copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006
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: 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. 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.)
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.
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.
Antoinette: The video itself serves as an object lesson in how all forms of knowledge are vulnerable to the passage of time – knowledge about individuals, political strategies and of course, evidence like the kind that Video Remains attempts to preserve. Would you like to comment on the video medium and its message about the fragility of history? Or did you intend to derive something more utopian from this project?
Alex: Individuals, evidence, videotape — the stuff of history, the hoarded fragments that permit us to see and know the past — are fragile, ever disintegrating, easy to lose and forget. Mostly they gather dust. My videotape of Jim on the beach, which makes up the body of Video Remains, itself has a shelf-life of twenty-five years. Then the pixels begin to unmoor from the tape that holds them, floating away like the dust bunnies that take on a central metaphoric place in the tape. Dust bunnies are what my hair stylist Michael believes hold the memories of what happened in a room, only to drift away, leaving illegible traces on our hands and in the atmosphere.
Not only temporary, these artifacts are also lifeless without a desiring interlocutor, a historian, a videomaker, who seeks them out and reanimates them with her passion, making use of them in her present towards a future-oriented project. In the tape’s beginning, Jim talks about how his aunt stores his family’s history by collecting photos and putting them into boxes. But he say this is just “a catalogue.” He hopes (but never gets) to interview her — while I interviewed (and failed) him on a hot Miami day — so as to bring her boxes of facts to life. My video is a technologically mediated and personally motivated project of world- and self-changing. We keep afloat relations between history and politics by recording and sharing stories.
But this is still not enough for politics. The loving interlocutor needs more than evidence and her own passion to make real change. She needs a desiring and acting community. In Video Remains, that community is also dust. It was an AIDS activist community that came and went, but is still caught on the tapes we made. The (video) evidence demonstrates that the AIDS activist (video) community is history. Many of those who were captured on tape, like Jim, have died. But some of the individuals who constituted this community remain, like the friends I interview, friends to whom I may not have spoken in years.
In Video Remains these interviews interrupt Jim as he drones on in real time. In recorded phone conversations, I talk to a lost and re-found community of activists. The audiotaped sounds of us remembering and analyzing momentarily drown out the words but not the visuals of Jim’s interview. Through new conversations about this old subject, my living friends and I interact. Suddenly we are not isolated and despondent. We stop punishing ourselves for the loss of people and time, stuck in and not making use of this past. In these interviews we locate and re-name our shared passion. Our words ring with some feel of community: shared enthusiasms, real empathy, long-cherished beliefs and common memories.
And in so doing, I become as vulnerable as my tape stock. It's not simply because I show myself, but because in times like ours, I cannot know if this desiring community might last, might be (re)constituted through video production and reception. And I am reminded that video actions (of production and reception) are something but not everything, and certainly never enough. Community must be sustained by tangible institutions, real-world structures, places and activities, not just by feelings and memories.
Antoinette: The question you raise of audience is a really important one, and it’s one that feminist history has tended to ignore at its peril. Our exchanges here have underscored the power of audience – of desiring interlocutors – for me in ways that help me think through the limits of a certain form of feminist theoretical practice. This is not to dismiss theory per se, because as Paula Treichler says, we need theory even and especially in the midst of an epidemic. Yet to discuss audience gets at the very real questions of production and consumption that are at the heart of modern politics – history-writing among them – in the contemporary moment.
Antoinette: How do the lessons of queer “love and militancy,” which Jim’s life exemplified and which Video Remains preserves, work at this historical moment? Now AIDS campaigns are less visible in the U.S., even as the “problem” of AIDS has become internationalized, especially with respect to the visibility of the African situation in the West.
Alex: In its 1980s heyday, AIDS politics were understood as those of visibility and naming. Our mantra was Silence = Death, and we responded by making public our most private knowledge, loves, and lives. We caught our desire, action and analysis on videotape and shared it widely. Much was accomplished from these public traces of our knowledge and bodies.
