Thirty years ago, an East Village art critic and curator turned entertainment lawyer founded an organization that changed the face of social activism. At that time, altruism was executed in the grand gesture; often via huge concerts in stadiums broadcast around the world, or telethons where concerned citizens pledge money to worthy causes.
John Carlin, an avowed introvert who thought the charity gig was a well-meaning but somewhat boring exercise, really didn’t like going to protest marches — or even by his own admission “hanging out with people.” But he had a huge interest in multimedia and the emerging digital culture that he placed at the heart of his new nonprofit organization. hot red.
Significantly, he was also friends with leading artists of the time such as David Wojnarowicz and Keith Haring, and this was to prove decisive in his mission to raise awareness and knowledge of AIDS – a disease which had cut a scythe through the artistic community of New York. , and with him the men and women he had counted as close friends.
“When Keith and David started getting sick, it really made me feel,” he Skypes to Artspace from his New York home. As it went on, a lot of people were getting upset and wondering what they could do about it. I found something that was rooted in my personality and skills: I was an activist and an introvert. I didn’t like going to meetings, but I really liked doing things.
What Carlin did, with his hot red co-founder, London-born Leigh Blake, was a series of music projects, TV shows, videos and ad campaigns under the Red Hot + Blue banner that channeled his fun and passion into a brand that made a mark of the time and which changed the prevailing attitudes towards sexuality.
Today, Red Hot + Blue are perhaps best known for their landmark 20 albums featuring U2, David Byrne Neneh Cherry, Nirvana, The National, David Bowie and Annie Lennox, and introducing what was rather strangely called the world music on the main street, long before iTunes or Spotify opened up music culture to the general public.
But one of Red Hot + Blue’s most often overlooked elements was its fashion component, which soon boasted iconic t-shirt lines by Jean Paul Gaultier and Rifat Ozbek, alongside those by visual artists from the time.
“The TV shows had a lot of what we called ‘art breaks’ where we did these message-driven 30-second pieces with Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, David Wojnarowicz, and so we did a whole line of t shirts around that,” Carlin said.
It is this line of clothing, and more precisely the work of David Wojnarowicz and Jenny Holzer in particular, which Carlin is revisiting this month, with two strictly limited-edition T-shirts and a tote bag in partnership with the New York City AIDS Memorial to mark 30 years of Red Hot + Blue’s debut album.
Available in a very limited edition of only 500 copies, Jenny Holzer’s T-shirt features its original caption: “In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy”, which seems oddly relevant to our present moment. David Wojnarowicz’s highly sought-after design for Red Hot (who made a lot of money on eBay in the years that followed) is available againin the same way a tote bag with the design and powerful text on the back of the T-shirt. Both are available now in Artspace shop.
100% of proceeds from the sale of these items will go to support ongoing maintenance and cultural and educational programs at the New York City AIDS Memorial.
It’s amazing now to think that at the time Wojnarowicz submitted his design, few had heard of the Polish-American artist.
“David was a great friend of mine and he was just a very inspiring human being,” says Carlin. “Back in the days of the original T-shirt, I kept saying things like I think David Wojnarowicz is the greatest artist of my generation and we’re doing a David Wojnarowicz T-shirt! At the time, I didn’t care that no one liked him or even knew who he was! And now, of course, he’s a very well-known top notch LGBTQ icon. So this is actually the T-shirt that EVERYONE wants. It’s good how it goes.
“I remember when David chose the image and designed the t-shirt. He also chose the text on the back, so in reproducing it we tried to be as faithful to his original design as possible. Obviously, he didn’t design a tote bag, but we continued his design from the back of his T-shirt to the bag.
“David personally chose this image. He really wanted to be part of the project. I think all of us in the East Village then had this post-pop sensibility. The previous generation of artists were a bit weary of mass culture, but we said to ourselves: “give us more!”
In addition to the t-shirts and tote, Carlin is releasing six mixes of Neneh Cherry’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” cover on streaming platforms, as well as re-releases of the albums. The song Cherry is a poignant reminder of a time when it was radical to utter the word AIDS in a song. Carlin is only too aware that we have not only lost the talents that had already blossomed when AIDS struck, but also those that had yet to blossom.
“I’ve thought a lot about this and I really feel that my generation for a quarter of a century has suffered as a whole – not just from the loss of famous creators. Because not everyone becomes famous in the end. twenties, especially artists; I mean, look at David Hockney, he’s still going strong.
“So when I got into the digital realm, I always felt like I was pushing something forward, because I always thought that people like David Wojnarowicz and Keith Haring would have been leaders in this space.
John Carlin, co-founder of Red Hot
“I remember asking Keith Haring to do his first commercial t-shirt – long before the Pop Shop – for a show I hosted at the Whitney. I remember teaching Keith how to do animation. In I still have the drawing at my house. I was just hanging out with him, I was smoking dope and I was like, ‘you know, those barking dogs and those babies, they should move.’ And he was like, ‘ Oh yeah, I’d love to make them move. How do you do that? I sat there with him, teaching him three frame animation so the dog could bark! And he just started drawing test sheets for So yes, of course, he would have gone into multimedia.
“And David Wojnarowicz did a lot of photo-montages. I always thought, oh my god if only David had lived to see Photoshop and After Effects! I feel like artists are like antennae and I feel like people like David Wojnarowicz were living in the future. They saw the world that was not yet born, the digital world, the uninhibited, collage driven world where references no longer work, everything is multi-layered, there is no synthesis. What I used to curate and write at that time was really focused on the previous generation of pop artists trying very politely to put it all together and make sense of it. I think it was the genius of understanding David and Basquiat.”
And how does he feel today, when he looks back? “I’m the kind of person who always thinks about what the next project is. But it’s interesting… Obviously, I feel a lot of pride. But frankly, Red Hot, for most of its life, has been incredibly difficult to do. So half is PTSD from the pain of the projects; but also how painful this time was. It is painful and I feel the loss of all my friends and people I admired. But at the same time, I feel incredibly proud that I did something at the right time.
“The other side of why I was motivated to do this anniversary was that we were in the middle of another pandemic and I started to really think that wearing masks today is very similar to what what condom use was like in the late 80s and early 90s. When I talk to young people about it, they are shocked when I tell them that before HIV, condoms were used for birth control.
“Nobody likes to wear masks, nobody likes to wear condoms, but at some point that shifted and it wasn’t just about protecting themselves, but protecting their community. And it’s always a fight. I thought that was an interesting parallel and felt that a lot of young activists today could learn a lot from AIDS activism.
Remember that 100% of the proceeds from the sale of these items will be used to support ongoing maintenance and the cultural and educational programs of the New York AIDS Memorial.
The fight against AIDS is an ongoing battle. 75.7 million people have been infected with HIV since the start of the epidemic. 32.7 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the epidemic and 690,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2019. You can help by donate to New York AIDS Memorial HERE.
New York City AIDS Memorial, New York City, New York, USA. Studio AI Architects (2016). Photography: Edward Caruso as featured in by Phaidon In memory of: Designing contemporary memorials