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From Explication to Doubt: Curating HIV/AIDS Today

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"With Curators Like These, Who Needs A Cure" (2015), Shan Kelley, oil paint, semen, resin on wood.

Adam Barbu is a writer and curator living in Toronto. He is pursuing his graduate studies at the University of Toronto. Recently, he was awarded the 2015 Middlebrook Prize for Young Canadian Curators. He curated the Visual AIDS web gallery The Circle Won't Be Broken in May 2015, and we are thrilled to publish here his recent text "From Explication to Doubt: Curating HIV/AIDS Today."

Today, there is no shortage of exhibitions focusing on the relationship between HIV/AIDS, late 20th century identity politics and queer artistic practice. However, this popular "cultural evidence" narrative often submits to the assumption of a linear and consistent AIDS experience, or, a set of necessary aesthetic and political truths that can be decoded through the sound, objective research of the curator-historian. A key question must be raised: How do we curate HIV/AIDS without submitting to problematic cultural essentialisms or the rhetoric of "post-everything" identity politics?

To address the challenges that this binary relation presents, it seems that our task as curators is to pursue a sense of positive differentiation that cannot be reduced to the additive logic of "queer representation,"and therefore, the didacticism of the "cultural evidence" narrative. This means exploring a language of difference that is not simply interested in authenticating the injurious effects of heterosexist and homophobic discourse through "holistic" sets of images that are presented to actually reflect society.1 Recently I have worked to address the above question through a set of exhibitions developed in part through research with Visual AIDS Artist Registry. A group exhibition titled A Minimal Doubtopened in July at Videofag in Toronto, and another, titled The Queer Feeling of Tomorrow, will open at the Art Gallery of Guelph (Guelph, Canada) in September. By tracing a shift in thinking from the explication of history to the precariousness of our collective futures, both of these projects focus on the politics of indecision as queer resistance.

A Minimal Doubt brought together three talented Canadian artists: Vincent Chevalier, Shan Kelley and Andrew McPhail. The program of nine works sought to highlight cross-sectional readings on poz status and aesthetic value, proposing a deferral of "self-knowledge" through queered forms of language and text. The title and working concept for the exhibition was used to express a tension embedded in the idea of "queer futurity." When one states that doubt is minimal, it evokes a kind of implicit hope. And at the same time, the utterance of this term points to a kind of productive skepticism whereby the forces of inaction and obsolescence remain at the center of the discussion.

Further extending on these themes, The Queer Feeling of Tomorrow features work by a larger group of artists that includes Sunil Gupta, John Hanning, and a new selection of work from Kelley. The exhibition focuses on overlapping personal and political micro-histories, highlighting movements away from the urgent and the spectacular towards the unbalanced and the everyday. Similar to A Minimal Doubt, The Queer Feeling of Tomorrow highlights primarily text-based conceptual works that expresses a double play of optimism and skepticism. On the one hand, these works trace a kind of candid levity; on the other, they embody a kind of self-conscious facetiousness and harsh irony. This tension between perseverance and grief is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in John Hanning's I Survived AIDS (2013), a series comprising seemingly innocent middle-school portraits cast upon a future of stigma and violence that the boy did not and could not know. Altogether, the exhibition constructs an amalgamation of precarious, obstructed documents, fragmented biographical notes, and emptied out quotations held in a flux of continuous de-contextualization and re-contextualization.

Furthermore, working in this spirit of double meaning, the two exhibitions seek to underscore a sense of absurdist self-reflexivity. For example, Chevalier's text-based work "AIDS Art" (2015) features a cryptic, self-referential run-on sentence that attempts to describe the meaning and function of "AIDS art." Chevalier does not attempt to arrive at a singular, coherent definition, but rather works to bring his subject into a deeper, more frustrating realm of ambiguity. Operating within a language of pure paradox, the work at once critiques, supports and performs the idea that "AIDS art is about AIDS art." This self-reflexivity is elsewhere evident in Kelley's "With Curators Like These, Who Needs a Cure" (2015), a 5x7-inch wood block covered with varnish, semen and a subtle application of pubic hair whose surface reads: "My AIDS Won't Fit in Your Museum." By indexing the intimate excesses of his body, he winks to viewers by offering a closed-circuited dead upon arrival "queer authenticity." Kelley points to the complexities and contradictions of everyday life that cannot be reduced to the museological invention of "AIDS art."

