“When The New York Times bought its first fax machine, ACT UP faxed them a mile of black paper to protest their silence on AIDS, effectively shutting down the machine.” – Greenwich Village History
“There are two distinctly different kinds of AIDS... There’s AIDS of the past, and there’s ongoing AIDS. Neither are over.” – Sarah Schulman, writer / member of ACT UP New York
In 1987 the New York Times installed its first fax machine. The direct action group ACT UP (‘AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power’) were effective, wildly inventive, tech savvy activists. They faxed a mile of black paper to the newspaper office, using up all the expensive ink and rendering the machine useless. This was one of many activist ‘zaps’ used to protest and draw attention to the AIDS epidemic.
‘A mile of black paper’ is a collaborative artwork and teaching tool inspired by this action. My work inverts the original intention to shut down communication and replaces it with a forum for expression – a place to talk, write, learn and make work about HIV and AIDS of the past, and ongoing HIV and AIDS.
As an artist, activist and historian, I visit universities, arts festivals, theatres, galleries, film screenings and museums, delivering ‘teach-ins’ about HIV and AIDS. In these often emotive exchanges, I invite audiences to produce a piece of work for the collection. These are sometimes entire sheets of black ink, sometimes memorials, imagery, abstract expressions of feeling, pledges, poems, questions, words. The work is gathered and exhibited and the collection grows.
Contributions are sought. All work should be in black only and can be scanned and emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org for printing, or originals can be posted (address available on request).
If you would like to host the work, including exhibiting, teach-ins, workshops, talks, please get in touch.
I have delivered workshops and/or exhibited at the following places:
LGBT History Month, George House Trust, February 2019 For my teach-in the subject was ‘Manchester’ and I delved into our city’s history around HIV and AIDS including a suspected early AIDS case in the 1950s, early AIDS fundraisers from the 80s and 90s that contributed to the history of our present day Pride , ACT UP Manchester, vanished nightlife and more. The event was for GHT service users only.
‘In Equal Parts’, Sale Waterside Arts, Nov 2018–Jan 2019 As part of a programme of work attached to the play ‘First Time’ by Nathaniel Hall, this exhibition spanned World AIDS Day and included talks, HIV poster making workshops for young people, and an exhibition of my work alongside other work about HIV and activism.
Sexuality Summer School, University Of Manchester, 24.5.18 I hosted a teach-in and workshop with international postgraduates attending the Sexuality Summer School. I spoke about AIDS and ACT UP in Manchester, and the emotional impact of false origin stories of the epidemic. We had a broad discussion encompassing global experiences of AIDS education and stigma, listened to Klaus Nomi, and the group contributed some beautiful work to the collection.
120 BPM Art Jam, HOME, Manchester, 10.4.18 To celebrate the release of French film 120 BPM and inspire more creative activism, Instigate Arts and Manchester’s LGBTQI film club Make A Scene hosted a pre & post-screening art jam at HOME, Manchester.
Outburst Queer Arts Festival, The Green Room, Belfast, 9–18.11.17 A teach-in incorporating film, music, guest readings and group social media activism, after which the work went on show for the duration of the festival.
Queer Art(ists) Now, And What? Festival, Hackney, London, 12–15.10.17 Exhibition curated by And What? Festival with guest curation from Richard Dodwell, Olivia Laing and Evan Ifekoya.
Men’s Group, LGBT Foundation, Manchester, 5.9.17 Conversation with service users at Manchester’s LGBT community and campaigning headquarters.
QUEER ART SHOW #5, The Penthouse, Manchester, 24–29.8.17 Queer Art Show 5 explored what it means to REVOKE – to invalidate, reclaim, reverse, at the anniversary of 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts. Curated by Debbie Sharp, artist/director of artist-led/dyke-led project space The Penthouse. Portions of the work were on show and I gave an alternative vigil as a performance piece to close the show. This can be viewed at the video piece alongside this text.
The Queers Are Revolting!, People’s History Museum, Manchester, 10.8.17 A night of creative queer activism in response to the impact of austerity on the LGBTQ+ community. Part of Never Going Underground, a year-long season of exhibitions, events and programmes exploring the past, present and future of LGBT+ activism.
ACT UP: Thirty Years Fighting AIDS, University of York, 2.6.17 A one-day conference to mark the 30th anniversary of the founding of ACT UP, bringing together academics from a variety of disciplines to reflect upon what has changed, and what has not, in the past 30 years.
David Wojnarowicz: Close To The Knives, Islington Mill, Salford, 23.3.17 A celebration of the publication of a new edition of Wojnarowicz’s memoirs ‘Close To The Knives’ (with a new Introduction by Olivia Laing). Dr Monica Pearl of the University of Manchester spoke about her research into AIDS in twentieth century culture and her time as an ACT UP activist, while performance artist Matt Fennemore gave two performances which responded to the work of Wojnarowicz. We shared recitals from Cynthia Carr’s biography of Wojnarowicz, with short films, imagery and conversation throughout. This was the very first outing of ‘A mile of black paper’.
WARMTH Sauna is an installation in the form of a portable but otherwise traditional 8-person Finnish sauna, housed in a converted horse box. Throughout July 2018, artist Olivia Glasser brought the installation to the courtyard of Islington Mill, Salford, and christened it The Encore Room Sauna. The sauna was open for public use and Olivia also invited guests to stage talks and interventions, including the British Sauna Society.
