'Germ City' Exhibit Covers HIV and Other Pandemics' Impact on New York City

Senior Editor
"Pan African AIDS," Ekene Ijeoma
Kenyon Farrow

Cities are dirty, and New York City is particularly filthy for a city with so much wealth. In many ways, the issues that have taken center stage in the current city and state election season are partially about germs, public health, and quality of life: transportation, housing, and health care. But beyond overflowing trash cans and rats, cities, with their constant flow of people and high density living, are fertile ground for infectious diseases. The history of the world is filled with waves of disease outbreaks, and some deadly ones have wiped out millions of people at a time. And often, groups of people -- the most socially and politically marginalized -- have become scapegoats for epidemics, instead of focus being placed on the living conditions and social realities that make certain groups susceptible to disease at different points in history.

The Museum of the City of New York has just opened a new multimedia exhibit, Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis, examining the impact of disease outbreaks on cities and how during various eras people understood, interpreted, and ultimately fought to save lives and end pandemics. Germ City is the first of three exhibits in a series called Contagious Cities, which will feature other projects in Hong Kong and Geneva, Switzerland.

"We are honored to be the New York anchor of this three-city global initiative," said Whitney W. Donhauser, the president and Ronay Menschel director of the Museum of the City of New York. "As a historic port city, New York is a compelling location to study the complex relationship among microbes, migration, and the metropolis."

In many ways, the history of New York is in part a story about pandemics -- and pandemics are never just about a disease but also about the way that humans respond to it. The exhibit opens with a video installation on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and how that outbreak, once it reached U.S. shores, was interpreted by the news media. The video splices together newspaper and cable news headlines, one of which referred to Ebola as "the ISIS of biological agents." But the exhibit makes it clear that not only Ebola but also other epidemics have caused public hysteria and the scapegoating of marginalized people. Cholera, tuberculosis, and finally, the AIDS epidemic, have all had profound impacts on the political, economic, social, and cultural life of New York and the people that inhabit it.

Jordan Eagles' sculpture on exhibit "Blood Mirror," shows the way in which HIV, despite being a virus that nearly every human being can be susceptible to, continues to be imbued with social and political meaning that targets gay men in particular. It is a piece that displays the blood of 59 gay, bisexual, and transgender men as a way to highlight the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)'s continued partial ban on gay men donating blood. The ban was instituted in 1983, but after years of public pressure, the rule was changed in 2015. Gay men are no longer under a lifetime ban, but now must abstain from sex for an entire year before they can be eligible to donate blood, despite the existence of fourth-generation HIV testing, which can detect the virus within days of seroconversion. Eagles sees his sculpture as a visual representation of the men whose blood could be put to good use if they were allowed to donate blood and of why there's no reason gay men should be specifically singled out by this FDA rule other than homophobia.

"The irony is that all of the men are alive, no one is dead here, and they could all be contributing to our society by donating blood, said Eagles. "And this particular policy continues to perpetuate a stigma about HIV."

One of the other HIV-related pieces in the exhibit is less about public policy and more about fighting erasure. Artist and designer Ekene Ijeoma was concerned about the historicizing of the early years of AIDS and AIDS activism as exclusively white when he created "Pan-African AIDS" for this exhibit.

"I was watching some documentaries about what was happening in the '80s, and I wasn't seeing a lot of people of color, or any black people, said Ijeoma. "So, I found a report from 2008 from Black AIDS Institute that talked about how the Bush administration created PEPFAR in 2003 to fight AIDS in Africa, but hadn't created any initiative to help the black population in the U.S. So, I just had this idea of Africa merging into America."

Ijeoma then looked at recent HIV data and found that while new diagnoses were falling in Africa because of the PEPFAR program, they were spiking among blacks in the United States. The sculpture is a series of silhouettes of the African continent and the United States layered on top of one another to give the effect of seeing Africa inside America.

Germ City is happening at a time when HIV/AIDS-specific memorials are being erected around the country. Monuments in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have been established in the last several years to commemorate the lives lost to the epidemic, and there are also several traveling art exhibits about AIDS. But Germ City is different in that brings HIV into conversation with other historical pandemics and brings visual artists into conversation with public health, urban planning, science, and medicine.

"This effort brings together our collective expertise on the history of health in New York and the impact that outbreaks of disease over time have had on New York City's residents, infrastructure, and its many interlocking systems, including housing, urban planning, water systems, migration, and public health policies," said Judith A. Salerno, M.D., M.S., president of the New York Academy of Medicine, one of Germ City's sponsoring institutions.

Keeping with this interdisciplinary concept, a number of events in New York City related to Germ City will be hosted by the museum during the exhibit's run through April 2019.