Workshop Reflections: Jenny Doubt on Collective Strategies for Visual Production on the Issue of HIV Criminalization

The author of this post, Jenny Doubt, is a CEREV fellow and was one of the participants in “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. The session was a co-production with Concordia’s HIV/AIDS Community Lecture Series with the support of the university’s Faculty of Fine Arts (FOFA) Gallery. Participants also 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.

On 24 January 2014, CEREV hosted “Collective Strategies for Visual Production on the Issue of HIV Criminalization,” a one-day workshop facilitated by artist and AIDS activist Avram Finkelstein (Gran Fury, ACT-UP). The main goal of the workshop was for participants to ‘begin a conversation’ – with each other, and with a ‘general public’ – about the problems that have arisen as a result of the proliferation of criminal convictions around the non-disclosure of HIV in Canada, in which a person with a detectable viral load can be charged with sexual assault if they fail to disclose their HIV-positive status combined with the failure to use protection (ie a condom).[1]

The morning began with an initial brainstorming session to generate key words and themes related to HIV/AIDS and criminalization, an activity that revealed the group’s diversity of experiences and perspectives (see image above). We then had a ‘teach-in’ in order to establish a baseline for the participants to draw on in understanding issues relating to criminalization. While it is important to acknowledge cases of willful exposure to HIV, critiques of HIV criminalization include the fact that sentencing does not have an effect on sexual behavior, threatens to re-stigmatize the HIV-positive body as ‘toxic’ and dangerous and often does not consider whether actual transmission has taken place. Some sentences moreover risk reaffirming public ignorance around HIV transmission, including those based on spitting, which poses no significant threat of HIV transmission.[2] After a very brief lunch break, the group shifted from an educational approach to an activist operation, creating visual materials for awareness-raising purposes. Breaking into three smaller working clusters, two groups worked on producing images while one was responsible for generating text. By the end of the day we had created a tumblr website, flyers and buttons (both of which appear on the tumblr site) and an image that we projected in a public space.

The production of analogue and digital matter using materials as sophisticated as a well-equipped IT lab and as grassroots as a button-making machine reflected the dual imperatives to produce on the one hand a ‘flash’ mob that was able to mobilize quickly to work on a common cause during the course of one eight-hour day, as well as the need to reach a wider audience over a sustained period of time. Thus the buttons were disseminated during rush hour in downtown Montreal, and designed to be provocative, and the flyers to which they were attached provided some basic information about HIV criminalization. The tumblr page has provided a forum in which the workshop participants have been able to crystallize into a ‘collective’ that continues to meet and plan activities. Together with messages disseminated over twitter and Facebook in real time that tracked our progress, the day’s activities and images generated a lot of attention, including a follow-up panel discussion (‘Flash Collectives: Creating Agile Strategies for Social Change’) on 28 February 2014 in Brooklyn, New York.

In keeping with CEREV’s remit as a multimedia exhibition lab, one of the notable aspects of the workshop was its emphasis on producing visual work. As a newcomer to the CEREV community, I was thrilled at the opportunity to take part and wanted to offer a few of my personal reflections on the workshop and the events which preceded it, including a public lecture at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) by Finklestein entitled ‘Collective Queer Cultural Production: AIDS and the Public Sphere’ as part of the Concordia University Community HIV/AIDS Lecture series.

The idea of opening a conversation is a good place for me to start. HIV/AIDS is often referred to as a ‘global pandemic’, and yet activist, medical, community and academic spaces can look very different in the different locations in which HIV operates. Having elected to be in rooms filled with the concerns of black, heterosexual, poorer women in South Africa during the course of my doctoral work, it was a vastly different experience for me to be in the company of a large caucus of white, middle-class, gay, North American men.[3] My own research and working book manuscript closely examines HIV/AIDS-related cultural production in South Africa, which is to say the stories relating to being infected and affected by HIV that are expressed visually, but also through literature and film. Given the very different (majority) demographics and issues that HIV affects in Canada and South Africa, my first thought on being asked to participate in this workshop was whether I would have anything meaningful to contribute to a discussion? HIV/AIDS, after all, has as many manifestations as there are ways of living. Considering this, what can the South African and North American spaces that address HIV/AIDS say to each other about the epidemic? Whilst in his public lecture, Finkelstein placed a very clear emphasis on the visual materials he produces in relation to HIV/AIDS activism not being ‘art’, per se, I’d like to identify a few examples of South African cultural products that map some of the overlapping cultural spaces that these two epidemics straddle, and thus offer a couple of first reflections in relation to this question.

