While I was writing this text, I took a break and invited a guy to my house from Hornet (a sex-app widely used by gays and transgenders in Turkey after Grindr got banned by the government). After the preliminary chit-chats, I went downstairs and when I came back, I saw him looking at my computer screen populated by the text you are about to read, and I thought to myself, “Fuck! Now I have to explain HIV to him.” But no, on the contrary, he asked: “Are people still getting depressed when they get HIV?”
I did not know what to say, so I turned the question back to him: "What do you think?" I breathed a sigh of relief when he began talking about his ex-ex-ex-boyfriend from Georgia who is a depressed gay guy living with HIV for more than three years now.
After he stopped speaking, it was quiet between us. I was not sure what to say. Finally, I think as much to me as to his ex-ex-ex, or the world, he asked, "HIV, What's the big deal?"
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Being inspired by artistic and activist interventions of the 1980s AIDS crisis; seeing curating as collective and affective process of thinking; and as someone dealing with HIV since I was twenty years old, I curated an HIV/AIDS exhibition with the motivation of initiating a contemporary, lively, local discourse on HIV/AIDS in Turkey which has never been studied in art or in the social sciences. The project’s foundation laid with the participation of my fellow artists, and then became more broad. I spread the word, asked around, and invited a few Turkish contemporary artists who are HIV+ and HIV- or with undeclared serostatus; self-defined queer, gay, and cis-heterosexual; established or emerging artists to either produce new artworks questioning and exploring the issue, or to show their earlier works which could be interpreted in this context of HIV. The motivation was to render HIV/AIDS discussable through the power and freedom of artistic practice and to create a “positive space” where this often undetectable, hush-hushed issue can be on display in a polyvocal, dialogical, relational, and discursive manner.
The exhibition opened on December 1, 2018 in “Operation Room,’’ a project space of a private and high-class Turkish hospital, the American Hospital (inherited from Red Cross). Curatorially locating HIV in the medical environment raised eyebrows among some friends, but the aim was to wash away the sullen hospital experiences many seropositive and many queer individuals have, with the environment itself. By penetrating the medical gaze with an exhibition, we were also declaring our presence in the public as queers and people living HIV. Positive Space strategically legitimized talking about queer sexualities within the frame of HIV/AIDS and used that frame to create “queer corners,” a term Dina Georgis uses while giving a definition to her book, The Better Story, which is “ultimately a search for the stories of the discarded in history, which is why we need to look in queer corners.” Georgis’ book offers deep insights on creative and subjective narratives as coping mechanisms with collective historical trauma.
Many local and international NGOs attempt to erase the “gay disease” label from AIDS, to make possible donors and other gatekeepers feel comfortable and to guarantee cooperating opportunities with often conservative governments. This exhibition antithetically gave privilege to queer artists’ participation. The idea was not to conceptually marginalize the virus nor to exclude the other vulnerable groups, rather, the inclusion of queer artists was essential with regard to HIV/AIDS’s both ongoing tangible impact on the community and its ongoing trauma. To create queer corners was also a necessary attempt to draw from the 1980s, a time in which queer communities in the West united in the struggle against HIV/AIDS and, in this struggle, fought for their sexual freedom and culture and against discrimination and marginalization.
