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Oral history interview with Frederick Weston, 2016 August 31-September 5

Archives of American Art
4 sound files (5 hrs., 28 min.) digital, wav

Transcript: 130 pages.

An interview with Frederick Weston, conducted 2016 August 31 and September 5, by Theodore Kerr, for the Archives of American Art's Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project, at Weston's home in New York, N.Y.

Weston speaks of his childhood in Detroit; early understandings of his gender; attending Ferris State University in Michigan; moving to New York in 1973; New York nightclub culture before the AIDS crisis; studying at FIT and working in the fashion industry; beginning to consider himself an artist in the late 1990s after years of collage work in street settings; being diagnosed with HIV in the mid-1990s; imbuing his art with his personal experience; his body of work in photography, installations, and poetry; his health care and regiment since being diagnosed with HIV; evolutions in his personal outlook since being diagnosed; the trajectory of his sex life from adolescence; moving into his current apartment in Chelsea; and reflections on America's racial situation. Weston also recalls Claude Payne, Apollonia, Billy Blair, Stephanie Crawford, Franz Renard Smith, Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, Bruce Benderson, and others.

Why More Babies Are Conceived in the Cold Winter Months

Smithsonian Magazine

Does it ever seem like you’re invited to an awful lot of summer birthday gatherings? For good reason. In the United States, most births occur between June and early November. Count back nine months, and you’ll see that places most conceptions in the fall and winter.

What’s going on? Is the crisp autumn air, or the joy (or anxiety) of the holiday season, triggering more unprotected sexual intercourse? Or is it something else entirely?

It turns out reproduction is seasonal across all living organisms, from plants, to insects, to reptiles, to birds and mammals – including human beings. The ultimate explanation for this phenomenon is an evolutionary one.

Earth’s environment is seasonal. Above or below the equator, the year is structured by the winter, spring, summer and fall. In equatorial regions, the wet and dry seasons punctuate the year. Organisms have evolved strategies to reproduce at the time of year that will maximize their lifetime reproductive success.

Humans are no exception and maintain this evolutionary outcome: birth seasonality. Researchers, including us, have recently been working to understand more about why births are seasonal because these patterns can have a big impact on childhood disease outbreaks.

Tracking birth peaks across the globe

The first studies demonstrating human birth seasonality date back to the early 1800s.

In some countries, local customs can explain birth seasonality. For example, in the 1990s, researchers showed that the traditional July-August wedding season in Catholic communities in Poland resulted in lots of births in the spring. But wedding season does not drive birth seasonality everywhere, and there is only a small correlation between weddings and births 9 to 15 months later in most locations. Thus, nuptial beds are not the full story.

There is a clear pattern of births across latitude. Here in the U.S., states in the North have a birth peak in early summer (June-July), while states in the South experience a birth peak a few months later (October-November).

Globally, popular birthdays follow a similar pattern with peaks occurring earlier in the year the further north you get from the equator – for instance, Finland’s is in late April, while Jamaica’s is in November. And in the U.S., states further south, like Texas and Florida, experience birth peaks that are not only later in the year, but also more pronounced than those seen in the North.

So what influences conception?

Research shows that the seasonality of births correlates with changes in local temperature and day length. And regions with extreme temperatures typically have two peaks in births every year. For example, data from the early 1900s showed two pronounced birth peaks per year in West Greenland and Eastern Europe.

Rural populations tend to have a more dramatic seasonal birth pulse than urban populations, probably because country dwellers may be more subject to environmental conditions, including changes in temperature and day length. Environmental factors like these could influence human sexual behavior.

Additionally, as in other animals, these environmental changes could drive seasonal changes in fertility. This means that, rather than just an increase in frequency of sexual intercourse, female and/or male fertility may change throughout the year, as an endogenous biological phenomenon, making people more likely to conceive at certain times – with the prerequisite of sexual intercourse, of course.

Biologists know that the fertility of non-human mammals is influenced by day length, which may act like a reproductive calendar. For example, deer use the shortening days of autumn as a signal for timing reproduction. Females get pregnant in the fall and carry their pregnancy through winter. The goal is to give birth at a time when plenty of resources are available for newborns – being born in springtime is evolutionarily beneficial.

Evolution ensures that babies come when resources are abundant, to give newborns the best chance at survival. (Mary Terriberry / Shutterstock.com)

So animals with long pregnancies tend to be short-day breeders, meaning they only breed in the short days of autumn and winter; they’re pregnant through the winter and give birth in spring. Whereas animals with short gestation periods are long-day breeders; they conceive in the long days of spring or summer and, because their pregnancy is short, have their young that same spring or summer. Many species only mate and are only capable of getting pregnant during a specific time of year – those long or short days, for instance – and the length of day itself directs their hormones and ability to conceive.

Humans may not be so different from other mammals. Day-length has the potential to influence human fertility and it does seem to explain the patterns of birth seasonality in some places, but not others. In addition to the length of day, researchers have shown that social status and changes in the standard of living also affect birth seasonality. There seems to be no single driver for birth seasonality in people, with an array of social, environmental and cultural factors all playing a role.

What does birth season have to do with disease?

Forest fires require fuel to burn. After a big fire, kindling must be replenished before another fire can spread.

Disease epidemics are no different. Childhood infectious diseases require susceptible children for a pathogen to spread through a population. Once children are infected and recover from diseases like polio, measles and chickenpox, they are immune for life. So for new epidemics to take off, there must be a new group of susceptible infants and children in the population. In the absence of vaccination, the birth rate in a population is a major determinant of how often childhood disease epidemics can occur.

Babies are born with maternal immunity: antibodies from mom that help guard against infectious diseases like measles, rubella and chickenpox. This immunity is usually effective for the first 3 to 6 months of life. Many infectious diseases that strike infants in the U.S. tend to peak in the winter and spring months. That leaves infants born in the U.S. birth season of summer and autumn becoming susceptible as their maternal immunity wears off three to six months later, just when many infectious diseases are striking in winter and spring.

