Articles

Using Architecture to Consider HIV Transmission

by Ryan J. Simons on May 8, 2014

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Computer generated model of a maze (2013–14) (all images courtesy John Walter)

Alien Sex Club, an installation by John Walter set for the University of Westminster’s Ambika P3 opening in July 2015, will seek to promote the idea of a safe, informative physical space to act as a buffer between the smart phone dating app and the physical experience of a sexual encounter. Borne from a previous idea, Kings Cross £4 Sex Klubb, this new iteration looks to design a “cruise maze” full of paintings, drawings, sculptures, performance pieces, music, video, hospitality, fortune-telling, and rapid HIV testing centers. Walter’s project begins with a simple — yet fraught — question: Can we reduce rates of HIV transmission using architecture?

PrintAccording to Walter, Alien Sex Club is a direct response to the perceived lack of visibility of HIV within contemporary art and architecture. Aside from the retrospective view of looking at the virus as a “historical subject,” Walter looks to create a complete sensory immersive experience in order to create an architecture that can promote a level of safety within the seemingly risky environment:

I have been driven by my experience of gay sex clubs, saunas and bathhouses to examine the nature of the space and the types of behavior that they house. I am interested in the ‘cruise maze’ as one of several phenomena within the sex club facilitating a space in which a parallel society exists. I wanted to get to grips with where this had come from and what we could learn about it. It is a spatial form that suggests a way of organizing the full breadth of my oeuvre.

In “The Breached Wall,” Herbert Muschamp’s 1988 review of the Architectural League of New York’s “Vacant Lots” exhibit in The New Republic, Muschamp writes at length about a project designed to house homeless New Yorkers living with HIV and AIDS. He sums up the efforts in one basic statement:

Your work is what defines the shape of the place you occupy in the cultural scheme of things. It is that place you want to dedicate to the resolution of this crisis.

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“He is taking his Pill”, ink, watercolour and temporary tattoos on paper (2013)

Walter, in collaboration with Dr. Alison Rodger, is looking to not only Kickstart a stalled conversation, but aims to use art and architecture as a driving force to reimagine the conversation in terms of safely and openly participate in a space that has shed the rigid image we often associate with the laboratory and takes on a fluidity of not only spatial manifestation, but a fluidity of programmatic intensity. In Walter’s words:

The project is bigger than just the installation in the sense that it is a vehicle for discussion and debate before, during, and after the installation (a website will live on as an archive and a subsequent iteration of the maze). Yes, Alison’s specialist knowledge of HIV and standing in the medical community lends weight to the project. However, it’s a partnership that has grown out of my need to know more about HIV and ART and her need to disseminate her research to a wider audience.

Architecture is constantly inventing, reinventing, denying, or embracing the notion of crisis. Whether it is a crisis of professional identity, social responsibility, or representation every moment of stagnation is multiplied by the speed of the world in which we live. A project like Alien Sex Club removes itself from the discussion by focusing on a tangible crisis. While architecture is used to bring HIV into focus, it steps back and acts as a canvas instead of the subject.

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