Goodbye Lesbian /Gay History Hello Queer Sensibility Meditating on Curatorial Practice Robert Atkins This piece is dedicated to Felix Gonzalez-Torres, an inspir­ ing artist and activist, who died of HIV-related complications in January 1996 during its editing. L ooking back at the Stonewall 25 art season (loosely defined), two emblematic events stand out: Art in America’s “After Stonewall” cover story in its June 1994 issue, and the In a Different Light exhibition at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, which opened seven months later. Both disturbed me deeply. Instead of the var­ ied surveys they implied—the former of a quarter-century of gay and lesbian art, the latter of so-called queer sensi­ bility in twentieth-century art—both virtually erased les­ bian and gay art history of the seventies and early eighties. But the organizers of In a Different Light did far more than that. They not only passed up the opportunity to compile a much-needed historical record of lesbian and gay artists, but consciously rejected the notion of identity politics in favor of an amorphous notion of queer sensibility. Art in America’s “After Stonewall” package of twelve interviews was conceived and realized by Holland Colter, a talented (gay) art reviewer at the New York Times. To his credit, Cotter selected worthy artists (Ross Bleckner, Nicole Eisenman, Louise Fishman, Lyle Ashton Harris, Deborah Kass, Cary S. Leibowitz [Candyass], Zoe Leonard, John Lindell, Donald Moffett, Frank Moore, Ellen Neipris, and Hugh Steers). They were allowed to speak in their own voices in extended, oral-history-style gulps unbroken even by questions, and they often spoke compellingly. But as a package, the feature remained lighter than air both for the narrowness of the artists selected—virtually all commer­ cially successful and New York-based—and for the limita­ tions of the method itself. At its most problematic, the contemporary-oral-history formal obviates any give and take. This reader yearned, for instance, for Colter’s response to Hugh Steers’s observation that “gay art is a marketing label . . . it’s important to discuss it and expose the fallacy of lumping us all together.”1 As Cotter noted in a very brief introduction to the piece about modern gay liberation and the Stonewall riots that helped trigger it, “the majority [of the interviewed artists] were too young to have known the nascent gay and lesbian movement at first hand.”2 This is an understate­ ment: half were bom in the 1960s and only Ross Bleckner and Louise Fishman were born prior to 1950. Nonexpert readers—almost everybody—would have no idea from these interviews that gay and lesbian imagery even existed prior to 1985. Where was even a mention of the artists who made the art world safe for the majority of those featured in the magazine? Artists such as Scott Burton, Tee Corrine, Nancy Fried, General Idea, Nancy Grossman, Harmony Hammond, Geoff Hendricks, Peter Hujar, Nicolas Moufar- rege, Jody Pinto, Joan Semmel, Michael Tracy, David Woj- narowicz or Martin Wong? Not to mention Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, who actually participated in the Stonewall riots. As Frank Moore noted in his fascinating comments about older gay artists: “I learned so much from them. It was like a tunnel back into a past… I know a lot of gay artists who come to New York and connect with older artists…. Many people get this sort of thing through fami­ ly, but for a lot of gay people the art world becomes that ancestral lineage network, where wisdom and history are passed along.”3 Cotter’s ahistorical approach surprised me; after all, he and I are part of the baby boom generation that largely came out and pursued our art historical studies after Stonewall. I did both simultaneously. Coming out in gradu­ ate school in the mid-seventies, the accomplishments of gay and lesbian artists fortified me (I wrote my master’s thesis on Francis Bacon), as did the prospects of unearthing the hidden (art) history of queerdom. (This was identity politics, long before the term was invented.) It’s unthinkable to me that any historian could uncouple iden­ tity politics from the establishment of a historical record. Such an approach is misguided. The gains of progressive WINTER 1996 Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Strange Bird), 1993, billboard, as installed for Traveling, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1994. Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. moments—such as the post-AIDS dismantling of the art world closet in the late eighties—must be institutionalized, as the interwar history of gay men and lesbians in Ger­ many, or the more recent (and complex) demonization of feminism, remind us. Still, the placement of a lesbian-and-gay-art feature on the cover of a mainstream American art magazine was a milestone, even if the cover image (a detail of eco-disaster from u Frank Moore painting) doesn’t read as gay. The problem with such firsts is that they’re rarely followed by seconds and thirds. So it’s a pity that this one signified os a well-intentioned but incomplete effort. Cotter’s identity-based modus operandi (only the art of elder statesperson Louise Fishman doesn’t telegraph that it’s gay or lesbian made) is precisely what (gay) cura­ tors Larry Rinder and Nayland Blake were reacting against in their ambitious exhibition. In a Different Light. Cata­ logue readers hardly needed to read between the lines to determine the curators’ hostility to identity politics: “Much of what queer artists are doing these days is questioning the value of identity politics,” Blake wrote admiringly? Whereas Cotter’s artists were selected because they were out lesbians and gay men, Rinder and Blake selected art­ works on the basis of their so-called queer sensibility. Skirting—or at least muddying—the question of sexual orientation, the show included work by important nongay artists, many of them feminists such as Carolee Schnee- mann or Ree Morton. (Despite such relatively fine distinc­ tions, many gay and nongay viewers I spoke with assumed all the show’s artists were same-sexers.) In a Different Light was, in many important ways, an intriguing and imaginative enterprise. It was also an extremely complicated one, so I’m going to describe it in detail. Comprising more than two hundred contemporary and historical objects, it was the biggest overtly queer show ever mounted by a major American museum. A cura­ torial project-cum-artwork in the over-the-top style of Group Material, it coupled pop cultural artifacts and art­ works—some historical, the majority contemporary. Arranged in nine sections that “move toward ever greater degrees of sociability” (Void, Self, Drag, Other, Couple, Family, Orgy, World, and Utopia), the show intended to explore “the resonance of gay and lesbian experience in twentieth-century American art, focusing primarily on works made during the past thirty years.”5 The thematic sections proved a mixed blessing. On one hand, there often seemed little conceptual logic for including a work in a particular section; many of them fit into multiple categories. Couple, for instance, included everything from Geoff Hendrick’s Flux Divorce Box and Diane Arbus’s Two Friends at Home (mother and son? denizens of a group home?), to Cary S. Leibowitz’s Tea Set (pot, cup, and saucer) and Richard Prince’s untitled dip­ tych of a woman in a tie smoking. On the other hand, this curatorial free association rarely got in the way of viewers because the works themselves were often riveting. The best sections were the two that spoke directly to gay and lesbian experience—Drag and Other. The former addressed, in part, the juicy issue of appropriation as mask. One of the show’s best passages consisted of Robert Morris’s famous biker-in-chains poster, Sherrie Levine’s appropria­ tion of a Walker Evans portrait in glamorously abstracting negative, Amy Adler’s photo of her own drawing after Levine’s appropriation of Evans’s portrait of his nude son, and Judie Bamber’s photorealistic graphite drawing of a pony bit that brings to mind a gynecological instrument from a David Cronenberg flick. The latter section, Other, offered some of the most historically rich works in the show. On a single wall, Robert Indiana’s gargantuan homage to Marsden Hartley’s German officer inamorato hung alongside Hartley’s image of a phallic landscape in Mexico. Next to it, Millie Wilson’s five-foot-high (all right, phallic) wig wittily flanked Donald Moffett’s photo light box of a reclining male nude, emblazoned with the words “you, you, you.” Moffett’s male odalisque jacking off provided one of the few literal erections or vaginas on view. In In a Differ­ ent