Among the participants of the exhibition, there are artists whose personal experiences, traumas, and transformations with HIV were known by me beforehand. But I didn’t want to just include positive artists; inviting only people living with the virus to exhibit is not a good curatorial strategy. In addition to the fact that segregating seropositive artists would be problematic for those who are not open about their status, it is clear that HIV is not a problem only for those who have it, but most of the time, more a haunting concept for those who are attached to their fantasies about it. The exhibition intended to contaminate the metaphorically loaded meanings of HIV following Treichler, who brilliantly exposed the discursive dichotomies inherited by HIV/AIDS such as self/not-self, perpetrator/victim, vice/virtue, love/death, sex/death, science/not-science, knowledge/ignorance, doctor/patient, guest/host, virus/victim, but also with positive/negative, sterile/abject, vulnerable/protected, risky/safe, monster/victim, stigmatized/stigmatizer, secret/disclosure. The hetero-serostatus setting of the exhibition’s participants facilitated these dichotomies from different perspectives to be discussed and to be put into porous dialogues, and this variety of perspective nurtured the artworks exhibited: some of them tackled the issue as social phenomenon, others offered an intimate confessional experience, others pyschoanalytical shatterings. Some artists explored HIV as a seronegative heterosexual; some felt like an advocate for being HIV+, some wanted to say what had not been verbalized, show what had not been visible, embody what was contagious, monstrous, abject in the form of art. What was common among all the participating artists was the desire to take action. Just like what artists both collectively and individually did in the 1980s, by creating another level of aesthetic which makes visible heretofore unintelligible social and political forms, the artists involved in this project created an aesthetic of being-together.
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The exhibition was divided by a wall into two sections within the gallery space, creating two contrasting areas and a liminal space—the wall itself. Behind the wall, there was an inner black space which stood for an “interior,” inside of the body, deep inside of the issue, but also for invisibility, secretiveness, or secretive intimate sexuality, while the outer white-walled space, under white lights, resembled an “operating room” or a public realm which tackles with HIV by documenting, interrogating and analyzing it. The wall between was full of real and imaginary holes, cracks, and interspaces, and with that nature, it imitated a porous skin. They entered and exited public and private spheres, social and intersubjective bodies.
Upon entering the space, positioned on the shelf next to the exhibition texts and maps, there was a modest gift—a heap of temporary tattoos. Artist Can Küçük took the biohazard sign, used by some HIV positive people to announce their status by tattooing the symbol on their bodies and turned it into temporary tattoos, inviting everyone who entered this space to ephemerally mark themselves with it. Sociologist Erving Goffman defined stigma as “an attribute that is deeply discrediting within a particular social interaction.” Tattoos, once used as a mark made on the skin of enslaved and incarcerated people; stigma is a mark placed upon the body “to indicate that the bearer is somehow inferior, polluted or corrupt.” Since an individual living with HIV in the contemporary post-life-saving medicine era does not often have any physical symptoms, the illnesses have become invisible in public; therefore HIV “visibility” depends on “disclosure,” which is giving certain comfort to those who do not want to verbalize their serostatus, but consequently that invisibility and ongoing non-disclosure of HIV mystify the virus, which does not have reliable, tangible public testimony in Turkey.
This invisibility is interconnected with the hypervisibility of repressed queer sexualities in Turkey. Turkish authorities issued a ban on events held by LGBT groups ostensibly over concerns for "public security." With the same pretext, Pride marches, which are different from contemporary Western ones, have been banned for the fifth year in a row now. We have not been allowed to gather legally and publicly, but we do. We still fill the streets by dispersing the march into every possible corner of the city instead of gathering together as a bulk of people; we march knowing every march is a Pride march, we raise flags, dance, and fuck until forcefully dispersed by tear gas and rubber bullets. Turkey has one of the worst records of human rights violations against LGBTI+ people, and the highest transgender murder rate in Europe. Entering the exhibition, two pairs of jeans with two sets of underpants on the floor greet visitors, after the invitation of the temporary tattoo. These anonymous, abandoned Levi’s pants and Calvin Klein underwear side by side are the work of Elmgreen & Dragset, the exhibition’s unique international participants who were the curator duo of the last Istanbul Biennial. The work, titled Powerless Structures, Figure 19, is part of the duo’s multi-piece series of object transformations and is referring to the absence of the body, the vanished body, the invisible naked body. The homosexual body here is marked by absence, by the eroticism of the absent. The owners of the pants, the two invisible, unclad bodies are either together having fun in the darker space or disappearing into it.
