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In her new exhibition, Hidden Tracks: A Decade of Free Parties, photographer and artist Seana Gavin documents sound systems on the road and the close-knit communities that formed around them.

In the midst of a nightlife crisis, where nearly 400 clubs across the UK have shut in the past four years and the hyper-commercialisation of club culture continues to escalate, the 90s free party scene stands as a radical emblem. Both of rebellion against the commodification of dance music and as a reminder of the community spirit at the core of the alternative underground party movement.

It’s this sound system culture, with its illegal raves which flourished across the UK and Europe in the 1990s, that Seana Gavin depicts in her new solo exhibition Hidden Tracks: A decade of free parties, and also in her photobook Spiralled. As a teen, the artist and photographer gravitated toward this scene and spent a decade at the heart of it – finding a sense of release and belonging there as well as documenting these moments.

Gavin’s exhibition, which has just opened at Gallery46 in London and includes photos, diary entries and party paraphernalia from that time, gives a personal and vibrant insight into a largely undocumented part of rave history.

Tell us about the curation process for Hidden Tracks: A decade of free parties – what was your selection process like and what kind of materials are included?

The exhibition is an extension of my solo show Spiral Baby at galeriepcp in Paris, in 2019. That was the first time I had shown this series of work, after it had been buried for 15 years. So that was the moment that I went through all my old negatives to select photographs taken over a 10 year period of my life from 1993-2003. For this show, I have chosen slightly varied images, as in the past few years I have become drawn to different images.

Other than photographic prints, the exhibition also includes journal entries that I wrote during my summers of travelling with the sound systems and describing parties I attended in London. I was lucky that I had kept a box of diaries that at one stage in my life I wanted to throw away. But it was actually my mum that encouraged me to keep them, saying I would use them for something one day in the future. Sometimes mothers just know things! There will also be flyers and ephemera displayed that I kept from that time.

Sacha dancing in the mist. Multi sound system illegal rave in Tarragona, Spain (2003). Photograph: Seana Gavin

The photos take us all over Europe – can you tell us about some of the places you visited and some of the party locations pictured? 

When it became more restricted to put on the raves in the UK in 1994/95, many of the sound systems headed to Europe, to continue their mission there. So I would spend summers travelling in my friends’ mobile homes with the party organisers. We travelled on the road across France, Spain, Germany, Holland, Italy, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. The parties would be held in open fields, by lakes, and in rural wooded areas as well as in abandoned military runways, warehouses and factories.

Barcelona, New Year’s party (2000-2001). Photograph: Seana Gavin

How important was time together living on the road off-grid to your community? How does this exhibition capture that?

The free party movement had a very strong sense of community. When on the road in Europe, this nomadic community became even closer. They were my temporary family for periods of time. Living together we would share what we had and generally look out for each other. Sometimes when I was travelling in this way there were times when there would be 10 of us living in 1 vehicle, so you can imagine how close we’d become. I think some of the photographs capture what that experience was like.

Having joined Spiral Tribe in your mid-teens and discovered that lifestyle while you were still at school, what drew you to it and how did it change your perspective? 

I had alternative interests and was trying to figure out where I fit in. When I was 14 or 15 I remember watching a Spiral Tribe music video on MTV. I was strongly affected by it, I knew then that I wanted to be part of it in some way. Then a year later I was taken to my first Spiral rave and was officially sucked in and it became my weekly ritual to attend these free parties and illegal raves. I became ‘Spiralled’, was the phrase we used at the time. I would attend school during the week then spend the weekends disappearing at the raves. By the time I was 16 I didn’t feel like I could fully relate to the other kids at school. I luckily mangaged to get my GCSEs but I definitely lost interest. I had discovered something far more exciting.

Charlie at the rave. In a quarry near Brighton (2000). Photograph: Seana Gavin

Do you think people have any misconceptions about sound system collectives? If so, is there anything you hope your documentation of your experience can change about that?

