Based on research of the international AIDS poster collection of the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden, the essay reflects on the museum exhibitions as a tool/method for disrupting the well-established scenarios and symbols of the AIDS epidemics and an opportunity to introduce Rashomonic destabilization into the official medical and cultural narratives of this phenomenon.
- by Vladimir Čajkovac
“Based on a true story,” “Based on true stories,” or “Based on true events” is an idiom borrowed from the film industry. Used very often and abused even more. A mere mention of this phrase is intended to provide credibility to the stories and promise authenticity to the audience. It is a framing method used to reaffirm the recipients with the assurance that it is more than safe to suspend their disbelief and accept the upcoming unfolding of events as a witnessing endeavor.
As museum fellow and curator at the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden from April 2013 to September 2015, I had chance to delve into the presumably largest, continuously growing collection of AIDS-related posters, consisting of more than 10,000 posters from more than 150 countries worldwide. The project “AIDS as a Global Media Event” and resulting exhibition AIDS - Based on a True Story (with Kristina Kramer-Tunçludemir) examined points of transition where the AIDS posters went from being instruments of health education to museum artifacts, highlighting processes of transformation of the epidemic from an illness into a historical narrative. Although the primarily intention of the fellowship was to build keywords systematics, which was supposed to bring more order into the collection, very soon it became rather obvious that order and cleaning are the last thing that research on HIV/AIDS narratives should provide. Instead, the research focused on deconstructing one of the overarching keywords used extensively in museological representations of the HIV/AIDS epidemics, particularly in the genre of the HIV/AIDS poster exhibitions: the fight against AIDS.
Gérard Genette defined “paratext” as materials supplied to the main text by the authors, editors, printer, and publishers. “More than a boundary or a sealed border, the paratext is, rather, a threshold. It is a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: a privileged place of pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public.” A zone of transition and transaction is an uncannily correct description of the processes that were following the unraveling of the medical and societal definitions of AIDS, dissected as the epidemics of significations by American scholar Paula Treichler. Treichler considered “Turner’s postulates” useful in “rewriting the AIDS text”: “(1) disease is a language; (2) the body is a representation; and (3) medicine is a political practice.” In the context of the (museum) creation of AIDS-related narratives, we can add: history is a (tagged) image.
The critique of professor Dr. Claudia Stein poignantly describes shortcomings of using the fight against AIDS as the predominant paratext of HIV/AIDS narratives in the AIDS poster exhibitions: “By collapsing two decades of national histories into a singular and would-be unified world fight against HIV/AIDS, the history of HIV/AIDS was visually constructed in terms of this new global subjectivity. Not only were particular constructions of the recent past left out—the local struggles around these objects—but also the construction of the present—the global media industry’s selling of itself through the attack on HIV/AIDS as a ‘global problem.’” AIDS poster exhibitions reduced to the selection of witty or shocking images with no background stories, pushing the narrative of a global unified response against AIDS, ignore past, present and future struggles and inactivities. Rather than the fight in images, it would be more appropriate to talk about the fight for images—as in fact it always was the case with HIV/AIDS.
“Total media coverage of HIV/AIDS increased during the early 1980’s, peaked in 1987, and declined steadily through 2001. While this decline in coverage seems to mirror a decline in new AIDS cases in the U.S., it began about six years before the decline in cases, and continued even as the cumulative number of AIDS cases in the U.S. rose above 500,000.
Minor peaks in coverage after 1987 coincided with major developments in the epidemic, occurring in: 1991 (Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV positive), 1996 (the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy), and
2001 (increased attention to the global epidemic)”.
– “AIDS at 21” by Brodie et al.
The above research results, as well as similar findings by Everett Rodgers and James Dearing (to name only a few), show particularly how AIDS images were shaped as a newsworthy commodity, notably through the US media industry. Rock Hudson and Ryan White were selected as newsworthy victims: “The impact of these two news events [White’s and Hudson’s, author’s note] events upon subsequent media coverage of AIDS was enormous. For instance, prior to July 1985, our six media combined carried approximately 14 AIDS news stories per month. After July 1985, the average number of news stories produced by the six media jumped to 143 stories per month, about ten times the previous rate” Equally, due to mis/interpretations of Randy Shilts’ 1987 book, And the Band Played On, Gaëtan Dugas was falsely cast as the villain who brought AIDS to North America.
