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AIDS awareness film premieres at museum

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AIDS awareness film premieres at museum

The billboard for “Alternate Endings, Activist Risings.” It is a film produced by Visual Aids, a contemporary art organization, for its 29th Day With(out) Art project. It highlights the prevalent issues surrounding the AIDS pandemic today.

The billboard for “Alternate Endings, Activist Risings.” It is a film produced by Visual Aids, a contemporary art organization, for its 29th Day With(out) Art project. It highlights the prevalent issues surrounding the AIDS pandemic today.

Photo courtesy of Amy Powell

The billboard for “Alternate Endings, Activist Risings.” It is a film produced by Visual Aids, a contemporary art organization, for its 29th Day With(out) Art project. It highlights the prevalent issues surrounding the AIDS pandemic today.

Photo courtesy of Amy Powell

Photo courtesy of Amy Powell

The billboard for “Alternate Endings, Activist Risings.” It is a film produced by Visual Aids, a contemporary art organization, for its 29th Day With(out) Art project. It highlights the prevalent issues surrounding the AIDS pandemic today.

By Vishesh Anand, Staff Writer

Fade in: Outstretched blood-red fists rise up on the foreground against a crossed- out white box. The title of the film is “Visual AIDS Presents Day With(out) Art.”

That’s followed by Fredrick Weston, an artist and AIDS patient, strolling into the New York offices of Visual AIDS. This contemporary art organization has been committed to raising AIDS awareness since 1988. He has been with Visual AIDS since 1998 — when he first learned of his diagnosis.

At the office, Weston first peeks his head through the door to see if anyone else is there. Then he picks out a folder from a chest of drawers and makes himself comfortable in the middle of a conference table. 

While flipping through his portfolio, he talks about his 20-year-long journey with Visual AIDS and the role it played in his path from an AIDS patient to artist and activist.

Weston said the organization has served a vital purpose for him.

“This made me feel like I was a part of something,” Weston said. “My activism is turning those negative things — shame, stigma and guilt — into something positive.”

His story is the first of many that are documented in Visual AIDS’ 29th annual Day With(out) film titled “Alternate Endings, Activist Risings.” It highlights the impact of art in AIDS activism and advocacy today by commissioning six short films from community organizations and collectives across the country.

Over the next two weeks, the film will be screened at over 100 locations in 11 countries.

Krannert Art Museum will be playing the film on a loop  9 a.m.-5 p.m. on Friday and from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Saturday this week. It will be shown on its main screen in the lobby and in a more focused screening area on the lower level.

At noon on Dec. 1, The Art Theater in Champaign will host a public screening followed by a panel on AIDS issues that affect the Champaign-Urbana community.

Visual AIDS’ mission has not changed since it was founded 30 years ago. Its goal is to raise awareness of the fact AIDS can affect anybody and to inspire positive action.

Out of their only office in New York, the organization also works with community organizations nationwide to assist artists living with the virus and to preserve the work of artists afflicted with HIV/AIDS.

In 1991, the organization’s nascent years, they were working on The Ribbon Project to create an awareness symbol for the growing epidemic. Today, their creation is visualized through the Red Ribbon and is worn as a symbol of solidarity with people who are living with HIV/AIDS.

The Day With(out) Art program is their flagship project. It is considered a day of mourning and action in response to the AIDS pandemic said Kyle Croft, project manager for Day With(out) Art.

Since Day With(out) Art was introduced in 1989, the project has evolved, he said. While the mission remains the same, the medium has changed.

“When the program started, it was Day Without Art — without parenthesis,” Croft said. “It was about symbolically highlighting the loss of life via the loss (of) artwork.”

Until the program’s 10th anniversary, Visual AIDS urged museums countrywide to cover up their artwork, darken their galleries or close for the day to represent the chilling possibility of a future without artists.

In their first year, more than 800 galleries and museums participated. The Guggenheim in New York blackened the front of the museum for an entire day in solidarity.

But in 1999, there was a conceptual shift. The parenthesis were added, Croft said, and there was a collaborative effort to highlight work by HIV-positive artists and artwork addressing current issues around the ongoing AIDS pandemic.

This year’s film will showcase the expansive range of strategies adopted by different organizations while considering the role of creative practices in activist responses to the ongoing AIDS crisis.

By reflecting on the urgencies of the epidemic, the film will address intersecting issues including anti-black violence, HIV criminalization, homelessness and the disproportionate effects of HIV on marginalized communities.

Dr. Ryan Wade, assistant professor at the University’s School of Social Work, has been studying these issues since 2013 and will be a part of the panel on AIDS issues at The Art Theater.

Prior to arriving at the University, he worked as an HIV test counselor in Michigan for four years where he first noticed the disparity in how the endemic increasingly impacted African- Americans.

He cited research how racial and sexual discrimination, even within the LGBT community, leads to closed sexual networks for African Americans.

“Since there is a higher prevalence of HIV/AIDS within the black community, where you also have a closed network, it allows the virus to proliferate like wildfire,” Wade said.

In 2017, African-Americans accounted for 43 percent of all HIV/AIDS cases diagnosed, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Wade is conducting research to discern the reasons behind the disproportionate rates, but he attributes it to many societal and structural factors that work together.

He feels systemic change is important for providing better services to those suffering from the disease. Most importantly, Wade said HIV criminalization laws need to be modernized.

These laws were implemented in the early years of the epidemic and are used to criminally prosecute patients for alleged, perceived or potential HIV exposure, even it is unintentional.

In Wade’s opinion, such regulations are counterproductive for public health efforts to combat the crisis since they deter HIV testing for those at risk.

The short films address these issues at different levels, from direct action to grassroots service providers and nationwide movement building.

Amy Powell, curator at Krannert Art Museum, worked with Visual AIDS to bring the project to Krannert Art Museum for the second consecutive year. She believes it is important to look at the role art plays when it comes to addressing issues that affect us all.

To bring the Day With(out) Art closer to the community, she will also moderate the panel on how AIDS issues affect us locally, where she will be joined by Mike Benner, executive director of Greater Community AIDS Project; Nancy Johnson, HIV Prevention Program Coordinator for C-U Public Health District and Dr. Ryan Wade.

Powell is looking forward to seeing how the film can open up a conversation about HIV/AIDS in the community, though she admits there are some limitations to using art as a tool for activism and raising awareness.

“Access to media and access to an audience are the main challenges,” Powell said. “But the real strength of Day With(out) Art is that so many organizations come together on the same day. By uniting our voices and putting our resources together, we would hope that we reach a broader audience.”

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