Awareness

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
By the late 1980s, AIDS had been in the US for almost a decade. If you look through time-lines from this period, you see the records of 100 people dead; 1000 people dead; a million people dead. AIDS becomes the number one killer of young men in New York City, then of young men in the country, then of young men and women in the country.

Audrey Quinn:
But what you don’t see much of in the late ‘80s is public acknowledgement of AIDS.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Audrey Quinn.

Audrey Quinn:
Millions of people were dying of this mysterious new disease, but there was so much stigma against talking about it.

Patrick O’Connell:
You kind of felt like you were living in a war zone, and there was no reporting. It was a bizarro world.

Audrey Quinn:
That’s Patrick O’Connell. He was really involved with the Manhattan art scene in the late eighties. A community where it could be hard to think about anything but the AIDS crisis.

Patrick O’Connell:
We would spend days going to Saint Vincent’s to visit someone, going to Redden’s for a funeral, and then getting on your answering machine, a message of somebody flipping out because they’ve just been told that they are going to be sick or are sick.

Roman Mars:
So, Patrick and a group of other artists turned their focus to AIDS.

Audrey Quinn:
Why were you making art in response to AIDS?

Patrick O’Connell:
Actually, I don’t understand that question. How could you not be?

Roman Mars:
In 1988, O’Connell and his collaborators began calling their collective, Visual AIDS.

Audrey Quinn:
They held public events to help raise AIDS awareness. There were slide shows, gallery shows, but of all the work they did, the thing that had the biggest effect was a simple little symbol that, at the time, was a novel concept: the AIDS awareness ribbon.

Audrey Quinn:
It all started one night in the spring of 1991. The Visual AIDS artist caucus held a meeting in search for a symbol.

Marc Happel:
They wanted something that could be created that could be put out there for people to wear.

Audrey Quinn:
That’s Marc Happel. He’s a costume designer and was at that meeting. He’s now director of costumes for the New York City ballet. Back then, he and his friends had been doing a lot of driving around upstate New York. This was at the time of the Persian Gulf War.

Marc Happel:
We started to see, of course at the time, yellow ribbons that were tied around trees, which is in reference to that song for servicemen.

Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree:
“Tie that yellow ribbon ’round the old oak tree. It’s been three long years, do you still want me? If I don’t see a ribbon… ”

Marc Happel:
We were like, “Why couldn’t we do something like that for AIDS”? And we talked about would it really be around a tree and that just seemed a little, I don’t know, not right. Then it became, maybe not around a tree, but maybe folded with a pin on your lapel.

Audrey Quinn:
Then, it was time to pick a color.

Marc Happel:
In the meeting, it also came about that, yes, it should be red, because it represents blood. It was just so obviously right.

Roman Mars:
A local ribbon supplier donated spools of half-inch wide, red, grosgrain ribbon.

Audrey Quinn:
Grosgrain is that ribbed ribbon you might of worn around your ponytail growing up.

Marc Happel:
And we started, in these meetings, folding them, and doing different things with them. First, it just started out just like folding it in half. But then it came to actually folding it in that way we now know it so well, with a safety pin.

Roman Mars:
The looped, inverted V-shape.

Patrick O’Connell:
We were on the streets of the city within ten weeks or something with them.

Audrey Quinn:
Patrick O’Connell again. By this time, he was Director of Visual AIDS. By this point, red ribbons were essentially an art project. The Visual AIDS artist’s caucus members held what they called, ‘ribbon bees’ – think like a quilting bee, a bunch of people gathered to work. They hand-cut, fold, and pinned thousands of ribbons, all just to hand out for free.

Patrick O’Connell:
And in May, I had this very foolish idea that we should be on the Tony Awards. Which left us approximately two weeks to achieve this; convince everybody that this was not going to be disrupted, but rather something they should embrace.

Roman Mars:
A number of Visual AIDS members had Broadway connections. They haggled with the organizers of the Tony Awards and coaxed celebrity dressers into pinning the ribbons on their clients before the ceremony.

Audrey Quinn:
And they got to work making new ribbons.

Patrick O’Connell:
Marc Happel’s studio was mad. It was fabulous. We were distributing more typically sized ribbons, but we thought, ‘We are going to ruin everybody’s dress and dinner jacket, so let’s make them big and specific for the presenter’s, so the camera could really capture them.

Roman Mars:
The night of the show came, June 7th, 1991.

Marc Happel:
That night we all went home and everybody was crossing their fingers because we didn’t know.

Audrey Quinn:
They didn’t know if anyone would actually wear the ribbons.

Marc Happel:
We handed all this stuff out, and all these wardrobe supervisors and all these dressers I knew, they said, “Sure, we’ll see what we can do. We can’t promise much, but we’ll try”.

Whoopi Goldberg:
“Tonight, live from the Minskoff Theater on Broadway, the 1991 Tony Awards, hosted by this year’s Academy Award winner, a former Tony Award winner, Mr. Jeremy Irons.”

