John Walter

Alien Sex Club

Alien Sex Club is a major multimedia project by the British artist John Walter, which will explore the relationship between visual culture and HIV today. Alien Sex Club will use the device of the ‘cruise maze’ to bring together works that address the complex subject of contemporary sexual health. The exhibition will consist of a large-scale installation based on the shapes of ‘cruise mazes’, spatial forms found in sex clubs and gay saunas. It will comprise sculpture, painting, video, performance and installation. Visitors will be immersed in a multisensory world in which they can watch videos and live performances, get lost in the maze and have food and drink in the performance bar.

The project 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.  Alien Sex Club will involve artists and HIV specialists, clinical academics and scientists in collaborations for a public programme of talks and performances that aim to provide audiences with a new vocabulary for understanding and talking about HIV and the factors contributing to its transmission. The public programme will be free to visitors, and will also offer visitors free rapid HIV testing. The exhibition will run in the summer of 2015 at the Ambika P3 Gallery in London.

Above: The Department of Rituals Objects. Mixed media installation with Astroturf maze and labyrinth floor, 2014
Below left: The Witch confesses that she entered Juliberry’s Grave. Ink and watercolour on paper, 30.5 x 45.5cm, 2013
Below right: He is suffering because he has burned out the dopamine receptors in his brain. Ink and watercolour on paper, 30.5 x 45.5cm, 2013

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. Rates of HIV are going up in the UK among gay men with around 3,500 new cases of the infection diagnosed in this group every year. 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. Walter’s exhibition contends that Post-Minimal art lacks the social and popular outlook necessary to addressing today’s HIV syndemic, which involves not only the virus but also the social and cultural constructs responsible for the increase in infection rates. Instead, a maximalist approach enables visitors to engage with the issues at hand through a combination of aesthetic, social and medical elements. Alien Sex Club uses popular forms including hospitality, fortune-telling, comedy and the aesthetic of carnivals and festivals to introduce issues to a wide audience and make the subject palatable, interesting and fun, while grounding it in current scientific research. We speak with John to find out more about this ambitious project and what makes him tick. 





Left: Miaow Miaow – digital drawing for new Alien Sex Club tarot cards
Below: Knossos wallpaper

Can you tell us briefly how this project came about, and what is your impetus in creating Alien Sex Club?

I had an idea for a project called Kings Cross £4 Sex Klubb about 3 or 4 years ago. I was fascinated by the experience of having visited sex clubs – going down the stairs, paying your money (£4) to a man at a hatch in the wall, getting undressed and checking your clothes in, walking around naked with your money in your socks, just wearing shoes and meeting new people – all very voyeuristic and performative. I was surprised at the intensity of the connection I made with the people I met there. It has become a rich subject for me and grown into what is now becoming Alien Sex Club.

Above: Model for Alien Sex Club at Ambika P3, scale 1:50
Below: Sew-on-patches with the designs of the four suits for the Alien Sex Club Tarot.

This is an ambitious project for anyone to take on. The scale of work is immense, and its content (unfortunately) is still considered by the wider audience as taboo. What do you hope to achieve with the exhibition, and are you ready for the attention & responsibility it’s likely to generate?

The taboo nature of the subject is the reason to address it head on. Gay men in the UK are disproportionately affected by HIV. Risk is inherently part of what sex has been for gay men over the past 30 years since the beginning of the AIDS crisis. The project is aimed as much at opening up the subject for discussion within the gay community as much as without.  I can’t predict the conversation that the installation will have but I hope that Alien Sex Club will cause a stir because I think both the subject of HIV today and the ‘Maximal’ aesthetic it uses to address it both deserve more attention. The project will be really big. The biggest thing I’ve ever done. It’s an opportunity to bring everything together and really stage the parallel world that I am inventing in a holistic way.

Your overall practice is laden with humour and irony, and your events often hold no restraint at poking fun at art world conformity, elitism, and the high-brow “experience”. How do you feel about the current state of the art world?

I don’t really worry about the art world any more. It’s more important that I get on with my work, which has become increasingly trans-disciplinary. I’m interested in making things that anyone can come to and enjoy. Humour is a central part of this, as are irreverence and hospitality. I have cultivated a position as playing the Jester as a strategy for luring people in so that I can address uncomfortable subjects such as HIV. ‘Turn My Oyster Up’, the installation I made for this year’s Whitstable Biennale, was a good example of this; I hosted a gin and cake bar that became the stage for video and performance that enabled a conversation about slang and sexual risk. Some visitors came for the food and drink only but others stuck around and got involved more deeply, some of them by accident, but this was a generous way of engaging them in the themes I want to discuss.

John Walter paints portraits of celebrity tarts, political heroes & failures, muppets, genital warts, and Tutankhamun. In a nutshell, please tell us why.

They are all self-portraits.

You’ve been given one day with a celebrity of your choice (alive or dead). Who is it, and what do you get up to?

Shirley from Eastenders. We’d go down the caff and she’d tell me all about being Mick’s real Mum and I’d be really gossipy with her and promise not to tell anyone. We’d be bezzy mates for the day and I’d really give her some good advice and whip her into shape.

What do you dream of?

Sex. People I used to know. Revenge. Sex with people I used to know. Money. Sex with people I don’t know. The in-laws. Emails. Sex with people I hate. Work.

And your worst nightmare?

As a child I had a dream that I was in a room with no doors or walls and purple numbers and letters were written on all the surfaces. I was crawling around with long green fingernails trying to get out. That’s my life.

You’re the lovechild of two people. I’m assuming PeeWee Herman is one. Who is the other?

Les Dawson.

Above: Gimme a ‘P’ Maria. Acrylic and oil on canvas, metal eyelets, 167 x 136 cm
Below: Queen of Blag. Watercolour and acrylic on paper

John Walter is an artist based in London. He works across a wide range or media. Recent exhibitions include ‘Turn My Oyster up’, Whitstable Biennale 2014 and ‘Trance Time’, MODEL Liverpool 2014. He was awarded the Sainsbury Scholarship at the British School at Rome and was a participant in Skowhegan School of painting and sculpture. He curated ‘Two Peacocks’, a group exhibition using the logic of the department store, at Gallery North, Newcastle in 2011 and its followup ‘Lily & Mim’ in Aberdeen in 2014. He is currently undertaking research for Alien Sex Club as part of a PhD in the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at the University of Westminster. The project, which explores the socio-political role of the artist and addresses the subject of HIV in the visual arts is being supported by the Wellcome Trust and Arts Council England.

Berlin, Bears and Refugees