Life, Death, Sex and Art

Life, Death, Sex and Art

HIV Australia | Vol. 12 No. 3 | December 2014

By Colin Batrouney

‘Art is not a mirror to reflect society, but a hammer with which to shape it.’ — Bertolt Brecht

Many working in health promotion today might be suspicious of the notion that they are involved in cultural production, perhaps believing that this concept is too lofty or removed.

In fact, the very opposite can be argued: that unless health promotion is actively involved in culture and cultural production it is, in fact, irrelevant.

It could also be said that the most memorable, effective and enduring health promotion has always actively, (and oftentimes provocatively) operated intentionally at a cultural level, and that far from being a novel, new idea, this has been the case throughout history.

Not you again!

The most (in)famous, relatively recent example of how health promotion cultural production can have spectacular effects in our own sector can be drawn from the deployment of the image of the Grim Reaper used in a 1987 campaign to warn middle Australian heterosexuals against the terrors of HIV/AIDS.

To this day, health promoters working in prevention live with the profoundly negative legacy of this campaign.

If you doubt this statement, just ask gay men what sort of campaign they think would be effective in addressing rising rates of HIV, invariably the answer will be ‘another Grim Reaper campaign’ – this is no less curious when it is said by young gay men who were not even born when the Grim Reaper campaign was implemented.

It has been argued that the medieval imagery of the Grim Reaper was intentionally employed not only to scare people into behaving, but was also used in far more sinister ways.

Tulloch and Lupton state, in Television, AIDS and Risk that the campaign, ‘ … positioned AIDS as the spectral, unknowable Other, outside “normal” society seeking entrance through violent, horrifying means.

‘There was also the implication that the skeletal figure of the Grim Reaper represented the gaunt, decaying body of the gay man dying of HIV/AIDS, seeking to spread contamination to members of the ‘general public’ and the previously protected circle of ‘the family’.1

The campaign has become almost the touchstone for the dumb response to the epidemic; ‘We need another Grim Reaper campaign’ is the shorthand for: ‘We really have no clue’.

It needs to remembered that the Grim Reaper wasn’t just the star in a campaign that ran for a couple of weeks in the 80s.

It was the symbol for a cultural moment that was global, immediate and terrifying.

The British had their own version of the scare campaign that had appeared a year earlier, using a more abstract concept of Styrofoam tombstones falling like dominoes.

That campaign is just as (in) famous as our reaper, and for the same reasons; it captured the mood of a global cultural moment that immediately jolted people into associating death with sex.

The fact that the Grim Reaper campaign has been lauded and established the career of its creator, Siimon Reynolds, does nothing to mitigate its grossly offensive and stigmatising legacy.

Doin’ it for ourselves

In a variety of ways, gay men have had to draw on deep reservoirs of resilience to live through this epidemic.

That has meant creating and celebrating our own cultural response to HIV/AIDS and consciously determining how we are characterised, depicted, addressed and engaged with.

Time and time again we have had to dismantle pathologies and phobias (sometimes from within our own communities) surrounding how we have sex, what it means to be HIV-positive, or HIV-negative, who we love and how we love, and we’ve managed to do that most effectively through gay culture and cultural production.

We have created our own ethos around the epidemic that is rooted in activism and the lived experience of thirty years of grief, loss, passion, fear, bravery, celebration and change; the stuff of culture.

Those of us who are lucky enough to have (1), lived through the turbulence of the last thirty years and (2) had the privilege of working to improve the health and wellbeing of gay men during that time, draw unconsciously or consciously on that rich history when we work today.

I am going to examine one recent cultural product, briefly, to illustrate my point.

Being gay is just the beginning

Being Brendo (formally known as Queer as Fuck) was an online gay comedy/drama series posted on Facebook that focused on the lives of working class gay men.

It was felt that, within the cultural production surrounding the health promotion of the last 30 years a particular type of gay man had been privileged over and above all else.

The cast of Being Brendo. Photo: Nemanja Ilic.

The Good Gay Citizen always used condoms, never had unsafe sex, displayed a positive ambivalence when it came to attitudes around HIV-positive gay men and, to all intents and purposes, was a left leaning, serially monogamous educated product of the middle class – in short, a caricature created to further a set of objectives around health promotion that included preventing HIV (and other sexually transmissible infections [STIs]) and improving the health and wellbeing of gay men generally.

Nothing wrong with that – only, he wasn’t real, or rather, he was only real for a very narrow margin of the gay community. This is actually a very serious problem for health promotion.

Historically, the particular strength of our work has been our ability to reflect the lived experience of gay men. If we move beyond that experience we risk building failure into our work by making it irrelevant.

In creating the characters in Being Brendo, we wanted to show people who were flawed, who smoked, took drugs, had unsafe sex, who had lots of sex, who didn’t know the safe sex lexicon backwards, people who fucked each other and fucked up – regularly. In short, human beings.

The eponymous ‘Brendo’ of the title is a young man from Mount Isa in Queensland who comes to Melbourne to live.

