Act Up Fight Back: Art and Activism in the Time of AIDS
Wednesday, March 30, 2005
Eyedrum, Atlanta, GA
Identities (Nino Rodriguez, 1991) 7 minutes, video
An Individual Desires Solution (Lawrence Brose, 1986-1991) 16 minutes, 16mm
Positiv (Mike Hoolboom, 1998) 10 minutes, 16mm transferred to video
DHPG Mon Amour (Carl Michael George, 1989) 12 minutes, Super-8 transferred to video
They Are Lost to Vision Altogether (Tom Kalin, 1989) 13 minutes, video
This Is Not an AIDS Advertisement (Isaac Julien, 1988) 10 minutes, Super-8 transferred to video
Kissing Doesn't Kill (Gran Fury, 1990) 2 minutes, video
Safe Sex Slut (Carol Leigh a/k/a Scarlot Harlot, 1987) 3 minutes, video
The Ashes Action (James Wentzy, 1995) 30 minutes, video
Act Up Fight Back is sponsored by the Emory University Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and Frequent Small Meals. Tonight’s program would not be possible without the kind assistance of Dr. Saralyn Chesnut and Elizabeth Elkins of the Office of Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Life at Emory.
Many of the works on tonight’s program were featured in Fever in the Archive, a series of AIDS activist video seen at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2000 and curated by Jim Hubbard. I am indebted to Mr. Hubbard for his assistance and guidance in acquiring these works to show.
SILENCE = DEATH
The equation, in an elegant font, rested on a stark black background. Above it, a pink triangle – the symbol worn by homosexual prisoners in the Nazi camps. The difference here, however, was that the triangle was inverted – no longer upside down, it pointed up, toward hope, toward freedom, away from silence and death.
Designed by the Silence = Death Project and an integral part of demonstrations by the legendary activist group ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), this graphic adorned posters and t-shirts and did more than any other work to define the revolutionary aspect of AIDS activism and gay activism in the 1980s and 1990s. Like the best and most effective Civil Rights slogans and images, it defined a world-historic human rights movement that rested on the crucial importance of everyday, individual acts – in this case, the act of coming out.
In their engagement with AIDS, all of the works on tonight’s program address Silence = Death (and its corollary, Action = Life). Some of the works are personal responses to AIDS, others have a clearly political agenda. They cross over the line between art and activism as needed, or dissolve it altogether. But all of the works defy the matrix of societal repressions that coalesced around the AIDS epidemic from its beginning.
In Identities, Nino Rodriguez deconstructs a videotaped interview with a person with AIDS, Thomas Padgett, by removing almost all of his words and leaving only the moments between speech. From this very simple idea comes a complex work of cumulative emotional power. The removal of the subject's voice paradoxically seems to reveal the truth of his feelings. The work becomes progressively more challenging to watch as the man breaks down emotionally, yet is still denied language.
Mainstream culture’s general homophobia and fear of “the other” often boiled down to a single, distorted image of people with AIDS: a gay (and usually white) male, isolated, suffering, guilty, powerless. Through its silencing of Padgett’s voice, Identities audaciously plays off this image of the "AIDS victim." For the first few minutes, Thomas Padgett’s silence is virtually indistinguishable from this stereotype, but as the video progresses (and the passage of time is a crucial theme in this work) his silence opens us up to a new understanding. It is not simply that Padgett is a representative of the unspeakable losses of the disease. More importantly, we become intensely interested in him as an individual.
Adding another layer of complexity, Rodriguez explicitly references “Silence = Death” at the beginning of the work through title cards. Significantly however, the last word in the equation is omitted (only to be spoken on screen by Padgett). In a recent email, he explained that he wanted to challenge the slogan, to ask whether all silences are identical, and whether some silences can be used for positive purposes.
Like Identities, Lawrence Brose’s An Individual Desires Solution is a brave, elegiac work which uses a profound disruption of language – in this case, to express a sense of horror brought about by the suffering of his lover, Kevin Christy.
The film’s striking opening sequence features title cards which quote from Christy’s phone conversations with Brose. These brutally honest quotes, which detail Christy’s frustrations with the disease, are juxtaposed with jaunty piano tunes – European jazz-style music from the 1920s, as Brose commented in a recent phone interview. This highly ironic use of silent film conventions reveals that silence was used metaphorically from the very beginnings of film and video work on AIDS (An Individual Desires Solution is one of the very first film works to detail personal experience with the disease).
