Riding atop condoms as well as the censor.

Marjorie Heins and her permissive knowledge of children. Books speak.

Jim on the beach. Video Remains.

Douglas Crimp leads another neon speak-out.

Alex speaks to Jim on the beach on the wall ...

... caught in her Video Remains.

Felix Gonzalez Torres, As installed for The Museum of Modern Art, New York "Projects 34: Felix Gonzalez-Torres," May 16 - June 30, 1992, in 24 locations throughout New York City and "Untitled (Last Letter)," 1991Felix Gonzalez-Torres, C-print jigsaw puzzle in plastic bag, 7.5" x 9.5" Courtesy of the estate of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. He died of AIDS in 1996. From Visual AIDS.

Ultra Red, Untitled (for six voices), 2008, from the Make Art/Stop AIDS show. They demonstrate the current terms of our play with the censor.

Boys from Mpowerment, from Video Remains. Christmas present is now past.

Ghost Jim dances with Christmas past.

Video Jim dreams in pixels.

Jim is snow.

Period 2: Head in the sand

“There is a new kind of indifference…that has been called the normalization of AIDS… how often do we hear the list recited—poverty, crime, drugs, homelessness, and AIDS. AIDS is no longer an emergency. It’s merely a permanent disaster.” —Douglas Crimp[11] [open endnotes in new window]

The head in the sand period of AIDS art was defined by two different relationships to the censor: we became her or we overrode her. By the mid-90s, AIDS activism had largely succeeded in naming the unsaid, bringing the unheard to the table; we took some real control of the discourse of AIDS, and so, began to work closely with or even manage or speak through its institutions. We overrode the censor. There are safer-sex PSAs from Brazil in this show that are a strong example of work from period two.

This is AIDS video that is state-sanctioned, informed by a decade of AIDS activist information, and demonstrating AIDS as a global phenomenon in a transnational culture informed by, but not the same as AIDS in the U.S.

At carnivale a hot man and sizzling woman meet in a sea of revelers. He touches her thigh, exposed, she’s wearing a very short skirt. Eyes meet. Luscious smiles. “Do you have a condom,” she asks. Everything stops. The revelers stare. The party is over… He pulls one from his pocket! “Safe Sex is really sweet.” These PSAs undo censoriousness and think past stale taboos in the name of national public health. The Brazilian National Health Department accepted an AIDS activist logic that sexual censorship doesn’t save people but merely entrenches the dreams and fears of the censors. Writes Marjorie Heins in her book, Not in Front of the Children, on the history censorship enacted in the name of children:

“Censorship inevitably falls victim to highly subjective, discretionary decision making that reflects the ideological and personal predilections of the censors and classifiers.”[12]

Officials in Brazil decided to speak openly to a complex nation where hot casual sex, and rights to healthcare, dance along beside mothers telling their daughters, “It’s not just because you might get pregnant” and sons telling their fathers to use condoms so they “don’t bring AIDS home” to their wives.

My practices during this period evidence the other response to the censor. ACT UP slowed, my best friend died, I stopped making AIDS video, as did my cohort and just about everyone else in the US for that matter. We silenced ourselves in grief, loneliness, and cynicism. Sure we might rule the space of words and ideas, but in the end our cultural capital couldn’t control death. We needed no censor, because we were quieted as we indulged our own repressive memories. In a recent piece called, “The Failures of the Flesh and the Revival of AIDS Activism,” I attempt to think through the self-censoring of this second, Head in the Sand, period. I wrote:

The death of the flesh trumps the life of the image.”

I created this sentence to express several linked failures: Jim’s failure to survive AIDS; my failure to represent him after he ceased; his failure to represent himself even as he lived; our movement’s (AIDS activism) failure to figure flesh.

But please look at, contemplate, go back to that first sentence.

There are several lessons in its failures. We see two oxymorons hinging upon, caught in the balance between, in a skirmish for political efficacy. Did representation ever supercede the needs of the body?

