Alum explores history of AIDS films, videos


Filmmaker, activist and York University alumnus Ryan Conrad has launched a new book, Radical VIHsion: Canadian AIDS Film & Video, marking the latest accomplishment in two decades of artistic and academic work – parts of it completed at York – examining the impact of AIDS on Canadian society and culture.

Comprising interviews and critical essays, including some by other York scholars, Conrad’s edited anthology explores the history of Canadian AIDS film and video, with a particular focus on the significance of the public access cable television program Toronto Living With AIDS from 1990 to ’91.

Ryan Conrad
Ryan Conrad

Created and co-ordinated by the late video maker and AIDS activist Michael Balser with York film Professor John Greyson, the program played a crucial role in addressing the HIV-AIDS crisis through community-driven media collaborations. The series paired artists with community organizations to create much-needed educational tapes – that were also culturally appropriate and engaging – about living with and preventing the spread of HIV.

As the book’s principal researcher and editor, Conrad conducted detailed historical work on the Toronto Living With AIDS series, including its creators, public reception, circulation and censorship by Rogers Cable, uncovering previously untold stories.

The project began at York where, as a recent Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow in Cinema and Media Studies, Conrad worked closely with Janine Marchessault, a Tier One Research Chair in Media Arts and Community Engagement who recently received the prestigious Killam Prize, to preserve AIDS activism and history in media.

Conrad’s work forms an integral component of Marchessault’s Archive/Counter-Archive initiative, which seeks to safeguard the audiovisual cultural heritage of marginalized communities.

Conrad’s presentation, “AIDS Activist Media: Toronto Living with AIDS & Second Decade,” presented last July at York University’s Congress 2023 event, further spotlighted ongoing efforts for representation and advocacy within 2SLGBTQIA+ communities.

Conrad, 41, has been participating in activism, researching, writing and making films about HIV-AIDS for nearly two decades. A cultural studies scholar whose work also encompasses queer theory and identity, he is co-founder of the U.S.-based collective Against Equality, which challenges “assimilationist tendencies” in mainstream 2SLGBTQIA+ movements – the subject of his 2011 book Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion.

“Against Equality is not an organization, nor is it a movement. We are merely an archive, and I try to be really humble about what we are doing as a collective and what role we play in the broader social and economic justice movements,” Conrad said in a previously published interview.

“That being said, I think our archive has been influential to some degree in opening up space for more people to have discussions about what kind of political work can and should be prioritized to benefit the greatest number of queer and trans people,” he said. “A vanguardist professional political elite from the gay and lesbian non-profit industrial complex dictating the priorities of a group of people is something we rally against and is a top-down model we aren’t looking to recreate.”

In that way, he has something in common with the archive: through works like Radical VIHsion: Canadian AIDS Film & Video he is opening up overlooked parts of history, and important discussions, around the experiences of 2SLGBTQIA+ people.