Subscribe to:
POZ magazine
Join POZ: Facebook MySpace Twitter Pinterest
Tumblr Google+ Flickr Instagram
POZ Personals
Sign In / Join

Don Nguyen with Pham Thi Hue.jpg
Don Nguyen visits Pham Thi Hue in Vietnam

Visual AIDS's commitment to supporting women living with HIV on an international scale is perhaps best exemplified by our recent partnership and programs with the International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW). We launched our 2015 events calendar with a Valentine event, LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN: Romance Starts at Home, for which we hosted three papermaking valentine workshops to support women living with HIV. Jointly, women living with HIV and invited artists created hand-made valentines to be mailed with personalized messages to women living with HIV around the world as a gesture of love and support in hopes of lessening the stigma experienced by women living with HIV. And our My Body! My Rights! An Intergenerational Community Arts Werrrqshop with Women Living with HIV earlier this month for Women's HIV Awareness Month was an interactive hands-on workshop and intergenerational exchange of ideas and story telling with women from ICW joining us from Kenya, Ukraine, Canada, Puerto Rico, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, Nigeria and a number of other places to talk about their experiences identifying as women living with HIV and their activist experience. Together the group created activist banners that were carried and displayed during other activities throughout the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Don Nguyen's play Red Flamboyant brings a similar perspective to the stage, through the story of Pham Thi Hue and her activism for women living with HIV/AIDS in Vietnam. Here, Visual AIDS interviews Don about the play, his process, and stigmas surrounding HIV/AIDS in Vietnam.

Red Flamboyant runs from April 24 through May 16 at the Firebone Theatre, with performances Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. Further information can be found at the Firebone Theatre Company.

Describe the inspiration and process behind your writing of Red Flamboyant.
Pham Thi Hue, a woman living with HIV in Haiphong, Vietnam, served as the inspiration for my play Red Flamboyant. I first heard of her in a New York Times article when I was a playwright in the inaugural Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater in 2008. I was struck not only by her courage in the face of so much prejudice and stigma against anyone having HIV, but also by her deep compassion and desire to start a support group so that no one dies alone. The fact that I was also learning for the first time about this pandemic happening in my home country really hit me on a very personal level and I knew I wanted to write about the bravery as well as the humor of these women who Pham Thi Hue brought together in the country's first support group for HIV/AIDS.

When I started this play, I not only wanted to write about these women, but I also wanted to juxtapose them with the legend of the Trung sisters, two ancient female warriors who fought to liberate Vietnam from China's rule. The task would prove daunting for me, a guy who was born in Vietnam but grew up in Nebraska. I was terrified to write this play, so much so that I would constantly put it away and work on other projects. And yet I kept coming back to it. After about the twentieth draft and several readings and workshops, I found myself completely frustrated. Something wasn't connecting with me. I realized writing this play forced me to admit to myself that the Vietnam I knew was only through movies and television, often depicted through the lens of the American involvement during the war. That's all I knew of my homeland, which was not much at all. So, I decided to take a trip to Vietnam, my first time back since I left with my family when Saigon fell in 1975. And it was there that I got to meet Pham Thi Hue in person. I only spoke to her for an hour, but it was one of the most incredible moments of my life. I walked away feeling confident about the play and the direction it was heading.

What is the significance of the evocative title Red Flamboyant?
The title comes from the name of the HIV support group that Pham Thi Hue started in Haiphong, Vietnam. A red flamboyant is also the name of a flame-red flower that grows all over Asia and other tropical areas around the world. I love the name because it fits the play and the characters in it, which both exude a stylish exuberance.

What are some particularities of the experience of living with HIV in Vietnam that the play sheds light on?
In Vietnam, the general public has an irrational fear of coming into contact with those who are infected, to the point that many believe the infected run around in the streets poking people with infected needles. There is a stigma that befalls the infected, not only by the public at large, but often times by their own families. Some are left to die on the bathroom floor of their house. Many hospitals and physicians still refuse to treat those who are infected. Many are fired from their jobs or kicked out of their own schools and left with no legal recourse. The Vietnamese government categorizes HIV/AIDS as a social evil, along with drug use and prostitution, so this public stigma and shunning trickles down from the top. The Vietnamese government does not do enough in terms of supporting and funding HIV/AIDS programs. People living with HIV/AIDS must look to foreign aid if they want any chance to survive this pandemic. I hope that through the lens of HIV/AIDS in Vietnam, people will come to look at HIV/AIDS on a global level, affecting and infecting people all over the world, not just ones in their community.

How are the specific stigmas that relate to the experience of women living with HIV told through the narrative?
Even though the play focuses on the women's day-to-day struggle for survival, the stigmas are these exterior threats that constantly find a way into Mrs. Hue's house, and each of the women deal with them specifically through the narrative. For example, under the constant threat of bricks being thrown through their windows, they've boarded them shut. They never use the front door. They want to sing at the mid-autumn festival, so they wear masks while performing so that they're not recognized. And Mrs. Sau, the oldest of the group, tells the heroic story of the Trung Sisters each night for the women in order to fill them with courage and hope and to lessen the mental pain of being stigmatized.

The play exists in a fantastical world. Can you describe how this manifests on stage?
There is a moment in the play where the intimate interior of Mrs. Hue's house breaks open to reveal ancient Vietnam with mountains and ravines. The challenge is to balance the epicness of the play with the emotional connection that comes with the intimacy of the women inside the sitting room of a very small house. And to do that theatrically calls for creative solutions; I'm looking forward to seeing how our designers solve some of these production challenges.

Red Flamboyant incorporates aerial choreography. Can you describe how this came about and how it has been developed?
Along with the epicness of the world the Trung Sisters live in, I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to see the Trung Sisters fly. It serves as an homage to the kung fu soap operas my parents would spend hours upon hours watching. The characters in these soap operas flew all the time. There was never an explanation for it. It was just how it was. And that's the same for the Trung Sisters. Similar to those kung fu soap opera characters, the Trung Sisters possess something inside them that allows them to "fly over crowds and skip across clouds." Of course, flying on stage is very expensive and very dangerous. This is where the aerial choreography comes in. We've partnered with one of the best aerial choreographers in the country, Karen Fuhrman, who operates Grounded Aerial. She held a flying workshop for the artistic team and introduced the notion of single-bungee aerial, which is beautiful to watch. It allows the performer to smoothly glide across the stage, or flip and kick in the air as if they had superpowers. It's truly something to behold, and I can't wait to see how the audience reacts to it.