Overall, each of the five artists displaces the expectation of a confessing, honest AIDS subject, one who knows his/her self, remembers his/her past and thereby defines his/her mark on the future. By underlining a set of relations that are out of sync with the rhythms of rationalist, liberal social progress, this displacement of expectation directly implicates the idea of queer temporality. One might define this as a sensibility of "bad timing" that occurs within a radically fragmentary and inconsistent formal language: circular word-babble, unfinished sentences, abandoned signs, precarious historical revisions and so on.

Of course, these discrete research interests are not meant to obscure the necessity for new models of HIV/AIDS awareness and related forms of political action. Rather, this shift in thinking, from explication to doubt, allows us to reconsider what resistance and activism means today.

1Susanne Luhmann, "Queering/Querying Pedagogy? Or, Pedagogy Is a Pretty Queer Thing" in Queer Theory in Education, ed. William F. Pinar. (Mahawah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1998), 143.

Win Mixter Discusses His Last Address Tribute Walk Drawings

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Assotto Saint Last Address Tribute Walk drawing by Win Mixter

In anticipation of the Last Address Tribute Walk on August 29, Visual AIDS interviews illustrator and graphic designer Win Mixter, who has penned 20 moving drawings in tribute to artists who passed from AIDS for all of the Last Address walks that have taken place. At each stop at an artist's last residential address during the Tribute Walk, a drawing by Win and a rose are left, while special guests close to or influenced by the artists share a related reading. Though these may be the last addresses where each artist lived, the life of their work continues to inspire today's generation. The constellation of readings and roses, drawings and doorsteps of the tribute walks is a site for community-based remembrance and response.

We hope to see you Saturday, August 29, for this year's version of the annual event, which will take place throughout Chelsea, with readings in tribute to Assotto Saint, Vito Russo, Félix González-Torres, Robert Mapplethorpe, Tseng Kwong Chi, Hugh Steers and Chloe Dzubilo. Further event information here.

Describe your creative collaboration for the Last Address Tribute Walks? How did you conceive of the idea for your drawings, and how have they developed over the years?
I was prompted by Alex Fialho--a close friend and collaborator--a few years ago to create tribute drawings to some of our favorite artists who died of AIDS-related illness for the first of what has now been four Last Address Tribute Walks. It's a true collaboration in the sense that Alex is always a great resource for me to teach me about new artists and their significance and to point out seminal works if I'm not already familiar with them.

My style has become more confident and fluid over the years, but I still use a similar process; I begin by immersing myself in whatever material Alex sends, whether it's a collection of poetry by Assotto Saint or watching Vito Russo's famous Why We Fight speech on YouTube. Then I sketch out any strong themes or ideas I find repeated within the work, and go from there. For me it's a really creative and fulfilling way to understand more about these humans and their legacy in the artistic and gay communities and beyond.

In what ways do the drawings reference the artists who are being honored in tribute, and how do they abstract them? Why flowers and faces?
Flowers are traditionally left at gravestones and burial sites; a reminder of the ephemeral, fleeting, beautiful aspects of life. I remember when Alex first prompted me to do a set of drawings, he spoke of doing a Last Address Tribute Walk and wanting to leave behind a single red rose as a symbol of both the disease that took some of our heroes away from us but also as a way to commemorate their life and last moments on this earth. That turned a few cogs in my mind.

As far as reference and abstraction, I usually take some signature stylistic or thematic element(s) from their work and recompose them. Sometimes it's a word or a phrase, sometimes it's a visual metaphor or symbol found in their work, or even a preferred tool or medium that they used to create. Some are more abstract and some are quite literal.

I draw their faces because it's important to remember our fallen brothers and sisters; AIDS is an ongoing crisis, after all, and I think sometimes our generation tends to forget the monumental struggle and heartache that we've already been through at this point in history because it's possible now to live a long and fulfilling life with an HIV-positive diagnosis. HIV is no longer a death sentence, but there's still so much stigma and suffering attached to it.

Do you have favorite drawings or artists that you've created for the walks?
Keith Haring was the first artist who really turned me on to drawing/ illustration/being gay and loving it, so he'll always be a favorite of mine. Aesthetically, I think I identify most with the illustration style of Martin Wong, and his semaphores really lend themselves to new and unique interpretations. He was also one of our first San Francisco artists to be celebrated, in addition to Jeroma Caja, for an exhibition the drawings were featured in called Doing Your Dirty Work at the Center for Sex & Culture in San Francisco. Marsha P. Johnson was such a vivid character and had so much charisma and personality. At first I was disappointed because the drawing came out kind of messy and scattered, but the more I looked at it and thought about it, it's a definite reflection of her personality. She's also someone I wasn't familiar with before prompted, so getting to know her story and struggle as a prominent trans activist was wonderful.

