Joseph Cotgrave, OUTPUT, until March 15th, free
I’ve been aware of Joseph Cotgrave and his work for a few years now. It’s both personal and political – as someone living with HIV, Cotgrave’s intention is to destigmatise what living with the condition actually means. For this exhibition, Cotgrave has turned OUTPUT into an offshoot of Stanley Street. The lights, sticky floors and general detritus of drinks and laughing gas are all present and correct, though distinctly less sweaty. I could get into the swing of this place even at 2pm on a miserably wet afternoon; I’m definitely singing along to the Cher soundtrack.
There’s a phrase used in the notes that Cotgrave has constructed this exhibition as a “shrine to his past self”. It’s an interesting phrase, and how it’s executed is central to the success of the whole project. Because successful de-stigmatisation depends on reining in judgement, even of oneself. Casting the spectre of HIV as a moral rather than medical has had devastating consequences for decades, contributing to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people who might have survived had drug research been swifter and better funded.
It’s very easy to imagine hindsight tinging the period before with a whole gamut of emotions for Cotgrave. And hindsight does run its own course through the space – or perhaps that should be said over it. The main decorative motif is a strand of virus, animal-like in the way it crawls across walls and abandoned drinks cans, a presence everywhere you look. And the Cher singalong is interrupted by the sound of shaking pills, hinting at a future to come. Yet despite this, there’s no sense of inherent doom in the club itself. It’s here with its suggestiveness, vibes and vices being what they are. This UV-tinted experience is not in itself inherently good or bad – it’s a night out.
It’s the second exhibition responding to HIV I’ve seen in 18 months, the first being John Walter’s CAPSID at HOME about 18 months ago. It’s also the best of the two. CAPSID was too focused on revelling in the ‘complexity’ of HIV as a cell and subject, which it then further obfuscated. In contrast, this space fits in with Cotgrave’s stated aim of activism and starting conversations about the disease.
It’s a purpose which is given further, timely urgency by the coincidence of the exhibition opening as the world is going into meltdown over coronavirus. Whilst the outcomes of this latest medical crisis are yet to be fully realised, the response has been swift from most quarters: shut it down. Respond quickly, treat and prevent as best as possible. If the strands of virus writhing across this club were coronavirus, the outcry to sort it out would be immediate. Which brings the lack of knowledge about the details of HIV, how it’s spread and its continuing presence in places like this after more than 30 years all the more anger-inducing.
There’s a connection made in the notes between this work and grief. There’s no emotion which leaves its mark in quite the same way as grief; though it changes with time, it never leaves. What grief Cotgrave carries – and I wouldn’t dream of making assumptions about something so personal – it seems on the evidence of this space that he has learned to work with it and with intention. This work pulses with a sense of both personal and activist purpose, in a space which is, perhaps surprisingly given its theme, profoundly moving.