Editor’s note: On Saturday March 1st, Visual AIDS organized a panel to discuss the YOUR NOSTALGIA IS KILLING ME poster which created so much online controversy. A vibrant crowd turned up at the NYPL to hear from both Ian Bradley-Perrin and Vincent Chevalier, AIDS activists and creators of the poster. Below is the speech Ian addressed the crowd with.
A lot has been tossed around about the poster’s meaning for and engagement with an older generation, and it’s certainly true that it speaks using a rich history of which the people sitting here with me are all part. However, that the poster uses much of the canon of AIDS agitprop and historical narrative, as well as the symbols of the commercialization and capital appropriation of AIDS represented by the United Colors of Benneton ad and Bono’s Inspi(red) campaign, is speaking less to the lived experience and many layered contextualization of these images in the experience of my co-panelists, but more to the place these images are taking up in a master narrative of HIV and AIDS. This is a distinction that I wanted to emphasize.
A common critique of the work of Vincent and me was that it is an academic piece with no place in the hard world of a lived experience with HIV or the direct action that ACT UP has long participated in. I am not going deny that the poster has many layers to it, and my studies in capital H history are part of that, but I wanted to talk for a moment about the poster as a personal appeal.
One person wrote something that really struck me. I’m going to skip the personally insulting preamble because it’s an insult to his Ivy league education, but he said:
this [sic] is more than respecting your elders, more than knowing your history… it’s knowing the message the poster sloppily tries to communicate is a lie. it’s [sic] understanding we, the young, owe our life to the men being silenced (in a real way, not some fantasy world of misdirected aggression), and we owe our life to those who aren’t on that thread telling you to fuck off because they’re dead. the [sic] way they wiggle and scramble when simply asked what is at stake for them, and how they insist on the sanctity of their “intention,” it all reveals very clearly how shitty this poster really is, and how clueless its makers (and promoters) are.
I want to respond to this because I think it hits on where this poster is coming from for me. Firstly, “what is at stake for me”, by which I assume you mean, am I poz? Not that it’s any of your business but:
I’m 24, I’ve been positive the majority of sexual life. Prior to testing positive I was with my positive ex-boyfriend, and have had numerous partners, friends and family who live in the grasp of the healthcare (by which I don’t mean a needs-based healthcare system but and oppressive health and mental healthcare regime) and prison system. I have spent my adult life watching the way medical institutional knowledge, the pharmaceutical industry, and the prison industrial complex, collude with the state to dictate the way people live, love and die. Institutional knowledge is produced and it is produced for profit on the backs of people, people I love and people like me and you.
My intention in stating Your Nostalgia is Killing Me was to speak directly to this person arguing for the place of a different experience of AIDS that works against reverence and idolization and, though he obviously wasn’t listening, I would say I succeeded, whatever other failures can be attributed to it.
I had the pleasure of hosting Avram Finkelstein in Montreal for a talk last month. He said something to the effect of: “As soon as ACT UP made the front page of the B section of the New York Times, I knew things had begun to change”. The media tells stories, films tell stories, history tells stories and stories have beginnings, middles, and ends.
I love history, but I love it for the way it lives in the present. When these stories are told by the institutions that necessitated the actions being represented in them, the stakes become much clearer to me. The ends of these narratives are pivotal because it where my experience ceases to exist in any legitimate sense. I cannot remember sex outside the power dynamics dictated by the criminal justice system, the very state that validates the story arcs that exclude me. And when I see those in my generation turning on me for questioning this, screaming at me to shut up, or in the case of another person, calling me a “stupid fucking brat” I can understand the anger but am confident that when told to “pull myself up or drop dead” my response is that that is exactly what I am doing.
These stories aren’t over, and to deny the real implications of their appropriation by institutions of knowledge production be they medical, curatorial, legal whatever without question is ignorance at best and chauvinism at worst. If it was a war, and I know it was, then it is still on going. The same people who were left out continue to be left out—I may be able to cross the border as a poz person now, but god forbid I be a poz drug user, a poz sex worker—at that moment this institutional conversation wouldn’t be happening—as it never has, and these are the people on the front lines of epidemic. I live in a country where people can go to prison for murder (though more often it is for aggravated sexual assault) for the transmission of HIV. So no, I can’t look to the past and feel good because the failures of the past are still with us; we’re still carrying them around. Battles were undeniably won but the war is being lost. Your Nostalgia is Killing Me is not speaking to the past, it’s a call to be present, the now moment of AIDS—a love of history is not incongruent with recognizing its failures, how else are we to learn from it? The state doesn’t love us so long as it criminalizes, so it pains me to watch my peers do its dirty work for it by giving weight and validity—by attaching legitimacy—to narratives in which the AIDS crisis is over.