AIDS Action Now! launched their second Poster/Virus Campaign at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto last night with an after party at Cold Tea in Kensington Market, featuring DJ’s Like the Wolf and Mama Knows. The Poster/Virus campaign uses the power of images created collaboratively by several artists on a variety of themes (social, political, economic, sexual, gendered and onwards) surrounding HIV/AIDS and gives high intensity visibility through wheat paste campaigns in Toronto and online through massive social media campaigns.
The style of campaign is poignant as it uses the modern notions of the computer virus (online, unstoppable, highly visible, aggressive) to give extreme visibility to the Human Immunodeficiency Virus which has dropped from the public radar steadily and surfaces in mainstream media only to offer hollow promises of a cure or vaccine or to discuss the virus’s toll on African nations. AIDS is distinctly absent from western conceptions of itself. The poster/virus campaign similarly uses the viral nature of pop culture, concise images, catchy phrases and shock art to give to the viewer, even at the most superficial level, something to carry with them into the world, hosts of the artists’ creations.
This year’s manifesto from AIDS ACTION NOW reads:
“We are under pressure. Our viral loads are overloaded. The response to AIDS is becoming destabilized. We are faltering, becoming complacent, giving up and giving in. The law is creeping further and further in. Our bodies are over-medicalized. And our lives are under-supported. We are not the public that ‘Public Health’ cares about….
We are tired of the limits imposed on how we can talk about AIDS. We are tired of individualized responses that ignore the realities and complexities of our lives. We are tired of being defined through acronyms. We are tired of the buzzwords, language that privileges some groups over others and increases the divide between us and them. The bureaucratization of AIDS has marginalized voices that complicate for too long. But things are changing.”
The organization’s intentional move back toward grassroots style activism recalls the earlier days of the AIDS crisis, the urgency for action and the dissatisfaction with way that HIV/AIDS is now bookended by treatment and prevention, as though the realities of living with HIV/AIDS begin and end with medication and condoms.
This year’s series of posters feature radical new ideas and assertions. Jordan Arseneault’s Silence=Sex speaks to the criminalization of non-disclosure, the palpable reality of confession as sexual existence and the drive to discourse which forces all seropositive people to locate themselves within sexual hierarchies of cleanliness and filth; confession or abstinence and the possibility presented in the moment of disclosure to live, act and speak (or not) as freely as they had within the moment and the times before seroconversion.
Jessica McCormack’s “Hey Girl” poster further elaborates on the complicated and deeply personal experience of disclosure. Disclosure as part of the Poz experience has been brought under public scrutiny by the recent Supreme Court decision criminalizing non-disclosure of serostatus in the absence of condom use and negligible viral load (accessed solely through treatment), disregarding the recommendations of UNAIDS among other organizations. The text accompanying the poster explains, “I am disturbed by how the telling of ourselves, the act of becoming, acutely shifts as disclosure is forced. Who do we become, or not become, within the threat of imprisonment? The criminalization of disclosure creates silence, it is an act of violence itself… Many people struggle to tell their ‘truths’ for many reasons, but they are not criminalized for this. These truths we tell about ourselves are constructions that are affirmed or negated by dominance, social norms, the status quo and laws.” Through this poster, MacCormack calls out the public’s thirst for the blood of it’s people both as self awareness and self-indentification and asserts the private as just that, private.
In the days leading up to the official opening at the AGO, Ryan Conrad’s poster entitled “Working Conditions” caused some online controversy. The poster which features a faceless ass being rimmed by a faceless head was spontaneously removed and the group was banned from Facebook in the week preceding the opening. Initially the censorship elicited fierce responses both from the group and allies.
Longtime HIV/AIDS activist Marlo Turner Richie responded :
“Try entering another sexual act in the search field of facebook to see what comes up. I entered (blow jobs) and came across this page: Not only do we see an image of U.S. President Barack Obama apparently getting a blow job from a minor, but we see images that degrade women; of all ages. Apparently this is fine with Zuckerberg’s cyber-cops. Who is firing the censor-guns behind Facebook’s blue curtain? Is their decision based on an intelligent response system or bigotry, moral panic, homophobia and serophobia? Given this recent targeting of Canadian art-activists, it seems more like the latter.”
A few days after the initial censorship, one activist/councillor and seropositive indigenous woman from Saskachawan identified herself as the person having reported the poster to Facebook, cited as saying:
“As Aboriginal ppl we tend to b very private about what happens in the bedroom & I don’t think it give us fair representation of women or Lesbians. We too live with HIV & tend to be more tasteful. Looks like porn to me & I don’t practice or expose my sex or sexual partners like that”
Throughout the remainder of the thread what is revealed is the necessity of cultural specificity of these campaigns and the attention that must be paid to the diversity of ways in which seropositive people interact with their own sexuality, experiences of serophobia and the impacts of trauma and oppression.
While the facetious use of the Spiderman eating out Uncle Sam photo from the Macy’s Parade as the so called “Family Friendly Version” of the poster successfully dissipated tension around the issue, I am still left wondering how the organization will respond to the very problem that the censorship issue raises. I know it is impossible to address the infinite number of individual experiences of HIV/AIDS that exist within Canada let alone globally, however there must too be some way we can create a united front in the face of the increasingly conservative public health rhetoric. As World AIDS Day approaches, I am wondering where and how we can occupy, own and command this space where seropositive unity against oppression exists, and how we can collectively combat serophobia, public health discourses and deep funding cuts to AIDS Service Organizations across the country and around the World?