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Dare you to look deeper

Dare you to look deeper

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Art campaign challenges HIV/AIDS stereotypes and taboos
A block of posters on a hip stretch of Queen St repeatedly confronts passersby with the following text: "I Party. I Bareback. I'm Positive. I’m Responsible."
 
This is just one of the messages Torontonians will soon see as a result of a massive downtown postering campaign by the activist group AIDS Action Now! (AAN).
 
The group, which formed in the ’80s in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and has recently been reinvigorated, hopes the provocative images will get people talking.
 
The campaign also appears online in anticipation of A Day With(out) Art, an event AAN is co-presenting with the Art Gallery of Ontario Youth Council on Nov 30, the eve of World AIDS Day.
 
"We wanted to do something that was innovative and that would change the discourse around HIV in the community," says AAN's Alex McClelland, who helped organize the action.
 
Each of the posters was made by a different artist in collaboration with members of the HIV/AIDS community; participants include such heavyweights as John Greyson, Kent Monkman and Allyson Mitchell. And though they all bring up different issues affecting the community, they are linked by their rejection of the stigmatization of people living with AIDS.
 
Mitchell's piece, for instance, consists of a needlepoint that reads "Fuck Positive Women," while a piece by Daryl Vocat depicts a park ranger writing the words "We are not criminals.”
 
A trend toward ostracizing people with HIV gives these messages added urgency. In the last decade, Canada has seen a remarkable increase of cases in which individuals' failure to disclose a positive HIV status has resulted in criminal charges, ranging from sexual assault to murder. Most recently, Crown prosecutors succeeded in having attempted murder charges reinstated against an Ottawa man who failed to disclose.
 
With no clear prosecutorial guidelines around which activities have possible legal ramifications, poz people, their lovers and their potential lovers are faced with a society where their sexuality is not only demonized, but also criminalized.
 
"The current legal climate and subsequent cultural climate that is constructed through the criminalization of HIV nondisclosure actively impedes my ability to manage my health as a person living with HIV," states Mikiki, a coordinator with the Toronto People Living with AIDS Foundation and the artist who created the "I Bareback" poster in collaboration with Scott Donald.
 
For Mikiki, the legal situation is part of a larger poz-phobic paradigm where people living with AIDS are seen as inherently unhealthy and irresponsible. The reality latent in the poster, however, is that people living with AIDS can, and do, have normal sex lives on their own terms. And that can include partying and having sex without condoms.
 
"Negative people are seen as responsible whether they participate in these behaviours or not, but we're seen as inherently irresponsible because we have tested positive for HIV. But I flip it on its head: I got tested because I care about my health and care about my partners’ health," Mikiki says. "We are active agents managing our sex lives, and the poster wants to speak to that."
 
The messages of Mitchell’s and Mikiki's posters thus approach pressing legal issues on the level of individual empowerment.
 
"Us reaffirming our sexualities as people living with HIV is a political counter to the reality of us being criminalized," says McClelland. "They don't want us to claim our sexuality; the state doesn't want poz people to do that."
 
"[The posters] are super sex positive, and these messages are definitely not out there," says AAN's Jessica Whitbread, who collaborated with Mitchell on her poster. "That's not really talked about when it comes to positive women. A lot of the time, it's mothers and babies and nurturing and 'the good woman.' There's an underrepresentation of women's sexuality. Sometimes women just want to get fucked. And they can get laid, too."
 
Whitbread's sexual politic is informed by her own unique experience, having contracted HIV from a man who was later taken to court by two other women for nondisclosure, resulting in aggravated sexual assault charges. In recounting her story, she too approaches poz sexuality in terms of responsible interactions.
 
"I'm glad I didn't pursue [legal charges]," she explains. "One of the girls had a one-night stand, and I was like, Where was her responsibility to use a condom? Why is she not being charged? She didn't even test positive. I was just like, What are you so upset about? Did you talk about it? Did you bring it up?"
 
While the poster art aims to encourage people living with HIV to manage their own sexualities, it is also directed at those who might vilify any model for sexual health that is outside of the prescribed condoms-always-forever model. That AAN is an activist group, as opposed to a public health group or service provider, provides the autonomy necessary to confront this taboo.
 
"We have a good opportunity with AIDS Action Now! to say what other organizations can't say. Public-health messaging never wants to tell people living with HIV that they can have sex without condoms with each other, or that gay men can use their own judgment around how they practise safe sex," says McClelland.
 
Whitbread agrees: "As much as it's art, it's also an educational tool that hopefully loosens some screws in peoples minds, where they say, 'Oh, I can do that? You can do that?' and they create a dialogue or find out more information or talk to their friends about what that would look like."
 
The taboo messaging and public nature of the campaign thus challenges the entire community to engage with these issues.
 
"This is everyone's business," says John Greyson, whose poster addresses harm reduction in prisons. "It's everyone's responsibility when healthcare is failing, when treatment is unavailable and lives are being threatened."
 
Besides being plastered on Queen St, on Church St, in Parkdale and in Kensington Market, the images are being spread online through a Tumblr blog before their official launch at the AGO. And it is no mistake that the campaign, which AAN is calling “poster/virus,” overlaps with the gallery's retrospective of queer artist trio General Idea. Their widespread revision of Robert Indiana's "LOVE" graphic as "AIDS" is a seminal project for AIDS-related art and furthered the metaphor of the “image as virus” in the context of HIV.
 
