To Dance and Dream with the Censor
May 1, 2008
I’ve been completing my upcoming talk for the Fowler Museum’s Make Art/Stop AIDS Show. I’ll also present it in NY a few weeks later at the VIsual AIDS/CLAGS’ conference, The Art of AIDS Prevention. AIDS does seem to be periodically revisited, spurts of attention then quiet. I’ll speak in my talk about what it feels like to be trotted out as a living memory of AIDS art and activism, what AIDS was. This is one confusing aspect of the our current moment in AIDS art history, what I call the “Hearts Heavy in our Hands” period. I write: “I’ll be blunt: speaking and making video in this third period in AIDS video history is really complicated. We carry so many traces in our forms: nostalgia, sorrow, responsibility, our youth, our loss. It’s discombobulating. We are all three periods of AIDS; we are those we knew (and those we didn’t) who died; we are AIDS future. It’s too much. How do you remember the past, dream the future, refuse the censor, and respect the dead in one dance?”
I name the first two periods Head on Attack (the 1980s and early 1990s), and Head in the Sand (the later 90s), but I mostly think about how censorship has produced all of activist AIDS video. I call this dancing and dreaming with the censor, that changing force which tells us we can’t, and so then we do.
I recently spoke with my old friend and fellow AIDS video activist, Jean Carlomusto, about our significant shared pain brought about by the censoring of Brenton Maart’s piece from the show (Jean has an amazing piece in the show, too). How this act was so retro and so primal. I write: “My pain is not rational: it’s where we began. I am pulled back to the past, forcefully denied our history and our future. I am returned to the closet, unheard, our lives and loves once again unseen, disallowed. We are pulled back to the time when we were forced into action in the 1980s because our friends were sick, in pain, and dying, there was so much we couldn’t say and show, so then, of course, we did: how we put condoms on penises and dental dams on vaginas, how we kissed, who we fucked, how we rioted, what and who we wanted, how we mourned, how our lives were touched by racism, sexism, and homophobia before during and after AIDS, how once we were polite and then we couldn’t be.”
And now, I’ve committed to calling the censor on her attack to her face on her turf, and believe me, while it is necessary, it’s also really scary: to be rude, impolite, in your face. It seems critical to acknowledge that while activism and art are often organized around such transgressions of protocol and propriety this is not because we revel in dirty deeds (although they are sometimes fun) but because we are given no other option. I read today that CHAMP will be blogging this years AIDS conference, and this is the same dance, the “circuit of censorship” (Annette Kuhn) that it is both productive and painful (RIchard Meyer). We speak because they won’t; we write because they won’t let us. (Check out the International Carnivale of Pozitivities)
Here’s how David Wojnarowicz explained it, his words scrawled on his childhood portrait and currently hung at the Fowler Museum: “One day this kid will feel something in his heart and throat and mouth. One day this kid will do something that causes men who wear the uniforms of priests and rabbis, men who inhabit certain stone buildings, to call for his death. One day families will give false information to their children and each child will pass that information down generationally to their families and that information will be designed to make existence intolerable for this kid. One day this kid will begin to experience all this activity in his environment and that activity and information will compel him to commit suicide or submit to silence and invisibility. Or one day this kid will talk. When he begins to talk, men who develop a fear of this kid will attempt to silence him with strangling, fists, prison, rape, intimidation, drugging, ropes, guns, laws, menace, roving gangs, bottle, knives, religion, decapitation and immolation by fire. All of this will begin to happen in one or two years when he discovers he desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy.”