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To Fight Another Day: The Myth of the AIDS Queer Artist Gap

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Kia Labeija, My Mother's Chair, 2013

For over 25 years, MIX NYC has a been a site for intense and necessary discussions around evolving understandings of queer identity as they relate to art-making practices. So it comes as little surprise that during the 2014 MIX Festival in November, charged conversations were had and poignant moments resulted. During the Q&A for Stéphane Gérard's film History Doesn't Have to Repeat Itself, rosza daniel lang/levitsky made an incisive comment about the "AIDS Queer Artist Gap," and Visual AIDS was listening. Rosza has since turned his comment on AIDS, art, and generation gaps into the longer piece below.

There's an idea going around in the world of North American queer culture that there's a deep generational gap somewhere between thirtyish and fortyish; that queer culture has suffered a deep interruption; that intergenerational ties have been broken; and that all of this is a direct result of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and in particular of the first, pre-antiretrovirals wave of illness and death.

It's an idea that seems to have taken particular hold among white gay and queer men (both cisgender and trans) in their early 30s and younger, but that has some exponents in older cohorts and across a wider gender range (though I've met few among lesbians and queer women, cis or trans, of any age). In my New York City context, it has been most visible in the rhetoric surrounding the production projects of Dan Fishback ("Squirts," at La MaMa, in particular), the Queer/Art/Mentorship outgrowth of Ira Sachs' Queer/Art/Film series, and a few other production efforts. Christopher Carbone's article for Slate, "The Velvet Silence: Mentoring Across the AIDS Queer Artist Gap," is an excellent sample of how it presents itself. I'm sure folks in other queer cultural hubs can fill in their own local equivalents.

In writing a critique of this idea--which I believe is untrue and has toxic consequences--I'm not accusing the folks who've taken the initiative in creating and publicizing these projects of any kind of maliciousness or calling them ill-intentioned. These are colleagues whose work I deeply appreciate, many of them also my good friends and valued artistic collaborators. I'm writing in part because I don't want to see their fantastic work tied to this unfortunate framework.

I'm also in no way disputing either the deep impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on practically every aspect of queer culture, or the importance of cultivating intergenerational connections and mutual support among queer and trans cultural workers. Having come out publicly somewhat before Andrew Sullivan notoriously claimed that "AIDS is over," and having been supported in developing my craft as a cultural worker and political organizer by many queers of previous cohorts (ACT UP veterans in particular), those are both bone-deep truths for me.

What I am going after, to be very clear, is the claim of an "AIDS queer artist gap"--the specific argument that I'm hearing circulate in my communities, and seeing used to leverage both cultural capital and monetary resources.

Chloe Dzubilo, Untitled (Pier Queens), 2008

Queer Artist

I need to start by saying a word about "queer culture." This is the framing, in various versions ("queer artistic community," "queer performance," "a queer cultural legacy") that the "AIDS queer artist gap" rhetoric uses.

There are two, somewhat contradictory definitions of "queer" in use right now. I think the understanding of "queer culture" at play here stands right at the point where they come closest to each other, so I won't go too far into it, but I think the tension here is important to name.

One is as an umbrella identity term for folks who aren't heterosexual: gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, sometimes trans and gender-nonconforming folks, and sometimes folks with other, culturally specific identities (same-gender-loving; two-spirit; AG; etc.).

The other is as a term aimed at cultivating political affinity among folks outside the enforced boundaries of "normal" sexuality and gender--gay men and lesbians who do not aspire to married normalcy; poor single mothers used as pawns in debates about public assistance; out trans and gender-nonconforming folks; publicly polyamorous heterosexual folks; folks whose culturally specific identities make them illegible to or targeted by the dominant culture; etc.

The first is an assertion of underlying similarity, leading to shared identity; the latter a commitment to difference, leading to mutual solidarity.1

Using either version of "queer," queer culture is a many splendored thing. As the projects I mentioned earlier describe it--and make it visible in their groups of participating artists--it is the shared creation of a diverse group of cultural workers. Diverse in racial/ethnic terms (passively, under the "umbrella" definition; as an active commitment under the "political" one), but also diverse in gender and specific sexuality: gay men, lesbians, queer-identified folks of many genders, trans and gender non-conforming folks, and more. In this, it's quite distinct from either specifically gay male culture or specifically lesbian culture, both of which are quite consciously single-gender2 (though each has its cross-gender icons, understood as figures outside of the culture and its creators).

