Looking closely at the AIDS Chronicles

These past few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time with the various editions of the AIDS Chronicles. I’m taking detailed notes about each one for the upcoming catalogue, noting information like dimensions, medium, and the people involved with their making (cover artists, binders, readers and painters). I’m also taking some more abstract notes, observing what makes each year unique and trying to convey that as well. It’s been interesting to spend time reading each set of objects closely, seeing how wildly each year varies and picking up on the little things I haven’t noticed in my cursory interactions with them before this.

Esteban Chavez S.’s 1995 Chronicle, the earliest bound year, showcases the theme of East meets West on its eclectic hand-sewn covers; looking closer, I realized two of his four volumes read left to right in a traditionally Western style while the other two read right to left in a traditionally Western style, a defining detail which had slipped by me before.

The four volumes of Gary Brown’s 1996 edition each represent a different season. The spring edition features a cracked sidewalk with a tiny bud peeking through it, and on the back, a simple note of remembrance to his friend who passed away from AIDS. I sensed the struggle between hope and grief in the images, the difficulty highlighted by the rough ribbed texture of the paint. The summer edition features a fiery sun hanging over a convoluted hedge maze; only on a closer look do you notice the sun itself is also a maze.

Deborah Cullen-Morales’ 1998 edition is bound not as a book but as an old-fashioned newspaper rack, a form of storage about which even Google didn’t have much information to offer up. It takes up space in an impressive way that a book cannot, and I spent time wondering if this object’s meaning will continue to shift over time as our relationship to it changes.

I especially enjoyed interacting with Martin Gantman’s 2001 edition–not a book but a box filled with the ashes of that year’s newspapers, the few AIDS articles contained inside an unopenable bottle nestled in the ashes. The sheer unreadability of it challenged me, forcing me to push logic and words aside and simply sit with how the object made me feel.

I’ve still got many more years to get through, but it’s been nice to narrow my scope from the project as a 25-year whole, to zoom in closely to the various building blocks that make the Chronicles what they are. I’ll be taking a break from blogging over the holidays but will be back in January to pick up where I left off.


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World AIDS Day 2017


Today is World AIDS Day, a big day for us at the Institute. Fittingly, I’ve spent this week thumbing through a binder, heavy as a bag of bricks, full of obituaries of those who’ve died from AIDS.

It’s ostensibly busy work: from K to Q (one of four equally weighty binders), find the New York Times obituaries from 1993 onwards of those who’ve died from AIDS and make a list. Name, occupation, and age.

It feels like anything but busy work.

Each turn of the page is another name, another face, another story about a person who died too soon. Another list of accomplishments, another list of loved ones left behind. Some are poetic and full of emotion, but most are terse, factual. Even with this straightforward style, the pain can’t help but eke through the page.

These men were professors, dancers, psychologists, lawyers, executives, composers, sociologists, activists, historians, publicists, writers, editors, conceptual artists, producers, actors, architects, advocates, boxers, playwrights, priests, musicians, comedians.

They died at 36, 53, 41, 61, 28, 30, 49, 56, 20.

They spent their lives pursuing their passions, or not. Some lives were cut short before they had a chance to cement their legacy. Some abandoned their initial paths to advocate for others with AIDS or HIV, or found gay rights groups, or provide support to the terminally ill.

Each black and white face that peered out from the faded pages was a heart that beat and then stopped beating too soon.

To log the accumulation of bodies like this — even just the fraction of bodies from K to Q — made so tangible the human toll that this disease has taken and continues to take on us.

Out of the 37 million still living with HIV or AIDS worldwide, 16 million don’t have access to life-prolonging medication. About 1 million people are still dying every year. We like to pretend it’s an 80s throwback, but the AIDS crisis is far from over. If we’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that history is no straight line forward, and even progress made is not guaranteed to remain. There is so much work still to do to create the world so many of these men died trying to realize.

What might they have been able to do if their time hadn’t been taken from them by a cruel disease, an insufficient healthcare system, and an indifferent government?

One obituary about a writer and editor began, “Robert would have known how to write this.” I still don’t know how.

At the top of this post I’ve attached some clips (click the image to see it expanded) in the hopes that even this fraction of a fraction of a fraction might jog your heart the way it has mine.

– Hanna

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