Sam Francis Gallery, 2003.


This week I’ve been collecting questions for myself to consider as I dive deeper into research. I’ve been reading in three genres: (1) old articles on activism and AIDS; (2) theoretical texts on books as object; and (3) old ICI press releases about various projects we’ve undertaken and their theoretical underpinnings.

Taken together, my readings have generated a lot of interesting questions about what shape (literal and metaphorical) the AIDS Chronicles catalogue could take down the line. Books are never just neutral containers of text; the form must support the message, so I want to consider what the experience of interacting with our book will feel like. What do we want the experience of “reading” this text, this object, to be? What affective experiences should the reader be having while interacting with the book — and what means can we use to achieve that? What do we want the reader to come away knowing, or not knowing?

To help bring this down to earth a little, I’ve started thinking about various dimensions, how they can be represented, and what that representation could mean. Size, weight, shape, time, color, texture, material, and the reader themselves are all variables to be considered. For example: could a larger-than-average, heavy book convey the weight and scope of this project? If we change the shape of the book, could that complicate the reader’s interaction with it, make them work harder for the information? What does the texture, the literal feeling of the book, have to do with the more metaphorical feelings the book elicits? And is the reader themselves passively absorbing what we present, or are they actively involved in the book’s meaning-making?

Right now, the dimension I’m most interested in is time. Time has been such a fundamental aspect of the AIDS Chronicles in so many ways, not just in the 25 year scope of the project, but also in the way the books were originally displayed: a gong would sound at the rate of AIDS deaths that year, and that would signal the viewer to turn the page. This rate has obviously shifted over the years, and that experience of helplessness as you waited for the gong to sound, or the frustration if it sounded before you were ready to turn the page, feels so intrinsic to this project. And of course, time is the most difficult dimension to control in a book. Unlike viewing or hearing film or sound, where time is prescribed for you in many ways, a book allows you to read at your own pace. How do we integrate the dimension of time into a book in a way that speaks to the project’s original intent and impact? I don’t have an answer for that (yet), but it’s a lovely conundrum to consider.

I’ll leave you with this:

“To ‘read’ a book means, to experience something both visible and something invisible, something comprehensible and something hidden, and, moreover, the meaning of what we see and ‘understand’ is always determined by what is beyond our sight, physically as well as intellectually.”

— Monika Schmitz-Emans,”Books as Material, Virtual, and Metaphorical Entities”

— Hanna

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Early days

New York Public Library, 1998.


I’ve only been the Editorial Fellow for the AIDS Chronicles project for two days, but there’s already so much to say about the project. After a long meeting yesterday about the project’s scope, I have a better idea of what my role is going to be.

When it comes to beginning something like this, the Institute likes to start big, almost fantastically big, in terms of our thinking about what’s possible, before honing in on a more specific strategy over time. So right now, my first task is to think expansively and critically, and to do research, about art, history, art history, AIDS, activism, AIDS activism, newspapers, newspapers in art, texts, books, books as objects, books as metaphors…. The list is as long as I can imagine it to be. I’m not just allowed but encouraged to go down rabbit holes, to chase compelling ideas through the labyrinth of the internet, as long as I bring something back with me. I’m meant to be asking myself questions while I do this: namely, how do we best represent all the elements of this project in a book that by definition cannot contain the actual project? What can a book like this do, if anything, and what would that “doing” look like?

To temper all this heady philosophizing, I’ve been taking breaks by scanning in the plethora of old photos we have of events dating back to 1993. It’s moving to see the faces of activists from the past, unaware passers-by getting lost in the blood-red pages on the steps of the New York Public Library, people rushing by on their way to work with a look of half-interest. It’s humbling to be a part of something this big, this expansive, and this charged with human passion and loss. Touching the smudged surfaces of these photos makes it feel very real and intimate and helps me remember that I’m a part of something grander than myself.

I’ll be writing weekly about what I uncover in my research, so check back here to see what I find next.


New York Public Library, 1998.

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