Visual AIDS

21 Feb
When They Get AIDS, We'll Get a Cure. Enema Productions / Wellcome Library

When They Get AIDS, We'll Get a Cure. Enema Productions / Wellcome Library

Last September, at the Copenhagen conference of medical museums (which is increasingly beginning to seem like a foundational moment for a lot of current thought processes), I was irked by a presentation by Roger Cooter and Claudia Stein on the topic of an exhibition of AIDS posters, in which they said something like…

here, as elsewhere, they were ‘framed’ in agenda-serving classificatory narratives embedded in bricks and mortar. Indeed, from the moment such objects become collectors’ items and are stored and/or displayed as artifacts they become epistemologically loaded through the very process of objectification.

The implication seemed to be (peppered with a handful of the kind of posturing that accepts theoretical analysis as the only permissible standpoint) that there could be no institutional presentation of AIDS posters (for example) that was innocent of, or capable of critique of, its institutional context.

I was irked because I had recently made and written about a selection of AIDS posters from Wellcome’s collection in which I made a particular effort to demonstrate the diversity of the collection by highlighting posters which were critical of the Wellcome drug company, promoted homeopathy, and had had discernible links to radical traditions such as Atelier Populaire. Wasn’t this enough, I asked Cooter and Stein, to which their answer was (reasonably) something like well, we’re not here to criticise you personally: this is a bigger issue about the politics of aesthetics.

Five months later, I’m thinking about AIDS posters again, this time in the context of a term devoted to medicine and visual culture. In some ways, using the AIDS posters as an essay topic gives me an easy way in: I’ve already looked at the material and know what’s in the collection reasonably well. In another, it’s harder, because the academic framework in some ways obliges me to regard what I’ve already thought and written as somehow naive; a stage of investigation superseded by theory.

The essay question goes something like:

How does the Wellcome Library’s archive of AIDS posters help or hinder the understanding of the multiplicity of discourses in which AIDS posters have been seen and discussed?

Starting points: Susan Sontag, whose AIDS and its Metaphors is interesting for its almost total absence of reference to visual metaphors: it’s not like Sontag doesn’t do visual, but when she’s literary, she’s very very literary, and AIDS and its Metaphors very much takes its tone from Illness as a Metaphor. One thing I’d previously noticed in my ‘naive’ research was that the HIV virus itself (an obviously rich source of medical and military metaphor for Sontag and whose distinctive trumpet-flowered globe frequently complements medical discussions of HIV) very rarely appears as an image in any of the AIDS posters in the Wellcome Library collection.

Sander Gilman has written two close visual analyses of images surrounding AIDS. One compares the iconography of AIDS in the late 20th century to the early modern iconography of syphilis, noting similarities in the way its sexual transmission is represented (and the shift in stigma from male victim to female source of pollution) and the portrayal of the isolation and deviance of its sufferers. The second examines the ‘body beautiful’ as a (HIV-)positive image of (homo)sexuality in AIDS posters, deferring the experience of death and dying with eroticised images of risk. He contrasts this to ‘high AIDS art’ which addresses the real physical and mental distress of death and mourning. (It’s interesting to think in this context that while AIDS posters are now generally acclaimed as a successful model of communication and joint purpose in the struggle against AIDS, ‘high’ AIDS art, like David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in my Belly, which deals with precisely the issues of death and mourning that Gilman describes, was recently removed from display at the Smithsonian following right-wing political pressure.)

Then comes the issue of ‘visual culture’ (or ‘visual studies’), as in the course title itself. In terms of ‘medicine and visual culture’ you can take this more or less at face value as a descriptive phrase: the course is about the history and construction of medical images. ‘Visual Culture’, however, has also come into academic existence in the last twenty years as a separate subject with a tenuous and antagonistic relationship to traditional ‘art history’. It attempts to overcome the high art/low art dichotomy that Gilman finds between posters art such as Wojnarowicz’s)  by taking ‘the visual’ as its domain, but takes its methods more from anthropology and cultural studies as from traditional aesthetics. Academics like Douglas Crimp, who edited the issue of October in which Gilman’s comparison of visual representations of syphilis and AIDS appeared, are more or less working in the field of ‘visual culture’.

The world of academia is full of ‘turns’, and this ‘visual turn’ was a response to, and influenced by, the ‘cultural turn’ in literary studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Entirely coincidentally, at the same time I happened across a facebook link to this article about Andrew Ross, victim of Alan Sokal’s Social Text hoax, which was also interesting in mapping out some of the territory of the ‘cultural turn’. From an autobiographical perspective, I can also see that I was last in academia, studying English Literature in the early 1990s, during the beginning of the decline of this turn to theory, and probably would have been a happier and more successful student without it; needless to say, such a historicising perspective on academia itself was not made available to me at the time.

But then, returning to Cooter and Stein’s key published text on AIDS Posters, ‘Coming into Focus: Posters, power and visual culture in the history of medicine’ I was gratifyingly surprised to find a narrative which framed the emergence of Visual Culture as coincidental, and entwined with, the period in which AIDS posters as a communication medium emerged. Marx’s eclipse by Foucault, whose biopolitics centred on the body, produced new theoretical approaches for which the representation of AIDS in televisual media, advertising and art provided plentiful exemplars, and a consequent ‘focus’ on posters as a subject. There are few academic papers that are almost exhilarating to read, but this was one of them. The approach I found irksome as a museum practitioner is more fruitful in an academic context.

The question of how to construct an essay out of this, however… if the question stands, it seems that I should be testing each instance of theory, from Sontag to Cooter and Stein, against the ‘reality’ of the archive (which of course has its own aesthetic politics in the history of being collected by a private collector in the first place). In some ways this seems a reasonable alternative to looking at the posters through the ‘lens’ of theory; but it might be difficult to avoid becoming a historical walkthrough of the theories available, or worse, a mere rehearsal of Cooter and Stein’s arguments. Perhaps a stronger thread of argument needs to be found.

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One Response to “Visual AIDS”

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  1. Tweets that mention Visual AIDS « Museum Cultures -- Topsy.com - February 22, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mia, Danny Birchall. Danny Birchall said: Blog post != essay; Museum Cultures blog: 'Visual AIDS' http://wp.me/pQLlf-35 […]

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