How Artists And Scientists Collaborated To Make Art About HIV

17:27 minutes

Two men sit in front of a picture of a sculpture shaped like a penis filled with antiretroviral pills
Kane Race (left) and Kairon Liu (right) discussing Untransmittable. Credit: Beau Newham, courtesy of The National Association of People with HIV Australia (NAPWHA)

This past July, the 12th International Conference on HIV Science was held in Brisbane, Australia. But this wasn’t your typical scientific conference. Yes, findings were presented on the latest in HIV research, but it culminated in a museum exhibition.

12 HIV-positive artists were paired with 12 scientists, and each pair collaborated on a piece of art, largely based on the scientists’ research. One of the pieces attracted a bit more attention than the others. 

Kairon Liu, an artist, curator, and photographer, and Kane Race, a professor of gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney, wanted to create something that commented on the negative effects of global HIV policy and the current stigma of living with the disease. The resulting piece is titled Untransmittable, a transparent penis-shaped sculpture filled with thousands of expired antiretroviral pills.

Science Friday producer and Universe of Art host D. Peterschmidt sat down with Liu and Race to talk about the piece they made, why they couldn’t take it over the Australian border, and their hopes for future HIV research.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Kairon Liu

Kairon Liu is an artist, curator, and photographer based in Taipei, Taiwan.

Kane Race

Kane Race is a professor of gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney in Sydney, Australia.

Segment Transcript

FLORA LICHTMAN: This is Science Friday. I’m Flora Lichtman. This past July, the 12th International Conference on HIV Science was held in Brisbane, Australia. But this wasn’t your typical scientific conference. Yes, findings were presented on the latest HIV research. But the conference culminated in a museum exhibition. 12 HIV positive artists were paired with 12 scientists. And each pair collaborated on a piece of art, largely based on the scientists’ research.

And one of the pieces attracted a bit more attention than the others. We’re going to get to that in a bit. And just a heads up for parents listening with kids, we’ll be talking about anatomy and adult topics in this conversation. Science Friday Producer D. Peterschmidt sat down with one of the artists-scientist pairs to talk about the piece they made, why they couldn’t take her over the border, and their hopes for future HIV research. Here’s D.

D. PETERSCHMIDT: As Flora said, 12 pieces were on display from around the world. There was art about breastfeeding, STIs, and exploring a possible cure for the virus. And one of them, titled Untransmittable, was the product of two conference attendees, and they’re with me today. Kairon Liu is an artist, curator, and photographer. He’s based in Taipei, Taiwan. And Kane Race is a professor of gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney. He’s also the author of the book The Gay Science, Intimate Experiments with the Problem of HIV. He’s joining us from San Francisco, California. Welcome to Science Friday.


KANE RACE: Thanks very much, D.

D. PETERSCHMIDT: So Kairon, you’re an HIV positive visual artist. How did you approach this collaboration?

KAIRON LIU: So basically, we both met through this project. And we didn’t really have an initial idea what kind of artwork that we are going to produce. It was until I learned what kind of research Kane is going to present at the conference. Then we start several discussion online. And then, in the end, we decided to create a sculpture can tell people this is how HIV positive individuals live nowadays.

D. PETERSCHMIDT: So, Kane, you study the social impacts of HIV and the politics of public health messaging. How did your research contribute to this piece?

KANE RACE: My paper was really– and what Kairon and I discussed when we met up– was how the turn towards these biomedical solutions to HIV transmission and HIV prevention, how appealing that is for authorities because it seems to promise that you don’t need to talk about some of the complexities of sex, of sexual relations, of gendered relations.

But actually, it’s not quite as simple as the magic bullet that is held out in this vision. And this is because HIV is still a highly stigmatized disease. It’s often thought about as a moral verdict on the kind of person you are. And in a lot of parts of the world, a lot of people who might consider themselves to be at risk will still avoid HIV testing because the social consequences of being HIV positive are just too horrible to think about.

D. PETERSCHMIDT: And how has the landscape around this changed over the years as you’ve been studying it?

KANE RACE: So really over the last decade, there have been really significant changes in how local and global agencies expect to achieve a reduction in HIV transmission around the world, whereas previously it mainly relied on sex education, on promoting condoms, more recently, the antiretroviral medications used to treat people living with HIV. It’s been found in large clinical trials that if a person is on successful treatment and if their viral load is at an undetectable level, then there’s really no possibility of them passing on the virus sexually.

So this has been taken up with a lot of enthusiasm over the last decade. And now, HIV prevention is really organized around getting people with HIV onto treatment, getting them to achieve undetectable viral load, which requires adhering quite strictly to daily dosing with antiretroviral medication, and in the case of HIV-negative people at risk, they will access PrEP, which is also the same sorts of drugs, but taken by people who are negative in order to prevent them getting infected.