This AIDS activism set forth as credo, as art-and-analysis-battle-cry. The first successful postmodern political movement, we believed, as Douglas Crimp so famously put forth in his 1988 seminal collection, AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism, that

“AIDS does not exist apart from the practices that conceptualize it, represent it, and respond to it. We know AIDS only in and through these practices.”

And in many ways we were right; and in several ways we were effective.

We engaged in activist practices of naming, visibility, imaging, and speaking.

Silence equals death; language means life. PWA instead of AIDS victim.

Self-representation to counter mis-representation.

I joined the fray, producing quite a few activist AIDS videos, and then writing a book on this micro-cultural production and politics. I was missionary in my zeal to expose and understand what movement and majesty could be built from the making and watching of images. We all were; we understood our movement, and its art, as a success.

But please scrutinize, worry, return to my malfunctioning first phrase. Here I express a battle between dead flesh and live image, and in this later version of the AIDS activist mantra it is finished tissue that prevails.

This is a saddest of endings for AIDS activism: death beats life; flesh trounces image. Now I look back in failure, and think we were wrong. There is so much that words and images can’t do, didn’t do. So much that falls outside the cold copy of the warm thing, the smart reflection of stupid skin.

In the winter of 1993, Jim and I decided to take a trip to Florida. I had moved from New York City to my first job, and we were seeing very little of each other. In the meantime, Jim had become extremely depressed about his diagnosis, although as far as we knew there was nothing physically wrong with him.

This was also the peak of Jim’s mania, a stage that lasted for about six months until he was diagnosed with KS in his lungs and had something real upon which to focus his terror. His was a shocking and terrifying performance of illness, complete with all-night jags of walking down freezing New York City streets without shoes, evenings when he would cut off one side of his hair with children’s scissors and call it a cure, or days when he would only speak in mean-spirited couplets. During this period, he’d stay in for days cutting up pictures of friends, and reviews of his plays, taping them together in horrific collages of chopped heads, grafted bodies, and strange headlines, matched with endlessly duplicated images of his buffed male-model’s body. Evil incantations were written across these hodgepodges: I HATE YOU, I HATE YOU.

Perhaps AIDS dementia, or a side effect of AZT, this horrid behavior was also a carefully crafted version of what he believed illness to look and sound like, a sad representation of a sickly but not sick state. He was mimicking mannerisms of derangement from the aged homeless population he had befriended in South Beach.

I arrived in Florida late one night and he picked me up at the airport. He had been there for a couple of days, getting the place ready for me, preparing for our video project, and he was tan and wearing beach attire. But all was not sunny. On our walk through the terminal, he kept inching to the empty waiting areas, opening and closing the newspaper bag always slung over his shoulder and secretly dabbling in the bottles and crusted envelopes he had stored there.

“What are you doing?” I finally had to ask.

“Taking my medication.” This, as he rubbed Vaseline into his hands, chewed on antiseptic lozenges, or ate a handful of baby aspirin.

Somehow he had rented a huge van instead of a car, and we drove from the airport in a nervous thrust of missed exits, near collisions, and his constant chatter about the displaced elderly, this followed by even less typical moments of silence.

He took me to a welfare hotel on South Beach where there were roaches everywhere. He spent the night, roving from bathtub to bed to lobby, whimpering with pain—his throat hurt and he was already plagued by diarrhea—and applying strange over-the-counter remedies to his throat, skin, and lips. Balms for the barmy. Potions. Salves of disrepute.

The next day we went to the beach and I brought my VHS camcorder so that we could at last work on the project he had been desperately anticipating over the last several weeks. He had refused to tell me the details about our opus until my arrival, saving the big news until we could speak in person. It appeared that by staying up nights on end and speaking to many of the elderly locals, all the while taking notes and mulling through the connections, he had come up with what could quite possibly be a solution to both the AIDS crisis and the displacement of elderly Jews from their South Beach apartments. This is what I would capture on tape.