But this visibility did not ensure life. Jim died although he tried valiantly to make meaning of who he was outside of and because of AIDS. He remains today only as pixels, not as desiring flesh. For Jim, his Visibility = Death-of-Sorts: death of the body but not its stories, nor its hold on me. What is to be learned from this chilling loss of life, despite representation, from this warming up of the present through cold data?
Equations of visibility cannot be separated from other forces that frame them. Seeing something, in and of itself, ensures neither understanding nor productive politics. We see AIDS in Africa all the time, but this is often seen wrongly. Framing, control, context are everything. Who sees, what is said, who wants to know? When I see AIDS through loss and love, this is entirely different from mainstream representations of the past or present of AIDS that show AIDs through distance, judgment, difference.
And now that U.S. AIDS activists do not fight for visibility, now that AIDS (in the U.S.) goes largely unseen, and unnamed, returning to that private, apolitical, ahistorical place from which it emerged, the disease nevertheless remains with us. But where does AIDS history and politics go when we are not making it seen or heard? Back into the drawers, and boxes, and archives, left fermenting in our heads as memories, or in tapes we play for ourselves alone, gathering dust, waiting for a loving interlocutor with her kiss of life to re-awaken memories and imagine communities.
Invisibility is the silence not of death but of history and melancholia: unproductive and unattached. In Video Remains, I engage in collective remembering (with my friends, my hair stylist, young gays and lesbians embarking upon sexuality, and with my anticipated audience). My goal is to name and make visible our losses and disappointments, and for us to understand the inconclusive and indirect links that remain, even so, between what we were, what we are, and what we might be.
Antoinette: Your engagement with the politics of visibility and its limits strikes me as an indictment of a certain naïve but nonetheless powerful and prevalent incarnation of liberal politics. To some degree, social history – the history from below, especially where “minority populations” are concerned – participated in that same fantasy: If they just see that we were here, history will have to change. What’s happened in both domains is that those others – whether PWAs or women, gays and lesbians, African Americans, Latinos – have been recognized, only to be "disappeared" again through incorporation into mainstream apprehensions of the past. I think this also demonstrates a certain historical moment in the trajectory of western liberal politics, one that may be shifting in the wake of two successive Republican administrations. Is this issue of visibility one from which immediate political transformations can result? Or is it the brick that, when pulled out, brings down the whole edifice of the liberal establishment?
Antoinette: Video Remains strikes me as an implicitly feminist history – not just in terms of its subject matter but also in terms of its methodology. Would you care to reflect on that?
Alex: Video Remains practices a feminist history in its reliance upon the oral histories of regular, and often disempowered, people as they really speak, left largely unedited. But your questions help me understand that, just as significantly, the tape enacts feminist practice by co-mingling history and politics through my feelings of desire and love for my evidence of the past and my imagined community of the future. What once existed was mighty good, it might be good again or even better still. The tape sits somewhere between the personal and the political, the past and the present, a liberal identity based on a politics of naming and visibility and a radical politics within the material. There’s room to hold and bind these contradictions in the edited videotape, and in my presence both on tape and as a producer, roles also edited and enfolded therein. Our personal and political relations, and their anticipated but unarticulated demise, are as much the subject of this document as is Jim himself. Thus when I re-work his interview, I make a history and politics from a visible love for one man and for that time, and for the promise that such promise might be felt again.
Antoinette: You also do so, it seems to me, with the conviction that the past and the present are not as separable as History (capital H) has suggested. By re-materializing the historian (in this case, yourself) as a subject in and of history, your feminist history takes aim, in other words, at forms of objectivity and reason that had a hand in disqualifying women and other “others” as subjects of history for centuries. Do you recognize yourself in this interpretation?
Alex: Of course! This is why I make myself and my love recognizable in the video. A practice of engaged self-referentiality — and a visible commitment to subject, self, audience, and our shared, named beliefs — has always been at the heart of my feminist documentary videomaking.
