C Magazine


Issue 137

by D.J. Fraser

The 2017 edition of Day With(out) Art was the 28th annual Visual AIDS event marking World AIDS Day. Over the course of the last three decades, the New York-based organization has used art to raise AIDS awareness. Initially, they marked the public crisis of HIV/AIDS with the temporary disappearance of meaningful works from museum collections. Day Without Art was meant to symbolize the death of many people in the New York community. But as the cultural community dealing with HIV/AIDS changes and transforms, the understanding of Day Without Art has changed as well: in 1998, for its tenth anniversary, Day Without Art became Day With(out) Art, and the focus shifted from those lost to the enduring community of artists living and dealing with HIV/AIDS.

The most recent showcase built upon the 2014 theme, ALTERNATE ENDINGS. This focus on continuation and reiteration stressed the dire need to remember and recognize HIV/AIDS as an epidemic that is persistent, despite numerous treatments that manage it effectively and new PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) strategies. Advances in HIV treatments over the past 20 years have lessened the impact of grief, have eased somewhat the death toll in North America, but it still must be acknowledged that whiteness and wealth often dominate the ability of those who have contracted HIV to receive adequate care and management.

The program for ALTERNATE ENDINGS, RADICAL BEGINNINGS – curated by Erin Christovale and Vivian Crockett – reflected this reality with biting commentary and a desire to overwrite past and present through art. Visual AIDS’ mandate for this Day With(out) Art explicitly focused on the work of Black artists living and contextualizing the ongoing health crisis in the United States. It is in this particular vein that Christovale and Crockett’s work is not only timely, but also recognizable as part of an effort that asserts and repositions the work of Black artists affected by HIV/ AIDS. Christovale and Crockett commissioned seven new short video works from artists Mykki Blanco, Cheryl Dunye & Ellen Spiro, Reina Gossett, Thomas Allen Harris, Kia LaBeija, Tiona Nekkia McClodden and Brontez Purnell. The resulting program was screened on World AIDS Day by more than 100 partnering institutions around the world. In their works, the artists performed and employed multiplicity, remixes and surrealisms, seemingly with a profound desire to dig into radical reminiscences of the past and possible new beginnings that are only now being acknowledged by institutional mainstream audiences.

Reina Gossett’s work, Atlantic is a Sea of Bones (2017), begins in a biopic style, but the film soon shifts to capture a past and present dream about Egyptt Labeija – her histories and self-realization, hauntings and desires coalesce into a dark palimpsest of what could be the AIDS crisis in the ’80s alongside the current criminalization of people living with AIDS. Spirits collide with images to reimagine pasts, alter egos and strategies of self-actualization.

Tiona Nekkia McClodden’s greyscale The Labyrinth 1.0 (2017) is an elegy to Brad Johnson and part of her trilogy dedicated to Black gay men producing art at the height of the American epidemic. McClodden documents a part of gay life in the United States that led to the moral and epidemiological aspects of the crisis following the discovery that HIV was transmitted sexually: tea rooms and bathhouses. Using a mix of racialized and explicit poetry, with the analogue workings of video as material, McClodden’s work is a trip back to the era of Johnson’s life and death, tracing the trajectory of the sexuality of the masculine Black body.

Other works in the program similarly re-work or remix past work, conversations and materials. Cheryl Dunye and Ellen Spiro’s DiAna’s Hair Ego Remix (2017) references Spiro’s 1989 work DiAna’s Hair Ego. Travelling to South Carolina, Cheryl – the head investigator – enters the long-standing hair salon of DiAna, a veteran and self-styled HIV/AIDS activist. Dunye and Spiro intersplice old footage with new conversations under the hair dryers. And Thomas Allen Harris’ About Face: The Evolution of a Black Producer (2017) uses his personal archive from his early days as a producer working at the height of the American AIDS epidemic in New York. The short film uses humour and chronology to demonstrate his progression from novice Black gay producer in New York to veteran artist working on his own path in visual arts and filmmaking. In Kia Labeija’s Goodnight Kia (2017), the artist repurposes her family’s archival footage from a record of the past into transformative material through which she can grapple with personal loss, with her childhood recorded on camera.

Brontez Purnell’s 100 Boyfriends Mixtape (The Demo) from 2017 is part of a longer, ongoing oeuvre developed from a dance piece at Counterpulse in 2013. This black-and-white “demo” is anchored in the ’90s’ New Queer Cinema’s interest in DIY, lo-fi, low-budget film and video work (see Go Fish and The Watermelon Woman for a sister aesthetic). The entire film is shot in a bathtub while Purnell’s character DeShawn is shrink-fitting the jeans he’s just shoplifted and talking on the phone. The monologue is an index of ex-boyfriends whose spirits are long dead, even as their ghost bodies walk the streets. If the emphasis on past, present and future in the 2017 Day With(out) Art program emphasizes long duration, Mykki Blanco’s Stones and Water Weight (2017) appropriately explores the concepts of endurance and appearance as coterminous but also profoundly disjointed. In this performance, he lays conventionally gendered slips and frocks on a rocky foreground, and then proceeds to lift and hold a large rock for an extended duration. Blanco’s attempt to test and record his physical presence imagines representational role models of HIV+ people working through quotidian struggles and health obstacles, set against outward projections of wellness, fitness and self-advocacy.

The work for 2017’s iteration of Day With(out) Art takes the material archive and mines it for resistance and ruptures; through it, we can trace a history of AIDS art and activism that has been largely out of public view. In the U.S., African Americans are reporting a higher incidence of HIV and this is also reflected in Canada – marginalized populations across borders are affected more than white counterparts. Indigenous communities are also experiencing HIV at a rate greater than white communities, and as Lindsay Nixon noted recently, an entire generation of Indigenous artists was lost to HIV. Although we understand this generally, the narrative given through accessible media doesn’t give depth to the lived realities of marginalized communities dealing with HIV, nor to the artworks created from these stories.

The commonalities between experiences of people living with HIV/AIDS across national lines becomes clear when class, race and gender are counted. Artists in Canada living with HIV are producing works that riff along similar lines as those in the States, with an ongoing interest in the archive, whether it’s in the online group collaboration work that arose from Paul Lang’s BigRedDice (2005); projets hybris’ second work documenting the complex relationships to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Québec, (MORE) PROPOSITIONS FOR THE AIDS MUSEUM (2017); or the AIDS ACTION NOW affinity group art initiative Poster/VIRUS (2011–2016). These projects all put the past in dialogue with the present. Rather than consigning HIV/AIDS art and activism to a historical and ghostly past of (white) bodies represented in absentia or memorial, the work happening in the contemporary moment brings together the growing – and living – archive of performance and media practices together to confront the shifting place of HIV/AIDS discourse in art.