Of the current set for the upcoming 2015 Last Address Tribute Walk, Assotto Saint's poem "Writing About AIDS" really resonated with me. The drawing just came to mind fully realized.

How do you see the project developing into the future?
I'd love to do as many as I can before Alex gets tired of me. I'm thinking about revisiting some of them and adding color, and also compositing them into some kind of larger collage or wallpaper. Someday I'd love to make it out to New York for one of the walks as well. I've visited a few of the last addresses, but I'd love to feel the group's energy and understand the bigger picture.

What upcoming projects are you working on?
I'm working on a collaboration with my mom and sister called ZANMIXINC, a line of leather goods and collection of art prints for sale. My mom is a badass artist and constant source of inspiration so it's been fun helping her launch a business. Aside from that, I'm working on drawing more! I've got a lot of ideas in my head that I need to get out onto paper.

Win Mixter is a San Francisco-based illustrator and graphic designer, volunteer for the GLBT Historical Society, and Castro contributor to the San Francisco-based neighborhood news source

Birthday Card for Hugh. Text excerpted from My Antonia by Willa Cather

Carl George is a collagist, filmmaker and curator. Carl and Hugh Steers were best friends, art collaborators, sisters on the dance floor and brothers in arms in the war on AIDS. Here, Carl reflects on Hugh's life and art, in anticipation of his reading in front of Hugh's last residential address at 208 West 23rd Street for the Last Address Tribute Walk. We hope to see you on Saturday, August 29, for this year's version of the annual Last Address Tribute Walk; further information here.

Hugh Steers died March 1, 1995, with his brother, Burr, his friend Hyun Mi Oh, and me surrounding his bedside, holding his hands and speaking softly to him. After having fought so hard and for so long, he slipped away with one long, last breath, releasing his gentle soul into the world. Joseph Campbell said "The seat of the soul is there, where the inner and outer worlds meet." Hugh, as a vibrant and hopeful young man and as a burgeoning, brilliant artist, exemplified this idea better than anyone I've known.

We bonded instantly, briefly as lovers, then as best friends. We met in the mid-'80s working freelance for Michael Fenner who, at the time, was New York's premiere florist and party planner. The job provided each of us with rent money and the means with which to make our art - Hugh's painting and drawing, and mine film and collage. I asked Hugh to be in a super-8 film I was working on, "The Boy Is Gone," based on a poem by Edgar Oliver. Hugh was to have two parts: as a young boy abandoned outside a railroad station and as a mourner at a funeral. Looking back, both roles now seem prescient. As young gay men in New York in the early '80s, we were soon to learn what it meant to be abandoned and, disproportionately to our age, have death all around us. But then we were young, excited about life and full of possibility, even though we could see the ominous signs of a coming storm.

One day Hugh told me that he had found a wonderful apartment on Avenue A, a railroad flat directly above a pizza parlor. I'd sometimes hang out there and watch him paint, although he generally preferred to be alone when working. Windows wide open to the noise of the street and the smells of hot pizza wafting throughout the apartment--he didn't mind, he was in heaven. Hugh was dedicated and structured with his work schedule: every day from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. I had never met another artist who worked this way; most were more haphazard or nocturnal. Sometimes he worked with live models but mostly not. During this time he was primarily making small oil-on-paper paintings depicting intimate moments between men in simple domestic settings. He loved the work of Bonnard, Vuillard, Ingres and Tintoretto, and these influences are evident in the deep, rich colors he used, the draping of fabric, the slant of the light as if it were to summon back time, a Depression-era bathtub or an overturned wooden chair. When he did work on large canvases, usually propped up on a huge wooden easel in the kitchen, the proportion and scale of the finished work--a result of the cramped quarters he lived and worked in--often gave the paintings a wonderfully warped perspective. He worked diligently on getting perspective just so, laboring over a pair of legs or outstretched arm until he'd call and excitedly exclaim that he'd finally gotten it right. I was the first person to buy Hugh's work. I especially loved the small oil-on-paper works and bought several of them over time for $75 each, a substantial amount for both of us. I'd pay him and then, with an insouciance that defined the time, we'd blow the money at the Pyramid Club hanging out with Hyun Mi, or at the Bar, a neighborhood gay hangout, drinking martinis, him vodka and me gin, until we were sufficiently plastered. The artworks thus became known as the "martini suite."

