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!
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.”
April 9, 2008
On May 18, I will give an hour-long invited lecture on AIDS video history as part of the landmark Make Art/Stop AIDS show currently up at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. Given an agregious act of censorship on the part of the museum, my plans for the talk have, understandably, changed. Here is my updated synopsis (more on AIDS to come):
Upon the 2008 censoring of yet another piece of AIDS art, this one by South-African artist, Brenton Maart, a gay man of mixed racial heritage, and commissioned (and then censored by) the Fowler Museum for their current Make Art/Stop AIDS show, I decided to tell the history of the AIDS video movement as dependent upon, needing, wanting censorship. Censorship demands an AIDS act; it propels AIDS art. It always has; it still does. I will tell this small segment of art history as one of censorship and its required response: AIDS video dances in retort, it smirks in disdain, it screams in refusal, it misbehaves accordingly. And so will I. While censorship is always harmful, the hurt of censorship in relation to AIDS video is formative, primal. It’s where we began: in the closet, unheard, our lives and loves unseen, disallowed. When we began in the 1980s, there was so much we couldn’t say and show, so then 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. In my talk, I will argue that the history and aesthetics of AIDS video is one of calculated and strategic responses to the censor. I will argue that then and now the art of AIDS video is produced because of censorship’s demands.