John McCullagh talks with AIDS ACTION NOW’s Jessica Whitbread and Alex McClelland about the 2012 posterVIRUS project in which artists and activists collaborated in producing posters to respond to current issues facing people living with HIV.
In honour of The Day With(out) Art, AIDS ACTION NOW! (AAN) last week launched at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) eight new collaborative activist art works as part of the posterVIRUS project. They are being plastered across the streets of Toronto while being simultaneously launched online via AAN’s posterVIRUS Facebook and Tumblir pages.
I had the opportunity at the AGO launch to catch up with posterVIRUS curators Jessica Whitbread and Alex McClelland and to chat with them about the event.
John McCullagh: In honour of The Day With(out) Art, AAN has launched eight new posters as part of the 2012 posterVIRUS project. So what’s The Day With(out) Art?
Alex McClelland: The Day With(out) Art happens every year around World AIDS Day to recognize artists working in HIV. It was begun in the late 1980s by artists and art institutions to acknowledge the impact that HIV and AIDS has had on the artistic community. Later, the bracket on the “out” part of “without” was added to recognize both the loss of individuals and that people are still living with HIV and producing art.
John: And posterVIRUS? What’s that all about?
Jessica Whitbread: posterVIRUS is a project that started within AAN to bring art and activism together to create a collective messaging that’s framed in art. What we try to do is look at issues that are silenced or less talked about within the HIV mainstream discourse, to bring those issues out into the open in order to provoke discussion.
John: In your curatorial statement, you say that you’re making new assertions about HIV and AIDS, that you’re inverting the hierarchy. What do you mean by that?
Alex: Well, as two relatively young people living with HIV, we want to assert a different voice in the HIV world. In the beginning of the epidemic, the HIV response was led by activists. But subsequently, the response has become increasingly institutionalized and driven by academics, experts, doctors, public health agencies. And these are the people who today are driving how we talk about HIV. We wanted to put that discussion back in our hands and make new assertions about what it’s like, living with HIV in the 21st century. How HIV has changed, how living under a regime of neo-liberalism constrains those of us living with HIV. As well as to address increasing criminalization and state violence that’s actively working to destroy us.
John: And activist art, of course, has a long history of transforming a culture, of changing politics, and it then becomes the artist who leads the discourse. So perhaps we could look through some of the posters and talk about what kind of conversations you’re wanting to provoke through them.
Alex: We originally had seven posters and then the supreme court decision on the criminalization of HIV non-disclosure came down. As people living with HIV that really took a blow to us, emotionally and on lots of other levels, so we asked Ryan Conrad, one of the artists who’d already made a poster, to do another one related to the supreme court decision. It resulted in his Fuck the Supreme Court, with the footnote Condoms and low viral load required by law, which acknowledges our anger at that decision.
Jessica: Jessica MacCormack’s Hey Girl I’ll Tell You When I’m Ready is, I think, quite meaningful because it looks at the complexities and the difference between disclosure and aggravated sexual assault which the criminal justice system lumps together when, in reality, they are completely different.
Alex: Micah Lexier, a well-known text artist-based artist, worked with AAN veterans Darien Taylor and Eric Mykhalovskiy on the AAN poster, the AIDS Action dot dot dot poster, on treatment access: AIDS Action If you Live in the City, AIDS Action If you Take Control, etc. The intent is to address some of the things that enable or constrain access to medicines. It also takes us back to our roots in talking about treatment access, which was one of the founding principles of AAN.
Jessica: Also it’s not just a message about treatment access because it also critiques the privilege that it takes to be engaged in activism. Not everyone has the time or the supports to be activists.
Alex: Then we have the Ryan Conrad poster called Working Conditions: exposure / disclosure / stigma / criminalization. Ryan wanted to do something to address the issue of male sex workers, particularly in light of the upcoming supreme court hearing around sex work. And so he highlighted some of the conditions surrounding male sex workers, which is a population that has often been overlooked in the sex worker rights discourse.
Jessica: It’s interesting because this poster, although it’s more suggestive than explicit, got Alex and posterVIRUS banned from Facebook for a number of days and then other people who promoted it and put it on their wall also got letters of warning from Facebook. So this one was highly censored.
Alex: Which is interesting because when you look at Facebook there’s lots of groups that are very sexually suggestive but this poster was flagged, no doubt, because we’re activists and it’s queer.
Jessica: Then there’s the spacesuit poster. This one was really fun because it was actually based on something that was said on a date: I don’t need to wear a spacesuit to fuck you. Among queer women there’s no discourse around HIV. Like it doesn’t even happen. Though there’s an insistence from the mainstream, in sexual health workshops, on “wear gloves, use dental dams, wrap your body in latex”, even though queer women have the lowest rates of HIV transmission. But there’s this folk law going around saying it can happen.
Alex: So the poster takes the messaging away from public health who drive the regulation of women, queer women, queer people, regulating their sexuality.
Jessica: Another poster is the one on prisons, Prisons Kill, Prisons Kill. It was started when the artist Neal Freeland, working with long-time prison right activist Giselle Dias, was actually in prison. It says: Canada’s solution to homelessness, drug use, mental health, HIV/AIDS...Lock ‘em up till they die! I remember we had conversations about that, wondering if it was too much, but Neal said no because that’s what’s happening, it’s important to me and it needs to stay. So we said, you’re the artist, this is your experience, go with it.
John: Then you’ve got the Silence=Sex poster.
Alex: That’s by Jordan Arseneault. He has a poem to accompany it, that he read at the launch tonight, that talks about the complexities of disclosure for people living with HIV. The poster also explores one of the things that we’re trying to do with posterVIRUS, which is to call back the past iconography of AIDS activism by referencing ACT UP’s Silence=Death poster.
John: This has been an extraordinary year with the remounting of Larry Kramer’s Normal Heart and the release of a number of movies about the early history of the AIDS movement: We Were Here, United in Anger, How to Survive a Plague, Vito. Does this presage a new era of AIDS activism, do you think?
Jessica: I think so, yes. There was a huge lull for a number of years and there wasn’t a lot going on. And even when we did posterVIRUS last year there were equal amounts of excitement and pushback. People told us you can’t say Fuck positive women or that I party, I bareback, I’m positive, I’m responsible. But we’re like: What do you mean, we can’t say that? These kinds of discussions, these things are happening, and I think that using art, there’s an honesty you can put into it. Art’s really playful, unlike a public health campaign. Artists are not restricted by funding, we’re not restricted by being on the tight leash of the government or of donors. We’re doing it because we’re reflecting what’s actually happening in our communities.
Alex: We’re at an inspiring moment when people are remembering the history and recalling the origins of our movement but we’re also at a really, really hard time in our response because we’re constrained in terms of what we’re able to say as HIV activists. We don’t have a strong activist response in Canada, we have a highly institutionalized response, which does a lot of amazing work, but we need more social change work to happen.
John: Thanks, Jessica and Alex, for taking the time to talk to PositiveLite.com about posterVIRUS 2012.
Jessica and Alex: You’re welcome, John.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
You can see all the posters and read the artists’ statements at AAN’s posterVIRUS Tumblir page.
- Tags: AAN, activist art, AGO, AIDS, AIDS Action Now, Alex McClelland, Art Gallery of Ontario, Darien Taylor, Eric Mykhalovskiy, Giselle Dias, HIV, HIV+, HIV-positive, Jessica MacCormack, Jessica Whitbread, John McCullagh, Jordan Arseneault, Micah Lexier, Neal Freeland, personal stories of people living with HIV, PositiveLite_com, posterVIRUS 2012, Ryan Conrad, The Day With(out) Art 2012, Toronto