poster/VIRUS: Artists Affected by HIV Use Images to Make Daring Statements

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Alex McClelland and Jessica Whitbread

poster/VIRUS Curators

We are under pressure. Our viral loads are overloaded. The response to AIDS is becoming destabilized. We are faltering, becoming complacent, giving up and giving in. The law is creeping further and further in. Our bodies are over-medicalized. And our lives are under-supported. We are not the public that 'Public Health' cares about. The AIDS Industrial Complex forces out Treatment as Prevention, while state indifference and austerity measures crush us. But we are "resilient" right?

We are tired of the limits imposed on how we can talk about AIDS. We are tired of individualized responses that ignore the realities and complexities of our lives. We are tired of being defined through acronyms. We are tired of the buzzwords, language that privileges some groups over others and increases the divide between us and them. The bureaucratization of AIDS has marginalized voices that complicate for too long.

But things are changing. There is a move from business suits and pharma-driven hotel conferences back to the grassroots. This year with the poster/VIRUS project we continue to make new assertions about AIDS. We have worked with artists and activists on a series of works that address poverty, sex work, HIV disclosure, queers, incarceration, criminalization, privilege and neo-liberalism.

With this project we are calling for a return to dialogue and complexity. We are moving away from one-way social marketing AIDS campaigns. We are critiquing public health messages that divorce people from the harmful impacts of institutions and the state. This is why these works were developed as a dialogue between activists and artists, and this is why we encourage these works to help promote community dialogues. We continue the tradition of claiming space for those of us who are most impacted by the epidemic. We hope that these works provoke, critique and encourage new ways of conceptualizing and talking about AIDS. The AIDS experience is spoken through many voices. As a diverse community, we have always been able to take care of each other. We need to remember where we came from. We need to continue to self-organize. AIDS ACTION NOW!

"AIDS Action ..." 2012

Micah Lexier With Darien Taylor and Eric Mykhalovskiy

Utilizing his trademark techniques of found imagery, simplicity and repetition, Micah Lexier has created a poster that addresses the decidedly unsexy, but complex issue of access to treatment. Quality of care, accuracy of information, even access to treatment itself is dependent on a myriad of factors, both personal and practical. Lexier was tasked with the challenge to create a poster that itemized a number of these extenuating circumstances. Playing with duplication and a simple color inversion, Lexier riffs on AIDS Action Now's dated but indelible logo to focus on the simple but nuanced message that access to treatment is not equal for all.

"Fuck Positive Women," 2011

Allyson Mitchell

"Hey Girl, I'll Tell You When I'm Ready!" 2012

Jessica MacCormack

With this poster I combined a series of collaged images with the text "HEY GIRL, I'LL TELL YOU WHEN I AM READY." The text plays with two possible readings: "I'll tell you when I am (physically) ready to fuck" and "I'll tell you when I am ready to disclose (HIV status, addictions, abuse history, mental health problems, marital status, beliefs, past loves/losses/experiences, etc.)." The images were collected from the Internet and assembled in Photoshop, with sources from Second Life, Medical Venus' from the 18th century, Facebook, crystals and dying stars. Combined, the images are an expression of dissociation and the body in relation to the Internet, as well as reflections of contemporary politics and laws that control experiences of embodiment.

The calling into question in recent news media of the reproductive rights of women, HIV criminalization, and events such as the Pussy Riot arrests all reflect a shift in state control of the body in recent news. Similar oppressive conditions have been experienced on an ongoing basis for many lifetimes by queers/gays, people of color, our First Nations communities, the homeless, as well as people struggling with poverty or mental illness (or any combination of the above). I am disturbed by how the telling of ourselves, the act of becoming, acutely shifts as disclosure is forced. Who do we become, or not become, within the threat of imprisonment? The criminalization of disclosure creates silence; it is an act of violence itself.

As a person who struggles with mental health problems due to experiences of excessive sexual trauma at a young age, I have lived with the firsthand effects of stigma and state control. Some of my close friends are HIV poz; I find it very difficult to associate the very existence of their sexualities with sexual assault. I have seen a correlation between actual sexual assault survivors, addiction and HIV. It is very difficult to maintain a healthy or safe relationship to one's body after surviving abuse or assaults; it is common to put oneself directly into harmful situations as a method of expression of those experiences, for self-medication and survival. The stigma of criminalization just adds to this cycle, preventing prevention.

Many people struggle to tell their "truths" for many reasons, but they are not criminalized for this. These truths we tell about ourselves are constructions that are affirmed or negated by dominance, social norms, the status quo and laws.

