A Day With(out) Art

1 December is World AIDS Day, every year since 1988.

Since 1991, the red ribbon has been used as a universal symbol of both awareness and support for people living with HIV/AIDS. Created by New York-based artist organisation Visual AIDS Artists’ Caucus and initially titled “The Ribbon Project”, the original intentions were threefold:

1) Remain anonymous as individuals and to credit the Visual AIDS Artists Caucus as a whole in the creation of the Red Ribbon Project, and not to list any individual as the creator of the Red Ribbon Project;
2) Keep the image copyright free, so that no individual or organization would profit from the use of the red ribbon;
3) The Red Ribbon should be used as a consciousness raising symbol, not as a commercial or trademark tool.

Red was chosen for its “connection to blood and the idea of passion—not only anger, but love…” and a ribbon was selected because it “was easy to recreate and wear”. The initial instructions were to “cut the red ribbon in 6 inch length, then fold at the top into an inverted ‘V’ shape. Use a safety pin to attach to clothing.”

It quickly caught on, helped by large public displays, particularly at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert held on Easter Sunday the following year. Over 100,000 red ribbons were distributed and performers also wore one.

In 2007, President George W. Bush hung a 28-foot red ribbon from the White House’s North Portico, the first symbol to hang from the building since the 19th century. Now an annual tradition, we shall have to wait and see what the Trump administration’s response is.


Two years before the Red Ribbon Project started, Visual AIDS organised another initiative on what was only the second World AIDS Day: A Day Without Art. They sent out a call for “mourning and action in response to the AIDS crisis”, aiming to celebrate the lives and achievements of artists lost to AIDS; encourage caring for all people with AIDS; educate the public about HIV infection and prevention; help to develop a cure.

Over 800 arts organisations and galleries across the United States participated: they covered or replaced artworks with information about HIV and/or safe sex; dimmed lights or even locked their doors; and produced exhibitions, readings and performances about HIV and AIDS.

In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art removed Picasso’s seminal 1906 portrait of Gertrude Stein for the duration of the weekend; they replaced it with a stark placard about AIDS. The Guggenheim had hoped to drape the whole building with a black cloth, but winds prevented this from happening. The Whitney Museum of American Art, meanwhile, distributed around 8,000 postcards made by art collective Gran Fury, which showed three couples kissing and the words: “Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do”.

Over the following years, Visual AIDS initiated several other projects as part of a Day Without Art – which became Day With(out) Art in 1998 to mark its 10th anniversary and “to highlight the ongoing inclusion of art projects focused on the AIDS pandemic, and to encourage programming of artists living with HIV.”

Projects have included: A Night Without Light (the dimming of the New York skylight); the Electric Blanket (a nationwide outdoor slide projection with text and images); Positive Actions (an exhibition-competition for a television PSA held simultaneously in three NYC venues); the Broadside Project (distribution of copyright-free text and images by well-known artists targeted to specific audiences); and ambitious media collaborations, including the AIDS Timeline by Group Material.


This year sees Manchester’s first ever Day With(out) Art, organised in association with Visual AIDS in New York.

Superbia – who programme the arts and culture for Manchester Pride – have partnered with a variety of arts venues, organisations and artists across Greater Manchester to creatively mark World AIDS Day with a Day With(out) Art.

The programme includes:

HIVideo 2017: a short film work curated by Balaclava.Q, to be presented at Paradise Worksby The Penthouse.

Alternate Endings, Radical Beginnings: seven new and innovative short films focussing on African-American experiences of living with HIV, commissioned by Visual AIDS, New York. The contributors are: Mykki Blanco, Cheryl Dunye & Ellen Spiro, Reina Gossett, Thomas Allen Harris, Kia LaBeija, Tiona Nekkia McClodden and Brontez Purnell.*

Bury Art Museum will be staging a series of artist and curator interventions in their galleries around selected works. Artist-in-residence Jez Dolan will install a temporary piece in tribute to artist Félix González-Torres, who died of AIDS in 1996.

HOME will similarly integrate Day With(out) Art into their venue and current programming using digital media, musical and artefacts; full details to be announced.

*Alternate Endings, Radical Beginnings will also be screening in London at 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning (198 Railton Road, Herne Hill, London, SE24 0JT), 7-10pm; and in Newcastle at Newcastle University (Fine Art Lecture Theatre / KEVII.2.01 Lecture Theatre, Fine Art Building, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, UK), December 1, 1-2pm.