This separation between queer culture and both gay male and lesbian cultures is grounded in a long history of divergence, and in a fairly clear division of primary commitment. A fair number of individuals move back and forth as participants in queer culture and gay male or lesbian culture; very few are central figures on both sides of the line. This is especially true of gay male culture: while many areas of lesbian culture have moved into close connection with queer culture over the past 20 years, gay male culture has remained determinedly separate. 3

Larry Mitchell and Ned Asta, for instance, in their 1977 The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions, make it very clear that what it means for "the faggots" to have ceased to be "the men who love men" is that now they learn from and live closely with "the women who love women" and "the queens," with whom they jointly create the culture of "the dykalets and the faggatinas." That multi-gender culture, as much as the closet, is what separates them from "the queer men," who only associate with each other. The terminological reversal may be confusing, but the distinction being made is clear. We can see the same division now: the same men are not on the dance floor at Hey Queen and Vandam or in the audience for "Squirts" and "Arias with a Twist."

So what does the idea of an "AIDS queer artist gap" do to how we understand queer culture?

Chloe Dzubilo, Untitled (Pyramid Club), 2008

Artist Gap

First of all, it erases the specific people who have been most important in carrying queer culture forward over the past two decades--the precise people who mentored the generation of gay male artists who're now promoting the "gap" myth.

I'm going to talk here about my own cultural home: the sprawling queer performance world that emerged in the late 1960s, especially on the Lower East Side, and blossomed by the 1980s. My impression is that a similar story could be told about most other geographic centers of queer culture; I can't offer details for other places, so I won't try. What made that performance scene queer was the intermingling of gay men, lesbians, trans women, and other freaks (including some heterosexual ones) in companies like Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theater, at performance venues like the Pyramid Club and P.S.122, in theater audiences, dance clubs, bands, political projects, and street demonstrations.

The epidemic killed many people from that world--Charles Ludlam, Ethyl Eichelberger, and Cookie Mueller being only a few of the selection memorialized in Ira Sachs' haunting film Last Address.

The survivors, however, have been notable in the amount of energy they've put into mentoring younger artists. Jennifer Miller, Jenny Romaine, Carmelita Tropicana, Peggy Shaw, Lois Weaver, Deb Margolin, Jack Waters, Peter Cramer: all visible for decades as supporters of the cohorts that have come after them, and still very actively giving younger artists opportunities to present work as well as honoring them with advice and loving guidance. And, in most cases if not all, deeply involved in AIDS activism during ACT UP's crucial years and beyond.

It's not a coincidence that most of the folks I just named, who the "AIDS queer artist gap" erases, are women: because of the epidemic's demographics; because of social expectations of women as givers of support and care; because that's who's easiest (for gay men, in particular) to dismiss as not really having been there at all. This misogyny is not incidental to the myth of the "gap"--it's central to its appeal to young white gay men (cis and trans alike), and to its effectiveness at drawing funding from institutional sources.

Maybe there would be a case to be made for an absence of mentorship if we were talking about gay male culture. I don't know; it's not my world. But for queer culture, it's simply not true, and deeply insulting to the work many queer artists have done and continue to do to ensure the vitality of these artistic lineages.

Jack Waters, Aktion Painting #9 (August 2007) -- performance by Inbred Hybrid Collective: Peter Cramer, Jack Waters, Marc Arthur, Dominic Cloutier; photo documentation by Patrick Maloney

Queer Gap

Second, it puts white gay men at the center of queer culture, and makes it sound legitimate to keep them there.

The projects I've been using as my reference points have done a pretty solid job of supporting young queer cultural workers of many genders and racial/ethnic backgrounds, though there's still an extremely noticeable absence of trans women, and other, perhaps less glaring, gaps. That makes it all the more visible not only that the older generation of artists they present is so overwhelmingly white, but that both are initiatives founded and run by white gay men.

