Marika Cifor uncovers history of AIDS activism in new book

By Shanzay Shabi Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Information School Assistant Professor Marika Cifor recently published her first book, titled Viral Cultures: Activist Archiving in the Age of AIDS. The book explores the history of AIDS activism and how its story is preserved. 

Published and released by the University of Minnesota Press in June, Cifor’s book is the first to take a critical lens to the archives that have helped keep the history and work of AIDS activism alive. Cifor specifically examines the documentation of AIDS activism in the United States and the infrastructure that has been used to preserve past activist efforts and reanimate them in the digital present. 

While doing research at the New York Public Library for her doctoral dissertation in 2015, Cifor was inspired to write her book. During this time she had several conversations with curators, librarians, and activists about HIV/AIDS. 

“When I was having these interviews and conversations about the politics of emotion within archives, I realized there was much more to the story,” Cifor said. “Doing just a chapter would have been a great disservice to the kind of work happening in these AIDS archives.”

With her background in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies and research interest in the representation of marginalized communities in archives and digital culture, Cifor chose to focus her research on uncovering how archives, digital technologies and cultures shape identities, experiences and social movements.

Viral Cultures is an archival ethnography, grounded upon interviews of AIDS activists from the 1980s and 1990s, archivists and librarians, curators and artists who collected, maintain and use these archives. In addition, she draws on archival research at the New York Public Library, New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections, and other community-based archives including Visual AIDS’s Archive Project and Artist+Registry. 

Cifor examines the influence of power structures on how archives are preserved, used and accessed. Her book further investigates how activists, artists and curators utilize these archives to challenge the injustices prevalent in the AIDS crisis. 

“I've always been interested in community-based archives, especially in LGBTQ archives and the ways in which those archives contend with things that are difficult to document,” Cifor said. 

Cifor expressed that while digging through the archives of HIV/AIDS activism, she realized a big part of the process of writing her book was about finding her own place within the narrative as a queer person born in the ’80s who was too young to be part of these powerful movements. 

“It was vital for me to critically think about this project and to figure out where my voice, position, and perspective fit in relation to the people who I was fortunate enough to interview or draw work from,” said Cifor. 

Cifor’s intention in writing this book is to remind readers that the AIDS epidemic is ongoing and to get people to think about how injustices and forms of structural oppression impact the way stories of activism and archives are told. 

“My hope is that this book will open possibilities for other people to expand their notion of what AIDS archives are,” Cifor shared. “This book aims to tell stories of marginalized individuals in relation to these archives and to bring attention to the work of artists, activists and creators in HIV/AIDS.”