featured gallery for January 2020

Viral: A Contagious Kiss, A Transmittable Video

VIRAL: A Contagious Kiss, A Transmittable Video, a digital project and web gallery for Visual AIDS, dissects the significance of the word “viral” across generations of artists living with HIV. To gauge what connotations “viral” has today, I asked a diverse community of sero-positive artists to provide a written or spoken response*:

I assumed that younger artists would be more likely to think of social media and YouTube while older artists would be more likely to think about ACT UP & Reagan. Of course I am asking these questions and providing these prompts as an ally and community member of Visual AIDS, so the subject of HIV and AIDS is inherent in my prompt. I hoped for an illuminating, striking, and surprising compilation of responses that could serve aficionados, followers, and visitors alike in better understanding the perspectives of these interdisciplinary artists and how the loaded term “viral” can be seen implicitly or explicitly in their artworks and creative practices.

When it comes to viral iconography, Visual AIDS is no stranger. The Visual AIDS Artists’ Caucus created the red ribbon for HIV and AIDS activism, the first wearable awareness ribbon which in turn sparked more colors for additional causes. The Artists’ Caucus chose red because of its “connection to blood and the idea of passion—not only anger, but love...". My first introduction to the red ribbon was through the drug resistance program, D.A.R.E. and it wasn’t until I started attending school for theatre and started to raise funds for Broadway Care/Equity Fights AIDS that I learned about how the red ribbon began. And it was not until I began to curate this web gallery that I learned how the artists who began to use the red ribbon in this way made up the original Visual AIDS Artists’ Caucus.

Although seeing thousands of folks wearing red ribbons may give the impression of solidarity, some question its impact. Nuyorican and genderfluid** Artist+ Member Anthony Rosado (images 22, 29) noted that, in the age of guerilla trends, fads, and showing face for political correctness, when young people in particular don red ribbons, it is as though they are just being “cute for a day,” and go back to not caring or supporting the cause. An example Anthony compared this to was people making Instagram posts about Earth Day, but going back to buying single-use plastic the next day.

The viral aspect of HIV, being a transmittable virus, has historically been associated with negative connotations. In this context, being viral is seen as a bad thing. The idea of having HIV or having a “viral load” (Alexander Kargaltsev, images 9, 14), in turn, enables viral to operate as a derogatory slur. In the context of social media and the internet’s meme culture, however, being or becoming viral (i.e. a “viral video”) is often seen as positive or a sign of success. When Alexander’s photograph Black on White (2014, Image 14) went viral across the internet, he was surprised, and he now associates “viral” as a prefix to both the word “video” and “load”. Similarly, Ms. Colombia (1954–2018, image 30), an HIV+ icon and genderfluid** activist, became a sensation on the internet and in New York City (Lenape land), for her colorfully dyed beard, eccentric outfits, and charismatic personality.

What does the term “viral” mean to Anthony Rosado?

‘Viral’ is weighed by the body of the beholder. To me, the word is impactful. I define it as synonymous to cancer, a noun and verb whose function is to multiply and infect. It is my tri-monthly hark, reminding me why I commit to my daily Biktarvy and Valtrex. I see ‘viral’ and I read ‘Axé be to my Body’.

Anthony’s artmaking intersects with zir* anthropological research on the impact of settler-colonialism within the African diaspora, focusing on the cultural preservation of Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brasilian regions and people. In this context, he recognizes the concept of virality as being parallel to the “plague of colonization” and its “infectious spread”. Asé can be used similarly to “namaste”: Anthony reorients the spelling of this spiritual Yoruba blessing to honor and thank his body while connecting and referring to their ancestors. I first heard Asé used during protests by the students of color at my college, after people shared testimonies of personal trauma, and as a farewell that brought us back to a place of recentering, hope, and gratitude.

When asked about the relationship between the word “viral” and their work, Constantine Jones (images 3, 6, 28) did not explicitly see a connection. Constantine’s work explores what HIV is “doing and undoing” to their body, on a “loop”; this is manifested through space and environment with images of ruin and decay . This cyclical process—feeling healthy and content at one moment to feeling sick the next—has less to do with external viral transmission and more to do with the direct impact of living with the virus, or virality within oneself.