In humans, the average birth rate is extremely important for understanding disease dynamics, with changes in birth rate influencing whether an epidemic will occur every year, or every few years, and how big an epidemic can be. For instance, polio epidemics in the first half of the 20th century resulted in many thousands of children paralyzed by polio each summer in the U.S. The size of polio outbreaks was dictated by the birth rate. Because of this, polio outbreaks became more extreme after the World War II baby boom, when the birth rate increased.

During the polio epidemic of summer 1955, a hospital in Boston helps patients breathe with iron lungs. (AP Photo)

Similarly, the timing and strength of birth peaks also affects the length of time between epidemics. Importantly, regardless of how often an epidemic occurs – like births – it is always seasonal. And births have been shown to directly alter the seasonal timing of viral outbreaks in children.

Does the number of children born in summer drive seasonally occurring childhood diseases? Does disrupting patterns in births alter seasonal outbreak patterns? We know that the change in the average birth rate can modify the size of childhood disease epidemics, as was seen for polio during the baby boom. Theoretical models suggest changes in birth seasonality can alter the size and frequency of childhood disease outbreaks. But it remains an open question if the changes in birth seasonality that have been occurring over the past 50-plus years have in fact altered childhood diseases; more research is needed in this area.

Losing our seasonal connection

There is one thing all researchers in this field agree on: People are starting to lose birth seasonality throughout the Northern Hemisphere. (Due to a lack of data, it is currently unknown what is happening in countries south of the equator, such as those in Latin America and Africa.)

There are two pieces of evidence to support this. First, the strength of the birth pulse – from June to November in the U.S. – has been decreasing for decades; and second, locations that had two birth peaks per year now only have one.

This loss of birth seasonality may be partially due to social factors, such as pregnancy planning and the increasing disconnect humans have with the natural environment and, therefore, the seasons. The root of this change is likely tied to industrialization and its downstream societal effects, including indoor work, fewer seasonal jobs, access to family planning, and modern housing and artificial light that obscures the natural day length that could influence fertility.

Whatever the cause of birth seasonality, one thing remains clear, at least here in the U.S. – right now remains the prime time for conception.

The Long History of Disease and the Fear of the “Other”

Smithsonian Magazine

Health consists of having the same diseases as one’s neighbors,” the English writer Quentin Crisp once quipped. He was right. And what is true of the individual seems to be true of societies as a whole. “Parasite stress,” as scientists term it, has long been a factor in human relations, intensifying the fear and loathing of other peoples.

For a while, it seemed that we had transcended all that. But, as Ebola reminds us, fundamental problems remain. No longer confined to remote rural locations, Ebola has become an urban disease and has spread uncontrollably in some western African nations, in the absence of effective healthcare.

Ebola has also revived the Victorian image of Africa as a dark continent teeming with disease. And the dread of Ebola is no longer confined to the West. Indeed, it tends to be more apparent throughout Asia than among Americans and Europeans. In August, Korean Air terminated its only direct flight to Africa due to Ebola concerns, never mind that the destination was nowhere near the affected region of the continent, but thousands of miles to the east in Nairobi. North Korea has also recently suspended visits from all foreign visitors – regardless of origin. Anxiety about Ebola is more acute in Asia because epidemics, poverty, and famine are well within living memory.

The roots of this mentality lie deep in our history. After humans mastered the rudiments of agriculture 12,000 years ago, they began to domesticate a greater variety of animals and came into contact with a wider range of infections. But this happened at different times in different places, and the resulting imbalance gave rise to the notion that some places were more dangerous than others.

Thus, when the disease we call syphilis was first encountered in Europe in the late 1490s, it was labelled the Neapolitan or French disease, depending on where one happened to live. And, when the same disease arrived in India, with Portuguese sailors, it was called firangi roga, or the disease of the Franks (a term synonymous with “European”). The influenza that spread around the world from 1889 to 90 was dubbed the “Russian Flu” (for no good reason) and the same was true of the “Spanish Flu” of 1918 to 19. It is safe to assume they were not called these names in Russia or Spain.

We are still inclined to think of epidemic disease as coming from somewhere else, brought to our doorstep by outsiders. Notions of infection first developed within a religious framework – pestilence came to be associated with vengeful deities who sought to punish transgressors or unbelievers. In the European plagues of 1347 to 51 (the “Black Death”), Jews were made scapegoats and killed in substantial numbers.

But the Black Death began a process whereby disease was gradually, albeit partially, secularized. With nearly half the population dead from plague, manpower was precious and many rulers attempted to preserve it, as well as to reduce the disorder that usually accompanied an epidemic. Disease became the trigger for new forms of intervention and social separation. Within states, it was the poor who came to be stigmatized as carriers of infection, on account of their supposedly unhygienic and ungodly habits.

Countries began to use the accusation of disease to blacken the reputation of rival nations and damage their trade. Quarantines and embargoes became a form of war by other means and were manipulated cynically, often pandering to popular prejudice. The threat of disease was frequently used to stigmatize immigrants and contain marginalized peoples. The actual numbers of immigrants turned away at inspection stations such as Ellis Island was relatively small but the emphasis placed on screening certain minorities helped shape public perceptions. During an epidemic of cholera in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison notoriously referred to immigrants as a “direct menace to public health,” singling out Russian Jews as a special danger.

But as the global economy matured constraints such as quarantine and embargoes became cumbersome. The panicky response to the re-emergence of plague in the 1890s, in cities such as Hong Kong, Bombay, Sydney and San Francisco, created enormous disruption. Trade came to a standstill and many businesses were destroyed. Great Britain and the United States proposed a different way of dealing with disease based less on stoppages and more on surveillance and selective intervention. Combined with sanitary reform in the world’s greatest ports, these measures were able to arrest epidemic diseases without disrupting commerce. The international sanitary agreements of the early 1900s marked a rare example of cooperation in a world otherwise fractured by imperial and national rivalries.