It may be surprising to learn that the peak of media interest in the epidemics was in the late eighties, in the year 1987. The vast majority of images and the most common global representations and symbols of AIDS are from a few years surrounding and following this period. It seems as if the concentration on a few selected symbols, such as the pink triangle (1987), the red ribbon (1991), the Benetton campaign (1992), and the movie Philadelphia (1993) created more of a distraction and illusion of the public interest, while the media coverage was in constant decline. Through the impact of 20th- and 21st-century mass media, the American lifestyle and images from art and popular culture have left their mark on everyday life around the world, and most of these representations of global epidemics are from the USA. Or, to be precise, the metropolitan areas of California and New York—while defining the AIDS imaginary, the vast inland of the USA is more than often as equally omitted and invisible as the rest of the world.
In the article "Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water...," American literary scholar Daniel Selden rewrites the narrative of the AIDS epidemics as Steven Spielberg's ‘70s blockbuster Jaws. For Selden, the concise summary of the Hollywood film is a perfectly suitable scenario for outlining the AIDS epidemic in its essential points: uncontrollable nature, a deadly primal organism, marginalized groups, and a savior embodied in the proverbial heroism combined with traditional values. Selden's poignant analysis details how closely the AIDS-related stories were and are shaped to fit media tropes of heroes and villains.
The new editing possibilities and aesthetics of mass media were equally documenting and co-creating well-established images of the epidemics in the same ways they have been shaping the reality of the romanticized and supposedly authentic everyday history of small people. As a result of this, documentary, personal, and/or fictive accounts are somewhat hard to disentangle. As in the poster campaigns, rather than taking them for granted, it is therefore extremely important to approach the heroes and villains of the epidemics as social and media constructs inappropriate for representing the manifold local responses and effects of the epidemics worldwide. Using the structure of the classical heroic drama, starting with the exposition and ending with all the conflicts resolved, it seems to me more appropriate to approach HIV/AIDS narratives as a means of manipulative production akin to the non-linear editing of reality shows.
The first ACT UP actions were carefully staged for the best possible television framing, and the red ribbon was the product of a carefully choreographed campaign for journalists, the media, and the camera.
Geoffrey Bowers and Alex Londres succumbed to the disease, but their story was much better known and reenacted by Denzel Washington and Antonio Banderas in the movie Philadelphia, with Bruce Springsteen’s soundtrack.
Pedro Zamora was in the hospital and died a several hours after the prerecorded final episode of the reality show The Real World: San Francisco aired.
Ryan White had a cameo role in his biopic The Ryan White Story. He played a random patient meeting Ryan White, played by Lukas Haas—two real and two fake Ryans, depending on the reality in which we are grounded.
Therese Frare´s photography of David Kirby on his death bed used in Benetton campaigns was black and white. For the campaign, Benetton appointed Ann Rhoney, a colorist who worked by hand with oil paints to colorize the photo, because they wanted it to be more realistic.
Microscopic representations of the virus are commonly colorized and composed of multiple single images.
Considering this, my research concentrated primarily on posters that led to confrontation, misunderstandings, and controversies during the processes of image negotiations all over the USA. Who produced the campaign? Who financed the campaign and what was the aim? How did the interests of the financiers of the respective campaign determine the content of the posters? And how much do marketing and product sales effect health campaigns? Who were the people in the photo: AIDS activists or professional models, "real" people, or the personification of social and political constructs and statistical surveys? And how is the virus itself reimagined in science and tradition? How much did we actually know, after everything had seemingly been solved?
These poster images and poster campaigns are the result of a negotiation between various stakeholders and, like Freudian slips, highlight sometimes rather contradictory social, political, and economic interests:
There was a young black man who is afraid that his mother would recognize him in the embrace of another, white man.
– There were drag queens looking after their community.
– There was a young designer who could not stand bad posters.
– There were volunteers who operated telephone services from living rooms.
– There was a young, black HIV-positive woman raised by alcoholic parents.
– There were seemingly "harmless" subjects deemed inappropriate, such as an unmade bed censored in Oregon, a pair of jeans in Arizona, or a female purse in New York.
– A problematic “Star-Spangled Banner” and a white gay guy in San Francisco.
– A young Native American woman posing with her dog.
– A parka store from Anchorage.
– Teepees in boarding schools in Kansas.
– Chains in North Carolina.
– There were celebrities who were terrified and those who raised their voices.
– Barefoot supermodels in NYC.
