Confronting HIV: A story about our co-founder’s first artwork

Human Hotel Co-founders Sixten and Martin, Cape Town, 2004

Khayelitsha Township, South Africa, 2004
Images: Wooloo / Human Hotel

I can not say it enough. Traveling with a purpose is the best. Volunteering, working, studying or site specific projects. 

Immersing into culture by participating is just so much more enriching than being a tourist. 

That’s essentially why we decided to build Human Hotel. 

– Sixten, Human Hotel Co-founder

Thank You

World AIDS Day
New York City, USA & Khayelitsha Township, South Africa

Thank You involved the web-based work of five contemporary artists and took place in New York City, USA and Khayelitsha, South Africa.

The project opened on World AIDS Day (December 1st) and ran until December 11th 2004.


Via interactions with web-based artworks, viewers released donations paid for by sponsors. Each interaction released:

• 1 South African Rand (approx. US$ 0.15) donated towards the cost of setting up an HIV Education Center with computers and Internet connection in the township of Khayelitsha outside Cape Town, South Africa.

• 1 drink of South African wine donated to New York viewers at Artists Space, Soho, New York.

Online tracking technology followed the interaction process and a counter on the screen will display how many interactions – worldwide – have been made at any given time.

Furthermore, two monitors connected to web cams in New York and Khayelitsha made it possible for the viewers in both locations to see each other at all times.


Sixten with project colleagues Berni and Bolilani. Cape Town, 2004

Opening party at Artists Space. New York City, 2004


Thank You confronted its audience with the relationship of exchange between the West and Africa. Dealing specifically with issues of exploitation and disease, the project utilized possibilities afforded by online technology to illustrate the absurdity of today’s co-existing economic realities.

Thank You supports the work of the South African HIV activist organization the Treatment Action Campaign in Khayelitsha by donation of the HIV Education Center. An estimated 25 per cent of adults in Khayelitsha are HIV positive.

In sharp contrast to Khayelitsha, Artists Space is a prominent non-profit art institution located in SoHo, Manhattan (38 Greene St., 3rd Floor). The gallery space will be set up as a minimalist bar for the duration of the project and donated South African wine was served from 11-6 pm, Tuesday through Saturday. Admission was free.

Through its dual donation context, Thank You aims to critically examine the traditional structure of charitable campaigns and challenge the complacency of the donor.

Human Hotel Co-founders Sixten and Martin, Cape Town, 2004

The Giver, the Gift, the Given

by Rune Gade

‘Thank you’ is the exclamation that accompanies the receipt of a gift. Or that follows the banal everyday gesture of generosity such as passing the salt at the dinner table, slowing down your car to let a pedestrian cross the road. Or saving a life. ‘Thank you’. The two words performatively express the appreciation of an act of generosity. Saying it is doing it; the words do what they say. They carry a gesture within them. Etymologically ‘thank’ is related to ‘think’; the word expresses goodwill, kind remembrance. To ‘thank you’ is to keep you in mind, remember you for doing me good, remember your generosity. Remember it in order to return it later. ‘Thank you’ is the acknowledgement of a debt, which is, however, redeemed by its very exclamation. I thank you; I keep you in mind; I carry you with me, inside me, in order to one day, perhaps, return your gesture to someone else, a third person, thus creating a circuit of never-ending goodwill. It goes on.

What exactly constitutes the simple gesture of giving and receiving? Exchange. Barter. Transitivity. Transference. Bonding. In fact the gesture of giving and receiving is not in the least simple. Rather, it expresses a complex psychological and social situation in which a fundamental human welding takes place. The gift establishes a certain reciprocity. People are tied to each other through acts of giving and receiving. Things are passed on, they change hands, leaving behind traces of invisible glue, tying people together. The gift is perhaps the oldest social glue known, making people depend/dependent on each other, thus creating social structures and even societies. Economic and symbolic values are transferred between individuals, or between humans and gods, through the medium of the gift. The transferences leave behind trails that might be invisible but nonetheless are strong, almost unbreakable. To give and to receive is what make us what we are, bind us together and tear us apart.

The most elemental forms of giving and receiving are sexual. The mixing of fluids that flow freely from one to the other. Sex is elemental in the sense that it gives rise to blood relationships, which is, according to Claude Lévi-Strauss, the universal structuring principle of societies. Brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, cousins, aunts and uncles. Patriarchal societies are organized around these basic blood relations. Blood is what binds individuals together within families. Blood is what effectuates the incest taboo that keeps individuals within families sexually apart. The daughter is the gift that the father exchanges in order to later receive a similar gift for his own son. Equivalence and reciprocity are the basic rules governing this social logic, rather than economic value. Something is flowing from one place to another, connecting one person to another, and thus creating lasting bonds. Blood and semen, it seems, are the vagabonds of our bodies, unceasingly finding new roads on which to go astray, always connecting people.