Michael Fenner was one of the first to go. He was admitted to the hospital Thanksgiving weekend and stayed there until Easter when he died. Soon after that another dear friend, Gordon Kurtti, died. He was diagnosed HIV positive in December and died four months later, in April 1987. Hugh made an exquisitely tender painting of Kembra Pfahler and me at my kitchen table after Gordon's memorial at the East River Park and it remains to this day my favorite painting of Hugh's. Then Hugh told me that he was infected. He was resolute and determined to forge ahead, keep painting and take whatever treatments were available to combat the disease. There weren't many. He addressed the illness through his art, depicting images of bravery and tenderness, humor and rage, while boldly critiquing the government's inaction, endemic homophobia, hateful religious fundamentalism and opportunistic corporate greed in the midst of a spiraling epidemic. A lot to manage for a 30-year-old guy, especially as his own health rapidly deteriorated. But Hugh persisted and continued to paint every day in a basement studio in Tribeca, a place that he found when he moved into a one-bedroom apartment on 23rd Street. It was during this time that Hugh's health really faltered and began its descent toward death--the months of constant illness, dozens of harsh medications taken every day to combat a battery of opportunistic infections. Ultimately, like so many other people, it was a fight he would lose.

So much of my time now is spent remembering friends and lovers whose lives were ended, severed while just beginning this great ride. I've tried but cannot answer the question about what death means and why I've survived while others haven't. As a man of 57 years--many of which I've been living with AIDS--it's hard to comprehend the cruel chaos that defines who lives or dies. But, through his artwork and life, Hugh humanized AIDS and the awful and sometimes strangely hopeful, ramifications of the disease. Hugh raised the bar of culpability and pointed an accusing finger at those whose willful inaction or callous reaction condemned so many to die, while making the void, the absence, the injustice, the stolen potential of this holocaust heart-wrenchingly clear.

Carl George
New York City
August 2015

Aging Fiercely While Trans Now on Vimeo

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From left: Kate Bornstein, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and Jay Toole speak at Aging Fiercely While Trans

We would like to thank everyone who joined us at Aging Fiercely While Trans on July 11 for an intergenerational discussion about aging resiliently from trans elders.

Visual AIDS brought together Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Kate Bornstein, Jay Toole, and Sheila Cunningham to discuss experiences of aging, disadvantage, discrimination, and maintaining one's dignity as a trans/gender nonconforming person. Amidst ongoing violence and increased visibility for the trans community is the truth of the importance of trans lives.

Aging Fiercely While Trans was inspired by the art, activism and life of Chloe Dzubilo, who passed away in 2011. Although Chloe is no longer with us, it is clear to those who love her and the organizers of this event that she would be among the growing intergenerational dialogue of trans lives and legacies.

A full audience listened and engaged with our presenters. Clips from the discussion are embedded below, and also viewable on Vimeo.

There is also a Facebook album.

"You want to be appreciated for your ability, not what someone thinks you can do based on how you're presenting or how you look. It has nothing to do with what you look like...respect people for the choices that they make in regards to who they are. means that's how I see me." -- Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

"I don't think of myself as aging. I think of myself as dying and I embrace it. I've chosen to make my presentation in the world one of delight. I want to delight people...I'm learning about fun and guilt-free pleasure." -- Kate Bornstein

"We didn't think of ourselves as getting old. We didn't have jobs--we couldn't get jobs...I wonder how I'm gonna survive." -- Jay Toole

"I couldn't come home during holidays because I refused to take off the dress. I had to be "other."...The girls used to come to my house...and cry together because we couldn't go home." -- Sheila Cunningham

Mizz June performs her single "Light the Way."

Presenters respond to the question: "In what ways did the HIV/AIDS crisis affect your life and the trans community?"

"(The AIDS crisis) was a whole generation of trans people dying...Dear friends left." -- Kate Bornstein

"People were getting diagnosed on Monday and dying by Friday...No one wanted to meet anyone." -- Miss Major

Presenters respond to the question: "Even though trans people are visible right now, homelessness has not been. What are your thoughts on centering homeless communities within trans communities?"

"The shelters are still dangerous for trans people...we need to stop the way the city thinks about (transness)." -- Jay Toole

"It's a matter of making sure we take care of one another. Because yes, [Janet Mock and Caitlyn Jenner] are popular, but their visibility has affected the girls that need to work to survive. The girls who are struggling to make it. The girls who don't know what's gonna happen to them tomorrow. You can't reach them, but you can reach the girls on the streets." -- Miss Major

Presenters share the names of important people in their lives that they have lost (In addition to Chloe Dzubilo and Sylvia Rivera).

