Published: 6 June 2017

GL RY: adventures in public art, HIV discourse and queer aesthetics

By Georgia Symons

HIV Australia | Vol. 12 No. 3 | December 2014

Earlier this year, I was involved in a public installation project as part of the AIDS 2014 Conference.

I am – or at least I’m going to paint myself as – the Alice in this rabbit-hole of an adventure into public art, HIV discourse, queer aesthetics and the wonderful world of glory holes.

Like Alice, I started my journey very naïvely. At the beginning of the year, I knew next to nothing about HIV.

I didn’t really know how it was different from AIDS; watching Rent had led me to believe that AZT was still being used by everyone; and I wouldn’t have thought anyone I knew was living with the virus.

So when I received an email inviting proposals to an installation project exploring HIV through performance, I was in two minds.

On the one hand, I saw this as an opportunity to finally educate myself on an issue I wanted to know more about.

On the other hand, though, I was very sensitive to the fact that there were likely plenty of people who had something of note to say on the issue, and I didn’t want to contribute to unnecessary noise that might make those important voices more difficult to hear.

So it was that I decided to head along to the first planning meeting for the installation with an offer of production support.

I didn’t feel that my voice was important to this project, but perhaps my other skills could be of use.

Glory holes

The project, entitled GL RY, was led by the delightful duo of Dr Alyson Campbell and Lachlan Philpott, known collectively as wreckedAllProds (say it out loud … ), and made as a partnership between Living Positive Victoria and the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA).

This followed a year of Theatre at VCA working closely with Living Positive Victoria to set up and develop two new devised performances on living with HIV, earlier in the year.

GL RY, our fearless leaders revealed, was to be a public installation that would use as its central metaphor the glory hole.

I cannot pretend I was quite naïve enough to not know what a glory hole was, but I certainly had never seen one for myself.

I was well and truly outside my own sphere of knowledge, and thrilled to be there.

Beyond the playfully lewd dynamics of bringing such an erotically charged site into public view, the concept of the glory hole immediately offered up a number of metaphorical resonances around transmission, disclosure, anonymity and risk that shared clear links with HIV discourses.

I had no idea what to contribute artistically, but made it known that I was able to build and moderate a basic blog.

I was therefore put in charge of research for a collective resource on all things HIV and glory holes.

My education was beginning; I was falling down the rabbit hole.

Positive role models

It was around this time that we started working closely with Paul Woodward from Living Positive Victoria’s Positive Speakers’ Bureau.

Paul was the dramaturg for the project, and also offered a number of briefing sessions and materials for the team.

Paul goes directly against a lot of what I thought I knew about HIV. Tanned, muscular, and often grinning ear-to-ear, he’s intent on breaking down stigma around HIV by demonstrating that people living with HIV can live healthy, fit lifestyles.

It was around the same time as I met Paul that another of my friends – another very fit, healthy man – disclosed to me his HIV-positive status.

From these men I learned the words ‘undetectable viral load’. I also learned about the daily commitment to fighting for good health; the daily obligation to swallow the truth of your condition.

And against that obligation, the attendant feelings of guilt that come from knowing how rare it is to have access to the class of treatments available in Australia.

Fundamental to the development of the project was working closely with Kim Davis and her organisation Positively Fabulous+, a group dedicated to providing support to women living with HIV, who often fly under the radar of HIV discourse.

Our installation was to sit side-by-side with Kim’s glorious pink caravan in the middle of Melbourne’s City Square for the week of the AIDS 2014 conference.

Bedding and other contributions

Early on in the project we received a submission from Melbourne artist Will McBride, which was to become a unifying feature of the installation.

Artists, friends and total strangers working to get the last of Bedding complete.

Entitled Bedding, Will’s idea was to work with fellow artist Penny Harpham to take an entire bed – complete with mattress, sheets, pillows and wooden frame – and break it down into parts small enough to fit through a glory hole, then reconstruct those parts into a new bed on the other side of the hole.

This durational work, along with Dagmara Gieysztor’s design for our central hole-ridden GL RY maze, began to give shape to our weeklong exhibition.

The time between these initial planning sessions and the first day of the installation is a blur of promotion, scheduling, and (for my part at least) enough researching and uploading of various glory hole-related content to land me on a few government watchlists.

We managed to get a lot of inspiring artists involved: spoken word poet Kylie Supski was to perform some of her poems; various students at the VCA performed vignettes around the GL RYstructure as Alice in Wonderland (Anna Kennedy), Miss HIVenus (Ryan Forbes) and the Spit Fairy (Tim Phillips); and we were graced with the presence of Lesbian Bear Chanteuse Ross Anderson-Doherty from Belfast.

