Our flyer for the illicit panel.

David Oscar Harvey speaks out at the Illicit Panel on the edge of SCMS, Spring 2013.


In the experimental video “He Said,” by Irwin Swirnoff, I believe that we are privy to one private reply to all this HIV/AIDS over-sharing. We overhear one who is usually not listened to testifying to and with his need for words. His digital short is a small-scale, DIY, avant-garde incantation bringing into substance that which stays most difficult to disclose and to see, despite or because of the Internet: identity, visibility and sexual expression within sero-discordance and HIV-positivity.

“He Said,” by Irwin Swirnoff. [Click here or click on image to play video]

Swirnoff’s lyrics that repetitively speak desire, fear, power, and courage—“he said, he screamed, he cried”—set against a carefully edited Flickr-like stream of highly confidential, sometimes nostalgic photographs of gay male home, body, street and culture—“I don’t want you”— suggests that new media forms adapt “to be, to be” adequate depictions of the daily, unseen dread and celebration of being out with HIV and (not) “afraid of your body.” His small, intimate, mundane digital trace of daily living with invisible HIV marks a different representational path and set of needs than the stately documentaries I began with that so formally attend to the collective losses and triumphs of the past. Of course, a loss of collective expression—the voice here so singular, or maybe sometimes doubled by its receiver—is a notable change of form for our current digital time and place, as is its potential to reach equally isolated HIV+ gay men who just might see this slight tale flickering online, who might become Swirnoff’s interlocutor or lover for its two gentle minutes of digital time and space.

And what about my own acts of collective expression in the face of the digital? The version of the dance under consideration here began with giddy anticipation of an opportunity to make my thoughts and feelings about some recent documentaries visible and social after David asked me to join with him in organizing a workshop on HIV/AIDS visibility. Then I suffered shock and disappointment when the possibility of sanctioned speech and community was destroyed when the conference committee rejected us. What next? The inspiring kick-in-the-pants that censorship produces itself initiated new kinds of speech acts. First we held an unauthorized panel in Chicago on the illicit borders of the scholarly conference from which we were rejected. Then we moved this discourse online by both documenting our panel and activating new conversations on our Tumblr. There you can find videos of our brief points made at the unauthorized panel and conversations we conducted with the audience of the panel in our attempts to wrangle academic conferences into more dialogic and political platforms.

Our Undetectable Tumblr is one final example of HIV/AIDS representation that is different from the past-focused narrative documentary features of my cohort. The Tumblr is a testament to the fact of our conversation—and its record and its repetitions, like Swirnoff’s incantation—and its many expendable signification act(s). It shows that we talked about HIV/AIDS together across generations at the edge of a scholarly conference and then repeated that activity in a new form and to a different and larger audience here online. But, given our current world of over-sharing—so many Tumblrs, so little time—for me the form and the process of our visibility ultimately matters more than its content: that it was live; that it was lived; that it was charged; that it is shared.

So much information; so many new AIDS documentaries. All this (in)visibility becomes a new kind of responsibility and burden for those in communities that are lucky enough to be healed by medication but not in the many other ways that also matter to people living with HIV/AIDS. All this backward looking and quickly multiplying AIDS signification demands new kinds of visibility acts. Such acts can be expressions that will be received by a loving, committed, or intelligent interlocutor, as Swirnoff exhibits in his more private piece, or this conversation exhibits more publicly. The Internet provides a forum for quick acts of signification to be sure, but it is activists who can then provide the thoughtful, interactive, iterative context in which such acts can be powerfully received and then more importantly used. And this no small thing was exactly what we AIDS activists strived for then—our collective engagement as a community speaking for and to itself, as well as to the dominant culture. Today, this takes only a slightly different form:

“Learning to live with other generations, both past and future, is part of the injunction of the other that contains a multiplicity of demands from which we must choose to act, to begin to repay an impossible debt.”[26] [open endnotes in new window]

This is what we documented at the time, and what some of us try to explain now in so many nostalgic talking-heads interviews captured in the current outbreak of documentaries. (In)visibility epidemics will always be easier to overcome than HIV: by acting, talking and listening together. Our Tumblr, like the documentaries I have named, the digital media activism we have included, and this group-article, are their best signification-survival acts when we come together to speak and listen, naming in conversation, our changing and even discordant analyses of our lives and world with HIV/AIDS.

Go to Notes page

Introduction: Ghost stories by David Oscar Harvey, Marty Fink, Alexandra Juhasz, Bishnu Gosh

Ghosts caught in our throat — of the lack of contemporary representations of gay/bisexual men and HIV by David Oscar Harvey

Two ghost stories: disability activism and HIV/AIDS by Marty Fink

Acts of signification-survival by Alexandra Juhasz

What time is it here? by Bishnupriya Ghosh

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