Antoinette: What is the relation of this tape to a memory, to your memories of Jim? In many ways it’s a souvenir – that is to say, a miniature of what was a monumental experience in your life as well as in the lives of the various communities you shared it with. How do you relate to it now, as a very material relic, as an archive?
Alex: My videotaped interview of Jim on the beach, as he was dying of AIDS and attempting to save his life by narrating it onto a (somewhat) permanent platform, is smaller, less complex, than either the actual event or my memory of it. Firstly, videotape cannot capture interiority. The medium is simply a mechanical reproduction of what is audible, visible, and moving before it. Feelings, interpersonal nuances — all that falls outside the frame — are more expansive, uncontainable. For instance, although you do see and hear me, as I have noted already, these images are relatively opaque traces of my experience and emotions. My words here begin to flesh these out. For example, it would be hard to see that while I was loving, I was also furious throughout the experience, blaming Jim for forcing me to go to Miami to participate in his manic enterprise of the performance of memory.
Words on a page are one thing, video images another, photos and memories all related but distinct recording devices. The original videotape becomes a frozen and desperate souvenir, while its current use in Video Remains is a more hopeful, present- and future-focused use of the technology. Video Remains for me is less about Jim in Miami, who has been scrubbed out of the footage anyway through my intense manipulations of it. The project became more about the possibility of new exchanges, memories, trips, projects and people with which I might engage because of the newly edited videotape. While the original tape has some indexical hold on the past, by editing it and screening it as Video Remains, I can actively propel history into the future so as to shape and feel, rather than just describe or reflect, its meanings. I anticipate the same for my audience.
Antoinette: I’m surprised to hear you say that video can’t capture interiority. Obviously we as viewers don’t have access to “the real” Jim or to anything like his inner life, but he is performing for you, for us and for history some species of his interior psychic self, no? And that itself is an object lesson for the present, yes? I’d be curious to hear your reaction to this, especially as it relates to the status of the “indexical trace.”
Alex: Certainly video captures some of Jim’s interiority in that it holds an indexical trace not only of his body in time and space but of his words as he struggles to explain himself. And, yes, video (like all media) can be used “artistically” or symbolically or formally to represent interiority. However, in Video Remains I have carefully stuck to a style both simple and ubiquitous — the long-take interview — to disavow “artier” methods and favor a more straightforward, indexical, use of video as both generator of and receptacle for raw evidence. Within that evidence, there are certainly traces of emotion, feeling, and interaction, but these are in the eye of the beholder, created through reception and projection, and as contextual and flexible as memory and desire.
Antoinette: It’s hard not to be struck by the poetics of remembrance in Video Remains, as evidenced in the variety of speech we see and hear: Jim, you, Alisa, Juanita, Sarah, Ellen (and, not least, that guy cutting your hair, Michael). It’s easy enough to understand how and why AIDS lends itself to a certain elegiac strain. But can you say more about what you think the relation is between poetry, history and the political struggles of a movement like the one documented here?
Alex: Poetry is an explicit theme of the video — poems are spoken repeatedly by Jim, Enzo (one of the youth participants in the AIDS group), Essex Hemphill and Ray Navarro (both brilliant gay male artists and activists of color who died of AIDS in the early 90s). In addition, I have learned through this conversation that poetry best evokes the feminist system where memory and feeling can be aligned. Poetry allows for the expression of all that falls outside the frame, or that is captured there only obliquely. History is only stuff of the past until an engaged interlocutor dares to mix it with poetry and make it public. In this, she has produced feminist politics. From this, she may anticipate something better.
Antoinette: While this exchange has led you perhaps to a more nuanced understanding of the possibilities of History, for me it has pushed me further in an agnostic position with respect to History’s power to effect change. I recognize that it remains an important technology, but I am more than ever convinced that its role is so bound up within certain historically specific codes and forms (a post-Enlightenment liberal regime of incorporation and containment among those) that I am not sure it isn’t simply part of the problem of radical politics, rather than a solution.
