By Ginny A. Roth and Kenneth M. Koyle ~
In 2011, 30 years after Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was identified, Toronto-based sociolegal researcher Alexander McClelland teamed with artist-activist Jessica Whitbread to develop and curate “a community-based activist street and online art initiative” they called PosterVirus. Working as an affinity group of the activist organization AIDS ACTION NOW!, the project brought together local artists to create a set of original posters intended to bring public attention to issues surrounding the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Between 2011 and 2016 more than 30 artists contributed to the project, producing 25 posters that have been displayed in public art installations throughout North America, as well as in digital formats through social media. NLM recently acquired the PosterVirus collection, becoming the only institution to hold the entire set of these unique posters along with the related artist information and background stories.
The idea of using posters to convey messages is not new. Posters, broadsides, and other ephemeral printed materials have been important tools for disseminating information to the public for centuries. As William Helfand noted in the 1990 NLM exhibition To Your Health: An Exhibition of Posters for Contemporary Public Health Issues:
“Posters have been a powerful force in shaping public opinion because propagandists have long known that visual impressions are extremely strong.”
Helfand went on to explain the specific value of public health posters, noting “their purpose being to alter the consciousness of the public to bring about an improvement in health practices.” The PosterVirus collection certainly fits that description, as the project developed with the clear and ambitious intent of raising public consciousness about HIV and AIDS. NLM began a focused effort to collect public health posters and related materials in 1987, an effort that continues today. This extensive and unique collection is preserved with NLM’s prints, photographs, and other biomedical imagery, providing researchers with a unique and vibrant view of past and present health issues facing people around the world. The PosterVirus collection will help future researchers understand the issues that were important to the HIV/AIDS community in the early 21st century.
PosterVirus brought under-discussed issues around HIV/AIDS to the streets and into the public spotlight through art. When McClelland and Whitbread conceived the initiative in 2011, both had long been active in the international response to AIDS. When asked about their inspiration for the project, they spoke about growing frustrated over the years with how AIDS was represented—people living with HIV were seen as problems that needed to be “identified, tracked, and contained.” To rally against this, they invited friends they knew living with HIV, as well as well-known and emerging artists and activists, to create posters about the contemporary realities of living with the virus, “to frame what it means to live autonomously with HIV.” Public installations were placed strategically in high trafficked locations where passers-by were struck with images that reflected inconvenient and uncomfortable truths about the contemporary social politics of HIV/AIDS. Posters were printed and plastered by the thousands throughout the city streets of Toronto a week before the “Day Without Art” event, an annual commemoration held on December 1 in conjunction with World AIDS Day.
NLM’s new PosterVirus acquisition includes the complete set of 25 posters covering all four cycles of the PosterVirus series, along with metadata for each poster including the artist’s name, poster title, creation date and location, background story, and historical information if applicable. The collection also includes related conversations and stories resulting from display, a printed copy of ‘PosterVirus Zine,’ (a limited-edition zine, with some early versions of the posters that were never published), accompanying material created with the posters including poems, narratives, and other published material, and archival material related to the PosterVirus series including news articles, video clips, and other commentary.
NLM is in the process of cataloging the new PosterVirus collection to make it accessible for use by researchers. When this work is complete these posters will join thousands of others in NLM’s archival collections covering a diverse range of public health topics including family planning, sex education, substance abuse, drunk driving, and the dangers of smoking. For more information about NLM’s public health posters, see the curated Profiles in Science collection Visual Culture and Health, based on the 2003 NLM-sponsored symposium of the same name.
Ginny A. Roth is the former Curator of Prints & Photographs in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine, and was instrumental in bringing this collection to the Library. Today she is Assistant Section Head of the Technical Services Section in the Prints & Photographs Division at the Library of Congress.
Kenneth M. Koyle is Deputy Chief of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.