Revisiting the AIDS Crisis and the Ongoing Epidemic: Public Health Challenges in the 21st Century was a three part series organized by Visual AIDS and the New School. It included a public conversation between directors Jim Hubbard (United in Anger: A History of ACT UP) and David France (How to Survive a Plague) regarding their similar yet different films about AIDS activism in New York during the late 80s and into the 90s; and a panel discussion about TB, co-infection, and AIDS as a global issue.
In between these two events was TIME IS NOT A LINE: A public conversation around the anxiety of knowing, forgetting, history and living. It was conceived of as an event where people could: process the France and Hubbard discussion, gather to talk about the ongoing impact of HIV/AIDS, and be in community with others who are trying to navigate the past, present and future.
I took no notes during TIME IS NOT A LINE. So instead I offer this piece of writing.
For groups constituted by historical injury, the challenge is to engage with the past without being destroyed by it. – Heather Love
Where do you start when the genesis of an event has so many beginnings?
Queer Archive Activism, aims to make mourning “productive, collective, and interactive through video production, montage, and reception. – Alexander Juhaz
Sunday was sunny, and I was still a bit on edge from the conversation between Jim and David from the night before. I had not really been able to listen and what I heard had confused and upset me. I knew I needed to watch the recording of the conversation before I thought anymore about it. In the meantime, TIME IS NOT A LINE was a space where I could begin to process some of the emotion and anxiety I had been having regarding memory, HIV/AIDS, history and the future. I wanted to hear what other people were thinking. I wanted to know if I was alone in this way.
Tamara, from the New School,was able to reserve the Lang Cafeteria for us for the event. It is a big airy room on the mainfloor of the New School’s 11thstreet building with windows looking out into a courtyard on one side, and on the other side, the street. Set to start at 3pm, the almost spring sun provided the room with an abundance of natural light. With modest expectations, I set out 20 of the school’s red wooden chairs in a circle. By 3:30pm the circle had grown to the size of the room accommodating around 50 people.
The afternoon began with Pato Hebert and I welcoming people and reading selections from the zine we created for the event. It included quotes from Heather Love, Carly Rae Jepsen, David Wojnarowicz, AlexanderJuhazamong others. Moving along, the group broke off into 6 groups for small discussions, facilitated by students from scholar Ricardo Montez’s class. They had received civic engagement conversation training. Thediscussionswere rooted in David Wojnarowicz’s writing from Close to the Knives that inspired the political funerals. The passage used in the discussions was featured in both films, and contains within it possibility for many conversations around the anxiety of knowing, forgetting, history and living.
Many people, late for the event, came during the discussions and joined the small groups that quickly grew in size. These discussions were scheduled to last twenty minutes but it soon became obvious that more time was warranted. Dialogue was occurring bridging various issues people had with the films with their real life experiences. In the small group I was in, there were three self identified vetren AIDS activists, two people visiting from Europe who are interested in America cultural production around AIDS, and a host of artists, activists and non profit employees engaged in contemporary issues around social justice and or HIV/AIDS.
After 40 minutes, Pato and I brought the group back together in one circle, quite an undertaking given how the population of the room had ballooned. We entered into the second part of the event: presentations.
At Visual AIDS events we try to include voices from AIDS of the past, and Ongoing AIDS. The distinction comes from Sarah Schulman who suggests that “AIDS of the past” is the period of time from around 1981 to the introduction of AIDS meds in 1996; and that “Ongoing AIDS” is the period of time after meds to the present day and beyond with an understanding that wrapped up in AIDS is globalization, gentrification, systemic discrimination and so on. For Visual AIDS organizing with AIDS of the past, and Ongoing AIDS in mind, often manifests itself with us hosting events that include a seasoned artist, or public intellectual, someone mid career, and an emerging artist or public intellectual. For TIME IS NOT A LINE we wanted to stack the deck in favor of mid career and emerging voices, if only to balance out the historical point of view being offered by the films, and to showcase the work that is being done now. After some brainstorming Pato and I came up with a list of people we were inspired by and approached them to be part of the event. Media artist Julian De Mayo and filmmaker Silas Howard got back to us letting us know that they were happy to participate. Others, while wanting to be a part of the event, declined due to prior engagements. To our joy, at the last minute, writer and publisher Tom Léger was added to the line up.
