www.actupny.org/divatv

 

Fever in the Archive: AIDS Activist Video
by Jim Hubbard
 
INTRODUCTION
AIDS activist video remains one of the most significant cultural developments of the AIDS crisis. The tapes grew out of a diverse and large-scale, unorganized, yet concerted effort by activists and videomakers to respond to the epidemic. They resulted from the widespread availability of high-quality, relatively inexpensive consumer video and a desperate need to convey life-saving information. Many of these tapes, although made solely as timely responses to the crisis, retain an extraordinary vitality. The videomakers clearly positioned themselves in opposition to an unresponsive and often antagonistic government and mainstream media. They eschewed the authoritative voice-over, the removed, dispassionate expert, and the media's tendencey to scapegoat, while embracing a vibrant sexuality and righteous anger.

The tapes in this series were drawn from the Royal S. Marks AIDS Activist Video Collection of the New York Public Library. This collection resulted from an effort by the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, a project of the Alliance for the Arts, to preserve the grassroots response of video artists and activists to the AIDS crisis. Made possible by major support from the New York Community TrustúRoyal S. Marks Foundation Fund with additional support from the Snowdon Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts, the collection consists of over two thousand hours of videotape. One thousand hours of these tapes will be remastered for archival and research purposes.

Early on, Patrick Moore, the director of the Estate Project, advocated preserving this work and its remarkable story of AIDS activism. He felt a strong commitment to AIDS video because of his long and intense involvement with ACT UP. In order to convey fully the historical significance of AIDS activism, as well as highlighting the artistic achievement of individual videomakers, the collection includes not only finished works, but also large amounts of unedited camera original. The New York Public Library was the only institution in the country that demonstrated both an interest in the material and the ability to care for it. In addition, Mimi Bowling, the curator of the Division of Archives and Manuscripts, was personally enthusiastic about receiving the collection.

A SHORT HISTORY OF AIDS ACTIVIST VIDEO

AIDS activist video is a direct descendant of a rich and varied tradition of alternative cinema. Its antecedents include the work of Dziga Vertov, the New American Cinema, the portapak tapes made by such groups as TVTV and Videofreex, feminist documentaries of the sixties and seventies and the political filmmaking collective Newsreel. Like their predecessors, AIDS activists continued the practice of using whatever tools were available to convey their message. In general, they shot on Hi-8 and edited their tapes for little or no money at public access media arts centers, AIDS organizations, schools and, late at night, at commercial facilities.
From 1981, when the syndrome was first recognized, until 1985, when Rock Hudson died, AIDS received scant attention from the mainstream media. The reports that did appear relied on scientific experts to explain the disease, blamed gay men and their promiscuous sexual habits for the disease, and sought out innocent victims to ghoulishly pity. These shows were aimed at a presumed "general" public that did not include gay men, lesbians, IV-drug users or people of color.

A handful of AIDS films and videotapes depicting the epidemic from the inside began appearing in 1984. These included Stuart Marshall's "Bright Eyes" (1984, made for Britain's Channel 4), Tina DeFeliciantonio's "Living with AIDS" (1986), Mark Huestis and Wendy Dallas's "Chuck Solomon: Coming of Age" (1986), Arthur Bressan's "Buddies" (1985), Barbara Hammer's "Snow Job: The Media Hysteria of AIDS" (1986) and Larry Brose's "An Individual Desires Solution" (1986).
AIDS activist video began in earnest in 1987, at the same time as a sharp increase in political activism. ACT UP formed in early March and held its first demonstration on Wall Street on March 24th. 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. By 1989, ACT UP/New York spawned a videomaking affinity group, Damned Interfering Video Activist Television (DIVA TV) that, within a year, collectively produced three tapes.

From 1988 to 1993, an explosion of AIDS activist video occurred. Hundreds of videotapes were produced. The vast majority of work was made in New York City, although a significant number of videotapes were also produced in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. In addition, there were videomakers in Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Washington, D.C. and even Ann Arbor, Michigan and Austin, Texas. More tapes were produced in New York not only because it was epicenter of the disease and the dominant center of activism, but also because there was an infrastructure of support for alternative video. There were art schools and media access centers offering classes and inexpensive access to equipment (NYU, Film/Video Arts, Downtown Community Television), a well-established community of makers, occasional grants and even a graduate program forging a theoretical underpinning for the endeavor (the Whitney Independent Studies Program).

Beginning in 1994/5, a perceptible decline in production occurred, corresponding with the waning of street activism (see ACT UP/New York's Timeline DEB LINK at www.actupny.org/documents/capsule-home.html). One notable exception to this was James Wentzy's "AIDS Community Television." Wentzy produced over 150 half-hour programs from 1993-6 and, significantly, maintained his ties to ACT UP throughout.

