Project Overview

How Contracting an Issue came to be.

My quest to understand, and also cope with, my own personal struggle with HIV/AIDS was one of many reasons that led to the conceptualization of Contracting an Issue.

PSA’s, especially around HIV/AIDS, have become more and more like wallpaper, no longer a source of conversation. I felt the change around this epidemic needed a stronger voice of recognition in our time, where oversaturation has begun to lead to overlooking. I found the telling of personal truths resonated with me, affecting my own awareness. Retelling these stories also helped encourage my community to better understand the reality of this disease. Becoming more and more focused on people's stories, I started conducting interviews, then taking segments from real life stories and transforming them into a script of monologues. I realized that by working with a variety of people and groups, I had developed what I saw as an unbiased script that reflected the opinions and feelings of my greater community. But I wondered: was this reflection one sided? A localized, more liberal look at HIV/AIDS, since the opinions were coming out of the SF Bay-Area? I saw the need to repeat this process in other locations around the world in order to investigate what, if any, difference in voice or opinions around HIV/AIDS might come out of the process.  I began structuring this archive to house each separate engagement as part of a larger collective to create an even wider understanding of the reality of the hold of HIV/AIDS over humanity.


The change around this epidemic needed a stronger voice of recognition. In our time, this issue has become so talked about, it has been diluted and some of its importance has been inadvertently lost in the noise.


Manifesting as a social awareness project, built from layers of investigation, community engagement, and story telling, Contracting an Issue set out to produce a collection of public, spoken-word documentary performances, based around the strength and impact created when we utilize the art of listening. The Goal is to promote a better understanding while helping start new dialogues between people with differing points of view and deeply ingrained histories of conflict around HIV/AIDS.

 Actors in front of the  SF AIDS Foundation - "Always Waiting"

 Actors in front of the  SF AIDS Foundation - "Always Waiting"

Who- Local communities from around the globe, creating a network of exchange; i.e. normal everyday people like you and me, telling their stories, fears, and truths about HIV/AIDS and the folks who participate just by listening.

What- Dialogue, conversations, and performances; about and around HIV/AIDS; Culminating as multiple public, spoken-word documentary performances.

Where- Originating in San Francisco, CA, our goal is to travel this with this work beyond San Francisco;  not the original performance, which took place in San Francisco, but the act of engaging new people, creating new documentary performances that capture the voice and tone found in each community visited.

When- NOW!

Why- The hope is to mass a collective understanding of this difficult and taboo subject; the collection of these engagements will become a collective voice. The goal of archiving and showing these clusters of performances is that together they will form a comprehensive, less temporal portrait of HIV/AIDS. A portrait that is relative and relatable, yet shows the diversity and reach of this unbiased disease.

Gallery-goer @ CCA- During the opening of "Always Waiting"

Gallery-goer @ CCA- During the opening of "Always Waiting"

The Process

The project began by conducting personal one-on-one interviews, group sessions, and alternative public theater workshops. I worked first hand with varying groups of people from the visited areas, investigating their fears and perceptions around HIV/AIDS.  By asking and listening how HIV/AIDS affects peoples lives and their bodies today, the stories not only show a glimpse of the current hold HIV/AIDS has, it helps break down the crippling power of the stigma attached to the disease.

I kept the integrity of the stories, and the power of the human voice, segments from their real life interviews, and transformed them into a script of monologues. Using spoken word, their stories are then acted out by actors in public forums, around the areas where they are collected.

The act of listening to someone’s personal insight helps many see a lived reality, beyond the sordid history of the AIDS crisis.  Allowing something that seem so foreign, or long ago to many, to become real and relative. By humanizing and showcasing the body and emotions attached to the disease through story telling, it also breaks down the distortion this disease often carries by helping people better understand and empathize with each other. 

The voice of each script is not a singular point of view. Rather they represent one of a collective, derived from people in each area visited, many of who shared nothing in common, but the location they live.

 


What you hear the most in the U.S. about HIV/AIDS is about the past. No longer a death sentence, one can live without visible signs affecting one's daily life.  More now than ever, with the new regimen of preventive methods, it is easier than ever to ignore facts and put ourselves at risk.

What’s next

The initial dialog in the Contracting An Issue project began in San Francisco, CA with the iteration “Always Waiting” Currently we are working on fundraising and building other relationships around the globe to continue this project.  The plan is to repeat the process in other places. First to listen, then document, and finally transcribe peoples’ stories into a new spoken word documentary performance. Through this project, some people may find a better understanding of each other and lessen the ignorance, hate, stigma and fear that come with HIV/AIDS. Because being sick is enough for one to handle, and the facts are the same for everyone. You might never truly know if you could have contracted HIV, until you have, but one thing I am sure of, we have all contracted an issue! Help, Connect, Participate

 

Actor on stage @ California College of the Arts - "Always Waiting"

Actor on stage @ California College of the Arts - "Always Waiting"


I was so scared and afraid… of my family disowning me, again. I attempted suicide.
— Anonymous participants, "Always Waiting"

The Back-Story

I cannot deny (nor do I want to) that I am gay, or that HIV/AIDS is (in America) a gay issue. That said, my interest in the subject was not solely an outgrowth of my sexuality. As a gay man the fact of AIDS is something one lives with. The Gay community is served up a constant cautionary tale of the disease via reminders in magazines, at bus stops, on dating sites, and by getting tested. HIV testing becomes a big part, or should be a big part of your life as a gay male. However, I see an issue that has become so talked about it has become diluted, and some of its importance is inadvertently lost in the noise. Yes, getting tested often, I have had many moments standing in line or sitting in the waiting room of a clinic, gripped with the fear that gets you every time, thinking this could be the time.

That moment of fear and realization is something that is often talked about with my friends who have a similar issue, being an active gay male: the act of hooking up, often through Grinder, the Internet, or out at bars; trusting they know their status, the act of being drunk or on drugs, slipping up and sometimes not using protection. These things are very pertinent to my community and beyond.

But for me the issue of HIV/AIDS became more real in 2011 when I began the cleanup of a city lot to build the Please Touch Garden.  ( http://pleasetouchgarden.org )

 

Please Touch Garden lot before the start of the project- 2010

Please Touch Garden lot before the start of the project- 2010

Cleaning out this empty lot in downtown San Francisco I found I faced a bigger issue than oil spills from an auto mechanic 50 years ago, or the urban decay of a 20-year abandoned lot. Our biggest problem from the beginning was needles, hypodermic needles. We collected more than 2,000 used needles, and for a long time after the initial clean up, would still find 5 to 15 needles a day. It was a biohazard, it was scary, and in it’s own way an epidemic

Hypodermic Needles found on the Please Touch Garden

Hypodermic Needles found on the Please Touch Garden

The abandoned lot was a wasteland that spoke of addiction, government healthcare, but mainly of HIV/AIDS. The needles are a byproduct of combating the AIDS epidemic; they are the aftermath of saving lives. It was a moment for me where an issue I had only known to fear as a sort of boogie monster manifested itself as a reality. The accumulation of needles forced me to see something that has always been in my face. It made me wonder where had the culture that formerly addressed this issue gone? Had it moved? Had the fear of something still very real become sedated by it’s own presence?  So I began investigating and listening to people’s stories, they were so enlightening, I then felt they needed to be shared… 

I saw many of the people involved in the first iteration, learned so much about HIV/AIDS, and gained a much broader understanding than before. I wondered, what more we could learn from other localized voices? Could repeating this model of engagement in many different places promote a better understanding, and help start new dialogues, between people with differing points of views and deeply ingrained histories of conflict around HIV/AIDS?