Blissful ignorance can be deadly: students pass on HIV/AIDS event

Gallery 400 provided visitors resources from Chicago Chapter's of Mr. Friendly. (Elizabeth Bacharach/Medill)

By Elizabeth Bacharach

It’s been five years since a study found that 50 percent of HIV-positive youth under the age of 24 did not know their diagnosis. Are you shocked? Surprised?

Virtually wearing a red ribbon of awareness, University of Illinois at Chicago’s Gallery 400 participated in Day With(out) Art in hopes of raising HIV/AIDS consciousness amongst students, but attracted only a few.

“We were very happy with the interested parties that did come out. But we were saddened that there were not as many people as we had hoped…there certainly were not as many students who attended,” Gallery Director Lorelei Stewart said. 

Responding to the worsening AIDS crisis in 1989, Visual AIDS, an organization that uses art to fight the disease, created Day With(out) Art as, according to its website, “a way to make the public aware that AIDS can touch everyone, and inspire positive action” in conjunction with World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.

Twenty-six years later, 80 locations worldwide participated in Day With(out) Art by screening “Radiant Presence,” a slideshow with images by artists with HIV/AIDS. As a participant, Gallery 400 dimmed its lights—a traditional component of the event—and played “Radiant Presence” on loop.

"Radiant Presence" streamed throughout the day as visitors entered Gallery 400. (Elizabeth Bacharach/Medill)
“Radiant Presence” streamed throughout the day as visitors entered Gallery 400. (Elizabeth Bacharach/Medill)

Because of its location at and association with UIC, Gallery 400 looked to attract the student community. Yet, Stewart estimated that only five out of the 20 attendees were students.

Although not “overly shocked” by the numbers, Alisa Swindell, a Ph.D. candidate at UIC and graduate assistant at Gallery 400, said, “It’s kind of astounding to those of us in an older generation…that lived through the ’80s and ’90s at an age where we were old enough to be conscious of these things that something like Day With(out) Art…would be out of the consciousness of people that are under 30.”

But, first, why this push for student engagement?

According to Swindell, HIV rates for this demographic “shouldn’t be this high” and too many young people “don’t know [HIV/AIDS] history.”

A fellow UIC graduate student and intern at Gallery 400, Devin Malone, hoped the event helped “students gain some awareness because HIV infections are pretty high among young people.”

Attributing the low student turnout to a lack of awareness and knowledge of history, Swindell said youth need to learn “what had to happen and who had to fight to the get to the point…where you don’t find yourself losing count of how many funerals you attended that month.”

Meanwhile, the hope still remained that the gallery’s participation in Day With(out) Art provided students a better understanding of HIV/AIDS and its history because “there are a lot of people…on campus specifically…who weren’t aware of [HIV/AIDS],” Malone said.

Students, and event-goers as a whole, were also offered a clinical education on HIV/AIDS by representatives of TPAN, an organization that provides health and wellness programs to those impacted by HIV/AIDS.

“Why college can be such a great space is that we have a lot of folks who maybe come from environments…that maybe haven’t talked about sexual education as much or…HIV testing. So, it can be a really good opportunity to really reach the people who maybe have not…a comprehensive understanding of these topics,” said John Werning, an HIV testing specialist at TPAN.

The most personal lesson for students offered by Gallery 400’s participation in Day With(out) Art was finding out whether or not they are HIV-positive through TPAN’s free testing.

But why test for HIV in an art gallery?

Although a seemingly odd location, the gallery allowed event-goers to get personal health results without the stress or stigmas of going to a clinic. Swindell, who was the mastermind behind inviting TPAN to the event, said a student looking to get tested could just tell people, “‘I stopped in to see the show.’”

Werning, who admitted that he “would love for more folks” to have attended, said, “No matter if its one, five or 50, people still saw [“Radiant Presence”]…and it got the message across; that’s what’s important right?”

Looking towards the future and Day With(out) Art 2016, both Swindell and Werning said they hope to see changes in sex education.

But if so many young people are already infected, what does sex education have to do with it?

“When you ask me personally why I think the numbers are so high for people under 24 being unaware of their status,” Swindell said, “it’s because of a lack of education about sexual health. I would love to see a return to younger people being taught what it means to be a sexual being and…how to keep themselves safe at the same time.”

The event also included informational materials from the Chicago Chapter of the HIV/AIDS anti-stigma organization Mr. Friendly.

Photo at top: Gallery 400 provided visitors resources from Chicago Chapter’s of Mr. Friendly. (Elizabeth Bacharach/Medill)