– Ghanaian symbols in the Midwest.
– Standards for maintaining, collecting, and presenting federal data on race and ethnicity, federal funds and private fundraisers.
– Elephants, superheroes, stilettos, and umbrellas.
– And the countless designers, photographers, sponsors, activists, and artists whose stories are preserved in the posters.
I am not providing names here, as I want to avoid carelessly replacing one token representation with another one. The 10,000 posters in the DHMD collection offer 10,000 ways to retell the messy, hopeful, and hopeless, uncomfortable and complex story of the disease and the phenomenon of AIDS according to true events. Each of these posters has a story waiting to be discovered and (re)considered.
Serbian writer Borislav Pekić wrote How to Quiet a Vampire in 1977, a disturbing and fascinating study of confrontation and manipulation. Written in the genre of a sotie—a satirical play—the metatextual letters of Konrad Rutkowski, a professor of medieval history and former Gestapo officer who is determined to renounce or perhaps (self)justify his incriminating past, are intertwined with historical facts and philosophical references to Western literature and philosophy. Written thirty years after the end of World War II, the novel mercilessly exposed the intellectual mechanisms of the societal processes of denial and whitewashing.
The period of disinterest in the epidemics of HIV/AIDS after 1996 (or rather 1987?) coincides with the rapid development of the Internet and the availability of images and editing possibilities in unprecedented quantities. In the new settings of a multiverse of images, the processes of a re-emerging interest in the epidemics are less interested in making a new edit of the full story but instead rely on regurgitating and adapting/manipulating the batch of established images. Like in the works of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a more specific reference lies in the parenthesis, be that (para)tag, label, legend, link, or meme. These framing particles change this history with every use until a commonly accepted consensus and a genuine disinterest agree to accept one meaning as canonical. It is too early to succumb to and plainly wrong to accept a clean victory in the unified fight against AIDS as the selected narrative to be preserved for the future.
In the end, three agencies rise up to meet the challenge: law and order, biomedical technology, and old-style ingenuity and self-reliance. Together these three forces join to combat with the peril and, after much self-sacrifice and Herculean effort, the deadly organism is isolated, studied, and eventually wiped out. Many are dead, but American society can now return to normal.
– Daniel L. Selden, “Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back in the Water…”
“Based on a true story” as a frame used to describe the AIDS narrative therefore has been purposed to highlight mechanisms of storytelling when approaching the AIDS epidemics and make us aware of the manipulative nature of heroic narratives; to prevent closing of the AIDS stories as resolved and successfully finished; to restock the limited image pool selected to represent global epidemics; to destabilize timelines; to provoke doubt, to undermine credibility, and to disquiet the Vampire.
Vladimir Čajkovac (b. 1981) is a Curatorial Assistant in the Collection Department of the House of European History, Brussels, Belgium. As a curator of contemporary art and culture, he is interested in the administrative matters of epidemics of significations, particularly within the context of HIV/AIDS. He was a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb, Croatia, the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden, and the Archiv der Avantgarden, Dresden, Germany.
1 The German Hygiene Museum (German: Deutsches Hygiene-Museum (DHMD)) is an interdisciplinary museum in Dresden, Germany. It conceives itself today as a "forum for science, culture and society." You can learn more about the exhibition and collection at: https://www.dhmd.de/en/collections-research/research/aids-as-a-global-media-event/.
2 G. Genette, “Paratexts : thresholds of interpretation”, Cambridge ; New York, NY, USA : Cambridge University Press, 1997.
4 In the digital setting, we could potentially define this paratext as a paratag. In the regime of subjectivity, a paratag would be a tool of shared imaginaries of everyday life. With images freely and uncontrollably distributed and editing systems being an undisputable staple of the communication repertoire, a paratag is a negotiable zone between image and off-image. The images are constantly in the zone of transaction and transition. a paratag is a parenthesis: it doesn´t describe the image but fills it with temporary meaning and takes it further.
6 Mollyann Brodie, Elizabeth Hamel, Lee Ann Brady, Jennifer Kates, and Drew E. Altman, “AIDS at 21: Media Coverage of the HIV Epidemic 1981–2002,” Columbia Journalism Review (March/April 2004, supplement).
9 The exhibition AIDS - Based on a True Story was shown at the DHMD in Dresden from September 2015 until February 2016 and later in 2017 at the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva, where ironically without the author’s consent the name was changed to The Fight Against AIDS in Images.