Light, homosex was out of favor; indirectness and irony, metaphor and perverse gesture, the dandyish and the coquettish, were in. (Blake dubbed overtly gay or lesbian imagery “essentialist” and “retrograde.”) Mike Kelley was represented, but not Patricia Cronin, Felix Gonzalez- Torres, Robert Greene, Leone and McDonald, Frank Moore, or Julia Scher. Of course, too much effective queer art has recently been produced to fit into a single exhibition. But when it comes to the past, the historical slate is not so clean. Staged in an era of image glut, the exhibition oddly short­ changed photography. F. Holland Day, Minor White, George Platt Lynes, Duane Michals, and Arthur Tress were completely ignored. Even Robert Mapplethorpe, the embodiment of queer art for most Americans, was only rep­ resented by his album-cover portrait of Patti Smith. The catalogue embodied a lack of art historical inter­ est currently shared by many museums. (Contextualiza- tion—as this curatorial approach is known—has been carried furthest, perhaps, by the Whitney’s catalogue for its recent Hopper exhibition, which offers only reflections by novelists and others writers about the painter’s influence on their work.) More than half of this one is devoted to a so- called primer of contemporary theory and fiction by widely published writers such as Kathy Acker and Dennis Cooper. (This portion of the catalogue was edited by Amy Scholder, who was not one of the exhibition’s curators.) Although it does include mini-essays by the curators of pioneering les­ bian and gay shows at alternative spaces since 1978, the catalogue contains no historical information about lesbian and gay artists, no real debate about the pros and cons of identity politics, and even surprisingly little discussion of queer sensibility. Curator Blake does offer a few oddly subjective pages about the supposed antecedents of queer sensibility in Fluxus, feminism, punk, and above all, Duchamp. Blake asserts that Duchamp’s practice “more than that of any other artist opened a space for queers to formulate points of resistance to the monolithic structure of ‘culture.’”6 Despite the fact that the exhibition opened exactly a centu­ ry after Oscar Wilde was officially branded a pervert in a British courtroom, he was barely mentioned. Of course, Duchamp’s gender play and twisted language operate squarely within the deconstructive, antiessentialist tradi­ tion of the flaneur and dandy that Wilde and fellow Deca­ dents like Aubrey Beardsley paraded on an international stage. Being antiacademic and being antischolarly are not the same thing. Curator Rinder’s comment in print that “this exhibi­ tion has been developed through poetics rather than polemics” is telling.7 I take it to mean that the exhibition’s organizers rejected identity as too politicized or politically correct an organizational scheme in favor of an m.o. that privileged art over artists. Such an interpretation gives added meaning to Rinder and Blake’s observation that much of the exhibited art “has less to do with representing gay and lesbian lives than with conveying gay and lesbian views of the world.”8 Their view is, I believe, both apoliti­ cal and over-aestheticized. (Stonewall itself barely regis­ tered in the exhibition. There was nary a mention of the event itself nor, once again, of its formative influence on the sensibility of exhibited artist Thomas Lanigan- Schmidt.) The difficulty the University Art Museum had raising the relatively modest $150,000 necessary to mount the exhibition attests to the politicization of public art institutions. (No major exhibition since Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party has relied so completely on funding from nonpublic and nonfoundation sources.) Is it still possible not to lake sides in such matters? The Berkeley exhibition also raises the issue of how to curate a lesbian and gay exhibition. (Carefully, to cite an old saw.) In one sense—and you, dear reader, probably aren’t expecting this—the Berkeley curators are right: identity-related shows are not the answer at this moment. (The NEA controversies have provided unprecedented vis­ ibility for gay and lesbian artists, at least as a group. Peo­ ple do know that queer artists exist.) Nor is the right- wing-driven backlash against identity politics without a soupcon of validity. No artist I know wants to be ghettoized; to be considered first an African American artist, a female artist, a queer artist, or an African American/lesbian artist. Such adjectives always demean. (Let me point out, however, that the lack of a historical record of lesbian and gay artists of the past century—unlike female or African American artists—is a galling problem, a view that main­ stream museums and publishers have yet to embrace.) One of the few recent instances of an exhibition in which identification based on sexual orientation is relevant was Division of Labor: “Womens Work” in Contemporary Art, which traveled from the Bronx Museum to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles last year. It included work by men, the majority of whom are openly gay. Curator Lydia Yee’s attention to multicultural issues inexplicably didn’t translate into an interest in sexual orientation when discussing specific artworks. My concern is less a matter of bean-counting than of carrying intellectual inquiry to its logical conclusion: if sewing is gendered art practice, it is also, based on the evidence in this exhibition, a sexed prac­ tice as well. But few identity-oriented exhibitions (e.g., a hypothetical Queer Printmakers from New York) hinge on such matters. (In the case of the AIDS exhibition I co-curat- ed with Thomas Sokolowski—From Media to Metaphor: Art about AIDS, which was the first major touring exhibition of its kind—it seemed vitally important to include non­ queer artists so that gay and AIDS identities not appear to coincide.)9 Having rejected the identity-related model, what’s a curator (like Rinder or Blake) to do? Reading the catalogue comments of curators of previous gay exhibitions is instruc­ tive. One senses how little has changed in curatorial think­ ing, while everything has changed in the (art) world. AIDS has decimated the art-world closet, but too few gay/lesbian art professionals seem to realize the significance of this. Group (i.e., lesbian and gay) visibility need no longer be the highest priority in queer curating, especially if it comes at the expense of the most effective presentation of work by lesbian and gay artists. (I’m reminded of Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, Against Interpretation, in which she presciently warned against the now-ubiquitous style of art criticism— and curating—that “by reducing art to its content and then interpreting that . . . tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable.”)10 Of course, art-world gay visibility is relatively new. Prior to the mid-1980s, out gay artists were as scarce as progressive Republicans are today. Dan Cameron’s Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contempo­ rary Art at New York’s New Museum in 1982, the only other major contemporary queer exhibition at an American museum, was compromised by the reluctance of so many artists to participate—i.e., come out. Interestingly, Cameron employed virtually the same curatorial approach to which Blake and Rinder would turn more than a decade later. He titled his introductory essay “Sensibility as Con­ tent” and similarly attempted to broaden the scope of his exhibition beyond what he defined (and exhibited) as “homosexual subject matter” or “ghetto content,” which consisted of figurative, sometimes blatant, representations of gay life and sexuality.11 Unlike Rinder and Blake, Cameron had a very small pool of known artists from which to draw his exhibition. Cameron also had to deal with issues of closetedness that now seem more appropriate to the examination of his- Drag and Self sections of In a Different Light, 1995. University Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, University of California at Berkeley. torical, rather than contemporary art. “To assume that gay content cannot be present without a strong and clear indi­ cation that somone involved has sex with members of the same gender,” Cameron wrote, “is to underestimate both the flexibility of the idea of content and the gay imagina­ tion.”12 Cameron’s need to grapple with closeted or repressed contemporary artists suggests just how much has actually changed in fourteen years. To crack the codes of historical artists, however, is to attempt to regain access to their sensibilities and historical circumstances, just as queer historians have discovered that red ties marked