We sat on the beach and I turned my camera upon him. He still looked gorgeous: blue-eyed, tan, body chiseled, unsightly hair efficiently plucked and Naired away. Then he talked. For an hour I taped him in real time as he rambled, showed off, often gesticulating broadly, playing the diva, living the swan song, relaying the story of his life in freaky fragments. He moved himself to tears. He was enacting the preamble to his death scene. With his still alive flesh he badly performed an image of death and I taped it all.

So please inspect, pick at the scabs of, embellish that sickly opening sentence:

“The death of the flesh trumps the life of the image.”

Jim’s live flesh overwhelmed his death play, but not for long. He went on to get really sick. Really fast. Bloated. Serious pain. Engorged organs. Dead flesh or live image? The words are all wrong, like I said before. Neither of these pairings exist except as yearnings; both are mutually-exclusive phrases that attempt to communicate my thirst for permanence and place, for his trace.

We long for the lasting of the material, sensual, daily good. We fight to secure its relevance. I want the feel of his skin, the vividness of his wit, the very beingness which is his alone. With video I battled the forces of all who wouldn’t listen, who couldn’t empathize, who wouldn’t know him through their homophobic dread. With video I fought to hold him and hold onto him. Losing battles. Crusades lost to biology and technology as much as indifference.

The death of the flesh trumps the life of the image…

Of course we knew that then. Our postmodern rhetoric was largely a tool to embolden, encourage, empower. It let us do things, make things, create change. It worked well for politics and for art. That is until the flesh began to speak, louder and more compelling than the images we made: rotting, putrid, diseased, dead. We changed meanings but we didn’t save lives. The bodies around us failed and our representations failed these bodies. It seemed hard to stay the course.”[13] Hence:

Period three: Heavy hearts in our hands.

Describing the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, David Meyer marks

“a move away from activist instrumentality and toward more allusive and ambiguous interventions in the epidemic.”[14]

In the 2000s, what I am calling period three, Heavy Hearts in our Hands, two significant changes occur: cocktails of AIDS drugs are introduced that allow AIDS to be experienced and understood (by the lucky with access to these meds) as a livable if serious condition, and AIDS activism becomes sanctified. While period two was defined by the odd coupling of our successful institutionalization and paralyzing despair, period three is a time for healing and history. Those of us who lived came up from the sand, and demand, and are sometimes asked (as is true here), to remember AIDS, AIDS art, AIDS activism, and its dead. Many of us are trotted out, across the cultural/academic landscape, to mark what AIDS had been.

I’ll be blunt: speaking or making video in this third period in AIDS video history is really hard. 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 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?

The mixed media, Ultra Red piece, Untitled (for six voices), 2008, from the Make Art/Stop AIDS show tries out this tough dance, demonstrating the terms of our current play with the censor. Representing past our movement’s period of self-censoring, here we see a return to testimony about the crisis. But now we speak partially, rythmically, and performatively. Unlike the eloquent narrative in long-form, relayed with gentle persuasion by Tim Rhoades, performing his own story and that of his lost love, the testimony of our time is fractured, shortened, repeated, and passed on as communal acts of meditation and quotation.

In six white boxes, each presented as a large video monitor, we see diverse performers, seated at uniform tables, reciting this litany from the following script. As they speak, their competing voices creating a musical, if discordant, sound in the room, they are taped performing repetitive and choreographed arm gestures reminiscent of Rhoades, yet more contained by their white box and circumscribed by the ever multiplying losses of life, fighting words, moving images:

SCRIPT FOR Untitled (for six voices)

1. "AIDS [short pause] where is your rage? [pause]"
— Statement by PJ Gouldmann at The Baltimore Museum of Art in Baltimore, Maryland on Saturday, 16 April 2005.

2. "[Breath] And ... I ... was [long pause] just incredibly [pause] overwhelmed with the spirit of activism in the room"
—Statement by Patricia Navarro at the Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, California on Thursday, 5 May 2005.