Furkan Öztekin’s collage series titled Tab practices an online search for AIDS visuals in Turkish. He opens tabs with the sensational images of AIDS cases he found in Turkish media archives, images from the KAOS GL magazine, some drawings, some photographs taken from inside and outside of the hospital where the exhibition also takes place. Copied, recorded, and created images come together and contaminate each other; they become as neutral as a virus, mixing positive and negative spaces of the conventional composition. Öztekin hides the faces and identities, accentuates the invisibility. We can detect the archival images very partially from Öztekin’s collages, which appeared in an in-your-face manner on the shelves displaying Serdar Soydan’s research material. Soydan pulls from his archive and displays magazines, posters, and books that draw the attention of the Turkish public to AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, while dictating norms of public health and morals that demonize implicitly queer (since discussing queer sexuality in the public realm has never been really possible) but explicitly all sexualities taken outside of the family structure.
Drawing from Soydan’s study and performative presentation as a part of Positive Space’s programming, I want to open up a space to talk about Murteza Elgin who is the first victim/hero of AIDS in Turkey. When the new and fatal infection first emerged and during the epidemics’ crisis in the 1980s, AIDS was highly scandalized and mediatized in the public sphere, just like anywhere else. In November 1985, after a year-long transfer and translation of international AIDS news, Turkish media finally found its own local tangible object of display and pity, of judgment and curiosity, of inspection and fear. On November 2, the banner headline of the popular daily newspaper Hürriyet was sharp and direct: “Here is the Turk with AIDS.” This targeting phrase is reminiscent of a description made by the New York Post about the widely believed patient zero of AIDS in America: “The Man Who Gave Us AIDS.” The first local example of HIV/AIDS in Turkish media appeared with the help and initiative of a professor of medicine, Hüseyin Sipahioğlu, who later ironically became the chairman of an AIDS association in the Turkish Mediterranean. At the beginning, Elgin’s name was hidden by popular media and he was mentioned as “M.”; however, because Elgin was a known figure in the mainstream entertainment business of the 1980s and he was a peer of popular sex stars, singers, and actresses, it didn’t take long for his face to become associated with the fatal disease. From there, he became a long-lasting target of public interest. After the announcement Sipahioğlu made without any regard for Elgin’s privacy, the Turkish Ministry of Health denied the claim, blamed the doctor, and simply said: “There is no recorded case of AIDS in Turkey.” Later on, Elgin was put under observation by state officials and was forced to be tested and isolated while he tirelessly made statements to the newspapers that he did not have AIDS. In the show, I included one of the pictures taken when Elgin was set free from the hospital, where he was forcibly kept in segregation under medical observation by the state, as exhibition promotion material. In this photo, showing him exiting the hospital as a hero, his arms are wide open in the air since his release meant for him that he did not have HIV and that his doctor, as well as the state officials, were wrong. We put this photo, found by Soydan in media achieves, on the outer windows of the gallery printed in a large format so that Murteza could salute both the exhibition and hospital visitors.
The mainstream newspapers labeled Murteza Elgin as a “public-enemy.” One of them published a list of people from show business who were still in physical contact with Murteza Elgin. These public faces, as well, became the objects of suspicion since they might have AIDS. While Elgin had been shown as someone to run away from, his fame tripled as a result of being a viral sensation, and a year after his first appearance on the newspaper, he got on the stage at the İzmir International Fair, the oldest trade show and international display-ground in Turkey, which hosts a series of simultaneous festival activities and concerts. Besides being a stage of Turkish secular modernity, this fair was famous for a queer ‘display’: in 1980 on the same stage, Bülent Ersoy, the hypervisible transgender singer, showed her freshly operated breasts to her curious and enthusiastic audience, and this led her to being banned from stages for a long time. Elgin must have been rightfully inspired by Ersoy, and by taking advantage of being a figure of public interest, made a spectacle of his body with AIDS, and the people came to see him. Elgin was the only visible public figure living with AIDS, though his structured visibility which was the co-production of phobic biomedical and media discourses only contributed to producing more stigma among the general public. When he died of an HIV-related opportunistic infection in 1992, apparently there was no progress. Even after his bare life evaporated, the body suffered. Out of fear of contamination, his body was washed, wrapped in nylon, put into a zinc coffin, and buried in a lime pit. There were three people at his funeral, and no one wanted to carry his casket; it took hours for journalists who were present at the funeral to feel pity and carry his body to a waiting hearse.