CHARACTERISTICS OF AIDS ACTIVIST VIDEO

The immediate impetus for AIDS activist video was the deadly, inadequate government response and the meager and antagonistic reporting of the mainstream media. These videomakers felt compelled to tell the real story of AIDS from the point of view of people with AIDS. The tapes portrayed People With AIDS (PWAs) as neither victims nor pariahs, but as empowered activists taking charge of their health in both the political and medical arenas. This was not the whole story, but it served as a necessary counterpoint to the relentlessly negative depictions by the mainstream media.

While AIDS activist video always maintained its critical stance toward the mainstream representation of AIDS, many activist tapes appropriated mass media techniques to convey their message. Numerous tapes employed the language of music videos-úquick cutting and the use of dance and rap music to accompany demonstrations. The "talking head" interview imparts authority to the speaker, and thus, substituting PWAs and activists for scientists and doctors asserted the expertise of people actually living with the disease as well as subverting the conventions of the mass media.

The tapes often scrutinized the mainstream media's representation of AIDS and PWAs and offered an alternative view. Nearly all mainstream media employed three characters: the white gay man wasting away from AIDS, the innocent victim and the drug abuser of color. From the viewpoint of various communities affected by AIDS, activist video revealed the social, political, economic and medical complexities of the disease. The eight shows and more than forty pieces in this series indicate the broad range of AIDS activist video. What unifies these tapes is their urgency, passion and strongly-held belief. Made by members of a particular community affected by AIDS, each tape speaks directly to a community in its own language.

This essay and the program notes that follow were written for the "Fever in the Archive" exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. It was guest-curated by Jim Hubbard, Project Director for the Estate Project's AIDS Activist Video Preservation Program. Hubbard is a filmmaker, whose films include "Elegy in the Streets" and "Two Marches," both of which explore personal and political responses to the AIDS crisis and is co-founder of MIX: the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival.

All works are video, color and sound except where noted.
------------------------------------------------------------------------

The following is the screening schedule for the exhibition, December 1-8, 2000.
Fever in the Archive:
AIDS Activist Videotapes

The Guggenheim Museum
, New York City
December 1st through December 9th, 2000

~ REVIEWS and EXHIBITION INFO LINKED AT BOTTOM ~

Curated by Jim Hubbard

AIDS Activist video remains one of the most significant cultural developments of the AIDS crisis. The tapes grew out of a large-scale, diverse, unorganized yet concerted effort by activists and videomakers to respond to the epidemic. The result of the widespread availability of high-quality, relatively inexpensive consumer video and a desperate need to convey life-saving information, these tapes - made as a timely response to the crisis and, in many cases, expected to have no further life - retain an extraordinary vitality. The videomakers clearly positioned themselves in opposition to an unresponsive and often antagonistic government and mainstream media. They eschewed the authoritative voice-over, the removed, dispassionate expert and scapegoating, while embracing a vibrant sexuality and righteous anger. These tapes, made from inside the crisis by passionate participants, convey to a remarkable extent what it was like to be caught up in the epidemic.

The tapes in this series were drawn from the Royal S. Marks Collection of AIDS Activist Videotapes of the New York Public Library. This collection resulted from an effort by the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, a project of the Alliance for the Arts, to preserve the grassroots response of artists and activists to the AIDS crisis. Made possible by major support from the New York Community Trust - Royal S. Marks Foundation Fund with additional support from the Snowdon Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts, the collection consists of over 2,000 hours of masters of finished work and original camera tapes. One thousand hours of these tapes will be remastered for archival and research purposes. Guest-curated by Jim Hubbard, Project Director for the Estate Project,s AIDS Activist Video Preservation Program, filmmaker, and co-founder of MIX: the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival.

All works are video, color and sound except where noted.

December 1 @ 7 PM
Collective Action
Testing the Limits (1987), Testing the Limits, 28 min.
All People With AIDS Are Innocent (c.1990), GANG, 10 sec.
We Care: A Video for Care Providers of People Affected by AIDS (1990), WAVE (Women,s AIDS Video Enterprise), 30 min.
Kissing Doesn't Kill (1990), GranFury, 2 min.
Target City Hall (1989), DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activist Television), 28 min.

