HIV/AIDS in the 21st Century

Guest editors José Saleiro Gomes, Louisa Hann, and Stian Kristensen, convenors of the Manchester HIV Humanities: HIV/AIDS Research Group, introduce a week-long HIV Humanities takeover of The Polyphony.

This week, The Polyphony will publish a series of articles exploring how the humanities are addressing the present state of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. While these articles all draw on different disciplines, genres and methods of research, they share a focus on HIV/AIDS in the 21st century — the title of the conference we convened earlier in the year, at the University of Manchester, on 16th and 17th January 2020.

The conference was conceived in early February 2019, and envisioned as the launch event for the Manchester-based HIV Humanities: HIV/AIDS Research Group. Our hope was that the conference would bring together academics currently working on cultural representations of HIV/AIDS and their political ramifications, virtual as well as material; we wanted to facilitate scholars in sharing their research with colleagues working on similar topics, as well with as the wider public. In this way, we aimed to galvanise and centralise research on a subject that is usually thought to be too niche to warrant big conferences.

Over the two days we were inspired by a burgeoning community of academics and creatives, all undertaking vital research and creative work considering the legacies of HIV/AIDS and its lingering presence in the 21st century. We were honoured to welcome poet Danez Smith as our keynote: Smith read a selection of their poetry in an electrifying and deeply touching performance to a full house at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, followed by a Q&A led by Manchester-based writer, performance artist and producer Keisha Thompson. Dr Monica Pearl (University of Manchester) and Dr Nicole Vitellone (University of Liverpool) opened the conference with a talk on Syringe Entanglements, discussing the cultural legacy of the syringe and opening up a field of discussion that is often overlooked in the histories of HIV/AIDS. The second day of the conference ended with a panel from George House Trust’s Positive Speakers program, who eloquently shared their experiences of living with HIV.

At the end of the conference we were all immensely moved to have been able to share this experience with a group to whom research is at once personal and intimate, an emotional as well as intellectual necessity. We believe our conference brought together a cohort of people who share not only an area of study, but also an investment in why and how we tackle our subject.

We are honoured to be able to showcase a handful of these works with readers of The Polyphony, and believe that the spirit of the conference is well represented in these five essays, all of which shed light in novel and exciting ways on important – though sometimes misrepresented or overlooked – issues surrounding the HIV/AIDS crisis, from humour in AIDS novels to the politics of historicizing blood-donor activism. We are proud to share the work of Siân Cook (University of the Arts London, ‘Realising the Potential of a UK HIV/AIDS Graphic Ephemera Archive’); Gabriel Duckels (University of Cambridge, ‘(Re)turning to AIDS in Queer Young Adult Fiction’); Anna Ferrari (Sapienza University of Rome, ‘What I Did Wrong: John Weir’s Representation of AIDS and Humour after Protease Inhibitors’); Mícheál McCann (Queen’s University Belfast, ‘Resurrecting the Present in Marie Howe’s What the Living Do’); and Benjamin Weil (University College London, ‘Blood Donation Policy, Activism and the Un/‘Official’ HIV/AIDS Record’).

This conference was a vital experience for us as both academics and as people, and we are happy to announce that it is only the first of several projects for the research group, which will include a series of public outreach events for the Manchester Art Gallery and their forthcoming coming exhibition Derek Jarman: Protest!

For more information on the HIV Humanities: HIV/AIDS Reading Group, please see our website, or follow our Twitter @hivhumanities.

About the guest editors:

José Saleiro Gomes is a PhD Student at the University of Manchester, researching the temporalities and politics of the poetry of the AIDS crisis, with particular focus on the politics of the archive and the poetics of intertextuality.

Louisa Hann is a third-year PhD candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Manchester conducting research into representations of HIV/AIDS in theatre and performance art.

Stian Kristensen is PhD candidate and Teaching Assistant in English and American Studies at the University of Manchester, researching the relationship between constructions of intimacy, masculinity and HIV/AIDS in contemporary literature.

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