3. "And this question frustrates me to no end [pause] [breath]"
—Statement by Nicole Neve at the Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff, Alberta on Thursday, 23 June 2005.

4. "I'm sorry to have to tell you this [breath]"
—Statement by Terri Baltimore at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Wednesday, 30 November 2005.

5. "But every time I'm with a man I always worry [pause]"
—Statement by an unidentified speaker #1 at the VAV Gallery, Concordia University in Montreal, Québec on Tuesday, 4 April 2006.

6. "I'm not pissed off or anything [short pause] it obviously still affects my life . . ."
—Statement by an unidentified speaker via audio tape provided by Josh Gumiela at the Student Health Center, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois on Friday, 14 April 2006.

7. "And what I discovered [pause] was appalling [long pause]"
—Statement by Zoe Dodd at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Ontario on Wednesday, 9 August 2006.[15]

From period three, we see another plea against the censor, we hear the insistence to speak. But Ultra-Red has dispersed and unrooted individual’s language (like Sharon’s or Jim’s, anchored to their specific bodies and caught in their unique time and place). We’ve lost the narrative, as well as any hold on place, time, or person. The mark is on repetition, fracture, and live (video) bodies substituting for the dead and the missing. This is how I talk today, too: stuttering, wistful, repetitive, multiple. This is how we represent: mixing time and place; individual testimony mixed with the words of others. Figuring the lost.

I will begin to conclude with this shared belief from all three periods: there are consequences to how we make video, what we say, how we speak. For my third and final censorship story, I want to talk about the experiences of young gay men of color in Los Angeles. I have been told that half of this population is HIV positive in this city today. What is the legacy of the three periods of AIDS video on these children? How do they know AIDS through the stories of our ancient activism, our later silence, our partial speech, and the Fowler Museum’s censorship of the representation of an older gay man of color? In my recent AIDS video, “Video Remains” (2005), my first attempt to speak about AIDS after a decade of silence, my entry into period three, I too, fragment voices, mix times, and highlight performance. I take the haunted images of Jim on the beach, described earlier in my writing on failure, and mix them with interviews with young gay men of color from an AIDS education group, called MPowerment, sponsored by AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).

In my video, the working-class and poor, teenage, gay youth of color—the children—in Mpowerment tell us: “I’d kill myself if I was HIV positive,” “people wouldn’t treat you right. You know, they’d think you were a faggot.” We once spoke loud and clear about self-love, and a movement-wide empowerment, but these boys did not hear us, they weren’t born yet. Wojnarovicz wrote to these boys from the past through the blockade of the censor. He imagined his words might change the future:

“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.”

Is it possible to be heard across generation, especially considering how AIDS and its representations are always changing? While these children are the rightful heirs to the art of ACTUP, David Wojnarowicz, my friends Sharon and Jim, Tracy Rhoades, Ultra-Red, and the countless artists drawn to video to speak and show what the most endangered know, even if it is illicit, and because it would otherwise be censored, we don’t talk like they do. These children, as well as their peers who might deny them their agency, need to see the work of Brentan Maart because, according to Marjorie Heins,

“they need access to information and ideas precisely because they are in the process of becoming functioning members of society and cannot really do so if they are kept in ideological blinders until they are 18.”[16]

Yes, the censor is to blame, but so are the rest of us. The video that serves me may not be right for that boy or those boys. We are each caught in a dance, but the dance and the dream change, and only one of our partners is the censor, for we must also learn to dance with each other outside her cruel if inspiring gaze. As the crisis continues over years, across continents and time, and through the many periods of our lives and art movements, we dance with our past, and those we loved, but we must also dream and dance for the future, as well as with the bodies that live in the here and now. What serves today’s children best? We must be bold, inventive, adaptive and introspective. Writes Justice Robert H Jackson in a landmark art censorship case,

“Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.”[17]

Head in the sand, heart in our hands, some boys are alive, but threatened, and new practices, new dances, and new partners must be dreamed in response.

Go to notes page

To topPrint versionJC 52 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.