What was the inspiration behind the donation of 10 percent of ticket sales to Vietnam Relief Organization?
Mrs. Hue's Red Flamboyant support group has no easy or immediate way to donate money. There's no website, she's not on social media, as far as I know. There truly remains a boundary between her world and ours. So I was delighted to discover Vietnam Relief Services, a nonprofit organization that directly funds Mrs. Hue's support group and is in constant contact with her. The play does not just function as an exciting evening of theater; it must also raise awareness for the pandemic that is affecting so many people in Vietnam. At my request, Firebone Theatre Company is happily donating 10 percent of ticket sales to Vietnam Relief Services so that we can continue helping Mrs Hue and her group as much as we can. I also want to mention Amazin Le Thi, global ambassador for Athlete Ally and Vietnam Relief Services. We have partnered with her on publicity and outreach. Her own foundation works to inspire and empower HIV and homeless LGBTQ children and youth through sports and education.

What do you hope audiences will take away from Red Flamboyant?
I hope our audiences walk away with a greater sense of the world in general, that there are these untold stories in little pockets of the world that need to be told. I hope they are entertained by not only the fantastical elements of the play which include the air combat, but also the more intimate story of these women just trying to make it every day with their strength and dignity intact.

Don Nguyen's full length plays include: Red Flamboyant (2015 GAP Prize Winner, Ojai Playwrights Conference; finalist, O'Neill NPC), Sound (BAPF 2014; Playwrights Realm Fellowship; Civilians R&D), The Man from Saigon (NYSAF; Naked Angels), and The Supreme Leader. Don's work has been developed or produced at The Public Theater, The Flea, Ojai Playwrights Conference, New York Stage & Film, Naked Angels, Naked Radio, The Civilians, Ma-Yi Theatre, The Playwrights Realm, The Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Joe's Pub, The 52nd Street Project, SPACE on Ryder Farm, and Tofte Lake. Don is the recipient of the 2015 GAP Prize from the Aurora Theatre and New York Stage & Film Founder's award, and has been a finalist for The O'Neill National Playwrights Conference, The Princess Grace Award, Woodward International Playwriting Prize, and New Dramatists. Nominations include the Laurents/Hatcher award and the L. Arnold Weissberger Award. Don is a proud member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, the Public Theater's inaugural Emerging Writers Group, The Civilians' inaugural R&D Group, the 52nd Street Project, and a co-founder of Mission to (dit)Mars, a Queens-based theater arts collective. For more information, please visit

Housing Works action alert banner

Discussions of the Article 7 language regarding decriminalizing syringes and ending the use of condoms as evidence are taking place at the Capitol, Housing Works has made a recent ACTION ALERT and we need your help and outreach regarding the decriminalization of condoms and syringes.

1) Please send the following message to State Senator Dean Skelos as soon as possible.

Phone: 518.455.3171
Twitter: @senatorskelos

Subject heading [for emails]:
Decriminalize Condoms and Syringes!

Message [for emails and phone calls]:
Time and again, harm reduction methods prove to be the most successful in the fight against AIDS, and in New York State condoms and syringes have proven to be effective, low-cost HIV prevention tools. If we are going to prevent the spread of HIV, we need enhanced and expanded access to condoms and syringes rather than subjecting people to arrest for carrying multiple condoms and syringes.

We urge the Senate to support and include the Assembly Article 7 language to repeal the criminal law on syringe possession and end the use of condoms as evidence of sex trade offenses. These reforms will be crucial to ending AIDS as an epidemic in New York.

2) Please send the following message to Governor Cuomo as soon as possible.

Governor Andrew Cuomo

Phone: 518.474.8390
Twitter: @NYGovCuomo

Subject heading [for emails]:
Decriminalize Condoms and Syringes!

Message [for emails and phone calls]:
Time and again, harm reduction methods prove to be the most successful in the fight against AIDS, and in New York State condoms and syringes have proven to be effective, low-cost HIV prevention tools. If we are going to prevent the spread of HIV, we need enhanced and expanded access to condoms and syringes rather than subjecting people to arrest for carrying multiple condoms and syringes.

We urge Governor Cuomo to support and include the Assembly Article 7 language to repeal the criminal law on syringe possession and end the use of condoms as evidence of sex trade offenses. These reforms will be crucial to ending AIDS as an epidemic in New York.

Martin Wong in 1985. Photo by Peter Belamy. Courtesy of the Estate of Martin Wong and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York

Martin Wong: Painting Is Forbidden is a solo exhibition dedicated to the work of Chinese-American artist Martin Wong (1946-1999) curated by the California College of Art's graduate program in curatorial practice class of 2015. The exhibition encompasses writing, calligraphy, drawing, ceramics, theatrical set design, painting, poetry, and collage. Wong is known primarily for the paintings he produced while operating in the dynamic subcultures of the Nuyorican poets and graffiti artists of 1970s and 1980s New York City. Prior to this interlude in his life, Wong, who grew up in San Francisco and studied in Eureka, California, had already produced a wild and curious body of work. He was a prolific poet and ceramicist, a psychedelic painter, an artistic collaborator in the radical communal theater of the Angels of Light, and a self-described "Human Instamatic." Here, Visual AIDS interviews Katy Crocker and Ralph Vázquez-Concepción, two of the exhibition's co-curators, about the new light the exhibition sheds on Wong's wide-ranging practice.

Martin Wong: Painting Is Forbidden runs through April 18 at the CCA Wattis Institute of Art's Kent and Vicki Logan Galleries in San Francisco.

