Stationed to work alongside the Amsterdam Medical Centre (AMC), Ilya investigates the ways in which we receive and transmit information regarding illnesses such as HIV/AIDS. His work picks apart different streams in healing practices, exploring both traditional scientific/medicinal approaches to managing HIV/AIDS, as well as alternative healing rituals (including homeopathy, shamanism or various forms of witchcraft). By creating a 'conflict' between the different approaches and challenging superstition or misinformation surrounding HIV/AIDS, Ilya strives to make us reflect on our own biases.
How did you decide on your topic of choice? Information, misinformation, superstition and everything in between?
‘New’ platforms like the internet represent entirely new environments for the manufacturing and sharing of information. The internet embodies a whole new range of possibilities, not all of them necessarily positive. For instance, we are now witnessing a tendency to rely on it as a source of authority when it comes to finding a diagnosis and prescribing treatment, for ourselves as well as for our close ones.
This tendency, whereby we distance ourselves from ‘traditional’ scientific approaches to medicine, results in fewer people visiting their doctors of reference. In other cases, influenced by alternative sources of information, people who visit their doctors may go on to refuse to adhere to prescribed treatments, seeking alternative healing solutions instead.
With regards to HIV/AIDS, some may choose to complement their ARV (antiretroviral therapy) with non-medical remedies on the side, such as homeopathy, alternative dietary habits, natural herbs, exercise — or even opt for more unorthodox remedies such as shamanistic rituals, prayer or witchcraft. Others may refuse medical approaches altogether.
My project, the Museum of Poisons, does not deal with illnesses or conditions per se, nor does it prescribe ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ approaches to healing, but rather focuses on how we produce, receive and transmit information on ‘illness’.
What does the situation look like in Russia at present, with regards to the denialism of medical and science-based approaches to HIV/AIDS?
HIV/AIDS denialism or ‘dissidence’ has become a trend in recent years in Russia, whereby certain communities and individuals refuse to believe the condition truly exists and decide not to deal with it altogether.
With undeniable implications, the topic of debate became particularly heated following the death of a HIV-positive ten-year old in the city of Saint Petersburg in 2017. Her father, a Christian Orthodox priest, refused to provide ARV treatment to his daughter, choosing prayer to alleviate her symptoms instead. After the child’s passing, the Russian federal government legislated in favour of a new law banning HIV/AIDS dissidence and denial of ARV treatment to people living with HIV/AIDS, which some view as a victory today. Other high-profile cases have likewise shown that non-reliability in the Russian medical establishment leads to delayed responses and failure to adhere to life-saving treatments.
In light of the clear negative consequences of denialism and failure respond to HIV/AIDS promptly, trusting arbitrary sources of information when dealing with illness can prove fatal. Unfortunately, we can see this reflected in the increasing rates of HIV transmission in Russia.
How do you expect your project, the Museum of Poisons, to incorporate all of these elements together?
The Museum of Poisons combines showcases featuring the 'rationality' of science-based, predominantly Western approaches to medicine and healing, together with diametrically opposed practices and rituals involving homeopathy, shamanism, witchcraft and religion. My goal is to overcharge the 'museum' with information and visual stimuli, without directly signalling which showcases correspond to scientific or non-scientific healing practices. The series of installations will create a conflict of information in and of themselves, inviting the visitor to reflect on their own biases and choose for themselves whether to believe the presented materials or not.
The showcases are being prepared in close consultation with a selection of doctors and scientists from Amsterdam's Academic Medical Centre (AMC).
[Text by Ilya Fedotov-Fedorov and Juan Aguirre Fernández-Bravo]