JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Jim on the beach in Miami, using a towel as a Carmen Miranda headdress, 1993.

Michael Anthony tells stories about the drag queen, Alexandra, as he cuts Alex(andra)’s hair at Rudy’s Barbershop in Silverlake, 2004. That Alexandra was Michael’s voice instructor and dear friend who died of AIDS in the mid-80s.

Participant in APLA’s Mpowerment Program dedicated to reducing the risk of HIV infection among young gay, bisexual and questioning youth by providing culturally and linguistically appropriate risk reduction education, support and activities.

Alex, with mic, and Jim, behind her, enter their Attorney Street apartment, from an earlier video project in NYC, 1990.

Fast Trip Long Drop (Gregg Bordowitz, 1995) shows a late-80s ACTUP demonstration. As Alez talks on the phone with fellow AIDS video activist, Alisa Lebow, Lebow is haunted by Bordowitz' activist scenes as they shift with time to become relics of the many who died after participating and being recorded in such actions.

Over images of Jim at the beach, the sound track plays Alex and her friends on the phone a decade later. A title indicates this source of aural interference.

A still showing Marlon Riggs in his Tongues Untied (1989) interrupts Jim's image as Alisa and Alex discuss Riggs' tape’s impact.

Image of a kiss-in from Women and AIDS (Juhasz and Carlomusto, 1988) takes over the frame as Jim remembers how hard it was to see the video at its first screening — at a lesbian bar, The Cubby Hole.

Juanita Mohammed’s Caring Sequences (1990, for GMHC’s Living with AIDS Show) shows gay Dads and their adopted, HIV-positive sons. Juanita, another AIDS activist on the phone, says that seeing video images of people who have died helps those who live on.

 

Feminist history making and Video Remains

by Alexandra Juhasz
in exchange with Antoinette Burton

Synopsis: Video Remains 

In 1992, James Lamb, an off-Broadway actor, requested that his best friend, Alex Juhasz, videotape him. He was dying and wanted to explain his life; he wanted to be remembered. He was also probably suffering from AIDS dementia, so the interview is part rant, part performance piece, part eulogy. After he died in 1993, the 55-minute tape sat on her shelf. What was to be done with this video legacy?

In 2004, Alex resurrected the tape to make an experimental documentary, Video Remains (55 min experimental documentary, 2005). Here, Jim's interview plays in real-time, to be periodically interrupted by a host of present-day voices of interviewees who, like Jim, reflect upon AIDS, death, activism, and video. Alex lets these interviews — with four fellow female AIDS video activists from the 80s and 90s, her hair stylist, and a group of gay youth of color — intrude upon the earlier video document of Jim. In the interplay of old and new footage of old and new AIDS, current-day questions are raised: Do the massive AIDS deaths and activism of the 1980s affect us today? What remains from that remarkable and gruesome period? Do we learn from the dead, from the past, and does video help?

AIDS activism has been said to be the first truly postmodern social justice movement because of its radically successful use of the media. Juhasz was one of the movement's contributing video activists during the 1980s and 1990s. Here she burrows into her archive of haunted images to find video remains that create a contemplative, loving memorial to one gay man lost to AIDS, and to make a formal and existential inquiry into what might possibly endure in the face of loss. Video Remains marks what changes and lasts after death, across time, and because of videotape.

Feminist history making

Antoinette[1]: I was drawn to Alex Juhasz’ Video Remains because of its evocations and provocations about history — as both a political practice and as a means of preserving knowledge about the past. As a feminist historian, I was particularly interested in the ways Alex framed Jim and the AIDS movement of the 1980s. She sees these not merely as objects of memory but as active subjects in a story about the need to commemorate in ways that draw directly on community practices of that period. I wanted to hear Alex talk about the video as a feminist history in part to get clearer in my own mind what that project's radical possibilities are, as well as to better understand its equally radical limits in the world. What follows is an exchange that tracks some of those questions. It's an attempt to appreciate the kind of archiving that video and videographers have the power to enact in and for “history.”

Alex: My remarks about Video Remains are significantly shaped by frameworks that are introduced by Antoinette’s first and last questions. She prompts me to think in ways I would otherwise have not about history and politics' interdependence, and the significant role of context for making meaning with video. By discussing my video in terms of Antoinette’s design, specifically her emphasis on the discipline of history, I see Video Remains from a new perspective, as a kind of feminist history making: a practice that helps align the poetry, evidence, passion, and politics of AIDS.

