AIDS/Art/Work and Archive
June 3, 2008
I just returned from New York where I spent 48 hours visiting old haunts, seeing old friends, watching videos of my past ways, talking about the lost and now of AIDS and new queer cinema, and basically inhabiting the archive (in the forms of streets, videos, and theories) and considering the archive (in the form of slides, videos, and presentations) as I considered its impossibilities with others equally implicated. I walked familiar streets now peopled by people wearing costumes from Sex in the City, sat in a grad school classroom where I was once taught although now I am the teacher, there watching interviews of myself and friends testifying about the history of ACTUP, a place and movement we once lived, saw a movie, Savage Grace, by a dear friend of mine with whom I once made AIDS video and new queer cinema (all now old or at least middle-aged), and attended a conference which was largely about historicizing this very period of my (our) life: what we did, who we lost, what it might mean, what we must do. Coincidences, time circling in on itself, memories, witnessing, the dead, the alive, my scholarly output, ex-students, aging colleagues, it was too much. A city or a conference room can be an archive, holding fleeting and dusty whiffs of faces now wrinkled, ideas no longer fresh, items that can not be forgotten.
The AIDS/Art/Work conference was incredibly fine: each panel representing first rate contributions by varied participants: scholars, artists, activists. As hard as this might be to believe, I was never bored nor annoyed, just captured in a wound-up pressure-cooker of learning and introspection. We don’t talk about AIDS art and activism as we did, and we are rarely in community doing so. It was exhilirating and exhausting. Sad and empowering. Although all the talks were great, I was particularly inspired by the academic work of my ex-student (time turning in on itself), Julia Bryon Wilson, and colleague, David Roman, both of whom considered the AIDS archive in their papers. Julia wrote about the slide archives at Visual AIDS and David about the documents of a forgotten history of AIDS activism before ACT UP. They were both concerned about the lost and found of AIDS, the lasting and the lost, how you keep track, who remembers, how much work it is just to keep the archive up. Meanwhile, two of the presenting artists, Richard Sawdon-Smith and Derek Jackson, begged us to consider the place of the living AIDS body, and if a body should or can be part of an archive.
Then, the next day, I attended 5 hours of Deborah Levine’s marathon viewing of Sarah Schulman ahd Jim Hubbard’s ACTUP oral history, where I watched myself and two of my friends remember the past of AIDS and theorize the meanings of our activism. Deborah, Jim, and I, alive in the room in the present, remembering the past, as video archives of memorials haunted the walls, in the corner of my vision, myself, with fewer wrinkles, hardly any grey hair, and a gleam in my eye. Really, who has the strength? And yet, the impulse to control, own, or capture history (and bodies) is comendable if complicated, and as I have observed in my recent writing about Video Remains, the lasting quality of the video in comparison to the whimsical, narcisstic, and fanciful nature of memories (and bodies) seems key for this project.
PS: The Brentan Maart saga continued. It was pretty awesome when Marilyn Martin, the director of Iziko Museums of Cape Townhead of South Africa, responded to my talk with anger, grief, and puzzlement about the silencing of his censorship. Also, here’s a smart review of the conference and pictures!