Collectives formed the vanguard of the AIDS Activist video movement. The impulse for videotaping derived from a political movement and numerous tapes featured demonstrations. Having many people with cameras facilitates the documentation of multi-faceted events. Conversely, collective editing is very inefficient. The consequent tension contributed to the evolving structure of Testing the Limits and the dissolution of DIVA-TV. Testing the Limits is arguably the first true AIDS Activist videotape and, in many ways, provided a model for others with its lack of voiceover and quick editing, often to the beat of disco and rap music. All People With AIDS Are Innocent was a basic tenet of the movement. We Care, made by women of color and for a different audience, concentrates on care-giving and the effect of AIDS on people,s lives. GranFury is more widely known for its graphics and, indeed, a still version of Kissing Doesn,t Kill adorned city buses in New York. Target City Hall, DIVA,s first tape, contrasts the democratic process of ACT-UP,s affinity groups with the illegal, degrading strip searches of woman arrested at the demonstration.

December 2 @ 3 PM
Speak for Yourself
GMHC Oral History Project (excerpts) (c.1988 - c.1993), GMHC Audio-Visual Department, 60 min.
Interview with Paul Monette (ca. 1993), Phil Tarley, 4 min.
ACT UP excerpts from Voices from the Front (1992), Testing the Limits, 4 min.
ACT UP Ten Year Anniversary Storytellings (excerpts) (1997), James Wentzy, 20 min.

The GMHC Oral History Project represents a remarkable attempt to preserve the early history of the organization and the first response to the AIDS crisis. These interviews of the founders and shapers of the organization impart not only details, but also the flavor of the period. No holds barred. More than 60 tapes with over 30 subjects survive. The excerpts to be shown include interviews with Larry Kramer, Roger McFarlane, Jay Lipner, Luis Palacios, Mel Rosen and others. The ACT-UP sections from Voices from the Front provide a glimpse of an ACT UP/NY Monday night meeting. Storytellings records people who were deeply involved with ACT UP reminiscing and analyzing their own accomplishments in a tender and revealing manner.

December 2 @ 5 PM
First Person Singular
Danny (1987), Stashu Kybartas, 20 min.
Identities (1991), Nino Rodriguez, 7 min.
They are lost to vision altogether (1989), Tom Kalin, 13 min.
Virus (1994), Stuart Gaffney, 5 min.
Portraits of People Living with HIV (Selections) (1991 - 1994), Gregg Bordowitz, 20 min.
Stolen Shadows (1995), John R. Killacky and Steven Grandell, B&W, 10 min.
Rubber Queen: an AIDS docu-diary. Episode 3: Lying in Wait (1992), Adam Gale, Chris Belcher and Franklin Wassmer, 29 min.
By Any Means Necessary (1994), James Wentzy, 6 min.

AIDS activism was not always a group response; there were personal responses as well. Danny is a heartfelt exploration of the psyche of a young man with AIDS, his relationship to his family and to the videomaker. Using the moments just before an unnamed PWA speaks, outtakes from an AIDS documentary, Identities movingly portrays the frustration, anger and dignity of living with AIDS. They are lost to vision altogether "attempts to reclaim eroticismin the face of a monolithic and culturally compulsory heterosexuality. "It takes all my energy these days just to keep things the way they arenormal, regular, says the man in Virus. Gregg Bordowitz, the consummate AIDS Activist videomaker, steps back to take a more personal look at some of his friends in Portraits of People Living with HIV. The narrator of Stolen Shadows treks from the Upper East Side to the Village mourning his dead angels.

Adam Gale, awakened by night sweats and a full bladder, talks to the camera. Later, we follow him in a desperate attempt to find the drug ddc and an equally frustrating attempt to relax at a Chinese restaurant. Rubber Queen is a 3 1/2 hour, 6-part series made for cable access. It explores Adam's life as a dancer and performance artist and a person struggling with AIDS. "I am someone with AIDS and I want to live by any means necessary."

December 2 @ 7 pm
Reclaiming Desire: How to Have Sex in an Epidemic
A.I.D.S.C.R.E.A.M. (1988), Jerry Tartaglia, 16 mm, 6 min.
Grey Hideaway (1986), Merrill Aldighieri and Joe Tripician, 5 min.
Safe Sex Slut (1987), Carol Leigh (Scarlot Harlot), 3 min.
GMHC Safe Sex Shorts (1989/90), Gregg Bordowitz, Jean Carlomusto, Charles Brack, Robert Huff, David Bronstein, Richard Fung, 28 min.
Fear of Disclosure (1990), Phil Zwickler and David Wojnarowicz, 5 min.
SaferSister (1992), Maria Perez and Wellington Love, 2 min.
Bareback (1999), Stuart Gaffney, B&W, 4 min.
Laff at the Fags (1985), Scott Heron and Erik Paulo, 29 min.