I find feelings of nostalgia and love central to my project, but for a feminist-pedagogic rather than melodramatic function. In this tape, I work to make affect guide understanding rather than suppress it.[2] I hope that feminist history politics can be guided by, but are not reducible to the feelings I have towards both my subject matter from the past — Jim, AIDS activism, spent videotape — and a possible future produced from love of those lost but re-found subjects. This linking of past and future, through the mediation of an artist/ historian striving for change in the name of love is one sort of “radical limit” for history. Our exchange is another. From this, I hope to better understand feminist history as well as my own videotape, so that committed audiences can use both for productive AIDS politics and pedagogies.

Politics and history

Antoinette: Video Remains is a meditation on the creative tension between politics and history – if we define those in part as struggles over meaning and as objects of desire. How do you think the AIDS crisis has mediated that relation in the last twenty years, and what does that tell us about the limits and possibilities of both politics and history?

Alex: Yes, AIDS politics were primarily about changing its meanings. At this we thought we had succeeded. We thought we'd grabbed hold of systems of representation and used them ourselves to name, analyze, and make instructive links to history so as to make AIDS with images of our own design. While at first look AIDS politics seemed uniquely independent from history, in that AIDS had no history, abruptly emerging into our consciousness in the mid-80s, we insisted upon filling in the lineage behind its seeming virgin-birth. We did this through histories of how racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty and xenophobia create disease and through analyses that link ideology and biology by insisting that the body does not function outside of discourse and culture.

In my book, AIDS TV (1995), I looked to the countless videotapes produced outside mainstream media that masterfully struggled with words and images in the name of change. The future of AIDS wouldn’t be like the early years of its history! We made videos and graphics, renamed ourselves PWAs (People with AIDS), founded a movement on words we coined, and educated our communities about strategies of protest, safer sex and cultural analysis.

But that was the 80s. By the beginning of the 1990s, many, many activists had died, and the rest of us were tired and discouraged. In 1992 I videotaped my best friend Jim on the beach as he tried to account for his life as he was dying of AIDS. I added this evidence to countless other video recordings which contribute to what might be the first persistently recorded social justice movement. (A great many of these tapes are now archived in the New York Public Library.)[3]

But Jim died the following year, and that tape sat on my shelf for twelve years: video evidence, yes, but of what? His AIDS-related dementia, the timbre of his voice, the outline and color of his body, the ways he performed his life? In my piece, I re-animate this ambiguous evidence to ask what remains: of that man, that movement. What traces of history and politics are embedded in video archives. And what happens when we edit them into and with the fabric and video of the present? In writing elsewhere about Video Remains, I have talked about this in greater detail by describing a Queer Archive Activism: a practice that adds love and hope to time and technology.[4]

In Video Remains, my friend and fellow AIDS video activist, Alisa Lebow is less hopeful. She considers the painful lessons that have become, for her, a dominant but unintended chord in Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied (1990), one of the classic AIDS videos from that earlier time. As contemporary media/AIDS activism demanded, Riggs and his cast of black gay men did take control of representation to defiantly and mightily proclaim: “Black men loving each other is a revolutionary act.” (That was radical enough to inspire Jesse Helms’ successful bid to have the video censored from a national PBS airing.) But their commanding politics of representation could not forestall other forces: political, biological, economic. Many of these proud, beautiful, articulate, and defiant men — including Riggs — died even as they named their condition in words and images of their choosing.

The fact of their deaths infiltrates our knowledge about AIDS. This desperate and defeatist data also informs new kinds of AIDS art, like Video Remains, which certainly seems less bent upon a politics of naming than on an historicizing and exposing of the desire to name.

Antoinette: Just yesterday I was listening to a program on NPR (Odyssey, produced by Chicago Public Radio) about “the new AIDS crisis” – i.e., a “new” more “virulent” strain in New York that has everyone talking. And given what you say, I am struck by how the conviction persists that discourses about AIDS shape not just the disease but the lives affected by it. Perhaps if confronted with your frank claim — that the meanings we give AIDS don’t stop people from dying — people might pause. But there seems to be a general agreement that meaning-making does make a difference. Why haven't we learned the lessons you think we should, and that Video Remains suggests, about relations between politics and representation, politics and history? What is at stake in romanticizing meaning-making, especially around such a devastating disease?

Alex: Romance seems an apt word for it rings of love. I loved Jim, and that feeling is embedded in our video evidence. Yet most archival materials disavow love as foundation, justification or subject matter. Further, much traditional archival material is motivated by hate or violence. How does love infuse the making of a document, and how does the record of this feeling alter such documentation? In the name of love, in the face of death, people want to act.

Video art can be just such an action, one that can occur outside, alongside, or in the absence of activities organized by mass movements. Like poetry, it allows us to express the depth and unique nature of our feelings. This romance is necessary, life-affirming, and productive but we cannot mistake it for politics.

(Continued: Vulnerability)


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