Encyclopedia of Activist Media
December 18, 2008
Should I have said “Yes. Sure! I’ll write two entries”? Easy to say with so many months between me and the deadline. Then, I put them off to the last week of the semester, self-delusionally thinking: a. nothing happens the last week of the semester (hello.. grading, meetings, parties, holiday shopping, grade complaints) and b. encyclopedia? I can rattle that off in an hour or two. Well. Turns out, I wanted them to be good, and they weren’t easy.
So, here’s my two attempts. I’d love feedback. Isn’t that what blogging and the blogisphere is for? I want your crowd wisdom. I don’t want to be the sole voice of an enycylopedia, especially because entry #2, Feminist Movement Media (next post), is debated vigorously if inspirationally to this day. Wanta help out a tired AIDS activist video scholar?
Entry 1: DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activist Television), founded in 1989 during the height of the U.S. AIDS activist movement, was a video-documenting affinity group of ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). According to its website, “ACT UP is a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis. We advise and inform. We demonstrate. WE ARE NOT SILENT.” Founding members of DIVA TV included Bob Beck, Gregg Bordowitz, Jean Carlomusto, Rob Kurilla, Ray Navarro, Costa Pappas, George Plagianos, Catherine Saalfield, and Ellen Spiro. The extensive media produced by DIVA TV in its several manifestations (over 700 camera hours), documents ACT UP and community responses to AIDS. According to Saalfied, DIVA TV was “organized to be there, document, provide protection and counter-surveillance, and participate…[It] targets ACT UP members as its primary audience and makes videos by, about, and, most importantly, for the movement.”
ACT UP was founded in 1987 in New York City and is often acknowledged for re-energizing civil disobedience tactics in the United States. Video has always played a central role in the AIDS activist movement. AIDS video activists used newly available camcorders to form a local response to AIDS, to articulate a rebuttal to or revision of the mainstream media’s definitions and representations of AIDS, and to form community around a new identity, PWA (Person With AIDS), forced into existence by the fact of AIDS. In her “Camcorderists Manifesto,” Ellen Spiro, another DIVA-TV founder, insists that: “camcorder footage contributes to a broader analysis of an event by offering an alternative to broadcast media’s centrist view. It has the power to add a dimension to the chorus of voices heard, providing a platform for seasoned activists and concerned community members, rather than the same old authoritative experts giving their same old scripted raps.”
DIVA TV understood and celebrated the central role of the media in determining the meanings, policies, and histories of AIDS. In its first year, the group produced three tapes documenting AIDS activism: Target City Hall (which chronicles ACT UP’s March 28, 1989 demo against Ed Koch’s administration), Pride (about the twentieth anniversary of NY’s gay and lesbian pride movement) and Like A Prayer (five seven-minute perspectives on the ACT UP/WHAM demo “Stop the Church” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on December 10, 1989). About this work, Saalfield explains: “Here protest is the process, communication is our form of resistance, and everyone has a say.”
As is true for many activist collectives that hold themselves to radical and communal standards, by 1990, this initial configuration of DIVA TV had folded. “DIVA TV has long been more of a state of mind than collective,” states its 2008 website. It was revived in 1990 by new ACT UP member James Wentzy, who committed his energies to producing AIDS Community Television (ACT), a half-hour public access show devoted to programming “for greater advocacy, coalition building, and greater public awareness of AIDS activism.” From January 1, 1993 until 1994, Wentzy produced over 150 half-hour programs, airing many times monthly in New York, while many of the shows were aired by ACT UP affiliates across the country. From 1994-96, he produced more than 40 programs called ACT UP Live (1994-1996), a live call-in weekly public access television series sponsored by ACT UP/New York.
As was true for the DIVA TV collective before him, Wentzy produced video that covered the AIDS crisis as AIDS activists see it, including The Ashes Action (1992) and Holding Steady Without Screaming (1995). “What is unique about what I’m doing is twofold: it’s the only weekly series in the world devoted to covering AIDS activism, and it’s political. All activists see the crisis as a political problem.” Since 1996, Wentzy has continued to document ACT UP demonstrations, political funerals, and public lectures under the DIVT TVmonniker, and he produced Fight Back, Fight AIDS: 15 Years of ACT UP in 2003. The work of DIVA TV is archived in the AIDS Activist Video Collection (1993-2000) at the New York Public Library.
Alexandra Juhasz, AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Media (Durham: Duke
University Press, 1995).
Catherine Saalfield, “On The Make: Activist Video Collections,” in Martha Gever, John
Greyson and Pratihbha Parmar, eds. Queer Looks, (NY: Routledge, 1993).
Ellen Spiro, “What to Wear on Your Video Activist Outing (Because the Whole World is
Watching): A Camcordist’s Manifesto,” The Independent (May 1991): 22.