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Art as Activist

By Mary Daily

Published Oct 1, 2014 8:00 AM

Working as a dance and music critic in San Francisco in the 1980s, David Gere changed his notion of art as simply something beautiful. He saw that artists could redirect how people think. That realization eventually spawned “Make Art/Stop AIDS,” a project he created that connects a worldwide network of artists intervening in the AIDS epidemic. And this one disease is only the beginning.

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Photo by Diana Koenigsberg.

Growing up, David Gere played piano and was in a choir and a band. He loved everything about performing and viewed it as a way to make the world more beautiful. Not until he got to San Francisco at the height of the AIDS epidemic did he see art as a way to address a grievance or save lives. Today, as director of the UCLA Art & Global Health Center, he has taken that message around the world. And now that HIV is a chronic disease in some parts of the world, he is expanding to issues such as climate change and mental illness.

Q: What did you experience in San Francisco that changed your thinking?
A: When I arrived in 1985, it seemed that all the new art and performance in the U.S. was a response to the AIDS crisis. Joe Goode’s dances were about his dead friends. Ross Bleckner’s paintings looked like his search for a parallel spirit world. But it wasn’t just the new art. I would go see Giselle at the San Francisco Ballet, in which the main character, who had died from heartbreak, comes back as a haunting. I realized that everybody in the audience was thinking that this ballet, made more than a hundred years ago, was about us and the hauntings we felt from the loss of our friends. That was when I knew that art could do more than be pretty.

Q: Why was dance particularly well suited to address HIV and AIDS?
A: In the mid-1980s, there were a lot of gay men in dance and a lot of gay men affected by HIV, though it’s certainly not a gay disease. The HIV retrovirus has no idea of your sexuality, your profession or who you are. But those in the dance world were deeply affected, and it was their chosen profession to use bodies to make their point. The body is where ideas, feelings and activism implode. The AIDS crisis brought out the latent potential in dance.

Q: How did you end up at UCLA?
A: In 1993, World Arts and Cultures sponsored some performances by Meredith Monk, a multimedia artist and the subject of my master’s thesis. I came to give some lectures before her shows. A year or so later, the department chair, Judy Mitoma ’70, M.A. ’75, invited me back as a visiting assistant professor to teach dance history. And I never left.

Q: How did Make Art/Stop AIDS start?
A: While teaching at UCLA, I got my Ph.D. in dance history and theory at UC Riverside and wrote my dissertation on dance in the AIDS era. My UCLA department was supportive of my developing a course on that topic. We named it Make Art/Stop AIDS, and it is still bringing together students from all across campus, many different majors. It’s amazing to see them begin to think of themselves as artists and then to think about putting their creativity into world-changing activity.

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Photo by Diana Koenigsberg.

Q: When did you take your program abroad?
A: As I was turning my dissertation into a book, I thought maybe I wouldn’t work on HIV and the arts anymore because it was exhausting. But then I read a newspaper article about fears that HIV was about to explode in India. I had spent considerable time in India after college and still felt connected to it. I began to wonder whether some of the things artists were doing here might be applicable in India, where there’s a long tradition of activist art making. So I went there on a Fulbright to find the artists intervening in the AIDS epidemic. With a grant from UNAIDS, my friend Rajeev Varma and I assembled about 60 Indian artists in Calcutta, plus some UCLA faculty and grad students. We called the gathering Make Art/Stop AIDS. That was the birthing for me of a movement in which artists would marshal their creativity to try to stop the AIDS epidemic.

Q: How do you measure your results?
A: I work closely with Dr. Norweeta Milburn, a researcher around adolescence and sexuality with the Semel Institute, and Ian Holloway in the Luskin School, a specialist in men who have sex with men. We also have a partner at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Alex Lightfoot, an expert in community-based participatory research.

One project we have tracked closely is AMP! (Arts-based, Multiple-intervention, Peer-education program for sexual health). We created it in collaboration with LAUSD’s HIV/AIDS Prevention Unit to try to reach 60,000 ninth-graders in any given year. We developed an undergraduate group called the UCLA Sex Squad, whose members share their own stories with the ninth-graders through performance in order to break down taboos about the discussion of sexuality. Bobby Gordon has directed the Sex Squad for several years, and his imagination makes it work.

When you learn something through an artistic medium, you pay more attention. So we get upticks in information retention and downticks in HIV stigma. By the time the students meet with an HIV-positive person, they are hugging her without fear. They know the virus is not communicated through touch. We also have seen a fourfold uptick in testing for HIV among sexually active students. That’s why the Ford Foundation asked us to take the project to the Deep South. We’ve also found that delivery of this program on video is just as effective as through live performance. So even though the Sex Squad can’t get to all 60,000 students individually, the video can.

Q: Can these same methods also address issues not related to AIDS?
A: We purposely named our center the Art & Global Health Center, not the Art and AIDS Center, because I knew there would come a time when HIV would be a treatable chronic illness. For many people in the U.S., it already is. But I also knew that artists have a role to play in all matters of health. This may be counterintuitive for some, because generally when working on a health-based project you think you want all the white-coat people — doctors, researchers, public health folks. But the artist knows about methods of communication, how to unleash creativity, how to meaningfully convey essential information.

I feel hopeful about the connections being made on this campus. We always talk about the things that keep us separate, but I see the silos dissolving. Recently, when the Fielding School of Public Health was working on a new grant proposal, Dean Jody Heymann asked me to join the discussion. We devised a project idea involving the arts as a delivery method and a way to enliven the training workshop.

Yet it’s always students who figure this stuff out first. Sarah Wolley, a third-year undergrad, wondered if she could use arts-based approaches she learned in the Sex Squad to confront the stigma around mental illness on this campus. She devised a program of interactive theater and delivered it to undergraduates in the residence halls. The response was so vital and exciting. She applied our approach in a way that could carry on long after I’m gone from this earth. And that’s why you want an artist at the table.