Can you describe the curatorial selection process that inspired the exhibition on Martin Wong?
Crocker: The curatorial selection process for the CCA graduate thesis exhibition attempts to mimic standard submission practices at museums. Student curators submitted proposals to a review committee, including the Wattis Institute, as well as the department chair of the curatorial practice program, Leigh Markopolous and Julian Myers-Szupinska. One student, Dincer Sirin, spent the summer of 2013 independently researching Martin Wong at the Fales Library at New York University. His proposal began with the general premise of a solo exhibition of Martin Wong, and was selected by the committee.

While Martin Wong: Painting Is Forbidden is a solo exhibition, it is not entirely accurate to describe the exhibition as monographic. The exhibition also contains works that Martin made collaboratively with the experimental performance commune Angels of Light in San Francisco; including several photographs of performances in the 1970s, as well as two masks worn during performances.

In what ways does the exhibition shed new light on Wong's varied artist practice?
Crocker: In 1964, Martin enrolled in the art department at Humboldt State University in Eureka, California. He studied and made art in Northern California for over a decade before moving to New York. Yet much of the work Martin made in California has not been exhibited. In Eureka, Martin developed the Human Instamatic series, created countless ceramic objects, constructed elaborate set designs and costumes with the Angels of Light, and published his first book of poems, Footprints, Poems, and Leaves (1968). The earliest drawing in our exhibition dates from 1963, "Portrait of Arthur Rimbaud." However, Martin is predominantly known for the paintings he produced while living in New York (1978-1995). Simply by focusing our research on an earlier moment of the artist's practice, our curatorial team discovered a curious, cross-disciplinary body of work.

Ralph Vázquez-Concepción: Painting Is Forbidden also presents these in a manner that you can interpolate many of the themes he explored across multiple media. Our exhibition design aims to capture the eye, and keep it bouncing across the gallery--ricocheting across the room, as curator Julie Ault mentioned during her visit prior to the opening. Ault is a curator who worked closely with Martin, and has written extensively about his work--and she is one of the lenders for our exhibition as well.

It's particularly exciting to show Wong's work in his hometown of San Francisco. In what ways did San Francisco and Humboldt State inform Wong's work, and have there been any interesting anecdotes during the course of the exhibition that relate to the Bay Area context of the exhibition?
Crocker: The time that Martin spent working in Northern California, especially Eureka, is marked by experimentation within, and across mediums. Martin's ceramic instructor at HSU, Lou Marak, a contemporary of Peter Voulkos, recalls a young artist who expressly broke the mechanical rules of making art. Peggy Dickinson, a classmate of Martin's, remembers large slabs of clay pulled from the presses in the studio, and him following closely behind stamping letters into the slab. Martin would fire ceramics incorrectly, which would somehow remain intact--he would engineer things incorrectly, which would still stand.

Martin's experimental attitude also traversed other art practices from calligraphy to painting. Similar to his artistic inclinations with ceramics, Martin adopted the basic tenets of a Gothic-style calligraphic font, and then altered the form, ultimately individuating the script. Martin filled sketchbooks, scrolls, and loose paper sheets with his personalized fonts. His early paintings reiterate the freeform line work of his scripts with hints of psychedelia, as in "Untitled (Diner Menu)" and "Untitled (Living Room)," painted in the early 1970s. Both Martin's early paintings, and calligraphic scrolls reflect feverish, obsessive hands constantly at work.

Also during this time Martin briefly worked as a courtroom illustrator in Eureka. This coincided with his Human Instamatic series, in which he quickly sketched the likeness of human faces, and sold the drawings for a few dollars. Martin drew hundreds of these portraits, dubbing himself the "human instamatic." Later New York-era paintings reflect Martin's early fascinations with headline news, media, and the criminal justice system such as "Courtroom Shocker" (1983), "As Seen on TV" (1981), and "Come Over Here Rockface" (1994).

Martin was a multiplier of sorts. He "mass produced" his art by hand by using tools, including dual-headed paintbrushes, American Sign Language letter form transparencies and a sets of letter stamps. He was also a collector of things--lunch boxes, antiques, rubber ducks and baby doll faces. However, he also collected intangible things like artistic practices, and techniques and people. Painting Is Forbidden gathered the artist's wide-ranging body of work in one room, and in so doing, and perhaps more importantly, reunited Martin's community of friends, and family in San Francisco, the artist's home.

New York audiences perhaps know Wong best for his figurative paintings of prison inmates and Lower East Side tenement living as well as his involvement in the graffiti scene. What are some of the more exciting additional materials from the exhibition, which encompasses mediums such as writing, calligraphy, ceramics, theatrical set design and poetry?
Vázquez-Concepción: In Painting Is Forbidden we are including archival material from private lenders and the Fales Archive, as we mentioned, and in these sources we discovered sketches for murals and paintings, sketches of friends (and lovers) like the poet Miguel Piñero--who was involved with the original Nuyorican poets' scene in New York City--and even letterhead for Wong's proposed Museum of American Graffiti. Among these materials, we discovered photographs and preparatory drawings for work like Martin's "Self Portrait Mural" (1989) at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center of New York City (recently restored, so go by and see it!), and we have a treasure trove of previously unseen ceramic works and paintings Wong produced while in Northern California in the '60s and '70s. As mentioned above, we also included photographs and masks that were used by the performance troupe the Angels of Light, of which Wong was a part of, and also drawings for posters he did for The Cockettes, another group of performers.

Our cohort wanted to cover as much of his practice as we could, and spent a great deal of time selecting the material that to us most clearly expressed his multiple aesthetic interests and modes of production. His poetry is what really struck me--it is their content that in my opinion captured his aesthetic preoccupations best, and foreshadowed many avenues he would later explore in his art in other media.

Crocker: Several members of the cohort also responded to Martin's scrolls and calligraphy. As well, Martin's photo-collages are worth mentioning. He would take a series of photographs of a location, and place several photographs together using masking tape in an asymmetrical arrangement. He then used these "photo-stitched" collages as reference to paint the documented locations. Finally, some of the masks Martin made in collaboration with the Angels of Light are spectacular.

Do you have a sense of the ways in which HIV/AIDS during the 1980s and after changed the trajectory of Wong's artwork?
Vázquez-Concepción: In an essay written by curator Yasmine Ramírez titled "La Vida: The Life and Writings of Miguel Piñero in the Art of Martin Wong" she explains that Martin's New York paintings were often portraits of friends, and he made these in order to "protect himself against further loss." I think we all agree with Ramírez, although he did portraiture since his human instamatic days in California.

