Undetectable, Not Invisible
A Flash Collective Workshop Mounts an “Art Intervention” at New York Public Library
by Larry Buhl
Photos by Alina Oswald
Last year Jason Baumann was curating “Why We Fight,” a chronicle of the history of HIV/AIDS activism for the New York Public Library, and tapped artist, writer and activist Avram Finkelstein to blog about the exhibit.
“[Avram] told me what he really wanted to do was lead a flash collective for the Library,” Baumann, Collections Coordinator of Collection Assessment, Humanities, and LGBT Collection at the New York Public Library, tells A&U.
Baumann jumped at the chance, and the Undetectable Flash Collective was born.
Except, technically, the collective was born without a name or a theme. The only guidelines were that it be about HIV/AIDS and be current.
“We had already mounted a successful exhibit of the history of the epidemic, but this time we wanted to speak to how HIV is affecting people today,” Baumann says.
Experimenting with art-making in public, Finkelstein, a founding member of the collective that created Silence=Death and AIDSGATE, has been assembling groups of people to produce visual works for public spaces. He’s conducted eight of these Flash Collective workshops around North America in 2014.
The collectives are not just about HIV/AIDS—Finkelstein had led collectives on criminalization, gentrification, gender and identity—but he admits his “beat” is communicating the complexities of the virus. The collectives are all about action. In Finkelstein’s words, they are an “experiment in political art-making focused on the creation of a one day collective to produce a single art intervention in a public space.”
Anybody can be a part of the collective, which, for the New York Public Library, took place in several sessions over two months.
“I make it a condition that the collectives be interdisciplinary, like the early days of [HIV/AIDS] activism,” Finkelstein tells A&U. For what eventually was named Undetectable, Finkelstein put out an open call, in conjunction with Visual AIDS New York, and gathered a group of fifteen—not only artists, but writers, activists, journalists, budding curators, policy wonks, some Radical Faeries, and folk who were simply interested in exploring the topic.
“I consider the diversity of backgrounds in the collective to be a strength of the project,” he says.
In the first meeting Finkelstein engaged them to think about art as intervention; in other words, how art can lead to social engagement and collective action. And he encouraged them to confront difficult ideas and consider innovative ways of communicating them.
Then came intense “mapping” exercises about what HIV/AIDS is today. Several issues arose:
• The HIV/AIDS crisis is not over
• Pharmaceutical intervention has changed the disease, not ended it
• Fear and stigma still surround HIV/AIDS
• When, how, and what to disclose is still part of a complex landscape
• Criminalization, race and class are all part of the HIV/AIDS fight
• The sero-divide is important, yet not dealt with
The multiple topics surrounding HIV/AIDS today reflects the vastness of the disease, Finkelstein says.
“In a very concentrated period of time the collective engaged a conversation on HIV/AIDS. And I believe that in any room, there are people who have something to say [about HIV/AIDS] whether they know it or not.”
Undetectable, in all its meanings
But the final product had to be specific as well as broad. In the mapping exercise, a common word was “undetectable,” in its social, political, gender, race, and every other meaning.
Including invisibility of HIV/AIDS in society today?
Actually no, says Finkelstein. “Invisibility is another interesting interpretation of undetectable and one that we didn’t have time to explore, in fact probably the only aspect of undetectable that we didn’t cover.”
One main point of the word “undetectable,” as far as this art intervention collective was concerned, was an acknowledgement of a state of flux.
“We act as if HIV/AIDS is not in flux, that it’s stable. But in fact if you talk to anyone in the community, that’s not the case. We know a lot but we don’t know everything.”
Finkelstein drives home the point about how undetectable means that policies are built around compliance and how HIV-positive people will be compliant in institutional settings.
“The sero-divide is an institutional divide. Right now, the view that HIV-positive people are responsible for disclosing, and responsible for taking their meds to stay healthy, that takes everyone else off the hook.”
Communicating the message
The group’s next step was to agree on a way to visually communicate all of these complex, interconnected ideas that fall under the word undetectable, and do it in a way that would engage people in the public sphere—a public sphere consisting of four disparate branches of a public library which may have thousands of people coming through per month who are not going there for the exhibit and not necessarily thinking about HIV/AIDS at all.
The second session involved creating a text that could inform an audience of undetermined race, gender and class, while delivering the collective’s political perspective on the questions raised about the word undetectable.
The result was a lenticular printing technique—giving the illusion of depth and ability to change when viewed at different angles—for both the light box posters and 2,500 postcards.
Finkelstein said the collective wanted to illustrate that the issue of antibody status is in flux by using a “ghosting” of positive and negative signs. Underneath the signs is run-on text that covers the medical meaning of undetectable as well as its social and policy implications. It was translated into five languages to reach multiple audiences.
UNDETECTABLE HAS EMERGED IN THIS CONVERSATION. UNDETECTABLE ORIGINATED AS A MEDICAL TERM FOR AN “ACCEPTABLY” LOW PRESENCE OF HIV IN THE BLOODSTREAM DEPENDENT ON STRICT COMPLIANCE WITH “SUCCESSFUL” ANTIRETROVIRAL TREATMENTS. MAINTAINING UNDETECTABLE VIRAL LEVELS SIGNIFICANTLY REDUCES HIV TRANSMISSION, BUT IT IS NOT A CURE FOR AIDS & DOES NOT REMOVE STIGMA. NOT EVERYONE HAS ACCESS TO INFORMATION OR TREATMENTS, SO THE EMPHASIS ON ACHIEVING UNDETECTABILITY REINFORCES RACIAL & SOCIOECONOMIC DIVIDES. BECAUSE THERE IS MORE MONEY IN LIFELONG TREATMENT, PROFIT-DRIVEN DRUG COMPANIES HAVE NO FINANCIAL INCENTIVE TO FIND A CURE. UNDETECTABILITY SAVES LIVES. BUT WHOSE LIVES? & WHO PROFITS? WHERE’S THE CURE?
Content is everything
Communication in the public sphere has changed greatly since the days when Silence=Death and Gran Fury projects were conceived. When asked about how technology-enabled social media in all its forms has changed how an artist/activist communicates messages, Finkelstein insists that the need for content is still paramount.
“The technology is just the delivery mechanism. A billboard poster is different than a smart phone. But you still have to say something, and that’s our job.”
The poster installation will be on display at four library branches in far-flung parts of New York City—Hunters Point, Jefferson Market, St. George, and Washington Heights—through December, but the conversation will continue in a blog under the name Undetectable Collective.
Larry Buhl writes A&U’s monthly Hep Talk column.