The contrast is even starker when these newly launched projects are compared to other efforts to provide young queer artists with places to present their work. Take, for instance, Heels on Wheels, a working-class-femme-led production company whose Opentoe Peepshow presents monthly showcases of queer and trans performance. Or Cabaret Cataplexy, a black-queer-centered variety theater series. Or, for that matter, Circus Amok's Works in Process series, which presented several dozen queer artists in its largest six-month season.

None of these projects has received anything like the level of attention and--more importantly--material resources and institutional support that "Squirts" and "Q/A/M" have enjoyed. Each of the three has a curation team that more directly reflects the artists they present (race- and gender-mixed queer, largely femme; black gender-mixed queer; all-over-the-map queer and trans), all have been around longer, and each is helmed by artists with more extensive experience as performance producers.

The "gap" framing has been a large part of what's made these particular projects led by white gay men so high-profile, both in terms of visibility and access to resources. Why? Because the situation we see in these projects, sadly, closely reflects what typically happens around HIV/AIDS. We know the realities of the epidemic among queer and trans folks in North America: trans women of color, white trans women, gay men of color, and white gay men have been the hardest hit, in pretty much that order. But we also know that the public image of an HIV+ queer or trans person is still a white gay man.

The narratives around queer culture that are tied to the "AIDS queer artist gap" reflect that deep discontinuity between reality and image. For instance, Christopher Cardone's article in Slate mentions the ball scene in passing, and in the past tense. You'd never know that ball culture is still flourishing, and continuing into its second century4 as a space where young queer and trans artists of color learn, thrive, and go on to mentor in their turn. Mentorship of queers of color by queers of color, of trans women by trans women--in an artistic community that's probably the one most affected by HIV/AIDS--is completely erased behind the "gap." Nothing to learn about mentorship there. No models to draw from, no master teachers to recruit. No: not while AIDS can still be thought of and rewritten as a white gay men's experience, and while cultural institutions reward those who perpetuate that myth.

And as long as that is the dominant version of who is at the center of the epidemic, defining queer culture in terms of HIV/AIDS in this way serves to legitimize continued white gay male gatekeeping at cultural institutions, which--I shouldn't need to point out--there's quite enough of already in the straight world, let alone ours.


Third, on the flip side, it obscures the actual current realities of the epidemic that is still killing our friends, comrades, lovers, artistic collaborators, colleagues, crushes, tricks, and neighbors.

Few people these days are willing to argue in a queer cultural context that "AIDS is over." There are amazing projects, both cultural and political, aimed at undoing the image of the epidemic (in the present or the past) as a white gay men's issue--a myth still believed among white queer and trans folks much more widely than it is voiced. Folks involved in both the projects that I've been talking about are connected to that work, and are visible in support of it.

But spreading a narrative that puts HIV/AIDS at the center of queer culture and is used in aid of organizations led by white gay men does just the opposite. It doesn't contribute to changing understandings of the epidemic as it actually is and was. It only ties queer cultural work to a ship that queer cultural workers are rightly trying to capsize.

If queer cultural projects want to insist on a connection to the ongoing epidemic in the U.S. and beyond, shouldn't they support the political work that's sharpest and most clear about the realities of HIV/AIDS today? That's what has marked ACT UP as a queer organization, and what still distinguishes it from the gay organizations alongside it. And that's what's distinguished the ACT UP chapters that have maintained their vitality and effectiveness into the fourth decade of the epidemic from those that have not.

In that political lineage, too, there have been strong traditions of mentorship, both within the HIV/AIDS movement and beyond it; such strong ones that it's hard to understand how the idea of an "AIDS queer activist gap" can be taken so seriously. Take the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, for instance: the NYC radical brass band has a young queer and trans majority in its 50-person membership, some of whom may not even know that the project's consensus process, meeting structure, and flamboyant street presence are direct inheritances from ACT UP New York, by way of older queer and trans band members who worked in other projects with surviving members of the legendary Action Tours affinity group. This close interweaving of cultural work, organizing, agitation, and mentorship--in precisely the contexts where queers have focused most on AIDS--is yet another sign of how fictional the "gap" is.

AIDS Queer

What is to be done?

I don't think that's a particularly complicated or existentially troubling question here.

Let's build structures that connect queer and trans artists across generational and community lines, and help us support each other better. Let's learn how to do that from the ball houses and ACT UP veterans and others in our community who've been doing just that for years.