Maybe some people think it’s purely about hedonism. But I think particularly in the free party scene the focus was on the sense of community. The aim was to put on parties that were accessible to everyone, no matter what their financial background was. As they were not commercially driven, they offered a donation only policy on the door. So their main focus was to bring people together in order to experience moments of joy and escapism from their daily lives through unity on the dance floor. There was also a creative and artistic element. Spiral Tribe describe themselves as an ‘arts collective and free party sound system’. They put a lot of thought and energy into creating an inspiring environment for their parties. In the same approach as you would a stage set with the lights, backdrops and sculptures coming together to create the vibe.

As much as the exhibition is a personal account, it captures a time that wasn’t documented heavily back then at all – why is it important to you that people see it?

The fact that it wasn’t overly documented is why I felt it was necessary to share the material. For a long time this archive was hidden in personal photo albums and in boxes. At that point I didn’t value it beyond being a personal documentation, and wasn’t aware how much intrigue there was. But as more years passed by and the interest in 90s rave culture increased, I became more conscious of the preciousness of the material.

Now that it has been 20-30 years and the scene has been recognised as an important relevant sub culture, I also felt it was important from a historical perspective to be shared.

Raver on a speaker. Illegal free party, London (1999). Photograph: Seana Gavin

Does the exhibition show how the scene changed over time?

I’m not sure if it will be obvious from the photographs, except for the fashion element. Although at the time, the scene was quite anti-fashion. But when you read the journal entries, there are references to the criminal justice bill marches and parties being shut down by police. So that will paint the picture of the scene evolving.

There’s a lot of nostalgia for that time – for the freedom and a culture that couldn’t exist anymore. How was the experience of revisiting that time for you whilst curating the exhibition? What did you feel most nostalgic for from this time in your life?

Revisiting the material was a healing process, it brought up mixed emotions for me.

It made me nostalgic for a period of time of fearlessness and freedom that comes from youth, that I could never gain back. When life evolved around fun for me with minimal responsibilities. But I was also reminded of the feelings that came from attending the parties; the energy of them, the craziness of some of the events that took place, the funny stories and memories. And some of the characters and friends that I inevitably lost touch with.

Legs, Hekate Sound system. Czech Teknival (1999). Photograph: Seana Gavin

Why do you think people generally feel such nostalgia for this time now?

In some ways it was a time of innocence, before smartphones and social media. It was also an era where subcultures were more present and could remain underground for longer before being ‘discovered’. These days things move so quickly.

Also I think when something is new it is more raw and exciting. I don’t think things could be repeated in the same way because the world is so different now.

You’ve previously put out the book Spiralled, why is it important for you to put your photos out in more of an experiential and ceremonial way via exhibitions too? 

Because the experience of seeing things in a book compared to physically in front and around you in a gallery space is very different. And after I had the show in Paris, I always had the intention to bring it to London to be viewed by that audience as London is where it all began for me.

Spiral Baby. Portrait of Seana Gavin. Mother Free Festival, Lincoln (1994). Photograph: Seana Gavin archive

Is there an image that means the most to you personally? What’s the story behind it?

It’s hard to pinpoint one image. But ‘Build up to the eclipse, Hungary 1999, was particularly memorable. There was a magical energy in the air that day. It was taken at the solar eclipse free festival, moments before the moon passed over the sun and the sky turned from a full sunny day to darkness in seconds. I think the photo captures some of the excitement building up to that life-affirming event.

Build Up To The Eclipse. Hungary (1999). Photograph: Seana Gavin

What kind of artists and music genres were you most drawn to at the time?

The parties were mainly focussed around hard techno and electronic music which was good for dancing at times. But the older I got the more I was drawn to music with vocals and melody. And as things evolved some of the parties would have multiple sound systems playing more varied music. I would find myself gravitating to the ones playing old school cheese and hip-hop .

If you could choose one song to soundtrack the exhibition what would it be?

2 Bad Mice, Bombscare.

Hidden Tracks: A Decade of Free Parties will run from 10-28 April at Gallery46. Buy Seana’s photobook, Spiralled, here.