Riding the tide from Vienna to Washington D.C.

With the theme for the XIX International AIDS Conference having been selected just a few weeks ago, I thought this would be a perfect time to look back at the YAHAnet team’s experiences at AIDS 2010 in Vienna and see how this will carry us and our global network forward to AIDS 2012 in Washington D.C.! I hope that this blog entry gives you a more personal look at some of the people behind the scenes at YAHAnet.
It all started last July when Katie, Lukas, and I arrived at our hotel on the Praterstraße in central Wien the week before the Conference. Even though we all live in Canada, it was a fitting beginning to a global conference that we each arrived in Austria from a different country: Katie arrived by plane from Paris; Lukas flew straight from Montreal, Canada; and I came from Prague on the train.

  Photo: Vreni
We had a few days to explore the city of Wien before our collage workshop at the YouthForce Pre-Conference, and it wasn't long before we discovered the benefits of relaxing next to the Danube Canal in the late afternoon heat. We'd watch locals and tourists swim in a floating swimming pool submerged in the canal!
After the sun set each night, the face of the office building near our hotel would transform into a huge AIDS ribbon accompanied by a message welcoming all participants to the International AIDS Conference. It was an impressive sight and a fun welcome to all the hard-working and determined activists and youth leaders who we would meet later on during the Conference. Looking back, I met and talked to people from over 80 countries in the Global Village at AIDS 2010!
The evening before our collage workshop, Katie, Lukas, and I rehearsed our parts for the presentation (click the image to the left) and made sure that we had all our supplies ready. Katie had brought an entire suitcase of magazine images from Canada, and Lukas had carried 40 pairs of scissors in his luggage. The Vienna airport security staff were understandably uneasy when they discovered all the scissors at the bottom of his backpack! It isn't easy to try to explain the word "collage" to German speakers, especially when you are struggling for words in German. But everything got sorted out...
The next day, the collage workshop went incredibly well. Only 20 youth participants attended due to the scheduling of two other popular workshops at the same time, but the small size of our workshop allowed us, as presenters, to sit down with each group and listen and learn from the group members' ideas and interactions. The workshop's small size also meant that each group was able to form a close bond and come up with very strong messages on youth rights to expression around HIV and AIDS and sexuality that touched on the effects of passion (hot vs. cold), public activism and standing together as a group or culture, and the relationship between music and the body. I should also mention that our 20 participants represented 13 countries! Language barriers did cause difficulties, but the participants mastered the art of visually describing their ideas. Click the image to the right to see all the collages and some video interviews with the participants.
The day after the collage workshop, we headed to the main Conference building to set up the YAHAnet booth in the Global Village with the help of Naydene from South Africa's Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (YAHAnet's most recent partner) and Claudia (YAHAnet's Project Leader). This was where we premiered our hands activity, which involved taking photos of visitors' hands, printing the photos, and then having each visitor write a personal message about the importance of "Rights Here, Right Now" on his or her photo. It was amazing how what started off as a plain white 3 m x 2 m cubicle was completely transformed into a colourful "Wall of Hands" 5 days later. Click the image to the left to see the transformation! Also, we would never have guessed that our YAHAnet awareness buttons were going to be so popular! We had to strictly ration the 500 buttons to make sure that we had enough for the week.
One of the highlights at our booth was when 4 young Hungarian lab technicians stopped by with their older lab supervisor and spent over 30 minutes planning out the most effective message they could make with their hands—a message that called for more funding for HIV vaccines. Science and art can work hand-in-hand to create a powerful outcome.
Continue with part 2 and part 3 of the tour During our breaks from running the hands activity at the booth, we took turns exploring the rest of the Global Village. We discovered an amazing Brazilian exhibit of cartoons on HIV and AIDS drawn by artists from all over the world and were impressed by the innovative and creative ways that condoms were being packaged and marketed! We saw some brilliantly unabashed female condom demonstrations by Joy Lynn and the CONDOMIZE team and were happy to find out that the PathFinder/Girl Scout movement in Austria is very open to using the arts for HIV awareness, having already implemented a number of arts-based games and activities.
A notable Global Village display was a large 'AIDS tree' whose leaves were thousands of hand-written messages that were added to each day. Click the image to the right for a close-up view. It was a great idea, but I wonder what happened to all those messages after the Conference? Katie, Lukas and I knew that we wanted to make all the hand messages collected at the YAHAnet booth accessible online after the Conference so as to inspire other youth activists who were unable to attend AIDS 2010 and to prompt discussion in the lead-up to AIDS 2012. In addition to the 'AIDS tree', there were many other amazing displays and booths, particularly those raising awareness about sex work, but my most memorable experience in the Global Village was suddenly feeling a tap on my shoulder and turning around to the smiling face of one of YAHAnet's first online members—a young man from the Philippines who runs a youth organization called Kabataang Gabay sa Positibong Pamumuhay. I had only ever been in contact with him by e-mail, and it was wonderful to meet him in person and share stories. Photo: Wieninternational.at
Now that I've shown you inside the Global Village, I wanted to take you along our 25-minute walk to the Conference every morning. We could either choose to walk down a busy boulevard or take a dirt road lined with ancient chestnut trees that led straight through a theme park! You can guess which path we preferred....
Because we are so focused on using the arts and the media for HIV awareness, the three of us immediately noticed two different billboards that had been put up near the parking lot outside the Conference venue. Click on the billboard images to the right for larger versions. The first billboard was quite effective, if a bit dramatic, in its portrayal of a global statistic (something that can be easily ignored or forgotten) in a localized context–combining a visual depiction of a Viennese cultural landmark with a locally relevant statistical comparison. As for the second billboard, I'm not sure why it was so focused on same-sex couples. I hope it wasn't trying to make the claim that heterosexual couples are exempt from getting infected. If using billboards for awareness interests you, check out YAHAnet's how-to guide on the subject.