But let's be very clear and loud about why it's important: because queer culture is a real and living and deeply important thing; because young queer and trans folks are under attack by a straight society (both hetero- and homosexual) that does not want them to exist; because queer and trans cultural work is hideously under-supported; because older queer and trans folks have a lot to learn from those younger than us; because we've all experienced bad mentorship and can aspire to do better; because intergenerational friendships and artistic collaborations are amazing.

And, in parallel to that, let's look seriously at how HIV/AIDS affects our cultural communities, both through the legacy of the pre-antiretroviral years and in the present. Let's learn from the folks who've been examining that for decades--starting even before the path-breaking specificity of Eric Rofes's proposals for "regenerating gay men's sexuality and culture in the ongoing epidemic." But let's build on his understanding that all queers are not gay men, and begin by being clear that there's not one single answer to that question: that a queer latinx genderqueer from Corona, a white gay cis man from Canarsie, an ex-hasidic trans dyke from Midwood, a same-gender-loving black butch queen from Harlem will all experience different effects, and that each will also be different depending on whether they're anchored in gay male, lesbian, or queer cultural worlds. And let's bring all of our craft and creativity to bear on today's struggles around HIV/AIDS. The epidemic is not over, and there's plenty of work to do.

But let's not pretend that these two are the same project. Let's let the toxic myth of an "AIDS queer artist gap" wither and fade away, and get on with our lives making amazing queer culture together. 5

1 The difference between the two definitions is probably best clarified with some concrete examples. Under the "umbrella" definition, Edith Windsor, a rich white lesbian committed to state-recognized marriage as a way of avoiding estate taxes, would be considered "queer," while a working-class Puerto Rican single mother targeted for nonconsensual sterilization or a heterosexual couple having a one-time-only internet hookup in a public park would be "straight." Under the "political" definition, the opposite would be true, as long as the latter two understood themselves to be under attack on the basis (among other things) of their "deviant" sexuality. Further, the "political" definition considers forced sterilization and public sex to be inherently "queer issues," while the "umbrella" definition does not.

It's also important to mention that "queer" has been much critiqued: as a term used mainly by and about white folks, as a term that subsumes lesbians under an identity category developed by gay men, as a term that implicitly denies the importance of particular identities to resistance and survival, and from several other angles as well. To me, Cathy Cohen's classic essay "Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?" is still probably the best critical assessment. Personally, I'm quite comfortable identifying with the "political" definition and much less so with the "umbrella" one, largely because I see the former as less subject to those critiques.

2 And, usually, quite racially divided within themselves. The gay male cultures of, say, white Chelsea and black Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights are both quite strictly single-gender, but that's about all they have in common. By contrast, queer cultural circles tend to be gender-mixed (except for trans women) and racially mixed (except for black folks), and on occasion genuinely multi-gender and multi-racial. As far as class goes, in my experience queer scenes tend to talk a better game, and gay and lesbian scenes tend to be much more genuinely mixed-class if they have any class range at all.

3 To my eye, that difference has a lot to do with the fading impact of the very queer culture of ACT UP on gay men in the antiretroviral age, and on the steadily rising impact of trans organizing on lesbian culture in the 1990s and 2000s. Figures like Justin Vivian Bond and Antony Hegarty, who bridge gay and queer culture in a visible and iconic way, are signs that the difference may be ebbing over time.

4 Yes, really. If not longer.

5 Many thanks are due, as always, to the folks I've learned to think about these things from, and with. My teachers and mentors: Jenny Romaine, Bob Kohler, and Jennifer Miller, especially. The other folks involved in creating Between Two Worlds, or, who loved you before you were mine--Ezra Killer Sideburns Nepon, J Dellecave, Niknaz, and the whole cast and crew. All the ACT UP veterans I've had the honor, joy, and sometimes annoyance to work with over the years (Naomi Braine and Steve Quester, especially, as well as the whole Church Ladies for Choice coven), and the folks keeping that political legacy alive and vibrant (from JD Davids to Che Gossett, Suzy Subways to Mikiki, and onward). And everyone I've shared moments of saltiness with about this all--you know who you are.