on- the-prowl gay men of thirties New York or lorgnettes signi­ fied lesbian Parisians of the late nineteenth century. (Curator Patricia McDonnell’s exhibition, Dictated by Life: Marsden Hartley’s German Paintings and Robert Indiana’s Hartley Elegies, is exemplary in this regard.)13 Sensibility is nothing more, or less, than taste. Susan Sontag popularized the concept in her still-fascinating “Notes on Comp” (1964), which has been largely ignored by nongay art historians.14 In it, she aptly observed that “nothing is more decisive than taste … taste governs every free—as opposed to rote—human response.” How might the concept of sensibility govern an exhibition? We’re used to exhibitions of, or about, a collecting or curatorial sensi­ bility. Recall the blockbuster about Dresden’s historical collections, the frequent exhibitions celebrating the dona­ tion of a treasure-trove of works to a museum, or those, such as the recent Whitney Biennials, in which the subtext is the sensibility of an individual curator. But how can this notion operate in relation to a show (In a Different Light) that is billed as a survey of both the historical and contemporary work of “gay, lesbian, and ‘queer’ artists”? Might there be some middle ground between an exhibition formulated by a committee that includes art historians and one selected by two gay males of a similar age and similar enough taste? Surely there is more than one gay or even queer sensibility operating in our late twentieth-century Republic, In urban areas like New York and San Francisco, the concept of gay sensibility now seems to evoke a more romantic, closeted era before everybody was gay. That Blake could refer to overtly gay figurative work as essen- tialist also suggests that identity and sensibility now com­ prise a curatorial dichotomy that for some corresponds to (he problematic dichotomy of essentialism versus social construction. Generational politics are, of course, at the heart of this dichotomy. Queer is the gender-common alternative to the Stonewall-derived activism embodied in the terms gay and lesbian. Although many of us have no trouble being variously queer or gay, some lesbians and gay men do. Somehow the stridency of gay libbers (absolutely neces­ sary in a homophobic world far-too-unimaginable to twen­ ty-somethings) has been replaced by a perversely dandyish apoliticism. (But certainly not among the members of say, Gran Fury.) This attitude was embodied in a trio of (wel­ come) exhibitions at alternative spaces, including Richard Hawkins’s and Dennis Cooper’s Against Nature (at L.A.C.E. in Los Angeles in 1988), Blake’s and Pam Gregg’s Situation (at New Langton Arts in San Francisco in 1991), and Simon Watson’s Erotophobia (at his Project Space in New York in 1989.) A response to the censorship crisis, this last exhibition was the most politically pointed of the three. That the artistic accomplishments of Stonewall-era artists have been excised from so many surveys suggests an amnesiac sensibility all too American. Generational con­ flict is the raison d’etre of the alternative space; it is out of place in a museum unless it is confronted head-on. What sort of exhibitions ought gay, lesbian, queer (and nongay) curators organize? Although Stonewall 25 generated a few satisfying, identity-oriented, contemporary group exhibitions, most of the rest possessed no discernible reason for being, apart from the festive circumstances of the moment. (In the New York area, the collectively organized Outrageous Desire show at Rutgers University stood out for its inclusion of the seventies generation; as did Bill Am- ing’s Stonewall 25: Imaginings of the Gay Past—Imagining the Gay Future at White Columns for its opinionated, up-to- the-minute read of queer, predominantly installation-based work; and Joe Wollen’s Absence, Activism and the Body Politic at Fishbach Gallery for its poetic perspective on queer-AlDS art.) In any case, funding for such shows is clearly waning, as many corporate and institutional funders take (heir safety-first cues from the sabotage of the NEA. As museums increasingly turn to their permanent collections for exhibition resources, historical exhibitions are likely to increase in number. Progressive curators must demand equality, ensuring that the feminist m.o. virtually institutionalized at some museums be applied to queer artists in order to clarify and contextualize their lives and art. (One of my fondest memories as a Village Voice colum­ nist was persuading a straight, feminist-identified Brook­ lyn Museum curator to rewrite a wall label about an image of eight male bathers in a 1992 Frederic Bazille retrospec­ tive to conform to the catalogue’s queer speculations—or to face my comments in print.)15 Contemporary curators face both similar and differ­ ent problems. The most fruitful curatorial approach of the moment may be the presentation of queer artists among nonqueer artists in nonformalist, thematic group exhibi­ tions. A few recent examples are noteworthy. Questions of multiple identity were addressed in the catalogue of Thel­ ma Golden’s Black Male exhibition for the Whitney Muse­ um of American Art and have been far more directly engaged in (gay curator) Norman Kleeblatt’s Too Jewish? at the Jewish Museum in New York. Where gender issues come into play, queer matters ought to follow (although Division of Labor suggests that this is not always the case). The Masculine Masquerade (at M.I.T.’s List Center for the Visual Arts) and Team Spirit (Independent Curators Inc.’s look at artist duos and collectives) brought canny intelli­ gence to bear on the place of gay and lesbian artists and issues in the shows’ varied constellations of concerns.16 Are prescriptions really possible? Probably not. Flexibility and constant criticism—self and peer-provid­ ed—are essential. Some of that feedback may soon be coming in the form of a recently discussed, transatlantic expansion of the European IKT, the International Associa­ tion of Contemporary Art Curators. Suffice it to say for now that it’s difficult to imagine any thoughtful group show of modern or contemporary art that doesn’t include more than a token number of lesbian and gay artists. After all, to quote the distinctly campy comments of Fran Lebowitz in her 1987 New York Times piece called “The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community,” “if you removed all of the homosexuals and homosexual influence from what is gen­ erally regarded as American culture you would be pretty much left with Let’s Make a Deal.”17 Notes 1. Holland Cotter. “Art after Stonewall: 12 Artists Interviewed,” Art in America 82. no. 6 (June 1994): 62. 2. Ibid., 56. 3. Ibid.. 58. 4. Nayland Blake, Lawrence Rinder, and Amy Scholder, In a Different Light, exh. cat. (San Francisco: City Lights Book, I995), 10. 5. Ibid., 1. 6. Ibid., 14. 7. Ibid., 1. 8. Ibid., 2. 9. See Lydia Yee, Division of Labor: “Women’s Work” in Contemporary Art, exh. cat. (New York: Bronx Museum of the Arts, 1995); and Robert Atkins and Thomas W. Sokolowski, From Media to Metaphor: Art about AIDS, exh. cat. (New York: Inde­ pendent Curators Inc., 1992). 10. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (New York: Dell, 1969), 17. 11. See Daniel J. Cameron, Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Pretence in Contemporary Art, exh. cal. (New York: New Museum, 1982). 12. Ibid.9. 13. See Patricia McDonnell, Dictated by Life: Marsden Hartley’s German Paintings and Robert Indiana’s Hartley Elegies, exh. cal. (Minneapolis: Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, 1995). During 1995 the exhibition also traveled to the Terra Museum in Chicago and the Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami. 14. Reprinted in Susan Sontag, A Susan Sontag Reader (New York: Vintage, 1983), 105-19. 15. The catalogue of this exhibition is published as Aleth Jourdan (et al.J, Frederic Basille: Prophet of Impressionism (New York: Brooklyn Museum of Art, 1995). 16. See Thelma Golden, Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Con­ temporary American Art, exh. cat. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994); Norman L Kleeblatt, Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities, exh. cal. (New York* Jewish Museum. 1996): and Susan Sollins and Nina Costelli Sun- dell, Team Spirit, exh. cat. (New York: Independent Curators Inc., 1990). 17. Fran Lebowitz, “The Impact of aids on the Artistic Community,” New York Times, September 13, 1987, H22. ROBERT ATKINS, editor of TalkBack! (http:talkback.lehman. cuny.edu/tb) and author of ArtSpeak, is working on The Gay and Lesbian Looker: How Queer Artists Revolutionized Art at the End of the 20th Century. http://talkback.lehman.cuny.edu/tb

