copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010
to dream and dance with the censor
by Alexandra Juhasz
“Like the censorship of dreams, the censorship of visual art functions not simply to erase but also to enable representations, it generates limits but also reactions to those limits; it imposes silence even as it provokes responses to silence.”
—Richard Meyer [open endnotes in new window]
This is my provoked response to silence. To begin, I describe a piece of art, Factory Crossword Version 4 (2008), that I saw on a wall at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE). I took no notes, so my description comes from the heart. My words prove the lasting hold of vanished images, always to be held in my mind, and now here alive on the page. My words and your reveries are a lasting legacy against silence.
I saw perhaps 15 large-scale photographs in an asymmetrical but grid-like structure networked with lines across a substantial gallery wall. The images were of an abandoned warehouse out there on the edge between the illicit and the familiar. The lines suggested passages I might take through this pictured space. But I also was invited to enter by following the back of a skinny man suggestively clad in leather-bondage garb as he explored the sometimes empty, dripping, and dirty rooms, and as he engaged in sometimes intimate and other times removed interactions with other men, similarly clad. The grey and industrial place felt prohibited: not meant for human habitation, littered with debris and chipping paint. The human interactions felt the same: outside the confines. Here, men were meeting in a place not meant for meeting. Rather, this was a space transformed to address the needs of those who could not do without it. Here, iconographically gay men engaged in social and sexual practices charged by intimacy, vulnerability, and danger. But also familiarity: with this place, each other, and the photographer. Although I have never frequented such a place, I felt comfortable observing it on the wall at LACE, because I am relatively intimate with the lifestyles of gay men, and because the photographer graciously invited me to join him there.
These photographs, by South-African artist, Brenton Maart, a gay man of mixed racial heritage, were commissioned by the Fowler Museum for the MakeArt/Stop AIDS show held at UCLA in 2008. They were subsequently rejected by employees of the Museum, a shocking reverse to the welcome pictured in Maart’s photos. Subsequently extended an invitation to be hung at LACE, I saw them while participating in a panel discussion about their removal from the very show I will discuss in this chapter. Censoring works best when kept a secret; but I will not be silenced, for silence equals death. It says so on the wall of the Make Art/Stop AIDS show. In neon. This now infamous sign by Gran Fury and ACT UP’s (1987) Neon Sign (Silence=Death) from Let the Record Show was remade for this show, moved from shop window in New York to white wall in Los Angeles, where it’s spirit and message were then ungraciously disregarded. I have told you the secret of what was seen and what was lost; now you might choose to dream Maart’s images, keeping them alive. But even so, their vanishing changes this show, how I saw it, what I will say about it, and what its place will be in the history of AIDS art.
Censorship demands an AIDS act; it propels AIDS art. It always has; it still does. Annette Kuhn calls this “the circuit of censorship” and here I will perform the circuit not as series of parties where gay men dance, drink, and hook up, but as another sort of dance through time, one inspired by AIDS videos that spoke strategically to the censor in their own time. I thank the censor for this new framework with which to gaze upon a familiar, tired, and trying history. A sad one. The censor revitalizes me. She teaches me that AIDS video demands censoriousness, dances in response, smirks in disdain, screams in refusal, and misbehaves accordingly. And so will I.
I thank the censor for forcing me to study censorship. In his book Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art, Richard Meyer explains how
“Freud emphasizes the effects of censorship as both repressive and productive.”
Learning of the Fowler’s censorship of Maart’s images felt worse then repression. This was a direct attack on me, my friends, the dead, our history, and the very art movement the museum claimed to support: Silence Equals Death! As days and weeks passed after learning of the loss, I didn’t get less disturbed by time and distance, relaxing into the fact, into their act, saying to myself, “Well, it really is a bold and courageous show, and it’s only one work out of so many.”