Rosza daniel lang/levitsky is a cultural worker and agitator living in Brooklyn's Glitter House. Can't stop picking things up on the street and making other things out of them--outfits, collectives, cabarets, barricades, meals. Never figured out how to make art for art's sake; rarely wants to work alone. Multi-generational radical and queer--just another gendertreyf apikoyrus mischling fem dyke who identifies with, not as.

Recent and ongoing projects include: co-editing the anthology Dreaming in Public: Building the Occupy Movement with Amy Schrager Lang; devising radical purimshpils with the Aftselokhes Spectacle Committee; investigating the queer scrapbooks of Carl Van Vechten; organizing and agitating with Jews For Racial & Economic Justice, the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, and Red Umbrella Project; and experimenting with frontline choreography for street actions in Just Like That (workshops coming this spring through the iLANDing Laboratory Initiative!).

ALTERNATE ENDINGS post-screening discussion at the New Museum featuring Glen Fogel, My Barbarian (Alexandro Segade, Jade Gordon, and Malik Gaines) and Tom Kalin.

Visual AIDS would like to thank everyone who joined us at the New Museum on December 5, 2014, for the NYC museum premiere of ALTERNATE ENDINGS, for the 25th anniversary of Day With(out) Art.

To honor the 25th year of Day With(out) Art, 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 work about the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic, focusing on the issues of today. The program, titled ALTERNATE ENDINGS, highlights the diverse voices of seven artists that use video to bring together charged moments and memories from their personal perspective amid the public history of HIV/AIDS. All seven videos are now available for online viewing in the ALTERNATE ENDINGS album.

The New Museum's post-screening discussion featured artists Glen Fogel, My Barbarian (Alexandro Segade, Jade Gordon, and Malik Gaines) and Tom Kalin, providing insights into the process and perspective behind the videos. Clips from the thought-provoking and generative discussion are embedded below, and also viewable on Visual AIDS's Vimeo account.

"I find it intriguing because I think it's all about the language around it, like the use of the word feminism, whether we call a work feminist or activist; it has to do with the parameters of thinking. But from my perspective, you all make activist work... Also having been a member of the collective you are citing [Gran Fury] that made that work, some of that work existed only in the public domain and had very didactic aims, but a lot of the later part of Gran Fury's work was very much about ambivalence, emotion, contradiction. Much of the later work we did was coming out of trying to make a picture--a contradictory picture--of what it felt like to be alive, not necessarily trying to express something didactically. In some ways I think it is a shift in the way that we talk about work that is politically engaged. I am intrigued by why the word activism has now been shifted to mean something different, maybe, than it meant 20 years ago. The reason why I wanted all of you to participate in this project is partly because I identified strongly with what you are all doing as artists; a continuity of thinking around a political approach to art-making."
--Tom Kalin

"There is a kind of mourning that is part of the piece for multiple people, so I think it is this kind of multitude: it is a specific relationship that we had with the scholar [José Esteban Munñoz], a relationship we had with this public figure [Pedro Zamora] and then relationships we had with other people, and then with the people we never met; a generation of people that we feel very much influenced by but maybe we didn't connect with on all levels."
--Alexandro Segade of My Barbarian

"There was definitely a part of creating a kind of disorientation for the film that would mirror a kind of disorientation when something like that [a boyfriend disclosing their HIV seroconversion] enters into a relationship. I wanted to create this idea of the camera itself being a foreign entity in a way that was happening irregardless of what was going on around it; almost as though things keep happening, things keep moving on in life, no matter what, even when something that monumental or life-shifting happens."
--Glen Fogel

"One of the things that is so interesting about [the third season of The Real World: San Francisco] is the way they construct the real. We are supposed to believe that it's the real world; they say it is, they say it really happened. But there is so much we know now about the falseness of reality television; and there it looks a little rougher, more believable but it's still something where the music is playing and there are a lot of fast cuts, tilted cameras and there is this way to make it 'real.' We wanted to strip out all of that. That included doing a realistic reinterpretation of the parts. We wanted to actually create that distance."
--Alexandro Segade of My Barbarian
Angela Bailey, Visual AIDS 2015 curatorial resident

Visual AIDS is thrilled to announce that Angela Bailey will be our third curatorial resident, co-sponsored by Visual AIDS and Residency Unlimited. Bailey is from Australia and recently co-curated the exhibition "Vital Signs--Interpreting the Archive" at the Blindside Gallery in Melbourne. Bailey outlines her previous projects and her goals for the residency below:

I am excited at the prospect of working and collaborating with Visual AIDS. My curatorial and photographic/art practice has always been informed from the perspective of the community and the cultural. From my beginnings as a young activist participating in the fight for gay law reform in Queensland in the late 1980s through to working as director of the visual arts for the Midsumma Festival (Melbourne's gay and lesbian festival) in the late 1990s, I have long worked to promote and interpret our rich and diverse histories by creating exhibitions, installations, discourse and public programs for engagement.

