The Inevitable Fear: My most powerful memories around HIV, while having a negative status, were centered on tremendous fear. At that time contracting HIV was my biggest fear in life. My most powerful memory after becoming HIV positive was the crushing feeling that my worst fear had come true, and that my life would never be the same. The sense of finality and “no-going-back” - that there was no way to undo this - was terrifying and difficult to accept.
This year’s World AIDS Day slogan is #Rethink HIV (replete with hashtag). The campaign’s goal is to challenge people to “rethink outdated stereotypes” that get in the way of making informed decisions on both the political and personal level. Despite all the medical strides made in the last three decades, the disease has not been eradicated by any means. In fact, according to the international education advocacy group AVERT, HIV rates are on the rise amongst youth and “50 percent of young people living with HIV are not aware of their infection. A sense of complacency or an ‘it doesn’t affect me’ attitude have prevented young people from getting tested and subsequently accessing antiretroviral treatment.” HIV rates in the bible belt states across the south are especially high.
The Rethink HIV campaign has generated a slew of creative educational outreach projects including public kissing booths and red velvet ribbon cupcake bake-offs. Dozens of new info graphics remind people of the incredible medical progress in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Some of these facts include the good news that people living with HIV who are on effective treatment can expect a normal life expectancy. Also, 99.5 percent of pregnant women do not pass HIV or AIDS on their new newborns. These facts say a lot about how far we’ve come and how important it is to talk about how far we still have to go. The new conversation about HIV and AIDS right now is: Hey, let’s have a conversation.
The activist art world is focused on spreading that message. Last week, an HIV education outreach art collective, Impulse Group NYC, presented its first pop-up gallery exhibition, Face to Face, by photographer and sculptor David Meanix. The exhibit (which will travel the country early next year) is a combination of photo sculptures, video, and live performance, depicts sexual partners in conversation with each other about their sexual health status. Images run the gamut of expressing everything from “break downs to breakthroughs.” The goal of the project is embodied by one of World AIDS Day’s most popular infographic: Kissing, Licking, Sucking, doesn’t spread HIV. Ignorance does.
Meanix’s work is multi-faceted, a combination of staged photography and documentary representations. He created the original three-dimensional portrait sculptures out of prepared photographic images, then re-photographed the sculpture in new surroundings. His subject is photographed inch by inch, until he’s shot enough material to sculpt his main subject. In his artist statement he wrote, “Each torn section is a testament to seeing and sharing multidimensional perspectives.”
From the sun-splashed gallery of the High Line Loft, photosculptor David Meanix spoke to me about dancing through life, taking Truvada, and the importance of honest mask-removing conversations about HIV status.
– Raluca Albu for Guernica.
Guernica: The AIDS Walk just celebrated its 30th year, and a lot of great documentaries have come out recently showcasing decades of struggle with the deadliest epidemic in human history. What strikes me about your work, though, is how you’re able to depict the intimate side of what has been typically politicized. Your work makes room for the conversations that aren’t being had about how people, in their most private moments together, can talk about HIV and AIDS.
Meanix: Yes, the activist side of the HIV movement can be overwhelming but all of it needs to start at the personal level. Every individual has to have his or her own dialogue about their sexual health, HIV in particular. I think a lot of people have trouble even breaching the topic of HIV with themselves not to mention with each other. I speak for myself and for the twelve subjects I sculpted and interviewed for this project, but I assume it’s a universal experience.
I’m not an HIV expert. But I can admit to being an expert at being in HIV denial at times in my life. When I was asked to do this project for Impulse Group NYC, I couldn’t fully grasp or respect their deceivingly simple concept of creating fun and casual events and space for healthy dialogue about HIV. But that goal is pretty revolutionary. One conversation at a time about HIV challenges the decades-old stigmas that keep us from facing HIV honestly at all. Simple conversations, that once were so easily swept under the rug, can be had. I realized that any time is the time to become more conscious about my health and choices.
The movement has accomplished a lot. But we still have to be hyper-aware and conscious about protecting ourselves from HIV. We are not “post epidemic.” We don’t have a cure. HIV is still being spread. We have great ways to protect ourselves from HIV. Truvada, for example, can significantly reduce the risk of contracting HIV. A lot of people don’t know it exists. And, hello, tried and true condoms can too (in case you need a reminder—this project has taught me that a lot of people do need that reminder!). Condoms are easy to come by as are the other preventative drugs—which are easily distributed with the help of HIV advocacy groups like the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the parent of Impulse Group NYC. They make it easy for me and others to get and stay on PrEP/Truvada since it is only useful if you adhere to taking it every day.
My work is a call to action for all of us to disrupt the stigma and silence around HIV—if people are scared or misinformed, they’ll act on that, sometimes through inaction.The research I did for this project was frightening. The MSM (men who have sex with men) community—especially youth, latino and black communities—are seeing a dramatic increase of seroconvertions. There are doctors that don’t bring up the risk of HIV with their patients. And I was shocked to hear some states have laws that lead to prison sentences for people who are HIV positive and have sex with others, even if the sex is consensual. This project reawakened in me the outrage I was in denial of for a long time. Although my exhibit, Face to Face, is focused on gay men, I hope it speaks to everyone outside of Impulse Group NYC’s target audience as well.
