Alien Sex Club – A conversation with Artist John Walter
Interview by Lizzie Soden
Alien Sex Club, was a major multimedia project in the form of an Art installation, by the fabulous and flamboyant British Artist John Walter. It was premiered in London to acclaimed reviews and success, and then moved to Liverpool to be part of the Homotopia Festival.
The Art Installation brought in an audience who might never, in theory, have visited a Visual Arts Exhibition, which is something John loves to do. He operates in the chasm between popular culture and the sometimes inpenetrable world of contemporary visual culture. This particular major multimedia project explored the relationship between visual culture and HIV today.
Alien Sex Club used the spatial device of the ‘cruise maze’ to bring together works that address the complex subject of contemporary sexual health. The exhibition consisted of a large-scale installation based on the shapes of cruise mazes, found in sex clubs and gay saunas. It comprised sculpture, painting, video, performance and installation. Visitors were immersed in a multisensory world in which they could watch videos and live performances, get lost in the maze and have food and drink in the performance bar.
I chatted to John just before he was about to attend London’s Gay Pride to publicise the London show. We covered Visual Art installations and Performance, HIV, being a Gay Man, commodification of different body types, PHD research, sex, drugs, hedonism, science, queerness, maximalism, toilets, drag queens, gay bars, cruising, Grindr, neon lights and where he’d been on his holidays. We laughed we cried…..
Lizzie Soden: One of your priorities for this project must be letting people know it is happening. The subject matter is obviously relevant to many people outside of the traditional Visual Arts audience. Tell me about the awareness raising you did at Gay Pride, joining the procession with An Alien Sex Club walking group?
John Walter: It’s been an interesting thing for me to do because I haven’t been to Gay Pride since I was a teenager. Since then, I never really considered going back again. So when I do something like Pride I try and think very strategically about the audiences. I’m thinking of big audiences for Alien Sex Club that I wouldn’t necessarily be thinking about with a smaller project. By being visible at London Gay Pride there’s several subcategories of “audience” on top of a general Pride audience. You’ve got Gay men, HIV positive men, HIV positive activists, artists and architects, and performance artists. You can see a hieararchy in those audiences.
LS: And you also have an audience of people who would never otherwise go to art exhibitions.
JW: Yes, the audience who never go to art exhibitions is probably the most interesting to me. With whatever project I’m doing, I’m always interested in the question of how to get “Joe Public” in. How do you give them the vocabulary and the comfort to engage with the work? You want to give them an experience that can decipher itself rather than require them to be “equipped beforehand” as they have that experience for the first time. That’s quite difficult in my case because of the subject matter. You can look at the relationship between the work and the audience on multiple levels. You can conceptualise it as an immersive carnival of colour and frivolity. Or you can look at a video like “Strategic Positioning” and have a very different conversation. There are loads of different conversations that will be happening. They may or may not intersect.
LS: I showed “Strategic Positioning” to one of my gay mates. His reaction was, “MY GOD THIS IS SO FUCKING WEIRD! IT’S REALLY REALLY WEIRD!” (He happens to be HIV positive..) Yet when he was watching your crack video (Crystal Dick), he said, “John Walter is a complete fucking weirdo but I kind of get where he’s coming from. This is actually really good.”
JS: I’m quite pleased by that.
LS: I think he had that reaction because he’d never seen anything like your work.
JW: Well, within Gay Culture, my work doesn’t have a typically “Gay Aesthetic.” It’s not slick. It’s not sexy in a traditional way. It’s got heaps of black humour. There’s something in gay culture I’m trying to deflate with my work. So many gay men take themselves way too seriously. There are lots of gays these days who are very conservative. They are conservative with a big and small C. They are corporatised. They are cautious. They’re not queer and the gay culture they’ve created isn’t queer. They have quite rigid ideas about what it means to be gay. I think the question of how one interprets, “Gay” is related to how one interprets “Feminine.” Concepts like “Gay” and “Feminine” have become synonymous with certain tropes and assumptions. I think these concepts need exploding. It’s no longer even political for most Gay men to be Gay.