Julian started the presentations, circlingthe room from the center. He spoke about his project ACT UP NY: Unleashing Latino Power, which he describes as starting off “simply as a grad school class project” but it “growing spiritually and taking off in dimensions” that he liked. He digitized archival images he found in the ACT UP collection at the NYPL, and he did some oral history and storying work to ground the project in memory. As he wrapped up, he spoke about how in his work he found information on a man with him he shared geographywith, but separated by death and two decades. It was poignant endnote, and unearthed some of his motivation in pursuing the project.
Silas spoke after Julian. And if Julian’s spinning was enchanting, than Silas’s spinning was enchanting and wonderfully enduring. In a blue dress shirt that made his eyes pop, Silas recounted for us his experience arriving in the Bay Area as a young person just as the worst days of the early AIDS crisis were drawing to a close, the sad slow days of “getting back to normal”.Silas is currently working on a book about that time in his life, and shared with us a story I will not ruin by attempting to retell it. But I will say, he concluded by conjuring up an image for us of a parade where a bunch of awesome “freaks” smashed a car with hammers. He then revels that in Justin Vivian Bond’s memory of the same event, the car was smashed with high heels. “Gendered memory,” Silas suggested is how to explain for the difference in memory.
The day before TIME IS NOT A LINE, publisher and writer Tom Léger posted the question “What should I do with them?” on Facebookwith a picture of 19 copies of Sarah Schulman’s book, People in Troublehe had acquired from Amazon. After I “liked” the photo, Tom wrote to me, asking if he could give them out at TIME IS NOT A LINE. Which I readily agreed to, with the request that he speak about why he was collecting the books.
After Silas spoke, Tom stood up and explained the books, and informed the crowd that if books go out of print, they are harder to get onto curriculum. Because many books, written for, by, and about queer people come from small presses, much of our literature is made even more difficult with the demise of small presses. Another way of saying time is not a line: progress is not guaranteed.
Concluding the presentation portion of the event, co-host Pato spoke about the many worlds he is a part of in including, his work as an artist, one of the forces behind CORPUS (a groundbreaking example of a holistic approach to health), and as a member of the Men Who Have Sex with Men Global Forum. As he does in his art practice, that afternoon he was able to connect the dots between the generations, make connections around race, class, and identity, and inspire people to consider difference in a productive way.
After Pato spoke, he opened up the floor for large group discussion. While some of the talk focused on the films and the previous night’s discussion between the directors, it also covered new ground and brought to the larger group, conversations that had been had in the smaller groups. It is here where my lack of note taking is a major fail.
The afternoon came to a close almost exactly at 5pm. Pato looked at his watch, noticed the time and asked if people wanted to go on for another 20 or 30 minutes. Without anyone answering people started to get up, grab the books that Tom had put on offer, and head towards the snack table.
At any other event, I think I would have been hurt by such an abrupt and unresolved ending. But for TIME IS NOT A LINE it seemed perfect. The event did not solve or resolve anything, nor did it aim to do so. Those who needed to leave, got to do it comfortably without interrupting. Those who wanted more conversation, or needed to process more, stuck around and finished the snacks, made new friends and chatted until we cleaned up the place.
TIME IS NOT A LINE brought together different voices; inspired by some related ideas; and gave space for AIDS and queerness—and art and activism—to be considered from a variety of angles. The work of TIME IS NOT A LINE is not over.