D. PETERSCHMIDT: So Australia has this public health messaging campaign, other countries have it too. It’s called undetectable equals untransmittable. It’s the idea that, like, if you keep up with your medication and regular testing, you’ll have, like, an undetectable load of the virus, and you won’t be able to transmit it to someone else. They’ve been pushing it really hard, but you say it’s not really accessible to everyone. Is that right?

KANE RACE: That’s absolutely right. There are obviously various reasons that people might avoid HIV testing. But in a place like Australia, for example, where we have very strict immigration regulations, it’s very hard to become a permanent resident if you’re HIV positive. So people who might be in Australia, for example, on student visas or on working holiday visas, they’re probably more likely not to test because they might be scared of being deported if they’re found to be HIV positive.

So this whole idea of who are the populations at risk, how do we encourage them to test, is really intimately connected to lots of other bigger laws and policies, including immigration law, but also laws that might criminalize sex workers, might criminalize gay sex, might criminalize possession of drugs. These all have an impact on who comes forward to access these really successful, really effective treatment and prevention medications.

So that’s the sort of discussion I think that Kairon and I were having. And I have to say, I have so much admiration for Kairon in terms of just producing such a visually and emotionally arresting artwork out of this very wide-ranging conversation that we had about HIV policy around the world.

D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah so, let’s talk about that artwork. It’s a transparent penis-shaped sculpture with, like, thousands of different colored pills inside. Kairon, I’d love to hear more about it.

KAIRON LIU: OK, so me, as a person who have been living with the virus for years, I want to create a sculpture that use the real antivirus medication as a narrative to tell people that this is what we have to take in order to turn the virus low in our body to be undetectable, to normalize ourselves to be more like general people. So for the audience, they will see a penis shaped transparet shell, which is the shape of my own body part. And it’s 60 centimeters high. It’s like what you can see in the convenience store with a candy bar. I don’t know.

D. PETERSCHMIDT: Like a lollipop dispenser or something like that.

KAIRON LIU: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So instead of lollipop and candy, you can see plenty of colorful medication in there. There are thousands of enterovirus pills. From the oldest you can see 3TC, which has been created from the ’80s, and the most used one, like Truvada, which is a small blue pill people use for PrEP. And to see through this sculpture, you can basically see the history of medication used for HIV. I also want to make it more personal and more closely to how this virus can transmit by body to body, to one person to another.

D. PETERSCHMIDT: So Kairon, you made this in your studio in Taiwan, this sculpture. And I understand you weren’t actually able to get it into the exhibition in Brisbane. What happened there?

KAIRON LIU: So originally, the piece is supposed to be a sculpture only. And obviously, you can see through the picture and on social media while we present at Brisbane was a photography piece because of the border control law reason. We couldn’t really import the piece into the country because it’s a real medication there. But all the medication we use in the sculpture are actually expired and are not currently on the market of Brisbane.

And once we settle the idea that we are going to make an artwork by the real medication, some of my friend immediately warned me that you might have some trouble to ship the artwork in the country. But anyway, I did fully seal the sculpture. That means you won’t be able to take the medication out of the sculpture. So we still didn’t manage to bring the sculpture in the country.

And that’s why we decided to create another photography piece, which is a piece that you can see me being naked holding the sculpture and trying to deliver my relationship with this part of my body and this part of my identity and the fact that I have to take this medication to purify my blood.

D. PETERSCHMIDT: It’s a beautiful photo of your arm wrapped around it and that’s what ended up being displayed at the exhibition was that photo with a description of the import problem. Kane, I’d love to hear your thoughts when you heard what Kairon’s idea was.

KANE RACE: When Kairon told me he’s making this big sculpture of a penis full of antiretroviral therapy, I was like, oh, that sounds fantastic. But of course, I should have thought, how is he going to get this into Australia? Because I know what our border control is like. But actually, the story of not being able to get the actual sculpture into Australia, it does make you think about how the circulation of these life-saving medications is very much impacted by national laws, by patents that are very fiercely defended by pharmaceutical companies.

So in an ideal world, these medical commodities would be easily and freely accessible to everyone who needs them. But of course, that’s really not the case. And so those sort of meanings became quite pertinent, I think, in the context of this whole story of not getting the sculpture into Brisbane.

D. PETERSCHMIDT: Exactly. Yeah. Well, obviously there’s been so much art in conversation with HIV AIDS over four decades in Chiron How do you feel like this piece and the others in the exhibition? How do you feel like this piece fits into that canon that history of HIV art?

KAIRON LIU: That’s a really big question. First of all, I think the exhibition is pretty phenomenal. You can see the artwork to talk about breastfeeding. You can see the artwork to talk about identity.