LS: No, it isn’t.
JW: People say being gay is a “lifestyle”, whatever the fuck that means. When I was a teenager, coming out as gay was a big “FUCK YOU” to society.
LS: In previous decades, there was solidarity among people who were fighting for all kinds of rights. Now, it’s a competition for who is the most oppressed “oppressed” group.
JW: Yes, and everybody wants to be in the mainstream. They think they are oppressed until they get in the mainstream. I really see this with Gay Marriage. I think it’s ok for Gay people to get married as a way of having the same rights as Straight people. But marriage, as a concept, does not interest me at all. I don’t feel the need to get married in order to have a committed relationship. I don’t feel like I should see the ability to get married as some kind of gift to me. I’m not grateful for having an institution that makes me more heteronormative and solidifies the disappearance of Queerness from Gayness. Gay Pride is similar. I think Gay Pride is just a cheap way of telling people that there are Gay people in your city. In fact, that might not even be true. The people at Gay Pride are from all over the country. People really understand the format of a parade. I’m actually surprised at how many people want to walk with me at Gay Pride. My aunt made our banner. She’s making a costume for her dog. Everyone’s treating my performance as an excuse to get dressed up and really go crazy. My Mum will be there on a mobility scooter.
LS: Fab. It’s like a little party.
JW: Yes, it is. There will be a mixture of lots of different people: Gays, Non-Gays, and Art people. It will be a hodge-podge of different kinds of people.
LS: And you’re not going to have young men in skimpy shorts with ripped bodies?
JW: No, quite the reverse. We’ll all look like clowns.
LS: (enthusiastically) That’s great. Not that I have anything against men in skimpy shorts.(laughs)
JW: Yes, I think you need that kind of flavour. I’ve been thinking about “Dad Bods” lately. I was wondering if you could have a “DAD BOD MAN BUN” and have that be a new consumer item.
LS: Yes, we tend to commodify new kinds of bodies every year. Everybody wants to sell their body and of course, they can only sell the bodies that other people want to buy.
JW: Yes, we like designer bodies in our culture. It’s horrible. Selling bodies that way isn’t attractive to me.
LS: Yes, there was just a photo of Leonardo Di Caprio on a beach with a soft Dad Bod. Poor chap. His off the cuff vacation photo has become a cultural touchstone for masculinity.
JW: When me and my boyfriend go to the beach, we look like we’ve landed from Mars. I’d much rather go and have a nice dinner then hang out on a beach. Fuck the beach!
LS: You’ve just come back from Mykonos (a Greek Island known for being a predominately Gay friendly holiday destination, ) haven’t you? I remember going on holiday in Mykonos in the late 70s. It was one of the first places with Gay Clubs, but it was very underground. I remember millions of gay clones with mustaches, walking on the beaches. Yet they weren’t as confident as they are now. There was an element of fear in the air.
JW: Things couldn’t have changed more. It’s so much more expensive now. The kind of gay guy that goes there is pretty limited. It’s gonna have to be a rich bloke. Compared to Gran Canaria, (another Gay party holiday destination,) Mykonos is now quite sedate. And because of the level of money around, the culture is just completely vile. Yet, it’s fascinating to watch. We stood out there. I think we’ll also stand out at Gay Pride too and that’s good. We placed adverts for ourselves all over the place. Even Grindr. [i] We’re having repercussions before we’ve even performed at places. It’s like the work is leading, putting it’s little tendrils out.
LS: Well, the work is something you can get lost in. It’s like a maze.
JW: That’s something I often struggle with. How maze like should the work be? The work, in part, deals with the question of what the difference is between a maze and a labyrinth. What is a Cruise[ii] Maze as a metaphor and as a real structure? It’s important to get at the metaphorical nature of that. It’s hard to stop people from thinking they’re coming to a hedge maze like at Hampton Court or something. There’s differently coloured zones. They have differently lighting and different patterns. So you can keep circulating and finding new things, hiding, reappearing, and in many respects mimicking a playground.
LS: Yes, that element of it is fantastic. How do you document all of that? The documentation process seems like it would be really hard.
