In 2015 artist Ian Richards was commissioned to produce new work for SHOUT, Birmingham’s annual Festival of Queer Arts and Culture. The body of work he made critically explored the language that surrounds queer narratives and histories.
"Understand that sexuality is as wide as the sea. Understand that your morality is not law. Understand that we are you. Understand that if we decide to have sex whether safe, safer, or unsafe, it is our decision and you have no rights in our lovemaking." Derek Jarman, At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament, 1992.
In ‘Unmarked | marked’, Richards made a deceptively straightforward intervention that asked a series of multi-faceted and open-ended questions of sexual and social identities. Five separate phrases, extracted from sex and dating websites were re-contexualised as ink stamps. ‘Sometimes’, ‘Never’, ‘Always’, ‘Needs Discussion’ and ‘No Entry’ are the pre-defined drop-down options on such websites. These labels identify the user’s sexual activity preferences in ‘safe sex’ terms. ‘Needs Discussion’, for instance, is often an indicator for HIV or Hepatitis C, while ‘No Entry’ is the automatic classification assigned when the website user has not defined the field. At the gallery door on the opening night of the festival at Birmingham Open Media (BOM), Richards stamped the hand of each audience member on entry. In capital letters, in red or in black ink, all visitors were randomly ‘branded’ with one of the five options. That the audience members carried these words on their bodies into new locations after the immediate encounter with the work allowed it to operate in both highly personal and highly public contexts over a period of time. Richards notes, “I wanted the audience to have to work at removing the ink or live with the words in their daily life until they faded.” In this way, using words that carry multiple meanings and significances, ‘Unmarked | marked’ began important socio-political conversations that are sadly too seldom held in the public domain.
‘1981’ directly engages with conversations around a fear of the future, something that has particular resonance for those recently diagnosed with HIV. Taking Chuck Palahniuk’s novel ‘Invisible Monsters’ (1999) as its starting point, Richards fragmented a line from the novel into three parts and produced printed postcards, reducing the words to isolated white letters punctuated by spaces on a grey ground. These postcards were distributed across LGBT venues in Birmingham and could only be read if all three parts of the text were collected. The slow uncovering of the specific question asked by these postcards echoed the psychological and physical effects of HIV upon the body, opening out this subject into a wider discursive arena for those that encountered the work – when did the future switch from being a promise to being a threat?
'In the future, in the wind, in the dark on the observation deck at the top of the Space Needle, Brandy Alexander, that brand-name queen supreme that she is, Brandy comes out to Seth and I with souvenirs of the future. These are postcards.... “Tell the world what scares you most” says Brandy.... ' Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters, 1999.
Using the postcards the artist worked with clients of Aids Hilfe, an organisation that supports HIV positive people living in Leipzig (Birmingham’s sister city). Richards asked participants to consider, record and symbolically cast off their personal concerns for the future by allowing, like Palahniuk’s characters, written postcards to be blown away from a tall tower in the wind. These were released from the top of the 36-storey City-Hochhaus skyscraper (nicknamed ‘weisheitszahn’ or ‘wisdom tooth’) on World Aids Day, an event that went undocumented to protect the privacy of this moment in time. Despite the intimacy of these disclosures, the postcards, like the ink stamps, functioned as tools to start conversations with the public. The act of writing is also a reaching outward – an attempt at communication. For those that found these anonymous postcards carried by the wind, the potential impact on their lives is enormous, though, of course, impossible to record.
Text by Anneka French, July 2016