Guernica: Why this project and why now?
Meanix: The genesis for creating my first photosculpture was inspired by dance. When we dance through life we are fully aware of the beauty of balancing all our interconnected parts in the best way possible. Photosculpture serves to remind us we can and need to let go in order to hold ourselves together while, metaphorically, dancing with personal and interpersonal change and challenges.
Dance and photosculpture both reflect our internal dialogue and need to connect with others through external dialogue. Dialogue or conversation about HIV is so necessary when there are so many stigmas still festering in the status quo (pun intended!) that keep us from vital communication. So very many times I’ve heard people are afraid to discuss HIV. Hence the virus spreads. Instead of sparking up what should be a simple straight forward conversation about protection. As trite as it sounds, communication is key.
I’ve had too many friends and family members die from AIDS to not see a connection with my creative work and HIV consciousness raising. My work is all about tearing through my own personal preconceptions in order to keep gracefully growing, changing, and evolving.
Guernica: Tell us a little bit about the artistic choices you made here. Why the masks? What are the questions you want the photos to evoke?
Meanix: All of the scenarios or photographic tableaus depict situations where some could be discussing HIV status either with partners or having an internal discussion with him or herself. Questions like: Did I take my HIV medication today? Do I have condoms in case I hook up with that hottie I’ve been fantasizing about? When and where can I get tested next? Protection is our personal responsibility.
I chose to create twelve photo realistic sculpture faces to show how easily interchangeable they are and how easy it truly can be to have conversations about HIV and share our different perspectives with each other. The subjects, like all of us, have different HIV statuses and come from super diverse backgrounds. What we all have in common is the feeling that sometimes we wear masks and aren’t as honest, forthright or intimate with each other as we’d like to be. Sharing the faces so easily puts all of us on an equal playing field where we can perceive each other as HIV equals or HIV neutral.
Guernica: I’m really intrigued by the title choices for each of these pieces. Destiny. Fortitude. Revelation. Action. These are all heavy, theological, powerful, multi-syllabic words. Why this choice?
Meanix: You said it, the titles are radically important to me and they are all those things.
Destiny – Dennis is wearing his own face here. Their drag persona is named Destiny Devine and I think this moment shows them intensely contemplating and manifesting their own Destiny.
Fortitude – This is set in an AHF HIV testing van where Dennis actually got tested. It’s about having the fortitude to follow through on creating your destiny to know and share your status.
Living – This image is all about celebrating your life. You are LIVING! As my friends and I like to joke while simultaneously seriously affirming each other as fiercely unique creatures!
Breakthrough – This image depicts the kind of moment where you might feel alone in a crowd even in the company of your own friends if you don’t have the faith to open up and discuss something personal or spark up a conversation around HIV.
Within – I was going to call this “Head Above Water” yet I thought it takes a lot of power from within to stay as afloat, serene, and buoyant as Darrell so beautifully does in this world.
Thrive – Sean is an out and proud long term AIDS survivor and seriously thrives in life. He’s truly sweet, supportive, friendly, forthright and it all seems to come so naturally to him. We all have the ability to thrive if we let ourselves.
Together – Can you believe it is thirty plus years we’ve been challenged by HIV and AIDS and some of us still can’t come face to face with the reality of HIV? Every small step we take together makes a difference and can help us stay healthy and save lives.
Precipice – This image works on many obvious levels, hence its title. The face of the subject (Joey) is being worn by a transgender woman who is literally standing at a precipice. Trans women have the highest percentage of new HIV-positive test results but with education and awareness we can realize our interconnectedness, keep ourselves grounded, (bring that percentage to zero like they are trying to do in San Francisco) and stay healthy.
Revelation – Sharing your status doesn’t have to feel like a great reveal! You’re not going to fall apart. It only makes a person love stronger.
Hold – We can and do have the power and spirit to hold ceremony for each other as sanctimonious beings.
Action – When it comes time for action, have a plan to stay protected, stick to it and most of all, enjoy!
Creation – We are our own greatest creation.
Guernica: How have people responded to the work?
Meanix: I received a lot of praise recently at the opening of Face To Face but the best reaction was when an HIV positive man insisted he hug me and tell me how much the work affected him and gave a voice to his story. He and a lot of others keep telling me how moved they are and how important and vital the work is to them. I’ve officially become an activist while producing Face To Face, I’m beyond happy it seems to be resonating the love and passion I gave my best to put into it.
The message of speaking your truth is a real call to action that needs to be heard. My friend Jordan Eagles has a blood equality piece called Blood Mirror that is questioning the FDA’s banning gay men from giving blood which also obviously deals with HIV stigma still rampant at the government level. I’m glad to join him and others in what I hope is a renaissance of making activist art with pioneer advocacy groups like Visual AIDS and ACT UP that continue to raise money and stand up for what’s right until the threat of HIV and AIDS is over. We do have the power to keep reassembling our perspectives until it is actually a thing of the past. Face to Face is going to tour and will be presented next by Impulse Group Los Angeles on Jan. 28, if not sooner.