Graying of AIDS installation and projection on Governors Island (pt. 2)

As we continue to think about creative new ways to introduce the issues raised in The Graying of AIDS to diverse audiences, we thought we’d reflect back on some of the highlights of our experience this September as participants in the Governors Island Art Fair.

Our first floor, site-specific installation was designed to look and feel like an older adult’s living room. Visitors could come in and rest on one of two padded benches or settle into a cushy recliner, listen to a 26-minute looped audio collage of excerpts from oral history interviews, and view the projected portraits of some of the older adults featured in The Graying of AIDS. Miniature portraits of some of our project participants were also printed onto take-away cards with our project URL on the back, inviting visitors to go to our website to learn more, and someone connected to the project was usually on hand during exhibit hours to answer any questions that might arise.

We had no idea what to expect when we came to the island. Estimates suggest that 15-20,000 people visited the art fair this year; some came to Governors Island just to visit the art show, while others who had come for a bike ride, cultural event, or just a rambling day in the park wandered into the exhibitions by chance. Ultimately a tremendously diverse cross-section of New York residents and visitors came through our door over the four weekends the fair was open (Fri/Sat/Sun, September 2 – 25), some briefly sticking their head in, others lingering at some length.

Visitors included a group of seniors from SAGE and entire classes of students of various ages from area schools; some guests sat, listened, and left without a word, while others asked questions or shared stories about their own experiences living with HIV, their loved ones here and abroad who have lived with the virus, or other creative responses to the epidemic. Among our favorite moments:

  • One visitor sat through the entire loop of images and audio, then turned to ask if it was okay to talk in the room. An artist who has been living and working in New York City for decades, he was reminded of the many people he has lost to the AIDS epidemic, and acknowledged that he hadn’t just sat and thought about them or that time in his life for a while. He was also thinking about the friends who survived and are still living with HIV today. “It’s bumming me out, but it’s good,” he said, shaking his head and smiling.
  • After a brief break from the space, Graying staffer Naomi returned to find a man in his late thirties leaning back in the recliner while his young son (maybe 7 or 8 years old?) sat in his lap. They sat there for 20 minutes, listening. Every now and then the young boy would lean in to his father and whisper something, and his father would respond. They listened through more than one loop, then walked out quietly together.
  • A woman in her 50’s sat in the space with a younger friend listening to the presentation while her friend offered up her reactions. When they finally exited the room and her younger friend started to engage a group of people in conversation, the older woman approached our Graying of AIDS staff with a series of basic questions about HIV risk factors and modes of transmission. It became clear that while her younger friend had responded to the room as an art installation, this woman was, possibly for the first time, considering the possibility that she might be at risk.

It was moving and motivating to bring our materials out of the virtual realm and into an inviting community space; being there while people experienced some of these stories and images for the first time was informative and inspiring, and we look forward to doing it again. As we work towards creating a national traveling exhibition, we would love to hear from you: are you involved with an organization, project, or upcoming event in your area that your think might want to help bring a Graying exhibit to your community? Let’s talk.

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