Within Our Rooms of Nostalgia: AIDS, Communication and Each Other

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“I think no one will be shocked if I say that there is a hegemonic AIDS and a peripheral AIDS,” said curator Aimar Arriola in a recent  interview, to which I responded, “You would be surprised.”

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I have never heard it myself but friends have told me many members of ACT UP from the 80s and early 90s talk about the power of “The Room”, referring to the large meeting space on the main floor of New York’s LGBT center where ACT UP met (and still meets) on Monday nights. There is a longing to return. And with good reason. It seems as if The Room was an anchor in what was an unimaginable time of loss, confusion, pain, and discovery. If the outside world was cold, uncaring violent, and indifferent, then inside – while not free of violence — could be understood as sweaty with passion and people in proximity working on a constellation of related struggles. It’s in The Room, we are told, lesbians and gay men reconciled a cultural separation; it’s where feminism was taught to a generation of activists, and where privileges were acknowledged and made productive for the many. It’s where “Stop The Church” and countless “Die-in” actions were debated and rehearsed. It’s where many learned civil disobedience, and how to get arrested, where people were told to shut up, fuck off, and to speak their minds. Hearing talk of The Room you get a sense people felt alive, vital, sexy, and a part of something bigger than themselves when they were in it. Such an atmosphere is intoxicating. Both for those there and those who were not.

Recently I had occasion to learn more about nostalgia. Merriam-Webster defines it as, “the state of being homesick, a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” It is a Greek word, coming from νόστος (nóstos), meaning “homecoming”, and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “pain, ache”. It was created to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home.

I love origin stories about words that seem so specific to the current moment. In An Archive Of Feeling Ann Cvetkovich shares that the idea of trauma, “previously referred to a physical wound,” related to railway shock, and that the wounds, “were the inevitable by-products of the new technology of the train.”

Words have meanings and while they may shift, there is something compelling and insightful about where it all begins.

The prompt to consider nostalgia came via Facebook. My friends Ian Bradley Perrin and Vincent Chevalier created a poster entitled, Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me, the text appearing on the poster in large yellow letters, left justified on top of a rendering of a millennial’s childhood bedroom. The room is decorated floor to ceiling with American AIDS visual culture from the late 80s and 90s. The work was commissioned by Toronto’s AIDS Action Now for their posterVIRUS campaign, which works with artists and activists across the HIV spectrum to create new work about HIV to paste in urban centers, aimed at generating public conversation. For Ian and Vincent the poster began as commentary on the ways many young and youngish people share and trade in historic AIDS related culture with little knowledge or respect for the context from which it came, and the fact that AIDS is not only a historical consideration, but an ongoing epidemic. They illustrated the ideas through the overall image of the poster, rooted in a technological and aesthetic moment aligning with the youth of those currently in their late 20s and early 30s, and through details like the laptop on the bed open to a tumblr page. For Vincent it is sites like Tumblr where the AIDS nostalgia is most present, people mindlessly posting and reposting the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres or historic ACT UP actions, void of explanation or even mention of the pain and experience that made the work vital and possible.

The poster is a declaration from Ian and Vincent, young men living with HIV, that the current focus on AIDS of the past via films like How To Survive A Plague and exhibitions such as the New Museum’s NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, while important, are negatively impacting their life chances. Meaning that while many were immersed in AIDS of the past, ongoing AIDS was going under-discussed. This is something AIDS activist, Cassidy Gardner grapples with in her recent essay for the New York Public Library’s Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism exhibition blog. In trying to understand why there is not more focus on HIV Criminalization and other contemporary HIV related issues during a time in which there is more public conversation about AIDS, she wonders, “if it is our attachment to the 1980s and 90s as the ultimate in AIDS activism and advocacy” that is preventing us from acting now.

But it is not with these questions, or reservations about the past that the poster was received by some after I linked to it, via the posterVIRUS website (complete with artists statement along with supplementary links), on the ACT UP Alumni Facebook wall. The first comment after me, from Paul Halsall, read, “Whose nostalgia? And when are gently cherished memories ‘nostalgia’?” A fair question I guess, but one that somehow set up confusion about what nostalgia meant. As it became clear throughout the feed, people were conflating memory, history, and nostalgia, suggesting the poster-makers were advocating for those with memories of the early days of AIDS to forget or be quiet. Tony Autoharp wrote:

To me this poster says…”you old time AIDS activists, you look at your own past with warm nostalgic feelings, and because you do, you can’t see what we younger people are going through, and we are dying because if your nostalgia.

Attempts by me, Ian and Vincent to clarify what the poster was saying or push back against what people were thinking the poster were communicating were met with anger and resistance. Simon Watney stated he found the work to be, “self-indulgent twaddle,” and, “Rather than sneering at the supposedly oppressive ‘nostalgia’ surrounding them, Chevalier & Ian might simply show a bit of gratitude and move on,” suggesting, “Chevalier and Ian are so hung up about the activist art of the past, about which they complain in such obscurely opaque terms, as if it somehow inhibits their own creative potential, strongly suggests to me that sadly they have little to say about the only too pressing issues of the here and now.” (Watney later apologized claiming that he had not seen the write up only the poster and the interview).

