‘Visual AIDS is a haven for me and my contemporaries, nurturing, honouring, protecting and utilizing our work. Its intergenerational approach to activism through visual art gives my 28 years of mercurial survival a historical significence, and contemporary vitality.’ Eric Rhein, Visual AIDS member
‘Visual AIDS formally appeared in 1988. It was preceded by six months of informal and sporadic discussions among four gay, white men: myself, William Ilander, Thomas Sokowalski and Gary Garrels. Between us we’d volunteered and buddied up at the GHMC, ACTed up, raised funds for Art Against AIDS, and would continue to do these things…we were also tracking a growing body of artwork about AIDS and trying to give it visibility.’ Robert Atkins, critic and co-founder of Visual AIDS.
Six years ago I wrote a book called The Bloody Sacrifice about contemporary blood rites, with particular emphasis on their creative and spiritual applications.
I was told about a U.S based group called Visual AIDS and I contacted Nelson Santos who worked within this organisation. Nelson helped me by connecting me to various artists who worked with their HIV positive blood in their art, and he also spread the word about the book once it was finished
Ostensibly this trip to New York was focused on my presentation at The Museum of Morbid Anatomy, but for me the chance to finally connecting with the Visual AIDS organisation was the real highlight.
Nelson Santos was incredibly gracious about meeting me especially as he didnt really know what I wanted, but then neither did I, truth to tell. I’d told Nelson that I had an a-n travel bursary and I wanted to coincide my speaking event with immersing myself as far as I could in a short space of time, in the art of New York but in reality I simply wanted to meet him and chat a bit. Hopefully I could gain insights into this organisation which works with art and artists in such a powerful and effecting way.
The person who had first referred me to Visual AIDS received a grant from them for art equipment that emotionally and creatively enhanced a life that was incredibly difficult as a long term HIV postive artist whose partner had recently died from the same illness.
Okay, I’m an idealist (the day I met Nelson was also the day I staggered around the corporate conveyer belt high end art galleries in a fug of disillusion), but art that effects change is what it’s all about for me, and an organisation on this scale, that has survived for so long, is something incredibly valuable and special.
Nelson trod carefully around some of my conversation, such as possible divisive influences in the group due to gender politics (as I suspected HIV positive women and black women tend not to be as high profile in the network, personally I’d say some of this is an indication of societal attitudes towards women…I know with my own HCV status I still get asked, ‘how did you contract that’ and these judgements can be more problematic for women to live with) but all groups that have a high political profile need to work hard to be cohesive if they want to be successful.
The artists involved in the group are both formally trained and not, and their work spans all mediums. There is a constant range of events and exhibitions being run, which is all the more astonishing considering how small the core team of Visual AIDS workers are.
No art or artist is forgotten, it’s all archived.
Basically this is a creative organisation, dealing with great art and intensly emotional and political issues that survives and thrives because of an innately professional attitude that successfully manages to staddled all these worlds, without getting dragged down by any of them.
Visual AIDS is unique, and although they have worked on affilate events in England, there really is nothing quite like it anywhere else, which is a great pity.