Clayton Pettet is late. He’s really late. When we finally sit down for an interview in a café just off Carnaby Street, the Fine Art student’s face is partly covered in abstract painting: "It looks terrible, I fell asleep with it last night" (it doesn’t look terrible). Pettet went through a rough couple of weeks after making worldwide news by announcing he would lose his virginity in front of 100 people as a piece of performance art. The day after one of London’s main newspapers ran an article on him, he had to hide his face in public and got off the tube one stop early because he felt stared at. Days before our conversation, he was arrested for an "Art school stole my virginity" (the title of his piece) graffiti in Old Street.
But the war paint on Clayton’s face isn’t coming off anytime soon. With less than a month left to his defloration, he confesses to be nervous but not scared – perhaps this explains why he is perfectly happy to speak (and to a considerable degree laugh) about this sensitive subject in public. Aged 19 and with a small patch of flimsy hair on his chin, Pettet offers some interesting insight and proclaims his goal to start a new movement of young artists in London and eventually fulfill his dream of a 3 story Battersea studio called The Kids’ Place where he would live on the top floor with lots of art and a good deal of partying happening below.
As to why this tall young man who can be described as beautiful in a way usually reserved for women is (still) a virgin, Pettet confesses he never really falls in love when he is suddenly interrupted by a group of girls asking for a picture with him because he looks "just like Johnny Depp". They were after a photo with a celebrity lookalike, not realizing they got one with an artist who – if not already a bit famous – is at least a bit infamous.
Hi Clayton. You received a great deal of media attention after announcing your project a couple of weeks ago. What was it like seeing your performance so scrutinized even before it’s been performed?
It was the weirdest sensation because actually like you said; it hasn’t even been performed yet. The amount of press and ideas of what people think actually is going to happen in the performance, the kind of assumption of my virginity, of the way my virginity will be lost… I never said to any journalist about me being penetrated or who’s giving, who’s receiving, any of that. All of a sudden there was so much press; it was the ‘live gay sex show of the anal virgin’ and a lot of my names were actually the anal virgin (laughs). Not knowing what’s even going to happen in the performance with all of this press now behind it is the strangest sensation.
People weren’t always good on you and many doubted your work’s integrity. Yet you’ve managed to bring the subject of art back into mainstream news. Do you want to propagate more public discourse of art?
I want art to definitely be extremely more prevalent in society and I feel like my body is my art tool, my medium, how I use to perform. But I want art in general, not just my practice. I want my generation to be making art much more on the London art scene. I feel like the one good thing about my piece is that it brought contemporary art back into where everyone is just forgetting about it and re-using Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin who are big names with a lot of big money behind them and that’s why people still talk about them. I want to bring this new underground, a new movement almost… of London artists.
I know that your virginity is something you’ve been thinking about for years. Have you sometimes felt stigmatized still being a virgin? If so, it almost seems there is a therapeutic element to your work…
Yeah, I think for years there were so many negative connotations to it. At first, it was kind of like I need to lose it because everyone else is losing it and then it got to a point where I was maybe too old to say I was a virgin because people looked at you differently. So for me, this work is kind of like a ‘fuck you’ to all the negative connotations. Like you said, it’s therapeutic. While I’m going to be performing there will be this whole sense of ‘I’ve done it my way; I’ve done it as a performance piece’ which I think virginity is in itself. I think virginity is a performance. For me it will really be a protest as well. And through protesting, getting angry at society and the importance they place on virginity, it will be therapeutic for me to know that I’m fucking not a giving a shit about all this weight they put on virginity.
Sex is mostly considered something to be kept private and some even find it indecent. Yet everyone has it and it’s all around us – in advertisements, in media, in fashion. There are obvious double standards about it which makes me think you’re holding up a mirror to society.
Exactly. Do you know Artaud? He did this thing called Theatre of cruelty. It’s kind of like saying if you can watch it, in private, if you can do it and look at all of these things on your – in modern interpretations – laptop, you’re happy to watch a kid, a girl lose her virginity. Like "barely legal" videos, all of that dirty bullshit and all that weird stuff. How can you then be like ‘this piece is disgusting’? It’s because I’m taking it to a real sense where people will be watching me in the same room so people are offended and uncomfortable because it’s not behind a screen. People are comfortable watching the most disgusting, dirtiest things but especially because of me being gay as well and being the gay boy who’s losing his virginity in front of an audience; it makes people really uncomfortable because it’s not in private.
But like you said, I’m holding this mirror up to society like Look! Look at this. Look at virginity and how much importance you place on it. It’s you. You’ve come here today to look at virginity because that is what is important to you’. So it really is a mirror; you said it perfectly. The whole press has been a mirror of what I wanted to show about how society around us. It proves that there is a social fetish on virginity and that’s what I’m showing. Look at all these people coming to see me lose my virginity, look at all this interest and debate about virginity. It’s how much importance we place on it and yes, that’s holding the mirror.
Some news outlets made it a big deal you’re losing your virginity to a man. I feel like they’ve missed the point because your project seems to be about the idea of sex rather than the act itself and how it’s different from heterosexual intercourse. Does it bother you when they deem "Art School Stole My Virginity" gay art?