Marc Happel:
When Jeremy Irons walked out with a red ribbon on his lapel-

Patrick O’Connell:
The fact that he walked out wearing it was the most brilliant thing.

Marc Happel:
I’m emotional now, because it was like, “Wow, it worked”.

Audrey Quinn:
I found the full show on YouTube. Jeremy Irons is so handsome. The slicked-back hair, and a big red ribbon on the left lapel of his black tux. The first winner of the night is this little girl, Daisy Eagan, the star of ‘The Secret Garden’.

Daisy Eagan:
“I don’t think I can talk.”

Audrey Quinn:
She’s got this poofy-sleeved black and white dress on, and a little red ribbon on her chest.

Daisy Eagan:
“Thank you.”

Audrey Quinn:
Then, there’s Kevin Spacey.

Whoopi Goldberg:
“Kevin Spacey, Lost in Yonkers.”

Audrey Quinn:
He goes up to accept his award with a more medium-sized red ribbon.

Kevin Spacey:
“Thank you very much.”

Audrey Quinn:
Next, you see Penn & Teller wearing big red ribbons. By the end of the show, I was paying more attention to the presenters not wearing ribbons, totally judging them for missing the memo.

Roman Mars:
What you also notice watching the Tony’s, is how new the awareness ribbon was. Everyone was wearing them in different ways. Some were looped, some were folded in sharp angles. Some of the ribbons have their ends spread wide, like wings.

Audrey Quinn:
But here’s the crucial thing. No one explained the ribbons on air. Rumor has it, the network threatened to go to commercial break if they did. Turns out this degree of mystery provided some incredibly good press.

Marc Happel:
The one thing that was kind of exciting is, the next day there was a little blurb in the newspaper that was, “what was that red ribbon”, and “it was everywhere at the Tony Awards”.

Patrick O’Connell:
There was two days of the print media wondering what this red ribbon was.

Marc Happel:
So, that really, I think for us and for the red ribbon itself, it was just the point where it just exploded.

Audrey Quinn:
Within days, the ribbon was stopping traffic.

Patrick O’Connell:
We ran into this, seemingly very successful businessman and his wife on the streets, and he saw us wearing our red ribbon, and he was like, “I saw that on the Tony’s”, and he is like, “That’s about AIDS isn’t it, isn’t it? That’s about AIDS”, because no one actually said it. And I said, “Well, yes”. And, he’s like, “How did you get one?”. I said, “Actually, we made them. It’s our project.” And, he peeled off a hundred dollar bill, and gave it to us.

Marc Happel:
When they found out what it was for, I think a lot of people really got on board and just were like, “I need to start wearing a red ribbon.”. And, it really pushed it over into being almost a much bigger symbol than it ever had been. And I think that we never really thought it might be so quickly.

Roman Mars:
The next stop for the ribbon was the Emmy’s. Then the Oscar’s, and the Grammy Awards, and the members of Visual AIDS continued to gather to make them. Cut, fold, and pin.

Patrick O’Connell:
We would be watching on TV, famous people wear our ribbons, while we sat in the loft making ribbons together. Very meta, as they now say. In those days, we would of said it would of been very PoMo.

Audrey Quinn:
School groups and church groups started contacting Visual AIDS artists, asking how they could start their own ribbon project.

Patrick O’Connell:
And, it just becomes this phenomenon, which we were surprised by.

Audrey Quinn:
When did it start to feel like the ribbon was out of your hands like it was no longer a Visual AIDS thing?

Patrick O’Connell:
Probably, by the end of ’92, in terms of the introduction of the Bejeweled, leather-backed, crystal pavè red ribbon, etc.

Roman Mars:
There were red-ribbon diamond necklaces, red-ribbon Christmas ornaments. red-ribbon t-shirts.

Marc Happel:
There were some of us that thought the Visual AIDs should trademark so that anytime it’s used, the money had to come back to Visual AIDS.

Patrick O’Connell:
One of the reasons we didn’t was that it would not have been embraced so willingly and so universally if we had. If everyone had to come and say, “May I have permission to do this?”, it would have been in contrast to the spirit of the artwork.

Patrick O’Connell:
So, do I wish Visual AIDS had a nickel for every ribbon peddled in the world or ribbon object? Yes. That’s after the fact.

Roman Mars:
The ribbons creators felt a backlash from other AIDS activists. At first, just wearing the ribbon felt like a radical act, publicly acknowledging that AIDS existed, that people were suffering, that you cared. But, as the ribbon became more ubiquitous, some activists called wearing it an easy out. A way to look like you cared about people with AIDS without actually doing anything to help people with AIDS. Basically, the same criticisms that met the Live Strong bracelet and the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Audrey Quinn:
But, Marc Happel says that’s okay.

Marc Happel:
What we wanted to do was create something that a mother in Michigan could wear on the lapel of her blouse, and maybe her son was living in New York and living with AIDS and she wanted to do something.

Marc Happel:
I think it was just, it was also a symbol that we created that somebody could wear and somebody might go up to them and say, “What is that? Why are you wearing that red ribbon?” and hopefully that person would say, “Here’s why”.