No, that’s not how I felt. Instead, I became increasingly angry, mired in a familiar abyss of disavowal, and continually more perplexed: given the many sexually explicit works in the show, why evacuate this innocuous piece? Didn’t they anticipate images of sexuality…gay men’s sexuality? Didn’t they expect transgression? How could this ongoing fear and fantasy about gay men, and queers of color in particular, what Meyer calls “a complex knot of dread and desire” show itself here, today, given our understanding of the silencing of gay men in this particular history, and given the radical designs of this show? And why project this onto children? For, of course, the tired but true rationale for the Museum’s violent act of disappearance was in the name of protecting the innocence of innocents. The predictability of this ritual of avowal and disavowal numbed me. Slowed me down.
How fortuitous, then, that I located a worthy response to this highly scripted dance between righteous gay man and timid straight women on the very wall of their own museum! There spoke a voice from the past, dreaming in his time of a better future sadly not yet arrived. He is no longer able to dance with the censor himself so I perform this function for him. In his 1985 Untitled (One Day This Kid…), David Wojnarowicz scrawls on his childhood photo:
“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, bottles, 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.”
How could they re-enact, re-play this violence, this sacrilege, to that boy, now a dead man, one who they “respect” enough to display in their gallery? How can they enact this violence of silencing on the boys who will come to visit? While censorship is always harmful, the hurt of censorship in relation to AIDS art is formative, primal. This pain is not rational: it’s where we began. I am pulled back to the past, forcefully denied our history and 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 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, 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 could no longer be.
“a contradiction that occurs across the modern of censorship: attempts to restrict or regulate sexually explicit images produce their own theater of sexual acts and imagery, their own fantasies of erotic exchange and transgression.”
I set my stage—enraged, a bit timid, but forced to dance—with love, celebration, anger and mourning for the art and artists that were silenced by censors and/or death. And hence, I enact what we most defiantly know about AIDS art and activism: we may not always have the power of institutions or government or funders on our side (although we often do, more on this later), but we carry the influence of cultural capital, the truth of our experience, and the righteousness of our analysis. I may not be a government institution to be fawned to, and I may not be a child to be protected, but I am a scholar, and an activist, and I learned, through AIDS activism and art, the power of my voice when raised with others who see the world and AIDS as do I. So, here I will speak about the history of AIDS video in a new way, and with thanks to the censor, by telling it as a history of strategic acts against her.
To do so, I will look closely at three video pieces exhibited in the Make Art/Stop AIDS show, as well as some of my own AIDS video and earlier writings about it. I will also relay three censorship stories from my own experience to periodize AIDS activist video history into three acts, three plays with the censor: head on attack, head in the sand, and hearts heavy in our hands. I hope to demonstrate how the changing nature of institutional silencing has insured a variety of strategic responses by video artists. Caught together in our circuit, the censor will ever strive to silence the same things that we are compelled to say: first, our attempts at providing life-saving AIDS education; second, the images of our diverse lived experiences of AIDS; and third, our critiques of the very institutions that disallow our representations and promote our invisibility. Given the omnipresence of the censor, we must ever navigate the extent to which we will be rude, shocking, abrasive, calming, loving, reductive, polite, and transgressive. This, of course, because AIDS mandates that we represent and educate about the oh so complex and controversial issues of sex, sexuality, drugs, activism, poverty, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Perhaps polite in many other areas of our lives, we have no choice but to be explicit, outrageous, critical, and courageous when we represent AIDS…which is to dance and dream with the censor.
Period 1: Head on attack
In 1986, I joined a burgeoning movement of artists and intellectuals responding quickly, outrageously, and as activists, to the gruesome and unexpected lived experiences of our friends and fellow NYC inhabitants: primarily gay men, people of color, and urban poor who were infected by and then dying from an unknown disease to the alarming indifference of the media, government, and scientific establishment. I joined ACT UP, began making AIDS video for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, organized an HIV educational video/support group as my doctoral project, and then wrote a dissertation about it, which would be published by Duke University Press in 1995 as AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Video.
