July 13, 2011
In the past few days, I’ve seen two powerful film screenings featuring works that historicize AIDS in the 1980s: We Were Here (“the first documentary to take a deep and reflective look back at the arrival and impact of AIDS in San Francisco”) and United in Anger: A History of ACTUP.
Now, most people weren’t AIDS activists, and fewer still are professional AIDS remembers (a role several of us seem to have been gifted in the last few years), but I am both, and in the second role, have been asked to write or speak about the remembering of AIDS in three upcoming venues: a publication on the 25 year anniversary of ACTUP with the Quarterly Journal of Speech, a talk about recent AIDS video at Visible Evidence documentary conference in August, and a lecture in October at Concordia University for their nineteen-year long community lecture series and course on AIDS, Concordia HIV/AIDS Project. Most people don’t remember AIDS: in particular how we fought, how we cared and loved, how we raged, what we won, who we lost. This non-remembering of AIDS is a kind of recollection crisis in its own right, particularly affecting younger queers (of color) who don’t somehow know that there was unimaginable death, anger, activism, community-building, and art made because of AIDS, practices that continue to be highly relevant (if absent) to AIDS, queer youth, and the dearth of activism more generally.
I find that these two video projects (and Jean Carlomusto’s Sex in an Epidemic, and my own Video Remains, and others) each approach this recent remembering project with different forms, themselves reflective of the aims of their remembering goals. In short, We Were Here emotes and United in Anger rages–these feelings evident already in their titles–but also in their documentary approaches. WWH personalizes the crisis, focusing closely on six people with a soft and warm camera, evocative music, stories of personal loss and commitment, and a camera that lingers on tears (producing the same in its audience). Meanwhile, UIA moblizes a cold, sharp video look at a large group of speakers, and an even more clinical body of activist documentation of demonstrations and meetings, allowing us to feel that these images stand in for a mass of similar voices and a compendium of events and actions, and inviting us to enter through their anger and action (just another player in a movement of individuals that can lead to change). Both approaches feed us, although in different ways. Remembering AIDS–which was itself a complex amalgam of emotion, action, living, dying, loving, politics, and representation–demands as many complimentary approaches as we can afford and can bear. While we are all not professional AIDS remembers, nor need we be, we can all learn from this history, particularly in relation to its sustaining models of personal and political action in the name of human rights, health care, and the power of people to help themselves and thereby better their community and world.
I had the opportunity to view screeners of two new AIDS documentaries: Sex in an Epidemic (Jean Carlomusto) and ACT UP New York Highlights: I (Jim Hubbard, Sarah Schulman, and James Wentzy), thanks to their distributor, Outcast Films.
While there is much to recommend each, I am interested in focusing here on how the videos mine the AIDS activist video archive (something I’ve written about, and made videos on, elsewhere). Going against the grain of contemporary media’s fear of duration, the exposed (nothing cut-away to!) talking-head, and stylistic simplicity, ACT UP NY‘s filmmakers carefully arrange clips from the ACT UP Oral History’s hundreds of hours of oral history into two lengthy topical sections around which its diverse and erudite interviewees speak at length and with complexity. The documentary is decidedly upbeat, almost buoyant, as it focuses upon the historic (and still continuing) successes and triumphs of ACT UP: self-empowerment of gays and lesbians, re-defining healthcare politics and patients’ rights, forming strategic coalitions across outdated divides, respecting individual’s needs while framing them into larger political analyses, and most critically for me, mobilizing (and then re-mobilizing) representation. For the film reflexively re-produces (twenty years later, through its contemporary interviews that address the twenty-years past) the very AIDS activist project it tells: radicals need to document and archive their own stories so as to take power over meaning, politics, self (representation) and history.
Which is, of course, also the self-reflexive project of Sex in an Epidemic, which tells the history of the invention and ever changing stakes of safer sex education and activism (much of it made in the form of video or its processes documented via video). Jean Carlomusto, a doyenne of AIDS activist video, edits from (her) archival images of AIDS actions, testimonials, video actions, and completed (safer sex) videos to create a present-day history also self-reflexively focusing upon the power of self-representation for (safer sex) education and personal and community liberation. Interestingly, this documentary is more elegiac, relying, as it must on the archived testimonies of safer sex educators and activists who died of AIDS even as they fought for today’s successes (while the Oral History Project has the at least slightly more uplifting project of gathering testimony from those who lived, although of course, all of this is itself time-dependent, today’s alive are always tomorrow’s gone). This documentary takes the form of Carlomusto’s earliest activist work, often made by myself and others for GMHC’s cable access show, “Living With AIDS”: images we took (and saved) of our community (its activists and experts) and actions (unrecorded by dominant media), edited into radical accounts that educate in their time and then last for others (to be re-cycled in the name of remembering, honoring and learning).
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.”