Ian Bradley-Perrin and Mary Caple on Process and HIV/AIDS Historiography in the Public Sphere

image: Avram Finkelstein and Ian Bradley-Perrin in the Exhibition Lab in January

This post by Ian Bradley-Perrin and Mary Caple is the final piece in a series of blog posts reflecting on projects that our affiliates, staff, and students have been producing this year that deal with HIV/AIDS. Together, they co-organized “Collective Strategies for Visual Production on the Issue of HIV Criminalization.” This workshop took place in the CEREV Exhibition Lab in January 2014 and was led by New York-based artist, activist, and writer Avram Finkelstein. They then spoke at the Visual AIDS event “Flash Collectives: Creating Agile Strategies for Social Change” on February 28, 2014 at the Brooklyn Community Pride Center in New York. See our list of relevant links at the bottom of the page for more information on these events and related pieces written by Mary and Jenny Doubt.

On January 24, fourteen students, activists, and artists joined Avram Finkelstein in CEREV’s Exhibition Lab for a day-long workshop, “Collective Strategies for Visual Production on the Issue of HIV Criminalization.” We organized the session with the goal of collectively creating, in one day, a visual campaign to bring awareness to the criminalization of HIV/AIDS in Canada.

The workshop and Avram’s talk at the Canadian Centre for Architecture the previous evening (Concordia’s HIV/AIDS Community Lecture Series), was timely. His artistic contributions to AIDS activism were recently on display at the New York Public Library part of their exhibition Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism, which finished its run in early April.

Early in the academic year, we met to discuss the possibility of taking advantage of Avram’s time in Montreal in order to create something tangible with him and learn hands-on from his experience in New York-based arts and activist collectives. His short stay lead us to consider how a time constraint could play into the format of a workshop – while a more intimate seminar-style conversation in the Lab would have also been fulfilling, we decided to take another tack. Would it be possible to create a new project from start to finish in a day and use Avram’s expertise to launch something unique to the particularities of HIV/AIDS in Canada? We thought so. That said, we had to take into consideration technical skills as well as familiarity with subject matter as we created a working group – involvement in HIV/AIDS issues as well as Photoshop, art, and other creative skills, were all taken into consideration.

Now that HIV and AIDS have entered a fourth decade of recognition, discourses around them have passed into a phase of historical reflection. This process of historicizing HIV/AIDS is contentious. Whose stories get told and how? Re-visiting the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis is currently facilitated largely through archival exploration of the cultural production of art and activist movements that responded to the social crisis of HIV/AIDS. Avram is uniquely situated as an artist and activist who was heavily involved in organizations and collectives included ACT UP, Gran Fury and the Silence=Death Collective, and as contemporary critic and curator. He has assembled shows in Boston and New York and written critically about this process (most recently in Art Writ).

The focus of our workshop was to produce a collective response to HIV criminalization in Canada. Criminalization of non-disclosure was chosen as the subject because it is situated at the nexus of the social, political, cultural and legal realities of HIV in the present. Currently, people living with HIV/AIDS are required to disclose their status to all partners who they put at risk of exposure. Failure to do so results in criminal prosecution under sexual assault law. It is widely believed by activists (and supported by global NGOs such as UNAIDS that the criminalization of non-disclosure legally reinforces social stigma and discourages people from taking responsibility of their own health (it discourages testing and real conversations between partners, and creates a legal fail-safe for the uninfected putting the burden of proof on those already disempowered by the law). Canada is a global leader in the criminalization of people living with HIV/AIDS. Given the way that recent historicizations of HIV/AIDS over-emphasize the success of treatment and pharmaceuticals, we decided to explore what these narratives conceal, namely the increased incarceration of people living with HIV/AIDS.

Ian Bradley-Perrin is an MA candidate in the Department of History at Concordia and coordinates the Concordia University Community Lecture Series on HIV/AIDS and the Plus ou Moins Open Conference on HIV/AIDS.

Mary Caple is a recent graduate of the BA Honours History (Public History) program at Concordia and is the Administrative Assistant at CEREV.

Relevant Links

Center for Ethnographic Research and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Violence