JW: It is difficult. You can photograph it. But then, it’s also good to video it with body mounted cameras. I’ll be doing that as well.
LS: I was going to say you could get little cameras to place on your head. I remember Charles Danby doing a piece about walking through a quarry. [iii] He had little cameras attached to him and the piece was an exploration of his childhood experiences of that walk. He did it in 3-D. I saw it at 2 Queens gallery[iv] in Leicester where I first saw your work too actually.
JW: Yes, those kinds of first person narratives are fascinating. I’m doing something similar with cruising. I’m exploring cruising as a walking exercise. I want to explore it from so many different vantage points.
LS: I was wondering where that element would fit in with your research. (PHD) You are interestingly making this work as research for a practice led PHD, and seriously pushing the boundaries. [v] Is this Artwork something that allows you to set yourself questions that the work provides answers to?
JW:Well, it’s a bit of a laboratory, so I haven’t really understood what those questions are yet (laughs).
LS: (laughing) Yes, come up with the questions afterwards. That’s what I do whenever I make anything.
JW: (laughing) Yes, I think of it as post-rationalisation.
LS: And there’s always surprises, no matter what happens.
JW: There’s three events. I’m commissioning from other artists, working with other scientists to look at different pieces of the equation. We’re looking at Chem Sex[vi] and HIV testing and things like this. The conversation around those things will be interesting. The conversation with the bar person or the invigilators can be very interesting.
LS: Who are you having as bar people?
JW: Some performers I’m hiring. They’re really functioning as “mimics in costume.” So they take on the role of the jester. I’m educating them, to some extent, about HIV questions. So if people ask them questions they can direct those people to the appropriate sectors. So the performers are an interactive element of the show. The people engaging with it are also a key part of the show. It’s not relational aesthetics. The performers are a group of people the audience feel comfortable asking questions of. They can go up to the performers and go, “What the fuck was that about?” Or you can go to it and say to yourself, “What the fuck is this?” (laughs.)
LS: That’s really good because so many HIV awareness events consist of experts sitting in chairs talking at people. No one wants to say anything and certainly no one will actually talk about sex. It’s normally a very clinical environment.
JW: That’s because doing it any other way is very uncomfortable for the University. Within sexual health, that’s normal but in any other studies, it’s completely baffling.
LS: So a lot of your questions will come from the HIV conversations.
JW: They will come from different audience members interacting with each other. When that happens, the conversations are always surprising. The art audience, interestingly, is very conservative. It’s conservative in that it has a very idealised view of a public space.
LS: Yes, at most Art Events, people don’t talk each other. They’re too busy scratching their chins and looking profound (laughs). I always think people are scared to question things or admit they are totally baffled by the work, as they are scared of appearing ignorant or stupid. That’s a generalisation by the way but you know what I mean. They like to feel safe with nice explanations.
JW: Yes, and that doesn’t sit well with the fact that sexual behaviour is quite unpredictable. And chaotic. And unexplainable. (laughs.)
LS: Do you have any spaces for sexual behaviour? Will there be any dark rooms?[vii]
JW: Well, it references all those kind of spaces.
LS: But there won’t be spaces where people can go in and have a quickie?
JW: I’m not actively facilitating sex. But that’s come into conversations quite a lot. I think that’s partly because I advertise my work on Grindr. If people want to have sex in the spaces I do my work, that’s fine. It highlights the fact that you can repurpose any space for sex.
LS: It might get shut down!
JW: (laughs) It could!
LS: You’re pushing the boundaries of what a gallery can be, what is an Art Audience, what interaction is, and you’re bringing in new audiences for this subject matter. It’s also challenging aspects of research expectations.
JW: Yes, that’s so difficult and interesting about this work. That’s why I think of it as maximalist work rather than minimalist work. It’s not a Haiku. It’s trying to do a fucking huge thing. Not enough people are doing huge things at the moment.
LS: With the actual PHD questions, are you looking more at the health aspects of things?
