AIDS Artists and Activists Frederick Weston and Jessica Whitbread in Discussion
Frederick Weston has been a Visual AIDS artist member since 1998. His work communicates the soul of a thoughtful man feeling his way through physical realities and representation in America.
As a queer woman living with HIV, Jessica Whitbread explores her own sexuality and curiosity, often in public places, in hopes of making it easier for others to do the same.
Having never met before, the two agreed to have a conversation for this publication after being approached by Ted Kerr, Visual AIDS programs manager. Over Skype, they got to know each other as they discuss art, parties and collaboration.
Jessica Whitbread: How long have you been positive for?
Frederick Weston: I am not sure when I sero-converted. I took my HIV test in 1996. And actually I have an AIDS diagnosis because I had 37 t-cells, even before they had a viral load test.
J: Do you remember the day of your test?
F: March or April?
J: You don't know your HIViversary?
J: How are you supposed to have a party?
F: Everyday is my birthday!
J: I love that.
F: I probably sero-converted long before that, like in the early 90s.
J: Were you making art before you found out?
F: I moved to New York because I wanted to be a fashion writer. I met these kids and they were all into fashion design so it was easy for me to become a part of their world. I think about all that now, and you know, I hate to be co-dependent, but I love collaboration.
J: I love it too. I always refer to myself as a master-collaborator.
F: That sounds so nasty Jessica. How did you find out about Visual AIDS?
J: I think they found out about me! I work with this group called AIDS ACTION NOW in Toronto and I was co curating a project called POSTER VIRUS with Alex McClelland. We work with a bunch of artists, and community members to make posters about AIDS and then we plaster them around the city. And someone at Visual AIDS contacted us because they wanted the poster at an event they were doing. Then I saw that Visual AIDS was screening United in Anger at the AIDS Conference in DC. I was already planning another NO PANTS NO PROBLEM so I asked them if they wanted to be their after-party. Since then the experience has been really great, Visual AIDS has been pushing me. I merge worlds of art and activism together, identifying primarily as an activist. But Ted at Visual AIDS has been supportive, saying stuff like, "Fuck You! You are an artist." How about you?
F: I think they found out about me too. But I had to raise my hand first. I was reading an article about Visual AIDS, how they were documenting the work of artists with the virus and I started thinking about my friend Franz Bernard Smith. We use to make work together, both doing fashion stuff. I feel like Franz was my eyes in many ways. After he passed on, I wanted to see if I could get his work preserved. But sadly his parents were in charge of his estate and I am not sure what they did with it all. When I called Visual AIDS to talk about it they said, "Who are you?" And I said, "Well, I am a frustrated crazy fashion designer." I had been doing these portfolios and no one was getting it, so I started putting them out on the street. It was a piece called Homeless Shopping Network. I would go to construction sites and tack stuff up like it was an art gallery. It was stuff you could take, useful things: Q-tips, combs, subway tokens, and chewing gum. Visual AIDS wanted to see the work. So we went and looked at my work together and they said, "Well, we want you!" And so I became an artist. My greatest work of art is me. And it seems like your greatest work of art is you! You and your body!
J: As a queer woman who is also positive, there is not much space for me in the movement. So I have spent the last decade and a half carving out space for myself. I don't know of too many other artworks that deal as directly with HIV status, women, sexuality as the piece I worked on with Allyson Mitchell: Fuck Positive Women.
F: I love the idea of Fuck Positive Women because women are always getting fucked over. I love how many different ways there are to read it.
J: Right, yeah. This is what I love doing, creating dialogue and engaging in really tough conversations.
F: When Visual AIDS first asked me to speak at high schools there were a lot of things you couldn't discuss. I was working on a piece called Blue Bathroom Blues, and I thought, well then, I will talk about my bathroom issues, my 37 t-cells, and the story about the accident I had in my underwear: I tried to wash the stain away, but I had to throw them out, and I was sad, because it was such a beautiful shade of brown -- you know crazy stuff like that. So when we opened up the floor I think the kids felt they knew me in such an intimate way, they felt they could ask the questions we needed to discuss. Something real.
J: Beyond HIV, there are barriers and we never talk about them.
F: Before we started recording, you were talking about how you relate to your trans friends, and what came up for me was the whole issue of disclosure, and passing. I think everyone is passing always. We are also disclosing all the time.
J: Right. I am sexually fluid, fem and I have privileges of being white, living in North America ...
F: ...passing as HIV negative ...
J: Exactly, I pass as that all the time. Especially because I was married. That is why in the work I do I let everyone know: here I am, I am not a victim, I am just being who I am, I am positive and I want to get it on. If that is a problem – the problem is you!
F: YES! If you are too close-minded, you don't deserve me. Being an artist member at Visual AIDS meant disclosing early in my AIDS career.
J: I feel that HIV has taught me is to live**.** I feel like my HIV and I have become buddies. When I got diagnosed I thought, I will probably be dead by the time I am 40, by 30 I will be sick and not doing well, and so here I am in my early 20 -- I got to do everything. But then, when I turned 30, my husband had just left me and I remember thinking -- it was a landmark moment -- I look cuter now than I have in my whole life!
F: Hot Dog!
J: And now I am a divorcee ...
F: A gay divorcee!
**J:**I like how we have become friends over the conversation. I want to ask you out on a friend date!
F: I have a sicker idea: Marry me.