"Doris Fish, my drag mom. She taught me fierce. I was a shy thing. I was a scared thing. And she taught me fierce." -- Kate Bornstein

Presenters respond to a question about keeping up with technology, being aged out of jobs, and how the gay marriage movement pushes out queer elders.

"There needs to be a place for elders...I think I have something important to give you. Even if it's just a story of the past. We walked those roads ahead of you." -- Jay Toole

Wendy Olsoff reads at the last NYC address of Martin Wong, as Narcisster and Cynthia Carr look on. Photo by Lyle Ashton Harris.

Photographer Lyle Ashton Harris fabulously captured intimate scenes from last year's Last Address Tribute Walk through the East Village. We hope to see you Saturday, August 29, for this year's version of the annual event, which will take place throughout Chelsea, with readings in tribute to Assotto Saint, Vito Russo, Félix González-Torres, Robert Mapplethorpe, Tseng Kwong Chi, Hugh Steers and Chloe Dzubilo. Further event information here.

Lyle's photography captures last year's walk through poignant black and white images. In a spirit of lively remembrance, Joshua Lubin-Levy read at the last address of Jack Smith (21 1st Avenue); Wendy Olsoff read at the last NYC address of Martin Wong (141 Ridge Street); Riley Hooker read at the last address of Arthur Russell (437 E. 12th Street); Bryn Kelly tributed Valerie Blitz by reading at ABC No Rio (156 Rivington Street); Narcissister read at the last address of Klaus Nomi (103 St. Marks Place); and Lyle Ashton Harris and Alex Fialho read at the last address of Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowicz (189 2nd Avenue).

Though these may be the last addresses where each artist lived, the life of their work continues to inspire today's generation.The constellation of readings and roses, drawings and doorsteps of the tribute walks is a site for community based remembrance and response. We hope to see you Saturday, August 29, for this year's version of the annual event; further information here.

Read about the 2013 Last Address Tribute Walk on the Visual AIDS blog as well.

from left: T De Long, Kathy Rey, Gyda Gash, Anohni and Lia Gangitano

We would like to thank everyone who joined us at Transisters and the Goddesses of Rock on May 22 to talk about the life and artwork of AIDS/trans activist Chloe Dzubilo (1960-2011).

Visual AIDS brought together T De Long, Kathy Rey, Gyda Gash, Anohni, Lia Gangitano, Kembra Pfahler and Jayne County to discuss Chloe's rich and impactful life, from her involvement in the '90s punk scene through her band the Transisters, to her advocacy for sensitivity around HIV/AIDS issues, adequate health care, and dignity for HIV positive people and trans folk.

A packed house watched footage from Chloe's performances and a slideshow of photographs documenting the band. Clips from the discussion are embedded below, and also viewable on Visual AIDS's Vimeo account.

There is also a Facebook album.

"She took me under her wing...No matter what your story was, she would normalize it and reflect normalcy back to you." -- Anohni

"There are people who came before who made it possible for other people to get to the other side...there are people who came before who paved the way for the younger kids coming up now. It brings love to my heart that people like Chloe and me have paved that road. " -- Jayne County

"The time Chloe had to focus on her solitary enterprises was limited by a desire to change the world as expediently as possible through the directness of music, activism, and advocacy. Chloe's visual artwork was always there, a consistent thread, but somehow the immediacy of performance and hitting the streets and clubs, took priority." -- Lia Gangitano

"The Transisters were one of the only bands that addressed issues any issues around AIDS and had the courage to sing about their anger. And to alchemically transform all of the hatred and stigma around the disease itself." -- Kembra Pfahler

"Back when I met Chloe it was a scary time to be HIV positive. There were no medications, people were dying all around us...if you tested positive you were given five years to live. I met Chloe and we bonded instantly." -- Gyda Gash

"Nobody talked about AIDS in the music scene. It was very male and straight... So it was the first time people were talking about this in the context of rock n' roll. We were women and we were playing aggressive rock...they (audiences) weren't expecting us to push the boundaries." -- Kathy Rey

"She had a lot of anger and a lot of rage, and I told her 'you've just got to get it out.' And she just started drawing. She used whatever was around and would just start and she would just go." -- T De Long

"Chloe wanted to be witnessed. She wanted to force a safe space where she could give voice to her real concerns about her day-to-day life. She wanted to participate." -- Anohni



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