The present effort to contain Ebola will probably succeed now that more personnel and resources have been sent to the afflicted countries. But our long-term security depends on the development of a more robust global health infrastructure capable of pre-emptive strikes against emerging infections. If there is one positive thing to note about the reaction to Ebola it is that governments have responded, albeit belatedly, to growing public demand. A more inclusive, global identity appears to be emerging, with a substantially recalibrated understanding of our cross-border responsibilities in the realm of health. Whether this awareness and improvised crisis management translates into a long-lasting shift in how we tackle fast-spreading contagions remains an open question – a life-and-death one.

Mark Harrison is Professor of the History of Medicine and Director of the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, Oxford University. He is author of Contagion: How Commerce has Spread Disease (Yale University Press, 2013). He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

Oral history interview with Nayland Blake, 2016 November 25-26

Archives of American Art
Transcript: 59 pages

An interview with Nayland Blake, conducted 2016 November 25-26, by Alex Fialho, for the Archives of American Art's Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project, at Blake's home in Brooklyn, New York.

Blake speaks of growing up in a bi-racial family in New York City; visiting museums, art exhibits and shows, and going to the theatre with their parents; attending Charlotte Moorman's Avant Garde Festivals as a teenager; relating their emerging sexuality to the television shows Batman, The Addams Family, and Star Trek; the decision to attend Bard College; the influence of Times Square Show; co-organizing Bard's first gay and lesbian alliance; attending California Institute of the Arts and the different culture they experienced there; their struggle to make explicitly gay work without it being beefcake; not feeling connected to a gay community in Los Angeles but feeling camaraderie with other artists; their decision to move to San Francisco; first hearing about HIV/AIDS while at CalArts and experiencing the first loss of a friend in San Francisco; the undercurrent of more and more men testing positive in their community; the long two-week wait to receive test results; the generational split within the gay community and how that was squashed by the epidemic; the subjects of mortality and mourning in gay art and how that changed the reception of gay artists; the gay and lesbian shows Extended Sensibilities and Against Nature; the organization of ACT UP San Francisco and subsequent split into ACT UP SF, ACT UP Golden Gate, and ACT UP San Francisco; the "imperiled and heightened physicality" Blake began using in their work; participating in Art Against Aids on the Road; directly addressing the frequency of AIDS deaths in their piece Every 12 Minutes; the social network of caregivers that rallied to support those dying from AIDS through home care and food delivery; curating In A Different Life; the pleasure in curating shows; The Shreber Suite installation pieces; purchasing Wayland Flowers' puppet Madame at auction; being a child of the '60s and believing sex is an expression of one's cultural identity; feeling attacked by the dismissive and oppressive Republican government in the 1980s; the extensive symbolism and meaning in their bunny themed work; the technology boom's affect on the Bay Area and their return to New York City; the show Double Fantasy about their relationship with their partner Philip Horvitz; teaching at International Center for Photography and their work in the kink community; the distance their students have to the HIV/AIDS epidemic; and their identification as an American artist. Blake also recalls Jeff Preiss, Cliff Preiss, William Hohauser, Debra Pierson, Nancy Mitchnick, Jake Grossberg, Robert Kelly, Kathy Acker, Gerry Pearlberg, Kathe Burkhart, Judie Bamber, Catherine Opie, Nancy Barton, Julie Ault, William Olander, Robert Glueck, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, D-L Alvarez, Stephen Evans, Michael Jenkins, Richard Hawkins, Ann Philbin, Rick Jacobsen, Amy Sholder, David Wojnarowicz, Rudy Lemcke, A.A. Bronson, Philip Horvitz, and others.

Syndemic: The Little-Known Buzzword That Describes Our Troubled Times

Smithsonian Magazine

Over the weekend, a new buzzword entered the mainstream lexicon when the British medical journal The Lancet released a major report on “The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change.” The word that got tongues wagging is “syndemic,” which, in this context, refers to multiple interrelated epidemics happening at the same time.

William Dietz, co-chair of the Lancet Commission on Obesity that produced the report and director of George Washington University's Global Center for Prevention and Wellness, tells Rebecca Ellis at NPR that he had never heard of the term either, but that his team chanced upon on it. The concept exactly encapsulated what they were trying to communicate—that the epidemics of obesity, malnutrition and climate change are not happening in isolation, but are thoroughly intertwined and need to be addressed together, not as isolated problems.

The term “syndemic” isn’t brand new. It was coined by medical anthropologist Merrill Singer of the University of Connecticut in the mid-1990s to describe the way epidemics can overlap with one another and social and cultural problems; she wrote a 2009 textbook on syndemics. For instance, HIV and tuberculosis often form a syndemic. There is a biological element in which HIV weakens the immune system, making people more susceptible to a tuberculosis infection. But there’s also a social or community health element in which close quarters, poor health care and unsanitary conditions allow tuberculosis to thrive. The effects of these two epidemics are amplified in vulnerable groups, like refugees, migrants and those living in poverty to form a syndemic.

In 2017, The Lancet published a series of papers outlining how to think of disease clusters as syndemics and provide care that covers all of the overlapping problems, but the Lancet Commission seems to have ignored the strictly technical definition of the word.

Merrill tells Ellis at NPR that the Commission has twisted his definition of syndemic, since his meaning specifically refers to disease interacting with the human body. The problems outlined in the new report aren’t the types of diseases covered by syndemics, and climate change isn’t really an epidemic at all he contends. “It really isn’t comparable to a syndemic if you adhere to a strict definition guideline,” Merrill says.

Even though his technical term has been hijacked, he still supports what it’s being used for—addressing three overlapping problems as one unit. As Yasmin Tayag at Inverse writes, “[d]efining the 'Global Syndemic,'…isn’t just about semantics. It’s about reframing the three pandemics as a single super-problem so that we can start thinking about how to kill three birds with one stone.”

The report contends that all three problems are powered by our modern food systems and exacerbated by the actions of large, multi-national food companies that have prioritized profits over human health and global sustainability. Agriculture and food production contribute about 20 percent of global greenhouse gase emissions and by some measures constitute up to one third. It’s also led to a seeming paradox of rising obesity, which has tripled to about 13 percent of the global adult population since 1975, and rising undernutrition, which can occur in both overweight and underweight people.

