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Art and Politics of the AIDS Epidemic

Session A: July 6 - July 16, 2021
1:30 p.m. - 4 p.m.
Philosophy and Society
Asa Seresin

This module introduces students to the history, culture, and politics of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Together, we will discuss the impact of AIDS on our present reality, from the struggle for healthcare and housing rights to contemporary art and design. Course materials will include films, poems, zines, artworks, memorials, and oral histories, as well as archival materials such as posters, pamphlets, and newspaper clippings. The module would benefit students with interests across a wide range of academic fields—from art and literary history to public policy to medicine.

Class time will be devoted to discussing critical readings completed in advance of each session, collectively viewing art and video works, and completing short assignments in breakout groups. Students will be invited to assume the role of peer educators, with a final project in the form of a presentation designed to educate other high school-age students about the AIDS crisis.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Students will gain comprehensive knowledge of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and its ongoing impact on politics, aesthetics, social life, medicine, and health policy.
  • Students will develop close reading skills, acquiring a vocabulary for discussing art and literature that will help prepare them for the transition to college.
  • Students will gain an understanding of the social and political dimensions of illness, medicine, and healthcare. They will be able to discuss how scientific neutrality and objectivity are threatened by social and political forces.
  • Students will be able to draw crucial comparisons between HIV/AIDS and Covid-19, allowing them to better understand the unfolding crisis in which we are all living.
  • Students will be empowered to act as peer educators, relaying what they have learned back into their schools and communities.

Below is a prospective list of course materials. Where a book is listed, reading will be in the form of excerpts.

Day Topic Readings/Materials

1. Introduction
Brief overview of the history of HIV/AIDS, with a comparison between the early years and the ongoing crisis of today. Answering the question: why study AIDS now?

  • Masande Ntshanga, “Space,” 2013
  • Melvin Dixon, “Heartbeats,” 1995
  • Sarah Schulman, “The Gentrification of AIDS,” 2012
  • fierce pussy, “For the Record,” 2013

2. AIDS in the Media
Comparison of mainstream and activist/community-based media, observing issues of bias, censorship, and stigma.

  • New York Times clippings, 1980s-present
  • Issues of Diseased Pariah News, 1990-1991
  • ACT UP and DIVA TV, “Be a DIVA!”
  • Alexandra Juhasz, AIDS TV: Identity, Community, and Alternative Video, 1995

3. Science and Healthcare
Overview of how AIDS activist innovated forms of “citizen science,” breaking down barriers that delayed
AIDS research and challenging boundaries between researcher, healthcare provider, and patient.

  • Stephen Epstein, Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge, 1996
  • Interviews about AIDS treatment activism, ACT UP Oral History Project

4. Race, Gender, and Sexuality
Investigation of how stigma and misinformation about who was at risk of HIV/AIDS worsened the epidemic. Consideration of the importance of HIV/AIDS to gay and trans liberation and antiracist movements.

  • Michelle Velasquez-Potts, “Regulatory Sites: Management, Confinement and HIV/AIDS,” 2011
  • Lou Sullivan, We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan 1961-1991, 2020
  • Marlon Riggs, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, 1993

5. Art as Activism
Exploration of the creative methods used to represent the pain, trauma, and loss of the epidemic, as well as to spread awareness and fight stigma and neglect. Why was art so particularly important to this epidemic?

  • Gregg Bordowitz, Fast Trip, Long Drop, 1993
  • Artworks by Nodumiso Hlwele, Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw, Zoe Leonard, and others
  • Douglas Crimp, AIDS Demo Graphics, 1990

6. Mourning and Memorials
Overview of the different ways in which the HIV/AIDS epidemic is
remembered—or not. Why is mourning so important and how can the memory of those lost be kept alive in the future?

  • Dagmawi Woubshet, The Calendar of Loss: Race, Sexuality, and Mourning in the Early Era of AIDS, 2015
  • Mark Doty, “The Embrace,” 1998
  • The AIDS Memorial Instagram

7. HIV/AIDS Education
Critical reflections on the state of HIV/AIDS education, examining the contexts in which young people today are likely to learn about the epidemic. Course participants will be encouraged to think of themselves not just as students, but as peer educators.

  • Sam Moore, “All My Teachers Died of AIDS,” 2020

8. Student Presentations
Assuming the role of educators, students will give a short presentation on one aspect of the AIDS crisis suitable for an audience of their peers.

9. HIV/AIDS and Covid-19
Reflections on the similarities and differences between the AIDS crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Dean Spade, Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (And the Next), 2020