On World AIDS Day Red Hot founder John Carlin talks about reimagining David Wojnarowicz and Jenny Holzer's iconic T-shirts for a new age and audience
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 point, altruism was executed in the grand gesture; often via huge stadium concerts beamed across the world, or telethons where concerned citizens pledged money to deserving causes.
John Carlin, a self-confessed introvert who thought the charity benefit gig was a well-meaning but somewhat boring exercise, really didn’t like going on protest marches - or even by his own admission ‘hanging out with people’. But he had a huge interest in multi-media and the emerging digital culture which he placed at the heart of his new nonprofit organization Red Hot.
Significantly, he was also friends with cutting edge artists of the day such as David Wojnarowicz and Keith Haring, and this was to prove decisive in his mission of raising awareness and knowledge of AIDS - a disease that had cut a scythe through New York’s artistic community, and with it the men and women he had counted as close friends.
“When Keith and David started to get ill it really sensitised me,” he says on Skype to Phaidon from his New York home. As it went on, many people were getting upset and were wondering what they could do about it. I found something that was seeded to my personality and skill base: I was an activist and an introvert. I didn’t like going to meetings but I really liked making things.”
What Carlin made, together with his Red Hot 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 channelled his pleasure and passion into an era-defining brand that changed mainstream attitudes towards sexuality.
Today Red Hot + Blue is perhaps best remembered for its 20 landmark albums featuring the likes of U2, David Byrne Neneh Cherry, Nirvana, The National, David Bowie and Annie Lennox, and introducing what was rather quaintly called world music to the high street, way before iTunes or Spotify opened up musical culture to a mass audience.
But one of the most often overlooked elements of Red Hot + Blue was its fashion component, which boasted soon to be iconic T-shirt lines by Jean Paul Gaultier and Rifat Ozbek, alongside those by visual artists of the time.
“The TV shows had a lot of what we called ‘art breaks’ where we did these 30 second message-oriented pieces with Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, David Wojnarowicz, and so we did a whole T-shirt line around that,” Carlin says.
It's that apparel line, and specifically the work of David Wojnarowicz and Jenny Holzer in particular, that Carlin revisits this month, with two strictly limited edition T-shirts and a tote bag in partnership with the New York City AIDS Memorial to mark the 30th anniversary of the first Red Hot + Blue album.
Available in a very limited edition of just 500, Jenny Holzer’s T-shirt features her original legend: ‘In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy’, which seems strangely pertinent-to-our-present-moment. David Wojnarowicz’s much sought after design for Red Hot (which has gone for big money on eBay in the intervening years) is available once again, along with a tote bag featuring the design and the powerful text featured on the back of the T-shirt. Both are available now.
100% of the proceeds from the sales of these items will go to support the ongoing maintenance and cultural and educational programs at the New York City AIDS Memorial.
It’s incredible now to think that at the time when Wojnarowicz submitted his design, few had heard of the Polish American artist.
“David was a great friend of mine and he was just a great inspiring human being,” says Carlin. “At the time of the original T-shirt I was stubbornly going around saying things like I think David Wojnarowicz is the greatest artist of my generation and we’re making a David Wojnarowicz T-shirt! At the time I didn’t care if nobody wanted it or even knew who he was! And now of course he’s a very well-known blue chip LGBTQ icon. So it’s actually the T-shirt EVERYONE wants. It’s nice how that happens.
“I remember when David picked the image, and designed the T-shirt. He picked the text on the back too, so in reproducing it we have tried to be as faithful as possible to his original design. Obviously he didn’t design a tote bag but we have continued his design from the back of his T-shirt onto the bag.
“David picked that image personally. He really wanted to be part of the project. I think all of us then in the East Village had this post-pop sensibility. The prior generation of artists had been a little weary of mass culture but we were like: ‘give us more!”
Alongside the T-shirts and tote Carlin is issuing six mixes of Neneh Cherry’s cover I’ve Got You Under My Skin to streaming platforms, along with the re-release of the albums. The Cherry song is a poignant reminder of a time when it was radical to say the word AIDS in a song. Carlin is all too aware that we didn’t only lose the talents that had already blossomed when AIDS struck, but also those yet to bloom.
“I thought a lot about that and I really feel that my generation over a quarter century suffered as a whole - not just from the loss of well-known creative people. Because not everybody gets famous when they’re in their late twenties, particularly artists; I mean, look at David Hockney, he’s still going strong.
“So then, when I got into the digital field, I always felt that I was carrying something forward, because I always felt that people like David Wojnarowicz and Keith Haring would have been leaders in that field.
“I remember talking Keith Haring into doing his first commercial T-shirt - way before the Pop Shop - for a show I curated at the Whitney. I remember teaching Keith how to do animation. In fact I still have the drawing in my house. I was just hanging out with him, smoking dope, and said, ‘you know, those barking dogs and those babies, they should be moving.’ 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 that the dog could bark!’ And he just started drawing test sheets for it. So yeah, of course he would have gotten into multimedia.
“And David Wojnarowicz did a lot of photo-montage. 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 people like David Wojnarowicz were living in the future. They were seeing the world that hadn’t been born yet, the digital world, the discombobulated, collage-driven world where references don’t work anymore, everything is multi-layered there is not synthesis. What I used to curate and write about in that era was really focused on the prior generation of pop artists very politely trying to synthesise everything and make it make sense. I think that was David’s and Basquiat’s genius of understanding."
And what 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, was incredibly difficult to do. So half of it is PTSD from how painful the projects were; but also how painful that era was. It’s painful and I feel the loss of all my friends and the people I looked up to. But at the same time I feel incredibly proud that I did something about it at the right moment.
“The other side of why I was motivated to do this anniversary was we’re in the middle of another pandemic and I started to really think that wearing masks today is very similar to what wearing condoms was in the late Eighties and early Nineties. When I talk to young people about this they’re shocked when I tell them that before HIV condoms were for birth control.
“Nobody likes wearing masks, nobody liked wearing condoms, but at a certain point it tipped and it was not just about protecting yourself but having to protect your community. And it’s still a struggle. I felt that was an interesting parallel and I felt that a lot of young activists today could learn a lot from AIDS activism.”
Remember 100% of the proceeds from the sales of these items will go to support the ongoing maintenance and cultural and educational programs at the New York City AIDS Memorial.
The fight against AIDS is an ongoing fight. 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 donating to the New York City AIDS Memorial HERE.