At bottom, sex is what it,s all about. The struggle to define safe sexual practices has plagued the epidemic from the beginning. The immediate response was the erotophobic "just stop having sex. Yeah, right. A.I.D.S.C.R.E.A.M. sets the tone immediately as its narrator angrily asserts "I,m a human being, not a viral carrier and attacks the heart of the problem, "Four out of 5 doctors agree: No sex for gay men! Grey Hideaway, with the legendary porn star Casey Donovan, is a standalone musical video made from footage shot for Chance of a Lifetime, the earliest attempt to promote hot safe sex. The GMHC Safe Sex Shorts forthrightly showcase diversity and hot safe sex for both gay men and lesbians. Fear of Disclosure bemoans the intricacies of serodiscordant dating, while cute boys in gold lamé shorts gyrate. Four public service announcements in English and Spanish (SaferSister) elegantly advocate safe sex for women. Bareback explores the complicated feelings behind the recent phenomenon of purposeful anal intercourse without condoms.

Laff at the Fags was described by its makers as the "world,s first safe-sex avant-garde porno. Fifteen years later it remains sui generis. The tape was made by members of the first generation of gay men who had to confront AIDS as they were coming of age. It is highly influenced by earlier traditions of experimental film and completely unlike the earnest attempts to make safe sex hot that make up the bulk of this show. The makers perform the most outrageous acts of (safe) sexual abandon. Not for the squeamish or those who are not amused by coprophilia, sadomasochism, the sexual exploitation of vegetables and other acts of human depravity.

WED DEC 6 @ 7 PM
Panel Discussion
Hosted by The Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University with Jean Carlomusto, Douglas Crimp, Ann Cvetkovich, Gerard Fergerson and Alexandra Juhasz, moderated by Jim Hubbard. NYU Main Building, Room 300, 100 Washington Square East

Jean Carlomusto discusses her experiences and evolving concerns over the past 12 years of producing works related to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Douglas Crimp talks about activist works that use self-reflexive strategies, particularly those that adopt a self-critical or otherwise skeptical view of works from just a few years earlier, interrogating just what we mean when we designate certain types of video work as "AIDS activist. Ann Cvetkovich extends her interest in the legacies of AIDS activism to the specific terrain of activist video, how this work continues to matter and the value of having a video archive as a mode of preservation. Gerard Fergerson,s special interests include racial disparities, HIV/AIDS and vulnerable populations. He will bring a public health policy perspective to the panel, including the public policy and health care legacies of AIDS activism and video. Alexandra Juhasz examines the death of AIDS video activism, discussing what it accomplished, asking where it went, why it ended, and whether we still need it.

December 8 @ 7 PM
A Voice in the Hood: Constructing Community in the Age of AIDS
Se Met Ko (1989), Patricia Benoit, 29 min. (in Creole, subtitled in English)
Native Americans, Two Spirits and HIV (1991), American Indian Community House, 12 min.
AIDS in the Barrio: Eso No Me Pasa a Mí (1989), Peter Biella, David Haas, Alba Martinez and Frances Negrón-Muntaner, 30 min. (In English and Spanish with English subtitles)
Fighting in Southwest Louisiana (1991), Peter Friedman and Jean-François
Brunet, 26 min.
DiAna's Hair Ego: AIDS Info Up Front (1989), Ellen Spiro, 30 min.

If AIDS Activist Video is truly a grassroots endeavor, then it must come out of a community and speak directly to that community in its own language. Se Met Ko is a perfectly told story in the telenovela style that both conveys AIDS information and examines how it is disseminated through the resources and traditions of the Haitian community of Brooklyn. Native beliefs, traditional medicine and the devastation wrought by white people inform Native Americans: Two Spirits and HIV. AIDS in the Barrio, in both English and Spanish, examines the intertwined problems of drugs, poverty and the complex construction of sexuality among Latinos in Philadelphia. As Danny Cooper delivers the mail and chats with his neighbors, he speaks about the response of his tiny hometown to his lover,s death and his struggle with AIDS. Because her hair salon is the nexus of a vulnerable community ignored by the government of South Carolina, the completely fabulous DiAna DiAna distributes condoms and AIDS information while styling hair in Diana,s Hair Ego.

