Art AIDS America Chicago – highly recommended art exhibit

Art AIDS America Chicago
through April 2, 2017
Alphawood Gallery |2401 North Halsted Street |Chicago, Illinois 60614
Free Admission |Timed Admission Passes Recommended

This past weekend, I went to an amazing art exhibition Art AIDS America Chicago. If you are able to see it here in Chicago before it closes in April, I would highly recommend it. It’s as emotionally gripping as contemporary art exhibitions come, and many pieces had me wiping tears from my eyes. There are works by well-known artists like Keith Haring, Andres Serrano, Barbara Kruger, and Robert Mapplethorpe. There are many works by artists whose names I did not know. It’s not in a larger museum. The gallery was built out just for this exhibit in a former bank in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, not far from DePaul University. The space works beautifully, and the curatorial decisions were spot on. There was also an element of community engagement, with free HIV testing and opportunity to contribute to oral history projects.

The AIDS crisis is a pivotal point in my life, even though I am HIV-negative. I came out as gay in Fall 1987. AIDS was still a virtual death sentence and the stigma and shame was overwhelming. Most of society linked it with gay sex, IV drug use, and immigrant populations. The messaging that it was God’s punishment on sinners was all over the media. The Federal government was doing very little to help those suffering with the disease or doing any kind of public education toward prevention.

This fear of infection combined with my uncertain and emerging sexuality and my Catholic upbringing to really mess up any chance that I may have had to develop a healthy sex-positive attitude. Even today, I feel a bit damaged around these issues. It has had a profound effect, even after decades of personal growth.

I seriously dated a man in the late 1990’s who was not only HIV-positive, but was a “Lazarus” case. He had lost his longtime partner to AIDS and seems to be at death’s door, when an improved drug cocktail caused his health to turn around. Being close to someone with that history and with an immune system that was still badly compromised was very enlightening. It made the personal reality of the disease so much more real.

Today, I have many friends living with HIV, but the treatments have improved so much that I don’t often think about it. The costs and struggles are still real for them, but it is not the kind of catastrophic tragedy that it was in the 80’s and early 90’s. Quite a few of the artists featured in the exhibition have birth dates not much before mine – and death dates in the 1990s. The desperate and beautiful creativity is still with us through their art. Their struggles, their loves, their anger, their sex, their kink, their hope – it’s still there for us.

I don’t have the skills for the casual economy

So here I am making another public admission. And it almost seems to verge on neurotic, but I have the feeling I am far from alone.

On one hand, I love the idea of supporting friends who make things and who provide useful services. I love the idea of buying local instead of sticking with the large corporations. I have friends who teach skills that I would love to learn. I love the ideas of local barter networks and skill exchanges.

I know that these casual economy exchanges can be so much more cost effective and fulfilling than always going to the formal, mass-market solution. I also know that these kind of exchanges can open opportunities for myself to make income outside of a traditional job. Friends have said since I am an experienced (though non-professional) vegan cook, I should teach cooking classes or make dinner for people in my home.

But the truth is, I have no idea how to make any of those kind of exchanges work, even on the most obvious, rudimentary level. I have had friends who are licensed massage therapists who do work from their home who just stop communicating with me when I try to set up a time for a massage. I have friends who make custom clothing who I would like to commission a piece from, but I don’t even know how to start the conversation. I’ve offered to show friends how to do vegan baking at my home for free on social media, but no one has ever shown even the slightest interest, so it’s hard for me to conceive of how people would pay me to teach them some of my skills.

Part of it is that it’s hard to figure out the logistics of how to communicate with people about this. When personal and business time are not clearly delineated, when do you reach out to ask people about this kind of thing? I’ve always had a job where I’m either “on the clock” or designated as “on call”, but my availability for work-related matters is always clearly defined, so I am not entirely sure how to figure out that question. Of course email should make this easier than a phone call, but it’s still not always clear. In fact, I am the kind of person (and of a generation) who, if I want to call, I usually email or text them first to ask if it’s a good time.

And I think I still very much have the idea ingrained in me that “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it”. I feel like I’m wasting people’s time to even ask about something that I’m not in a financial position to buy. But, of course, the casual economy doesn’t come with price tags.

In a related attitude, I don’t trust things that are up for negotiation. If the price is different for everyone, how do I know that I’m not getting a bad deal because of some kind of bias – against strangers, against queer people, against people who aren’t knowledgeable, against those who look like they have money? Or the uncomfortable possibility that because I’m getting a better deal by being white or being a man.

I realize a lot of this is about my background as a middle class American. I am a child of food coming from grocery stores and restaurants that have prices on the menu. The internet has been available for most of my adult life, which took the old system of the yellow pages and ads in the newspaper to a new level. Now I can go onto a company website and see what a product or service might cost. 95% of my questions can be answered without even talking to a person.

I didn’t grow up in a culture where you trade with your neighbors. Helping relationships didn’t go much beyond buying pizza for friends in college when you asked them to help you move.
So yes, I feel like a have a huge hurdle to get over when it comes to making my life better through the casual, non-corporate economy. I think that it doesn’t help that most of the people around me are not much better off when it comes to these skills. I really feel like we all need to figure this one out together and shift our culture around to help ourselves and one another more effectively.

I guess we just had a Pagan holiday…

I have to admit I’ve never had much of a connection to Imbolc (or the various permutations of the pagan holiday around Feb 1st or 2nd). It doesn’t line up with anything that I’ve ever celebrated culturally or any celebrations that I grew up with (Groundhog Day is kind of a *meh* holiday).

I do like bonfires, but I don’t think I’ve ever been invited to an event this time of year centering on one. I’m not aware of any sacred wells around here. And as for the lambing time – lambs are pretty darned adorable, but as a vegan, they don’t form a part of my financial or agricultural world.

I guess all that’s left of that is the association with the beginnings of Spring. But I have to honest, early February doesn’t typically feel much like the beginning of Spring around Chicago. Most years, we’re still in for a full month or more of hard winter. This year, of course, we had an unusually mild January, so I don’t even have that severe Winter fatigue that normally accompanies this time of year.

I do like the Irish story of the Cailleach, the sacred hag, associated with the day. On Imbolc, she would indicate whether the winter was ending soon or if it would hang on for a long time. If there was still some harsh winter in the future, she would cause the weather to be bright and clear so she could gather more firewood to last the rest of the winter.

In the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, it is the beginning of a new cycle in our year. In our upcoming event called SpiritSong, we celebrate the Divine Youth, after celebrating the Elder in January. The Divine Youth gives the gift of Wonder, and that is an important one in this season of year, when the plants are dead and the skies are often gray. It is also important to remember in this political season, as so many threats seem to be lurking at our doorstep and the ungenerous hearts are the ones that lead us. We are building walls and cutting off assistance for those in need. We are lifting the protections to the environment and taking away funding from schools and the arts.

Wonder gives us the gift of seeing beauty in the simple and everyday things. It allows us to break the mundane unthinking patterns of our life and appreciate what we take for granted. It allows us to appreciate the marvelous talents that people have, and the skills that can seem almost magical. It is bound together with Gratitude and Joy. It makes us appreciate the many things that are provided to us, the bounty that surrounds us.

This gift of Wonder, tapping into something within ourselves that improves our outlook – this is something I will celebrate.