Art As Activism.

In Art, Blog, Interviewsby Rashers TierneyLeave a Comment

Above:  A sticker in Dublin highlighting the contemporary HIV epidemic and our centre spread featuring a graphic by Will St Leger.

It’s become a bit of rabble tradition to use the middle of  our little parish newsletter for the disgruntled to showcase a particular artist we admire.  When discussing ideas for #rabble14, we were stunned with statistics about HIV today. Hence, bringing Will St Leger in as our centrespreadista with the heads at Act Up Dublin.  Here Rashers Tierney caught up with Will to find out more about the Silent Harris piece.

I was walking through town the other day and stopped to take a photo of some graffiti highlighting the surge in HIV.  A mate kinda turned to me with real surprise and sort of exclaimed that it can’t be right or must be some piece of agit prop from the 1980s that had escaped being scrubbed.  Does it surprise you that there is a real lack of public knowledge out here about how rampant HIV has become again?

It doesn’t surprise me that your friend thought that the stencil was a leftover from the 1980s. HIV rates have been increasing over the last few years and in the last 5 years newly reported HIV diagnoses are at the highest levels ever recorded in the history of the state. At the moment we’re seeing one newly reported HIV diagnoses in Ireland every 18 hours. That’s almost double the EU average.

The reasons for a rise in HIV rates in Ireland are numerous, I’ll try to address some of them.

Firstly, our sexual health services are seriously underfunded and public STI clinics are struggling to accommodate the increasing numbers of people seeking to get tested. These clinics and their staff are doing great work, but they’re not being supported politically at the scale needed to reverse this crisis.

There’s also very little peer-to-peer sexual health outreach within communities most at risk from getting HIV.  This is compounded by indifference and neglect on the part of government, state agencies, non-governmental organisations, community institutions, and the public at large.

Stigma around HIV is one of the biggest barriers to prevention. A recent national survey by HIV Ireland revealed some shocking levels of misinformation about HIV and people living with it. For instance, 24% of survey respondents incorrectly believed that you can getting HIV from kissing… Kissing, are you fucking kidding me?  Where does a person hear this nonsense and why do they believe it? These prevailing myths are a black mark on The Department of Health’s failure to educate our citizens about public health.

Can you tell us about the “Silent Harris” image we printed as the  centrefoldin #rabble14?

Yes, I coined the word ‘Silent Harris’ because when I looked back at his tenure as Minister for Health, I could not find a single public reference, statement about HIV or the ongoing HIV crisis in Ireland. He has remained to date, tight lipped about the issue. If his strategy is to say nothing and hope no one notices, he’s mistaken, the voices of dissent are growing louder by the day. In the poster I created for Rabble 14, the pink triangle is an ACT UP icon and Silent Harris cannot see what going on in front of his face.

You’ve done some great pieces over the years.  That Micheal Collins one is a real classic.   How did you get into making art like this in the first place?  Any first inspirations??

From when I was a teenager, artists like Jim Fitzpatrick, Peter Kennard and Marcel duChamp were big inspirations. They dared to agitate and I found that motivating. In London in the 90s I joined Greenpeace and started stenciling environmental stuff, from there I was hooked on stencils (for a while)

Can you talk me through your work process? How do ideas come into being? Is there a flash of lightning or do you let things germinate for a while and develop them over time with visual play and mashups?

It’s a bit of both. Sometimes an issue will sit on my shoulder for a few month and I’ll have an internal dialogue with myself about how best to approach it. The issue can be addressed through activism, art or both, I don’t see a huge difference between them. I see complex ideas as a puzzle that needs to be dismantled and reworked into a visual narrative that’s intended to motivate the audience that encounters it.

We’ve featured a lot of street art in Dublin down through the issues. Stand out stuff for us were centrespreads from ADW and Katrina Rupit.  What street artists in Ireland have you admired yourself over the years?

I love the work of MINAW Collective. It’s a sign of a healthy urban art scene when there’s established all women graff crews. I was disappointed when I saw not one single woman artist was included in the recent An Post ‘Urban Art’ Stamp collection or booklet.

You’ve probably seen the recent kerfuffle with the council over the Stormzy image by Subset in Smithfield. Should more be done by the council and authorities in Dublin to promote and regularise street art activities instead of sanctioning it?  Can you point to any cities or policies that stand out as beacons in this sense of treating it progressively rather than fighting it?

That a tricky question. On one hand I see the benefit of working with the Council to create spaces for public art. However, when any power structure starts to ‘manage’ something as free as graffiti or street art, it can break it’s creative spirit.  Art is the open, by its very nature shouldn’t be constrained to authorized areas or subject of bureaucratic box-ticking.

I don’t think the powers that be have the same insights as the artist, not in terms of motivations, worldview and creative vision.  Also there’s a danger that artists will become complicit in self-censorship order to appease.

Check out Will’s website and archive here and follow him on Twitter to keep up to date. Give the feature on Act Up and their activism today from #rabble14 a read right here.

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