5

Vanishing Points

Art, AIDS, and the Problem of Visibility

In March 1986, the conservative writer William F. Buckley called for the manda­ tory tattooing of people with AIDS. “Everyone detected with AIDS,” he wrote in a widely cited op-ed piece in the New York Times, “should he tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.”1 As Buckley saw it, people with AIDS had to be indelibly marked as such, their bodies imprinted with a literal sign ol the danger they posed to others. Buckley’s tattoo proposal was fueled by the fear that people infected with HIV would not be clearly differentiated from the rest of the public, that their infection would not be risible enough.2

In November 1987, approximately thirty members of a newly formed activist organization called the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) created a site-specific artwork for the window of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. 3The work, entitled Let the Record Show …, featured a pink neon sign that declared “Silence Death,” an LED signboard, a photomural of the Nuremberg trials, and a series of six cardboard cutouts representing public fig­ ures who had, in the view of ACT UP, aggravated the AIDS crisis (figures 5.1, 5.2). Directly beneath each cardboard silhouette was a concrete slab that was inscribed, headstone-like, with a quote relating to the epidemic. The filth card­ board cutout bore a likeness of William F. Buckley. The accompanying slab was inscribed with these words: “Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to

prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.”

FACING PAGE: Figure 5.1. ACT UP, Let the Record Show…. 1987. Mixed media, installed in New Museum window, detail. Courtesy New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York.

 

 

Figure 5.2.

ACT UP, Let the

Record Show….

1987. Mixed

media, installed in

New Museum win­

dow, detail. Cour­

tesy New Museum of Contemporary

Art, New York.

Image digitally enhanced by

Christiane Robbins.

In one sense, Let the Record Show … reversed the logic of Buckley’s proposal. Rather than rendering the person with AIDS visible as a threat to others, ACT UP portrayed Buckley himself as part of the crisis, the social anti political disas­ ter, that AIDS had become by 1987. In setting a cardboard likeness of the colum­ nist against a photomural of the Nuremberg trials, ACT UP drew out the link between Buckley’s proposal and the compulsory tattooing of inmates in the Nazi death camps. ACT UP challenged Buckley’s regulatory scheme by forcing the regulator—rather than his targets—into visibility.4

Although the LED signboard in let the Record Show … offered statistics about AIDS fatalities (e.g., “By Thanksgiving 1987, 25,644 known dead”), the work included no image of a person with AIDS. This visual absence was in keeping with ACT UP’s refusal to portray the epidemic in terms of individual suffering or private tragedy. Let the Record Show … countered the prevailing image of the “AIDS victim” at the time- the image of a homosexual man or I.V. drug user confined to a wheelchair or hospital bed, the image of a wasted body at or near the threshold of death.5 “Since the earliest days of the epidemic,” writes David Roman in his study of AIDS and performance in the United States,“gay men have been identified nearly irreversibly with AIDS.”6 As we saw in the case of the Mapplethorpe controversy, the “irreversible” association between gay men and AIDS was often used to position homosexuality itself as a form of sickness and public threat.7 Let the Record Show … responds to this problem by presenting not a gay man hut a senator, a surgeon, a health commissioner, a Christian funda­ mentalist, a conservative columnist, and the President of the United States as the

very pictures of medical and political crisis. This chapter focuses on artists who insisted on homosexual visibility even as

they sought to disrupt what Roman calls the “encapsulation of AIDS as homo­

 

 

sexual.’”8 It looks at the work of Gran Fury, an AIDS activist art collective active from 1988 to 1992, and David Wojnarowicz, an artist and writer whose work addressed AIDS from 1987 (the year he tested HIV-positive) until his death in 1992. In response to the prevailing representation of the epidemic as the image (and threat) of the infected homosexual, these artists depicted both homoerotic pleasure and political rage. As a result, their work was denounced, defaced, pro­ hibited from public display, and otherwise suppressed. As I have argued through­ out this hook, attempts to censor or suppress works of art produce contradic­ tory effects: they provoke as well as prohibit artistic expression. In different wavs, both Gran Fury and Wojnarowicz responded to the threat of censorship by representing that threat, by picturing the restrictions to which their art was sub­ jected. This chapter traces the various relays of restriction and response, of attack and counterattack, that shaped the work of these artists in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Activist Erotics

The creation of Let the Record Show … by ACT UP would lead, early in 1988, to the formation of Gran Fury, a self-described “band of individuals united in anger and dedicated to exploiting the power of art to end the AIDS crisis.”9 The eleven founding members of Gran Fury were all participants in ACT UP, and most of them had collaborated on Let the Record Show … .The collective took the name Gran Fury in reference both to its own anger in the midst of the epidemic and, more ironically, to the model of Chrysler Plymouth sedan that the New York City police used as squad cars. Inscribed within the group’s name, then, was a reference to both a subjective experience (rage) and a tool of State power (police squad cars), to both an internal sensation and an external force.