It got worse. After Vincent posted a screenshot of Watney’s comments (and was called on to declare his HIV status), Matt Ebert wrote on Vincent’s wall:

Stupid fucking brats. Now go deal with your HIV and kiss my american ass. I lament nothing, least of all your young AIDS bore-shit. I like America, so go eat a dick. And your poster is bat shit ugly, ageist farts. Nostalgia infected sad clowns, not enough time to take care of you? Too bad. Pull yourself up or drop dead. No skin off my american ass, brats. (Matt later suggested that he was performing.)

When questions about ACT UP Alumni commenter’s aggressive tone it was suggested this reaction was normal and called for. Dudley Saunders wrote:

One thing about ACT UP is we played rough, and you were expected to have a thick skin: people have to be free to tell you what they think and feel even/especially when it doesn’t go down easy. (Frankly, that’s true in art school too.) This poster/text was meant to rattle cages, so you can’t then complain if the animals snap back at you. And frankly, in their interview, there are just a lot of unsupported assumptions that AIDS history somehow shuts down the possibility of talking about/imagining a modern response today: I’m seeing – and I think Peter Staley has been seeing in his travels with HTSAP (How To Survive A Plague)- the opposite happen, young people realizing they can create change too. Calling out what seems an underlying falsehood is not the same thing as bullying, and it’s insulting to the seriousness of the artists to suggest otherwise.

Bordering on mansplaining, there was an ongoing demand from members of the Alum group that Vincent and Ian tell them what the poster was about, while also telling Ian and Vincent what the poster was about. Offline, people suggested ACT UP Alumni members were enacting a form of cultural imperialism, demanding the work be explained to them, assuming it was about them, and making suggestions about what they would like the poster to be.

During the course of the Facebook discussion I was dumbfounded. I respect that argument is an art form but the ACT UPers were saying Ian and Vincent should shut up and be grateful, oblivious to the fact that Ian and Vincent were only doing what ACT UP had been doing from the beginning—fighting for their right as people with HIV to determine the terms of their survival.

By the end of the third day the mood had shifted. The Facebook comments became more reflective, in part to John Weir’s efforts throughout to ensure everyone tried to get along, and due to a heartfelt post by Dudley, which read,

Here’s the thing: I was thinking that it was just incredibly sloppy thinking that made the artists oblivious to the fact that, when you refer to nostalgia – in particular “your nostalgia” – the first definition is all about looking  back at your own, lived past. How could they be so blind as to imagine our generation wouldn’t feel addressed? Then late last night it occurred to me: this was the site of a little Oedipal murder. In this poster, we were excised from the AIDS community as human beings, and were instead reflected as only the old posters on a bedroom wall. Our presence so overwhelms them that they can only claim space by eliminating us except, as relics from a closed past – which is itself a spin on nostalgia.

In his essay Mourning and Militancy, about life with HIV and having lived through the beginning of the AIDS crisis as a gay man, writer and ACT UP member Douglas Crimp writes,

The violence we encounter is relentless, the violence of silence and omission almost as impossible to endure as the violence of unleashed hatred and outright murder. Because this violence also desecrates the memories of our dead, we rise in anger to vindicate them.

Dudley in his comment suggests he felt removed, dismissed—a form of being silenced. In that silence, as we can understand from Crimp, he, and others, did what they know to do, what saved their lives when they felt they were being attacked – ACT UP. But I think there is more to what happened than that. There was a level of intensity that exceeded the anger, and a move towards vindication. I wonder, with its subject being nostalgia, if the poster conjured up just that – a sickness for home, for The Room, and with the invocation of the past came the anger, violence, defensiveness, power, aggressiveness, sense of vitality, entitlement, fight, and maybe most tenderly, the memory of those no longer living who use to occupy that room with them.

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Entrenched in their memory is a room that for ACT UP activists existed for so long on a weekly basis and then only in memory. While not all AIDS activists attended the Monday night meetings, still The Room looms large, now being projected across screens around the world through the film How to Survive A Plague and United in Anger: A History of ACT UP.

In an attempt to move the conversation away from “The Room” – not out of disrespect but out a sense of survival – Vincent and Ian created a room that resembles their experience, both growing up with AIDS all around them as young gay men, being told their sex was dangerous; and as adults, feeling wallpapered in to a corner where they are told they belong, but with no space to survive.

Colliding, as if to elide the other from existence, these two rooms came up against each other on Facebook walls, the new digital chat room, where it was made clear these places are separate, yet interconnected. They do not have to exist in harmony, but they will come up against each other again—as if two trains on a connected but divergent track.

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