D ec. 1 was World AIDS Day. I had signed up for a class on public protest art dedicated to raising awareness of the continuing HIV/AIDS crisis and we planned a panoply of actions that day. My class was interested in highlighting the impact of AIDS on artists one of the hardest-hit demographics by participating in the Day Without Art, a day when public art of all sorts is “disappeared” to evoke images of a world where AIDS has run rampant. In our research, we discovered that we”re not far from a world on par with this kind of devastation, mostly because of administrative incompetence on all levels.
The first level was here at the University. For this, the 13th annual Day Without Art, we were ambitious enough to think big and plan well enough ahead to go through the hoops that the University sets up for doing anything out of the ordinary with their public sculptures. We planned on covering three public works: The famous Cube, that triple ton rotating thingamabob was to be tied down and immobilized a sculpture on North Campus was to be blocked from view and Daedalus, the mythic Greek god in front of the Museum of Art, was to be shrouded in a wall of white cloth with donated Carnations pinned to it. To minimize the risk of our obstructions being taken down, we sat, diagrams in hand and laid out plans for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration-trained, trip-hazard-weary bureaucrats in the Fleming Administration fortress. Dictate one: No more than three sculptures may be covered up. “We don”t want things to get out of hand.” Dictate two: “You can”t obstruct the plaza around the Cube. That”s a very high-traffic area.” What they meant: Administrators shouldn”t have to walk an extra 10 feet out of their way on their way to lunch. Dictate three: You must have the grounds crew with you at all times so they can “help you.” For a moment after the administrative dance began, we thought that perhaps we should have just gone ahead with our plans sans support from the powers that be. Nah, we thought. They”ll be reasonable. At least our project won”t be taken down. So Friday, the day before Dec. 1 came and we set up the installations. We roped the Cube, as approved, and marked the small unobtrusive area with big signs that read, “STOP! Please do not spin the Cube. Dec. 1 is the Day Without Art. We ask you to respect the memory of those artists who have died of AIDS and allow the cube to remain immobilized this day.” So I go to sleep Friday night somewhat concerned that the sail-like fabric around Daedalus will blow away, or that some hoodlum will try to spin the Cube because it would have moved without much effort. To my surprise, I found neither had happened on Saturday.
Instead, someone had “disappeared” our ropes, signs and various effects from the Cube. And the someones involved? None other than our very own Department of Public Safety. Not only did DPS remobilize the Cube because it posed a “tripping hazard,” but because they said they had not been informed by the administration that the project had been approved. Stated clearly enough was the purpose behind the installation, which was printed on the signs they threw away. Also clearly marked was our contact information, which they did not use to try to contact us. Not only was their indiscriminate clean-up duty an affront to the memory of those artists who have died of or are living with AIDS, but something that calls for an apology to the students at this University, whose money was being spent to bring attention to the Day Without Art and the immense challenges in dealing with the AIDS pandemic. This crap could have been avoided had DPS made a phone call instead of taking matters into its own hands.
Though I”ve the inkling to rage against the inept public safety minions, the real faulty parties are the tight-holed administrators in Fleming who didn”t make the right phone calls to prevent this kind of bullshit. There we were, playing by the rules and with no significant results. It”s as if to get anything done right around here, we just have to abandon the rules, especially when the AIDS crisis is as much a threat to our global security as ever. Administrative incompetence on the national level is to blame for this problem. In Africa, for example, where the AIDS crisis should be an integral part of our foreign policy, Bush did his part by blocking the manufacture of generic AIDS drugs in international patent courts.
Effectively declaring corporate profits more important than human life, Bush ignores the long-term impact of the scourge of AIDS in Africa. In countries like South Africa and Swaziland, entire generations of teachers, businessmen, artists and farmers are being wiped out. This destroys not only potential target audiences for U.S. corporations (an argument I despise) but unsettles the region by wiping out an entire civilization.
The same goes in China and India, where the governments there are only beginning to recognize the immensity of the AIDS problem. In Eastern Europe, prostitution is spreading the disease at ever-increasing rates. And even here in the U.S., the elderly have one of the fastest-growing rates of HIV infection, mostly because of Viagra use. Their rate of infection is being edged out only by married women many in the inner city who, according to University demographic studies, are infected by infidelitous husbands who bring the danger home. In the college demographic, people 25 or under are being infected with AIDS at the rate of one per hour and worldwide 300 people die from AIDS-related complications every hour. And even more startling is the fact that of the close to one million infected with HIV in this country, one third are unaware that they are carrying the virus.
Calling AIDS one of his “top priorities” during his campaign, President George W. Bush has done his part by cutting the federal allotment on AIDS spending. And though we”re fighting a war against terrorism, anthrax has killed four and AIDS has already killed tens of millions. Why was it OK for Bush to threaten to take Bayer to court for the inflated price of its anthrax drug Cipro while ignoring AIDS sufferers in Africa? Are we intentionally allowing an entire generation to be wiped out or do we just not care? This is racism in practice. If we are to beat this pandemic, we”ve got to stop treating our inner cities like third world nations and our third world counterparts like their lives are expendable. Reappropriating budgets to combat AIDS at a local level would be a start. Responding to the threat of AIDS at home and abroad requires commitment to community-based education. It”s either this or we”ll soon find ourselves suffering the same human damages that have become the norm in Africa. It took President Reagan eight years until the end of his terms-to even let the word “AIDS” pass his lips. We cannot allow HIV/AIDS to slip our attention once again. In this case, ignorance really does kill.
Josh Wickerham can be reached via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.