Though organized as an autonomous collective, Gran Fury worked in close alliance with ACT UP, producing posters and agitprop to accompany the larger group’s demonstrations, and serving, in the words of Douglas Crimp and Adam Rolston, as ACT UP’s “unofficial propaganda ministry and guerrilla graphic designers.”10 As part of its pictorial contribution to the AIDS activist movement, Gran Fury sometimes recycled historical images of homoerotic pleasure. In the spring of 1988, for example, Gran Fury created two posters in conjunction with ACT UP’s“day of protest” against homophobia. In the first, the slogan“Read My Lips” extends across a World War II—era picture of two sailors in the midst of a kiss (figure 5.3);in the other, the same slogan sits atop a 1920s photograph of two women gazing, with longing intensity, into each other eyes (figure 5.4). The source image for the latter was a publicity still from a 1926 play entitled The Cap­ tive, the first Broadway show to locus on the subject of lesbianism and, as a result, the target of a citywide censorship campaign. In February 1927, at the height of the controversy over The Captive, New York City police raided the play and arrested its producers and cast, including leading lady Helen Menken (who is seen kneeling on the left in Gran Fury’s poster).11 Menken and company were released the next day after the producers of The Captive promised to close the play, which they did within the week. Less than two months after the police raid on The Captive, the New-York State legislature passed a law prohibiting the

 

 

Figure 5-}. Gran

Fury, Read My Lips

(Boys), 1988. Poster (offset lithogra­ phy), 10 3/4″ x

16 3/4″. Courtesy-

Gran Fury.

presentation of any theatrical work “depicting or dealing with, the subject of sex degeneracy, or sex perversion,”a law that remained on the hooks until 1967.13 The female version of Read My Lips thus carried a historical reference, however unknown to most viewers of the poster in 1988, to a defiant moment ot lesbian visibility and to the police actions and legislative censorship that visibility pro­ voked in 1927.

As several women in ACT UP were quick to point out, however, Read My Lips reduced lesbian eroticism to a gaze, a fixed distance, a refined delicateness: while the sailors smooched, the flappers just looked. To these objections, one might add that the publicity still from The Captive seems particularly ill suited to the

 

 

slogan “Read My lips,” since Menken and her costar are neither speaking nor kissing at this moment. What, then, is the message to be “read” on their hps?The muted eroticism of the image becomes even more conspicuous when juxta- posed with the sailor photograph selected lor the male version of Read My Lips. When displayed side by side (as they often were in 1988), the two posters imply that lesbianism is somehow less physically expressive, less passionately embod- ied—in short, less sexually active—than male homosexuality. Even as Gran Fu sought to affirm both male and female homoeroticism in Read My Lips, the col­ lective also—and unwittingly—desexualized lesbianism. When Gian Fur) su sequently revived the poster as a T-shirt, however, the image from The Captive. was replaced with a Victorian photograph of two women in the midst ol a

Figure 5.4. Gran Fury, Read My

Lips (Girls), 1988. Poster (offset

lithography), 10 1/8″x 16 1/2″.

Courtesy Gran

Fury.

 

 

(figure 5.5). Such a revision was characteristic of Gran Fury’s working method- its graphics, placed in service to a wider community of AIDS activists, were open to the criticism and creative input of that community.14

Within the original context for which Read My Lips was created—a “day of protest” against homophobia in April 1988—the poster announced a series of events organized by ACT UP, including a “kiss-in” at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street in Manhattan.15 Loosely modeled on the love-ins and be-ins of the late 1960s, kiss-ins were designed as public demonstrations of gay and les­ bian presence. At an allotted moment, ACT UP members would kiss each other in same-sex pairings. While public displays of affection between heterosexual couples are routine, even banal, those between same-sex couples remain rela­ tively rare, largely because of the verbal harassment and physical violence to which people engaging in such acts are vulnerable. According to ACT UP, its kiss-ins were held as“an aggressive demonstration of affection” that would “chal- lenge repressive conventions that prohibit displays of love between persons of the same sex.”16

Because it represents a transgression of social norms, the public enactment of a same-sex kiss can never be understood as the mere equivalent of a heterosex­ ual one. Cultural critic Philip Brian Harper has argued that

what is different.. . about the same-sex kiss versus its counterpart in the heterosexual narrative is that the former potentially functions to reveal a secret, not only about the nature of the relationship between the persons who kiss, but also about those persons themselves. In other words, due precisely to our culture’s governing presumption that everyone is heterosexual unless proven otherwise, the same-sex kiss speaks to identity in a much more highly charged way than does a kiss between a woman and a man.17 (Harper’s emphasis)

Harper’s point—that a same-sex kiss enacted in public reveals sexual identity in a more dramatic (and often a more dangerous) fashion than does an opposite-sex kiss—is both confirmed and complicated by the example of the AIDS activist kiss-in. Within the context of an ACT UP kiss-in, men were encouraged to kiss other men and women other women regardless of the “actual” relationship between the kissers (e.g., friends, lovers, acquaintances, virtual strangers).The collective act of kissing was here intended to serve as a public defiance of homo­ sexual invisibility, not (or at least not necessarily) as a declaration of romantic love or sustained union between the kissing participants. At a kiss-in, same-sex kissing could be performed by anyone in ACT UP, including the straight and bisexual members of the group. “We kiss,” says ACT UP’s fact sheet, “so that all who see us will be forced to confront their own homophobia.” Kissing is here enacted not as an expression of romantic intimacy but as a public performance of same-sex visibility, a performance directed toward an audience of onlookers who are not themselves part of the action.18

Both the male and (revised) female versions of Read My Lips might be said to fulfill a similar performative function to ACT UP’s kiss-in, although with an added historical resonance. The recovery of homoerotic imagery from the first half of the century tics same-sex kissing to the legacy of gay and lesbian culture

 

 

Figure 5.5.

Gran Fury, Read My

Lips (Girls), revised

version, 1988. Poster (offset

lithographs),

10″ x 16 1/2″

Courtesy Gran

Fury.

before Stonewall. The male version of Read My Lips, for example, revives the long-standing pictorial tradition of the sailor as an object of homoerotic atten­ tion, a tradition that, as we saw in chapter 2, strongly shaped Paul Cadmus’s paintings of the 1950s. To create Read My Lips, Gran Fury reproduced an under­ ground porn photograph from 1940-45, a print of which is now housed in the archives of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction (figure 5.6). In contrast to the cropped version that appears in Read My Lips, the original photograph extends well below waist level to include both sailor’s semi­ erect penises, one of which rests, in almost perfect perpendicular, upon the other. Within the terms of the original photograph, the sailors’ kiss was one part of a more extensive act of sexual exchange and exposure. For Read My Lips, Gran Fury shifted attention from below the belt of the sailors to above, from a scene of genital display and pornographic exposure to an erotic (it no longer explicitly sexual) image of kissing.

