit of experimentation?

I realised from the early days that providing something popular for large numbers of people also gave you a large audience to play with - and with that a financial power to get away with more. With a large audience and money you can be more creative and experimental. You can work with more interesting venues, themed décor, installations and better performers.

Most of the crowd attending Torture Garden don’t think they’d be interested in the shows, performance art or visuals - but they’re exposed to it whether they like it or not! I find their reaction and participation to the art and performances really honest and real, with true interaction and energy. I’ve always felt that the crowd at Torture Garden are active participants in one big ceremonial ritual performance.

The crowd is never passive and detached. They dress up and transform themselves, then step over the line of the entrance into another world of magic and exploration for one night where every single persons experience is different and unique.

The big challenge has been keeping the club fresh and current after so many years. I still love going out as much as I can, to find the latest scenes, performers and ideas and to bring the best to Torture Garden.

[Image: Performance Artist Dita von Teese, photo by Mark Bennet]

[Image: Torture Garden party goer Boy George]

Samantha: What does Torture Garden offer artists and performers that is different from other arts venues?

Before I started Torture Garden I was going to all the most underground, alternative, gay and fetish clubs I could find throughout the 80’s. You never really saw performances in night clubs apart from the occasional drag queen, something at the Scala Cinema, Film Makers Co-op, or later Leigh Bowery giving birth to Nicola 'Bowery' Bateman and having an enema (which was great!).

So when we started Torture Garden - and said we wanted it to be an open platform for performance art, alternative cabaret, ritual, body art, edgy fashion, experimental music, visual art (etc) that specifically explored the body and sexuality and was generally of an extreme nature - there wasn’t any existing scene of performers or venue for that. We had to create it and find the handful of performers and body artists that did exist, then to make it happen. But later, as the club continued a young creative crowd of regulars started to form a unique community and new performers grew out of the crowd. They saw the creative potential and came to us with ideas, and they started to work with each other. We became a magnet for every creative freak in London, the UK, Europe and now the world. Torture Garden put on all the artists and performers that no one else would.

In fact, in the 25-years of Torture Garden we've never once censored or restricted any of the shows. If it's good enough we put it on.

I think that Torture Garden provided a unique audience for performers as well. The crowd was just as creative and expressive as the performers so they became active parts of the performances and not just passive spectators. It creates a unique energy, and all the top performers of the time also attend Torture Garden as their favourite club - as well as performing.

We’d also give them a big stage and an audience they wouldn’t find elsewhere.

In terms of the more serious performance art, we’ve always actively encouraged it at and hopefully provided a less sterile and flat atmosphere than many gallery spaces.

It’s changed in the last 10-years as cabaret and burlesque clubs started to want more edgy Torture Garden style neo-burlesque, circus and freak shows. Then supper clubs and places like The Box, Double R Club, Cirque du Soir and La Soiree developed a performance policy very close to ours. Now the Torture Garden style performer has become the mainstream in the performance scene.

But even now the diversity of our line-ups and the scale of production together with a very special crowd still make Torture Garden a unique place to perform.

[Image: Performance artist Ron Athey, 1994, photo by Jeremy Chaplin]

Samantha: I enjoyed reading one of your interviews where you used the term "chill out S&M rooms”. Is this like having afternoon tea with a bit of spanking?

Well, I think that was just a way of trying to describe a non dance floor Dungeon Play Room with atmospheric ambient music. I think I’ve improved the room names now!

Samantha: You have worked alongside The Last Tuesday Society in recent years, hosting rooms and guest DJ-ing at each other's events. How has this crossover been for you?

I attended some of the early Last Tuesday Society parties when there were less than 100 people and I loved the concept and atmosphere. For me, it was the closest event to Torture Garden even though it was very different and non-fetish, but it was decadent, surreal, dressed up and a fantasy experience. Later I became a regular DJ for them. Then, when they were pulling large crowds, they started using one of TG’s regular venues The Coronet, and as Torture Garden has its own production company we started to provide decor and full production set up for both Last Tuesday Society and Curious Invitation events.

[Image: Performance artist Suka Off, photo by Manolo]

Samantha: You’ve commented before on how the use of uniforms and role-play might be a way to eroticise scary negative experiences in order to exert control over them. Has the popularisation of TG and the wider fetish scene normalised things that once seemed abject and dangerous?

