Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Reigniting art and AIDS activism

A collaborative effort for World AIDS Day


This December marks the 20-year anniversary of World AIDS Day.

Since its inception, the day has served not only as a way to promote awareness around HIV/AIDS but also as a way to document the impact of the epidemic and to celebrate any progress made in research.

On Dec 1, 1989, the same year the UN announced the first World AIDS Day, Visual AIDS organized a “day without art” as a national day of action and mourning in response to the AIDS crisis.

Other cities followed suit and until roughly five years ago, Dec 1 was not just about HIV/AIDS awareness but was also a powerful statement about the way in which AIDS was treated —hidden away, shamed into obscurity.

With the hope of reigniting this passionate dialogue between AIDS activism and the arts, four days of events will take place this year in Vancouver from Nov 27-30, including film screenings, performances, art installations and a panel discussion exploring various aspects of promoting AIDS awareness through artistic creation.

The sponsors and presenters are numerous and include The Centre, Cineworks, The Dance Centre, Out on Screen, Pacific Cinematheque, Vancouver New Music, VIVO Media Arts and AIDS Vancouver.

Last year, Jim Smith, managing producer at Vancouver New Music, saw World AIDS Day as the perfect opportunity to showcase John Greyson’s opera Fig Trees, a video installation piece that engages themes of solidarity across cultures and classes.

The response was so overwhelmingly positive that everyone involved agreed that there needed to be more collaboration between Vancouver’s various arts communities and queer communities.

The goal here is an inter-communities dialogue. This year’s collaborative World AIDS Day events are predominantly —but not exclusively —queer. They speak to a wide range of experiences surrounding AIDS.

Among the many noteworthy events, Diamanda Galás, a New York-based singer-songwriter will be performing on Nov 29 at St Andrew’s-Wesley United Church in the West End.

Famous for her multi-octave vocal range, Galás writes songs that deal with issues from AIDS and genocide, to violence against women and other forms of systemic violence. Galás is not queer herself but she is no stranger to the community. “Much of her music has to do with her brother who died of AIDS,” notes Smith, adding that he hopes audiences will find her words inspiring.

A fan of “exploring the interplay between protest and art,” Smith and the folks at Vancouver New Music also got in touch with Frederick Cummings, the curator of the annual queer multimedia event Red 8, who has a reputation for being edgy.

The resulting art exhibit opens Nov 28 at VIVO on Main St. The show’s mandate? “Bring your best, raunchiest and most thought-provoking work forward and throw in a bit of AIDS activism if you can,” says Cummings.

Cummings is no stranger to the shock effect. “This has always been my goal in putting this show together, whether it be in the form of performance art of giving blowjobs on stage, to exhibiting work that some could deem illegal,” he says. He points to Paul Wong’s video in Red 8 2002 named Trieste that showed bloody rituals in the city of Trieste, Italy, and the New Congress’ photographs of murdered young street hustlers.

Red 8 “will be even more boundary-pushing this year with the inclusion of famed artist Attila Richard Lukacs and performance art pieces by Sisterfuck and Bobbi Kozinuk, which examine the current AIDS crisis and how it has changed,” Cummings promises.

As a retrospective tribute, Cummings says part of the VIVO library will also be set up to screen AIDS films from the 1980s and ’90s —”just to let us examine how far we have come in our fears and conceptions/misconceptions about the disease.”

For Cummings, “the idea of a multitude of communities and voices gathering around World AIDS Day is exciting.”

When asked whether this theme of Art and Activism was inspired by our newly re-elected Prime Minister, Smith laughs knowingly. “It was not a conscious idea at the time,” he says, explaining that he really was trying to create a tradition that followed in the remarkable footsteps of Greyson’s opera.

However, Smith quickly shifts gears to talk about the obvious timeliness of the theme. “Since the arts got so much airtime in the last election, this idea of the intersection between art and activism is likely to resonate with a lot of people.”

With so many different sectors of Vancouver’s queer and arts communities uniting on this collaborative project, 2008’s World AIDS Day is unlikely to go unnoticed here.

Collaborative World AIDS Day events.
Nov 27-30.