Art and HIV: This powerful public poster series is challenging how we look at the virus

With some 22,500 pieces so far, the PosterVirus project is hitting the streets for its fourth cycle in the buildup to Day With(out) Art.

Over 40 artists and activists have contributed some 22,500 pieces to the project to date

“Bloody Positive,” Shan Kelly for PosterVirus 2016 (PosterVirus)

It was late November, five years ago. Scrolling Facebook before going to bed I stopped on an image: an urban street where someone had wheatpasted a wall of posters with a white grid of illustrated boy scouts carving into the ground the caption, "We Are Not Criminals." In the corner of each poster was a slash of pink, a logo that read AIDS ACTION NOW.

I was captivated. At the time I had recently moved from Edmonton, where I had worked at the city's AIDS service organization, to New York City, where I was working as a programs manager at an AIDS-centric arts organization. Much of my job was facilitating the circulation of art and culture about the epidemic. It was an uphill battle some days. Audience was a problem — most people didn't want to think about HIV. And the art and culture being produced didn't always help either. A lot of it was stigmatizing, rooted in trying to alleviate fears HIV-negative people have around the virus.

The wall of posters I saw online were different. The "we" captured my attention. This is what had largely been missing: the viewpoint of people living with HIV and those most impacted.

From PosterVirus 2011, Daryl Vocat’s poster, “ We are not criminals” (PosterVirus)

As I would come to learn, what I saw on Facebook that night was just the beginning. It was the debut of PosterVirus, a public art intervention now in its fourth cycle that brings under-discussed issues around HIV/AIDS to the streets through art.

The initiative was started by Alexander McClelland and Jessica Whitbread in 2011, young adults long active in the international response to AIDS. When I asked them what inspired PosterVirus, they both spoke about growing frustrated over the years with how AIDS was represented. As they saw it, most stories about the epidemic were told through a lens of public health — this way of looking positioned people living with HIV as problems that needed to be identified (through testing), tracked (through treatment) and contained (through unnecessary HIV-specific laws).

Alexander McClelland and Jessica Whitbread at the 2012 International AIDS Conference. (PosterVirus)

To push back against this, they invited friends they knew living with HIV, as well as well-known and emerging Canadian artists and activists, to create posters about the contemporary realties of living with the virus. The idea was inspired by the groundbreaking work of General Idea, the Silence = Death collective and Gran Fury. Wheatpasting the posters around Toronto and other cities would put the work in the public realm and provide an opportunity to photograph them so the messaging could be shared online.

PosterVirus is a testament to the fact that people living with HIV and those most impacted by the virus are not problems to be solved — rather, they are people with valuable experiences and something to say.- Theodore Kerr

At the very least, thought McClelland and Whitbread, they would have brought together a network of caring and creative people thinking about the virus, and have a Tumblr of AIDS-related art circulating in the ether.

That was five years ago. Since then, over 22,500 posters — created by over 40 artists and activists — have been printed and posted in at least seven cities around the world, resulting in multiple media reports, gallery shows and being added to curriculum in various collages and universities.

At the intersection of living with the virus and not living with the virus, these 2 posters from PosterVirus 2016 artists Kia Labeija (L) and Brendan Fernandes (R) meet in a question and a hashtag around medical intervention. (Alec Emery, courtesy of PosterVirus)

Crucially, and much to the delight of the creators, the public art project has also sparked discussions within communities in the various cities the posters have appeared around issues of nostalgia, gender and autonomy in the face of living with a communicable disease.

This year, after a two year hiatus, PosterVirus is back. And, as in previous years, the work hits the streets in the buildup to December 1st, Day With(out) Art, created by Visual AIDS to raise awareness of the impact artists have on the ongoing epidemic.

“Love Positive People,” FASTWURMS for PosterVirus 2016. (PosterVirus)

The posters this year are once again a deep dive into the experiences of people impacted by and living with HIV. Kia Labeija promotes the word "undetectable," the term used to describe someone's viral load becoming so consistently low through treatment that the virus is suppressed, making it non-transmittable; Shan Kelly works though living with HIV amid memorializations of the past; the FASTWURMS collective shares love in the face of stigma; Jessica Karuhanga hallows out a place for beauty amid familial silence and isolation; and Brendan Fernandes honours the medical HIV-prevention breakthrough, post-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), by making space for it to be questioned.

These types of intimate and innovate conversations are something Whitbread and McClelland long yearned for — and that they've made happen with the help of friends and peers. PosterVirus is a testament to the fact that people living with HIV and those most impacted by the virus are not problems to be solved — rather, they are people with valuable experiences and something to say. Beautiful things happen when we listen from the ground up.

See and learn more about PosterVirus 2016.

​Canadian-born Theodore (Ted) Kerr is a Brooklyn-based writer and organizer whose work focuses on HIV/AIDS. He was the volunteer coordinator and Artist in Red at HIV Edmonton, as well as the Programs Manager at Visual AIDS. He holds a master's degree from Union Theological Seminary, where he studied Christian Ethics and HIV/AIDS. He is currently working on an oral history project of artists responding to HIV/AIDS for the Smithsonian. He is a founding member of the What Would an HIV Doula Do? collective.

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