Sex too is elemental in the sense that we are driven to it. Not by instincts, which is what characterizes animal behaviour, but by drives, which take various forms. The plasticity of human sexuality is the proof of this. What drives us towards sex is not reproduction, although of course this can sometimes be a highly motivating factor, but enjoyment, jouissance. The ecstatic shattering of the self, its very destruction, is as much a part of it as is the romantic idea of ‘creation of life’. There is nothing simple about sex; it is in every respect complicated. It involves harm as much as hope, pain as much as pleasure, evil as much as good. Nothing simple about sex. But for all its complexity it is still elemental in the sense that we cannot escape it. Even if we turn our backs on it, we cannot escape it. Asceticism and denial only makes its presence more felt. It is inescapable and therefore elemental. It brings us to life, it brings us together, it shatters us and tears us apart. We cannot escape it, but we can shape it, refine it in new ways, new directions, cultivate it further. We can speak it.

Art is like sex. Elemental and superfluous. Banal and divine. Dreary and dreamy. In its essence it belongs to no one, although the concepts of ownership and provenance seem to be the destiny of art in modernity, just as sex in the same era has been moulded by the serial monogamy of heteronormativity. Like all things ephemeral, however, art cannot be owned. It can only be experienced, and sometimes not even that. It cannot be possessed; rather we are, as the philosopher Georges Bataille once wrote, possessed by it. Mostly we overlook it, miss it by an inch, watch it slip out of sight at the very moment we catch a glimpse of it. Art is what escapes us when we try too hard to catch it and hold on to it. It is not to be owned but to be passed on, to be generously squandered, given away. Only when passed on does it come to life and exist. As French art historian Paul Ardenne has remarked, what contemporary artists know better than anyone is “that all experience is a passing action”. As such it is comparable to “making love, sharing a meal with friends, meeting someone”.

Art holds the potential of binding us together. Connecting us. Experiencing it ties us together. Art is a social glue that operates within the real world, making real changes as it enters our minds and our everyday environments. It comes in various shapes and forms, but all its diverse forms share the feature of reaching out to the observer, demanding his or her completion of the work. Only when offered this attention, this completion, does art come to life. In the shape of a dialogue or a conversation art becomes. It is unfolded, so to speak, through a dialogue with someone. Art needs someone to interact with. Only when this interaction occurs does art occur. Art is not a thing, but an experience, an occurrence. A small disruption of the condition of everyday blindness called habit that protects us from falling apart. It makes us see; it makes us sense; it makes us think. It is like a gift waiting to be acknowledged, accepted, unwrapped, unfolded. Art is taking place in between us and within us. It goes on.

The pouring of a glass of wine in a café in the south of France. A man pours wine not into his own glass but into his neighbour’s. The neighbour returns the gesture and pours wine into the glass of his neighbour, the first man. A simple gesture of exchange. Nothing is gained, nothing is lost. Each man ends up with a glass of wine, which he might as well have poured himself. Only the exchange would have been missing. The gesture of pouring the wine thus only makes sense if understood as an act of exchange, of social bonding. In the words of Lévi-Strauss, this situation can be seen as “an infinitely distant projection … of a fundamental situation, that of individuals of primitive bands coming into contact for the first time”. The pouring of a glass of wine, it seems, could be the very constitution of a social bond, the elemental sealing of goodwill. The erasure of fear. The pouring of a glass of wine could be the beginning of a new friendship. The flowing of this liquid could be the symbolic marking of hope, the abolition of harm. The exchange of this liquid could tie us together.

Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, created in South Africa in 1925 by Professor Abraham Izak Perold. The French Cinsault grape was known in South Africa as Hermitage. Evidently, the word Pinotage is a contraction of Pinot Noir and Hermitage. From two distinct grapes, the one elegant and delicate, the other robust and crude, Perold created a third, the delicately crude Pinotage. A grape to match South Africa. The Spier Pinotage 2002 is “dark, ripe plum/cherry in colour. Pronounced spicy aromas, especially clove, are complemented by rich cherry and hints of leather. The sweet, fruity entry leads to a smooth, rich mid-palate with firm acid and a lingering aftertaste”. The grapes from which this wine were made were grown 12 kilometres from the ocean, on east-facing slopes. It should be enjoyed now. Heaven knows we need it. To make us heady, to make us forget. The wine needs to be drunk now, just as we do.