“Until now, undernutrition and obesity have been seen as polar opposites of either too few or too many calories,” co-commissioner Boyd Swinburn of the University of Auckland tells Tayag. “In reality, they are both driven by the same unhealthy, inequitable food systems, underpinned by the same political economy that is single-focused on economic growth, and ignores the negative health and equity outcomes.”

The report suggests a global public health treaty to regulate food companies the same way many nations have dealt with tobacco companies. It also suggests limiting their influence on governments to prevent problems. Just this month, a study revealed how Coca-Cola exerted influence over China's policymaking on its obesity crisis. Other suggestions include a tax on red meat, an end to the $5 trillion in subsidies given to food and fossil fuel companies around the world and a $1 billion fund to support policy initiatives to combat the Global Syndemic.

William Dietz tells Ellis at NPR that’s its difficult to say when, or even if, the recommendations will be acted upon. But at least it has helped jumpstart the conversation about the syndemic, which is important, no matter what words are used to describe it.

Oral history interview with Robert Vázquez-Pacheco, 2017 December 16-17

Archives of American Art
Audio: 8 sound files (6 hr., 59 min.) digital, wav

Transcript: 131 pages

An interview with Robert Vázquez-Pacheco conducted 2017 December 16 and 17, by Theodore Kerr, for the Archives of American Art's Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project, at The New School, in New York, New York.

Vazquez-Pacheco speaks of his childhood in South Bronx housing projects; members and dynamics of his family growing up; experiences and discourses of religion, race, gender, sexuality, reading, and the arts as a child and adolescent; attending SUNY Oswego for one year; an existentially pivotal year in Miami in 1975; returning to New York in 1976, immersing himself in Latino gay culture, and being exposed to white gay culture; living in Hempstead, New York for two years with a boyfriend, and beginning to paint again; working at Chase Manhattan Bank and volunteering for the Gay Switchboard in New York City in the late '70s; the beginning of the AIDS epidemic; caring for his boyfriend, Jeff, who died of AIDS in 1986; the particular experience and effect of HIV on communities of color and low-income communities; mounting societal homophobia during the epidemic; leading Gay Circles, a gay men's consciousness-raising group, in the late '80s; his involvement in ACT UP, and burgeoning political consciousness, after Jeff's death; activism as a creative outlet; working at different times with the People With AIDS health group, the Anti-Violence Project, the Minority AIDS Taskforce, Latino Gay Men of New York, Minority AIDS Coalition in Philadelphia, and LLEGO in Washington; AIDS activism's failure to think intersectionally and build coalitions; his involvement in Gran Fury; becoming a more prolific writer, and getting involved with Other Countries, in the early '90s; Gran Fury's 2011 retrospective; the need for racial diversity and representation in activism and the art world; white flight from AIDS activism following the arrival of protease inhibitors; personal frustrations with the current AIDS activism discourse and nonprofit organizational complex, and the general cultural conversation about HIV/AIDS; contrasting representations of AIDS activism in How to Survive a Plague and BPM; and the essential role of art in AIDS activism. Vazquez-Pacheco also recalls Mark Simpson, Craig Metroka, David Kirschenbaum, Maxine Wolfe, Avram Finkelstein, Deb Levine, Charles King, Robert Garcia, Ortez Alderson, Derek Hodel, Gregg Bordowitz, Michael Callen, Carl George, Joey Walsh, Matt Foreman, Vito Russo, Larry Kramer, Tom Kalin, Marlene McCarty, Charles Rice-González, George Ayala, Essex Hemphill, Manolo Guzmán, Donald Moffett, Cladd Stevens, Richard Elovich, Loring McAlpin, Michael Nesline, Peter Staley, David France, Andrew Miller, and others.

Global Africa: Alfredo Jaar

Smithsonian Institution
Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar considers art's limitations to represent genocide, conflict, epidemics and famine. His artwork addresses the holocaust in Rwanda, toxic pollution in Nigeria, the disparity of the oil economy and extreme poverty in Angola, gold mining in Brazil and issues related to the border between the U.S. and Mexico. A conversation between Jaar and leading film scholar Manthia Diawara (New York University) follows. (Recorded 09-09-2010) Supported by Smithsonian Latino Center

The Silent Killer Wiping Out This Small Species in America

Smithsonian Channel
The collection of 140,000 bat specimen at Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History is providing a key resource for tracking the epidemic that is wiping out the world's bat population. From: KILLER IN THE CAVES http://bit.ly/WwzO2C

The Two Brains at the Forefront of the Fight Against Alzheimer's

Smithsonian Magazine
Rudolph Tanzi and Doo Yeon Kim have invented a revolutionary new tool to study the mysteries of the disease and counter the coming epidemic of dementia

Sabrina Sholts- Outbreak:Epidemics in a Connected World Training

National Museum of Natural History
Volunteer facilitator training for Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World

Where Tears Can't Stop

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Ainu 6 (Original), August 12, 1965 [sound recording]

National Anthropological Archives
A recording made in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido, Japan during an ethnographic study of child life. Contents of recording: 1. Uepekere, by Toroshino Kaizawa (female age 75, 12 August 1965) [The story was told as an example of the types of stories told to children who are 7 or 8 years old. The story is about a woman who recieves an epidemic from a cursed rotten stump. Her village is saved from the epidemic because her husband performs a ritual harucahrupa ceremony to banish the evil].