JW: I’m looking more at the psycho-geography of things. I’m interested in how you change the discourse about HIV using architecture. So it’s looking at how HIV now is a web of interconnected problems. I’m calling it syndemic[viii] because it can’t be seen in its isolated parts. You have to look simultaneously at Chem Sex and stigma and viral lows and testing and homopobia and condom fatigue, in order to understand how these problems join together. That’s the equivalent of my aesthetic anyway. In my work, there’s 3-D printing, there’s performances, there’s books, there’s paintings. There’s enough of a syntax, in the form of the maze, to tie all these things together. And all of that gets linked together in a way that’s not very tidy.
LS: But to me that’s what art should be about. It is the illumination of what comes out of the chaos.
JW: And it’s not doing a slick aesthetic. But there are slick elements like the neon and the frames that punctuate the shocking qualities of it.
LS: I think one of the most interesting things about cruising is just how hidden and kind of secretive it still is. There were obviously historical reasons for that to be true in the past. If certain people knew what the Gay Scene in Gran Canaria was like, they would have their minds blown. They’d be shocked that people even do these things, even if they support Gay Rights etc. But that is the nature of sex. We are all a bit shocked and repulsed by stuff that doesn’t turn us on. When I was there, I was often the only woman in a lot of the Gay bars. I remember being in one with a dark room. I’d be talking to someone interesting, and then they’d casually leave the conversation to go and be wanked off by a stranger. But the way they did it was very mundane, almost.
JW: In the city, people still meet up in toilets. That’s bizarre, considering how easy it is to meet in a more normal fashion. Especially with things like Grindr. But there is still a desire to meet in the flesh without a mediator. The toilet is something like a spatial mediator. It’s not a virtual space. What’s different today is many people have sex with other men without officially declaring they are Gay. That’s almost a trend, these days.
LS: Yes, some of the men are probably married or in straight relationships.
JW: Yeah some of it’s that. But sometimes, it’s just that these men want an element of anonymity.
LS: True, if you’re on Grindr everybody bloody knows you’re on Grindr. And they can see your boyfriend on Grindr. You can’t really hide with it.
JW: I’ve seen gay couples share Grindr.
LS: It’s had an interesting impact on Gay Clubs.
JW: Yes, a lot of clubs in London are closing. Something is shifting. I think new things will emerge. As people are getting familiar with the social media technology they are getting bored of it. And you don’t need that technology to facilitate sex anyway. So people want to try something else. One of the manifestations of that, I think, is the re-emergence of drag.
LS: That’s interesting. You have Drag Bars now, rather than just Gay Bars.
JW: Even ten years ago, nobody was interested in it. Today, all the kids are obsessed with Ru Paul’s Drag Race. They act like they invented it.
LS: Yeah. In 2000, I coordinated a music festival that had a procession of drummers and was lead by Drag Queens. At the time, a lot of people were a bit freaked out because drag was much more hidden. But now, Drag is becoming part of mainstream culture.
JW: I find the more traditional Gay Clubs more real in a sense.
LS: Yes, you can always guarantee that there will be a fight with drunk lesbians in a toilet. (laughs.) There’s a lot of more ‘traditional’ Gay Clubs in Leicester, and outside of London, and you can see many of the masculine tropes and stereotypes play out in real life. However because of the fairly recent commodification of male body types as mentioned before, and the eroticism of men, you can’t even tell if the Straight boys are Gay anymore. A lot of them look like sterotypical Gay- men. It used to be that Gay men appropriated stereotypical straight types. (laughs.)
JW: It’s amazing how those traditions have been absorbed and stolen.
LS: Yeah, there’s no shortage of effeminiate and buff straight boys, these days. I was watching the boys on Big Brother and most of them are totally obsessed with being sexually objectified.
JW: That’s why we need awkwardness and chunky bodies and things like that. That’s why I want my work to be awkward. Not deliberately awkward so much as perversely awkward. I want to stop people in their tracks with the way I join things and the way my work can talk about things. There are certain people in London who look at cruising and HIV nostalgically. They look at Felix Gonazalez-Torres[ix] and that post-minimalist way of addressing HIV. It’s totally irrelevenat now and all it’s doing is backing up a certain market.
