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Doc explores Art, AIDS and activism in Chicago
by Ariel Parrella-Aureli
2018-10-22

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Documents: Art, AIDS & Activism in Chicago—a traveling documentary that Visual AIDS and QUEER, ILL + OKAY presented—premiered Oct. 20 at Pride Arts Center.

The documentary showed the history of fighting AIDS and HIV in Chicago and bringing awareness to non-LGBTQ communities with 30 years of media production by activists, journalists, artists and educators working against the disease. Ranging from video diaries to documentary footage and oral history lessons, the film focused on artistic influence from zines and comics and organized movements that propelled the fight against AIDS for mostly gay black men. It also included footage from ACT UP/Chicago campaigns and personal accounts from women living with AIDS and those involved in the world's longest-running clinical research study on women with HIV.

After the screening, a panel discussion was held with educators and activists who were part of the movements and who are still working to change the stigma surrounding AIDS. They reflected on strides the movement has made in the last three decades, specifically footage that influenced a change in the treatment of women with AIDS. Who's Got the Power?, a 1990 work by Suzanne Wright and Gerry Albarelli, showcased a demonstration in the street against the Cook County Hospital, which denied treatment to women with AIDS even though it had space. According to activist Mary Patten, who was one of the founding members of ACT UP and was part of the 1990 demonstration, the hospital did not have the money to add separate bathrooms for women so it reportedly could not treat women with AIDS.

"It was a matter of days after that action where we dragged the women's caucuses and 15 mattresses to correlate the 15 empty beds [at Cook County Hospital] and conceptualized this action [that the] the AIDS ward was opened to women the next day," said Patten, who is also a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the departments of Film, Video, New Media and Animation and Visual/Critical Studies.

Max Smith, a writer who was in the film and has been at the forefront of the movement, remembered hosting meetings at bars in the '80s to get people informed and build a community around the issue, especially since the government was not doing much about AIDS or HIV treatment.

"I didn't think there was a time for city council or the state legislature to get up to speed; rather it was time for something to be done," Smith said. "There has been a huge leap forward in the awareness of City, County and State legislatures."

Smith wrote an essay called "December 1, 2031: AIDS at Fifty," which gives details and particulars of how he believes the HIV epidemic among same gender loving men can end and gay men can enjoy sexual intimacy despite HIV. He said he hopes the film will continue to raise awareness about the issue and influence cultural changes for broader communities.

The most recent footage from the documentary was a living history of women in Chicago with AIDS. Produced in 2017, I'm Still Surviving: 20 Years of the Women's Interagency HIV Study in Chicago is meant to change the the narrative on Chicago history and how much women need to be understood as long-term survivors, according to producer Jennifer Brier, who directs the Program in Gender and Women's Studies at University of Illinois at Chicago and has created numerous other exhibitions on the subject.

One of the subjects from the study and video project was Cordelia M., who is from Englewood and has AIDS ( She requested that her full name not be used in this article. ) She was diagnosed in 1992 and connected with Brier through the study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health. She said it was impactful to meet other women struggling with the disease like she was and getting the healthcare treatment because of the study showed her a new way to live.

"What I realized is that you can survive with it and, at this point, I am undetectable," Cordelia said, to which the audience laughed and clapped in support.

Audience member Ekeng Bassey said the movie was really emotional to watch.

"It had to do with real situations, real people—it was beyond fiction," said Bassey, who is queer and has lived in Chicago for three years as a fashion stylist and home care helper. "To be in the same room with those who have experienced the epidemic was a great energy. It's something I feel like the entire Chicago should watch—gay, straight, [or] allies. We need to know this because it's our story as well, our experience."


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