This #100hardtruths was shared with me by my friend, the media artist and activist who creates magical experiences, Quito Zeigler, from their longer rumination, “Elegy from a Queendom that Never Became,” about a gallery of photographs culled from the Visual AIDS artists’ registry.

untitled (Melissa Xtravaganza), 1992, Luna Luis Ortiz, gelatin silver print, 20×16

“Why can’t ghosts tell stories? All of these images were taken before 2000 and tap into the magic and creativity of queer life at the time.

Quentin Crisp, 1997, TRET Tierney, Polaroid pictures, 11×8.5

Coming of age in the early 90s, it never occurred to me that queerness was a sexy, available community or lifestyle. I was taught that to be gay meant dying of AIDS. Considering the sex-positive radical queertopia I now reside in as an adult, that death threat may actually have held some truth.

Who DO we want to be when we grow up? Who did THEY want to be? If they hadn’t been decimated by the plague, would we, their descendants, be different, more humble? Did we inherit their angry vagabond spirits when they left this earth just as we were arriving? And if so, how can we honor their lives and their deaths, so future generations can just keep exploring?

untitled , 1985, Tim Greathouse, gelatin silver print , 7×5,

The problem with images is that they don’t have a voice. I can see the makeup and shy confidence, feel the awkwardness and exhilaration. But I want more: I want to hear the stories, and to learn from the wisdom they were able to accumulate.

Instead I can only just look, and wonder.”

The Kiss from Ginger Heaven, NYC, 1993, Jorge Veras

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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.

 

Visual AIDS: What will be the benefits of Queer Archive Activism? (Specifically I am hoping you can comment on the benefits for those who made video and film art in early response to HIV/AIDS, and those who are recontexualizing it now. And of course, generally what are the benefits.)

The benefits to our nostalgic return are threefold:

1)  it fosters our own public and interactive remembering, “healing” (although this is not something I am seeking, personally: I don’t really want to heal, I’d rather stay angry or at least contemplative), and interaction.

Read the rest of the second part of this two-part interview on Visual AIDS.