The Day With(out) Art event will feature the poster art but will also take the form of a mock-protest performance in the gallery's Walker Court. It will host speakers (including Mitchell, Whitbread and Mikiki), DJs and performances by the Kiki Ballroom Alliance and the Ontario Aboriginal HIV/AIDS Strategy.
 
In the meantime, AAN hopes the street posters create controversy and discussion, no matter how difficult it may be.
"These conversations are fucking excruciating," Mikiki admits. "Especially when you're not used to having them." 

Comments

the posters are gone
but the dialogues aren't. You and I still took the time to post about them in spite of them "being gone within a week" ;) I am still reading and hearing strong debates about them on a daily basis. You can't put an idea back in the box once its out. The fact that people have reacted so strongly says something. I think people will be talking about said posters for a very long time.
The posters are gone
The posters that AAN put up in the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood were gone within a week. It appears to have just been a one-time publicity stunt.
mission accomplished!!!
Brilliant! Brilliant Brilliant! These posters have definately ignited some incredibly passionate arguments, conversations, rants, debates, tirades, etc etc. People are fuming mad, empowered, defensive and attacking and its all out in the open. We needed this. Epic win AAN!
Gay men need factual information
There is lots of evidence to suggest that for casual sex gay men need to continue to use condoms whether guys with HIV are on treatment or not. Anyone that tells you otherwise is misinformed. And anyone that tells you that fucking bareback without a condom with a low viral load is 'better than' or even equivalent to a condom for casual sex is lying or hasn't done their homework. Don't buy it. Do your homework yourself and get well informed. In the end, you need to use a condom to fuck casually and if you do that you don't need to worry about whether the guys you are with have HIV or not. Anyone that tells you otherwise isn't thinking about you or your health.
HIV Criminalization
I disagree that failure to disclose should be criminalized. It reminds me of the early days of HIV awareness, where there were calls to tattoo HIV+ people. Both partners need to share responsibility for the choices they make. I'm still trying to wrap my head around this campaign. "I party, I bareback, and I'm responsible." What does 'responsible' mean in this context? Is it "I'm making choices, and I'll be responsible for the outcomes?" or "barebacking and partying are reasonable choices to make"? I do think that someone can be HIV+, rationally weigh the variables (their viral load count, their partner's status, their partner's risk tolerance, risks of topping vs. bottoming, etc.) and make an informed choice to bareback. It will always be a riskier choice than the same situation with protection, but it is not necessarily 'irresponsible'. I have a harder time with it once 'partying' aka meth or other drug use comes into the picture. If you're doing meth, your ability to assess risk and make choices is undeniably damaged. Once you deliberately take your ability to reason out of the picture, it's harder to accept that you are being 'responsible'. Anyway, I guess the posters did make me think.
just to clarify
If you fail to disclose that you are HIV positive to a negative sexual partner (no matter how stupid, uninformed, irresponsible, inebriated or ignorant said negative partner may be) you are opening yourself up to face retribution in the Canadian criminal justice system. That's how it is, and exactly how it should be. 'Well-designed posters' hanging in a 'hip' Toronto neighbourhood, thankfully have no power to change that.
Not Hate -but FEAR- instinct of self preservation
Glenn, The question still remains: Where are all the new infections coming from? Nice posters. But: Where are all the new infections coming from? Let's provoke some thought: Where are all the new infections coming from? THIS IS NOT HATE; IT IS FEAR. And rightfully so, based on instinct of self preservation and actual history of loved ones dying. Who actually wants to catch an illness which still causes discomfort for the rest of one's life? The new contention that: “antiretroviral therapy can REDUCE the chance of HIV transmission to a negative partner...” is not a guarrantee. Your internet link is not a solid proof which applies to all HIV+ people, merely a study of people who took that therapy. And the risk was merely reduced, not eliminated. FEAR is still justified and works better than condoms.
Fetishizing Barebacking, Not What You Think
Wow, it is really clear from the comments who is obsessed with and fetishizing barebacking. Hint: It is not Mikiki or Tim or ANN!. Many of you cannot get your head around the fact that barebacking does not necessarily risk newly infecting someone with HIV. Sero-sorting (ie: the practice by HIV+ people choosing to have sex with other HIV+ people) is well-documented in the peer-reviewed public health literature. It is recognized as a valid HIV prevention strategy--even where it involves barebacking. While it may result in re-infection of an HIV+ person, most HIV+ people know this and make decisions with this in mind. You may also be surprised to learn that early initiation of HIV antiretroviral therapy can reduce the chance of HIV transmission to a negative partner -- to a greater extent than condoms given the human factor in condom use. Here is one source: www.hptn.org/web documents/IndexDocs/HPTN052FactSheet19Jul2011.pdf. Google "HTPN 052" for many other sources.
Beautiful
The campaign posters are amazing. The people who created them are amazing artists. The people who inspired them are thoughtful and inspirational -- more than can be said for some of the haters who have left uniformed, even ignorant, comments. It is high time that art got back into the AIDS movement, as a way of educating and provoking thought and action. Great project AAN! Thoughtful article XTRA!
Responsible
I'm sorry, but "I party and I bareback" is not 'responsible', whether or not you're positive. If you want to do it, go ahead, you should have the right to make stupid choices -- but don't expect to be praised for it.

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