Since Elgin, representation of HIV/AIDS in the media has always been related to scandals akin to the ones taking place in States: the isolation of a six-year-old HIV+ student in a public school (with a certain emphasis on the innocent child as future citizen, the future of the nation versus sinful parents); the panic of hospital staff members facing an HIV+ patient; transmission of the virus via the blood taken from Turkish blood-banks; the question of sex workers’ status; confinement of a Russian sex-worker in a single cell (highlighted by misogyny and xenophobia). If not a scandal, there has been no information on or no representation of HIV/AIDS, no public figure disclosing or verbalizing her status; even among our immediate queer entourage, it’s an “open secret,” a handful of people feel comfortable talking about it. Ultimately, no matter how great the medical progress has been in the last two decades, the virus is still being mystified by the general public, which causes internal and/or external stigmatization in Turkey.
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When I was first diagnosed five years ago, I was desperately in need of attributing a “face” to that virus. My question was simple enough: “Who has HIV other than me now?” In my immediate circles, on the other hand, what was known about the virus was just some rumors about some “marginal” homosexual people who have it and who were said to be having unsafe sex regardless of their status, moreover, in order to spread the virus. The faces of these marginal “homosexuals” were blurred with the information coming from third parties. For the twenty-year-old me, it was somehow acceptable not to know much about HIV. Even that itself explains the lack of sufficient discourse on HIV and its transmission. Nevertheless, another persistent factor in the face of HIV was denial. I knew that there was something called AIDS, but I did not know how and when the knowledge had been transmitted to me. I was not willing to know more about it before I tested positive. I could easily comfort myself, saying that there must be no people with AIDS in Turkey since we do not see any of them. The only people who got AIDS were international singers, artists, or philosophers from the past.
Soydan’s archive work offers an opportunity to examine how information, trauma, and fantasy were constructed in the recent past. He invites viewers to dig deeper into the
causes as to why HIV-positive people had to hide their faces, and how HIV was turned into a shameful crime. This connects us to Leyla Gediz’s portrait of a figure who hides his face. In her work titled Cocoon, she draws the portrait of a friend who had freshly tested positive in her paintings dating back to 2009 that had never been displayed in Turkey. As the figure on the canvas tries to adapt to this new piece of information, he is introspective, he is about to turn into a cocoon. Like this painting to which the pain of others refers, one of the issues that has to be taken into account today is how the collective trauma and post-memory reveal themselves in the face of AIDS as intergenerational transmission trauma, and what AIDS means for the generation who was born during or after ‘80s. Why is it still that traumatic to learn that you are HIV positive in the contemporary era in which the destructive effects of HIV can easily be fully controlled thanks to ever-upgrading life-saving medicines?
I was not a witness to the first international AIDS crisis since I was born in 1993, just before the discovery of life-saving medications. Consequently, I was not subjected to the mediatized images of ill and contagious bodies. From my generation onward, the first contact with HIV/AIDS must be different from the first reactions against the epidemic. Nonetheless, seeing the silenced, invisible, and taboo nature of it, fundamental knowledge about HIV/AIDS comes with rumors or unreal assumptions. I remember being told the urban myth about the “contagious” needles left on seats in movie theaters by hateful, perverse, criminal, probably homosexual individuals in order to spread the virus. Even for us, who were born into a world where AIDS did not have to be a fatal disease anymore, the everyday reality is different. Thus, the traumatic resonance, independent of medical progress, remains with the infection.