December 9 @ 3 PM
From Witness to Subject: Women in the AIDS Crisis
Doctors, Liars and Women: AIDS Activists Say No to Cosmo (1988), Jean Carlomusto and Maria Maggenti, 23 min.
My Body,s My Business (1992), Vivian Kleiman, 16 min.
Keep Your Laws Off My Body (1990), Catherine (Saalfield) Gund and Zoe Leonard, B&W, 13 min.
He Left Me His Strength (1989), Merle Jawitz, Sherry Busbee, Joanne Basinger and Sheila Ward 13 min.
I'm You, You,re Me: Women Surviving Prisons (1992), Debra Levine and Catherine (Saalfield) Gund, 28 min.

Because women have long been ill served by the health care system and because women transmitted their knowledge of activism to the legions of middle class men suddenly moved to political activism by the AIDS crisis, they have served as the backbone of the movement. Doctors, Liars and Women documents perhaps the earliest example of women,s insistence that issues vital to them had to be an essential part of the movement. The difficulties of being a prostitute in the midst of the AIDS crisis are detailed in My Body,s My Business. Keep Your Laws Off My Body juxtaposes footage of a lesbian couple and police activity at AIDS demonstrations to talk about the restrictions to bodily freedom. The heartwarming tale of Mildred Pearson, who became an AIDS activist after her gay son,s death, is related in He Left Me His Strength. Formerly imprisoned women speak for themselves in I,m You, You,re Me.

December 9 @ 5 PM
Drugs Into Bodies
DHPG Mon Amour (1989), Carl Michael George, Super 8 transferred to 16 mm, 12 min.
Needle Nightmare (c.1991), Phil Zwickler, 8 min.
Acting Up for Prisoners (1992), Eric Slade and Mic Sweney, 26 min.
Clean Needles Save Lives (1991), Richard Elovich 27 min.
Undetectable (excerpt) (2000), Jay Corcoran, 15 min.

"Drugs into Bodies was a simple, catchy slogan, but the reality behind it was much more complex. The mainstream press has portrayed AIDS drugs from AZT to protease inhibitors as simple, unalloyed miracles. In order to dispel this myth, Joe Walsh and David Conover invite us into their heroic everyday lives in DHPG Mon Amour, demonstrating the complicated ritual necessary to stave off David,s blindness. Phil Zwickler meditates on blindness and bucolic peace in the unfinished Needle Nightmare. ACT UP invades the office of the Medical Director of the California State Prison System in order to obtain healthcare for women prisoners.

People take drugs for many reasons, not only to ameliorate the effects of HIV. They also take drugs for pleasure and because they are addicted. Clean Needles Save Lives demonstrates how to use intravenous drugs safely. Finally, consider the problems of the remarkable AIDS activist Matilde Garcia in Undetectable. She copes not only with her own unsteady health and the difficulties of taking the drug cocktail, but with her 8-year-old HIV-positive son, her positive husband whose immigration problems may send him back to Cuba and her two negative daughters.

December 9 @ 7 PM
Desperate Measures
Seize Control of the FDA
(1988), Gregg Bordowitz and Jean Carlomusto, 25 min.
Like A Prayer (1989), DIVA TV, 30 min.
Stop the Church (1990), Robert Hilferty, 28 min.
The Ashes Action (1995), James Wentzy, 30 min.

In the end, the AIDS Activist movement was characterized by bold, dramatic action that, in a highly visible way, brought its message to the media, the people and the government. Those who obstructed progress in finding a cure, those who opposed the dissemination of appropriate and explicit safe sex information and, in general, anyone who hindered progress toward the end of AIDS would not be tolerated. Seize Control of the FDA is one of many tapes that record what was arguably the most successful of ACT UP,s actions. Its complexity derives from the intelligent examination of the thinking of the planners and their astute analysis of the media response. Both Like a Prayer and Stop the Church scrutinize the notorious demonstration at St. Patrick,s Cathedral in December 1989. Stop the Church concentrates on the preparation for the demonstration, Like A Prayer on a critique of the church,s response to AIDS. Employing a remarkable circular structure that heightens the tension and elucidates the action and cinematography that plunges the viewer right into the protest, The Ashes Action conveys both the poignancy of carrying a loved one's ashes to fling on the White House lawn and the fury that arises from political negligence. >>>



see also the following reviews:




see also essay:  The Witness in the Archive  by Roger Hallas  [off-site]



Excerpts of this program were also exhibited >>>

June 8-10, 2001: DI CINEMA GAYLESBICO Film Festivals, Milano and Bologna

October 2001: Film Festival in Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco)
and Milwaukee GLBT Film Festival

 

For information on exhibiting* this program or excerpts, contact >>> Jim Hubbard
----------------------             * exhibition rights to some programs are yet to be finalized



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 See also more print docs, including:

Report on the Archiving of Film
and Video Work by Makers with AIDS

 

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