The acknowledgement of death was present in Martin's work since the the '60s and '70s--in fact much of his early poetry expresses this overtly. Martin must have struggled seeing his world torn asunder by the storm that the '80s and '90s were to the gay community of both New York and San Francisco--and with his own disease--but what is evident is that there was an incredible sense of community that was right there with him going through this. He was never alone, this is clear, nor was he in any way diminished by the knowledge of his illness, with which he lived for many years.

One of the things that most struck our research team was the jovial disposition Martin expressed in a short video the artist Charles Ahearn made of him painting in his studio and walking about Chinatown. It was shot in the mid-'90s, and Martin looks very thin, yet still he smiles with an almost electric quality, and even flirts with the viewer, making one feel the discordance between his fading health and his lively persona. The video was dramatic to watch, as we all had at that point established an emotional relationship with Martin's image and charm, but it is evidence of what we stated before--his body and his health was going in one direction and his soul went in exactly the opposite way.

We would love to hear more about the poetry séance that you have planned for one of the related programs for the exhibition.
Crocker: The intention of the séance and poetry reading is to metaphorically resurrect the artist through the performance of reading the artist's poems. The Angels of Light, visiting poets to the California College of the Arts, and members of the LGBT community will honor the memory of the artist by reciting a selection of Martin's poems. Painting Is Forbidden includes several long-form, poetry-filled scrolls, portions of which might otherwise go unread in the exhibitionary framework. The séance gives our audience a quieter moment to listen to and interpret the words of the artist. The séance and poetry reading will be held at the Wattis Institute on April 18.

What do you hope viewers of Martin Wong: Painting Is Forbidden will take away from the exhibition?
Vázquez-Concepción: We hope that the public takes away a sense of intimacy with this artist, since this is the first retrospective effort to be undertaken in the Bay Area, and we wish to open up a dialogue about his work produced both here in California and in New York. We want people to begin to understand Martin as bicoastal, and neither being an expressly East nor West Coast artist, or let him get caught up in the muddle of who is from where and why. We think framing his legacy in this manner is not useful, and a bit shortsighted.

We want people to see an artist who was not stopped by his AIDS-related illness, and who continued to produce work, and to cultivate deep relationships with those around him all through his life until he could do so no more. We all fell in love with Martin's work, pouring over the archival material for hours, and discussing all that has been written about him, and we would like for people who visit our exhibition to fall in love with him too, and for them to see in Martin what we saw--a living example of what Sinatra was talking about in that song "My Way."

Crocker: I agree with Ralph on the point that I hope our audience takes away the understanding that both the Bay Area and New York impacted Martin's way of working. Also, the process of curating Painting Is Forbidden has been about accounting for the eclectic modes of working that Martin undertook. Finally, I see merit in establishing an equal value for Martin's ceramics, drawings, poetry, scrolls, stage set designs, and photo-collages alongside his paintings. In other words, I hope our audience recognizes the extent to which Martin was a wild individual, and innovator of a chaotic cross-disciplinary oeuvre, in addition to being a painter.

Founded in 2003, CCA's graduate program in curatorial practice offers an expanded perspective on curating contemporary art and culture. Alongside traditional forms of exhibition making, this two-year master's degree program emphasizes the momentous impact over the last half-century of artist-led initiatives, public art projects, site-specific commissions, and other experimental endeavors that take place beyond the confines of established venues. It is distinguished by an international, interdisciplinary perspective, and it reflects San Francisco's unique location and cultural history by placing a particular importance on the study of curatorial and artistic practices in Asia and Latin America.

Curators of Martin Wong: Painting Is Forbidden:
Roxanne Burton (United States)
Rui Tang (China)
Courtney Carrino (United States)
Amelia Brod (United Kingdom)
Caitlin Burkhart (United States)
Tanya Gayer (United States)
Alia Alsabi (United Arab Emirates)
Katy Crocker (United States)
Dincer Sirin (Turkey)
Ralph Vázquez-Concepción (Puerto Rico)

About the Equivalence Between Silence and Death

| No Comments

The exhibition P.O.L.E. took place at the New Museum from September 1, 2014, to February 15, 2015. Photo by Jesse Untracht-Oakner

Under the suggestive title P.O.L.E. (People, Objects, Language, Exchange), the New Museum in New York recently showed an exhibition by the artist duo Gerard & Kelly. Their site-specific arrangement comprised different objects like two central brass poles, plywood sculptures and a video work made in the aftermath of the Ferguson police shooting that killed Michael Brown and led to nationwide protests against (racist) police brutality and the indifference of the justice system. The exhibition resulted from workshops Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly organized during their six-month research and development residency at the New Museum, which investigated pole dancing and the kinds of exchanges it enables as well as the ways in which different communities have adapted it.

A performance during the run of the exhibition centered around the daily performances of two dancers from different (sub-)cultural backgrounds, who use the poles for a score-based choreography titled "Two Brothers" (other than its androcentric title suggests, "sisters" were also among the dancers). Lightened by neon tubes lined up against the gallery's western glass façade, the performance was further illuminated by pink and blue light emanating from ACT UP's famous neon piece that depicts its now-iconic SILENCE=DEATH motif, which was mounted on the upper part of the room's back wall and thus immediately visible to visitors entering the museum's lobby. The artists themselves understand their adaption and reconceptualization of this particular work, which was originally part of the window installation Let the Record Show... that New Museum curator and Visual AIDS co-founder Bill Olander commissioned for the New Museum in 1987 and that has been shown in different contexts within the museum's walls ever since, as a reminder of ACT UP and queer activism's cultural legacy: "We are part of a second generation of the civil rights movement that's using the strategies of direct action and non-violent protest that were perfected by ACT UP," Gerard explains in an interview. "For us, the inclusion of the SILENCE=DEATH neon sign is an attempt to bring a light from the past to the present movement."

