Exhibition Catalog for “Undetectable,” curated by Nathan Lee and assistant curator Rachel Cook for Visual AIDS. May 31-June 30, 2012. La MaMa La Galleria, 6 E. 1st Street, New York City.
Mark King featured on the cover of a recent issue of Poz. Click on link to see ten minute video by King:.HIV and Media: the Vanishing Virus.
End Game: AIDS in Black America, directed by Renata Simone. Click for 70-minute PBS video.
Still from Conrad Ryan’s Things are Different Now. To see entire video, click on link and enter passcode. http://vimeo.com/55874290
An example of the “deathbed photography” that AIDS activists of yesteryear protested. Image by Nicholas Nixon.
An image utilized for publicity around the unauthorized event we staged about HIV/AIDS and Film and Media Studies at the Society of Film and Media Studies annual conference. Image by Marty Fink.
He’s been pretty much yellow
A ghost, of course, haunts. A haunting instills a troublesome impression of its presence. Any verification of the ghost is dubious at best. It is intuited or felt, more so than it is conventionally perceived. It is there, or so it seems, while remaining undetectable. And so it is that HIV/AIDS—for me, but I imagine for others as well—is somewhat ghostly. Epidemiologically, I am HIV positive. I have it. And yet, in a way, I do not, as the good fortune of contemporary anti-retroviral treatment has rendered the virus undetectable in my blood. While not vanquished altogether, its presence is dramatically reduced, which also curbs the likelihood that I might transmit HIV to others. Within undetectability, Nathan Lee has identified a new variety of HIV status, one beyond HIV positive and HIV negative, he calls it
Nested within the semantics of the undetectable is a nod towards its strange present-absence not only within bodies, but also within our daily conversations and cultural productions.
In the United States today one rarely hears mutterings of HIV/AIDS. HIV activist and author of the blog “My Fabulous Disease” Mark King recently composed a video blog in which he attended a national convention for LGBT journalists. King reported that mention of HIV did occasionally surface, yet it only did so incidentally and within forums and conversations dedicated to a number of other topics. In his interviews with other LGBT journalists, King discovered his colleagues taxed by an admixture of “beats” that have ushered HIV/AIDS to the sidelines, though rates of HIV/AIDS infection remain steady for men who have sex with men.
This silence also reflects the ghosts of ongoing forces of homophobia and racism that continue to accompany the contemporary persistence of HIV. In spite of rising infection rates that mirror the poverty and racism faced by black communities in the United States, mainstream black media also maintains a reserved focus on issues surrounding HIV/AIDS. An important exception to this trend is End Game: AIDS in Black America a 2012 documentary that aired as a part of PBS’ series Frontline. End Game is remarkable in its concentration on the present dimensions of the epidemic. A recent crop of recent U.S. documentaries focused on the many roles played by the gay community during the crisis years of the AIDS epidemic. We are lucky to have these films, but they are grounded in the past to such an extent it’s almost as if HIV/AIDS were over.
To be fair, the documentaries were made by a generation about themselves, about the stories surrounding and engulfing them, their environment. So, it’s my generation’s responsibility to do as the aforementioned filmmakers have done—get to work representing ourselves and the dimensions of HIV in the United States today. Yet, what might these representations look like? Today, the bodies that carry the virus, do not, after a period of gestation, noticeably surrender to its ravages. And so, how do we represent ourselves caught between the polarities of perception: the visible and invisible, as ghostly?
In addition to inspiring crises of perception, ghosts challenge common engagements with temporality. They are former beings, now gone, who continue to reside in our present reality, oftentimes as a disturbance. Like trauma, ghosts are a temporal hiccup, something grounded in the past that recurs in the present due to a lack of resolution. HIV/AIDS is unique in that unlike other historical traumas, say the Holocaust or the Vietnam War, it is not over. But if it is still here, why does it seem ghostly and undetectable? I will argue that it is a matter of representation, a matter that comprises not only a politics surrounding HIV/AIDS but also fabricates the very material of the epidemic itself.
In a foundational essay Douglas Crimp asserted,
Hence, if representations of HIV positive persons are minimal, how might our culture conceptualize sero-posivity or sero-negativity today? Conrad Ryan’s experimental film Things are Different Now (2012) implicitly asked this question. In the film, Ryan confessed in a throaty drawl,
The film articulated the difference, but never described or affirmed it. While the viewer might understand the titular difference of “now” as one of successful medical interventions and life, the optimism due this happy development is totally lacking from the film. Instead the film, a meditation upon death and legacies of historical trauma, is rather gloomy.
Remarking upon his inability to fathom gay life of the 1980s and 90s in the crosshairs of an epidemic, Ryan stated,
Though he was alive for much of its duration, Ryan did not experience the AIDS crisis as a part of the communities that it decimated. His epistemological vantage point if one from afar and better described as AIDS awareness, rather than a knowledge. It is present yet incomplete and because of these failures of coherency, it is recurrent and similar to a trauma. Things are Different Now finally complicates what the film’s title quite simply states: that HIV/AIDS is something other than it was before. Given Ryan’s pained return to notions of AIDS that are thick with loss, to what extent can we claim that the epidemic, or more specifically Ryan’s experience of it, has been drastically reconfigured?
