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Re/Presenting HIV/AIDS Examines Pandemic from Many Angles

AIDS Conference
Professor of Biology Dave Wessner, Madeline Allen ’16, Julie Manz-Siek ’15 and Olivia Fukui ’15 attend the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia.

Art by activists and individuals affected by HIV/AIDS unites in an exhibit at Davidson College that displays cultural, scientific and artistic responses to one of the most significant pandemics of our time. Co-curated by Professor of English Ann Fox, Professor of Biology Dave Wessner, Director and Curator of the Van Every/Smith Galleries Lia Newman and Assistant Curator Rosemary Gardner, "Re/Presenting HIV/AIDS" provokes rich, interdisciplinary conversation through works by 12 artists.

The exhibit will run from Sept. 4-Oct. 5 in the Van Every/Smith Galleries of the Belk Visual Arts Center. The galleries are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and noon to 4 p.m. on weekends.

Wessner and Fox conceived the exhibit after finding success in their class "Representations of HIV/AIDS," which they began teaching together in the spring of 2012. The pair found funding for the project through the Presidential Innovation Grant program, which encourages faculty to cross disciplines and extend classroom activities to a broader audience.

"We imagined an exhibition that could showcase our classroom conversation between art and science and allow others to experience that conversation themselves," Wessner explained.

Fox and Wessner's collaboration will reach an even broader audience this semester through the launch of a massive open online course, or MOOC, through DavidsonX. DavidsonX is a partnership with edX, a nonprofit founded by Harvard and MIT aimed at producing a series of MOOCs from the nation's top schools over the next several years. Fox and Wessner's course "Representations of HIV/AIDS" will be the second MOOC launched on DavidsonX, allowing thousands of online students to sample the intellectual experience of a Davidson classroom.

The Art of AIDS

Altar #1
“Robert Farber’s Altar #1”

Wessner explained that the primary goal of "Re/Presenting HIV/AIDS" is to examine the AIDS epidemic from many angles. "In curating this exhibit we wanted to show the pandemic from scientific, medical, personal and societal perspectives," he said.

The multifaceted nature of "Re/Presenting HIV/AIDS," was supported by Fox and Wessner's varying backgrounds. Fox, a literary critic with a specialization in disability studies, said it was easy to work with Wessner, a virologist who has taught classes on HIV/AIDS. "We're both interested in exploring interdisciplinary boundaries and asking what we can learn about our own disciplines from others that seem completely different," she said.

Fox referenced Robert Farber's "Altar #1" as an excellent example of the multilayered representation of HIV/AIDS present in the exhibit. "The image displays an experimental vaccine for HIV as a religious icon," she explained. "This not only speaks to the biological development of the virus, but the personal quest of the researcher to find a savior."

Works by Jessica Whitbread featured in "Re/Presenting HIV/AIDS" focus on the experiences of HIV-positive women. "Whitbread's work is part of the ongoing discourse about who gets affected by HIV/AIDS," Fox said. "There are many faces of this disease. It's not limited to a specific population."

Aside from the exhibit itself, "Re/Presenting HIV/AIDS" brings a host of other activities to Davidson's campus, including two lectures, film screenings of How to Survive a Plague and The Other City, and a devised theatre piece. View the full program of events.

A notable speaker who will be present for the exhibition opening is Nelson Santos, director of the nonprofit Visual AIDS in New York. Visual AIDS collects and exhibits art to help fight AIDS by provoking dialogue and increasing understanding of the disease. Santos provided the first lecture for "Re/Presenting HIV/AIDS" in the Belk Visual Arts Center on Sept. 3.

Santos spoke to the importance of events like "Re/Presenting HIV/AIDS" that have similar missions to his organization. "Art has a way of communicating in ways that other mediums can't," he explained. "Art has also played a particularly important role throughout the AIDS crisis in creating powerful images that become symbols and tell personal stories."

Massive Outreach

Even as they help kick off "Re/Presenting HIV/AIDS," Wessner and Fox are gearing up for the launch of their MOOC, "Representations of HIV/AIDS." Much like the exhibition, the course will focus on the varying cultural responses to the AIDS epidemic.

International AIDS Conference
Wessner and students meet with Dr. Carl Dieffenbach, Director of the Division of AIDS at the National Institutes of Health, at the International AIDS Conference.

"We thought that a MOOC would provide an interesting way to take what we are doing in the classroom every day and show it to an even broader, global audience," said Wessner.

Part of the challenge in designing the MOOC was to allow thousands of users to gain a glimpse of the intimate intellectual experience at Davidson. Fox and Wessner sought to accomplish this in part by filming small discussions with Davidson students who had already taken their "Representations of HIV/AIDS" class on campus.

"MOOCS are asynchronous interactions, and online students don't enjoy the face to face interactions with professors for which Davidson has become known," Wessner explained. "We try to model that experience for them by providing a video of a real classroom conversation."

Fox and Wessner also are excited to see how the thousands of students from their MOOC will interact with their residential course at Davidson, which they will teach this semester. Davidson students in "Representations of HIV/AIDS" will interact with those in the MOOC by leading discussions and asking questions.

Fox explained, "One of the main purposes of DavidsonX is to take the liberal arts model into the world, but we also want to take the world into our classroom."

Wessner also praised the potential of MOOCs to take Davidson students beyond the comfort of campus. "In any Davidson class, there are only so many perspectives among the 15 to 30 students present," he explained. "With a MOOC you can potentially have the whole world contributing to your class discussion."

Wessner added, "When studying HIV/AIDS it's also particularly important to make contacts beyond the sheltered community of Davidson and see how the disease is operating in and affecting the real world."

A Global Experience

On top of the many teaching methods tried by Fox and Wessner, the two also explored the benefits of travel by leading a small group of Davidson students to the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia this summer. The International AIDS Conference is the world's largest gathering of AIDS experts, policy makers and activists that takes place every two years.

Fox and Wessner attended the conference along with students Olivia Fukui '15, Madeline Allen '16 and Julie Manz-Siek '15. The students are all members of Warner Hall Eating House, which aims to fight HIV/AIDS at Davidson through charity events like the annual Red & Black Ball.

"It was great to watch the students engage more deeply with their cause over a short period of time," said Wessner, who is the faculty advisor for Warner Hall.

Fox also valued the conference for teaching the students more about HIV/AIDS. "The conference fostered discussions on a lot of the topics present in our course and exhibit, like fighting stigma and understanding how science interacts with cultural factors."

Fox added, "After the conference, watching the students discuss the potential applications of their new knowledge was like watching fireworks go off."

After planning an interdisciplinary art exhibit, a MOOC for thousands of online students and an international trip, Fox and Wessner may have exhausted their toolbox of creative teaching methods. But the two will continue to collaborate and see where their current endeavors take them.

"We both enjoy engaging the public with what we do as scholars here at Davidson," said Wessner. "We also just like to try new things."