In certain types of South African cultural production, including theatre and literary memoir, one doesn’t need to look far for evidence of the circulation of the American histories of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, especially those expressed by the LGBTQ community. During the workshop we discussed the legal intricacies associated with HIV disclosure, particularly in the context of a sexual relationship: In some cases, if you know you are HIV-positive, you are required to say as much prior to having sex, which can complicate the impetus to know your status in the first place. Such concerns are perhaps most clearly stated in workshop co-facilitator and Canadian artist Jordan Arsenault’s poster ‘The New Equation’ (2012), which reads ‘Silence = Sex’, an update on the infamous Gran Fury ‘Silence = Death’ poster (1987) that is now being read as representative of AIDS history in America during the 1980 and early 90s. One concern of Arsenault’s poster, notably the threat of re-stigmatizing the HIV-positive body in an intimate context, reminded me of South African playwright and actor Peter Hayes’ play I Am Here (unpublished, premiered 2010, South Africa), which I had the good fortune of seeing many times in South Africa, and of reading several drafts. The moral dilemma that Hayes presents in I am Here is posed as a question about disclosing his HIV status in the context of a sexual relationship:

Maybe we won’t even get to have sex…
When do I tell?
How? Since the 15th of December 2004 this is the debate that looms the largest.
I have had sex without telling.
And I have not had sex, because I have told.
I have told and then been told, “Me too.”
And you know, that I know, no one can tell from looking…
I’m on this road making the best choices that I can. There is no satellite navigation. I wasn’t given the co-ordinates.
The best I can… is it good enough?[4]

In raising the ‘debate’ about disclosure and being HIV-positive and sexually active in the extract above, Hayes presents an issue that has been articulated by other South Africans, including writer Adam Levin (Aidsafari, 2005) and Justice Edwin Cameron (Witness to AIDS, 2005). A close reading and witnessing of the play additionally reveals the similarities in content and style from seminal early American cultural texts, including Randy Shilt’s And the Band Played On (1987) and AIDS-themed theatrical production Angels in America (Tony Kushner, 1993). This South African narrative can therefore be seen to be closely affiliated with Western HIV/AIDS narratives that proliferated as a result of the LGBTQ community’s early mobilization around the epidemic in the United States, and of that community’s extended global affiliation. Indeed, when I asked Hayes if his play was distinctly ‘South African’, he responded that it was not and told me about his efforts to bring the play to North America.

It’s worth noting that in South Africa the ‘Western’ HIV/AIDS epidemic has also historically influenced legislation and policy. Thabo Mbeki’s now well-known rejection of mainstream biomedical knowledge around HIV/AIDS, most notably his questioning the link of HIV and AIDS and his public endorsement of AIDS ‘denialists’ has attracted widespread comment for over a decade now. In attempting to distance the South African response to HIV/AIDS from that of the West, Mbeki sought to underscore his search for an African cure to what he described as an African epidemic. This rejection had disastrous effects that extend beyond the body count (330,000) that Pride Chigwedere produced in his Harvard-based study.[5] The impact of this post-apartheid political moment was influential, especially amongst those black South Africans asserting their individual belongings to the ‘new’ post-apartheid era by willingly alienating themselves from an epidemic that has been so heavily negotiated by agendas, pharmaceutical interests, and scientific research conducted in the West. Evidence of this is be found in Jonny Steinberg’s literary memoir Three Letter Plague (2009), which seeks to understand the decision of its primary subject not to test for HIV, as well as Liz McGregor’s Khabzela (2005), which chronicles Sowetan celebrity DJ Fana’s decision to refuse free antiretroviral medication.

