Creating Positive Culture

First published in ‘Talkabout Magazine’ February 1995

What is ‘Positive Culture’, how do PLWHA go about creating it and how do they get that elusive funding? These questions and others are answered by David Paul Jobling, a PLWHA with long experience in battling bureaucracies.

I look back over the last few years of my life and remember some painful moments: good friends passing away from AIDS related illnesses; being accused of political activism and of trying to bring down the government in South Australia. I have moved house to avoid threats from locals, been spat at in public, been used by gay power-brokers as some kind of commodity. I have not seen much material that represents people living with the virus in the community exploring what they are made of on a cultural level; how we fit in.

As a community artist/educator I have conducted several different workshops for positive people in the community. I develop my work in an organic way that represents an essence of the group attending. Often the work is challenging and can be cathartic. Ordinary people, given the opportunity to express themselves as a group through performance, often choose to do so by being confrontational, shocking and comic. People love to satirise what they know to be truthful.

Recent Memory

At an HIV Culture Forum, Darlinghurst, New South Wales: a gaggle of AIDS Educators and guests are assembled to talk about ‘HIV Culture’. A respected HIV Positive visual artist vents his spleen at being called to a forum which used his artwork on their pamphlets without his permission. He is not on the forum panel but a fellow telling us about the National Gallery Exhibition Don’t Leave Me This Way who is on the panel mentions that this justifiably disgruntled artist’s work is part of it. I immediately wonder why the artist isn’t on the panel, rather than the guy who has shared the name and dates of the exhibition with us and not much else.

My mind wanders and suddenly, given my own background, I’m wondering why I’m not on this ‘HIV Culture Forum Panel’ – the guys who are on it don’t seem to be coping with it very well at all. But then, I’m alive, and all too often it seems that one must die from HIV/AIDS before anyone ‘celebrates’ or ‘remembers’ what one has done, how one has contributed. I wish more positive people were involved in generating lasting impressions of our mixed identity through the arts – to develop our cultural identity further.

Generating Funding

Most people may know ACON (AIDS Council of New South Wales) has received Australia Council funding for a writer to produce material about gay men’s health issues in 1995. Good for them, but how many creative HIV positive people are around whom feel disenfranchised by service providers like ACON? How many positive people know where to start when it comes to generating some funding for a project where they get to represent themselves on their own terms? There are hard and fast rules when it comes to getting funding, it is the dog eat dog world of more mouths to feed than food available, so individuals who seek funding for arts related projects need to be making very good quality applications for what funding there is available.

The major players as far as funding goes in the arts are the Australia Council and the Ministry for the Arts. They provide information booklets on request and will send out application forms that need to be neatly and coherently filled in and accompanied by backup material including biographical information about the artists involved, budgets, aims and objectives of the proposed project. Individuals need to have a good accountant or an organisation prepared to administer the funding to the artist if you are successful with your application.

Shire Councils often have Arts Access grant schemes for people living in their community and are often very happy to provide services and backup on arts projects, oral histories and local arts workers forums or workshops. Churches are often happy to provide some in kind support by allowing the use of their Hall for example, to enable a meeting to take place or a forum or workshop. Established theatre companies are approachable for in kind support also. It is never a bad idea to approach local business. As interim Administrator for the Griffin Theatre Company I sold advertising to local business on a regular ‘What’s On?’ printed sheet. One side of the sheet had the adverts and the other had information (about our venue The Stables Theatre). A rather large printing company provided free printing and a paper organisation provided free paper. This generated interest in the venue and raised a couple of hundred dollars per month.

The Message?

The message is, do some ground work and approach whoever you think may be able to offer what you need. It is always best to create a ‘needs list’ before you approach anyone so you can articulate what you require. An organisation or company may not be able to give you money, but they may be very happy to offer some goods or service that saves you money.

Making the first crack in the nut is often the most difficult, but once you have made some progress things seem to come easier. It is a good idea to generate letters of support from people with some kind of public profile, again this means having a clear vision of what you want to do.

The kinds of projects that I believe are useful for people are the ones that create a bridge between the isolated positive person, other positive people and the mainstream community. Culture is everything from a weekend workshop on self expression to a community collage or a graffiti wall.

I’d like to see projects that produce a product and excellent archival material – photographs and written work that explains the project and what it achieved, even if all it achieved was bringing a group of lonely people out on a regular basis to do something they enjoyed. Although it is fantastic that the Don’t Leave Me This Way exhibition is there, it is only a start. If we positive people want to see change in the way we are perceived by the media and the community we need to create our own culture and expand it all the time. Move the boundaries that have allowed us to be called ‘untouchables’ and ‘the living dead’. It is not enough to have a single exhibition in the country’s capital. In my own experience I chose to meet with Editors and Chief-of-staff of some very redneck newspapers and give them the benefit of the doubt. I decided that an agitated screaming queen with HIV was only going to add fuel to their fire, so I presented as a pretty conservative, polite sort of guy who had a few problems with phrases like ‘living on the end of a hangman’s noose’. I’m not ashamed of this choice because it got me results in the circumstances. I know there are plenty of positive people who don’t see this type of tactic as the best one – that’s your own choice. If you are not into doing arts or cultural activities as an organiser, but you do see the value in having such things, then the most productive thing you could do is write to people requesting such things.

Even if you wrote once a month to a theatre company or an art gallery or a council, television or radio station, magazine, newspaper, publisher – requesting more representation, more anecdotal information, more detail, more public education of a cultural focus – a list of movies dealing with the stories of positive people, a stamp commemorating the progress we have made in containing the virus – anything you can think of that will remind the community at large that we exist, we think, we feel and like everyone else we are mortal human beings with dignity, imagination and rights.