My AIDS video and scholarly practice from this time demonstrates the first stage of AIDS video: the head on attack. We were exuberant, productive, incouragible. We went with our newly available, hand-held video camcorders to the places that we weren’t supposed to show (much as does Brenton Maart, so many years later, breaking new taboos of exposure). These places were not so new to us. We simply showed where we lived (barrios, art scenes, sex clubs, hospital rooms), and we spoke the critiques of American culture that we often expressed to each other. By making this public through video, even as we had been told, warned, trained, to keep it private, we were forced to invent art practices and activist theories. The censor was everywhere and we rioted and represented in return. In the 1990s, for example, Canadian video artist, activist, and theorist, John Greyson organized two compendiums of AIDS video: AIDS Angry Initiative/Defiant Strategies for Deep Dish Television, and Video Against AIDS, for the Video Data Bank that demonstrate the range of our rage. These and other tapes are archived at the Canadian Vtape as well as the Royal S Marks AIDS Activist Video Collection at the NY Public Library. In the introduction to my book, AIDS TV, I describe AIDS activist video as a player and theorist. Take good note of my stage 1 exuberance, it doesn’t last:
“The production and reception of alternative AIDS TV is a form of direct, immediate, product-oriented activism which brings together committed individuals who insist upon being industrious. No wonder so many alternative AIDS videos have been produced. In the fourteen years since AIDS has known a name, there have been hundreds if not thousands of media productions about the crisis, made by videomakers who work outside of commercial television. Since the mid-eighties, these projects have challenged and politicized the meanings of both AIDS and video. It is the fact of alternative AIDS video that is initially so compelling. Try as I may, I can think of no other social issue that has received this magnitude of attention, in such a brief period, using the form of video production.
Thus, my first task in this study must be to attempt to understand why. Why have there been thousands of AIDS videos produced by artists, community centers, public access stations, ACT UP affinity groups and high school students? These videos document AIDS demonstrations, illustrate how to clean intravenous drug works, interview long-time survivors, depict cunnilingus through a dental dam. Why this form of response instead of or in addition to marching, lobbying or leafleting? What does the fact of the vast alternative AIDS media tell us about AIDS, video and politics? And, for those of us, like myself, who are part of the large and diverse community of makers and viewers: why do I make them? why do I watch them? is there a value to all this video?
The coincidental and not so coincidental lining up of the new video technologies (the camcorder, satellite, VCR and low-cost computer editing), with the AIDS crisis and with theories of postmodern identity politics and multiculturalism are the founding conditions upon which the alternative AIDS media is built. The overwhelming needs to counter the (mis)information about AIDS represented on broadcast television, to represent the under-represented experiences of the crisis, to communicate with others who feel equally unheard, coincide with the formation of a new condition of media practice, the low-end, low-tech video production enabled by new technologies. The possibility of media production for those individuals and communities who could never afford or master it occurred just as there was a social crisis of massive proportions and multiple dimensions that begged to be represented in a manner available to the most and the least economically and culturally privileged. The politics of AIDS—the demands for a better quality of life for the people affected by this epidemic—are well matched by the potentials and politics of video.
This said, I continue to answer the question, “why the alternative AIDS media?” by building upon my frame of coinciding conditions with several more conditions specific to the history of AIDS. Because in its earliest and still most well-known manifestation this retro-virus infected the bodies of white gay men in the United States, this community’s material, educational and creative resources serve as a partial inspiration for the astonishing response to AIDS found in video and television. The artists, critics and “cultural elite” whose deaths were met with cultural indifference or blame in a world which had once seemed to be based upon the security of their dominant race, class and gender, responded in forms with which they were already familiar. Then, there is a body of AIDS theory which suggests that this invisible contagion is the logical culmination of the postmodern condition, only manageable in representation, and best managed in pomo’s definitive discourse, television. There is so much AIDS TV because AIDS and television are so similar: discursive, fleeting, all-powerful. Another motivation for this massive media blitz is the lack of a cure for AIDS, making necessary a focus upon preventative education. Since there is no medium which reaches more Americans (literate or not, English speaking or not) than television, it is the most pervasive and persuasive form for this much needed education.
