December 1st marks World AIDS Day — and amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the NYC AIDS Memorial installed the most ambitious program since the memorial was founded as a grassroots activist advocacy effort in early 2011.
“Hear Me: Voices of the Epidemic” is a daily, hour-long outdoor sound installation composed of historical texts, poetry, speeches and music that capture the history of the AIDS epidemic, including protest recordings and a song composed by the late musician and AIDS activist Michael Callen. “A lot of these sounds, poems and news reports could really be from this week,” NYC AIDS Memorial executive director Dave Harper says about the installation’s resonance. “They’re saying the same things we’ve been saying for 40 years — that access to healthcare is a human right, that there’s crisis after crisis and it doesn’t always feel like someone is listening.”
The push for an AIDS memorial in New York City was a response to the lack of memorialization for a public health crisis that has killed over 100,000 New Yorkers. Until Christopher Tepper and Paul Kelterborn kicked off the grassroots effort in 2011 — decades into the fight against AIDS — there had been no highly visible, public memorial recognizing the people lost, as well as caregivers and activists.
The memorial opened on December 1, 2016, on a West Village site that once belonged to St. Vincent’s Hospital. The location is historic for several reasons: The epidemic disproportionately affected the gay male population in surrounding neighborhoods, prompting St. Vincent’s to establish the first AIDS ward in the city in 1984. The site is also close to advocacy that changed the epidemic’s trajectory, including ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) and Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
Advocacy spurred by the AIDS crisis is still alive in New York City, with many of the same activists addressing COVID-19 in the city. But the memorial began planning for “Hear Me: Voices of the Epidemic” prior to the pandemic.
Harper came on as the first and only staff person for the memorial in 2019, inspired by a 2018 installation by artist Jenny Holzer at the site. “I was thinking about archival, historical and found-based text … how you make the memorial live, breathe and feel alive?” he asks. “I thought by animating it using sound would really give a sense of presence.”
The memorial planned to open a sound installation this spring, then COVID-19 hit. “Of all the terrible things that happened this year, we had extra time to really think about what this [installation] could be,” Harper says. He hired Theodore Kerr, a Brooklyn-based writer, organizer and artist whose work focuses on HIV/AIDS, community and culture, to delve deeper into potential audio narratives.
Kerr curated this audio “track list” this summer. “Obviously this was an intense and historic summer, not just because of COVID-19 but because of the Black Lives Matter protests and upcoming election, and all of that led me to think I couldn’t select all these clips on my own,” he notes.
Kerr proposed the installation be coupled with a digital conversation series showcasing diverse voices that represent the past, present and future of AIDS activism. That became A Time to Listen, which presented six episodes throughout November focused on speeches, direct action, music, testimonies, performance and storytelling.
On the Testimonies episode, founder of Transgender Equity Consulting Cecilia Gentili shared her own experiences as an artist, advocate and performer. “We often stay stuck in reacting to whatever crisis is in front of us as if it was the first time it’s occurred,” Gentili notes. “A Time to Listen does a really good job of connecting us to the acts of joy and resistance people have been a part of for decades. When I listen to the episodes I feel the power of that work, and I can think through how to build off those lessons and bring their wisdom into my own work.”
A Time to Listen established community ahead of the December 1 launch of the on-site installation, which will run nightly through this month. Hear Me is also preceded each day with a recording featuring the names of over 2,000 New Yorkers lost to AIDS read by members of What Would an HIV Doula Do?, activists, caregivers and long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS.
Kerr wanted to capture the diversity of voices presented in A Time to Listen in the one-hour audio track list presented at the memorial. “So much harm is done with the story of HIV/AIDS is told in too narrow of a lens,” he says. “We really needed to make sure we understood it as an intersectional story that’s both historic and ongoing.”
The track list includes a speech by activist Vito Russo, historic recordings of an ACT UP-led protest made by artist David Wojnarowicz, and a contemporary poem by artist Kia LaBeija. One poem published in the 1990s, Heartbeats by Melvin Dixon, speaks to today’s struggles of a COVID-19 diagnosis. “There will hopefully be moments of connection where people feel like they understand the AIDS epidemic in a better way,” Harper says, “Because it’s a lot of the same things we’re still talking about all this time later.”
Both Harper and Kerr stress there are many differences between HIV/AIDS and COVID-19. But they aren’t afraid to explore the links, including the ongoing advocacy around equitable health care, health disparities consistently determined by race and income, and the need for connectedness throughout a crisis.
“My number one hope is that people find their way to the memorial, respecting all social distancing and mask protocols, and find a way to experience it together,” Kerr says. “That people find a way to make new friends, new peers and new comrades in the year 2020 and beyond, as we have made friends, lovers and comrades through HIV work.”