In that sense, other than just treating the sign as a relic of old times, I am convinced that the motif's inherent semantics are still relevant in this "post-Ferguson moment" (Kelly) concerning the criminalization of young black men, because it contours collective problems: How can minority (queer/black) subjectivities claim visibility in a representational regime that appears to define itself through their exclusion, subordination or--so to say--silencing?

The initial question evoked by the equation (that due to its mathematical, axiom-like character claims some sort of universal truth) is usually: What or whose silence constitutes an equivalent to death--and why? Therefore, the original poster that first appeared in Manhattan in 1986 added two smaller, from a distance not legible lines underneath the motif; the first denounces Reagan, the Centers for Disease Control and Protection and the Vatican's silence toward the ongoing epidemic. SILENCE=DEATH can thus be easily understood as a reference to state and clerical ignorance: Because of their denial, AIDS and the affected individuals appear as unintelligible events, deprived of their recognition as something "real." This process of "othering" can, on the opposite, be conceived as the constitution of a humanity that, by articulation, becomes (or already is) lamentable--or at least recognizable. This epistemic, "dehumanizing" (Judith Butler) violence is comparable to the current form of deprivation of humanity, which culminated in the grand jury decisions neither to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown nor Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner.

Coming back to the previously mentioned poster, the second line calls for self-organized ways of protest, which leads to yet another interpretation of the equation that becomes even more evident in the context of the poster's (modified) adaption of the familiar symbol from the gay liberation movement: The pink triangle, which traces back to the sign used by the Nazis to identify homosexuals and that--because of this reference to a common historical victimization--seemed suitable to increase consciousness as well as responsibility for a collective group affiliation during the 1970s. According to the contemporary liberationist credo "Out of the Closets and onto the Streets," SILENCE=DEATH serves here as an analogous proclamation in terms of using identitarian visualization as a means to enforce political as well as social equality. For Lee Edelman it thus comes down to the "production, that is, of more text, as a mode of defense against the opportunism of mainstream medical and legislative responses to the continuing epidemic."i

It's exactly this ambiguity that defines the strength of ACT UP's graphic, as well as its relevance for present civil rights movements: It on the one hand demands awareness for the delegitimization of marginalized groups by official institutions while on the other hand accusing the (indifferent) public in order to encourage protests. The triangle further serves as a reminder that the systematic persecution during the Third Reich was (in part) possible because of the absence of collective resistance (a rhetoric that is equally applicable in terms of racism). With recourse to the symbol's meaning during Gay Liberation, SILENCE=DEATH furthermore implies that articulation (or production) of identity constitutes a necessary weapon in the struggle for survival: In order for a group to act politically it has to claim visibility, which, however, also leads to an increased usurpation into normative patterns of identity-construction and parameters of social control and discipline. The aware involvement facing these problems concerning minority self-representation shaped ACT UP's activist approach, particularly through the use of the visual and performing arts and the strategic interaction with the public media. Drawing on this specific quality, Judith Butler speaks of the "theatricalization of political rage."ii The protest thus utilizes the streets as a significant public space of conflict in our spectacle-society to combine political and theatrical elements in order to constitute an attraction for mass-media's (potential) attention. The intentional generation of visibility is conceived as an integral component of a political "acting out";iii through the media's images, anonymous masses are shaped into a political collective, which denounces public (in-)activities and demands self-determined visibility.

In this sense, the inclusion of the SILENCE=DEATH-sign is, as pointed out by the museum's press release, supposed to let us reconsider "relationships across moments and movements." But it also sheds some sort of utopian light on the ongoing injustices. A hope articulated in the rhetoric of the sign's initial museum presentation: The record will show; "history", as Olander put it back in 1987, "will judge our society by how we responded to this calamity."iv

Drawing on art's activist potential, P.O.L.E. reminds us of the necessity of political, direct actions instead of just hoping for a potential redemption.

Christian Liclair worked until recently as a research associate at the Collaborative Research Center: Aesthetic Experience and the Dissolution of Limits, Berlin, and is a PhD candidate at Freie Universität Berlin with a dissertation about "Desire as an Emancipatory Practice in U.S.-American Art".

iEdelman, Lee: "The Plague of Discourse, Politics, Literary Theory, and 'AIDS'," in: Edelman, Lee: Homographesis, Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory, New York; London 1994, pp. 79-92, p. 87.

iiButler, Judith: "Critically Queer," in: GLQ, Vol. 1 (1993), pp. 17-32, p. 23.


ivOlander, William: "The Window on Broadway by ACT UP," in: Wallis Brian (ed.): Democracy, A Project by Group Material, Seattle 1990, pp. 277-279, p. 277.

PDF club.jpg

Last month, Ted Kerr hosted an event called PDF Club: Forgetting ACT UP, by Alexandra Juhasz, at the Bureau of General Services Queer Division. It was an opportunity for people who care about AIDS and activism to come together to discuss Juhasz's essay exploring the idea that, "when ACT UP is remembered--again and again and again--other places, people, and forms of AIDS activism are disremembered." Below, Ted reflects on his program and contributes his "Our Herstory of the Ongoing AIDS Crisis(es)."

The event came out of my frustration that often when HIV/AIDS is discussed we fail to talk about the complexity and diversity of the past and ongoing responses to HIV, and how this is related to the larger problem of the limited ways histories are shared. Too often the past is reduced to one person, one moment. As Juhasz is asking in the essay: What is lost when we do that? And as I tried to explore at the event: What are the present-day ramifications when stories go untold or are overly simplified? What does it mean when we remember only a narrow version of ACT UP but fail to discuss Partners in Health, Robert R., Diseased Pariah News or Joy Morris?

In anticipation of the event I created an AIDS timeline (of sorts) that includes the above mentioned and more. Calling it "Our Herstory of the Ongoing AIDS Crisis(es)," I am naming A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn as an influence. The book shares the story of the United States from the point of view of those whose "plight has been largely omitted from most histories." I use "herstory" to illustrate the timeline's aim to not reproduce patriarchal ideas of the past. (After talking with a friend I realized I should have used hirstory instead.) I use "ongoing" and pluralize "crisis" to confirm what you already know: HIV/AIDS is not over, and there are many different experiences of the crisis. On the paper copy of the timeline that I distributed at the event, the following passage was included: "For PDF Club: Forgetting ACT UP (2015) I complied a list in chronological order of things within the ongoing AIDS movements of the world. This is not a comprehensive list. It leaves out infinitely more than it includes. It is bias."

