This Collective Bridges the 'Vexing Question' of the Gay HIV Viral Divide

On July 13, the Bronx Museum of Art will open the Art AIDS America exhibit -- including this graphic projection on the museum's exterior, created by the Viral Divide Flash Collective:

Here's how's blogger Mark S. King, who with Avram Finkelstein co-convened the gathering of the Flash Collective, described their quest to create this work:

In a cramped meeting room in New York City on May 27, 2016, a dozen gay men, HIV positive and negative alike, came together to answer a vexing question: How do gay men bridge a divide that has been forged through decades of HIV stigma, distrust and mutual blame? Or, at the very least, what might be done to start a conversation about the divide and begin to heal the wounds?

As the projection was about to launch, asked Finkelstein and his fellow flash collective member Charles Sanchez about the viral divide and what this project meant to them.

What is your relationship to the viral divide?

Avram: As a long-time AIDS activist I could see the outlines of the divide, even during the earliest moments of the pandemic. It breaks my heart that it still exists.

Since 1981 all of my relationships have been with HIV-positive men, and I am HIV negative. I believe the fears we indulge in about HIV are based solely on ignorance.

Charles: I am an HIV-positive man, living with the virus since 2003. Before getting together with the men in this collective, I don't think I gave much thought to the divide or what negative men thought of positive men or visa versa. Or even what I thought about the differences, for that matter. Because of being part of this amazing project, I found feelings I didn't know I had, including fears and defenses and stigma, and heard the same kinds of emotions coming in different ways from both sides of the divide.

I think this process helped bring into focus my own feelings about HIV. I've been in a healthy stage of discovery lately, finding out new things about my own outdated thoughts about transmission and how that relates to stigma and my own feelings about myself as a person living with HIV. I love that we live in an age when people have the power to be in charge of their own health, with PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] and the fact that my undetectable status makes me uninfectious; there are more ways to be safe and more ways that positive and negative are alike. The divide is getting a bridge built across it. When you think of the history of HIV, the fact that science is coming up with ways to bring us together is miraculous.

What surprised you about this project?

Avram: The willingness of the members of the collective to reach across racial, ethnic and class differences affirmed something that almost sounds like a cliché: Once you put a face on our differences they tend to recede. Because we only had one day to work together, this was highlighted in a way that was hard to ignore.

Charles: I think the things that surprised me about being a part of this were that this diverse group of men, of different ages and backgrounds and points of view, could come together to come up with this dynamic, collective message. Avram, with Mark's help, guided us in such a gentle and open spirited way, giving plenty of space for each voice to be heard, but always keeping us on task. I think the result is thought provoking and kicks open a fresh dialogue about HIV, all as a result of this group of incredibly smart, informed, passionate, sexy men getting together and finding common ground.

What are your hopes for this project?

Avram: It's become increasingly obvious that the pharmaceutical interventions that have done so much to change the realities of the pandemic have had no power whatsoever when it comes to the stigma surrounding HIV. It's unthinkable that we have spent so much time researching medical advances and done nothing to explore the social meanings of HIV. I wanted to help pierce through that in some small way.

Charles: I was thrilled to be included in this project. It was an intense day with feverish conversation and points of view that I hadn't been aware of before. In the end, we found a message that truly spoke from each of us, and all of us.

I hope the messaging and logo for the "Viral Divide" finds life in places we can't imagine. That they find their way to Arkansas and Chicago and Paris and everywhere, and that the conversation that we as a collective started continues to reverberate.

For more information on the Viral Divide Flash Collective, check out their tumblr page. And find out here about the Bronx Museum's Art AIDS America exhibit.