When I was diagnosed, I was lucky enough to have access to “reliable” sources where I could get information about the virus, but for quite some time, I was sure that this virus would still steal at least ten years of my life. Later on, I met some people who could not get over their suspicion about the transmission of HIV even though they knew a lot about the limits of the virus. I also know someone who locked himself in a room for months after learning his serostatus and did not want to know anything about the virus. And this is one of the participant artists of the exhibition. Ardıl Yalınkılıç, as a young generation artist, use this experience in his confessional art piece, and probes his personal history by displaying this correspondence with his mother in 2012 simply by printing out the e-mails. Upon learning his serostatus, at the age of twenty, Yalınkılıç isolated himself for months and he just let himself go into long-lasting depression, believing that there was no treatment for AIDS and that he would die soon. After three months of self-segregation, he found out that he was actually HIV-. It was a ‘‘false alarm’’ but its being false does not make it less alarming since HIV is most commonly traumatic combination of three initials. The letters between Ardıl and his mother starts when he finally knew his actual serostatus; this “relief” let him rebuild up a conversation with his mother who was restlessly trying to reach him. Ardıl and I were quite skeptical about putting these letters on display, since they might offend some HIV+ individuals with this these highly dramatized, politically-uncorrect, even HIV-phobic, statements full of disinformation and exaggeration quite obviously uttered in these written dialogues. When the bitter reality epitomized in these conversations was taken into consideration, it was necessary to show these shameful testimonials of two generations’ reaction to HIV/AIDS. He offers evidence of what it can mean to have the easily repressible fatal virus, and the role that expression and communication can play within the ongoing crisis.
How come the image or the idea of death is so persistently associated with HIV/AIDS? Is it just because of the lack of knowledge about the virus? Alternatively, is the image of death, consciously or unconsciously, something to be called upon and have a place in the general picture in any case when the question is HIV/AIDS or even any disease? Similarly, the image of the sick body with AIDS was so penetrating that after the discovery of the medicine, a healthy body and its image became something to be achieved among homosexual males. Many see the contemporary phenomenon of the super-healthy, hyper-masculine, muscular, over-sexual gay body image as a reaction to the sick and skinny, vanishing “AIDS” body.
Again, I know some seropositive Westerners much older than me who witnessed the first period of the epidemics but who were infected much later, and many of them mentioned how devastated they were mentally for a long while after they first got diagnosed, even though they already knew many PLWHA and they were residing in countries where the public awareness is much higher, and stigmatization is much lower.
Regardless of the changing nature of the HIV since the 1980s, its construction has not been shattered, since the gained progress in medicine and regained quality of life of HIV+ individuals do not attract as much attention as the past. Getting infected by HIV is still universally seen and consequently experienced as a traumatic event that makes one ultimately vulnerable. What is taking a stand against HIV’s normalization, I believe, is the lack of testimony from the present, and the ongoing intergenerational and transnational trauma that is transmitted via post-memory in the field of HIV-related and queer cultural production. Marianne Hirsch describes post-memory as “an intersubjective trans-generational space of remembrance, linked specifically to cultural or collective trauma […] defined through an identification with the victim or witness of trauma.” As to the question of HIV/AIDS in Turkey as a taboo topic, the trauma bringing the ongoing construction around it has been transmitted via its silence, invisibility, and unrepresentability. This is what my exhibition was about, and what much of my work since continues to explore.
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Now that I have finished this text, I think back to my Hornet hook-up, and his question: “HIV, what is the big deal?”
And I realize that this is the question I too have been asking.
Alper Turan (b. 1993, Ankara) lives and works in Istanbul. Turan is freelance curator and co-founder of Das Art Project, a curatorial collective that uses thematically-specific buildings, often with historical significance, to realize ephemeral exhibitions with mostly younger generation artists. Turan, most recently, curated Positive Space, an exhibition project on HIV/AIDS in Istanbul. This project also lays the ground of his Cultural Studies master research in which he merges critical reading of art works with (auto)ethnographic accounts. Turan works on curating as ethnography, queer curating and exhibition making strategies.
1 Dina Georgis, The Better Story: Queer Affects from the Middle East (New York: SUNY Press, 2014).
2 Paula A. Treichler, How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999).
3 Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (London and New York: Verso, 2009).
4 Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963).
5 The magazine of the oldest LGBT organization based in Ankara, founded in 1994.
6 Marianne Hirsch, “Surviving Images: Holocaust Photographs and the Work of Postmemory.” The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2002): 5-37.