We started and ended Forgetting ACT UP by reading from the "Our Herstory" timeline. It was powerful and beautiful to hear people stumbling over names they had never read out loud before, and to feel the joy emitted when someone's personal history become communal.

After the event I loaded the timeline up on my twitter deck to release a moment a day, using, "#ourherstory" in every post. My hope is people will share these moments online, and--most importantly--add their own so that together we may create "A People's AIDS Timeline."

Below are the initial moments I created for Forgetting ACT UP. To share on twitter or to create and share your own, feel free to use #ourherstory.

Researchers estimate that some time in the early 1900s a form of simian immunodeficiency virus, SIV, was transmitted to humans in central Africa. The mutated virus was later identified as the first of other human immunodeficiency viruses, HIV-1.

1959 The first known case of HIV in a human occurs in a man who died in the Congo, later (from his preserved blood samples) confirmed as having HIV infection.

1969 Robert R., an African-American teenager, dies, cause of death uncertain. A Western Blot test done in 1987 on his tissues confirm that he died of AIDS-related complications.

1981 The CDC reports a cluster of pneumonia cases in five gay men in Los Angeles.

1981 An article in The New York Times carries the headline: "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals". The article describes cases of Kaposi's sarcoma found in 41 gay men in New York City and San Francisco.

1982 A fatal wasting disease, known locally as "slim," is becoming increasingly common in Southwest Uganda.

1982 The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence release PLAY FAIR, one of the first safer sex pamphlets in response to the growing crisis.

1982 Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen with Dr. Joseph Sonnabend write "How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach," which advises gay men about how to avoid contracting the infecting agent which causes AIDS, now known to be HIV.

1982 Gay Men's Health Crisis forms in Larry Kramer's NYC apartment.

1983 Dr. Mathilde Krim and others launch with the New York-based AIDS Medical Foundation which will later merge with an LA organization to form amfAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

1983 The Denver Principles are drafted by people living with HIV, which begins with "We condemn attempts to label us as "victims," a term which implies defeat, and we are only occasionally "patients," a term which implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are 'People With AIDS.'"

1984 First small-scale needle and syringe exchange project starts in Amsterdam.

1984 The first AIDS research project in Africa, Project SIDA, is launched in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

1985 China reports its first HIV/AIDS case; this means that at least 1 HIV/AIDS case has been reported from each region of the world.

1985 Paul Farmer and Ophelia Dahl help set up a community-based health project in Haiti known as Zanmi Lasante, which later becomes part of Partners in Health.

1985 The AIDS Quilt is conceived by activist Cleve Jones.

1985 117 parents and 50 teachers sign a petition calling for 14 year old Ryan White to be banned from Western Middle School because of their ignorance around White's HIV-positive status.

1986 Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD) was conceptualized in New York City, a result of the vision of founder Reverend Charles Angel who, together with a few of his closest friends, embarked on a mission to empower black gay men.

1986 Silence = Death posters created by a small group of artists appear in NYC.

1986 Other Countries, Black Gay Expression hosts first writers workshop on June 14.

1987 The first antiretroviral drug (AZT) is licensed to treat people with HIV, but is unavailable to virtually everyone outside of the United States and select "developed nations."

1987 The U.S. government bans HIV-positive travelers from entering the country, citing both public health concerns and the potential financial burden on US health service. Among President Obama's first actions was revoking the ban.

1987 GMHC hired Jean Carlomusto to staff its audio-visual department and the Living with AIDS show began regular cable access broadcasts (although a few shows can be dated as early as December 1984). Also in 1987, Testing the Limits began to document the burgeoning AIDS movement.

1987 After Nora Ephron cancels a talk at the LGBT Center, Larry Kramer fills in, delivering a powerful speech asking, according to Douglas Crimp, "Do we want to start a new organization devoted to political action?" The answer was "a resounding yes." Approximately 300 people met two days later to form ACT UP.

1988 The World Health Organization establishes World AIDS Day on December 1, believing it would maximize coverage of World AIDS Day by western news media, sufficiently long following the U.S. elections but before the Christmas holidays.

1988 Lou Sullivan participates in a series of interviews in which he talks about his experiences as a gay trans man living with HIV.

1988 The art collective Little Elvis distributes a yellow and black sticker that reads "The AIDS Crisis Is Not Over."

1989 Kiyoshi Kuromiya launches Critical Path, a newsletter that contained some of the earliest and most comprehensive sources of HIV treatment info that was mailed to people all over the world including incarcerated individuals to "insure their access to up-to-date treatment information."

1989 STOP THE CHURCH, organized by ACT UP and Women's Health Action and Mobilization, mobilizes 4,500 protestors to gather outside a mass at St. Patrick's cathedral while a few dozen activists enter the cathedral to interrupt mass, chant slogans, and lay down in the aisles to protest the Roman Catholic Archdiocese's public stand against safe sex education in New York City public schools, condom distribution, the cardinal's public views on homosexuality, as well as Catholic opposition to abortion.

1990 Diseased Pariah News, a humorous magazine about HIV/AIDS, is launched in San Francisco, published by Beowulf Thorne and edited by Tom Shearer. All the issues were gathered and digitized in one website by Tom Leger and Julie Blair.

1990 The WAVE project (Women's AIDS Video Enterprise) is formed, a group of diverse women using video production for self-empowerment while living with AIDS.

1991 The Visual AIDS Artist Caucus creates the Red Ribbon to show support and compassion for those with AIDS and their caregivers.

1991 The first International Indigenous AIDS Conference is hosted in Auckland, New Zealand by Te Roopu Tautoko Trust.

1992 The International Community of Women Living With HIV is unveiled at the International AIDS Conference after years of women from around the world feeling ignored within the AIDS movement.

1992 Durbar, a sex worker collective of male, female and transgender sex workers, forms a a vertical HIV intervention program. The program defines HIV as an occupational health problem.

