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The hard truth about hard numbers: AIDS and the accountability of artists

“1,112 and Counting” is the title of famed activist Larry Kramer’s seminal 1983 essay in the New York Native, a strident, early call-to-arms that helped set the response to AIDS in motion. From the very beginning, it seems, the notion of counting, of confronting the public with the shocking numbers of those affected by the virus has been one of the central thrusts of activism in response to HIV and AIDS. 

“I was very intrigued by the hard numbers,” says Atlanta artist and writer Matthew Terrell, whose new temporary public work, Atlanta’s HIV-Positive Population Now, follows in a long tradition by displaying an updating count of the city’s increasing HIV-positive population at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta. 

Terrell says he first started to look into the disturbing data that shows Atlanta as one of the cities still most affected by increasing rates of HIV infection about a year ago after writing about the Zuckerman Museum of Art’s exhibition Art AIDS America for this publication. “When I saw the tens of thousands of people in the Atlanta area, I wondered how I could express the magnitude of that,” he says. “I was driving along Piedmont, and I noticed the Atlanta Population Now sign across from Piedmont Hospital. It hit me: all you need is just a counter.”

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