Curator John Chaich and Visual AIDS team up together in the show Mixed Messages to remind us that apathy is no cure for aids
by Lester Strong
The use of text as visual art has a distinguished past: Hebrew and Islamic art, medieval illuminated manuscripts, post-World War I Russian Constructivism are a few examples that come to mind.
Curator John Chaich has updated that tradition into our contemporary world, placing it in an AIDS context, in a recent (June 2 through July 3) exhibition for Visual AIDS titled Mixed Messages at one of New York City’s premier alternative arts venues, La MaMa La Galleria.
AIDS and HIV, acronyms though they are, have had their own memorable histories as words. First introduced in the early 1980s to name a newly discovered disease—Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome—and its cause—Human Immunodeficiency Virus—they themselves quickly acquired an air of mystery and threat. In the first years of what later became the worldwide pandemic we know today, AIDS had no known cure or treatment options, unclear modes of transmission, and an unpleasant death as its only certain outcome. It also burst on the world as a disease associated mainly with gay men, which meant that, especially in the United States, homophobia played its part in the attempted social ostracism of those having it and calls by right-wing politicos of the day for their incarceration in concentration camps.
That started to change in the mid-1990s with the introduction of effective antiretroviral medicines that didn’t cure AIDS but transformed it into a manageable, chronic illness like diabetes or asthma. The result: By now, almost precisely on the thirtieth anniversary of the first reported cases of people with the disease, the terms AIDS and HIV have moved largely into the background of our culture, scarcely mentioned on newscasts or in the print media any longer, while all the hysteria of several decades ago has vanished into what often feels like a vast indifference on the part of the public at large.
Enter John Chaich and Mixed Messages. When contacted about the exhibit and asked how it came about, Chaich traced it back to an interest he developed while working for a Master of Fine Arts degree in Communications Design regarding how effective designing with words alone is in communicating messages rather than designing with a combination of words and images. “As a communications designer, I’m a writer first,” he explained. “I would argue that presenting words alone is actually a very visual experience, and I’ve always been interested in playing with words on the page and through the spoken word.”
Mixed Messages was certainly about words. And it’s no surprise it was also about AIDS. Chaich began his career as an HIV counselor and community educator in his hometown of Cleveland before moving to New York City for graduate school. Since then he has presented at national conferences on AIDS and the arts, and has worked for almost a decade with Visual AIDS on a number of their projects.
“For my degree,” he said, “I began to research which campaigns historically and today had to do primarily with words only. And given my personal history and knowledge of art and design in response to HIV/AIDS, many of the examples I was looking at and collecting were drawn from that world. The more I collected, and the more HIV/AIDS-specific examples I came across, the more passionate I felt about exploring how words have shaped our understanding of HIV/AIDS and how we are challenged when those words are visually presented.”
Mixed Messages in the forty-three pieces of art it presented contained many words—along with a number of images—that converged on HIV/AIDS from several directions. In some cases the connection is obvious: Gran Fury’s The Four Questions t-shirt (“Do you resent people with AIDS? Do you trust HIV-negatives? Have you given up hope for a cure? When was the last time you cried?”) (2009); Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (1989), where white letters on a black background spell out the timeline “People with AIDS Coalition 1985 Police Harassment 1969 Oscar Wilde 1891 Supreme Court 1986 Harvey Milk 1977 March on Washington 1987 Stonewall Rebellion 1969”; or Andrew Graham’s ironic appropriation of a Fred Phelps’ hate message in his AIDS is God’s Curse (2009). In other cases, the connection is less direct but equally unambiguous: Nightsweats & T-Cells’ simple message: Annoy Them…Survive (2011); Yoko Ono’s postcard-size Touch Me (2008); or Jack Pierson’s Desire/Despair (1998), in which the words meet in a horizontal-vertical embrace at the letter S. There was also David Wojnarowicz’s powerful Untitled (One day this kid…) (1990), a highly confessional piece juxtaposing an image of the artist as a boy with text linking the homophobia (and by implication AIDS-phobia) he would eventually face in his life to his growing awareness of his desire for other boys.
Clearly HIV/AIDS has generated a good many messages over the decades in a variety of contexts: sexual, emotional, social, political, medical, even religious. Mixed Messages pulled them together in a way that vividly underlined the issues raised by the disease which as individuals and as a society we have been forced to confront. “I hope the works in this show will dialogue with each other in the viewers’ minds as they look a them,” Chaich said during the course of the interview. “I hope they will trigger discussions, arguments, poetry, choirs, a cacophony of responses.”
He continued: “One of the simplest but most profound messages I ever heard about HIV/AIDS came from a staff psychologist at the AIDS organization where I started my career. She said, ‘AIDS is a crisis of connections.’”
Perhaps one of the more profound messages viewers could take away from the exhibition, especially in the face of so much apparent indifference on the part of the public at large to this pandemic on its thirtieth anniversary, is that the art in the show was created by people very much in touch with their outrage at and concern over the effects of AIDS. Apathy has never solved a problem. John Chaich is reminding us we must remain connected to our own outrage and concern as individuals and a society if we want to see the crisis come to an end.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U.