Yes, completely. I don’t make art for any particular groups. Sexuality anyway, I think it’s a bit of a grey area. My art isn’t ever necessarily just gay; it’s not queer art, it is art in general. And the one thing I really hated was when they separated my art by calling it "gay live sex show". If they wanted to say it was a live sex show, just say live sex show. And everyone says ‘we’re not homophobic anymore, we’re all okay’ so why the fuck are you separating gay sex from straight sex? Sex is sex. That is it at the end of the day. Me and my brother, when we were looking at the press, he was like "you realize how much they’re saying gay sex, gay sex, gay sex"? It was never just sex. And I think the reason why it got so big is because it was with another guy. It wasn’t a straight man and a straight girl. People just got uncomfortable with gay virginity. I think that’s the thing that really angered me but you have to look past it and be like ‘fuck it, they don’t know anything’. If they’re going to separate sex, I’m not even going to take that article seriously. It doesn’t matter because if they’re not intelligent enough to kind of know what sex is for everyone and they have to start picking it apart for different genders, that’s when I’m going to not even want to look at that article. Because it is not intelligent.
Last year you created a photo series called "Whoregasm" which dealt with women enjoying sex. What would change in the perception of ‘Art School Stole My Virginity’ if you were a young woman deciding to lose her virginity in front of an audience?
I’ve actually talked about this before with the girl who did the piece Whoregasm, Rosie. I think I got a lot of shit for it but I think if a woman did it she would get a lot more shit because people aren’t used to seeing women enjoy sex and actually want sex. If there was a woman saying "I’m going to lose my virginity, it’s my choice, I’m going to do it", a lot of the journalists and big men in suits in stuffy buildings, commissioning all these journalists to write sexist pieces about women; I think it would just be horrible for a woman. Which is awful! It annoys me that it would be so bad for a woman. It makes me angry that a woman would genuinely get ripped to shreds. And if she was doing it with a straight man, she would be the only one getting the shit. It wouldn’t be the guy, it would be her.
That’s what society is; it’s just so shit with everything at the moment. We are full of labels and we like these labels ourselves because we hash tag everything we do now. When you see pictures of for example a gay guy on Instagram, there’s a hash tag "gay", a hash tag "hot". Society is labeling us and now we want to label ourselves even more. It’s come to a point where we are literally labeling everything we do so I feel like we’re not helping the whole point of sexism on ourselves, gender equality and gender politics.
I find it interesting that nothing will actually change after the performance. Physically and mentally, you will still be the same. It’s as if you’re challenging the notion of virginity being a ‘reality’. Seen from a greater distance, one might also re-consider the special status of first times in general, no matter if sexual or asexual ones. Is this something you thought about?
Yes, completely. If you want to claim the term of "virginity", you want to claim that term yourself. You don’t want it to be society’s version of virginity which is popping a hymen for the first time. If you feel like the virginity you lost was the first good experience you’ve had, make it the first good experience you’ve had. That can be losing your virginity. And I think the first time having sex is completely different from the term virginity because that’s not even real. It’s a biblical term made up and then coined for years and years and years to value women. Then it came to value men and it values everyone nowadays. That, again, is one of the reasons why I got so much attention. Because it’s so valued, virginity. Whatever it is.
For me, virginity is very subjective. People have said you can lose your virginity by giving head. So if you do everything but, it’s like saying you’re not actually active even though you’re sucking dick, you’re doing everything but I was reading a website about virginity and all these people’s first experiences and all of them were saying different things about what they’re classed their virginity as. And that’s the true virginity. It’s what you count as your first time, what you count as your penetration. Not even just penetration physically but penetration in your head. What’s going to make the most mental impact on you, as a virgin? Virginity isn’t sexual. Sex is sexual.
Virginity is this weird thing that people get in their heads and it becomes more of like a mental illness because labeling your sexuality has always caused such shit for human beings. It’s like when you say "oh I’m gay, I hate myself because I’m not meant to be this way", "oh I’m a virgin, why am I a virgin?" or in the South of America when you’ve lost your virginity you’re like "fuck, I hate myself, I’m not pure anymore". It’s always that self-hate and a weird mental thing that completely twists and turns you and you never know what you are anymore because there’s so much shit about virginity and labeling it. It brings loads of negative connotations. You can probably tell by this interview I hate society, I’m just angry at society (laughs).
You do seem very angry in fact…
I’m very angry. I think because of the shit that is so personal to me… The heavy meanings of these words, not just virginity but just so many words that are used to label us as human beings. We actually shouldn’t say we’re gay or straight. We should just say we have a sexuality. It’s not a big thing. Let me just have sex. It can make us as humans really depressed about ourselves and I think that’s why I’m so angry. Because for years, it made me feel shit about myself until I kind of realized ‘fuck you, I don’t want to be part of this society anymore, I’ll make my own society and do whatever I want’.
Sex has always been in art and even found its way into performance. In his 1971 piece Seedbed, Vito Acconci lay underneath a ramp installed in a gallery, masturbating to the sounds of people walking above and telling them his fantasies through a speaker. Visitors reacted in very different ways. Are you afraid there will be extreme reactions at your exhibit?