LS: Isn’t there a new drug which temporarily prevents you from HIV infection if you get exposed to the virus? You can take it every day and fuck people without condoms for a night and it protects you from infection.
JW: Yes, that’s called PrEp. [x]
LS: That must be a big part of the HIV discussion.
JW: Yeah, and the other big part is home testing, which is already available. PrEp will be out next year in Britain and the American version will be called, “Truvada.” That’s why the name of one of my barmen is called “Barbara Truvada.”
LS: I never really thought about this before but I wonder if development of drugs like that might seem like a classic example of society implicitly condoning and being scared of being too critical of arguably pretty irresponsible and potentially dangerous behaviour. It’s a pill for people who have an attitude of, “I deserve to do whatever I want. I deserve to do dangerous shit. Now I can take a pill and not worry about it.” It’s difficult to criticise this kind of attitude when it happens in the community because you might get accused of being a homophobe. I mean, what the fuck do those pills do to you in the long run? It’s a complicated issue around lack of self-control, responsibility and education. It’s a balancing act between the idea of “people are going to do it anyway whatever we say so lets make it easier and safer and stop the spread of the virus,” and creating a general climate of getting people to think about consequences of their actions.
JW: I agree that Gays are way too accustomed to taking drugs. You shouldn’t be wanting to take pills unnecessarily. You should consider the long-term effects. But I think the scientists who have designed PrEp are keen to make sure that people test for HIV regularly. It’s all just about trying to get the virus out of everyone’s system as much as possible. But there’s always a chance it could mutate and something horrible could happen. Who knows?
LS: HIV infection rates have been rising haven’t they?
JW: Yes they certainly have. That’s why PrEp is such a hot topic. What’s affecting the rise of HIV rate rises in London is Crystal Meth[xi], Methedrone[xii], or GHB[xiii]. There is also the growth market of legal highs.[xiv] People either don’t know they have the virus and pass it on. Or they stop taking their anti-viral regime so they can do these drugs. They’re going on these benders each weekend, which may end in a sex-after party and because they are wrecked not using condoms. That’s what my video piece “Crystal Dick” was about. People take downers, they take uppers, then they take viagra to get their erection up. It’s all quite dark how alienated they are. This is why community involvement is so important. For some Gay Men, incredibly self-destructive behaviour is their only joy in life.
LS: In the end if it goes too far it’s self-abuse and there’s way too much of that in the Gay Scene. It’s hard for a lot of middle-aged Gay Men who have engaged in that self-abuse throughout their youth. They wind up not knowing what to do when they’re in their 40s trying to pull “chickens” (young-men) and are seen by the scene as kind of pathetic as they no longer conform to shallow notions of attractiveness. Don’t these guys “deserve to be sexual” like any other human being? They have a lot of self-loathing. This used to only really be a women’s issue. We all get old. That’s a definite. They often feel they have to have botox, fillers, plastic surgery etc. because there is so much emphasis on what they look like rather than who they are. They feel pressurised in much the same way as some women.
JW: Some of the surgery we saw in Mykonos was ridiculous. You just think, “Why?”
LS: Yeah, there’s a sad obsession with youth equating to sexual attractiveness in Gay Culture. Actually in straight culture too. I suppose in a sense it’s base brain stuff. Older Gay Men don’t value themselves and believe that are no longer desirable. They often resort to paying for sex. It’s understandable though. Gay Culture being mainstream is still very much in the early days. That’s what people forget. Many older Gay Men still carry that sense of shame.
JW: Things were getting better after the 60s and then the AIDS crisis happened. For decades it was horrible. The antiretroviral therapy (ART)[xv] that we’ve had recently has been much better than it ever was during the early years of AIDS. And there’s a new generation of Gays that have grown up with that. I think that gives a lot of younger Gays a sense of entitlement that’s distorted. It will probably take another 15 or 20 years for that to go away. I’m involved with a lot of activist groups that are trying to have a positive impact on the younger generation.