Patterns of Health and Wellbeing 07: The Medicine of Food

National Museum of the American Indian
Health issues among American Indians, such as diabetes and substance abuse, are reaching epidemic levels. The majority of governmental and externally driven responses to these health issues have focused on the physical aspects of disease. Much less research has been done on the relationships between culture and health within Native communities. This symposium presents a report on active collaborations between Native community members and researchers that focus on the distinct cultural values about wellbeing held by Native communities in solving serious health issues. Cosponsored by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. In this section, Renee Dufault speaks on The Medicine of Food:The Primary Relation. Renee Dufault served in the Navy as an Industrial Hygiene Officer and in the Public Health Service (PHS) as an Environmental Health Officer. During her PHS career, she worked at the National Institutes of Health, Environmental Protection Agency, Shoshone-Paiute Tribes, and the Food and Drug Administration where she provided expertise in the areas of toxicology, environmental health, and industrial hygiene. In 2008 she retired early from federal service after 20 years to publish her findings of mercury in high fructose corn syrup and continue her research with collaborators on the role toxic food ingredients play in the development of disease conditions. Her most popular article, published in the Clinical Epigenetics Journal, explores the gene-environment interactions responsible for the autism epidemic in the United States. She was a distinguished keynote speaker at the 2013 Clinical Epigenetics meeting in Germany. Dufault now serves as the executive director of the Food Ingredient and Health Research Institute and works as an adjunct professor at United Tribes Technical College, Bismarck, North Dakota. Website: http://www.foodingredient.info/ Patterns of Health and Wellbeing: An Intercultural Symposium was webcast from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian Rasmuson Theater on April 11, 2014.

This Mockumentary Explains the Appeal of Skateboarding to Scared Parents

Smithsonian Magazine

City streets without skateboards seem almost incomprehensible in the 21st century, but in the 1960s they were a relatively new phenomenon that raised eyebrows among some parents who saw them as the dangerous tools of a reckless generation. Though CityLab’s Mark Byrnes writes that things have improved for Montreal skateboarders, the sport wasn’t always familiar to adults who worried about their safety, sounds, and impacts on urban spaces. So, in 1966, a Canadian filmmaker made a mockumentary about what he called The Devil’s Toy, a look at the ultimate weapon in the battle between kids and adults. 

The film was made by Claude Jutra, a director known for his award-winning films for the National Film Board of Canada. A Quebecois nationalist, he was a pioneer of what became known as “direct cinema”—documentary films that captured events in real-time without voiceovers, staging, or directorial meddling.

The Devil’s Toy is a notable exception to his low-key documentary style. Instead of just capturing skateboarding life among the kids of 1960s Montreal, it coopts the scaremongering tone of parents and authorities concerned about the growing fad of skateboarding. “It was like a plague,” says the documentary’s doom-and-gloom narrator, who tracks the spread of the “epidemic from which no one was secure.”

Skating bans were the real epidemic of the late 1960s: The Guardian’s Iain Borden writes that by 1965, numerous U.S. cities had implemented skating bans. A 1965 piece aired on the CBC’s Across Canada says that “the police are directing an organized campaign to stamp out these menaces.” The news piece, which focuses on “skurfing” (Canadian lingo for sidewalk surfing), is pretty tongue-in-cheek, too. Not every adult seemed to be convinced that skateboards were “the devil’s toy.”

A Canadian First Nation Community Is in the Grips of a Suicide Crisis

Smithsonian Magazine

What constitutes an emergency? A fire, tornado or outbreak of an infectious disease may come to mind. But for the Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario, Canada, something slightly different—but no less dire—prompted the declaration of a state of emergency last week. As NPR’s Camila Domonoske reports, the Cree community of 2,000 declared a state of emergency after a series of suicide attempts, 11 of which took place on Saturday night alone.

The rash of suicide attempts in the isolated northern community has spiked in recent months; Domonoske notes that in March, 28 people attempted to take their own lives. The state of emergency was declared by the First Nation’s chief, Bruce Shisheesh, and the Attawapiskat Council. In a statement, Shisheesh wrote that “community front line resources are exhausted and no additional outside resources are available.” By putting Attawapiskat in a state of emergency, Shisheesh is formally calling on the Canadian government to help address the growing epidemic.

The string of suicides and suicide attempts over the last several months included the self-inflicted death of a 13-year-old girl who was bullied in school. The roots of the epidemic go deep. Not only are Canada’s more remote First Nations largely bereft of mental health resources, they’re also in the midst of a more widespread crisis of poverty and neglect. The CBC reports that Attawapiskat has declared a number of other states of emergency in recent years related to sewer backups, housing shortages that forced residents to live in tents and unheated trailers and deteriorating drinking water quality. Unemployment, annual flooding and the isolated geography of northern Ontario also puts community members at particular risk.

Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, a Canadian broadcast network, reports that during an emergency debate in Canada’s House of Commons on the issues Tuesday night, members of parliament spent five-and-a-half hours discussing the issues that plague indigenous youth. Health Minister Jane Philpott shared findings that among First Nation males, suicide rates are 10 times higher than non-indigenous males of the same age. For young women, the toll is even worse, Philpott said—young indigenous women are 21 times more likely to take their own lives. During the emergency meeting, child welfare, housing and nation-to-nation relationships between Canada and First Nations were also discussed.

Attawapiskat isn’t the only First Nation community that is in the midst of a suicide crisis: as the CBC reports, Manitoba’s Pimicikamak Cree Nation declared a state of emergency last month after six of its 5,800-person community committed suicide and 100 were placed on an at-risk list.

The state of emergency has drawn pledges from government organizations like Health Canada to send additional resources and mental health counselors to Attawapiskat. But only time will tell whether these efforts to help Cree youth will merely provide a short-term fix—or find ways to delve into the systemic issues that continue to threaten so many indigenous lives today.

Researchers Say Culling Koalas May Save Them From Chlamydia

Smithsonian Magazine

Koalas may be on the road to recovery after nearly being wiped out at the beginning of the 20th century, but it’s not all sun-drenched naps and eucalyptus chow for the furry marsupials. Over the last few years, tens of thousands of Australia’s koalas have been struck by a devastating strain of chlamydia that is painful and often fatal for the struggling species. Now, some researchers say the koala’s best hope of survival might be a controversial one: controlled culling.

In humans, chlamydia is a relatively common sexually-transmitted infection that, if caught early, is easily cured through antibiotics. But for koalas, it’s a different story. Once infected with chlamydia, koalas can go blind, become infertile, and can develop a painful, debilitating infection known as “dirty tail”—a condition that infects the urinary tract and is often fatal, Katie Silver reports for the BBC.