Desire leaves us with a bitter aftertaste when it has been satisfied only to re-emerge wanting more. Satisfaction never satisfies us. Instead it goes on and on. Forever finding new aims and new ways to avoid reaching its goal. It takes us to ever new places, never leaving us in peace. It has always gone on. The wanderings, the pilgrimages. The ships, the carriages. Desire drives us on to new places, turns us into nomads always exploring dark continents of different kinds. Globalization is as old as the hills, it seems. What has changed most significantly is the speed with which interactions between spatially distinct locations take place. Desire travels faster now, collapsing separate spaces into one and the same, creating new spaces, virtual spaces. So much space, so little time. The fact of screens constantly transmitting global realities of now/here has made the longing for elsewhere more urgent than ever. We want to go there.

This is first and foremost the era of global tele-presence, where little escapes the eyes of the cameras that constantly transmit the realities of one location to another. We are in a state of omnivoyance, as Paul Virilio has called it. With everything available in the form of moving images, one could be led to think that the need to travel from one place to the other had diminished. But this is not the case. The tele-presence of any location everywhere has not reduced the desire to travel in person  ̶  on the contrary. In certain parts of the world, prosperity and wealth produce tourism, while in other parts poverty, violence and famine produce migration. Everybody is moving around, some in freedom and comfort, others in constraint and despair. What desires move us most? The stereotypical mass-media images of the culture of omnivoyance produce paranoia and envy, fear and hope. They move us all.

The economic prosperity of USA versus the poverty of Africa. It is difficult to imagine a more striking contrast. Two continents drifted apart, connected only by the very ocean which separates them. Lands of new beginnings built upon ruins of severe destruction, ages of conflict, war and hatred. New beginnings. America. Africa. New York City and Khayelitsha. The first the city of refuge for volunteer fortune seekers. The second the town of forced segregation for black people under apartheid. The contemporary conditions of these two cities of new beginnings are not comparative. Indeed, it is almost obscene to suggest a comparison. What then binds the cities together despite their insurmountable differences? The art, the wine, the virus. You. It is inside you. You carry it with you inside of you. You pass it on. You share it. You spend it. You give it away. Somebody thanks you. It is completed. If exchange makes any difference at all it is this: It goes on.

Art does not create revolutions, although it is revolutionary. It works within us, slowly changing our perceptions. The contemporary artwork, demanding our interaction, our participation, is unlike any modernist artworks. It is, in the words of art historian Nicolas Bourriaud, no longer “a space to be walked through”, but rather “a period of time to be lived through”. It is “an opening to unlimited discussion”.  To experience art is to live through it. To take it in. To be possessed by it. To pass it on. To give it away. To experience art is to take part in it. Not only by interacting with it, but also by questioning it. What does it do? To whom? Why? Only when such an interaction takes place does the art make us see, sense and think. Who is the giver? What is the gift? What is the given? On which premises can reciprocity occur? What, indeed, makes possible the exclamation of ‘thank you’?

A drop of blood. The cherry-coloured juice from a grape. Dark, ripe plum. It goes on.

1 Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Elementary Structures of Kinship, trans. James Bell & John von Sturmer, Boston, 1969 [1949].

2 Georges Bataille: Inner Experience, trans. Leslie Anne Boldt, New York, 1988 [1954], p. 129.

3 Paul Ardenne: ‘Experimenting with the Real: Art and Reality at the End of the Twentieth Century’, trans. Stephen Wright, in: Paul Ardenne, Pascal Breusse & Laurent Goumarre: Contemporary Practices: Art as Experience, Paris, 1999, p. 13.

4 Ibid.

5 Lévi-Strauss, op.cit., p. 60.

7 Paul Virilio: The Visual Crash’, in: Thomas Y. Levin, Ursula Frohne & Peter Weibel (eds.): CTRL Space: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother,  Karlsruhe, 2002, p. 109.

8 In New York City more than 82,000 people (of a total population of 8,000,000) were living with HIV/AIDS by the end of 2002 (; in Khayelitsha  more than 27 percent of the population were reported to have HIV/AIDS in October 2004 (Jo-Anne Smetherham: ‘Alarming Leap in HIV Infections in Teenagers’, Cape Times, 8 October 2004).

9 Nicolas Bourriaud: Relational Aesthetics, trans. Simon Pleasance & Fronza Woods, Paris, 2002 [1998].

Latest Stories