LS: This whole body of work sounds really amazing and very much needed. Can’t wait to see it, and be immersed. Thanks so much for the lovely chat.
John Walter (born 1978, Dartford) works in a range of media including drawing, painting, performance, video, music and sculpture. His installations are grounded in theoretical and empirical research, and they seduce visitors into engaging with complex and often uncomfortable subjects such as sexual health through his exuberant use of colour, humour and hospitality. Walter creates fictions that begin with his personal experience and quote the voices of others, weaving them together into new epic works. The term ‘Maximalist’, which best describes his work, refers to an additive practice that values the relationships between things rather than their qualities in isolation. Walter’s work is visually intricate, returning to specific lexicons of imagery such as tarot cards, which allow meanings to develop within multiple contexts.
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A PROJECT BY
Ellen Mara De Wachter
University of Westminster, Ambika P3, Homotopia, Terence Higgins Trust
Arts & Humanities Research Council, Arts Council England, Wellcome Trust
Background and context for the project
- During the early AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, many public sex environments (often including cruise mazes) were closed by law. More recently, cruising for sex has moved online with apps such as Grindr, Scruff and Hornet gaining in popularity. However, many men still want to meet in person and anonymously for sex, despite the risks involved.
- Gay men remain one of the groups most at risk of HIV in the UK, with 3,250 new cases of the infection diagnosed in this group in 2013. Anti-retroviral therapy (ART) helps HIV-positive patients stay healthy with near normal life expectancy but the long-term physical effects of ART are still unknown and its long-term cost is of increasing concern. It is estimated that ART costs around £500,000 per person for a lifetime of treatment.
- Popular debate around the medical and social implications of ART and HIV in this country is set to increase in the next year, as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and self-testing for HIV will become more available in the UK, changing how people think about risk and unprotected sex.
[i] Grindr is an app for which first launched in 2009 has “exploded into the largest and most popular all-male location based social network out there. With 2 million daily active users in 196 different countries around the world, you’ll always find a new date, buddy or friend on Grindr.” (in short a location based sex-hookup tool.) www.bbc.co.uk/webwise/guides/what-are-apps
[ii] Cruising for sex, or cruising, is walking or driving about a locality in search of a sex partner, usually of the anonymous, casual, one-time variety. The term is also used when technology is used to find casual sex, such as using an Internet site or a telephone service
[v] The project is part of John Walter’s AHRC funded PhD at the University of Westminster and will be shown at Ambika P3, the University’s exhibition space in central London. His research in epidemiology is grounded in a collaboration between Walter and Dr Alison Rodger, Senior Lecturer and Honorary Consultant in Infectious Diseases and HIV at University College London, supported by a Small Arts Award from the Wellcome Trust.
The emergence of “chem-sex” parties where gay men inject illicit synthetic drugs before engaging in “risky sexual practices” in London and other European cities has triggered a public health warning from drug experts.
The EU’s drug agency is particularly concerned about people injecting cathinones, a family of synthetic chemicals that imitate the effects of speed and ecstasy, and crystal meth and other forms of methamphetamine stimulants.
[vii] A darkroom or dark room is a darkened room, sometimes located in a nightclub, gay bathhouse or sex club, where sexual activity can take place. When located in bars, dark rooms are also known as backrooms or blackrooms.
A syndemic is the aggregation of two or more diseases in a population in which there is some level of positive biological interaction that exacerbates the negative health effects of any or all of the diseases.
[ix] Felix Gonzalez-Torres (November 26, 1957 – January 9, 1996) was an American, Cuban-born, gay visual artist. González-Torres was known for his minimal installations and sculptures in which he used materials such as strings of lightbulbs, clocks, stacks of paper, or packaged hard candies.
Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, is a way for people who do not have HIV but who are at substantial risk of getting it to prevent HIV infection by taking a pill every day. The pill (brand name Truvada) contains two medicines (tenofovir and emtricitabine) that are used in combination with other medicines to treat HIV. When someone is exposed to HIV through sex or injection drug use, these medicines can work to keep the virus from establishing a permanent infection.