“About half the koalas across Australia are infected,” David Wilson, an epidemiologist with Melbourne’s Burnet Institute, tells Silver. “In closed populations, the majority can be infected—sometimes up to 80%.”

While chlamydia in koalas can be treated with antibiotics, many of the animals are too badly infected for the treatments to help them recover. At the same time, many koalas are also being infected with a retrovirus like HIV that could make the chlamydia infections worse. Even if researchers were to administer antibiotics, they would have to round up koalas on an enormous scale in order to have any hope at stemming the epidemic, Wilson tells Bridget Brennan for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

There’s also the problem of the antibiotics’ own side effects. “Koalas have a gut full of bacteria that is essential to digest eucalyptus leaves,” Queensland University of Technology microbiologist Peter Timms tells Silver. “So if you’re giving them systematic antibiotics, it is actually killing this.”

Wilson argues that a controlled cull of the most severely diseased individuals could help stop the epidemic by getting rid of animals that would die anyway before they can infect others. Though killing koalas to save the species may sound paradoxical, if a strategic cull began now Wilson says that within 5 to 10 years researchers could begin seeing koala populations razed by chlamydia begin to bounce back, Brennan reports.

Culling is a controversial practice, but it’s not unheard of. There are currently plans to cull about 2 million feral cats in parts of Australia in order to protect native, endangered animals, and in the early 2000’s researchers experimented with culling Tasmanian Devil populations in order to try and stem the spread of a transmissible strain of facial cancer, although Wilson says that program was unsuccessful due to poor management.

Wildlife lecturer Desley Whisson,  from Deakin University, tells Brennan that while she agrees with Wilson’s culling proposal, it will be tough to sell to the government and the Australian public. "At the national level culling is not permitted for any reason for koalas so it would have to be a turnaround in the thinking at the Commonwealth level for that to be allowed," she tells Brennan.

For now, Wilson is working on hopes that authorities will allow tests of culling infected koalas in parts of Queensland and New South Wales to see if it can help stop the chlamydia epidemic.

"To kill koalas, of course there is going to be a reaction," Wilson tells Brennan. "They're just lucky they're cute and so we don't want to do something like that but I'm here trying to save the koalas.”

There Aren’t Enough Patients for Ebola Drug’s First Clinical Trial

Smithsonian Magazine

A handful of Ebola treatments have been fast-tracked through the many trials needed for new drugs in order to help the epidemic in West Africa. However, the apparent waning of new infections in Liberia has halted one drug’s clinical trial. The other treatments are also running into the same problem—not enough patients, reports Andrew Pollack for the New York Times

The drug developer, Chimerix, announced the study’s halt late last week. The plan had been to test the antiviral drug brincidofovir, and doses for 140 patients had been shipped to Liberia. But fewer than 10 patients had received the treatment since January 2, when the trial started, a company executive told the Times

Brincidofovir was one of a handful of experimental drugs approved by the World Health Organization for testing during the epidemic. Other drugs are being tested: Another antiviral called favipiravir (originally a flu drug) has started a clinical trial in Guinea. A third option, using transfusions of survivor’s blood, has been used before but never properly assessed for effectiveness. Armand Sprecher, with Doctors Without Borders, told the Times that blood plasma trials hadn’t yet started at their clinics. However, another group has been testing the treatment in Liberia and may soon start in Sierra Leone.

It may be the end of testing for brincidofovir. “I think for now our plan is not to pursue clinical trials,” says Chimerix’s chief executive, Michelle Berrey. “We’ll wait and see how the outbreak goes.”

Vaccines are also in the works to prevent infection in the first place. The first major vaccine trials began today, February 2, in Liberia, reports BBC News. According to Al Jazeera, the launch of the trial was accompanied with music:

In a densely populated neighbourhood of Monrovia, guests clapped, danced along and nodded as musicians sang lyrics on Sunday that explained the purpose and intent of the Ebola vaccination trial.

The singing was part of a campaign to overcome Liberians' reluctance to embrace the vaccines amid conspiracy theories.

If the waning numbers of new infections truly indicate an ebb in the epidemic, even the vaccine trials may face trouble continuing. But as Sprecher told the Times, "It’s more important to end the outbreak than to get the trial done."

Ebola Returns to the Democratic Republic of Congo

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s been three years since the Democratic Republic of Congo faced down its last epidemic of Ebola. Now, a case of Ebola has again been confirmed in the country—and public health officials taking the threat seriously.

Starting on April 22, nine people have been stricken with hemorrhagic fever, a group of illnesses that strike multiple systems in the body and that result from a family of viruses that includes Ebola. According to Reuters, three have died from the fever so far, but only one of those cases has been confirmed as Ebola. The World Health Organization has sent specialists to the area, the Associated Press reports.

The new case suggests that Ebola is back in the Democratic Republic of Congo—raising the specter not just of the 2014 outbreak that sickened 66 and killed 49, but the much larger (unrelated) outbreak that swept through West Africa between 2014 and 2016. In the West Africa outbreak, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 28,000 people were infected and 11,325 of them died.

About 50 percent of people who contract Ebola virus disease die from it, writes the WHO, though that number can vary depending on the outbreak. The virus is passed from animals to humans and can spread quickly through a community via contact with an infected person’s broken skin, mucous membranes, and bodily fluids like blood.

As Smithsonian.com reported earlier this year, it’s thought that a small subsection of “superspreaders” are much more likely to transmit the disease than others, but researchers are still learning more about how the disease spreads. Since Ebola incubates so quickly—in as few as two or three days—it’s hard to track who’s spreading it and stop contagion before it stokes an epidemic.

In 2016, a trial vaccine was effective in Guinea, and Reuters reports that 300,000 doses are standing by in case of a widespread outbreak.