My curatorial and art practice was formed at a community level and now extends to longer-term cultural projects with both larger institutional exhibitions and collaborative ventures. I have a masters of art curatorship from the University of Melbourne and am vice president of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives (ALGA) and actively involved in promoting this rich collection to a wider audience.

I am interested in the cultural, collective and community memory that reflects on events/archives, artworks, artists and how we continually reinterpret their significance in the ongoing history of HIV/AIDS. This philosophy considers the nuances around the "future of nostalgia" and how the archive/collection intersects with the contemporary. By exploring how this then relates to contemporary art collaborations and potential intersections with archive collection, I would ideally like to create an exhibition of cultural and collective memory that engages the Visual AIDS archive and collaborates with ALGA.

Bailey will be in residence with Visual AIDS in March 2015.

Launched in 2012, Visual AIDS and Residency Unlimited joined efforts to host a one-month residency program for a curator, art historian, or arts writer interested in the intersection of visual art and HIV/AIDS. The curatorial residency encourages the development of exhibitions, programs, and scholarship about HIV/AIDS and contemporary art.

The resident curator conducts research in Visual AIDS's archives with access to slides, digital images, publications and other resources. The archives hold over 17,000 digital and slide images by 643 artists living with HIV and the estates of artists who have passed away. Studio visits with artists are encouraged, and the resident curator creates an online exhibition.

'There Is Tremendous Ferocity in Being Gentle'

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Magical Pill, Carlos Motta, 2014

For the Time Is Not a Line issue of the WE WHO FEEL DIFFERENTLY journal, Carlos Motta and Nathan Lee shared their thoughts, feelings, and experiences related to the availability and use of pre-exposure prophylaxis, otherwise known as PrEP, the newest tool in HIV prevention. Read the beginning of their conversation below.

June 17, 2014

Dear Carlos,

I'm glad we're having this conversation about PrEP, and I'm glad it makes me uncomfortable. It should: Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis is a perfectly overdetermined object of consternation, a jagged little pill to drive everyone crazy. PrEP triggers anxieties about sex and sexuality, economics and access, moralism and shame, self-determination and the well being of communities. There are no answers with PrEP, only the mobilization of problematics.

Two of these are of particular interest to me: The first issue is the fact that men who have sex with men enjoy doing so without condoms, and how this quite understandable desire has undergone extraordinary complications since the advent of HIV/AIDS. PrEP reminds us that the introduction of condoms into queer sex is an extremely recent phenomenon, as well as how profoundly the AIDS crisis has shaped the practice, discourse, and ethics of our sexuality. PrEP has the curious effect of being a highly artificial means to protect people from the effects of "natural" sex, which is to say it participates in a project of denaturalizing sex whose genealogy passes through feminism and birth control, queer theory and ACT UP, the mainstreaming of LGBT representation and the rise of transgender activism.

The second problem that interests me is the nature of the human-pharmaceutical machine inaugurated by PrEP. I think it's reductive to condemn PrEP on the one hand as the latest, most insidious penetration of Big Pharma into our lives; it is, after all, the direct result of the work of AIDS activism during the crisis years to develop effective drugs to combat HIV. On the other hand, however, there are dangers to embracing it as a fabulous twist in better living through chemistry, the slutty buddy to our daily multivitamin.

I've put a lot on the table to get us started, so let me backtrack a bit to clarify the stakes of this conversation. We both take Truvada. You recently started a PrEP regimen as part of a behavioral study; I've been taking Truvada (along with Reyataz and Norvir) since 2008 to treat my HIV infection. PrEP, then, is something "outside" me, just as HIV positivity is something "outside" you. I'm interested in how this difference affects our practices and our thinking, but also the ways in which the future of our bodies remain indeterminable, open ended, the site of conflicts, questions, experiments.