HIV is not a ghost. It is in me and millions of others, becoming within and modifying us by processes both epidemiological and semiotic. These are facts, solid things, whose truths would be abetted by corresponding representations of being HIV positive today. I am interested in representations of HIV-positive people not as sick, dead or dying, and not implicitly or explicitly linked to the past era of crisis, but alive, well, and here in the present. Specifically, I track representations of HIV positive gay men in the United States. Reasons for this are not without elements of narcissism. My own HIV-status becomes tangled in the texts I research and it is inextricably a co-factor that fabricates HIV/AIDS into my manner of its articulation. As such, swatches of autobiography recur throughout my piece and a ruminative essayistic style predominates. Still, while I am granted the privilege of personhood—of being both gay and HIV-positive—the equation of these two terms is dangerously axiomatic and serves to perpetuate the notion of gay identity as toxic. Yet, the turn away from representations of gay men with HIV reflect that the epidemic no longer has such a stranglehold on gay lives and culture, but also an inability or unwillingness to identify with something, both a virus and an ongoing event, undeniably constitutive of gay identity.
Though I hone in on the representational paucity of HIV-positive gay men in the United States, I believe this will towards representation is felt by many people living with the virus regardless of identity or location and oftentimes in circumstances of outright censorship in addition to societal indifference. Indeed, though the past repertoire of images of gay men with HIV may no longer reflect our present circumstances, this history may in some ways mollify each newly diagnosed gay men’s self-acceptance of his sero-positive status. Sero-positive heterosexual men and women arguably do not have similar repertoires of images and because of his their journies of acceptances, both within themselves and within their cultures and communities, may be comparably more trying.
Other markers of identity, such as class, race, nationality and religion, also come into play, further assuring the distinctive character of each HIV-positive person’s engagement with their condition. In addition to the autobiographic inflection of my essay, my decision to concentrate on HIV-positive men in the United States is borne of precisely such an awareness and the concordant desire not to over-generalize—though of course narrowing in on any subset of the population, no matter how specific, bears the risk of type-casting and stereotyping. The HIV epidemic is individual and local, a semiotic drifter, seldom able to offer the comforts of settling down. Quite likely there are gay HIV-positive men who would disagree with the arguments I put forward, just as I hope it is the case that there are HIV-positive individuals neither gay, nor male, nor American who will find much in what follows with which to relate.
Herein, I emphasize and even dwell upon the cultural drought experienced by people with HIV/AIDS, as it progresses medically and epidemiologically but lags behind in the manner by which we fabricate its meanings and build an identity around and with it. Of course, wishing for representation alone is inadequate to any project of social redress. The nature of these representation matters very much. Left wanting, I imagine what these might be.
In March 2012, I noticed that not a single paper was presented on HIV/AIDS at the Cinema and Media Studies Society’s annual conference. Granted, I myself was not giving a paper on HIV/ AIDS. Yet, how can it be that at a conference that stages hundreds upon hundreds of talks, ones that touch upon seemingly every topic and text encompassed by film and media studies, none concerned themselves with HIV/AIDS? Distressing though not surprising, the absence of discourse on HIV/AIDS at the conference was yet another iteration of our culture’s indifference to the current problems surrounding the epidemic. And while the academy, perhaps particularly the liberal arts and humanities, can be counted upon for their attention to a number of mostly overlooked topics, HIV, as noted by Gregory Tomso in a recent article, is not one of them.
Emboldened by my obsessive knowledge about the HIV/AIDS activism of yesterday as well as a variety of do-it-yourself world-making at the heart of so much documentary filmmaking and theory, I decided I would do something about the silence. Good fortune has awarded me the friendship and unofficial mentoring of Alexandra Juhasz and if anyone could assist me in realizing my goal it is was Alex. Committing to a project in-utero with a matter-of-factness and instantaneity that reassured my purpose, Alex suggested that we propose a workshop that would explore relations between HIV/AIDS and film and media studies today. We conceptualized the parameters of the workshop broadly, calling upon pedagogy, activism and cultural production as touchstones, so as to inspire a conversation that was optimally inclusive and promiscuous in terms of its potential material.
We assembled a dream team as our panelists. I was stupefied to be included within such a group, much less to serve, with Alex, as its co-chair. After collaborating on the dimensions of the proposal, we sent it off. Given the variety and accomplishments of our collective, I imagined the workshop’s eventual acceptance as a given. We were rejected. With the combined heft of our cooperative’s achievements and influence, our rejection suggested that the academic concerns we chose to bring to the table did not interest the professional society to which we belonged.
Alex, tenacious and fabulous, wasn’t having it. With Marty Fink, myself, and Alex as our shepherd, we three staged a coup and held an unauthorized workshop in a public space during one of the conference’s lunch breaks. Being officially sanctioned yet present makes for a hectic occupancy, and the results of this can be witnessed by the video we captured of our event, available through our tumblr (www.unauthorizedscms.tumblr.com ). We hadn’t the space in a noise-free room to be heard with lucidity. What was important and, I think, moving is our attempt nevertheless.