KANE RACE: Also sex.

KAIRON LIU: Yeah, also sex. Yeah. So it really presents a diverse issue of this disease. And. people have produced HIV/AIDS-related artwork and activism since the ’80s because we were trying to use art as a way to fight for our right to get the medication to the pharmaceutical company or to the authority. And after the ’80s, we are really grateful now that we have cocktail treatment art to be able to stay alive physically.

But just like we discussed before, HIV is not just a illness issue. It is also a social issue. A lot of people are still suffering from prejudice, stigma, or their country actually have the law against HIV positive individuals. I think some of the status in America still have the HIV criminalization law. And my country still have that as well.

So I think the current HIV related to art is actually much more focused on the basic human rights, what can we solve after we got this treatment, which direction we should move before we find a true cure, or can HIV become a reference to other virus transmitted disease in the future, because we all know there will be new virus, new pandemic in the future. COVID is, for one instance, you can see how people get nervous and scared to other people and to start to split as a different group, as a different tribe in our community. Does that make any sense?

D. PETERSCHMIDT: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. Kane, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

KANE RACE: Well, this slogan, U equals U, undetectable equals untransmittable, is being promoted around the world. And part of its appeal is that it sounds really simple. But actually, it involves the daily practice of medication taking, which can be more or less fraught, depending on how you feel about your HIV status, your sexuality, and so on. It involves regular engagement with doctors, who may or may not be accepting of the kind of person you are. So just to make that labor visible, I think is one of the really important contributions that art makes.

D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah, well, on that note, I know there’s so much labor and so much love that went into this piece and the other pieces at the exhibition. What do you hope people take away from your piece? And Kairon, we can start with you.

KAIRON LIU: Personally, when I was creating this piece, I do want to make it more personal because despite the every benefit we get from the free medication and U equals U, we still get rejection by the others, by your family, by your potential lover, by even yourself. And this disease is a one-way tree to remind you that you will not be able to go back to your old self. And this current scientists’ knowledge will not be able to grant us the access back to our former body.

So the current reality is that we have to take this pill to purify ourselves and also try to find a way to embrace this new version of ourselves. But it has also been really tricky that every day when you swallow the pill, you will know, this is something that you have to take to be a normal person. Otherwise, your doctor will say, your lab number is not OK. And it’s like your whole identity is being identified to the lab number and this material that you keep swallowing.

So I guess a giant message that I want to present to the viewer, especially to the scientist, is that our communities deal with a cure. I, as other positive individuals, are still waiting for cure because a lot of people will assume that now we have this really good medication, and a lot of people say they suffer zero side effect, maybe we can stop here. There’s no reason to invest more resources to continue the research of cure because we all know that cost a lot.

But a lot of us are still actually waiting for that. And I want to give the scientists who are still working on that a cheers. And I also work as a researcher and social worker, so I interview a lot of positive individuals. And a lot of people actually suffer from long term side effects, which is undocumented from the prescription or from your doctor.

Let’s say you somehow have some lymphoma after you started medication or you suffer some other liver situation, blah, blah, blah. It’s super complicated. And these are all undocumented. It’s not in the official research. And when you bring this problem and issue to your doctor, they will just say, that’s the current reality now. And I really hope our focus and development of the scientist’s part won’t stop here.

D. PETERSCHMIDT: You’re listening to Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

KANE RACE: So I guess one of the take-home messages from my perspective is we’ve made incredibly huge advances in HIV treatment and in HIV prevention over the last decade. It’s now perfectly possible with access to medications for a person living with HIV to live a life as long as a person without HIV, and not only that, to not pass on the virus sexually, even if condoms aren’t used.

So that’s a pretty significant development. But I think one take-home message is really that the HIV epidemic will not be ended through medicine alone, that the struggle for sexual justice, for the acceptance of people with various different sexualities, various different gender identities and self-expressions, and also racial justice, particularly in places like the USA, are just as important as they were 40 years ago when this devastating epidemic commenced.

D. PETERSCHMIDT: Kairon and Kane, thank you so much for taking the time today to talk about this. It was really special. Thank you so much.

KAIRON LIU: Yay. Thanks for having us.

KANE RACE: Thank you, D. I enjoyed the talk.

D. PETERSCHMIDT: That was artist Kairon Liu and Professor Kane Race, Professor of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. If you want to learn more about the art from the exhibition, head to sciencefriday.com/hivart. For Science Friday, I’m D. Peterschmidt.

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Meet the Producer

About D. Peterschmidt

D. Peterschmidt is a producer, host of the podcast Universe of Art, and composes music for Science Friday’s podcasts. Their D&D character is a clumsy bard named Chip Chap Chopman.

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