This is what alternative AIDS TV is about: the use of video production to form a local response to AIDS, to articulate a rebuttal to or revision of the mainstream media’s definitions and representations of AIDS, and to form community around a new identity forced into existence by the fact of AIDS. The process of producing alternative AIDS media is a political act that allows people who need to scream with pain or anger, who want to say “I’m here, I count,” who have internalized sorrow and despair, who have vital information to share about drug protocols, coping strategies, or government inaction, to make their opinions public, and to join with others in this act of resistance. The process of viewing alternative AIDS television—lying on a couch at home watching a VCR, sitting at church, or joined with friends and neighbors at a local screening—is always an invitation to join a politicized community of diverse people who are unified, temporarily and for strategic purposes, to speak back to AIDS, to speak back to a government and society that has mishandled this crisis, and to speak out to each other.”
AIDS TV was written from my experiences making a community-based, communally-produced AIDS activist video by and for working-class and poor, urban women of color: We Care: A Video for Careproviders of People Affected by AIDS (The Women’s AIDS Video Enterprise—WAVE, 1989). The process, as well as the products, of this project were a major focus of my doctoral research, which became the book I quote from here. What follows is my attempt to describe a video exercise, a self-portrait, produced by Sharon, one of the participants in WAVE. To know her, and her video, is a first step towards understanding the role of the censor in our stage one video practice:
“Tell me about your mother/sister/daughter,” Sharon’s voice queries.
Images of her daughters, sisters, mother answer back, their black faces etched with familial similarities: “If you want my opinion, I’m very proud of her,” says her daughter.
“But what about AIDS?” Sharon wants to know. “Does she devote too much of herself to AIDS, and doesn’t this make you angry at her?”
“Sure it makes me mad when she’s gone so much. But maybe she doesn’t know that, even so, I understand...”
In her self-portrait, these interviews with her family are intercut with Sharon speaking on the beach. I videotaped her one afternoon as she stood on the rocks looking at the ocean. The crashing waves forced me to stand directly in front of her with the Camcorder. In tight close-up the mic mixed her words harmoniously with the ocean’s steady beat. She speaks of the way the ocean purifies her, washes her clean. AIDS’ toll has been enormous on her, bringing the death of countless friends, and the illness and death of more family members than I often have the will to contemplate. She goes to the beach at the Far Rockaways “to get lost:” to lose herself in the breeze, waves and the roar of airplanes taking off; to momentarily lose her memories, her duties; to get the strength to pick up and do it again.
Sharon’s video is classic stage one: in its power and specificity of voice, speaking forcefully against all that would silence her. Censored until the time of AIDS (by racism, sexism, homophobia and economic disenfranchisement), Sharon demands a voice at this time because she must heal herself and her family. She is compelled to show what has been disallowed to be seen because it is hers. And her video act against the censor introduces my first censorship story. Here’s how I recount it in the book:
“The differing effects of affirmation upon various members of our group provides a telling reminder of our discrepancies in power and privilege. Surely, when We Care does “well” it affects all of us in positive ways, yet only some of the members of the group have resumes where the information that the tape played at The Whitney Museum matter. When a reporter from The Village Voice attended one of our meetings and interviewed everyone afterwards for a story on the WAVE project, we were all excited, proud, nervous—even those of us who didn’t read or care about The Voice. Great, we thought, this is just what we need: public attention, affirmation in a dominant form, we can show our friends, we can show potential funders. When the story took weeks and then months to be written and re-written, and then never ran because of conflict between the writer and her editor, we were reminded of the under side of “real-world” attention: you don’t control it. But more so, it became clear to me that The Voice was not capable of dealing with our kinds of AIDS art production. The Voice did not recognize or respect the tenuous relationship to authority, vulnerability, and expertise felt by these artists: to run the piece would build up authority, to pull the piece was to confirm vulnerability. For the women in WAVE like Sharon—unlike other “artists” who may have more experience with attention, reviews, attention from mainstream institutions—it was a painful, courageous, and distrustful experience to open up to someone from the mass media. When the article didn’t run, everything that we suspected about the dominant culture being uninterested in our story, being manipulative, tricking us, was proven true. The women of WAVE were both hurt and scornful. We gained nothing but pain from this attention from outside where we worked, who we were, what we made. Nevertheless, this experience did not keep us from producing, it simply further entrenched our sense of why our project was unique and deeply important.”
