we can wipe out the epidemic."
The opening session was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m., but by 6:30, Session Room 1, set for 7,000 people, with squares from the AIDS quilt draped along the walls, was topped out, and attendees were being directed to overflow viewing areas in several other rooms. It was a bewildering introduction to the event, a carnival of science and culture and sex and politics and people, so many people, who cared enough to spend their Sunday night at the International AIDS Conference.
The next afternoon, the exhibit hall offered a similar pageant, humanitarian and business endeavors jumbled together in a solid, built-out environment. In this pop-up city of industry, bigbox exhibitors loomed large at the entrance and paraded down the center of the show floor, with pharmaceutical and medical companies like Alere and Bristol-Myers Squibb and BD and Mylan giving way to equally formidable booths from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and UNAIDS. They were surrounded by a dense grid of smaller-scale exhibitions, from the American Fertility Association and the Red Ribbon International Film Festival to the Papua Provincial AIDS Commission and the 11th International Congress on Drug Therapy in HIV Infection.
"This is one of the larger shows we've done as far as requirements for graphics," said Tim McGill, CEO of Hargrove, AIDS 2012's general services contractor. "There's in the neighborhood of 20,000-plus square feet of graphics generated by us just for the areas that we're involved in. There was over three miles of hardwall, which is unusual here in the United States. That's more typical in Europe and Asia. It's definitely an international driven event, so it has the look and feel of the international scene, very little pipe and drape. All of the exhibit area is hardwall. All of the meeting rooms are done in hardwall rather than pipe and drape."
The exhibit hall had only been open for a few hours when a protest rolled in, a line of blackshirted activists marching toward Canada's booth at the front third of the hall and chanting, "We say fight back! Harper denies evidence!" They wrapped the booth in yellow crime-scene tape that said, "HARPER GOVERNMENT: EVIDENCE FREE ZONE!" and unrolled a black banner: "HARPER = DEATH." The group turned out to be AIDS Action Now!, a Canada-based organization that was taking issue with what seemed to be the entirety of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's HIV/AIDS policies.
The Canada booth was empty when the protest happened, and within 15 minutes, the activists had handed out flyers, posed for photos, answered questions, and went on their way. Not long after that, the crime-scene tape was gone and the booth was fully staffed, and the small fraction of the show floor that had turned its attention to the scene went about its business.
And business was a big part of AIDS 2012. A few days after the Canada protest, at the Alere booth, Paul Hempel explained why it was important for his company, the Waltham, Mass.-headquartered manufacturer of diagnostic equipment, including several advanced blood tests for HIV, to participate in AIDS 2012. "We need to be seen as, and I believe we are, a leader in the field of testing," said Hempel, Alere's senior vice president for ethics and compliance as well as special counsel. "And there isn't a better show than this one. You don't just have scientists here." Alere was also using the conference to go wide with its Make (+) More Positive initiative, which Hempel called "our first foray into CSR." Picking up on the spirit of hope permeating AIDS 2012, the company invited visitors to its sleek, white, Apple Store-chic booth to use crayons and paper to draw their own symbol of optimism; each one would count toward a free HIV screening for a person in need. "We're trying to get people to rethink what being positive means," Hempel said, adding: "How do you reduce stigma in the community? Because it's very clear that it goes: decrease in stigma, increase in testing; increase in testing, increase in treatment; increase in treatment, decrease in transmission."
Two floors down, the Global Village was a completely different scene. The atmosphere was less corporate and more earthy; in places it was almost funky. "Upstairs we have got all of the science, all of the abstracts, all of the workshops that will be presented, and downstairs we have the Global Village," Gilliard said. "We really do have two very different conferences that will happen."
On Monday afternoon, the very different conference downstairs found Yaa Simpson, a Chicago based community epidemiologist, presenting "Culturally Competent Tools & Strategies to Accurately Capture the Reality of HIV Among non- U.S.-Born Blacks/Africans Living in the U.S." in the Black Diaspora Networking Zone. Simpson's slides included graphic photos of female-circumcision procedures, but she had no problem holding the attention of the dozens of people in her audience.
Not far away was the Sex Workers Networking Zone (theme: "Rocking the Boat"), which seemed to be responsible for the stark black posters hanging throughout the Global Village that said: "No Drug Users? No Sex Workers? No Internat'l AIDS Conference." Past that, a row of booths dead-ended at the Community Dialogue Space, a large, theater-style area with a hundred or so chairs arranged in a semi-circle and facing a stage; the topic being discussed was "Getting It Right: Ensuring a Human Rights Approach to Global Fund Programmes."
In another corner, the Global Village Screening Room was playing "Positive Children," a 40-minute documentary about HIV-positive children and their parents in Ukraine, which was followed by "Scenarios From Africa," a series of short films about "particularly sensitive subjects related to HIV." Nearby, the Community & Science Speak Networking Zone echoed the message of the opening session with a presentation called simply "The Cure," with David Evans, director of research advocacy for Project Inform, and Steven Deeks, M.D., who co-chairs IAS's International Working Group for its new "Towards an HIV Cure" global scientific strategy.
And back toward the Community Dialogue Space sat the HIV Story Project, a San Francisco- based nonprofit program that had set up a storytelling booth modeled after a classic photo booth. Attendees were invited to step into the windowless, soundproofed booth, look into a camera, and share their story of living with HIV/AIDS, which eventually will be posted online. "I wanted to move the quilt concept into interactive media," said Marc Smolowitz, the project's executive producer. "People have very powerful experiences inside the booth. They share things. Ö It speaks a lot to the power of personal storytelling."
It also spoke to the power of AIDS 2012. "This is the go-to gathering," Smolowitz said. "If you're in the space of HIV/AIDS, you have to be here. Ö People need to come together and share ideas and get things done. This is a chance for us to all meet each other. It's no small effort to come here, but we've learned a ton."
"Upstairs, Downstairs" configuration notwithstanding, the International AIDS Conference is all about bringing together different people from different worlds. It's part of the show's DNA, and it makes for an experience that is not easily categorized.
What kind of meeting is it, for example, when you stumble across a few hundred people standing, crouching, and sitting in the middle of a hallway, watching a PowerPoint presentation on a large flat-screen monitor? It was Monday afternoon, and they were the overflow crowd from a session called "Immunopathogenesis and Its Treatment." There seemed to be as many advocates and aid workers as medical professionals in the crowd, but no one was in a hurry to stop looking at slides with headings like "Ki67 Staining as a Marker for Cellular Activation" and "Activation Status in Lymph Node: USA vs. Uganda."
Or how about the