As the first section gives way to the main part of the film, Christy appears on screen, and we quickly realize that the piano music on the soundtrack is being played by him (he was a musicologist). We hear Christy’s voice (recorded from the same telephone conversations as above), but the recordings are distorted through multiple tracking, an effect which highlights the pure emotion of his speaking. This in turn adds a tense counterpoint to the film’s visual images. Kevin practices the piano, and roving shots of the interior of his apartment itself display a nervous energy, occasionally undercut by a more lyrical composition.
All of these images of Christy and his environment are combined with footage shot by Brose during a difficult train journey which he undertook while Christy was very ill. The filmmaker considered the train as a metaphor for his utter lack of control over the situation, though flashes of landscape seen through the windows of passing cars provide brief “moment[s] of clarity.”
Back in the apartment, there are shots in which Christy seems to be shrouded in light. According to Brose, this was achieved by holding a glass vase in front of the camera and shooting through it – a technique which the filmmaker improvised on the spot. The filmmaker faces uncertainty, suffering and helplessness head-on – just as Kevin Christy bravely redefines the name of his disease in the film’s title.
”Oh God – I’m a body!” realizes Mike Hoolboom at the beginning of Positiv. The bodily changes which accompany HIV infection, and the treatments which people with AIDS have used to protect themselves from illness, are a recurring subject in the literature and art of AIDS, and are explored both in Positiv and in DHPG Mon Amour. Positiv reveals that the changes in one’s body are a matter not only of outwardly appearance or physical feeling but also of internal consciousness (“I’ve felt like a virus that’s come to rest in this body for awhile, like it doesn’t really belong to me”). Hoolboom’s body consciousness is reflected in a deluge of pop culture references so voluminous that it takes three different parts of the screen running simultaneously to show them all. The images rush by in a brilliantly edited montage, a counterpoint to his affecting monologue (which is delivered directly to the camera, from the upper right quadrant of the screen).
In their history of ACT UP, AIDS Demo Graphics, Douglas Crimp and Adam Rolston write that “for the first six months or more of its existence, ACT UP had one dominant focus: ‘drugs into bodies’...the central issue was getting AIDS treatments out of the NIH and FDA bureaucracies and into the bodies of those who are HIV-infected.” DHPG Mon Amour is an example of how film was used to increase awareness of alternative medicines. Essentially a home movie, with a voice-over soundtrack by the participants, DHPG Mon Amour documents David Conover’s use of a newly developed treatment for the HIV-related opportunistic infection known as cytomegalovirus (CMV) retinitis – a type of CMV that causes blindness.
The film was shot without sound, and Conover and his partner Joe Walsh recorded their explanation of the onscreen events while watching the footage. In the background, the stereo plays “A Night in Tunisia” and Aretha Franklin, a memorable personal touch. We see exactly how Conover prepares his daily treatment, which is taken via intravenous infusion. A small, moving film, DHPG Mon Amour is at once a public service announcement, an inspirational record of a devoted couple, and an emblem of how individual gestures contribute to large scale change.
While works such as DHPG and Positiv detailed the personal impact of AIDS, Tom Kalin’s They Are Lost to Vision Altogether tackles head-on the full range of social implications of the disease.
One of the complexities faced by people with AIDS at this time was that the perceived threat of the disease forced the mainstream to confront groups and issues it had marginalized out of fear. Issues of the body and of sexuality that had been the province of subcultures were thrust into national consciousness, with often grim results. In the reckoning of mainstream culture, people with the disease belonged only to the groups which anchorperson Hugh Downs succinctly outlines in They Are Lost to Vision Altogether: “homosexual men, Haitians, drug abusers, and people who received blood products” (“the groups that it was supposed to be limited to,” he adds). Thus people with AIDS faced overlapping repressions: fear of disease, death, drugs, foreignness, “deviant” sexuality. Or rather, all of society faced these repressions: as the artist David Wojnarowicz put it, “When I was told I’d contracted this virus it didn’t take me long to realize that I’d contracted a diseased society as well.”
They Are Lost to Vision Altogether speaks to the dizziness of these mutually reinforcing repressions and denials as few pieces on AIDS had done. Scary news anchors and hapless pundits; a mayoral candidate in Dallas whose “four-point plan” to deal with AIDS includes “shoot the queers”; and drug profiteers are offset by various combinations of kissing couples and images of intercourse, as well as a spoken text from Virginia Woolf and an overlay of campy songs and mysteriously connected visual references from old movies. It is a disorienting but powerful work that, like many AIDS activist events, sustains a curious mixture of outrage, determination, elegy, and self-awareness.
