On Thursday night, the grand arched courtyard of the University of Melbourne’s Old Quad building will be awash with the blood of gay, bisexual and transgender men. Far from a terrible atrocity, Blood Equality–Illuminations - by New York artist Jordan Eagles - is an inspirational projection artwork that shines a light on the campaign for, “science, not stigma,” when it comes to donating blood.
A highlight of Nite Art, an evening-long, multi-disciplinary happening that is taking over the city centre and showcasing 60 artists, Illuminations will see the university façade aglow with the projected blood samples of 59 gay, bisexual and transgender men. Visitors are encouraged to bathe themselves in the blood red glow and take selfies.
“We’re asking people to participate in the work by standing on front of the blood light as a gesture that they, themselves, would be willing to accept the blood of these men if they needed a transfusion,” Eagles says, speaking passionately from Fire Island, New York.
Currently in Australia, as well as the US, gay, bisexual and transgender men can only give blood if they have been celibate for 12 months. The assumption is that these men are at higher risk of being HIV-positive—in 2015, 68% of all new HIV diagnoses in Australia were men who have sex with men. This risk calculation stands despite extensive testing of all donations and regardless of sexual behaviour. A gay man in a long-term monogamous relationship - even one who uses condoms - cannot donate blood, while a heterosexual man who may have unprotected sex can.
“It’s something that has angered me from the fist time I tried to donate blood and was turned away because I was gay,” Eagles says. “I asked myself the question, ‘is there a way to help realise awareness, to generate more of a conversation about this issue?’”
His response has been two decades working with blood as his medium, in sculptures and other installation works. “It’s always been from the point of view of looking at blood as something that is about life, versus the more morbid associations we often have.”
At first Eagles would source blood from slaughterhouses, but journalists often asked if he would consider using his own. The idea never appealed, though not for squeamish reasons. “It always felt to me a bit about ego, sort of seeing yourself outside of your body, and there’s something about that that just didn’t resonate.”
Eagles reconsidered, but with a different approach in 2014’s sculptural work Blood Mirror, recruiting nine gay, bisexual and transgender men to donate blood, which he then preserved in resin and layered, creating a crimson mirror through which light filters brilliantly. Two years later he added extra layers, with a test tube’s worth of donated blood from 50 men on HIV preventative medication PrEP. Giving 50ml each, adding up to one blood bag between them, donors included a 90-year-old gay priest and a twin brother whose straight sibling can donate. Dr Lawrence Mass, co-founder of celebrated New York activist, health and support group Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), at the forefront of the HIV response in the US, also rolled up his sleeve, as did current GMHC CEO Kelsey Louie. Participating in creating art, they are each activists pushing for policy change too.
“The men all have such unique life perspectives on the issue that also makes it an interesting time capsule, in a way,” Eagles notes. “The idea of merging the blood of many people together became about community and that was very interesting to me. It felt like being able to use that blood, to look at an object and know that the contents could be used for life-saving purposes, but because of a ridiculous policy it goes to waste.”
His work has snowballed, growing into the Blood Equality campaign pushing for change all over the world. Illuminations, which enjoyed a stint on New York’s elevated park The High Line and exhibitions across North America, will shine in the Victorian capital during Nite Art in collaboration with Melbourne University and Science Gallery Melbourne, and on the same day in a longer exhibition at the London Science Gallery in Britain.
Eagles insist it is people power than will defeat stigma. “We’re becoming more of a global society, with the ability to connect so much easier, and we need to start treating each other with respect, across all countries, regardless of our sexual identities, our gender or our religious beliefs.”