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Last Updated: Friday, 7 November, 2003, 12:18 GMT
Why a red ribbon means Aids
By Nigel Wrench, Radio 4's From This Moment On

If there is a cause there will probably be a lapel ribbon for it.

Pink for breast cancer. Red, white, and blue to support America. Green for Irish Republicans. Blue for online freedom of speech.

A "Ribbon Bee" in 1991: Jimmy Morrow and Allan Frame (R)
But it all started with the ribbon for Aids awareness.

Patrick O'Connell has a red ribbon on every single item of clothing. He also has Aids.

He said: "I'm not dying from Aids, I'm living with Aids.

"Not just through my own efforts but because we insisted on attention being paid.

"I have all these friends that got sick so soon and my living serves to respect them."

He sits on a couch in his apartment in uptown New York, an artist gaunt with illness, but nevertheless vibrant with life.

In 1991, he was the founding director of Visual Aids, a group of artists desperate to use their craft to fight the HIV virus that was killing so many of their friends.

Next to him on the couch, Allan Frame, a photographer, who was among the 15 or so members of Visual Aids who met at a borrowed gallery space to try to come up with something, anything that would make people think about Aids.

Faced by death

He said: "We had no choice. We had to do something with our professional lives.

"The East Village art scene felt like it was disappearing overnight because of AIDS. All our colleagues around the country were dying."

These were gay artists determined, in the face of public indifference and fear, to make Aids unmissable.

The fact that it was so widely imitated was amazing. We couldn't believe it
Allan Frame
"We thought of using ribbon," says Allan, "because we'd had just gone through the Gulf War and observed that Americans in small towns were willing to visibly express their support for soldiers by putting up yellow ribbon.

"But then was question of what colour ribbon and what to do with it?"

They decided on red.

"It was a process of elimination of other colours that had symbolic associations. But also because it's also vibrant and attention-getting." It's the colour of blood, I remind him.

"Yes and that too." Patrick adds: "And the colour of passion."

Art support

They dismissed a bow. A follow-up meeting decided on the design that was to become an iconic symbol.

Patrick had contacts on Broadway, the Tony Awards were around the corner.

New York City: 1991
All the people who died so young, these talented people. Now I know only one person alive from my 20s.
Patrick O'Connell
They made 3,000 red ribbons and delivered them to the theatre where the Tonys were being presented.

On national television Jeremy Irons stepped out, a red ribbon prominent on his lapel.

"We were amazed," says Allan, "because we knew we had a good project but how were we going to get anyone to wear it?

"At the Tonys they were all wearing it. The fact that it was so widely imitated was amazing. We couldn't believe it."

The red ribbon quickly became a beautiful symbol of an ugly illness: There were ruby ribbons for celebrities, ribbons on t-shirts, alarm clocks and even on trainers.

But Visual Aids has made no money from either the red ribbon or ribbons of any other colour.

Patrick says, "The thing about the project is that it was self-replicating. It's very easy to loop ribbon.

"We didn't create this as a fundraising tool and we made a conscious decision not to trademark the idea."

Idea hijacked

Allan says, "We never imagined it would take off in this way. We didn't think of these issues."

Patrick thinks a moment and says, "What is really odd is that I now look at news reports and these evil politicians are wearing red white and blue ribbons. And I have no idea where this all came from."

The fifteen artists who created the ribbon didn't work together again.

"We came together for a moment," says Allan, "the ribbon project was the last time. It's really wonderful one could participate in the defining post-modern art work."

Patrick reflects a moment. "It is hard to be prideful of something that was generated by such frustration and sorrow.

"I would give anything, I would give back all this attention if I hadn't lived through these decades of Aids.

"All the people who died so young, these talented people. Now I know only one person alive from my 20s."

From This Moment On: Wear This to Show You Care was broadcast on Radio 4 on Saturday, 8 November, 2003.

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