Like Kalin’s work, Isaac Julien’s This Is Not an AIDS Advertisement responds directly to the doomed attempts of the mainstream culture to combat AIDS by marginalizing those who have the disease. The work is a rejoinder to a series of British advertisements against unsafe sex. According to Julien, the ads were “scare-mongering” and “tended to equate sex with death, and promiscuity with infection.”
The work is in two very different parts. First is a somber elegy for a friend of Julien’s, set in Venice. A series of repeated enigmatic images is set against a mournful musical theme. It is simple, direct and personal. Part two is an upbeat, very 1980s-style rap song which accompanies what Julien called “an advertisement for gay desires.” Julien’s voice speaks of
how a small disease in a third world domain /
became a first world problem with a little name
The key line of the song is:
Julien has said that his
intention was to make a “less didactic” work than the rousing ACT UP videos,
and his tape is indeed a more personal and perhaps nuanced approach to mourning
than works such as ACT UP’s Stop the Church. But common to both is a
desire to take control of the representation of gay sexuality. Providing
positive images of gay sexuality would counter the official link between gay sex
and death which was the only option envisioned by mainstream media. For as long
as one mastered certain well-defined codes of titillation, sexuality could be
flaunted in American culture; but mentioning condom use – let alone showing
anybody how to use one – was going too far. The deviant sexuality of AIDS was
not only homosexuality per se – it was any sexuality that spoke its name.
And yet the unwanted intrusion of the body and its deviant sexuality – “deviant” meaning sex information that transgressed the codes of titillation – into mass consciousness provided an opportunity which some artists were able to use. Tom Kalin and the Gran Fury group (of which Kalin was a member), among many others, incorporated sexual imagery into their works as a direct response to the suppression of safe sex information. Gran Fury’s Kissing Doesn’t Kill – best known as a subway advertisement but shown here in the form of four thirty-second television spots – is particularly clever in this respect. The ads are a direct takeoff from the ubiquitous Benetton ads of the early 1990s. The clothing company used images of racial diversity as part of slick, well-designed campaigns, and Gran Fury appropriated the style to extend the idea of diversity to sexuality as well, showing interracial gay and straight couples kissing, along with the slogan “Kissing doesn’t kill – greed and indifference do.”
Safe Sex Slut is made by and stars longtime activist, sex worker, and videomaker Carol Leigh (a/k/a/ Scarlot Harlot). Flamboyantly dressed and extroverted amid a barrage of campy video effects, Leigh sings a guitar-driven anthem heavily influenced by New York punk:
I always pay my income tax
I eat granola for my snack
I don’t make fun of lumberjacks
Or mess with sheep that have anthrax
As Gregg Bordowitz writes, “The song’s preposterous criteria of goodness and safety, renders the whole notion of a safe sexuality ridiculous, while boldly promoting the notion of practicing safe sex.” The bedroom is the last frontier / Condoms leave a souvenir / SAFE SEX!
James Wentzy is one of the most prolific of AIDS activist videomakers, having produced over 150 half-hour programs in his series AIDS Community Television. The Ashes Action documents an ACT UP protest in Washington DC in October of 1992. Motivated by the expressed desire of several activists for “their bodies to be used in some sort of political way” after their deaths, ACT UP staged a march to the White House lawn, where they outflanked a group of guards and police and achieved their objective of dumping their loved ones’ ashes directly on the lawn as a protest of White House inaction on AIDS. The event was also motivated by the display that same week of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall. In the video, march organizer David Robinson points out that the quilt is “very useful, it’s very important - but it’s very beautiful.” Hence the need for a reminder of everything that was not being done to combat AIDS, and the result of this inaction.
By the time of The Ashes Action, many half-hour, TV-formatted activist documentaries had been made by enterprising collectives and individuals, including such classics as Testing the Limits, Doctors, Liars, and Women, and Stop the Church. The Ashes Action stands as one of the very best. The pacing and editing are superb. The video channels the anger that motivated all of ACT UP’s actions, but is also suffused with an elegiac, even autumnal mood. (The election of Bill Clinton soon after this event was to signal the beginning of a decline in street activism.) Most remarkable of all is the repetitive way in which Wentzy shows the climactic moment of the march. This scene appears four different times in the video, and only gains in emotional power each time it is repeated. The footage itself is shot in a way that draws the viewer directly into the action and gets across the full mortality of what we are seeing on screen: when the ACT UP members fling the ashes out of boxes, urns, and plastic bags, through the fence and onto the lawn, we are seeing not only an audacious political protest – we are watching each of them say goodbye to their loved one, and it is devastating. A brief coda which employs agitprop-type on-screen statistics brings this powerful work to a close.
Program notes 2005 Andy Ditzler
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Andy Ditzler 02/05/2011