"We Are Not Criminals," 2011

Daryl Vocat


Syrus Marcus Ware With Tim Mccaskell and Zoe Dodd

Our team worked with the symbiotic relationship between these three truths, as outlined by the Canadian AIDS Society in their position statement about poverty and HIV/AIDS (found online on October 31, 2012).

The Symbiotic Relationship

  1. Being poor increases your vulnerability to HIV
  2. Being diagnosed with HIV increases your chances of becoming poor
  3. Being HIV+ and poor increases your chances of dying from HIV/AIDS.

HIV and poverty are in mutually reinforcing symbiotic relationship. In nature, most symbiotic relationships work to sustain a mutually beneficial goal, that of mutual life. In contrast, in this symbiosis HIV and poverty produce death. We illustrated this relationship using symbols: a 2012 penny, a medical illustration of the immature HIV virus and an image of a skull and cross bones. There is text that surrounds the image as a graphic border.

Money: I chose a penny to symbolize money and poverty specifically to show the implicitness of government and the mint in the somewhat arbitrary and ultimately unsustainable "game" of economics. I played with color and design to reference graphic repetition often found in major design labels -- like Louis Vuitton -- symbols of wealth and, in this context, of life and death.

HIV/AIDS: I first began working with illustrations of viruses in 2002. I questioned whether something that caused so much destruction could be visually beautiful. I chose to return to this consideration as part of this project, working graphically to depict the three core ideas of this symbiotic relationship in a way that was beautiful visually and yet horrific conceptually.

Death: How to talk about death? I grappled with so many questions when considering how to talk about this relationship and the concept of dying because of a poisonous system. I wondered if we could talk responsibly without being part of a narrative that systematically equates HIV and death in ways that negate the lived realities of folks living with HIV/AIDS who are thriving, celebrating, loving and living?

I settled on using a green skull as the central point of the image, connecting it to the green of the penny. The skull references both death and dying but it also symbolizes "poison." It is dangerous and poisonous to live in a society where there is rampant classism and few sustaining resources for poor folks; where HIV is criminalized; and where systemic ableism affects the livelihood of people living with HIV. This poisonous system is what creates the paradox in the first place, and it is what ultimately leads to death.

Border: Our team decided to include a repeating border around the image that summarizes the symbiotic relationship into a mathematical equation: HIV + Poverty = Death. In doing so, we are speaking to our histories -- remembering the rallying cry from ACT UP, "Silence = Death." We are also speaking to the inadequacy of numbers, mathematics, money and accounting.

In the end, we hope that this symbolic representation of the Canadian HIV/AIDS position statement about poverty and HIV will create awareness about the connection between poverty, HIV/AIDS and life/death.

Till we're free!

"Your Stigma Not Mine," 2011

Cecilia Berkovic

"Prisons Kill Prisons Kill," 2012

By Neal Hartwick-Freeland and Giselle Dias

When we began working on the AAN! poster project, Neal was still inside the Waseskun Healing Center in Quebec and Giselle was living in London Ontario. The process was complicated by the fact that Neal didn't have access to the Internet and Giselle was unable to accept collect calls on her cell phone. Despite these barriers we were able to conceptualize the idea of what we wanted to communicate through a few short phone calls. We knew that we wanted to highlight Bill C-10 and the effects it would have on prisoners, focusing on overcrowding.

Neal is the artist so he conceptualized how the overcrowding would look visually. He produced an incredibly powerful image and then we were left with the task of finding the best message. We wanted to highlight the fact that prisons are violent, dangerous places and NOT because of the prisoners themselves but because of the circumstances people are put in. Prison conditions make prisons dangerous -- especially overcrowding. The watermark of "PrisonsKillPrisonsKill" was created to say that "prisons kill" but that we should consider to "kill prisons." Neither of us believe that prisons make our communities safer and in fact if we addressed social problems such as homelessness, mental health issues, the criminalization of drug users and people living with HIV/AIDS we would be able to reduce the prison population significantly leaving us time and resources to work with people inside for more violent offenses.

Neal highlighted the fact that Indigenous populations and people of color are over-represented in the system in this piece. In the Prairie Provinces over 80 percent of the prison population is Indigenous and we see this as a form of ongoing colonization practices (reserves, residential schools, 1960s scoop, foster care and now prisons). The idea that Canada's solution to control marginalized populations through incarceration seems absurd to us; so we decided to pose the original statement as a question asking "lock 'em up till they die?!" Really?! This is how Canada wants to deal with homelessness, mental health, drug use and HIV/AIDS? Our commitment is to continue to find ways to dismantle the Prison Industrial Complex through pressuring the government to create a housing strategy, to stop criminalizing drug users, people with mental health issues and people living with HIV/AIDS.