Alex: I made Video Remains from a videotape that records some of the losses of my past: a day, a relationship, a friend. It is best suited for people, like me, who remember but are not sure how this could be anything but debilitating and private. What is a productive way to make our grief and anger about the past of AIDS public, visible, and communal? Certainly we can only make from these feelings a feminist politics if at the same time we make community. We need a collective that is committed to making change in mood, meaning, and material. For it is unclear whether a community can be sustained by shared grief alone. Thus, my emphasis on feelings is never a call for affect outside of history, representation and politics.
Given that many do not share these feelings (and their related histories and politics), it is also unclear how or if Video Remains can be used by the generations of Americans who follow us, people who did not experience AIDS as a public and fatal epidemic. The strategies we used to make new meanings of AIDS cannot be the strategies in another time. Yet our awareness and analysis of the past of AIDS — of what was done well and not so well — is vital for a movement today. We are its living history.
Certainly the tape will speak generically to younger audiences about the themes of this conversation — love, loss, history, videotape, memory, poetry — but I cannot see these themes without also reflecting upon their relations to AIDS, and somehow, I imagine that younger audiences can. I imagine that with the help a loving interlocutor, a teacher, younger viewers might be able to make the past of AIDS relevant. She could work with them to make from my past her own evidence towards creating a different AIDS motivated by a passionate future-oriented goal of life- and world-changing.
Our conversation helps me name the place of history within my politics and art practice: one that is neither sanctified nor isolated. Rather, history must be applied and intermixed with other ways of knowing and feeling to create the possibility of a grounded flight toward a better future.
1. This exchange took place November 21, 2005. As is always the case with projects of this sort, there are, in fact, many exchanges that allowed this particular exchange with Antoinette Burton to come into print. Eve Oishi and Laura Hyun Yi Kang from my reading group, the LA Women's Group for the Collaborative Study of Race and Gender in Culture, read this manuscript carefully, as did Antoinette’s colleague, Shefali Chandra. Enid Baxter Blader, my video editor, created the lovely framegrabs from Video Remains that interplay with these words. It’s been great fun, and intellectually and creatively challenging to work images into this text, and I am grateful to the editors of Jump Cut for this opportunity. My graduate assistant, Danica Amstadt, did internet research to find the images that appear at the conclusion of this piece, anticipating a media activist AIDS future, and she researched and compiled the links that we have included.
I have also discussed my video, and subsequent writing about it, with colleagues and friends including David Roman and Lucas Hildebrand (both of whom I worked with on another article about Video Remains, see citation in footnote 4). Herman Bennett created the symposium on the Archive at Rutgers University in the Spring of 2005 where Antoinette and I first engaged in dialogue about these themes in conversation with many other colleagues. Finally, I thank Antoinette for an opportunity that all artists crave, the chance for intelligent and challenging conversation about one’s own work with a loving and committed interlocutor.
2. Thanks to Shefali Chandra for this clarification.
3. This archival project was organized by AIDS activist and experimental filmmaker, Jim Hubbard. More on the Royal S. Marks AIDS Activist Video Collection at the New York Public Library can be found at: http://www.artistswithaids.org/artforms/video.
Hubbard is also participating, with Sarah Schulman, in a similar project dedicated to archiving the history of ACT UP: see actuporalhistory.org. The Estates Project for Artists with AIDS is another such archival arts endeavor. See: www.artistswithaids.org.
4. See my “Video Remains: Nostalgia, Technology, and Queer Archive Activism,”in the first of a two-volume edition, "Art Works: A Special issue of GLQ," coedited by Richard Meyer and David Román, Gay Literary Quarterly 12:2 (Spring 2006). There is some repetition of the ideas expressed in that piece here, as Antoinette was first introduced to the video when I deliverad a version of that writing as a conference talk. However, Antoinette’s questions in this exchange take me in directions I had not anticipated in the earlier writing I had done about Video Remains.
5. See my “No Woman is an Object: Realizing the Feminist Collaborative Video,” camera obscura 54 (2003): 71-98.
6. Again, these ideas come from Shefali Chandra.