AIDS in the Internet Age

Annual Lecture Series Brings in Alexandra Juhasz

Alexandra Juhasz pauses to let the digital portion of her presentation elaborate on her metaphor combining HIV and the Internet. Photo Frank Lecoroller

When Alexandra Juhasz, a professor in media studies, addressed ConU as part of the Concordia University Community Lecture Series on HIV/AIDS, she did so in a manner not typically seen in an academic presentation.

The Oct. 13 talk followed an intentionally non-linear progression through the thoughts and feelings of HIV-positive people. Her entire presentation served to illustrate a metaphor that connected the widespread HIV virus with the free flow of information on the Internet.

“A lot of what I was doing, intentionally, was throwing out really complicated ideas that were often in contradiction with each other,” said Juhasz.

She showed documentary clips of AIDS victims telling their tales of survival, focusing on efforts to stay positive in a grim situation.

As part of her intentionally disorienting style, she would skip quickly away to something else entirely, such as samples of artistic photography from an HIV-postive artist to a slide prominently displaying a quote from author and AIDS activist Gregg Bordowitz that coldly states, “…beings are born and then they die.”

With the birth of the Internet and the explosion of information coming from it, Juhasz said she wanted to do something for AIDS awareness that wouldn’t become another video on YouTube that people watch a portion of and then click away from.

Instead, she decided to incorporate a “short attention span culture” into her presentation, by amassing a huge amount of information herself and showing it in a chaotic way that mimics the way that people now take in information from the Internet.

By doing so, she hoped to draw a symbolic parallel between the high-speed information age and HIV/AIDS.

“Do I think of the Internet as a disease?” she said during an interview with The Link. “If you think about it as an external agent, that enters the flows of the biological unit that is human being and societies, then sure. Perhaps the question is, if you think about other agents that enter the body that aren’t going to make the body sick then yeah, that is the Internet.”

Juhasz cautioned the audience about the dangers of being exposed to the unrestricted flow of information on the Internet.

“This free flow—this free connectivity—which we think of as [the] democratic possibility of the Internet, ends up moving information’s context without stopping and holding on to it. To connect that to HIV, what I was doing was stopping the viral flow that doesn’t have impediments,” she said.

The talk, which Juhasz called a “mixed reality experience,” ended with a question and answer period, which she explained was as much a part of the mixed reality as any other aspect.

Most of the people who stood up to ask questions were angered by the presentation. Many said that the quick transitions from one topic and one medium to another took emotional value away from the videos of HIV victims.

Juhasz addressed their concerns, explaining that what she wanted to portray was the coldness of the digital age that allows one to interrupt a video of someone with AIDS sharing their life—to quickly jump away to the next video or photo or tab in the browser window.

“I think that there’s something dangerous about this idea of ‘virality’—meaning something that flows without change [and] without stopping. The question is, how do you want to be connected, and how do you want limits on that connectivity?”

Juhasz, who has taught at several universities and holds a PhD in Cinema Studies, has made several documentaries since the 1980s featuring people who are HIV-positive.

The next guest lecturer in the Community Lecture Series on HIV/Aids will be Dr. Vin Kim Nguyen, speaking on Nov 10.