People and society have become much more accepting and aware of fetish and fantasy dressing up and role play. But some fantasies and costumes will always be viewed as controversial or shocking. Although what is shocking will change in time. Actually, as the Torture Garden crowd has become less underground and more mixed and mainstream, some of the crowd may be more shocked by those wearing Nazi uniforms because they are less aware of the full range of cultural references and context.

[Image: Catwalk show from TG Clothing]

Samantha: Have there been any costumes from TG that were particularly striking to you?

There have been so many amazing costumes over the years. I love the really quirky, original and surprising costumes that create a fetish fantasy look that no one had thought of before.

[Image: David TG, photo by Anthony Lycett]

Samantha: Tell me about the music you play and the different environments in TG. Has this changed over the years?

The fact that Torture Garden isn’t tied to any one music style or scene is the main reason why it can continually mutate every few years and remain current. My business partner and I evolved out of the 80’s Goth and industrial scenes but by 1990 such clubs had musically stagnated playing the same music every week. There’s nothing extreme or interesting about that. So we always wanted Torture Garden to be musically progressive. But we’ve also just played whatever we liked. As our tastes evolved, the music at TG evolved, but with up to 9-rooms Torture Garden is probably the most musically diverse and eclectic event in club land.

Ultimately the music at Torture Garden is a soundtrack, and so we try to play the music in each room that creates the right atmosphere. And from the very beginning we’ve always had multi-room venues with an eclectic range of different music.

Our biggest events now have 9-themed rooms and 7-different sound systems, and we play: Electro House, Trap, Booty Breaks, Dub Step and Drum’n’bass in the Club Room; and Kabaret, Burlesque, Electro Swing, Party Mash-Ups, and R’n’B Booty in the Ballroom.

Then there’s 5-themed Play Rooms playing a really diverse range of Atmospheric, Erotic, Ritual, Japanese Drumming, Arabian, Experimental Electronica, Vintage 50’s Boudoir, Industrial, Film Soundtracks.

Samantha: TG has travelled all around the world. Does London still feel like home, for you and for the club?

The crowd in London has been the most diverse and open minded, and they party more and have more fun than anywhere else I’ve been to in the world. London has also been the creative and clubbing fetish capital of the world since the 80’s, which is kind of disappointing when you’re from here as it would be nice to move somewhere else! London has a unique clubbing history and all the freaks of the UK and Europe and the world were drawn here. Unfortunately, there are signs that London is losing that by becoming too expensive and closing down all the clubs and venues. So we’ll see what happens next.

My favourite country to visit and a place where I do feel at home has been Japan and I’m lucky to have been staging TG there annually for the last 15-years. It’s a place where the originality and creativity of the costumes is a match for London. The ‘visual’ of the whole country can seem like one giant fetish fantasy!

Samantha: You have spoken to me previously about wanting to develop the art and performance side of TG and perhaps organise alternative offshoot events. Is this a move we can anticipate in the future?

Well we have had a performance art / body art off-shoot event called Body Probe (we produced an arts anthology book of the same name in 1999 - available online) running very occasionally for extra special performers over the last 20-years, although we’ve only staged around 5-events in all that time. We finally applied for (and received) arts funding for the Ron Athey event last year, so that is something we’d like to expand. Ideally, such future events would explore new scenes and new artists.

Samantha: What sexual taboos are yet to be challenged?

As the world becomes more globalised some freedoms we once assumed as established in the West are again challenged or questioned as different cultures mix. And sexual taboos are always evolving and changing so there'll always be taboos to transgress.

Torture Garden 25th Birthday Ball
Saturday, 23 April, 9pm-6am
The Coronet
28 New Kent Road
London SE1 6TJ

[Image: Poster for Torture Garden 25th Birthday Ball, phto by Trashy Toy]

Torture Garden 2015 Birthday Ball @ The Coronet Theatre from Torture Garden on Vimeo.

Torture Garden Halloween Ball 2013 from Thomas Knights on Vimeo.

Torture Gardens 2013 Birthday Ball from Thomas Knights on Vimeo.

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