I’m excited! That’s what I want. I want extreme reactions. I really liked his piece as well. I don’t want people to just come out of it being like "oh, that was good, let’s forget about it" like you do with most art now. I want people to be like ‘oh fuck, oh that was shit; that was the most disgusting thing I ever saw’ or ‘that’s it, the new thing’. I want it to stick in people’s minds. Always with my art I want to make a difference for the actual person, even if they come out of it being like "virginity is fucking wank". At least they’ve come out of it kind of like they don’t want to be part of this thing anymore. I love extreme reactions. I think it’s really exciting… People arguing and talking; it’s great.
I read about the police possibly interrupting your performance and your school, Saint Martins, not wanting to be directly associated with the piece. Do you feel supported by them?
No. I feel supported by the personal tutors. My initial tutor is so, so great. She’s amazing and gives me help all the time but the actual institution itself I don’t feel supported by. I feel like me and the institution are two different things. I’m at the University because I love the people there and I love collaborating with the people and they have good facilities. But I feel like they haven’t been very supportive in a sense that they could have helped me out much more with ideas, contacts…. Even if they don’t want anything to do with it, I think they could have helped me out with galleries to hook me up. They didn’t do anything like that. I think they’re like that in general with all kind of students. It’s not just me and this piece. I think Saint Martins is a bit strange with Fine Art. It’s great for Fashion; Fine Art it kind of lags a bit because I think they sort of forget about us. We’re just like hold up in Archway in North London… We’re now in the Kings Cross building because we’re second year but we’re just forgotten about I think.
And the police thing; I haven’t been in trouble with that. I’ve been told about the legalities and I’ve been told about how I could get arrested and I could go to court but I was like "I really just don’t care at this point". What happens, happens. It is what it is. I was arrested the other day for graffitiing Art shool stole my virginity on a billboard in Old Street. It was so funny because they were just like ‘what the fuck did you write there?’ and it was in pink, massive letters. I love the colour pink, really light pink. It’s like skin, I love it. Kind of like my skin colour. I like using it as a medium. On the graffiti I put the wrong date because the police car was pulling up as I finished so I panicked and put 2013 instead of 2014. It was a pretty pathetic attempt but it looks good on the thing. So when they arrested me I had a mug shot taken, I was in a cell for three hours and then I had to pay £80. But I don’t care if I get arrested for my art because genuinely I want to think about legalities afterwards, when I’m arrested. I don’t really tend to think about all the serious things when I’m making a piece; I tend to just do the piece. I’m just so passionate about my work. I don’t want anything to stop me. Not even the police! (laughs)
Your and your partner’s bodies will be covered in colour to passively paint a canvas during intercourse. What is the motivation behind this?
I want to create something permanent from the piece. There are not going to be pictures and there’s not going to be video form the performance so there will be no documentation. I want some documentation from the piece itself. And the plain has a lot of symbolism. In the piece, if you’re coming to see it...
Am I invited?
Yes, I mean I’m inviting everyone. Every interviewer I talk to because I always get a nice interviewer. Usually. I tend to invite them because they’re doing me a favour and it works both ways. What was I saying? Oh, the paint… It will be more clear in the performance itself but the initial reason was because I wanted something permanent from the performance and paint for me is just this amazing quality. It represents because it leaves a stain. Kind of like cum. It’s liquid and you can use it to stain shit. And again, it’s going to be the same pinky kind of colour. I want it to be my second skin in the performance. I want it to come off and I want it to be really fluid. I think that’s the only way I can describe it for now without saying everything.
Your exhibit is drawing near. What are your feelings now? Are you nervous?
Yeah, completely. I’m nervous as any artist would be for their first solo exhibition I think. Rather than about what’s happening. I think I’ll think about that on the night more. But I think I’m generally just nervous and excited. There are a lot of different emotions going through me. I’m excited for the piece to be done and I’m excited to do the piece because there is so much anticipation. I want to just do it and see what people think because they have been emailing me like "what’s going to be happen?" and I get really nervous from all that anticipation. But it’s good because when I get really nervous, I get really into the performance so I feel like it will be much better.
Finally, there was something I could not help but wonder. With all the buzz going on and you actively planning your defloration, do you think you will be able to experience a sense of deep, sexual enjoyment; a feeling of intimacy between two bodies uniting despite it being something you do in front of people and not necessarily for its own sake?
For me, it’s not about the kind of sexual unity. I think that’s very important if you’re going to have sex with somebody but for me that’s not what the piece is about. It’s about this stupid idea of virginity and I said earlier that for me, virginity doesn’t need to be sexual. Like you said, I want to give them a mirror to show them what virginity is, what they want to see… It’s kind of like "this is your virginity that you have projected onto me and here it is – have it. Take it. And if you don’t want to look, fucking go out of the room".
Until recently I thought virginity was actually a real thing. Like it was physically real, a scientific thing. More for girls than guys but I thought it was actually termed in science as being a real thing but it’s not. And that’s my point. It’s not a sexual thing. It’s not intimate. As in a sense that I have to be really attracted or really turned on. It’s just for the society to see what they’ve made me do. Driven me to this. (laughs)