Audrey Quinn:
The ribbon was doing its job. People were talking about AIDS. The New York Times declared 1992 the year of the ribbon. President Clinton set up the White House Office of National AIDS policy. The National Institute of Health expanded its AIDS research, and the government funded the National HIV Epidemiology Study.

Marc Happel:
Over time, the awareness ribbon has gotten so much attention for AIDS that more than 200 other causes, by our last count, now use a looped awareness ribbon as their symbol.

Patrick O’Connell:
Well, it’s interesting that almost 25 years later it’s everywhere now, in everybody’s face in different colors.

Audrey Quinn:
There’s the pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness. An indigo ribbon for bullying awareness. A teal ribbon for anxiety disorder awareness.

Roman Mars:
Actually, the teal ribbon is also used for ovarian cancer awareness, Tourette’s syndrome awareness, tsunami victim awareness. There are more causes that want ribbons than there are colors of ribbon, and the ribbons ubiquity eventually reached the point of parody. When the band Death Cab for Cutie wore light blue ribbons at the Grammy’s in 2009, people wondered was it about second-hand smoke awareness or adrenocortical carcinoma awareness. It turns out, Death Cab for Cutie had started their own cause, auto-tune abuse awareness.

Patrick O’Connell:
On 7th Avenue, you’d call that a knock-off. Elsewhere you’d call it a rip-off.

Marc Happel:
I think it’s great that people took that simple little ribbon with a pin and made it their own and used it for whatever cause they were fighting. I’m totally fine with that and I think it’s there for people to use in whatever way they want to and however, they want to get a message out.

Michelle Millar Fisher:
I think the thing that really captures my imagination when I look at it is that it’s such a perfect form. It’s beautiful and economic in terms of its design. And, that is the best kind of design.

Audrey Quinn:
That’s Michelle Millar Fisher. She’s curatorial assistant at the architecture and design department at the Museum of Modern Art, the MoMA. In this last month, she helped make the red AIDS ribbon an official part of the museum’s collection. She remembers first seeing the ribbon as a kid in England in the 90’s.

Michelle Millar Fisher:
The very first time I saw it, I realized that advocacy and passion, even understanding it as a very young child, could be endued in a very simple design.

Roman Mars:
The MoMA has in it’s collection one of the hand-cut Visual AIDS ribbons pinned to an original ribbon project hand-out explaining it’s meaning.

Michelle Millar Fisher:
I love the fact that I can see where someone has cut this, and so, I wonder whether this was someone’s 50th ribbon of the day or 100th ribbon of the day.

Roman Mars:
The MoMA plans to have the ribbon out on display in the next year.

Marc Happel:
I will always think it’s relevant-

Audrey Quinn:
Marc Happel, again.

Marc Happel:
Because AIDS is still with us. It’s still out there and we still have to be aware of it and we still have to raise money, and we still have to fight it, and we still have to care for people, and so on and so forth.

Roman Mars:
Now AIDS isn’t the killer that it used to be, at least in the US, but that doesn’t mean the disease is gone. The number of people living with HIV in the United States is now higher than ever before.

Audrey Quinn:
Patrick O’Connell also says he’ll keep wearing his AIDS awareness ribbons. Back in his apartment, he showed me the ribbons in his wardrobe.

Patrick O’Connell:
“Sure, they’re on stuff still.”

Audrey Quinn:
“There must be 30 ribbons there.”

Patrick O’Connell:
“Yeah, they’re probably 100 in there somewhere.”

Audrey Quinn:
He doesn’t even take them off when he washes his shirts. He just keeps them pinned on.

Audrey Quinn:
“Is there anything I haven’t asked you about the ribbon you’d want me to ask?”

Patrick O’Connell:
“Well, you didn’t ask if we had fun. (laughs) And, we did. Bizarrely, we had fun. I’m telling you, fun.”

  1. roman

    Lesley, please email me at sam[at]99pi.org and we’ll figure out what’s going on. Best, Sam

  2. This episode missed out on an important historical fact: the red ribbon was worn as an anti-apartheid symbol in the mid-80’s–the AIDS activists you interviewed didn’t invent it, at least not alone. The anti-apartheid version had a slightly different shape–folded at the top rather than looped–and didn’t become as widespread, but it was well-known on college campuses in the mid-80’s. I was a student at the time, and I remember being confused when the meaning of the ribbon suddenly changed. I think you could have had a more interesting program if you had explored this.

    There’s not much about the anti-apartheid ribbon online, as it predated the internet, and the later version is so much better known, but here are a couple references:

    Memories of the anti-apartheid red ribbon at UC Berkeley:
    https://www.facebook.com/events/432429440236958/
    A 1985 article–“At the Santa Barbara campus, some 50 students tied a red ribbon around the school’s Administration Building in an apartheid protest.” http://articles.latimes.com/1985-04-24/news/mn-7184_1_south-africa/2

  3. Ark

    Hi! I was listening to this episode yesterday. It stopped halfway, I refreshed, and now I can’t hear any episode :(

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