Unanticipated Alternate Endings

December 5, 2014

At the end of our lively and sometimes charged conversations following the MOCA Grand Avenue screening of seven recent videos about HIV/AIDS, an audience member asked “What are the ‘Alternate Endings’?” Until this moment, the large, diverse, and inter-generational audience had primarily been embroiled in a complex dialogue about the role and forms of activism found or missing in both contemporary art and HIV/AIDS, as well as within the seven videos we had just viewed that were commissioned by Visual AIDS to mark the 25th anniversary of Day With(out) Art by Rhys Ernst, Glen Fogel, Lyle Ashton Harris, Hi Tiger, Tom Kalin, My Barbarian, and Julie Tolentino/Abigail Severance.

I suggested that the alternate ending was that people lived.

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And perhaps that was one reason why, while the seven diverse videos did focus (in unequal measure to be sure) on generation, nostalgia, mourning, queer people of color and disidentification, videotape, time, and popular culture, they seemed to be almost entirely devoid of video images of activism (at least of the now iconic images of graphic art and protest from the first years of the AIDS crisis that have been the primary focus of much recent work that revisits this time). The seven videos seemed to conjure a visual register where it’s harder or not necessary to imagine, image, and engage with “activist” images given that the anger and mourning which fueled the first decades of the AIDS crisis no longer draws the scene.

Audience, MOCA Grand Avenue, December 4, 2014

Audience, MOCA Grand Avenue, December 4, 2014

Other reasons for the missing activism that were suggested from the floor, as well as by my esteemed panelists Lucas Hildebrand and Jih-Fei Cheng, included: understandings of “activist” images that took quieter or more personal forms (like the queer performances of Hi Tiger/Derek Jackson, My Barbarian or Julie Tolentino, or the private conversations and the many other forms of gay sexual intimacy seen in Glen Fogel, Lyle Ashton Harris, Rhys Ernst or Tom Kalin’s work, or the archival impulse and research found in the My Barbarian, Harris and Ernst pieces); contemporary understandings of activism and art have been commodified either by corporations hungry for rainbow dollars or by individuals who themselves now understood the commodification of themselves to be the urgent activist/art act; a dispersal of connection, attention, urgency, and community produced by the internet and the glut of images dissipates the magnetic pull that produced movements of activist/art and the necessity that artists and art institutions take the lead on this sort if image making; or perhaps a surprising and recent mark to an end of what Ted Kerr calls “AIDS Crisis Revisitation” (in an earlier conversation with me), in that we have processed, worked through, and learned from those images of “activism” and need a new, or at least another, visual vocabulary better suited for today.

It was an inspiring conversation for the many ideas generated and circulating above (which I can only point to here in these brief remarks), and also because it felt to me at least that new generation(s) took the lead, even as many generations were present. Which is to say, that these last few years have seen a great number of conversations generated by my generation’s filmmaking about our histories, losses, and activism; and World AIDS day has often focused upon our rightful grief. But at this year’s event here in LA, thirty-something voices dominated and were heard, even as others of us spoke, and this too is an alternate ending of great power and yet to be reckoned scope, as it is an opening up and out into the many co-exisiting times of AIDS, just as were the seven commissioned videos that prompted our conversations.

 

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