There is one book about AIDS that every graduate student I know who works on this topic owns: Paula Treichler’s How to Have a Theory in an Epidemic (1999, Duke U P). Almost twenty years after its publication, Treichler’s thesis that – beyond its very real and felt biopolitical impacts – AIDS was an “epidemic of… signification” borne from violently dualistic language, is unflaggingly useful. Gay/straight, North/South, sex-worker/boring-people, drug-user/morally-upright-citizen, and, mutatis mutandis, all the way to the PrEPedemic dyad of good-poz-people/bad-poz people and the Truvada whores who love them.
The antinomies of AIDS are manifold, and Treichler’s tome is still a go-to for understanding AIDS and its semaphores. The title of the book itself was a nod to the Richard Berkowitz/ Michael Callen tract, How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach (1982) (which was also remixed in a very useful zine about navigating HIV disclosure law in Canada, How to Have Sex in a Police State, by two semi-anonymous Toronto anarchists). Treichler is just one of nearly 100 scholars, artists, activists, and artist-activist-scholars who have presented at the Concordia University Community Lecture Series on HIV/AIDS. The Lecture Series would have celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2018-2019, making it the most significant and longest-running event series of its kind in Canada. Under the aegis of Montreal’s Concordia University, the Series is the very public face of an interdisciplinary undergraduate course of the same name that is taught for credit in Humanities and Fine Arts at this most socially conscious of Anglophone Canadian universities, located in a city that is as well-known for its linguistic and racial divides as it is for its sexy Beautiful Losers.
The Series has hosted everyone from scholars like Treichler to cultural icons like Ron Athey (Pleading in the Blood, 1999) and Diamanda Galás (Updating the Plague and the Mass: Prayers for the Infidel, 2009), scientists, social historians, front-line workers, dancers, writers, and even some HIV positive people. Even as a poz person myself who believes in the principles of the greater involvement of people living with HIV (aka GIPA), I am always surprised that most of my favorite lectures from seventeen years of attending the Series have not been by out HIV+ people, but the Series has made deliberate efforts to include us nonetheless. For twenty-five years, the Concordia Community Lecture Series on HIV/AIDS has deftly juggled issues of stature, disciplinarity, and perceived popularity in its choice of speakers following its ambitious mission to “challenge the academy to confront the societal crisis engendered by HIV/AIDS and nurture the next generation of researchers, activists, and teachers.” I have had the privilege to moderate a few Q&As after these lectures, and sometimes been immoderate after them. But the Lecture Series has impressed me and saved itself from elimination  over successive administrations, austerity, and the vicissitudes of how AIDS has been studied and fought and lived. Even though the staying power of the “sage on the stage” style of event was thought to be waning, the nature of the Series as a site of monologue—and feisty Q&As—may keep it around until the “End of AIDS,” whenever that’s supposed to be!
The Waugh Factor
“When we started the series in 1993, it was still three years before effective treatments began emerging, and we were still watching many of our students, teachers, colleagues and friends dying from AIDS,” founder Thomas Waugh tells us. “It was in this atmosphere of crisis that Concordia felt a need to respond by sharing information with the community and engaging the public in meaningful discussions.”
A film scholar and renowned Sexuality Studies provocateur, Waugh was the director of the Series and its champion for over twenty years. He was instrumental in asserting the need for the academy to respond to the crisis in the myriad ways that people were living, dying, researching, and creating in it.
“The 25 years were full of surprises for me, mostly about how quietly lucid and brilliant people who have looked death in the eye can be,” Waugh recalls. “One or two we almost didn't go with because he or she seemed to be a system sellout or whatever was magically transformed to astute radical visionary in front of a mic.”
The issue of “selling out” did raise its ugly head in the Lecture Series planning, however, as he and organizers made the choice to accept funding from once-reviled pharmaceutical giant Burroughs Wellcome in order to expand and improve their programming. The series continues to accept funding from “Big Pharma,” but in the age of pre-exposure prophylaxis wonder-drugs, rad kids and salty activists alike seem less bothered by giving visibility to these corporations. Concordia’s underfunding of the Series, a bureaucratic choice stemming from rules allowing many initiatives access to only “matching funds,” is also to blame. In the annual scramble to pay for the speaker fees, travel, accommodation, and student labor, the Series has to fundraise as much as it receives from the school, in many cases.
The interdisciplinarity of the Series has always been part of what made it so hard to fund, and so rich for its audience; but for Waugh, the spectatorial pleasure the lectures deliver always outweighed the stress of countless grant application deadlines. “The annual artist was always very special to me,” Waugh reminisces, “from Athey to Galas to [John] Dugdale... they all knocked my socks off without exception.”
