Irony Rising: The Body and AIDS in the 1980s


Curator’s Talk

I was born in 1980, so I am about the same age as the AIDS crisis, and I find the huge output of AIDS video in all its genres to be incredibly compelling and vital for people to see today in a climate when AIDS is basically normalized. Partly this programme came out of an essay I am working on on activism, despair and Gregg Bordowitz’s canonical tape Fast Trip Long Drop, which was about AIDS video activism as much as about AIDS. And that paper was sparked by Bordowitz’s comments during talks by he and Steve Kurtz from the Critical Art Ensemble at Ryerson a few years ago. Their presentation was about the groundless federal bio-terrorism charges against Kurtz and the CAE, with Bordowitz speaking on behalf of their defense fund. However, the discussion inevitably broadened to consider how best to confront the current War on Terror-era American empire. Bordowitz spoke as a PWA who was sick and tired of being sick and tired after fifteen years of activism and a political situation arguably even worse than the Reagan/Bush eighties. He uttered words to the effect of “I’m sick of performing rage, I would rather perform depression and dysfunction.” Those words have stuck with me for a long time. I think my catalogue essay spells out what I’m trying to do, but essentially this programme came out of parallels I saw between the intensification of the AIDS crisis (and AIDS video) in the eighties and a growing ironic and self-conscious awareness of how representation works both in the mainstream media and in video art itself. And this irony was a vehicle for performing disagreement, dysfunction, despair and negation.

So the programme begins with the end of the decade and Steve Reinke’s attack on documentary practice, which appropriately enough for the time, is centered on AIDS representation. And Reinke breaks from the past, I would argue, by casting suspicion on all truth-claims of any kind rather than critiquing the power hierarchies that privilege corporate or governmental representations over grassroots or alternative ones. In Reinke, there is no authentic voice any more, so his own political allegiances are unclear. So I was interested in what this trajectory of irony and self-consciousness about representation was that led to Reinke and his murder of the testifying first-person subject at the end of the decade, and because of AIDS, the queer male body seemed the perfect location for this investigation. I am a huge Reinke groupie and am not put off by his shiftiness, but I was interested in trying to parse these tensions between authenticity and artifice, activism and negation, affirmation and ambiguity, because I am also a huge believer in video’s power for political change.

So, then in John Greyson’s tape we have a queer youth critique of the pedagogic impulse in gay culture and its condescending and fetishizing tendencies, and these play out between an older director and a young star played by Stephen Andrews. Greyson’s critique is generational and it is achieved through ironic editing, through camp performance and through text, which represents the author’s voice, not in a confessional way but a polemical way, and it brings out the repressed conflicts that lie beneath the surface of young beefcake spectacle. And in John Goss’s Stiff Sheets, which is part of the canonical compilation Video Against AIDS that Greyson put together with Bill Horrigan, we have what initially looks like a typical documentation of an AIDS activist demonstration. However, this morbid fashion show was directed not to the general public but to entertain other activists with a carnivalesque and cathartic parade that makes effigies of some of the most horrific misrepresentations, symbols and figures   of the AIDS pandemic. It treats suffering and death with a camp twist that still shocks in my opinion. And then in Rodney Werden I think you really see a forefather of Reinke, and the works are entirely about the power dynamic between the director and the subject (which for Werden were most often sex workers or other sexual performers). And you also have someone who made voyeuristic tapes and who was obsessed with documenting sexual marginality, and the tapes did not really seem to contribute towards an emancipatory political goal and can be very discomforting. The subjects certainly weren’t victims but they weren’t militants either, and so you are left with one record after another of each tape’s own making, the dynamic tension between off-camera and on that is at the heart of any act of indexical representation.