ICA commission shows increased understanding of HIV/AIDS

The first clinical observation of AIDS occurred in 1981, a time when very little about the disease was understood by medical professionals, and public misconceptions were rampant.

After more than three decades of research, medical advances, and general public awareness, understanding of the disease has drastically changed since the early days of HIV/AIDS.

To illustrate this shift in knowledge, the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania is hosting a web-based commission by Berlin-based artist and designer Florian Kräutli titled “BackStory: 13 years of HIV/AIDS on Wikipedia.” The commission can be viewed through Feb. 1, 2015.

“What’s striking about this exhibit is that it shows how ideas about HIV and AIDS have changed over time, in particular how the strange ideas people have had have been filtered out over time,” says Rebecca Hunter, communications associate for the ICA and organizer of the commission. “There [were] a lot of negative views of HIV and AIDS near the beginning, and over time, the discourse [became] more scientific and less judgmental. That progress really stands out.”

“BackStory” is an online visualization tool that allows viewers to explore a subjective, contested, and constantly expanding history of HIV/AIDS through a chronology of revisions to Wikipedia articles on this topic. It builds upon Kräutli’s original BackStory visualization tool, developed during the Getty-funded summer institute “Beautiful Data: Telling Stories with Open Art Collections” at Harvard metaLAB. It was there that Hunter met Kräutli and approached him about pursuing this commission for the ICA.

“Focusing on history is something we at the ICA thought about a lot during our 50th anniversary year, and it’s something we want to continue,” Hunter says. “We want to ask—how do artists think about history? How do we think about our own history?”

The project launched on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day and the 25th Day With(out) Art, by taking over the ICA’s homepage for the day. Hunter says the rate of HIV infection in Philadelphia is five times the national average—and 50 percent higher than in New York City—and the ICA hopes the commission will increase awareness among at-risk communities and the general public.

“We hope it provokes people to think—in any way,” she says. “If people remember one thing they’ve read and it starts a conversation outside the internet, the commission has been purposeful. We hope it inspires people to understand that this discourse is evolving, and HIV and AIDS are not taboo to discuss.”

Backstory HIV/AIDS