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Beyond Failure!

Thinking Critically About HIV Prevention, Research, and Services

Concordia University, Montreal - May 2013

A symposium devoted to thinking through the moments that we have failed in the field of HIV prevention, research, and services.

The AIDS industry is built on a logic of promoting success. As AIDS researchers we often jockey for money, arguing that our research will successfully inform services. As service providers, we promise to lower rates of infection. However, this logic of success creates limited opportunities for us to think through our individual and collective failures.

With Beyond Failure!, we wanted to ask some new questions. We wanted to create a space that was about more than lamenting what has failed. It was time to start dialogues and collaborations about how to work differently: the conversations that can be so difficult to have, given funding or institutional constraints and AIDS politics. We are now proud to share some of the results with you.

Logistic unhinged

In order to have a new conversation, we had to organise things a little differently from other conferences. Luckily our participants were on board for a little adventure and experimenting!!!

Working conference

Each participant submitted a paper or response to one of our four streams: risk, prevention, community, and social policy. They were then invited to read their colleagues’ work and to prepare points of commonality and divergence. Once on site, facilitators guided each group through discussions. We made it clear from the onset that we were not necessarily looking for solutions. Groups could very well choose to focus on asking the right questions. Most importantly, we wanted deep reflection on failure in relation to risk, prevention, community, and social policy.


Tim McCaskell opened the symposium with reflections on failure. He argued that what constitutes failure depends on our point of view and goals. What some consider to be a success, will be thought of as failure by others. Failure shifts from context to context: pharmaceutical companies, governments, service providers, people living with HIV, etc.

The following day, Rodrigue Jean and Hubert Caron Guay, members of the Collectif Épopée, gave the second keynote. They screened an excerpt from their web fiction and documentaries: “Stories written and filmed with people living in Montreal's downtown "exclusion zone’ ”. By following the lives of marginalized men in Montreal’s downtown core, the filmmakers and their collaborators brought to light many facets of HIV without making a “film about HIV”. For more information, please see their website (


Participants spent most of the symposium in their streams in order to prepare a presentation for the plenary session. Here is a summary of their work:

The stream on risk raised important questions in regards to how we think about the notion of risk. Many of the case studies involved biomedical prevention, although participants did not limit themselves therein. This stream often brought epistemological questions to the forefront. Participants grappled with a double bind. On the hand the notion of “risk” needs to be critically examined (ex: its stigmatising effects). On the other hand, the notion of "risk" can be a useful tool for activism and community organising. download the pdf (English only)

The community stream raised critical questions about the role of "community" in the work of HIV/AIDS: how we define it; who is "community", its operationalization in politics and bureaucracy, and its limits. Discussions delved into discrepancies between the multiplicities of meanings and forms of community versus the utilisation of communities in AIDS work. download the pdf (English only)

People in the prevention stream often grounded their analysis in specific sites and case studies, providing an occasion to reflect deeply on what has not worked when it comes to HIV/AIDS prevention programmes. Good or bad, prevention has brought us to where we are today in this epidemic. Participants argued that the future of prevention is not found in an over reliance on biomedical technologies, but rather in a greater dialogue with all affected populations. download the pdf (French only)

Finally, papers that are located in the social policy and the state stream asked us to consider failure in specific policy responses to HIV/AIDS, as well as within the state and bureaucratic infrastructures. The participants in this stream examined the opposing epistemologies at work in policies and programs. They noted the systemic violence against various populations affected by HIV. They questioned whether or not we could do policy beyond identity. They reflected on the diffuse and shifting nature of accountability. They also asked what an anarchist HIV policy would look like. download the pdf (English only)