Both Congo and public health workers will have to spring into action to prevent a small pocket of disease from turning into a larger outbreak. Hygiene, physical contact and even burial rituals must be carefully monitored among the community to help stave off a spread of the disease, and officials will closely monitor the situation to keep a handle on the situation. A WHO official tells Reuters that since the outbreak is in a very remote area, “we are a little lucky.” Hopefully, that luck will hold and the outbreak will be an isolated one.

A World War I Soldier's Cholera Seemed Odd. 100 Years Later, Researchers Have Sequenced His Bacteria's Genome

Smithsonian Magazine

In 1916, a British soldier who fought in World War I was recuperating in Egypt after suffering cholera-like symptoms. Historic observations concluded the cholera bacteria in his system was unusual: it was antibiotic resistant and lacked flagellum, the appendage that allows the bacteria to move. The specimen is now believed to be the oldest “live” sample of Vibrio cholerae in existence; it had been freeze-dried in storage at England’s National Collection of Type Cultures since 1920.

Now, researchers at Public Health England and the Wellcombe Sanger Institute have sequenced the genome of the bacteria, providing insight into how the complex pathogen has changed over time, reports Kate Kelland at Reuters.

Cholera is a bacterial infection that can cause life-threatening diarrhea, in addition to intense vomiting and leg cramps. The Center for Disease Control estimates that “2.9 million cases and 95,000 deaths” occur globally each year. The infection is often mild or without symptoms, but in severe cases, “death can occur within hours,” according to the CDC.

Since 1817, there have been seven global cholera pandemics, including the current one that’s been going on since 1961. World War I happened during the sixth global cholera epidemic, which lasted from 1899 to 1923. Over two centuries, the quickly-mutating disease has thwarted efforts to control it.

Surprisingly, the cholera strain that the team sequenced called NCTC 30 turned out to be non-toxigenic, meaning it could not cause an infection and therefore, probably wasn’t the source of the soldier’s symptoms, Genomeweb reports. It was, however, still distantly related to cholera strains that initiated previous epidemics, including the one happening now. The new study appears in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“[U]nder the microscope, the bacterium looks broken; it lacks a flagellum—a thin tail that enables bacteria to swim,” study co-author Matthew Dorman, a graduate student at the Sanger Institute, says in a statement. “We discovered a mutation in a gene that's critical for growing flagella, which may be the reason for this characteristic."

NCTC 30 is also resistant to antibiotics, including penicillin. In fact, it’s possible that these bacteria learned how to fight off naturally-occurring antibiotics before Alexander Fleming isolated penicillin in 1928. According to the press release, this finding supports an emerging theory that some diseases developed antibiotic resistant capabilities even before humans discovered the class of drugs.

“Studying strains from different points in time can give deep insights into the evolution of this species of bacteria and link that to historical reports of human disease,” lead author Nick Thomson of the Wellcombe Sanger Institute says in a statement. “Even though this isolate did not cause an outbreak it is important to study those that do not cause disease as well as those that do. Hence this isolate represents a significant piece of the history of cholera, a disease that remains as important today as it was in past centuries."

Oral history interview with Ron Athey, 2016 June 17-18

Archives of American Art
Sound recording: 2 sound files (4 hr., 40 min.) digital, wav

Transcript: 68 pages

An interview with Ron Athey, conducted 2016 June 17-18, by Alex Fialho, for the Archives of American Art's Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project, at Athey's home in Los Angeles, California.

Athey speaks of his childhood in Pomona, California; early religious experiences; early sexual experiences; formative exposure to punk music and culture in late adolescence; developing his own punk acts; contracting HIV and seroconverting; intersections between HIV/AIDS and drug-using cultures; his body of nightclub-based performative work beginning in the 1990s; his reflections on international presentations of his work; technical aspects and design elements of his performance art and film work; changes in his lifestyle and self-care regimen after seroconverting; the role of the audience in performance art; his relationship to AIDS activism; motifs of apocalypse, nihilism, and humor in his work; his place in art history; his current work as a teacher and mentor; and his contributions to American art. Athey also recalls Johanna Went, Karen Finley, Diamanda Galas, Reza Abdoh, Cynthia Carr, Leigh Bowery, Divinity Fudge, Harold Meyerson, Lia Gangitano, Brian Murphy, Amelia Jones, and others.

Oral history interview with Lia Gangitano, 2017 February 5-6

Archives of American Art
4 sound files (5 hrs., 59 min.) digital, wav

Transcipt. 74 pages.

An interview with Lia Gangitano, conducted 2017 February 5-6, by Alex Fialho, for the Archives of American Art's Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project, at Gangitano's home in New York, New York.

Gangitano speaks of growing up in a staunchly Roman Catholic family; the religious interests of her family directly influencing her appreciation for art through formative trips to Italy; her parents' choice to raise her and her sister in suburban Connecticut in an effort to Americanize them; his father's activity in the Democratic party; the high rate of suicide and drug use in her community growing up; becoming aware of HIV through friends who were intravenous drug users; regarding her work study program at ICA Boston as her main education; her involvement in Women's Action Coalition; spending nine weeks painting during a residency at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and the realization that she didn't like her own art and instead wanted to support other people's art; the formative experience of co-curating Dress Codes; the path she took from ICA Boston to her own alternative space; Boston School show at ICA Boston; the survey of Mark Morrisroe's work at ICA Boston; her experience at Thread Waxing; navigating the process of starting a business when she founded Participant, Inc.; her desire to establish an artists' space that was non-commercial; the group exhibition Dead Flowers; Greer Lankton's retrospective at Participant; finding that people want a more active role in their art experience through Julie Tolentino's For You show; the unique mission of Participant in the art world; the desire to create and maintain a space for people to remember as well as follow their dreams. Gangitano also recalls Avery Gordon, Gayatri Spivak, Stephen Pfohl, Andrew Tavarelli, Elisabeth Sussman, Mark Morrisroe, Pat Hearn, Catherine Opie, Ron Athey, Frank Wagner, Ramsey McPhillips,.

Oral history interview with Nan Goldin, 2017 April 30-May 13

Archives of American Art
4 sound files (2 hrs., 59 min.) digital, wav

Transcript: 46 pages.