I have returned to the source photograph for the male version of Read My Lips so as to demonstrate that the poster’s homoeroticism is marked by a prior picto­ rial absence. The cropping out of the lower portion of the sailor image might be said to reenact the censorship to which photographs of homosexual exchange have historically been subjected. Although the cropping of the sailor porn ren­ ders it less explicitly sexual, Gran Fury’s distribution of Read My Lips forces the

 

 

Figure 5.6.

Anonymous photo­ graph, c. 1940-45.

Courtesy Kinsey

Institute for

Research in Sex,

Gender, and

Reproduction, Bloomington, lnd.

image into an unprecedented degree of public visibility. In the 1940s, the sailor photograph would have circulated as a contraband image among a small and secret circle of male viewers. As revived by Gran Fury in the late 1980s, the (cropped) picture was pasted onto utility poles, bus shelters, and city buildings

and then printed on t-shirts worn by ACT LIP members and their supporters (figure 5.7).19

In a March 1989 demonstration, hundreds of ACT UP members gathered at Nc w York City Hall to demand city housing for homeless people with AIDS and treatment programs for infected IV drug users. Scores of ACT UP members were arrested for civil disobedience during the demonstration, including at least one wearing a Read My Lips T-shirt (figure 5.8). Even as he is being dragged off

 

 

Figure 5.7.TOP

Gran Fury, Read My

Lips (Boys), 1988. Poster (offset lithography).

Courtesy Gran Fury.

Figure 5.8. BOTTOM Fred W. MeDarrah,

“ACT UP demonstrator

being carried off by

police in front of New

York City Hall, ” March

28, 1989. Photograph. © Fred W. MeDarrah.

 

 

into custody, this ACT UP member continues to get his message across. His Read My Lips T-shirt counters the riot gear and billy clubs of the police with the visible, nonviolent power of homoeroticism. It mouths defiance as well as desire.

Kissing Doesn’t Kill

Figure 5.9.

Gran Fury, Kissing

Doesn’t Kill,

1989-90.Bus

panel, 136″ x 28″.

Courtesy Creative

Time.

Less than a year after the debut of Read My Lips. Gran Fury produced another graphic showcasing the same-sex kiss as a response to the AIDS crisis (figure 5.9). Initially produced as a busboard (an advertisement affixed to the side of a city bus), the 1989 graphic offers three interracial couples dressed in high-con­ trast colors and posed against an expanse of while monochrome. Each of the couples is kissing. Both the brightly patterned clothing worn by the figures and the overall visual style of the image simulate Benetton’s well-known “Colors of the World” ad campaign (figure 5.10). Indeed, at a quick first glance, we may think we have encountered yet another in that would-be provocative (if ulti­ mately vacant) series of advertisements. It only takes another moment, however, to notice the differences Gran Fury has propelled into the space of advertising and to recognize that its agenda has nothing to do with boosting retail sales of Italian sportswear. Two of the three couples are of the same sex, and a banner caption extending above the entire image declares, “Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do.” In smaller type, a rejoinder text beneath the image reads, “Corporate Greed, Government Inaction, and Public Indifference Make AIDS a Political Crisis.”

Kissing Doesn’t Kill mimics the codes of consumerist pleasure and visual seduc­ tion to capture the viewer’s attention and direct it to the AIDS crisis. It affirms homoerotic desire and physical affection in the face of an ongoing epidemic, insisting that lesbians and gay men fight the efforts of the larger culture to posi­ tion their sexuality as deviant or dangerous. In response to the dominant image of white gay men and poor people of color as the “guilty victims” of AIDS, Kissing Doesn’t Kill celebrates cross-racial kissing (between men, between women,

 

 

between a man and a woman) as pleasurable. Finally, Kissing Doesn’t Kill chal­ lenges misinformation about AIDS, rejecting early accounts (and rumors) that erroneously named kissing as a risk behavior and saliva as a likely fluid of HIV transmission.The most notorious scandal concerning kissing and AIDS trans­ mission occurred in the summer of 1985, when Rock Hudson publicly revealed that he had AIDS. Television stills of Hudson’s kiss of Linda Evans on the previous season’s Dynasty (on which Hudson was a guest star and Evans a cast member) were reproduced in tabloid newspapers and popular magazines (figure 5.11), and the issue of potential transmission via that kiss was repeatedly raised. The photographs and sensational headlines of this press coverage—“Fear and AIDS in Hollywood,’’“Has Linda Anything to Fear?,” “Linda Evans and Dynasty Cast Terri- fied–He Kissed Her on Show”—invest Hudson’s kiss with the threat of AIDS contagion and, more especially, with the threat posed to “innocent” heterosexu­ als (e.g., “Linda”) by diseased and deceitful homosexuals (e.g., “Rock”).

In contrast to the representation of the homosexual’s kiss as potentially deadly, Gran Fury’s busboard reclaims kissing as an affirmative—and safe—dis- play of mutual affection and desire. In Kissing Docsn ‘t Kill, as in Read My Lips, Gran Fury insisted on the centrality of eroticism to its practice of AIDS activism and on the ideal of sexual freedom in the midst of the crisis. As early as 1985, AIDS activist writers such as Cindv Patton were arguing that “AIDS must not be viewed as proof that sexual exploration and the elaboration of sexual commu- nity were mistakes. . . . Lesbians and gay men . . . must maintain that vision of

Figure 5.10.

“United Colors of

Benetton,” spring/

summer 1989.

Advertisement,

Photo by Oliviero

Toscano. Courtesy

Benetton Inc.

 

 

Figure 5.11. “Rock Hudson and

Linda Evans Kiss on

Dynasty,” photo­

graph from Us mag­

azine, October 7, 1985. © SIPA

Press/Loss.

sexual liberation that defines the last fifteen years of [our] activism.”20 In its defiantly joyous homoeroticism, Kissing Doesn’t Kill offers just such a libera- tionist vision, now resituated within the context of the AIDS epidemic.21

When affixed to the side of a city bus, Kissing Doesn’t Kill functions as a mobile advertisement, traveling through various neighborhoods of the city rather than remaining within the bounds of any one community or subculture. It courts as wide a consumer audience as possible, jockeying alongside other advertisements and mass-produced images within the public sphere. “We are trying to fight for attention as hard as Coca-Cola fights for attention,”22 observed Gran Fury mem­ ber Loring McAlpin of the group’s mass-market ambitions. In Kissing Doesn’t Kill, as in almost all of its activist production, Gran Fury simulated the glossy look and pithy language of mass-market advertising to seduce the public into dealing with issues of AIDS transmission, research, funding, and government response, issues that might otherwise he avoided or rejected out of hand. In catching viewers off-guard, Gran Fury sought to bring them into a heightened awareness of the AIDS crisis. Collective member Avram Finkelstein described