Why did you start taking PrEP, and how do you feel about it?

Read the rest of the discussion: There Is Tremendous Ferocity in Being Gentle. We Who Feel Differently Journal is a sporadic online publication that addresses critical issues of queer culture. It features analyses and critiques of international lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, queer and questioning politics from queer perspectives.

Art Makes an Impact: Looking Forward to 2015

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Art makes an impact--in the way we think, how we feel, and in challenging us to action. At Visual AIDS, we believe in the important role that art and artists play in the ongoing fight against AIDS, and in addressing the underlying issues that contribute to the pandemic, such as poverty, homophobia, stigma and racism.

Visual AIDS has been working with artists, advocates, and friends like YOU, to lead the way in making a difference - and in this season of giving and reflection, we want to let you know that your support makes a big difference.

Visual AIDS is excited about several new projects in 2015, using art as an unmatched tool to reach new communities, share legacies, and build dialogue around HIV/AIDS, including:

  • A monograph on figurative painter Hugh Steers, our second book dedicated to preserving the legacy of an artist lost too soon.
  • The group exhibition "Party Out of Bounds," curated by Emily Colucci and Osmancan Yerebakan, exploring the intersection of AIDS activism and city nightlife.
  • Our annual International Curatorial Residency, co-sponsored by Residency Unlimited for the research and study of visual art and cultural production around HIV/AIDS.
  • Talks on artists Tseng Kwong Che, Chloe Dzubilo, and Benjamin Fredrickson; and readings and discussions with Gregg Bordowitz, Che Gosset, and Alice O'Malley. (Check our event calendar for upcoming program dates.)
  • The third edition of our Duets publication, pairing Dean Daderko and Elaine Reichek in conversation about the life and textile work of Nicholas Moufarrege.
  • Artist projects and public programs that promote awareness of long-term survivors, transgender politics, treatment as prevention, HIV-positive women and more.
  • Expansion of our online Artist Registry and increase the number of Artists+ Material grants to empower low-income HIV-positive artists to create.

Support from friends and colleagues like you make these programs possible.

If you believe that art still matters and want to see more programs from Visual AIDS, please consider making a donation today. Your gift of $50, $100, $500 or more to Visual AIDS will make a truly significant impact in supporting HIV+ artists, cultivating new art, and provoking critical public dialogue, because AIDS is not over.


Thank You; we look forward to seeing you in 2015!

From the staff of Visual AIDS,

Nelson Santos, executive director
Esther McGowan, associate director
Alex Fialho, programs manager

'Goodluck... Miss You, too'

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"Goodluck...Miss You, too" ground level, across the street from the San Francisco Art Institute, with beams being fired simultaneously to the east. Photo by Scott Welsh.

A distinct pair of lights shown in San Francisco from the San Francisco Art Institute's historic tower on December 1 this year. The amber and red beacons were part of the artwork "Goodluck... Miss You, too" by Visual AIDS Artist Member Aaron Kissman. The lights flashed at regular intervals, symbolizing the rate of new HIV infection (every 15 seconds) and the rate of lives lost to AIDS-related complications (every 20 seconds). Through this large-scale public work, Kissman hoped to challenge the broader San Francisco community to reengage and re-substantialize HIV/AIDS awareness, with a particular emphasis on the current generation of young people who did not live through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Visual AIDS interviewed Aaron about the project, his intended audiences and his vision for the project's development.

Visual AIDS: Can you describe the different elements of "Goodluck... Miss You, too" and the concept behind each?

Aaron Kissman: Physically, "Goodluck...Miss You, too" is two searchlights, one amber and one red, powered by 1,000-watt Xenon lights that were blasted into the San Francisco night sky. In a performance element, I manually fired each light in regular intervals for 6 hours. The amber light, which symbolized the 2.1 million new HIV infections, flashed every 15 seconds; while the red light flashed every 20 seconds symbolizing the 1.6 million lives lost to AIDS in 2013. The title of the installation/performance pays homage to Gran Fury and their essay entitled "Goodluck...Miss you." The essay was particularly impressionable on me because it read like a goodbye love letter from a mother. Every time I read it, I feel a great sense of absence and longing for groups like Gran Fury that made such an impact during the height of the AIDS crisis, so my installation and performance is a sort of "miss you, too" back.