Like “viral,” the word “status” shifts between contexts of medicine (HIV status) and the internet (Facebook status). For younger Artist+ Members like Mykki Blanco (image 16), social media has had an impact and effect on their serostatus—and vice versa—that has created a complex warp of identity and visibility. Not only does Mykki stand out from the crowd as a performer, but he has also used his social media platforms to be open and honest about his life; including the disclosure of his serostatus on his public Facebook Page for fans and a global audience. Coming out as HIV positive so publicly is a bold choice, and Mykki has addressed the patronizing responses that he has often received:

People throw a lot of their own projections onto me about being HIV+ and how that now defines every single aspect of my narrative. When people know that you're HIV+, it comes with this question or gut reaction that you're somehow ill or incapable. People have this tendency to come up to me and say things like "Oh, you look really good!” I know that they think they're being nice or feel like they have to say something because now they know this very personal thing about me, but they had no context for my health before I went public about being HIV+. I know that unfortunately that is something that people will probably do to me for the rest of my career. It's very patronizing actually, to say to someone "You look healthy." It's like, "Well so do you! You look healthy too I guess.”

— Mykki Blanco, artist statement for STONES & WATER WEIGHT, 2017

Marguerite Van Cook immediately associated the word “viral” with “Kaposi,” in reference to Kaposi Sarcoma (KS), an AIDS-related skin cancer that causes red and purple marks. In the 1980s and 90s, KS lesions became a visual marker, used by some to publicly distinguish those living with HIV and AIDS and furthermore, ostracize them. Marguerite continues her free response: “to gather you like memes, saved across time and space… live in a memory, a gif... if you had gone viral, I would not fear my data loss” (images 2, 26).

Richard Sawdon Smith (images 11, 12, 20) consciously considers the conversation around “virus” and “viral” within his own work; specifically his 2019 photography series, Unknowing...X. Richard responded to our prompt with a poem on his exploration:

[...] broken free from contagion [...]
An antiretroviral journey
An undetectable life
My virus becomes untransmissable
Unbelievably positive, you remain negative
The virulence of the virus is stigma [...]
Our Queerness borderless and leaky [...]
The X of Unknowing... a kiss from me to you

Artists whose work implicitly speaks to virality in terms of health, media, or both include: J. Hartz, whose embroidered beings mark aspects of being human through vein-like mapping (Image 19); Maxime Angels Starling, whose performance art juxtaposes her body with the confines of her medication in an explicit, yet abstract way. Vasilios Papapitsios’ work, which spans across visual media and performance (images 24, 25, 31), is constantly rotating around these ideas:

everyone wants to go viral. period. we live in a vast viral network. we transmit through the electric conscious, exchange between bodies, over psychic waves and through WiFi to transcend the current mainframework. We are moving collectively forward. Going viral to infect Joy, transmit love, banish stigma and embrace the Human Illumination Virus. A journey through interspace to the higher vibration of HIV. everyone wants to go viral. but no one wants to be viral.

Jessica Whitbread poses in allegory and stitches political banners, teetering between internet sensationality and medicinal virality. The rise of digital clout—only being well-known in niche circles or contexts—rings through Jessica’s AIDS Famous (2015, image 23). Posing as an astronaut in Space Date - Alley Makeout 2 (2012, image 18), Jessica connects ideas of anonymity, quarantine, contagion, and sensuality that exist amidst intimacy. The astronauts are “making out” underneath their helmets and suits, but there is no direct skin to skin or mouth to mouth contact; protection is bluntly performed through these costume choices.

Kairon Liu’s photographs (images 1, 17, 21) speak to the many complex layers of culture—nationality, ethnicity, sociology, and pop culture. I found these works familiar yet dissociative—the feast in Married That Christmas (2013, image 1) features an honorable pig head and has elements of contemporary altars and cult practices. The group of people dressed identically to one another immediately reminded me of PSY, the singer and dancer behind the global hit “Gangnam Style”; like Jessica’s Space Date, Kairon’s choices in costuming and scenic design become multifaceted allusions that may lend to dozens of interpretations and readings of his photographs. Kissa Millar uses digital collage, juxtaposing screenshots and photo editing application windows to create bubblegum dreamscapes of suspension and vulnerability (images 4 and 5).

Although it was impossible to gather responses that were completely unbiased given the context of Visual AIDS, perhaps the association of HIV and the word “viral” was inevitable. However, I was able to catch some artists off-guard in authentic candidness, such as Carlos Gutierrez-Solana and Constantine Jones. My initial theory stands to be somewhat accurate, but as artists across generations spoke to the prompt, they uncovered connections between health and digitization in both fluid word associations and well-thought-out poetics. The word “viral” continues to grow and spread in its many iterations and in the 2020s it is sure to invite yet another layer of complexity, lived experience, and human connection/condition. Thank you to our participating artists for being open about their positive status, sharing their work with Visual AIDS, and entertaining my curiosities and assumptions with tantalizing visual, textual, and aural responses.

Welcome to the new age. Let’s see what happens next.

*See here for a transcript.