A People’s Pandemic
Theodore (ted) Kerr Curates an Exhibition of AIDS Posters that Draw Us In
by Chael Needle
Selecting from the AIDS poster archive at the National Library of Medicine (NLM), independent curator Theodore (ted) Kerr has created an engaging and powerful exhibition that moves beyond the technical, informational aspects of public-health outreach to highlight the collective power of artists, activists and community workers to create a place for individuals to “gather, mourn, organize, and inspire,” as the introduction states. Alongside this tactic, “AIDS, Posters, and Stories of Public Health: A People’s History of a Pandemic” explores how AIDS posters (and postcards) may function to dismantle isolation and strengthen togetherness and use personal narrative and messaging in language that connects with intended audiences and with cultural specificity.
The capacity of drawing is given special focus. The introduction states: “Drawing can bridge the divide. As a technique, drawing provides an opportunity for a person to make and share visuals that do not yet exist and that no one else but the artist themselves can see and create.”
The exhibition is categorized by theme, highlighting those who produced the posters: Minority AIDS Project; Native People Respond to HIV/AIDS; The Whitman-Walker Clinic; “Please Be Safe” by the Northwest AIDS Foundation; South Carolina AIDS Education Network (SCAEN); Harm Reduction/Clean Needles; and Postcard Politics. Analyses provide cogent insights into the empowering choices made in the dance of words, images and real life.
Importantly the exhibition is careful not to anchor AIDS messaging in the past, as if AIDS is history. As the introduction reminds: “Today, AIDS posters continue to be valuable resources for the ongoing epidemic. They teach us about community organizing processes and the ways that groups dealing with HIV heal, share fears, and strategize toward wellness together.” AIDS is not over; the need to create and survive is ever-present.
Artist, writer, teacher and organizer Theodore (ted) Kerr has long foregrounded the collective and creative efforts of individuals impacted by HIV/AIDS. During his tenure at Visual AIDS as the nonprofit’s program manager, he worked to bring social justice to the fore. POZ honored him in 2016 with a Best Journalism award for an article he wrote on race, HIV, and art for HyperAllergic. He is a founding member of the What Would An HIV Doula Do? collective, which, according to its website, is “a community of people committed to better implicating community within the ongoing response to HIV/AIDS.” This year, Duke University Press will publish a book he wrote with Alexandra Juhasz: We Are Having This Conversation Now: The Times of AIDS Cultural Production.
A&U corresponded via email with Theodore (ted) Kerr recently.
Chael Needle: The subtitle of the exhibition is “A People’s History of a Pandemic.” Yet, when one hears “AIDS posters,” at least today, one might think of campaigns by public health organizations and ASOs, that is, institutions rather than people. As curator, why was it important for you to emphasize people in the present moment?
Theodore (ted) Kerr: All AIDS posters are part of a tradition that not only dates back to the civil right era, early women´s liberation efforts, the American Indian Movement, anti-war protests, the fight for gay rights and so much more, they are also all an echo of the earliest AIDS activism.
For example, Bobbi Campbell was a nurse and gay rights activist, who would go on to be one of The Denver Principles authors and a self-appointed AIDS poster boy. In 1981 he took a photo of lesions on his body and put them on a piece of paper. At the top of the page he wrote: GAY CANCER. At the bottom, he told people that if they had similar marks they should seek medical attention. He hung his homemade creation in the front window of a Castro pharmacy, where word of an illness impacting gay men was already spreading.
I start the exhibition with Campbell. I think he made the first AIDS poster in history, and he reminds me that before public health organizations took notice of HIV, or ASOs even existed, people living with a then-mysterious illness used the tools they had to generate action and care. As much as I emphasize people in the exhibition, I also work to draw attention to the tactics they use to help themselves and others survive and thrive. The making and distribution of posters is a common and vital tool used by people in almost any modern fight for life we can imagine, even in the digital age.