In the Make Art/Stop AIDS show, I believe that the 1990 tape Requiem, by Tracy Rhoades, best embodies the anti-censorship spirit that infused all of our work in this earliest period of activism. As was true for the women of WAVE with the Village Voice, Rhodes literally dances with the censor, refusing her attempts to silence, and instead choreographing the movements that can most efficiently express a sorrow and love that she would deem illicit, making into dance the debris of what is left after the death of his lover. Alone in a black box theater, Rhoades undresses piece by piece, and each item of clothing, left behind after his lover, Jim’s death, unveils a story of Jim’s life. Jim’s abandoned and disrobed clothes serve as witness, the materialization of his ghost, his form devoid of flesh. Converse shoes that reek of his generosity, socks that speak of his self-consciousness, a bloodied sweater that holds traces of a queer-bashing. Speaking from sorrow, emboldened to forgo shame, a dancer who narrates another’s life and then attests to its value through movement, Rhoades will not be that gay boy reduced to suicide and silence. Instead he exorcises the censor and returns his lover through the precision movement of his arms, and his long dance on pointed toe. The videomaking is simple: one take, performer’s body centered. The dance is not.
(requiem Part 1 on YouTube)
Especially today, because of course, we know that Rhoades, too ceased to dance, hence:
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
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.”
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.” 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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
2. Annette Kuhn in Meyer, 16
3. Meyer, 15.
4. Meyer, 19.
5. Meyer, 5.
6. See Jan Zita Grover, “Visible Lesions: Images of People With AIDS,” Afterimage 17:1 (Summer 1989): 10-16. Grover provides a timeline of AIDS representation from 1981-1988, arguing how gay men, gay media and gay service organizations were the first to respond to the damning images of AIDS found in the mainstream media, creating instead, images of AIDS with which gay people could identify “because of shared history and concerns.”
7. See, for example, James Meyer, “AIDS and Postmodernism,” Arts Magazine 66:8 (April 1992): pp. 60-68; Jeffrey Weeks, “Postmodern AIDS?” in Tessa Boffin and Sunil Gupta, eds., Ecstatic Anti-Bodies (London: Rivers Oram Press, 1990), pp. 133-141; Lee Edelman, “The Mirror and the Tank: ‘AIDS,’ Subjectivity, and the Rhetoric of Activism,” in Timothy Murphy and Suzanne Poirier, eds., Writing AIDS (NY: Columbia University Press, 1993), pp. 9-38. Murphy writes:
“intellectual efforts to theorize the epidemic, its constructions, and its representations, frequently invoke, toward differing ends and with varying degrees of insight and engagement, some notion of the postmodern,” pp. 10-11.
8. Excerpted from Chapter One, pgs. 1-3, Alexandra Juhasz, AIDS TV. Copyright 1995, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the publisher.
9. Excerpted from Chapter Six, pg. 194, AIDS TV. Copyright 1995, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the publisher.
10. Excerpted from Chapter Six, pg. 193, AIDS TV. Copyright 1995, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the publisher.
11. Douglas Crimp in Meyer, 265.
12. Marjorie Heins, Not in Front of the Children (NY: Hill and Wang, 2001), 257.
13. Alexandra Juhasz, “The Failures of the Flesh and the Revival of AIDS Activism,” first published in and with permission from Failure: Experiments in Aesthetics and Social Practices, eds. Nicole Antebi, Colin Dickey and Robbie Herbst (LA: The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Press, 2007): 136-139 and 140.
14. Meyer, 267.
15. Ultra-Red Artists’ Statement. Make Art/Stop AIDS. 2008.
16. Heins, 12
17. Justice Robert H. Jackson in Potentially Harmful: The Art of American Censorship, ed., Cathy Byrd (Georgia State University Press, 2006).
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