1992-1993 At the urging of activists, the CDC changes the definition of "AIDS" to be more inclusive, specifically around the inclusion of women. A famous slogan at the time from Gran Fury goes, "Women Don't Get AIDS, They Just Die From It."

1993 James Wentzy begins AIDS Community Television. Over the course of three years he produces over 150 programs. His work is available to view at the NYPL.

1994 POZ Magazine, a lifestyle magazine for people living with HIV, is formed. The title comes from a conversation founder Sean Strub had with a friend who asked if a new mutual friend "was a pozzie."

1996 In Vancouver, the 11th International AIDS Conference highlights the effectiveness of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART).

1996 With federal law 9313 the Brazilian government provides free, universal provision of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), including protease inhibitors to all citizens living with HIV/AIDS. In part this is possible because Brazil has begun producing generic versions of AIDS meds, against challenges from the United States.

1996 AID for AIDS is founded by Jesús Aguais, an AIDS activist from Venezuela, working at the HIV Clinic of St. Vincent's Hospital. Among many projects is the HIV Medicine Recycling Program, which recovers unused, unexpired life-saving medication that otherwise will be wasted and redistributes it to those without access in developing countries through the AIDS Treatment Access Program.

1997 Fela, pioneer of Afrobeat music, dies of complications related to AIDS. Over 1 million people attend his funeral in his home country of Nigeria.

1997 Sex Panic is formed in NYC as a a "pro-queer, pro-feminist, anti-racist direct action group" campaigning for sexual freedom in the age of AIDS. That same year Eric Rofes gives a keynote address at the Creating Change conference in San Diego, addressing what he views as an emerging "sex panic" targeting gay men, with the scapegoating increasingly coming from within the LGBT community.

1998 Noble Peace Prize nominee, activist Zackie Achmat, living with HIV in South Africa, refuses to take antiretroviral drugs until all who needed them have access, even after Nelson Mandela urges him to resume his treatment. He holds firm until August 2003, shortly before the South African government announces that it will make antiretrovirals available in the public sector.

1998 After the beating death of Gugu Dlamini, a volunteer field worker for the National Association of People Living With HIV/AIDS in South Africa, activists across the HIV spectrum started wearing "HIV Positive" T-shirts in an attempt to reduce violence and stigma, a strategy inspired by the apocryphal story of the Danish king wearing the yellow star marking Jews under Nazi occupation.

2001 The United Nations Commission on Human Rights affirms access to AIDS drugs as a human right unanimously, with the exception of the abstention of the United States.

2001 Artist Chloe Dzubilo founds the Equi-Aid Project, a Manhattan-based riding program that specifically works with children who are infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS as well as other at-risk youth. Chloe had been involved with the political action group the Transsexual Menace and will go on to direct one of the first federally funded HIV prevention programs for transgender sex workers in 1997.

2002 Joy Morris founds TransActions, an organization that lobbies and advocates for HIV services for transgender people at both the local and national levels.

2003 Insite, a supervised injection site, opens in Vancouver, Canada, as a place where people can inject drugs and connect to health care services.

2007 The South African government begins to scale up its ARV program after years of previous President Mbeki's state-sponsored AIDS denialism.

2008 Swiss experts say individuals with undetectable viral load and no STIs cannot transmit HIV during sex.

2008 Sex Positive, a film by Daryl Wein that explores the life of Richard Berkowitz, a revolutionary gay S&M sex worker turned AIDS activist in the 1980s, is released.

2010 VOCAL NY is formed out of what had been the New York City Housing Network, which was founded in the mid-'90s by Jennifer Flynn, Joe Bostic and Jose Capestany, and focused on community organizing and political education to build power among marginalized New Yorkers.

2011 Cambodia, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Viet Nam and Laos sign "A Memorandum of Understanding for Joint Action to Reduce HIV Vulnerability related to population movement in the greater Mekong Subregion" with the overall objective to "reduce HIV vulnerability and promote access to prevention, treatment , care and support among migrants and mobile population and affected communities."

2011 The "I Party. I Bareback. I'm Positive. I'm Responsible." poster is created by Mikiki (with Scott Donald) for AIDS Action Now's posterVIRUS campaign.

2012 On September 25, a former prisoner, community partners and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network launch a lawsuit against the Government of Canada over its failure to protect prisoners' right to health and prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C virus in Canadian federal prisons, popularizing the slogan "prison health is community health."

2012 Films How to Survive a Plague (dir. David France) and United in Anger (dir. Jim Hubbard) are released.

2012 Australia's The Institute of Many (TIM) is a peer-run group for HIV positive people is co-founded by Nic Holas and Jeff Lange, who feel "that we are part of the third wave of HIV positive people."

2012 QUEEROCRACY works in coalition with ACT UP New York, ACT UP Philadelphia, Health GAP, Housing Works and VOCAL-NY to take over Speaker of the House John Boehner's office. Protestors strip naked to represent "the naked truth" of what looming sequestration cuts would mean for people living with HIV/AIDS.

2013 The Center for Comprehensive Care change their name to the Spencer Cox Center for Health, honoring the life of activist Spencer Cox who in 2012 at age 44 died of AIDS-related causes.

2013 Jessica Whitbread begins Love Positive Women, an initiative that runs February 1 to 14 and encourages people to express, share, and and support themselves as a positive woman, or as a friend of the community.

2013 GrenAIDS is formed in NYC, initiated by artist Kia Lebajia and others with the goal of giving you a "healthy dose of artist collective, with a sizable portion of HIV/AIDS consciousness and education, adding a handful of calling you out on those tired AIDSphobic remarks. We're going the fuck off. BOOM. GrenAIDS."

2013 is launched, "the *sexy* HIV+ transgender blog."

2014 Presente! The Story of Latino AIDS Activism in NYC is hosted by the NYPL.

2014 The first ever national HIV Is Not a Crime conference is held in Grinnell, Iowa, organized by a coalition of HIV, LGBT and social justice groups.