Together with these and many other artists, we had put together what we hoped would be a symbolically complex and yet publicly accessible installation which approached issues around HIV from multiple angles; sharing a sense of play and invitation to engage, but covering various perspectives and subjectivities.

The installation

Campbell made clear that this was a pilot project and, indeed, some of this theoretical ground-work went completely out the window once the installation opened.

Whilst the foundational idea of using the glory hole to think about transmission and HIV remained intact, much of the complexly imagined symbolism of the project may have gone either unrealised or unnoticed.

In the first few days of the installation, some of the key artists involved realised that members of the public attempting to interact with the installation weren’t ‘getting’ it.

What we quickly realised, however, is that this didn’t have to matter; or rather, it didn’t have to be a negative thing.

We were keen to respond each day to what we discovered and work to engage the public with thinking about their own knowledge and understanding of living with HIV.

The important thing was that we were there in the public square, being visible, doing some apparently odd things and drawing the public in through the use of Anderson-Doherty’s cabaret, guest dance spots from James Welsby and his dancers from HEX, and the use of outlandish costume and props to create surreal, funny performance moments.

So, standing around a maze made of milk-crates held together with cling wrap, helping to cut up and reconstruct a bed whilst delivering fragments of poetry, flowers and crafted objects through various holes resulted in people’s curiosity getting the better of them. And this was the key.

Once we had people’s attention, and once we’d let them know that they were welcome to approach the installation, the lines of communication were open and dialogue could begin.

The most important thing about the project was the conversations we then had, one on one, with members of the public.

Miss HIVenus pays hard-working Penny Harpham a visit at the Bedding worksite.

The best example of how this worked was Will and Penny’s contribution, Bedding.

Will and Penny had their own ideas about the metaphorical resonances of their act.

For them, some ideas suggested by the work included the ways in which an HIV diagnosis can seem to destroy a life and its comforts, and the process of gradually rebuilding that life and that sense of security in the weeks and years that follow.

What we found, however, was that rather than telling members of the public that this was what the work was ‘about’, a more interesting approach was to ask people what they thought it might be about.

Allowing people to activate their own processes of meaning-making around this and other elements of the installation made people much more receptive to discussions about HIV in Australia and breaking down stigma around HIV.

Most of my interactions as a facilitator on-site were with two kinds of people: either members of the public with very little knowledge about HIV; or people who had specifically come to town for the AIDS 2014 conference.

Our glorious Sonic Lesbian, Ross Anderson-Doherty, in sequin mode.

There was one exception to this rule. During one of Ross Anderson-Doherty’s fabulous musical interludes with his Back- Up Bears (or BUBs), I was approached by a man who seemed somewhat disgruntled.

I began to explain to him some of what the project was about, and asked if he knew much about HIV.

‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘too much.’

This was a heterosexual man living with HIV, and he quickly made it known to me that he didn’t feel that this bearded man in a frock represented him and his experience.

I was aware that this was difficult territory: on the one hand, I didn’t like the language he was using to describe some of the performers; on the other, I didn’t want to tell him how his own experience should be represented.

So I started to talk to him about the GL RY project’s links with Positively Fabulous+, and about trying to raise awareness about women living with HIV.

Part of Ross’s performance identity is that he is a ‘Sonic Lesbian’, and only likes to sing songs traditionally sung by women.

He is, therefore, standing with women and their experiences of living with HIV.

After his initial hostility, I was surprised by this man’s receptivity to information about women living with HIV, and he seemed surprised to learn that this was an issue.

This interaction was a moment of deconstructing an issue that had been brought up on a number of occasions over the course of the project – the relationship (both perceived and real) between gay men and HIV and AIDS.

This relationship – historically so powerful in galvanising action around HIV and AIDS – can result in the public thinking that women and straight men do not ‘get HIV’ (this was borne out in our interactions with visitors in the square), and that there is a support network around gay men living with HIV that is harder to find in other demographics.

It was heartening, therefore, to see a gay man being the conduit between the marginalised experiences of one straight man and a community of women, both parties living with HIV but too often isolated from one another.

Next steps

Alyson Campbell and the team have received a lot of positive feedback about the installation and the ways in which it was able to open a sort of portal between those attending the AIDS 2014 conference and the general public.

Although plans are not yet specified, there are hopes to continue the project in Belfast, London, and at AIDS 2016 in Durban, as well as exploring online, ‘viral’ dramaturgies to express viral issues.

Alyson and Kim are working together to look at how the project can continue to focus on the underrepresented area of women living with HIV.

Watch this space … Alice’s adventures will continue. For further information about GL RY see: Facebook page and