After all, silence equals death. This reminder, coined and put to brilliant service by ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) served as a call to arms that assembled the AIDS movement. The forceful noise that contravened the silence then has faded. This is not to say HIV/AIDS is gone, only its corresponding movement. The event we staged at the SCMS conference as well as our writings here in Jump Cut intend to trouble the current stasis. Though the large majority of HIV positive persons in United States are no longer dying, we remain burdened by many obstacles particular to HIV/AIDS. Perhaps our present circumstances do not merit the ruckus of protest or the impassioned death knells of a previous generation. Yet I am conjuring a register of noise, ultimately of presence, between screams of bloody murder and the quietude of resolution.
My friends on Facebook have lately taken to describing problems of minor consequence and minimal inconvenience as “First World problems.” Being snubbed by an academic conference may well merit inclusion within such a dismissal, though the apathy it suggests potentially opens upon a network of other concerns. I agree that HIV/AIDS activists in other parts of the globe have dilemmas more pressing than public indifference. Yet despite my position of relative of privilege, the problem and politics of representing HIV/AIDS are also of pressing concern for activists worldwide. Representational issues are still crucial.
It is the will towards just representation that has led a trans-national network of persons to found Steps for the Future, a program that funds, distributes and exhibits short films about varied aspects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Sub-Saharan African communities produced by local filmmakers and artists. On the local specificity of the films produced by Steps for the Future, one of the project’s founders Don Edkins states,
Edkins reminds us that one must be cautious in forging connections between HIV/AIDS, in terms of representation and otherwise, within Africa and U.S. contexts. Yet the need for representation, across localities, identities and temporalities, is one commonly, urgently needed in order to assure that HIV/AIDS isn’t thought of as a static event with one homogeneous meaning.
The slogan “silence equals death” implicitly argues that a tree falling in an unpopulated forest makes no sound. Taking up a similar dilemma and seemingly offering a respite from its multifold difficulties, Andre Bazin famously wrote,
Though the first metaphor makes recourse to sound (silence) and the second vision (photography), both rely upon a dynamic between existence and perception or recognition. Bazin implies that death first means a departure from the world by our spirit’s leaving the body, yet photography allows the spirit a secondary life. Bazin characterized this secondary life as vicarious soul that was re/animated by the remembrances afforded within another person’s look. Photography, Bazin’s Lazarus, seemed to him to have ontological capacities to resurrect the dead.
However, if we frame HIV/AIDS mostly in the terms of the dead, salvaging them from their secondary demise, we absent the epidemic from its present life, freezing it in a discourse of death and illness. In terms of the semiotic dimensions of HIV/AIDS, stasis as well as silence may both prove deleterious, if not deadly. For those of us now living with the virus, we may have the primacy, in Bazin’s terms, of life lived, but we still lack the secondary existence of social recognition. In fact, recognition of one’s selfhood is often conferred through identifications with the other, with community. Lacking this dialectic of conferred similitude, the subject is made to feel disjointed, alone, and even abject. Hence, the HIV positive subject today is potentially confused (about one’s self) and confusing (for others).
The absence of HIV positive representations today bestows upon us two types of death, both associative in nature. The first variety, of the silence equals death ilk, stems from our virtual exclusion in the field of representation and our associative poverty. The second is borne of the manner by which we link ourselves onto those representations available, ones that are not exactly of us and that are articulated in terms of a crisis that we do not experience in our everyday lives. While HIV/AIDS and its prospects have gotten better, these improvements are chiefly medical and epidemiological. Our field of representation, within the culture’s repertoire of images, has failed adequately to incorporate these changes. Culturally unaccounted for or misrecognized by anachronistic characterizations, we the HIV positive experience ourselves as befuddled, somehow off, and ghostly.
Within the past few years, very few publications within the humanities have engaged issues of HIV/AIDS and representation in the context of gay men in the United States. One that does, Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image by Roger Hallas, should be applauded for its astute concentration upon a subject that has long fallen out of fashion. I have learned a lot from Hallas. And though I agree with many of his arguments, I worry over his approach that looks at HIV/AIDS today from a past vantage point and is framed by a discourse of crisis. Hallas is not alone in his methodology. The scholarship on HIV/AIDS and its representation that we do have remains nearly universal in referring to and re-producing the epidemic in its past traumatic form.
With theory drawn from trauma studies, Hallas argues that the corpus of films he discusses, mostly experimental documentaries, have self-consciously confronted the ethical and semiotic dilemma of bearing witness to AIDS. In arguing for the present relevance of work that engages films of the past, Hallas rightly makes note of a rampant moralism still dogging contemporary representations of gay men and HIV. To counter that moralism, he calls for a return to the legacy of queer AIDS media from the crisis era. With this I cannot agree. Grappling with representation under the hammer of approaching death is by-and-large not our reality. If we need to reframe representations of HIV/AIDS today, apart from anything else it is first and foremost against this very trope. We have a ghost caught in our throats and it is due a clearing.