He is, in many ways, an innocent who is open to experience. He trusts too quickly but remains resilient in the face of a succession of disasters, large and small, that befall him.

Through the series he has to deal with coming out, homophobia and homophobic violence, open relationships, monogamy, learning about safe sex, recreational drug use, serodiscordant relationships, disclosure, being in love and losing love.

He manages to negotiate that terrain in totally idiosyncratic ways, that have nothing to do with being a good gay citizen.

In fact, in an inversion of the Good Gay Citizen narrative, the one character in the series who constantly badgers his friends about sexual safety, ends up seroconverting after a chance encounter whilst on holiday in Mexico.

The series offered the audience the opportunity to comment on the mini dramas they were watching and our fan base reacted immediately, and with passion depending on the issue.

For instance, when Jack, an HIV-positive character in the show discloses to Aaron, a casual partner, his status and is violently rejected, they meet up a week later and Aaron apologises, saying that he was shocked, he’s ‘clean’ and wants to stay that way, but that he is, ‘ … coming ‘round to the idea that he could have a relationship with a positive guy, that he could care for him.’

Jack responds: ‘I thought you were a great guy, but I can do without you “caring” for me.

‘There are a lot of positive guys out there who, when they come across someone with the kind of fucked up attitude you have about HIV, they’d take time out to educate them, that they’re not at risk, that they can have a good time, but Aaron? I’m not one of those guys.

‘I’m not sick; I don’t even feel sick unless I remember having sex with you.’ And with that he leaves.

The response on Facebook was immediate.

‘Aaron is a twat and deserved far more than you said [Jack] … but you have class buddy … something he will never have … really really well done guys … look forward to the next ep … :o)’

‘Nice one fellas, I’ve experienced this situation before in the role of Aaron, having found out a guy i was safely fooling around with was HIV+ and having a bad and offensive knee jerk reaction.

‘Then having my apology thrown in my face due to bad wording. At that point i was rather uneducated about HIV and will admit I still am to some degree. However Jack has all the right to be an utter bastard.

‘I deserved it from the guy just like Aaron does.’


‘It’s a tough situation to go through. My reaction to my ex’s revealing his HIV status was the opposite. I smothered him with my caring attitude, causing him to push me away.

‘It requires both people to be of strong character otherwise it’s going to be a rocky ride. Who’s right? Both of them. Who’s wrong? Both of them.

‘Negative people need to consider the feelings of positive people and positive people need to realise that it’s a disclosure that some negative people may have difficulty coming to terms with.’

The series was deliberately provocative and did not follow the script of how gay men are ‘meant’ to behave, rather it attempted to reflect real attitudes and situations in an unvarnished way to provoke a response and it was highly successful in doing so.2

It was a clear example of the relationship between cultural production, health promotion and community engagement.


It is a common characteristic of all enduring cultural production that it acts as a provocation within a given set of cultural circumstances.

It also draws on existing cultural production and memory for its own particular purpose.

The Grim Reaper campaign drew on hundreds of years of fear and terror of the faceless spectre of death, to capitalise on the fear and terror of a disease that few people understood and which was associated with a sexuality considered to be at the margins of society.

ACT UP! New York employed the pink triangle used by the Nazis to denote gay prisoners in the extermination camps together with the aphorism, ‘Silence=Death’ to suggest that we were facing a new holocaust not just from a retrovirus, but a society that was indifferent to our survival.

There is a very specific reason why examples like these have cultural traction. It is the dynamic relationship between culture and production that sits at the centre of any health promotion that lasts, or has lasting value.

This has always been the case, even though, as we have seen in the case of the Grim Reaper, its lasting resonance is problematic.

Art and health have been interwoven throughout history. From as far back as we have evidence of cultural production, we see that human beings have used the arts as a way of mediating disease.

To name but a few examples, from Egyptian Stelae, with carved stones that warned against snake and scorpion bites in 400 BC – to the various examples of songs, psalms, poems and books that dealt with disease and plagues in medieval Europe, to the literature and drama of Ibsen, Puccini, Thomas Mann, Tony Kushner and Larry Kramer and the art of Hogarth, Munch, Keith Haring and David McDiarmid – the relationship between disease and cultural production has been strong.

It braids art and health promotion to the same purpose: to articulate meaning out of catastrophe – to bring order and understanding to chaos, to warn and educate and ultimately, as a way to transcend suffering.


1 Tulloch, J., Lupton, D. (1997). Australian AIDS Advertisers. Television, AIDS and Risk. A Cultural Studies Approach to Health Communication. Allen and Unwin, Sydney. 47.

2 Pedrana, A., Hellard, M., Gold, J., Ata, N., Chang, S., Howard, S., et al. (2013). Queer as F**k: Reaching and Engaging Gay Men in Sexual Health Promotion through Social Networking Sites. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 15(2), e25.

Colin Batrouney is Director, Health Promotion, Policy and Communications at the Victorian AIDS Council.