In her essay “Legacies of Trauma, Legacies of Activism” in the collection Loss: The Politics of Mourning, Ann Cvetkovich reflects, “The AIDS crisis, like any other traumatic encounters with death, has challenged our strategies for remembering the dead, forcing the invention of new forms of mourning and commemoration. The same is true, I would argue, for AIDS activism. What is the current meaning of the slogan ‘The AIDS crisis is not over’ in the context of treatment with protease inhibitors and an ever-widening gap, of transnational proportions, between medical possibility and political and economic reality, a gap that has significantly shifted the early associations of AIDS with white gay men? Like activism itself, the slogan’s meaning is constantly shifting” (427).
Even though it was published in 2003, Cvetkovich’s understanding of the ever-shifting meaning of activism seems even more relevant in the context of 2016. Yes, Cvetkovich’s invocation of the massive changes in HIV/AIDS activism due to protease inhibitors and the gap between these medical advancements and accessibility still ring true. But in thirteen years, there have been even more evolutions that alter the state of AIDS activism.
Unquestionably, one of the most obvious is the FDA’s approval of Truvada in 2012 and the subsequent activist debates surrounding PrEP. In his essay “Under The Rainbow” in The New Inquiry, Tyrone Palmer observed, “This is a major breakthrough, which has substantially changed the contours of sexuality, lifting the cloud of fear, piercing the stigma that lingered since the initial outbreak of the pandemic, and offering new possibilities for intimacy. Yet similar questions of access and availability circulate around PrEP as they did the anti-retroviral therapies and drug cocktails of the late 90s.”
While the accessibility of PrEP mirrors many of the issues with the medications referenced by Cvetkovich, the second change seen in the cultural understanding of the HIV/AIDS pandemic seems entirely new. This is the current institutional interest in AIDS activist history. In both art and historical institutions, these countless exhibitions place AIDS activism into a sort of time capsule, often reflecting back on AIDS activism as if it ended in the mid-1990s (Not all the exhibitions are guilty of this temporal deadline, mind you).
Ted Kerr in “A History of Erasing Black Artists And Bodies From The AIDS Conversation” on Hyperallergic calls this period “AIDS Crisis Revisitation.” “Footage of pre/re-gentrified urban centers populated primarily by passionate white twenty-somethings fighting for their lives conjure up memories and trauma for many who were there, a possible displaced nostalgia for those who were not, and a desire for many to be able to return to such an engaged moment (without the loss).The AIDS Crisis Revisitation is both helpful and fraught, and at this point it is too narrow to be truly instructional or liberative,” he writes.
So where does current AIDS activism fit into this shifting period of both nostalgic revisitation and advancement? How do activists maintain a connection with the past, while also training their eye definitively on the issues affecting the present?
By reflecting all these fraught complexities if PosterVirus, an activist street and online initiative, is any indication. Developed and curated by Alexander McClelland and Jessica Whitbread (who faithful Filthy Dreams readers might know was included in Party Out Of Bounds and organized the post-opening No Pants No Problem party), PosterVirus is an affinity group of Toronto’s AIDS ACTION NOW! that commissions a series of artist-made activist posters to be plastered both on the streets and online in time for World AIDS Day and Day With(out) Art. These posters bring attention not only to HIV/AIDS itself, but also related issues such as poverty, gender/sexuality, drugs, sex work and more.
Launched in 2011, PosterVirus returns this year after a three year break with a dynamic series of posters by Kia Labeija, Jessica Karuhanga, Shan Kelley, FASTWÜRMS and Brendan Fernandes. Rather than a look back to the height of the epidemic, PosterVirus effectively combines the powerful street intervention strategies and legacy of iconic artist/activist collectives such as Gran Fury, fierce pussy, General Idea and Silence = Death collective with posters that pinpoint the state of HIV/AIDS activism today.
Like the unforgettable phrases “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” or “Women Don’t Get AIDS, They Just Die From it,” PosterVirus’s posters are largely text-based with memorable slogans designed to catch the attention (and thoughtful consideration) of random passersby like FASTWÜRMS “Love Is The Law” or Brian Fernandes’ “In PrEP We Trust?” which depicts an underlying wariness with PrEP. Making a vibrant, almost psychedelic pattern out of Truvada’s recognizable blue pills, Fernandes phrase appears, at first, bold and confident until viewers reach the question mark. A hint at the debates about PrEP, which seemed to divide an older generation of activists like Larry Kramer (though he’s since changed his mind), Fernandes’ poster represents some of the simmering unease that still remains about PrEP.
While Fernandes’ poster is somewhat anonymous, Kia Labejia uses her own body to investigate issues of detectability. She makes a hashtag out of undetectable, which seems to render it a marker of pride or even, identity, questioning the divisions between those who are detectable and those who are undetectable. But, even more than having an undetectable viral load, Labeija, as an HIV-positive woman of color, is often undetectable in the representation of AIDS activism. As seen in the exhibition Art AIDS America, in which Labejia represented the only HIV-positive woman of color in the show, HIV/AIDS is still frequently represented as affecting white gay men, despite the demographic realities of HIV/AIDS.
While most of the works have text, some are more subtle than others. One of my favorite posters is Jessica Karuhanga’s, which mixes a subtle blue and purple abstraction that looks almost like cells under a microscope with barely perceptible text. In the center of the poster, there is a white strip of small type that appears like a rupture in the picture plane.
It reads, “She had my mom’s complexion! She was the most mild mannered in our family, shy and quite. It would take a lot to rattle her quiet disposition and in fact, I don’t think I ever heard her complain or whine! I mostly have memories of her as my little sister, who I would be protective of all the time! And for her part, once she loved she did so unreservedly!” The passage is a text message conversation between the artist and her father on an aunt who died from complications from AIDS. By placing this small text in a crack, the poster reflects the hidden–and sometimes unspoken–histories about HIV/AIDS that can go on even within our own families. While AIDS is not explicitly referenced, the text shows that her aunt was much more than her cause of death.
Of course, with decades of activism, treatments, medications and memorials, burnout is common, which is explored in Shan Kelley’s poster “Dead Tired Of Being So Bloody Positive.” While protease inhibitors have transformed the lives of those living with AIDS, it is by no means perfect. The side effects can be brutal. Often with illness, people are expected to keep a stiff-upper lip and stay positive, which is especially true now that HIV/AIDS is seen as a chronic condition rather than a death sentence. But, fatigue occurs. Kelley’s poster expresses the exhaustion and frustration with being “bloody positive” in both the sense of HIV-positive and happy go lucky. Kelley’s poster makes viewers question what they expect of people who are HIV-positive or living with AIDS, as well as activism.
And in 2016, after Trump’s election (even though PosterVirus is based in Canada), positivity isn’t enough anymore. Particularly with Vice President-elect Mike Pence whose moral opposition to needle exchanges allowed Indiana’s HIV crisis to increase significantly. Not only are the posters’ messages timely, but PosterVirus’ street intervention strategies feels completely crucial in our newly terrifying political moment.
Direct action and artistic interventions worked during the height of the crisis under Reagan and it can still work now. As the announcement of PosterVirus’ 2016 posters concludes, “This year when you light a candle for our friends who have passed from AIDS, and for us who are still alive, let the flame burn bright. And then burn it all down.”