AIDS Graphics on Walls: Tracing the History of the AIDS Epidemic Through AIDS Posters
November 2, 2013
To post something today conjures Facebook and Twitter, but when the AIDS epidemic was first coming to the attention of the world there was no widespread Internet use, and posting meant on the wall. Information to promote AIDS awareness and safe practices were often conveyed in stark, arresting graphic images. Fortunately, many of these pieces of ephemera were collected by individuals with the foresight to see their value and their somber beauty. Adrienne Klein and Alex Fialho are two curators who have brought some of these posters to the public in exhibitions of posters drawn from such collections. What follows is an edited conversation between them for the Visual AIDS blog.
Alex Fialho: Thanks for chatting with me this evening, Adrienne. I am looking forward to the upcoming exhibition I am co-organizing with Dorian Katz at the Center for Sex & Culture in San Francisco, particularly because it's the first exhibition I have curated around HIV/AIDS and LGBT community education. You've curated displays of AIDS posters for quite some time. Can you describe your most recent exhibition, and the collection from which your show was culled?
Adrienne Klein: My recent exhibition Graphic Alert: AIDS Posters from Around the World was small, with room to exhibit 36 posters. The collection I draw on includes more than 6,200 posters, so it was a tremendous challenge to make a selection. I know the collection well and choosing only 36 is difficult when there are so many that are beautiful, puzzling, provocative, funny, harrowing and generally memorable.
One man, Dr. Edward C. Atwater, a professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, assembled the collection. I have great respect and admiration for Dr. Atwater. It was his insight that the posters are documents of social history that should be preserved and that they tell stories when they are seen as a group. In the last few years he has given the collection to the University of Rochester.
Tell me about the collection you are drawing from.
Alex Fialho: This collection comes from a single individual as well. It was donated to the Center for Sex & Culture by a graphic designer named Buzz Bense, who was the artistic director for some of the posters we are exhibiting and a longtime safe sex activist in San Francisco. I have equal admiration for Buzz and the foresight he had to collect these objects, as well as his ability to discuss what his design colleagues had in mind when they conceived of many of these HIV prevention campaigns. The Buzz Bense collection features over 150 unique posters, from which we will display almost 100. Many of the posters are from San Francisco, but they span stateside to Wisconsin and New York, and internationally to Australia, Germany, Denmark, and Canada.
Buzz was the founder of the EROS safe sex club in San Francisco. His collection reflects his interest in sex-positive imagery during a moment of conservative backlash against homosexuality, although he did collect posters with other messages. Buzz speaks powerfully about these posters as educational tools during the height of the AIDS crisis. They display the committed efforts of devoted activists communicating information for health and survival. To him, the collection represents essential visual reminders of a marginalized community taking care of its own, while building pride and fighting against stigma.
Adrienne Klein: My community -- artists and designers -- lent their skills to this struggle and I'm proud of their contribution.There is great design work here; the posters command attention in a world flooded by images.
The recent exhibition I curated was in September, when I was fortunate to have been offered the use of the MSB Gallery, located within New York University's Langone Medical Center. A gallery within a hospital must be quite uncommon, but it provided an interesting audience for the posters. In particular, medical staff were very responsive. I think these posters could be shown in many settings: galleries for design, science research centers and venues where current affairs are discussed.
Alex Fialho: Our exhibition is at the Center for Sex & Culture (CSC) in San Francisco, and opens November 8. CSC's mission is to provide judgment-free sex education, cultural events, a library/media archive, and other resources to audiences across the sexual and gender spectrum. The co-directors and founders of CSC, Dr. Carol Queen and Dr. Robert Lawrence, believe strongly that we learn about sexuality through culture and the arts. I love the CSC gallery. Basically, it is a 50-foot long wall opposite the library and extensive zine collection. CSC is a multi-use community space, supporting diverse activities of a variety of groups and individuals ranging from sex workers, SM organizations, workshops by local and touring sex educators, regular library hours, and erotic literary events. CSC's gallery program exhibits contemporary art and historical materials in line with their mission. Knowing that there are few art spaces that are comfortable showing art and materials about sex, they try to fill some of that void.
As a writer and curator from a generation born in the 1980s, I have a particular stake in encouraging a younger audience to view the exhibition. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2008 and 2010 HIV infections rose 22 percent for young gay men (ages 13-24). The CDC reported that at the current rates, more than half of college-aged gay men will become HIV-positive by the age of 50. We may be exhibiting archival posters, but these objects also continue to provide essential safe/r sex and prevention messaging that is highly relevant to our present moment.
Adrienne Klein: The historic posters record important moments in a struggle. Of course they are still relevant because the crisis remains. Can posters convince people to change their behavior? I think they can and do.
Posters are still used to educate about AIDS around the world and I hope to document them in a new online project I'm starting. I want a crowd sourced project to gather photos of posters wherever they are on view, whether in an airport, a clinic, a club, on a bus shelter or nailed to a tree. I'm looking for partners who can help move this project forward.
In exhibitions, I try to tell a story about inclusiveness and diversity. There is an astonishing breadth to the topics that are AIDS-related. Examples: People with AIDS need to know their rights in the workplace. Trust your local blood bank. Show compassion. Educate yourself. Agitate for funding and research -- this is the message of the powerful ACT UP and Gran Fury posters from the earliest days of the struggle. Another important topic: Stay with one partner. This last message is particularly seen in posters from Africa, where so many children have lost their parents to AIDS. While many posters from Europe and the U.S. advise people to change their own personal behavior, I see many posters from developing nations that address AIDS primarily as an issue that has impact on families and communities.
Alex Fialho: We also have included posters about other aspects of transmission such as needle exchange, as well as posters depicting intimacy of friendships and communities. We chose the title of our exhibition, SAFE SEX BANG: The Buzz Bense Collection of Safe Sex Posters to highlight the role of these posters as catalysts in disseminating information and altering perceptions. We thought the double entendre of the exhibition title spoke to the way many of the posters impart their important message of HIV prevention: as sex-positive images of queer sexuality that have both an advertising immediacy and an informative sense of impact.
Adrienne Klein: That message of empowerment is important. That, and the issues I mentioned a minute ago are all the subjects of posters in the Rochester collection. There are posters that address even narrower concerns for audiences as specific as tourists, barbers and prison guards. There are, however, a few key messages that appear time and again and are easily seen in a sampling of even a few dozen of the posters: this is how the contagion is spread, this -- by contrast -- is safe behavior, and use condoms. These three messages appear on posters in every major language in the world. The ideas are conveyed in graphics that draw attention and are culturally sensitive. They serve regional needs and reflect regional styles. They are windows onto other cultures. That's the reason I feel privileged to organize such exhibitions.
Alex Fialho: I was invited to co-organize SAFE SEX BANG by Dorian Katz, CSC's gallery curator and a fabulous artist in her own right. The project has proven exciting because Buzz, Dorian and myself are all from different generations, so the exhibition process has truly been an intergenerational collaboration. I am interested in the way that artists and activists have used creative mediums to address, represent, and negotiate causes of investment to queer communities. CSC's exhibition has been a perfect entry point to this larger discussion.
Adrienne Klein is an artist, teacher, curator, and university administrator. At the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, she is Director of Special Projects in the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. She is also co-Director of Science & the Arts at The Graduate Center.
Alex Fialho is a writer and curator based in New York City particularly interested in representations and negotiations of queerness in art and its display. He has published texts on the work of Glenn Ligon and Dorian Katz, coordinated screenings for Dirty Looks, and written art criticism for artfagcity.com.
This article was provided by Visual AIDS.
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