The personal has always been present and political in the Series, but especially during the crisis. “When a speaker would pass away a year or more after they had presented, like [video artist] Esther Valiquette or Winstone Zulu or Eric Rofes, my heart would always be torn out,” he adds. On a lighter note, he also recalls when students and hangers-on would unabashedly vie for certain speakers’ attentions, and watching in bemusement at the flirtations was a happy pastime for the founder.
Thanks largely to Waugh’s advocacy inside and outside the institution, the Series stood the test of time, from the nadir of the crisis, to the advent of HAART, to the so-called “Second Silence,” into the complex current era of AIDS historicization. The era of thinking about AIDS as history has included high-profile guests like Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard (“United in Anger” in 2009 and United in Anger in 2012), AA Bronson (who gave a moving lecture about grieving his General Idea collaborators in 2002), and New York downtown walking archive, Sur Rodney (Sur). Originally from Montreal, Sur gave a prescient talk, “I Am not Alone in this Way: Queer and Black in Contemporary Art” at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2015, just as the ire of AIDS activists was gathering around the much-maligned ART AIDS AMERICA exhibition at the Tacoma Art Museum. The list goes on, and there are currently over ten years of video and audio recordings of the Lectures available for free online, if you would like to get an idea of the breadth of this Series.
Gender, Race, and Classrooms
“They’re difficult lectures to give. You want someone to understand that it’s not just ‘You’re famous, come and do your shtick,’” says Concordia Research Chair on HIV/AIDS, Viviane Namaste. “One of the best was Elizabeth Pisani [The Wisdom of Whores, 2008, Lecture: 2009],” she recalls. “She did an excellent job speaking to the way in which knowledge gets organized, and how not all students are aware of those,” Namaste told me over tea. Holding an umbrella over the organization since 2017, Dr. Namaste oversees a committee of teachers, graduate students, community stalwarts, and actual HIV+ people who help decide, year after year, how the lecture series can adequately reflect HIV/AIDS discourse across disciplines, ever aware of the high stakes of representation and inclusion that have been core concerns since the project’s inception. Namaste’s influence over her sixteen-plus years of collaborating on the Lecture Series curation can be felt in her focus on several of the epidemic’s less famous aspects, from highlighting Haitian experience, to recruiting experts on poz grieving, and the multi-year On Life and Living, a documentary theatre project about the history of local AIDS service organization, AIDS Community Care Montréal.
History and Geography: New York VS Everywhere Else
One trend curators anywhere are susceptible to, and Lectures Series organizers were no exception, is the tendency to skew “New York” when discussing AIDS activism or art, and by the 2010s, the backlash had begun. “One of the recurring themes at the decision table was limiting the influence of New York activists,” says Columbia University PhD candidate Ian Bradley-Perrin, who had the Sisyphean task of speaker outreach and fundraising for the Series in his role as coordinator from 2013 to 2015. “At the time I struggled to truly understand this, given the success and vibrancy of NY AIDS activism; but I came to understand that it is used as a stand-in or a metonymic device for all AIDS activism to the detriment of people’s historical imaginations.” That said, Bradley-Perrin was instrumental in bringing activist artist Avram Finkelstein to present in the Series in 2015. The “Silence = Death” co-founder’s lecture at the Canadian Centre for Architecture that winter is consistently recalled by almost everyone I interviewed for this article as one of the most memorable in recent years. I would have to agree, and not just from personal interest.
“I loved everything about Avram Finkelstein's visit, for so many reasons,” says Karen Herland, who holds the reins in the classroom and is part of the curation in all its myriad detail.
“Avram was thoughtful and engaging and the workshop the next day was wonderful—a skillshare, productive working group… formed, flashed and faded in a day. [It was] such a great model for creation,” Herland told me via email. Herself a storied activist who organized around the 1989 Montreal International AIDS Conference, Herland is one of a handful of people who seem to embody the soul of the Lecture Series course and overall project: an activist, a historian, and a lover of culture and the affect of sharing knowledge on this topic.
“Special and Right”
When I asked the 2015-2017 coordinator of the Series, Kaitlyn Zozula, to tell me which lecture was the most memorable for her, I was brought back to a tense evening last winter that, I’ll have to agree, exemplified the brilliance and the battle that is the Lecture Series: performance artist, interdisciplinary historian, and Arizona State professor, Marlon Bailey’s 2017 “Right Time, Right Place: Black Queer Sex, Love, and Life in the Age of AIDS,” which he had to deliver while a student choir at McGill was stubbornly rehearsing in an adjacent space, almost drowning him out at times.
“I remember feeling like that event encapsulated the kind of overlap and integration of the community/academic spheres that I think is so integral to and important about the lecture series as a project. Just something about having that many people (I think around 240 in total!) in a kind of makeshift auditorium listening to Marlon share his work that is so fundamentally built on reimagining and repurposing academic disciplines or research methodologies to meet the needs and document the realities of specific communities, and then all of us sharing a big meal afterwards, felt very special and right to me,” Zozula wrote me. In Marlon’s lecture, a chorus of voices from outside overshadowed the lived experience being shared from within, but my memory of the event is all more visceral for it.