 

 

the success of Gran Fury’s work, and of Kissing Doesn’t Kill in particular, as deriv­ ing from the fact that it puts “political information into environments where people are unaccustomed to finding it…. It’s very different from being handed a leaflet where you automatically know someone’s trying to tell you something and you may not be receptive to hearing it. But when you’re walking down the street and you’re gazing at advertising who knows what goes through |your]

mind?”23 Kissing Doesn’t Kill was commissioned by “Art against AIDS on the Road,” a

public art project organized in conjunction with several auctions of contempo­ rary art that benefited the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR).24 The invitation for Gran Fury to participate in the project, alongside such well- known contemporary artists as Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and the late Robert Mapplethorpe, was indicative of the art-world attention the collective was receiving at the time. Invitations to exhibit at the Whitney Museum and the Venice Biennale, among other prestigious venues, would follow within the next two years. By exploiting such attention and the financing and public access that accompanied it, Gran Fury was able to stage its graphics in ever-more-ambitious formats. The group’s output initially inexpensively produced posters and agit­ prop (such as the Read My Lips posters)—soon evolved into full-color billboards, busboards, subway placards, anil street signs.

The support of external funding agencies also carried with it particular forms of constraint. “Art against AIDS on the Road,” for example, was organized by a group (AmFAR) reliant on corporate donations and other forms of financial support from the private sector. After Gran Fury submitted its design for Kissing Doesn’t Kill to“Art against AIDS on the Road,’’ AmFAR refused to run the rejoin­ der text of the piece: “Corporate Greed, Government inaction, and Public Indif­ ference Make AIDS a Political Crisis.” Although it offered no justification for this decision, AmFAR likely considered the slogan to be uncomfortably explicit in its indictment of corporate motives and government practices.25 Gran Fury was thus faced with the decision of eliminating the rejoinder text from Kissing Doesn’t Kill or dropping the project altogether. The collective decided in favor of the for­ mer, believing that the visual power of the kissing couples together with the force of the primary slogan were strong enough to stand on their own.26

In San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Chicago (the three cities included in the “Art against AIDS on the Road” tour), Kissing Doesn’t Kill was thus displayed in an incomplete fashion, although viewers in those cities had no sense of what they were missing (figure 5.12).27 Without its rejoinder text, Kissing Doesn’t Kill addressed the AIDS crisis rather more loosely than Gran Fury had intended.28 Some viewers concluded that the graphic was chiefly about the right of gay men and lesbians to kiss in public.29 In Chicago, this misreading propelled a legisla­ tive effort to prohibit the poster’s exhibition on public transit. City alderman Robert Shaw, for example, criticized Kissing Doesn’t Kill as irrelevant to the AIDS crisis. I don t have any objection to campaigning against AIDS,” he told the Chicago Tribune, “but what does kissing have to do with the fight against the AIDS virus?”30 Shaw, who went on to propose a citywide ban on the poster, argued that Kissing Doesn’t Kill “has nothing to do with the cure for AIDS. It has some­ thing to do with a particular lifestyle, and I don’t think that is what the CTA

 

 

[Chicago Transit Authority] should he [in] the business of promoting.”31 Shaw further claimed, without citing any evidence beyond the graphic itself, that Gran Fury’s “advertisement seems to be directed at children for the purposes of recruitment.”32 The charge that gay and lesbian people aim to “recruit” children to homosexuality has often been used as a means of fomenting public support for antigay legislation.33 What we might note here is how that accusation is being lodged not against gay people hut against an image produced by them. In charg­ ing that Kissing Doesn’t Kill aimed to “recruit” children to the cause of homosexu­ ality, Shaw both misunderstood and (unwittingly) exemplified the poster’s core concern: the irrational fear of homosexuality in the context of the AIDS crisis.

Although the Chicago City Council voted down Shaw’s resolution banning Kissing Doesn’t Kill, a similar proposal was taken up by the state legislature. On June 22, 1990, the Illinois State Senate approved a measure preventing the Chicago Transit Authority “from displaying any poster showing or simulating physical contact or embrace within a homosexual or lesbian context where per­ sons under 21 can view it.”34 Since people of all ages take Chicago city buses, ride city trains, and walk down city streets, there would he no way to display Kissing Doesn’t Kill on public transit so as to ensure that “persons under 21” would not see it. And this, of course, was precisely the logic structuring the wording of the bill. If passed into law, the bill would have effectively prohibited the public display of Gran Fury’s work in Chicago.

Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the local gay anti lesbian com­ munity protested the hill as unconstitutional. Participants in the 1990 Chicago lesbian and gay pride parade and rally carried a banner of Kissing Doesn’t Kill to protest what they viewed as public intolerance and legislative censorship (figure 5.13). And, as the Windy City Times reported, “immediately following the Gay and Lesbian Pride Rally in Lincoln Park scores of people marched to the CTA bus maintenance facility . . . to hold a ‘kiss-in’ to protest the bill.”35 In a strategy of what might be called mimetic protest, the Chicago marchers enacted a version ol the image that the state legislature was seeking to censor. They kissed to protest the prohibition of Kissing Doesn’t Kill.

Later that summer, the “no physical embrace” bill was defeated by the Illinois House of Representatives. Following the hill’s defeat, Chicago mayor Richard Daley encouraged Gran Fury to produce a “less offensive” image lor display in the city, a proposal the collective “unequivocally refused.”36 In August 1990, forty-five Kissing Doesn’t Kill billboards were belatedly exhibited on city bus shel­ ters and subway platforms. Within two days of their installation, however, most of the billboards were defaced by vandals (figure 5.14). In defacing the posters, the vandals were making good on a prior threat that Alderman Shaw, among oth­ ers, had made to the press: “This is a poster that advertises the homosexual and lesbian lifestyle. People are outraged. If the system fails us, I’m afraid people will take matters into their own hands and paint over this homo-erotic art.”37 As leg­ islative attempts on both the local and state level had indeed failed to prohibit the display of Kissing Doesn’t Kill, a more “hands-on” approach was apparently deemed necessary, at least by the most aggressive opponents of the poster.

