Audio installation brings life, breath and feel alive at New York AIDS Memorial – Next City
December 1 marks World AIDS Day – and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NYC AIDS Memorial has put together the most ambitious agenda since the memorial’s founding as an advocacy effort by grassroots activists in early 2011.
“Hear Me: Voices of the Epidemic” is an hour-long daily outdoor sound installation composed of historical texts, poetry, speeches and music that trace the history of the AIDS epidemic, including recordings protest and a song composed by the late musician and Michael Callen, AIDS activist. “A lot of these sounds, poems and reporting could really come from this week,” Dave Harper, executive director of NYC AIDS Memorial, said of the installation’s resonance. “They say the same things we’ve been saying for 40 years – that access to health care is a human right, that there is crisis after crisis and it doesn’t always feel like someone a listening.
The push for an AIDS memorial in New York was a response to the lack of commemoration for a public health crisis that has killed more than 100,000 New Yorkers. Until Christopher Tepper and Paul Kelterborn launched the local effort in 2011 – decades in the fight against AIDS – there had not been a highly visible public memorial recognizing those lost, as well as caregivers and activists.
The memorial opened on December 1, 2016 at a site in West Village that once belonged to Saint-Vincent Hospital. The location is historic for several reasons: the epidemic disproportionately affected the gay population of the surrounding neighborhoods, prompting Saint-Vincent to establish the city’s first AIDS service in 1984. The site is also close to advocacy that changed the trajectory of the epidemic, including ACT-UP (Coalition Against AIDS to Unlock Power) and Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
The advocacy sparked by the AIDS crisis is still alive in New York City, with many of those same activists tackling COVID-19 in the city. But the memorial has started planning “Hear Me: Voices of the Epidemic” ahead of the pandemic.
Harper became the first and only memorial staff in 2019, inspired by a 2018 installation by artist Jenny Holzer at the site. “I was thinking of archival, historical and finds-based texts… how do you bring life, breathe and feel alive at the memorial?” he asks. “I thought that by animating it with sound, it would really give a feeling of presence.”
The memorial planned to open a sound installation this spring, then the success of COVID-19. “Of all the terrible things that have happened this year, we’ve had more time to really think about what this is. [installation] could be, ”says Harper. He hired Theodore Kerr, a Brooklyn-based writer, organizer, and artist whose work focuses on HIV / AIDS, community, and culture, to dig deeper into potential audio narratives.
Kerr put together this audio “tracklist” this summer. “Obviously it was an intense and historic summer, not just because of COVID-19, but because of the Black Lives Matter protests and the upcoming election, and all of that made me think I couldn’t not select all these clips by myself ”. he notes.
Kerr proposed that the installation be coupled with a digital conversation series featuring various voices that represent the past, present and future of AIDS activism. It became A Time to Listen, which featured six episodes throughout the month of November focused on speeches, direct action, music, testimonials, performance, and storytelling.
In the Testimonials episode, Transgender Equity Consulting founder Cecilia Gentili shared her own experiences as an artist, lawyer and performer. “We often remain stuck reacting to the crisis that awaits us as if it was the first time it has occurred,” notes Gentili. “A Time to Listen does a really good job of connecting us to acts of joy and resistance that people have been part of for decades. As I listen to the episodes, I feel the power of this work and I can think about how to build on these lessons and incorporate their wisdom into my own work.
A Time to Listen has established a community ahead of the December 1 launch of the onsite installation, which will take place nightly throughout the month. Hear Me is also preceded daily by a recording featuring the names of more than 2,000 New Yorkers lost to AIDS, read by members of What would an HIV Doula Do ?, activists, caregivers and survivors in long term HIV / AIDS.
Kerr wanted to capture the diversity of voices featured in A Time to Listen in the hour-long audio track list featured at the memorial. “So much damage is done with the story of HIV / AIDS being told too narrowly,” he says. “We really had to make sure we understood it as an intersectional story that was both historical and continuing.”
The tracklist includes a speech by activist Vito Russo, historical recordings of an ACT UP-led protest by artist David Wojnarowicz, and a contemporary poem by artist Kia LaBeija. A poem published in the 1990s, Heartbeats by Melvin Dixon, talks about the current struggles of being diagnosed with COVID-19. “I hope there will be times of connection where people feel like they understand the AIDS epidemic better,” says Harper, “because it’s a lot of the same things we’re still talking about all the time. later.
Harper and Kerr both point out that there are many differences between HIV / AIDS and COVID-19. But they’re not afraid to explore the connections, including the ongoing advocacy for equitable health care, health disparities consistently determined by race and income, and the need for connection across the board. ‘a crisis.
“My number one hope is that people find their way to the memorial, respecting all social distancing and mask protocols, and find a way to experience it together,” Kerr says. “May people find a way to make new friends, new peers and new comrades in 2020 and beyond, because we have made friends, lovers and comrades through HIV work.”
Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, New York-based journalist who writes about real estate, architecture, urban planning, and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Curbed, and other publications.