What audience(s) did you have in mind for the project? How was the project received by these audience(s), and others?

When I learned about my own HIV-positive diagnosis, I found that my own generation and (sometimes) community was the most judgmental, and that shocked me. It was often other males in their 20s that were the harshest critics. Responses of slut-shaming, to overall apathy or an inability to relate, were common. Often I was met with silence or confusion in those cases, which mostly revealed an uneducated youth who largely believe that HIV is not a huge modern day risk. And to be honest, I suppose I felt the same at one point, so I can't blame them. But all that says is that the overall message about the state of HIV/AIDS today falls on deaf ears, which is why I believe infection rate still rises in the demographic of which I am a part. So while "Goodluck...Miss You, too" is for everyone, my hope is that it reached millennials, and I believe it did. Since the installation was in the historic bell tower at The San Francisco Art Institute, it naturally met a student population of 500+ and surely beyond as it was widely visible in San Francisco. Since the performance's completion, I have had many people come to me with "applause" for the performance for its beauty and message, and I'd like to believe it has made me more approachable to discuss the tough issues that the piece was about. If it opened a line of communication that didn't exist before, then I feel like it was successful.

What were some of the highlights of the introductory speech that you made for "Goodnight... Miss You, too" on December 1 2014, the 25th anniversary of Day With(out) Art?

Prior to my performance, I made a speech from a top the tower that was amped to be audible from below, and it gave this "Tower of London" feel of being trapped in the tower with the strength of a message. My speech was largely an updated rendition on Mary Fisher's "Whisper of AIDS" speech, which she gave back in 1992 at the Republican National Convention. The speech made me weep when I saw it the first couple of times in its eloquent language that transcended racial and stereotypical boundaries. So it was of great gratitude and importance to recite large parts of Fisher's speech again to an audience who may have never heard it otherwise. If you haven't seen the speech, it is easily accessible online and I recommend that everyone watch it.

How does the project relate to your previous work in installation, film and photography, or how is it a departure? (A selection of Aaron's work can be viewed on his Visual AIDS Artist Member page.)

I have never done something on this scale or that could be consider as a public piece, so in that way, it is a departure. A lot of my work is immersive or multi-faceted, in the sense that I incorporate different mediums within one piece. "Goodluck...Miss You, too" functions in that way in that it incorporated a light installation as well as a performance.

In what ways have you found art can most successfully provoke dialogue around HIV/AIDS?

That's a good question, and something I am still personally trying to answer. I always felt text-based work does that job well for obvious reasons, such as Fierce Pussy's "For The Record." But I want to be mindful that my work isn't always blatantly didactic or literal, so that's a balance I am still trying to negotiate in my own practice. I believe Felix Gonzales-Torres did that exceptionally well with subtlety and power, while transcending the HIV/AIDS topic to even broader topics such as longing and isolation that can tap into a broader audience. I think that's the model I'm most drawn towards.

How do you envision "Goodluck... Miss You too" developing over time?

My hope for "Goodluck...Miss You, too" is for it to become a San Francisco World AIDS Day mainstay. While San Francisco was and is such a center for people living with HIV in America (one in four gay men in San Francisco are HIV positive) it is surprising to me that there isn't a larger public works piece in the city. When I lived in downtown Chicago, I was always so inspired to see the CNA building pattern their windows at night with the AIDS ribbon and "FIGHT AIDS" blasting like the biggest billboard you've ever seen. San Francisco needs that, and perhaps "Goodluck... Miss You, too" can be that. Now that i have decent documentation of the project, I hope to take this to the San Francisco Art Commission at City Hall and propose it for the Coit Tower atop of Telegraph Hill. I think that is the ultimate home for "Goodluck...Miss You, too" and will reach audiences far and beyond.

Aaron David Kissman is an artist based in San Francisco, California primarily working with photography and video. Aaron was awarded a BFA at the Savannah College of Art and Design and is seeking his MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute. Aaron Kissman is also the co-director of exhibitions at the Diego Rivera Gallery in San Francisco.



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