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Featured Artist: John Walter

John Walter
Featured Artist

Interview with Patrick Kirk-Smith

Pug Virus is probably Liverpool’s most outward public display for Homotopia, and we’ve been lucky enough to pick the brain of the artist behind it, John Walter – however lacking REM sleep he might have been at the time.

Homotopia, for those of you not already acquainted with it, is Liverpool’s LGBT arts festival for 2015, spanning dozens of galleries and public locations. It also spans performance, exhibition, film and lecture; arts that John Walter is familiar with in his own right. So it is only appropriate that he has become something of a poster boy for this festival, with an exhibition that seemingly defines Homotopia.

He has a serious agenda and uses humour to address it, so I was expecting an interesting interview – and it got even more interesting when it took place at 3am, making for an interview which is, in his own words, either lucid brilliance or insomniac ramblings!

There is an obvious cause behind Alien Sex Club, and behind Pug Virus. What made you focus on the HIV issue so outwardly?

Is there an obvious cause? I’m glad you think so but I’m not sure I’m so clear, LOLZ. The project frames the discussion around HIV but there are multiple things at work within Alien Sex Club. It is a large body of work made up of several sub-series of works. There is real social backdrop to the project given that rates of HIV transmission are reported to be rising among gay men in the UK. In my work there has always been a return to the theme of sexual health over time. Alien sex Club emphasises that interest more than ever. However, the project started from my interest in cruising, cottaging and visiting sex clubs and saunas myself. In trying to understand the spatial properties and socio-cultural positioning of these places I began to think about them in relation to risk and this is how the HIV thing came to the fore. Concentrating on HIV has allowed the project to unfold and cluster other issues, agendas and partners around it. A bit like the virus itself Alien Sex Club is kind of ‘sticky’ in the way that it operates as a catalyst and a confluence.

From the personification of Pug Virus, to Wayne Rooney in a Speedo (something I hoped I’d never have to picture), there seems to be a soft side to Alien Sex Club. How important were the humorous, or more approachable elements to the show?

Humour is not the opposite of seriousness, as Gavin Butt and Irit Rogoff will tell you. There is a way of doing seriousness differently, that isn’t earnest or pompous, using humour to leverage a different kind of critical space and audience engagement, which would otherwise not be possible. Humour is a crucial aspect of my working method; I use it as a lure to seduce and incentivise the audience to go to places they might not otherwise go and to reward them for this adventure. My work plays with tragicomedy, particularly within Alien Sex Club, to activate a kind of gallows humour in relation to the HIV subject; it would be too dark to talk about it in a melancholy way and this is no longer necessary in our current era of antiretroviral therapy, since the virus can be treated.

The inclusion of Dr Alison Rodger to Alien Sex Club has added such a defining characteristic to the show that it’s impossible to ignore how important it is. How has it been working with her, and developing responsibilities to the science?

Alison is great and I can’t thank her enough for all her input into the project. Without her Alien Sex Club could not have happened in this way. The project is supported by a Small Arts Award from The Wellcome Trust for our collaboration and this has lent the project weight and allowed a number of other partnerships to develop particularly for the events programme. She is an extremely unusual combination of clinical practitioner and academic but also she immediately understood my aesthetic approach and wanted to get involved in the project; we have bonded over a mutual appreciation of Kenny Everett and Leigh Bowery. She has been very supportive. I have had access to Alison’s research projects, particularly the CAPRA study (the Comprehensive Assessment of the Prevention Role of Antiretroviral therapy), which looks at the role treatment has played in people’s approach to sexual transmission risk in recent years. Also, in the PARTNER study, which examines sexual transmission in sero-dissonant couples (one being HIV positive and on treatment with an undetectable load and the other negative) she proves that the virus is not passed on. It’s important to enrich the project in what’s going on and translate ideas, images and language from sexual health into art. Art has a role to play in addressing the topical as much as any other form does.

I went in to Alien Sex Club with little to no knowledge of HIV, apart from having watched Philadelphia once. So I guess, to some extent I was exactly who the show was aimed at. The Cruise Maze, and Intestinal Corridors really pulled me out of my comfort zone into visuals that mirrored a culture I’d never been part of. Pug Virus though, has to stand on its own, without the installation to support it. What led to that decision to separate Pug Virus from the rest of the show?

It’s interesting you mention Philadelphia because that’s exactly the kind of pop cultural reference point I’m trying to update from; most people’s knowledge of the subject is woefully out of date and things have changed so massively in terms of treatment and sexual / social practices since then the discussion needs updating. Pugvirus was positioned in London to greet you in Ambika P3 and was designed to deal with the volume of the space there. However, in Liverpool the show is conceived differently because the space of Camp and Furnace is more compressed (lower height ceilings etc). Placing Pugvirus in the Walker Art Gallery grew out of on going conversations I was having with Ann Bukantas, Charlotte Keenan and Ellen Mara De Wachter – and it’s a perfect fit. The Victorian architecture is a brilliant juxtaposition for the fluoro pink virus. It has infected the museum and this represents a larger ambition of the project, which is part of my PhD research, which is to innovate the discourse about HIV in visual art and part of that involves addressing the canon.

Pug Virus is outliving Alien Sex Club, and outliving the formal lifespan of Homotopia. What legacy do you want it to carry with it?

I want Alien Sex Club to have changed how we talk about HIV in the visual arts. For most of the AIDS crisis the subject has been dominated by representations that play on post-minimal vocabularies, exemplified by Felix Gonzalez-Torres and continued most recently by Prem Sahib. This way of addressing the subject is no longer fit for purpose. The virus and its relationship to a web of other problems including recreational drug use and condom fatigue mean that a fresh way of animating the discussion is needed and within visual culture this means an aesthetic overhaul of how the subject is approached. I hope to be playing a part in that process by making Alien Sex Club.

Of all the Virus Heads you displayed, what made you choose Pug Virus to blow up?

I’d happily have made them all as inflatables in there were enough money but there is something about pug that is cute and unlikely. He is an alien somehow because of his antennae. There’s this obsession with pugs at the moment as well so I thought he might fit into that discussion too – he is a meme machine. The cuteness is a form of sinister-ness dialled down, which may relate to m earlier comments about humour…

Is there a future for Alien Sex Club inside or outside of Liverpool? And if not, what’s next on the agenda?

I can’t say too much at the moment but yes, Alien Sex Club, or to be more precise parts of it, will have a life after this. You will have to keep your eyes peeled but I am very happy that the work will have longevity.

And finally, because my job requires me to stalk you and read your website back to front, can you expand on Maximalism? Because it’s the best word I’ve read in years.

Ha! Maximalism is a word that I have been using for years that is suddenly gaining agency, partly through the success of Alien Sex Club. I’m not the only person to use it, it has slightly different meanings in music and graphic design, and other artists have used it casually but I am definitely trying to straighten out what it means. I use maximalism not only to mean whatever the opposite of minimalism is – visual excess, overload, pattern, colour, Stendhal Syndrome – but also a way of framing works that doesn’t rely on the white cube approach to isolating objects in space to privilege their viewing; rather in Alien Sex Club series of works are contextualised within each other, both conceptually and visually, so the maximalism is a pile up of surfaces and visual logics that amount to a complete immersion that is close to something like theatre group Punch Drunk but distinctly different.

John Walter’s Website
Homotopia Website
Pug Virus at the Walker Art Gallery Thursday 29 October 2015 – Sunday 31 January 2016
Alien Sex Club at Camp and Furnace Friday 30 October – Sunday 29 November 2015