From left to right: Lukas, Katie, and John Near the end of our week in Vienna, Katie, Lukas, and I took part in a big demonstration/march through the streets of Vienna. We raised our voices in the call for access to medication and an end to stigma and discrimination. And we carried signs stressing the importance of youth rights. Also during this march, I learned to play the vuvuzela. (No matter what people tell you, it is not an easy instrument to master! Or maybe it's just because I played a string instrument for 5 years.... Anyway, Lukas and Katie were pros from the start.)
Finally, it was time to head back to Montréal. We returned home with a contact list of 300 people who had expressed interest in our global network, half of whom signed up to be part of workgroups focused on using specific art forms for HIV & AIDS awareness/education. We carried home over 230 hand photos in our suitcases, and these photos became a virtual exhibition on YAHAnet a month later. This 3D Wall of Hands has received much praise from our Twitter followers, and has been displayed on the TakingITGlobal, Think MTV, and CitizenShift websites.

I have inspiring memories of our time in Vienna and the people we met. A special shout-out to the I Heart Being a Girl team from Eastern Europe, Yunuén Flores from Espolea in Mexico, Hannah from U-Tena in Kenya, Melina Halilovic from Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Luigi Burgoa from Venezuela for being so supportive of our work. We hope to see them again at AIDS 2012 in Washington D.C. and discuss the progress of their projects and programs.

Judging by what we witnessed in Vienna, I know that youth activism and leadership around HIV and AIDS is continuing to build towards AIDS 2012 next July. I'm excited to work with Alexandra, Chandra, Emily, and Jason (i.e., YAHAnet's new intern team that was created just one week ago!) as we develop our proposals for the upcoming Conference. As the YAHAnet team, our global members, and our supporters on Twitter and beyond are preparing to "turn the tide together" in Washington D.C., I encourage you to discuss, plan, and share your projects right here on YAHAnet—through our Forum, Gallery, and Workgroups!

I leave you with a short video compiled from interviews shot by Katie at the YAHAnet booth in Vienna and featuring a portion of a track by musician and vocalist Owen Pallett:

Stay safe and be aware!

YAHAnet Project Coordinator


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