While the narratives, images, and discourses that have shaped the American HIV/AIDS epidemic circulate in the images and narratives that chronicle the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa, a very few of which I’ve touched on here, the question of ‘AIDS in Africa’ is ever-present in North America. This was evident when the first question following Finkelstein’s public lecture was an enquiry about what was to be done about the epidemic in ‘Africa’. Finkelstein’s diplomatic response suggested, more than anything, the number of times he had been asked to address this topic. Despite the international influence exerted by the activists and cultural practitioners addressing the epidemic in Montreal and New York and London (UK), my impression is that in the age of publically disseminated antiretroviral medication (ARV) and Western public discourses that insist that we are moving increasingly toward a vaccine for HIV, what is undoubtedly the continued problem of the epidemic in North America (where prevalence in many places is on the rise) remains associated with ‘Africa’ by some North American audiences.

The issues relating to HIV infection are not confined to one country – or indeed continent – just as the concerns surrounding HIV disclosure and criminalization are not confined to those of one community. The imperative to disclose one’s HIV status takes place in a space that is often defined by its intimacy, as Hayes and Arsenault point out, but also often by its power structures and the associated tenets of gendered identity that are informed by those structures in different locations, as Steinberg and McGregor make clear. The issue of HIV disclosure affects the choice to have sex and threatens to criminalize and re-stigmatize HIV-positive individuals; it also complicates the imperative to produce children in a context in which ARVs are not readily available, and can endanger those who insist on condom use within the context of a marriage of unequal agencies. Whilst the intricacies of critiquing the movement to criminalize HIV non-disclosure remain specific to the legislative and activist bodies particular to each country (and in some cases, State), it may well be that instead of asking whether the North American and South African spaces can speak to each other, it is more constructive to examine how the narratives that have emerged from their respective contexts have already been activated among the diverse communities who – to quote Finkelstein – ‘respond to [the] call’. In so doing, it may be possible to further extend and diversify the HIV/AIDS activist collective as it develops the multiple strategies we all need to continue to address the changing issue of the epidemic in the rush-hour streets of our own backyards today.

[1] In Canada, under certain conditions, HIV-positive individuals who do not disclose their HIV status prior to having sex can be convicted of one of several criminal offences, including manslaughter. In order not to disclose, an HIV-positive individual must have a non-detectable viral load (which is to say that the measured amount of the virus in a person’s blood is so low it does not register.) This is over-simplified for the purposes of this blog.

[2] For details relating to HIV criminalization in America, where many states have enacted new laws to criminalize exposure to HIV, see Law and Policy, The Positive Justice Project, ‘HIV Criminalization Fact Sheet’, December 2010. For more information on HIV criminalization in Canada, where exposure to HIV is charged under extant criminal laws, and where there remains a need for defined prosecutorial guidelines, see the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, ‘Criminal Law’ .

[3] This is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive.

[4] Peter Hayes, I am Here, 2010 [unpublished], pp. 11–12.

[5] Chigwedere estimated that ‘more than 330,000 lives or approximately 2.2 million person-years were lost because a feasible and timely ARC treatment program was not implemented in South Africa’ between 2000 and 2005. (Pride Chigwedere et al., ‘Estimating the Lost Benefits of Antiretroviral Drug Use in South Africa’, Perspectives: Epidemiology and Social Science, Harvard School of Public Health, 49.4 (2008), 410– 415 (p. 410)).

Jenny Doubt is a 2014 postdoctoral fellow at CEREV. She received a Ph.D. in English Literature from the Open University, UK and an MA in Colonial and Postcolonial Cultures from University of Sussex. Her dissertation, Performing and Inscribing HIV/AIDS in Post-Apartheid South Africa, investigates how cultural texts intervene in debates about HIV/AIDS and help empower the most vulnerable among the HIV-affected in post-apartheid South Africa.

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