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John Walter on ‘Alien Sex Club’

I’m a painter, but I make worlds.

John Walter

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Photograph of a visitor in the distance looking at framed artworks on the wall. In the foreground is colourful patterned wallpaper, a work of art and a red neon exhibit.
Somewhere in Between exhibition. Alien Sex Club by John Walter, in collaboration with Alison Rodger, Michael Bowles. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

In contextualising my paintings I’ve made complicated installations that involve sculpture, song, video and collaboration.

I was trying to make bigger environments for my work to live in and give them a place in the world. I started to use architectural devices to organise different things and ‘Alien Sex Club’ (‘ASC’) grew out of that. It was based on my experience of going to places of cruising in London and thinking, “What is this spatially? How does this exist?”

I researched ‘ASC’ as a PhD within a faculty of architecture, which may seem counter-intuitive, but actually it was a great way of investigating all of the spatial properties of the spaces of cruising. That became a way of unlocking HIV and all of the subject matters that it contained.

‘ASC’ is a maze based on this idea of a sex club, sauna or gay bathhouse. The idea of a cruise maze is an emblem more than a reality. There’s something aphrodisiacal about the idea of a maze, because it’s a space you can get lost in.

‘ASC’ is a space where you can meet lots of different strangers in safety. When you’re in the installation you are bombarded on all fronts – it’s playful, it’s not scary, it’s not dark.

Everything is quite shonky, and by shonky I mean visually awkward.

There’s an allowance for things to be slightly scruffy and a vocabulary that joins it all together. It becomes a kind of satire on HIV, to make a point and to exaggerate the issue. My way of dealing with things is to say, “We can laugh about it and we can talk about it seriously at the same time.”

A very persuasive little beast

Part of the project is about making specialist knowledge available to everybody. I’m not a scientist but I’ve enjoyed becoming a quasi-expert on HIV. In updating the representation of HIV I thought about its appearance on a very simple level.

It’s this lumpen shape with nodes coming out of it, and inside it there’s another shell called a capsid. I made models of this as a way of thinking afresh about the virus. It’s a cone that’s very asymmetric and made up of 12 pentagonal proteins and about 250 hexagonal ones.

HIV does things backwards and, unlike simpler viruses, it doesn’t contain DNA to begin with; rather, it makes DNA en route to the nucleus. I definitely developed a respect for the virus – not the desire to have it, but empathy for it, as it’s this clever little thing, which works in conjunction with you.

It’s a very persuasive little beast. It’s corrupt. It’s a politician. It negotiates its way within the body. I think as soon as you think about it like that, it liberates you to just see it for what it is, and to see ourselves as collaborating with it.

Treatments have changed

Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is an antiretroviral pill that you take daily if you’re HIV negative. Then if you take sexual risks and your body encounters the virus, there’s already an antiretroviral there to attack it. You can get PrEP in Scotland on the NHS but you can’t in England. Why is that?

It’s been proven to reduce transmission rates and is much more cost-effective than treating people post-diagnosis. People have been getting PrEP online, so there’s been grassroots activism to share knowledge and protect people who don’t necessarily want to use condoms.

HIV is not a death sentence now. If you identify it and treat it, you can live a long life. Antiretrovirals have changed over the past 20 years, and the pill burden associated with that. Early on in the AIDS crisis, you could be on 40 pills a day. Now if you’re HIV positive and on treatment, you could be on one pill a day, potentially hiding it from a discussion.

A different kind of discussion

‘ASC’ is about reanimating the discussion and saying, “This is a problem that people may think has gone away, but hasn’t. It’s mutated and it needs a different form of representation.”

The way to reanimate the discussion is to inundate people with imagery. Almost subliminally you’ll come out understanding something. It’s pedagogy in a casual way.

The point of this art–science collaboration is to seduce a much wider audience into thinking about HIV. It’s about discourse: there’s a different kind of discussion you can have in art than you can in science and vice versa.

Alison Rodger [a clinician and researcher in infectious diseases and HIV] is connected to a massive network of people across London looking at HIV in different ways. I see Alison as a node that joins things together, from Public Health England to chemsex [sex enhanced by use of drugs such as crystal methamphetamine] research.

I discovered [Alison’s] research into the effect that antiretroviral therapy had on people’s perception of risk of HIV and her project PARTNER, which looked at couples who were sero-different, i.e. one was HIV positive and one was negative.

The positive one was on treatment with an undetectable viral load [concentration of virus in the blood], and [Alison] showed that the virus couldn’t be passed on to their HIV-negative partner.

Changing the world for a moment

These were really rich veins of information, jargon and slang, and new discoveries for me to understand what the problem is now. I emailed her out of the blue, saying, “Look, I’m this person, I do this thing, this might all sound a bit mad, can we meet for a coffee?” and she got where I was coming from.

The presence of antiretroviral therapy and how it affects our perception of risk wasn’t something we had 30 years ago. It’s not that HIV has gone away but that it’s better treated and better prevented. That’s what is interesting about Alison’s research: the idea that it’s very important to be tested and, if you’re positive, to get on treatment early.

This is complicated information and I felt that if I didn’t understand it, maybe other people didn’t, and maybe I could use art to address this. Maybe art has a social function. I’m not sure if art can change the world in a radical way but it can change the world in this sort of momentary way.

‘Alien Sex Club’ is part of the Somewhere in Between exhibition, which is open 8 March 2018–27 August 2018.

About the contributors

John Walter

John Walter is an artist, curator and writer. He achieved his doctorate in the Department of Architecture and the Built Environment at the University of Westminster. His work considers complex and uncomfortable subjects including sexual health, drawing audiences in through an exuberant use of colour, humour and hospitality. He received a Wellcome Arts Award in 2014 to produce ‘Alien Sex Club’, and another in 2016 for ‘CAPSID’, a project that looks in depth at how the HIV virus works.