An interview with Nan Goldin, conducted 2017 April 30 and May 13, by Alex Fialho, for the Archives of American Art's Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project, at Goldin's home in Brooklyn, New York.

Goldin speaks of her feminist outlook; her childhood in Silver Spring, Maryland; her older sister's suicide; attending boarding schools as an adolescent; early sexual experiences and encounters with queerness; her meaningful friendship with David Armstrong; her photography experiences; struggling with drug abuse; studying at the Boston Museum School in the early 1970s; developing the slide show as an exhibition medium; moving to New York in 1978; stories behind photographs in "I'll Be Your Mirror," "A Double Life," and "Ballad of Sexual Dependency;" early conversations about GRID and later HIV/AIDS; her admiration for David Armstrong and Peter Hujar's photography; losing friends and community to HIV/AIDS; organizing "Witnesses Against Our Vanishing;" photographing Cookie Mueller; the relationship between photography and memory; and the role of art in the AIDS crisis. Goldin also recalls David Armstrong, Mark Morrisroe, Greer Lankton, Elisabeth Sussman, Bruce Balboni, Max DiCocia, Kenny Angelico, Alf Bold, Gilles Dusein, William Coupon, Peter Hujar, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Jack Pierson, Jimmy Paul, Glenn O'Brien, Susan Wyatt, Kiki Smith, Jane Dixon, Janet Stein, Stephen Tashjian, Darrel Ellis, Allen Frame, Marvin Heiferman, Peter McGill, Sharon Niesp, Susan Sontag, Robert Wilson, and Annie Leibovitz.

Oral history interview with Sunil Gupta, 2017 May 26

Archives of American Art
Audio: 5 sound files (6 hrs., 38 min.) digital, wav

Transcript 240 pages.

An interview with Sunil Gupta conducted 2017 March 31 and April 1, by Theodore Kerr, for the Archives of American Art's Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project, at the Visual AIDS office and the Archives of American Art office in New York, New York.

Gupta speaks of his childhood in Dehli, India; early same-sex sexual experiences; moving to Canada at age 15; adjusting to North American same-sex practices; discovering gay liberation ideology at Dawson College; working at a bathhouse and in the Canadian Army Reserves; his first photographic work for a gay newsletter in college; his first serious romantic relationships; dropping out of Columbia University's MBA program to take photography courses at the New School; moving to London and taking a master's in photography at the Royal College of Art; photography sessions with gay men in London and India; early political and artistic responses to HIV/AIDS in London; the stigma of HIV/AIDS in India; the genesis and significance of images from his book Queer; his development of race-consciousness and local political activity in London in the mid-1980s; being diagnosed with HIV; navigating London's gay and HIV-positive landscapes in the 1990s; living and working in India in the mid-2000s; HIV/AIDS care and activism in India; becoming a spokesperson for HIV/AIDS in the Indian media; India's cultures of same-sex desire and queerness; photographing for his exhibitions Sun City and Love Undetectable; marrying his current partner, Jaran Singh, in 2011; and Singh's and his own current academic research. Gupta also recalls Lisette Model, Philippe Halsman, George Tice, Bill Brandt, Jean Fraser, Kaucyila Brooke, John di Stefano, Jan Zita Grover, Hinda Schuman, Doug Ischar, Simon Watney, Cindy Patton, Sean Strub, and others. Total: digital recording; [LENGTH].; transcribed 240 pages.

Oral history interview with Bill Jacobson, 2017 March 25 and 26

Archives of American Art
4 sound files (4 hrs., 47 min.) digital, wav

Transcript: 84 pages.

An interview with Bill Jacobson conducted 2017 March 25 and 26, by Alex Fialho, for the Archives of American Art's Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project, at Jacobson's home and studio in Brooklyn, New York.

Jacobson speaks of his childhood in Norwich, Connecticut; becoming serious about photography as an adolescent; early understandings of his own queerness; attending Brown University and taking photography classes at RISD; spending junior year of college at the San Francisco Art Institute; working for the "Seattle Gay News" after graduating; the influence of transcendental meditation on his early photographs; moving to New York in 1982; early discussions and experiences of HIV/AIDS in San Francisco and New York; financially supporting himself by taking commercial photographs for art galleries; collecting vernacular photographs from flea markets; deciding to focus on his own photography in 1989; the development of his out-of-focus aesthetic; shooting and printing his series Interim Landscapes, Interim Portraits, Interim Figures, and Interim Couples; the general misunderstanding of his work's relationship to the AIDS crisis; the art world's great loss of life to HIV/AIDS; participating in AIDS activism; living in the East Village in the 1980s; his relationship with Julie Saul Gallery; exposure to Minimalism through his commercial photography work; his shift to darker prints in series Song of Sentient Beings and the Thought Series; contemporary photographers whose work he admires; his shift to color photography; the technical aspects of his photographic and printing practice; his shift to an in-focus aesthetic; moving to Brooklyn in the mid-2000s; his interest in photographing the built and constructed world for A Series of Human Decisions; developing his series Place Series, 945 Madison Avenue, Lines in My Eyes, and figure, ground. The importance of travel to his artistic practice; the shift in his audience in response to the shift in his aesthetic; teaching at the International Center of Photography; showing two works in the "Art AIDS America" exhibition; the need for greater historical consciousness among younger artists; and his hope for a more nuanced understanding of his artistic legacy. Jacobson also recalls Bert Beaver, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Ray Metzker, Kermit Champa, Charles LeDray, John Collier, Larry Sultan, Jeffrey Lunger, Jeffrey Siegal, Bill T. Jones, Arnie Zane, Keith Haring, Marian Goodman, Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Shear, Julian Schnabel, Lucas Samaras, Christian Siekmeier, Richard Anderson, Donna De Salvo, Hugh Steers, Anselm Kiefers, Julie Saul, Richmond Burton, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, Kate Shepherd, A.L. Steiner, Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar, Rock Hushka, Tom Sokolowski, Robert Klein, Nayland Blake, David Deitcher, Marlon Riggs, Joe Fawbush, and others.
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