The HIV Positive is Political
I had my first real adult public cry about AIDS in 2001, listening to dancer laureate Margie Gillis lecture in which she spoke about her brother, dancer/choreographer Christopher Gillis, whom she lost to the disease in 1993. I did not attend at all for the two years after I received my diagnosis, in 2006. I had my second Lecture Series Q&A fight with a student who asked the legendary South Carolina hairdresser-turned-prevention-activist DiAna DiAna (subject of Ellen Spiro’s 1991 DiAna’s Hair Ego) why she hadn’t done more to influence national American policy on AIDS. Hopefully the white male student in question will have a chance to see DiAna's Hair Ego REMIX, commissioned for the VisualAIDS 2017 “Day Without Art” omnibus, to get a better sense of how clueless his question was. “The potential is great to shine a light on subjects still unrecognized,” Prof. Namaste helped me conclude.
After Bailey’s lecture, perhaps prodded by its logistical and sonic zaniness, I had a bit of a breakdown about the Lecture Series that ultimately helped me understand that the Series is important to me, to my community, and to how I have come to think about HIV.
But that night, I wasn’t so clear-minded. In the nearby William Shatner Ballroom, after Marlon spoke, what I remember most was the food, a buffet from Montréal's most beloved Lebanese lunch counter, and around it, the sight and site of community: a black gay academic/artist/historian wowing us all; a classroom of undergrads actually eager to learn; a gaggle of teachers, journalists, former activists, and activists-to-be. And there it is: the Lecture Series is food: a nourishing reminder that academia feeds on stories of lives lived, on questions and solutions born from a Derridean différend.
How, then, are we to have a lecture series in, beside, and against an epidemic? Eat all the food. Cater it for those who are hungry; let the Q&As always leave room for a gluttony of pain, and argument; raise up the silenced, mouths full; share the wealth (bring reusable containers to take home the goods). Listen. Listen. And share.
Jordan Arseneault (b. 1980) is a performer, translator, and cultural researcher living in Montréal. He employs song, cello, drag, and mixed original/found text in his staged work, which he has developed in parallel with two social practice workshops, Fear Drag (2010-present), and Disclosure Cookbook (with artist Mikiki). His collaborative performances, SEROCENE (with Matthew-Robin Nye, MIX NYC, 2014) and Propositions for the AIDS Museum (projets_hybris, 2014-2017), and participative works address issues of criminalization, stigma, HIV/AIDS, addiction, queerness, and community. His agitprop poster/virus “SILENCE=SEX” (for Toronto's AIDS ACTION NOW!, 2012) decries HIV criminalization through graphic détournement. Also known as Peaches LePoz, his drag persona regularly makes appearances throughout Montréal and sometimes on the road. His contribution to the La Mama Galleria/VisualAIDS exhibition Cell Count in June 2018, accompanied by Mikiki, presented a scene from (MORE) Propositions for the AIDS Museum... (2017), that has become a work in progress (“The Two Steves’ Lament”). By day, he translates from French to English, and coordinates the Queer Media Database Canada-Québec, based out of Concordia's Faculty of Fine Arts.
1 Anonymous, “How To Have Sex In A Police State: One Approach /// Comment Baiser Sans Se Faire Baiser Par Les Flics,” 2015. http://howtohavesexinapolicestate.tumblr.com/
2 “Chi Chi DeVayne vs. Thorgy Thor, RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 8,” https://youtu.be/0EWV03g1xYA.
3 Julie Gedeon, “Daring HIV/AIDS lecture series turns 20,” in The Concordian, January 15, 2013, http://www.concordia.ca/cunews/main/stories/2013/01/15/daring-hivaids-lecture-series-turns-20.html.
4 Theodore Kerr, “AIDS 1969: HIV, History, and Race,” in Drainmag 13:2 (2016), http://drainmag.com/aids-1969-hiv-history-and-race/.
5 Andrew Rose, “Compartmentalized Compassion: a 30-year Survey of AIDS-related Art in the US,” in Hyperallergic, December 1, 2015, https://hyperallergic.com/257877/compartmentalized-compassion-a-30-year-survey-of-aids-related-art-in-the-us/.
6 Concordia University HIV/AIDS Project Archives: https://www.concordia.ca/events/projects/hiv-aids/archives.html.
7 See Alexis Shotwell and Gary Kinsman’s interview with Karen Herland on the game-changing Carleton University website AIDS Activist History Project: https://aidsactivisthistory.ca/interviews/montreal-interviews/#Herland.