I love the lead image created of individuals looking at the Campbell poster! In the process of curating, what did you learn about tactics that you hadn’t thought of or deeply considered before?
I started the project thinking I would use no images from ASOs or government bodies, a way to double down on the idea of ẗhe people´s pandemic. And with that approach I found a lot of amazing posters: I am thinking specifically about the illustrated poster by an unnamed artist that came out of DiAna DiAna South Carolina hair salon, or Silence = Death from the Silence = Death Project. But soon enough I came to remember that people make up ASOs and governmental organizations and to not include them would be to ignore the hard work that often comes from the inside. Once I opened up my parameters I found really powerful work that speaks to how people working together—whether it is protesting on the streets, or speaking truth to personal experience within an office space—is what is at the heart of the ongoing response to AIDS. The poster that opened me up to this way of thinking is the one that features “HIV” spelled out in ASL produced by AIDS Rochester, Inc. It is really important that someone is tasked and compensated with ensuring HIV information is available to anyone and everyone, regardless of disability, language, etc. So, I guess to answer your question directly, I would say I learned two things: sometimes I have to get out of my own way and ensure I am letting the power of the work dictate the project, and that as romantic as the idea of “the people”-making-change narrative is, the truth is, sometimes those people are not rugged individuals, but people within systems trying—and doing—their best. Also, there is no binary. Sometimes the person yelling the loudest at the protest is also the middle manager from an ASO.
Perhaps the same idea about abandoning either/or thinking might apply to messaging via AIDS posters. Sometimes the most effective, engaging poster does not have the highest production values. I’m thinking of posters such the “how to use a condom” poster by Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center or the South Carolina AIDS Education Network, both of which use drawings. I know the introduction makes special mention of drawing as a way to connect with people. Other media have their strengths, of course, but what do you feel is special about drawing as a medium in this context?
The funny thing is, I was drawn to those posters exactly because they don´t have the highest production value. It was their lack of slickness, and instead their earnestness that drew me in and led me to want to read the message and learn about the people who made the work. These posters remind me that HIV is first and foremost a virus—a physical thing—that lives in some people’s bodies, and not in other people’s bodies; and that the difference of who is infected and who isn´t is less about who we are and what we do, and is most often a result of material realities such as income inequality and geography impacting healthcare, education, and access to harm reduction tools like needles, condoms, and PrEP.
I also focused on drawing because I am interested in how an illustrated poster is a reproduction of an original drawing, the replication process mirroring the journey of the virus. As much as we don´t want the virus to replicate in people’s bodies, we do want information, care, and resources to be duplicated and shared within the AIDS response. I see drawing as a poetic reminder that what we do with our hands, can and does help and inspire others. At the very least, I hope viewers consider the people who made the drawings, and feel an AIDS related connection with them, the virus and creativity creating a bond across time and space!
What can you tell me about the upcoming touring version of the exhibition and where it hopes to travel?
The NLM traveling exhibition initiative is so cool. Curators, like myself, create an exhibition, and then work with designers and other experts to produce not only a website, but also an easy-to-install-and-ship traveling exhibition.
Sadly though, as of this moment, COVID-19 has made touring the exhibition impossible. But, when touring is possible again, the exhibition will go where the people want it. It is available to libraries and cultural institutions free of charge.
I love the idea that someone hanging out at their local community center, or checking out a book at a library may come across the exhibition, and be able to share that moment with other people. One of the things about HIV is that no one gets it alone, and so no one should have to deal with it alone. Building community around the virus I think is one of the most powerful things people can do, and I hope this exhibition helps make some community moments happen!
Thanks to Patricia Tuohy, Head, Exhibition Program, and the Exhibition Program team at National Library of Medicine for their help.
For more information and to view the digital version of the exhbition, visit: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/aids-posters/index.html. Visit tedkerr.club for info about curator Theodore (ted) Kerr.
Chael Needle interviewed artist Boré Ivanoff for the January 2022 Gallery. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.