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Listening to risk, sexual ecologies, and the beeswax of AIDS industrialization

Listening to risk, sexual ecologies, and the beeswax of AIDS industrialization

Andrew Zealley

Andrew Zealley holds a PhD from the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change. His research engages with HIV and AIDS, queer identity, the body, and notions of self-risk-taking. He previously completed an MFA in Interdisciplinary Studies at OCAD University and is a recipient of a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship for his research project “Risky Beeswax: Artistic Responses to the Biopolitics of HIV and AIDS.” His dissertation was recently awarded the 2020 Barbara Godard Prize for Best Dissertation in Canadian Studies.

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His extensive history as an artist guides his research — including explorations of themes of sound and healing within the framework of queer rhetoric and theory, and artistic responses to HIV and AIDS.   Since 1990, the fight against HIV and AIDS has animated Zealley’s arts practice, with his doctoral research continuing to examine the crisis in the current era of homonormativity and AIDS industry. Sound, music, and listening, form the centre of his interdisciplinary creativity and each play a role in his multi-modal doctoral project.

Zealley’s dissertation comprises three interventions : audio, video, and written. His research works with tropes of disco,house, minimalist, and musique concrete musics and cultures, and recognizes the disco as a vital social refuge for LGBTQI and racialized communities. As part of his dissertation, he published a 2LP vinyl record edition entitled Soft Subversions which is distributed internationally via Séance-Centre. Soft Subversions explores field recordings, spoken word, and sounds culled from 1970s and early 1980s club musics which operate as authentic soundtracks and markers of HIV as it incubated and emerged in North American urban centres. Soft Subversions stands to spotlight previously under-heard voices from artistic, activist, and AIDS communities to create new narratives and understandings.

Two topics are central to his examination: pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), the widely publicized, medically-approved method to reduce HIV transmission; and U=U, the current standard in HIV and AIDS treatment goals wherein HIV-positive persons who through successful adherence to the highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) regime can reduce the presence of the virus in their body to an “undetectable” status, thus rendering them unable to transmit the virus. In Zealley’s research, PrEP is understood as one moment in a dynamic continuum of risk: risky sexual, ludic, and artistic practices. This continuum, or persistent dialectic of risk, runs through and across four decades of HIV/AIDS. Outlaw risky sex practices (bathhouses, cruising, public and anonymous sex) have thrived in every era — more recently online.

Through his research, Zealley has found that the combination of PrEP/U=U creates a mainstream opportunity for new sexual ecologies, in which new forms of relationship, desire, and affect are heralded through a re-radicalization of gay sexual practices and the emergence of “prevention identities.” In discussing his research, he writes, “through my own scholarly and creative processes, and the practices and outputs of other artists, activists, and curators, my multi-modal dissertation rethinks risk, art, and sex in the PrEP landscape.”