Today, December 1, 2015, marks the 27th annual World AIDS Day. Today also marks the 26th observance of Day With(out) Art, Because my entrée into the intersection between science and art began with my work on HIV/AIDS, I thought it would be fitting for me to focus on these two important events and explore the vital role art has played, and continues to play, in the pandemic.
Originally organized in 1988 by the World Health Organization as a day to increase awareness about HIV/AIDS, World AIDS Day has grown into an international day of education and remembrance, with various events scheduled throughout the world. In the United States, numerous schools and community organizations will be hosting activities, ranging from lectures to fund raisers to safer sex campaigns. At the federal level, the White House again will be adorned with a giant red ribbon, as it has been for every World AIDS Day since 2007 (see figure). More importantly, federal agencies will be organizing outreach programs, providing information on HIV testing sites, and offering information about health care options for people living with HIV. And, of course, researchers funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health will continue their tireless efforts to better understand the basic biology of the virus and develop new treatment options. With a theme of “The Time to Act is Now,” officials from President Barak Obama to Ambassador Deborah Birx, U. S. Global AIDS Coordinator, will remind us about the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the National HIV/AIDS Strategy. Of course, a single day of speeches can’t bring an end to the pandemic. No one expects that it will. What World AIDS Day can do, however, is remind us that HIV/AIDS has not ended. And it will not end unless various people, from various walks of life, work together.
Likewise, Day With(out) Art will not end the pandemic. However, it does serve as a very poignant reminder of the impact HIV/AIDS continues to have on all of us. It also serves as a very visceral reminder of the value of art. Originally organized by members of Visual AIDS in 1989 as Day Without Art, the event was designed to underscore the contributions of so many members of the arts community affected by HIV/AIDS. Galleries and museums shrouded works of art, dimmed their lights, or closed their doors. At Davidson College, we continue this tradition (see figure). The effects can be striking. We all walk by the sculpture by Jaume Plensa on our campus on a daily basis, rarely giving it more than a passing glance. When shrouded in black, however, it suddenly becomes more visible.
In 1998, this event became Day With(out) Art. According to the Visual AIDS website, the parentheses were added, “to highlight the ongoing inclusion of art projects focused on the AIDS pandemic, and to encourage programming of artists living with HIV.” In other words, the day has become more than merely a remembrance of lives lost. It also is a day to recognize the value of the arts and the meaningful contributions that artists make to our understanding of the pandemic. This year for Day With(out) Art, Visual AIDS presents Radiant Presence, a slideshow of works by HIV-positive artists in the Visual AIDS HIV+ Registry. Included in the presentation will be works by, among others, Shan Kelley, Max Greenberg, and Albert Winn.
I’m proud that Davidson College has been selected as one of the sites to premiere this important online exhibition. It reflects our institution’s continued commitment to combatting HIV/AIDS. It also reflects our institution’s continued commitment to the liberal arts. By hosting events like Radiant Presence, we remind our students that their education should not be siloed. Both scientists and artists have contributed to our understanding of HIV/AIDS. Future contributions of both scientists and artists will be needed to end the pandemic.
Dave Wessner’s blog entry commemorates the 27th annual World AIDS Day and the 26th observance of Day With(out) Art. It bears meaning at so many different levels: it has personal meaning for Wessner as it is through the interstices of art and AIDS that he entered the realm of art-and-science; and it has collective meaning for those who have suffered, died or lost family members to the disease.
As a professor of the history of modern and contemporary art, I lecture on AIDS and art each semester that I teach the survey of the history of contemporary art, 1945-present. Usually, the topic of AIDS and art comes up as part of identity politics in the 1980s. We focus on the work of Keith Haring, Félix Gonzalez-Torres, David Wojnarowicz, LGBT rights, queer theory, and the rise of the Moral Majority and the fundamentalist Christian right wing. But, I have never framed this period in terms of biology and disease, but now I will.
How could I have missed this opportunity?
While the number of gay men dying in New York and San Francisco from the “gay cancer” in the early 1980s steadily rose, city, state, and federal governments ignored the problem. Though indeed very real in its ravaging of a significant demography (many of whom were creatives), AIDS did not exist as a “real” problem until institutionally recognized by the government and the National Institutes of Health.
I began lecturing on the topic 15 years, well after the fearful hysteria connected to the disease subsided and at a time when AIDS had become common knowledge in the US. I never teased out the role of the disease – science – in constructing the era’s art, perhaps because of the leftover residues of benighted ignorance and fear from the early 1980s, or perhaps because of the shadows of political correctness in the new millennium. What is clear to me is the way in which science – the disease of AIDS – constructed art in the early 1980s creating an entire cultural field.
Which begs a few questions: How reciprocally does art help set in relief the constructedness of science? Does art craft science, and if so, how? I am currently reading Evelyn Fox Keller’s Reflections on Gender and Science (1985), in which the biophysicist writes about the construction of the gender binary within science from antiquity to recent times. Her goal is to set in relief how science became coded as rational, cool, mechanistic and male, while nature became coded as irrational, hot, organismic, and female.
Science is constructed through vistas and means that are all around us – in the laboratory work, research, and writing of scientists, as well as the multifaceted cultural realm. Keller’s more recent writing about the gene is all about the construction (and mis-construction) of “the gene” over the last century – in science, science writing, and the mass media writ large. Art’s role in the construction of science fits squarely within the aforementioned cultural realm, where science is crafted as both good and bad.
How will Wessner and I help fabricate science in our upcoming online exhibition, Gut Instinct, which focuses on art that is about the microbiota and microbiome in the intestinal tract? While I can only begin to answer by recognizing that, in our interpretation of the microbiome, we bring art to bear on science in order to potentially tweak its greater path, the crafting of science by art is truly in the hands of the artists who will freely interpret the concept for our exhibition.