2016 The 21st annual International AIDS Conference will be held in Durban, South Africa.

Derek Jackson, "Future Faggotry" (2014)

To honor the 25th year of Day With(out) Art on December 1, 2014, Visual AIDS commissioned seven artists/collectives--Rhys Ernst, Glen Fogel, Lyle Ashton Harris, Hi Tiger, Tom Kalin, My Barbarian, and Julie Tolentino/Abigail Severance--to create provocative new short videos that reflect and respond to the ongoing AIDS pandemic for a program titled ALTERNATE ENDINGS.

Here, Sur Rodney (Sur) considers Hi Tiger's contribution to the video program, "The Village."

Hi Tiger, "The Village" (2014) from Visual AIDS on Vimeo.

Visual and performance artist Derek Jackson grew up in Texas on the Mexican border. Currently he lives, with his art making, in Portland, Maine. Although his engagement with the community he finds there, its resources, and anything passing through, provide soil for his flowering, our meetings have always been elsewhere, in New York: on the island of Manhattan, or Brooklyn, his second home. Traveling between Portland and New York are life sustaining for Derek's adventurous creative endeavors, having him appear in full bloom.

As a visual artist, Derek's styling and presentation are considered with meticulous thought and consideration to details, something I pay attention to, as does Derek, who's even more astute in that regard, and has produced plenty of evidence. Derek is a good photographer; his photographs always sharp (he likes to use that word) and he knows well-composed from not, in whatever he is picturing. His garden as an expression of others, his self, his fantasies, inspired by a need to confront, expose, and explore are always present--his desire rooted in the soil that he's growing in.

His visual imagery stands out with a lurking affirmation--this is part of who I am, this is what I love. Believing this, I become convinced his imagery is about disclosure with an aroma of desire more than anything. What fear factors he's forced to live with, as an adventurously creative queer Black male living his life with HIV, creates imaginable stigmas. What Derek does with them has me celebrating.

One of my last interactions with Derek happened with his presence at a Visual AIDS program on December 1, 2014, for a screening of his video "The Village" at the SVA Theater in Manhattan. Derek was among seven artists/collectives commissioned to create new short videos that were screened internationally on World AIDS Day. Waiting for the program to start had me thinking of a video Derek had presented years earlier, animating hundreds of images of himself captured daily over many months, creating a diary of images expressing his body language during his suffering over a lost love, and what was never said. Derek's newly presented video has us experience how fully engaged he becomes performing "The Village," a song by New Order (one of the more critically acclaimed and influential British rock bands formed in the 1980s) with Hi Tiger, a Portland, Maine-based punk art band he fronts. Derek's cover version of the song is performed at a much slower tempo with a feeling for the lyrics phrasing traditionally found where the umber soil of blues, rock and jazz find their funk. We hear the band's guitarist stretching cords, the drummer waiting for his entry point, while a fighting fit Derek, dressed in a black sleeveless T-shirt, black jeans, and knee high boots with spiked high heels, emotes the lyrics into the microphone.

When a new life turns towards you • And the night becomes a bay • We shall remain forever • Everyone who meets his way • Oh, our love is like the flowers • The rain and the sea and the hours • Oh, our love is like the flowers • The rain and the sea and the hours

The less upbeat tempo has us feeling somewhat sad and melancholy. As the program suggests, the video "...mediates on themes of love and loss, complexity and defiance." Derek is in full bloom here, and the picture is perfect in a stark white room with sound equipment, a laptop and sound board on a side counter, and a shy pulse of colored intermittent strobe lights. A line of light bulbs illuminate the lower borders of the video, in effect creating the front edge of his stage set (his meticulous attention to detail) reminding us that he's performing on a stage, for an audience.

In a discussion that follows, Derek speaks to his curious outsider status, shared with many of the Mexicans he grew up with in Texas who loved this music, an anomaly to the larger demographic of fans of '80s bands like New Order and The Cure who were predominantly white males, like the bands themselves. Reclaiming his past as a vehicle to find his voice brings Derek back to a song called "The Village."

New Order's "The Village" was originally produced in 1983-84 with lyrics open to many interpretations, one of the most assumed having to do with the lyricist's love and relationship with a band member who eventually committed suicide. Noticeably absent from Derek's performance are the last two lines of the song's original lyrics:

Their love died three years ago • Spoken words I cannot show

These words resonate differently in 2014 than they might have in 1984. My timeline memory highlights 1981 as the early beginnings of the AIDS pandemic, that was then seen as a new and potentially epidemic disease, an open policy area. Some of the most moving sentiments in Derek's interpretation are his vocalizing the lyrics:

When the rain falls to the sea • they'll be waiting for you and for me • and the sky reflects our image • Trying to sleep though our lives

We may or may not be being watched but inevitably we spend our time trying to live our lives, while preferring the comfort of sleep.

Oh, our love is like the earth • The sun and the trees and the birth • Oh, our love is like the earth • The sun and the trees and the birth

These lines evoke meaning to our sustaining of life, nature, and nurture in bloom. And, as the program notes have us reflect, in the context of HIV and AIDS, "The Village" has me thinking of a love letter, and flowers--to those who have died, and to behold the life of the living. Thank you Derek, for calling that to mind.

Sur Rodney (Sur) is enigmatically recognized as an artistic collaborator, writer and archivist. His last venture with Visual AIDS had him collaborating with Kris Nuzzi to co-curate NOT OVER: 25 Years of Visual AIDS at La Galleria LaMaMa. (2013). His three part essay "Activism, AIDS, Art, and the Institution" will be included in the forthcoming exhibition catalog AIDS Art America (2015).

Derek Jackson of Hi Tiger on ''The Village'' and finding his voice from Visual AIDS on Vimeo.



Blog Roll

Subscribe to Blog

Recent Comments

  • Shawn Decker: March, 1996, Steve Schalchlin starts Living in the Bonus Round, read more
  • Reggie Dunbar II: This article stimulates the thought process into action for Manu read more

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Visual AIDS on the Web

Visual AIDS on Twitter


The opinions expressed by the bloggers and by people providing comments are theirs alone. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Smart + Strong and/or its employees.

Smart + Strong is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information contained in the blogs or within any comments posted to the blogs.

© 2015 Smart + Strong. All Rights Reserved. Terms of use and Your privacy