The Social Art Practice of Jessica Whitbread
Jessica Whitbread bought herself a blank book in the months following her HIV diagnosis. In it, she pasted images and quotes from magazines, wrote out song lyrics and drew young women with the phrases "When I grow up I want to be a grandma" or "Definition of Life: Terminal Illness" in thought bubbles.
"If I think about it now, this was the way I was dealing with my HIV," says Whitbread, now 35, "and those girls with the thought bubbles were saying the things my friends could not say to me."
Living with HIV can be isolating, for women especially so. One in four people living with HIV in Canada is a woman, but as a result of sexism, stigma, discrimination and violence, many HIV-positive women feel silenced. The mainstream media doesn't often report about women living with HIV and when they do, they tend to perpetuate stereotypes about "innocent victims" or "whores." HIV community groups aim to be welcoming, but with their emphasis often on gay men's sexuality these spaces can feel alienating for a lot of women. So the choice for many women is either to stay quiet about their status or to make their own community -- which is exactly what Whitbread did.
Whitbread was diagnosed when she was 21, in January 2002, during a period some have called the "second silence" -- the time between the availability of effective antiretroviral therapy in 1996 and the release of the Swiss Statement in 2008, which shed light on the relationship between antiretroviral therapy and HIV transmission.
For those not directly impacted by HIV, it could have seemed like AIDS was over: There were no more AIDS ACTION NOW! marches, community meetings were less raucous and there was little conversation about politics, love and HIV. When Whitbread did find people who were communicating in engaging ways about their HIV status, they were often older gay men. Though her discussions with these men were powerful, they highlighted for her the extent to which women's voices were absent in these dialogues.
It became clear that if she was going to thrive, she had to do more than draw pictures of her ideal friends. Living in Montreal at the time, Whitbread began hanging out with a group of young queers who cultivated cool outsider statuses. They threw parties, which always included sexy games like Slutty Bingo and Smooch-O-Rama. "I would always work the kissing booths," says Whitbread, who was public about her HIV status. "I liked kissing because it was fun, innocent and felt safer than going home with someone."
These events morphed into No Pants, No Problem, a dance party that started in Montreal and has been held all over the world for more than a decade, in places like Melbourne, Mexico City, New Orleans, New York, Washington and Bangkok. Pantless participants are invited into a safe space to dance, play spin the bottle and join the kissing contest, all under multicoloured bunting and banners hand-sewn by Whitbread with in-your-face messages like Love Positive Women! and HIV is not a crime -- AIDS profiteering is!
It was at these parties that Whitbread first created "her" community, not with other women living with HIV -- that would come later with another project -- but with other young people who felt out of place in the world. "Living with HIV, or being trans, or questioning your sexuality is awkward enough," she says. "I wanted to make something that was campy and awkward for everyone. My thinking was, 'Let's all be a little weird and have fun in that together.'"
Bold in declaring her HIV status, Whitbread has had more of a struggle accepting the label of artist. In the early years, she didn't really think of what she did as art. "The staff at Visual AIDS were the first to reach out to me as an artist and call what I was doing 'art,'" she says.
[In addition to being the name of the following column,] Visual AIDS is a New York-based contemporary arts organization that houses the largest registry of work created by artists living with HIV. It preserves the legacy of HIV-positive artists who have died and collaborates with artists to remind the world that the AIDS crisis is not over. Having worked with Whitbread on a recent Valentines-themed workshop designed to spread love to women living with HIV around the world, Visual AIDS associate director Esther McGowan sees Whitbread's creative practice as a blend of art, activism and community building: "Jessica's voice and face out in the world helps to remind people about HIV's effect on women, especially young women, and is hugely inspirational to young activists."
The art world has a name for what Whitbread is doing: social practice. New York Times arts writer Randy Kennedy explains that social practice "blurs the lines among object making, performance, political activism, community organizing, environmentalism and investigative journalism, creating a deeply participatory art that often flourishes outside the gallery and museum system."
The term "social practice" is clearly illustrated in Whitbread's Tea Time. There is no object created -- tea parties cannot be framed and hung on a wall. Instead, a performance, or perhaps a community, is created. Women living with HIV are invited by Whitbread to write letters to each other, sharing their stories. These letters, along with a teacup, are then exchanged at intimate tea parties. What started as an innovative research method to uncover health needs among HIV-positive women for Whitbread's master's thesis has become an ongoing project. And it has put her in contact with women of all ages around the world who are living with HIV.
Creating with women is key to Whitbread's work. With Morgan M. Page she created a performance documented through a short film and image series called Space Dates, in which the two queer women, wearing space suits to protect themselves from infection, go on a series of "cute" dates. The project aims to combat serophobia within the world of dating and hook-up culture. The artists describe it as documenting "the intersection of the criminalization of HIV nondisclosure, the 'safer-sex industrial complex' and queer women's sexualities." Whitbread also collaborated with feminist artist Allyson Mitchell. Together they used needlepoint to make the iconic "Fuck Positive Women" poster to generate public conversation about the invisibility and de-sexualization of women living with HIV.
Whitbread's art is not overly concerned with the end product, but rather with the process of stitching diverse people and their experiences together for greater shared understanding. Whitbread sees her practice as largely about building trust and, she says, "feeling that, in the end, things will be OK. People will come through in ways we don't always recognize, or someone else will come along and help." She puts people together so they can be there for each other.
As her relationship with HIV evolved, so too has Whitbread's ability to use art to create community and make friends. Whereas before she drew pictures of imaginary friends to feel less alone, Whitbread now often finds herself sewing at the end of the day, and in every stitch feeling more connected with all the amazing women she knows around the world -- living with HIV, together.
Edmonton-born Theodore Kerr is a Brooklyn-based writer and organizer. Former programs manager of Visual AIDS, he is currently doing graduate work at Union Theological Seminary.