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.
March 17, 2008
At last the tours are through! While I found them increasingly tedious, they did prove a useful exercise in that I made some sense of the hundreds of videos my class produced (and from these tours I am going to teach Learning from Learning from YouTube in fall 2008, stay tuned), and I got to organize my thoughts thematically. So, I end with the failures of YouTube’s archive and how this structures its problems with community.
Importantly, the architecture and ownership of YouTube draw users by fueling their desire for community. While many come to the site to be seen and heard by others, to make friends, they are much better served by the world, or MySpace. For, the very tools and structures for community-building which are hallmarks of web 2.o (or a library or classroom)–those which link, gather, index, search, version, allow participation, commenting, and networking–are studiously refused on the site, even as it remains the poster-child of web 2.0. People go elsewhere for these functions, dragging their favorite YouTube videos with them to more hospitable platforms (with YouTube’s permission).
YouTube is a site to upload, store (and move off) videos. The very paucity of its other functions feeds its primary purpose: moving users’ eyeballs aimlessly and without direction, scheme, or map, across its unparalleled archive of moving images. YouTube is a mess: videos are hard to find, easy to misname, and quick to lose. While it’s users would certainly be aided by a good archivist, the site signals to us in its conscientious failings that it is not a place to hunker down or hang out with others, not a place within which to seriously research or study, not a place for anything but solo-play. Enjoy!
March 5, 2008
To wrap up this thread of ideas coming from my bad manifesto videos, I’d like to try to better attend to “Third-Tube,” that manner of video, currently available on the web, that is neither the vlog nor the music video. This kind of video formally marks the hand of its DIY producer (with “bad” production) while also signaling the seriousness of her mind, vision, goals or politics (with “big” ideas). It uses the sketch-like form of the You-Tube video (made and seen quickly, without aims at perfection or mastery, but with some attention to style and with clear goals of communication) so as to make videomaking and viewing a part of daily experience.
Now, it may seem that I’m suggesting that the “personal” nature of the vlog disqualifies it from Third-Tube (which is, of course, an homage to Third Cinema), but that would go directly against my feminist politics. So let me add this simple feminist formula: the personal is the political. When vlogs move to the next step, which is making systematic (theoretical) and communal (political) claims grounded in personal experience, then they move into what I am calling Third-Tube: people-made, simple-in-form, complex in thought, media about the material of daily life that is not beholden to corporate culture and products. This stuff is all over YouTube, and perhaps my next move is to be more thoughtful about what sits in Third-Tube.
I’ve recently come across the research of AnthroVlog on YouTube. Her site “examines how people use digital technologies such as video, blogs, and video sharing sites such as YouTube. We hope to take what we learn to consider new design of online environments and educational programs.For more information see: http://groups.sims.berkeley.edu/digitalyouth.”
Then there’s the Anthropology class at Kansas State that is thinking about YouTube through questions of culture, communication and community.
And AMorrow has been making comprehensive and useful lists of video that functions as art, entertainment, history, social commentary, etc.
Thanks to ZigZigger (Michael Newman) who I met in the hallway at SCMS and who kindly explained the linking function to me.