In two hour-long sessions over the course of an evening I read a selection of writings focussing on the history and experience of the gay sauna/bathhouse in a hot and sticky performance piece entitled ‘It's Hot. It's On. Join In.’ The title was gleaned from flyers for the legendary Ritch Street Bathhouse in San Francisco. My selected texts focussed on the gay sauna in poetry, fiction, journalism and memoir, including descriptions of the famous Everard Baths fire in New York, and the sauna as site of urban gentrification and anonymous cross-class cross-race contact. Texts included work by poet Gerry Potter, Larry Kramer’s ‘Faggots’, Patrick Strudwick’s account of the last day of Chariots in Shoreditch, Michael McCourt’s ‘Queer Street’, Sarah Schulman and more. I closed with a joyous live recording of Bette Midler performing at The Continental Baths in 1971 with Barry Manilow on piano as she was building her reputation as ‘Bathhouse Betty’ and prior to becoming ‘The Divine Miss M.’
This event also served as a workshopping of ideas towards a larger performative sauna installation. Interested? Contact me!
I’m obsessed with cover versions, not just who covers which music and when and why, but what a cover version actually is: a recital, an interpretation, a reinvention, a challenge, an impersonation?
I became interested in the idea of not just covering a song, but in covering a specific live performance of a song as an historic moment in itself. In 1993 I heard the AIDS fundraiser compilation album ‘No Alternative’ which features Patti Smith singing ‘Memorial Song’, the tribute song she wrote for Robert Mapplethorpe, at an AIDS benefit concert in New York. I'd been singing the song for over twenty years and found that I always recited the spoken introduction and even the shouts from the crowd as well as the song itself. I decided to perform this as an entire ‘cover’ including the shouts, Patti's introduction, her faltering thoughts, her reference to the hot night itself, all the lived moments of the evening, and the beautiful song itself. 'Little Emerald Bird' is its opening line.
It was an experiment, and a very moving experience for me. I had never sung in front of anybody before. My friend Eoin Dara took this Instagram picture, which I think is all that remains of the performance.
Patti Smith 'Memorial Song'
Apples & Other Fruits / 'I drank everything he drank'
‘Apples & Other Fruits’ was a one-off performance in the gallery space at HOME which emerged from a series of workshops co-ordinated by Portraits of Recovery, with lead artist David Hoyle and supporting artist Jackie Haynes. Myself and three other artists formulated original performance pieces drawing on real-life material related to our experiences with drugs and alcohol. Poetry, self-help books, real-life letters and phone-calls were our material, and the audience was drawn into our small curated world via conversation and movement. My piece was entitled ‘I drank everything he drank’, part of which can be seen in the documentary ‘My Recoverist Family’ by Amanda Ravetz (see trailer to the left).
'My Recoverist Family' TRAILER
‘I was never no good after that night, Charley…’
Part of Ambition by Instigate Arts, HOME, Manchester, 9.7.16.
"This is not a conventional art show, but a theatrical presentation. Like theatre, it asks questions, provokes thoughts and takes you on an emotional journey, portraying good and bad, light and dark, joy and sorrow, redemption and salvation. I do not endorse a way of life, but describe one, and the audience is left to make its own decisions and judgements. Thank you." – Madonna
'Ambition' was an evening of live performance, film and intervention that considered our insatiable struggle to succeed; from the personal to the global, the collection explored our fascination with celebrity and status and our constant search for affirmation, approval and acceptance. From our desperation to survive to our determination to thrive, no matter what the cost. Presented as part of Instigate Arts curatorial residency at HOME. Artists were: Kevin Burke, Bartosz Beda, Stefanie Elrick & Laura McGee, Michelle Hannah, Richard Hughes, Anne Louise Kershaw, Sara Minelli & Matteo Giuliani, Emily Mulenga, Greg Thorpe, Angela Readman, Louise Woodcock.
Here's an extract from an interview with my curators at Instigate Arts about my performance piece entitled ‘I was never no good after that night, Charley…’ (You can read the full interview here) :
How does your work relate to the themes of Ambition? My piece is called ‘I was never no good after that night, Charley…’ which is the line that Robert De Niro’s character ad-libs in Raging Bull when he’s covering Brando’s ‘contender’ speech from On the Waterfront, which I also do a cover version of. Both films are set-texts in disappointment and regret and lost ambition. My whole piece is me talking or singing and it’s like a collage incorporating things that are thematically connected but emotionally juxtaposed – my own writing, a press conference speech from Madonna’s ‘Blond Ambition’ tour, Victoria Wood, Frank O’Hara. Because I’m interested in memorials, I also thought about people who have had their ambitions taken away from them in death, so I’ve incorporated that too.
Ambition - Pop-up Exhibition at HOME mcr - curated by Instigate Arts
30 Days of Fin
During the final 30 days of the existence of Manchester's beloved Cornerhouse I staged a daily intervention via their Twitter account sharing random facts, images and memories about the building and its history as we counted down to its closure. The project was named #30DaysofFIN after the word 'FIN' that closed many a foreign language film there over the years.
‘In a modern library you’re just as likely to leave with a laptop full of information as a rucksack full of books. I wanted to find a way to symbolise the evolution from paper to data that emphasises the importance of both.’
The project turned into a way to showcase printed treasures from around Central Library; exciting, mundane, beautiful, forgotten, well-loved. Each book was reduced to one single image and a piece of quoted text and sent out as a Tweet – a digital artefact – to Central Library’s thirteen thousand followers.
Armistice Day fell during the residency so I opened the collection with an image from the First World War and finished with an entry from a compendium of Army names from the Second World War, a soldier named G. Thorpe.
Here are some of the images sent over the duration of the residency and the full collection of Tweets is at the Storify page here.