Giselle and Neal have been collaborating on projects since the Prisoners Justice Film Festival in 2003. Neal's work as a peer health educator in prison and Giselle's work with Prisoners with HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN) made them ideal colleagues.

"I Party/I Bareback/I'm Positive/I'm Responsible" 2011

Mikiki With Scott Donald

"I Don't Need to Wear a Spacesuit to Fuck You," 2012

Onya Hogan-Finlay and Morgan M. Page

Two women in spacesuits, legs interlocked, seem to be having a romantic evening at home in their retro-futuristic feminist landscape. In the distance, Toronto and the solar system watch on, perhaps approvingly. Approving of their prescribed, so-safe-you-can't-even-feel-it-so-why-is-this-happening sexual encounter.

This poster was originally inspired by a conversation had between activists/artists Jessica Whitbread and Morgan M. Page, in which Jessica related telling a date that she "didn't need to wear a spacesuit to fuck" them. So often we are told by safer sex educators working in the Safer Sex Industrial Complex that the only way to have sex with and/or as people living with HIV is to hermetically seal everything up under layers of latex. Failure to do so is at best irresponsible, and at worst criminal. Little, if any, room is made for a discussion about levels of risk in various kinds of sex. Nor is there talk around making your own choices about what kinds of risks you're willing to take. Despite having the lowest risk of transmission, the queer women's community runs rampant with ignorant cautionary tales and folklore. We are left feeling like Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls, after her gym teacher yells, "If you have sex, you will get pregnant and die!" before passing out the condoms.

Stigma continues in the regulation of people living with HIV's sex lives in relation to perceived promiscuity -- if you're going to have sex as and/or with someone living with HIV, you better be in a committed relationship -- though not advised -- as symbolized here through the dinner, roses, and champagne that Sally Ride and her date have displayed before them. (Side note: The use of Sally Ride is particularly interesting, locating both lesbian or queer identity in the image, and recalling that her long-term partner was unable to receive benefits after her recent passing.) Heaven forbid poz people continue to enjoy the same kinds of casual sex that every other queer person feels entitled to. The stigma around promiscuity is especially damaging to women who already face considerable slut shaming in all areas of our culture simply for having any kind of sexuality at all (and, should they fail to display sexuality, face stereotyping as the frigid bitch).

LA-based artist Onya Hogan-Finlay astutely takes a singular visual idea dreamed up between Jessica and Morgan and transforms it into this delightfully retro lesbian sci-fi fantasia. Her design inspiration is taken from the work of groundbreaking lesbian feminist graphic designer Sheila Levrant deBretteville's promo poster of the Women in Design: The Next Decade, created in 1975.

"Prick," 2011

John Greyson

"Silence = Sex," 2012

Jordan Arseneault

"The New Equation"

It's that awkward moment when ...
You're naked in bed with a boy you've just made out with on a rooftop.
Looking up at the little toy cross
On top of the big, dark mountain.

That awkward moment where you bring in the Greek chorus
Of Angels in America characters
And the dump truck of dead bodies and
News segments of ashes actions
And Diamanda Galas howling over Fire in My Belly.

That awkward moment when you decide to cough it up
To rip the band-aid off the unhealed wound
And tell him:

I just need to tell you something that's really not easy to say and
I'm legally required to tell you before we take this any further:

I have been shortlisted for a very special prize.
I am on the shortlist for those who didn't win the bet.
I am biopolitically pegged for a lifetime of awkward moments.

There's 50 parts per milliliter of me
That are Having It Very
difficult; that are too late for a vaccine,
That didn't do their due diligence
And that echo a Harsh Interior Voice
Saying "stay away,"
Even though any other combination of bodies in a moment like this
Would just be getting it on right now.

It's that awkward moment where you look up at the
On his cluttered bedroom wall
And say the words
Only to see him freeze, lose his boner, sigh,
And explain trippingly that he has an anxiety disorder
And "just can't take it right now."

It's that awkward moment when you want to rip a hypocritical poster
off someone's wall
Or at least half of it:
SILENCE = riiippppppp crumple crumple
All those posters say THAT to me now:
Silence equals sex.

If you just keep your mouth shut
And don't talk about cells and replication and undetectability
And minor cuts or abrasions
And rinsing with lemon juice
And tests every three months
And how you ever got it in the first place ...

"Oh," you ask "you were in a video PSA about serophobia too?"
"Yes, I'm sure you are very open-minded.
Thank you for showing me that," you say,
As you put your clothes back on.

Get used to the new equation,
Cause these bastards just don't know the math.