Before you came into my life I missed you so bad,” Carly Rae Jepsen
I realized the work I did for Revisiting the AIDS Crisis and the Ongoing Epidemicwas as an extension of NOT OVER: You, Me, Us and AIDS, a 3 week event that artists L.J. Robert, Quito Zeigler and I put on the spring of 2012 at the New School for QuORUM, presented by Visual AIDS.
The first week was organized by Quito and focused on the past. They invited people they new with a personal connection to HIV to share stories, including Kate Huh, Eric Rhein, Jack Waters, Hana NAME and Sur Rodney (Sur).
I organized the 2nd week. I showed Untitled, a film by Jim Hodges, Encke King and Carlos Marquez de Cruz. It is a non-narrative, experimental film of news clips, activist footage, pop culture references and other moving images. I describe the film as the people’s history of the last 30 years in America with AIDS at the center. The screening was followed by a discussion around the unendingness of AIDS in all the multiple ways that idea can be understood.
The third week focused on present day activism and was organized by L.J. They invited activists they admired to talk about what was going on and what needed to happen in the future.
The three weeks of NOT OVER made a big impression on me at the time and continue to inform my work. The conversations I had after each event and since illustrate for me how much more conversation around HIV in the present moment is needed and desired. As has been said by many others, the public conversation seems stalled in 1996 with the introduction of meds. And only now, with the coming together of the emerging and previous generations, are we seeing any real evolution in the discussion around AIDS in a big way.
The most obvious manifestation of this newly engaged conversation is the success of How to Survive A Plague and United in Anger. These films have made possible very public conversations around heady and emotional subjects: loss, resentment, frustration, survival, change (and lack their of), guilt, trauma, possibility and hope. They have put into the public sphere, in a way that deserves considering through the lens of Queer Archive Activism, the promise that the past can be used to reactive the present towards a better future.
Looking back on NOT OVER, it almost seems like we were premature. Or we were setting the stage for the conversations to come. In many ways each week felt like the first steps of a new chick fresh from the hatch. And each week felt overwhelming. I remember being wiped out each Saturday afternoon, wondering what had just happened and trying to make sense out of all the things I had heard.
What stands out the most for me of the three weeks was Jack Waters’ presentation the first week. Jack, with his partner Peter Crammer are ongoing legends. They have been squatting in the same place in New York on the Lower East Side for decades, and in that time as artists, muses, gardeners, and organizers, they have influenced generations of the queerest minds from around the world. They are deep, and flakey. They are ethical and beyond, and they are resourceful and generous.
Diverting from Quito’s prompt to talk about his experience living in New York and thinking about HIV, Jack instead climbed over and across the seats, settling into a snuggle with someone in the audience where he held court asking questions about social media and disclosure, honing in on ideas around how apps like grindr create a new barrier in comfortable and safe disclosure, a remove from the physical. Unlike a lot of older gentlemen who talk about “kids these days” Jack was not lecturing, but asking, and provoking. He loves youth and innovation. And part of his love is interrogation.
Walking down 5th ave towards Washington Square Park later that day I remember being with artist Buzz Slutzky, but having little ability to absorb what they were saying. I was still thinking of Jack, what he said, and how even though I understood the words, there was something in the meaning he was transmitting that would take a while for me to receive.
In hindsight I see that as an example of the unendingness of AIDS. He has an awareness that only comes with time, reflection, embodiment, and contemplation. He can attempt to pass it on, but it will only click once I too have experienced time, reflection, embodiment and contemplation around AIDS. While the virus may only take a moment to transmit from the interior of one body to the interior of another, the lived experience beyond words and the physical, may take generations.
Or maybe not.
And this exchange is not only from the elder to the younger.
And this is where I pause.
This is where we are right now.
This is the moment that makes the future impossible: negotiating the fact that in a mainstream way not only is AIDS not over, and not a thing of the past, but that we have to do a lot of collective work to do to unpack what AIDS now is, and what that means. We have collectively ignored the ongoingness of AIDS for too long, and now we need to catch up before we can skip ahead. To do this we will need to look backward and forward. The future holds as many answers for us as does the past.