Yet the vandalism of Kissing Doesn’t Kill was itself reported by both the local and national press, thus exposing Gran Fury’s poster (as well as its defacement) to a far wider audience than that which might have seen it on Chicago’s buses and

 

 

subway platforms.38 The August 17 issue of the Chicago Tribune, for example, included a story on Kissing Docsn’t Kill accompanied by an image of a policeman investigating the defacement of the poster on an elevated train platform. Enti­ tled “Experts Cast Doubt on AIDS poster,” the story reported not on the vandal­ ism of Kissing Doesn’t Kill but, rather, on whether the poster had anything pro­ ductive to contribute to the battle against AIDS. The article cited comments from a range of Chicago health professionals and AIDS counselors, almost all of whom felt that Kissing Doesn’t Kill was too vague to be of much value in terms of AIDS prevention. Departing from this consensus, the director of youth services for a local AIDS prevention project emphasized the value of the public dialogue that Kissing Doesn’t Kill had provoked in Chicago: “I was listening to all the people calling in on the radio talk shows this morning and I thought, ‘In opening up dis­ cussion on what this poster means anti how we react to these three couples, it is far more successful than anything that would have just given facts.”’39 This edu­ cator highlights something about Kissing Doesn’t Kill that the other “experts” cited by the Tribune overlook: Gran Fury’s poster is not seeking to instruct peo­ ple about the proper use of condoms, the necessity of clean needles, or any other specific HIV prevention measure. Instead, Kissing Doesn’t Kill aims to affirm the value of eroticism, especially homoeroticism, in light of the prevailing image of homosexuality as deadly threat and contagion.

Within the context of “Art against AIDS on the Road,” Kissing Doesn’t Kill faced several different forms of external constraint: AmFAR’s rejection of the rejoin-

Figure 5.12.

Gran Fury, Kissing

Doesn’t Kill, 1989. Bus panel installed

on San Francisco MUNI as part of

“Art against AIDS

on the Road,” 136″

x 28″. Photo by

Gran Fury.

 

 

 

der text, the attempt of a Chicago city alderman to ban the image, the Illinois State Senate’s bill outlawing “any poster showing or simulating physical contact or embrace within a homosexual or lesbian context,” and the material deface­ ment of the work once it was finally displayed in Chicago. These forms of con­ straint were linked to one another in various ways. The refusal of AmFAR to run the rejoinder text, for example, removed the work’s explicit reference to the AIDS crisis and “softened” its activist message. This revision, in turn, enabled critics of the work to attack Kissing Doesn’t Kill as a “recruiting” poster for homo­ sexuality that had “nothing to do with AIDS.”

As we have seen, the attempted suppression and actual defacement of Kissing Doesn’t Kill in Chicago provoked a public dialogue about homosexuality, AIDS, and visual representation. Such dialogues formed a strategic part of Gran Fury’s activism, extending the reach of their graphic production by tapping into the power of the mass media to spark and sustain public debate. The “work” of Gran Fury’s art thus occurred as much in its reproduction as in its initial creation, as much in its coverage by the press as in its original display by the collective. Fol­ lowing its contested display in Chicago, Kissing Doesn’t Kill would go on to become Gran Fury’s most popular graphic, one that was widely reproduced in both the mainstream and alternative presses, exhibited in museums (figure 5.15), reprinted several thousand times as a poster, and even restaged by Gran Fury as a music video and broadcast on European MTV and American public tel­ evision. When Gran Fury revived Kissing Doesn’t Kill, the collective restored the work’s rejoinder text.

I want to conclude this section with a particular example of the way Kissing Doesn’t Kill circulated within the public sphere long after the poster’s deface­ ment in Chicago. In May 1991, the New Art Examiner published an article that recounted the Chicago controversy over Kissing Doesn’t Kill. A footnote to the article mentions that “in a nice study in contrast with Chicago, the San Francisco Department of Public Health requested a copy of the ’kissing’ poster from Art Against AIDS, which it had framed to hang in its public lobby.”40 In May 1999,1 phoned the Department of Public Health in San Francisco to see whether Kissing Doesn’t Kill was still on display there. After speaking to several employees who could not recall ever having seen a poster of three interracial couples kissing, I was instructed to phone the HIV Research Section, a division of the Depart­ ment of Public Health housed in a different building from the main offices. I spoke with Paul O’Malley, a program manager in HIV Research who told me that the poster was “hanging in the hall right outside my office. I’m looking at it as I talk to you.”41 According to O’Malley, the poster’s display was the work of a public health care staffer named Torsten Weld Bodecker who had admired Kissing Doesn’t Kill when it was shown on San Francisco public transit in 1989. Follow­ ing the poster’s month-long display on city buses and trains, Bodecker decided that it should continue to be seen in San Francisco, at least by the clients and employees of the city’s health department. After requesting and receiving a copy of Kissing Doesn’t Kill from Art against AIDS, Bodecker hung the poster in the department’s waiting area.

Bodecker died as a result of AIDS in 1992. The poster he installed at the Department of Public Health now hangs in a hallway that leads to rooms devoted to AIDS counseling, testing, anti community-based studies (figure 5.16). The

FACING PAGE

Figure 5.13.TOP ACT-UP Chicago

members carrying

Kissing Doesn’t Kill banner in Gay Pride

Parade, June 1990. Photo by Lisa Ebright,

originally published in

Windy City Times, June 28, 1990. © Lisa

Ebright, Chicago.

Figure 5.14. BOTTOM Defaced Kissing Doesn’t

Kill on Chicago train

platform,August 1990. © BillStamets/

Impact Visuals.

 

 

 

version of Kissing Doesn’t Kill hanging in San Francisco is one of the original bus- board posters fabricated for “Art against AIDS on the Road.”It does not, there­ fore, include Gran Fury’s rejoinder text about AIDS. But the display of the poster in the HIV Research Section of the city’s health department makes some­ thing of the same connection. Torsten Weld Bodecker’s copy of Kissing Doesn’t Kill continues to declare the importance of affection and desire in the face of a health crisis that, while dramatically changed since Bodecker’s death, remains

ongoing.

the CONFLICT over Kissing Doesn’t Kill in the summer of 1990 began less than a year after the cancellation of The Perfect Moment in June 1989. In the course of that same year, the National Endowment for the Arts would attempt to rescind an already-awarded grant to an art exhibition in New York City on the theme of AIDS and survival. A catalog essay by the artist and writer David Wojnarowicz lay at the core of the NEA’s decision to defund the exhibition. The next section of this chapter considers this episode of attempted defunding as well as a subse­ quent attack on Wojnarowicz’s work by a fundamentalist Christian organization.

This chapter pairs Wojnarowicz and Gran Fury in part because the controver­ sies in which these artists became embroiled occurred at roughly the same (immediately post-Mapplethorpe) moment. The historical coincidence of these controversies should not, however, be taken as entirely coincidental. Following the passage of the Helms amendment in the summer of 1989, religious leaders and conservative politicians stepped up their offensive on “homosexual art.” Both Gran Fury and Wojnarowicz understood the attacks on their work as part of a more far-reaching effort to suppress gay and lesbian expression. By way of introducing Wojnarowicz’s critical voice, I cite a 1990 essay he published in Out- week, a gay and lesbian newspaper published in New York:

For each grant rescinded in the name of politics and homophobia, public works can be made in response and in anticipation. If they want to make our bodies and minds invisible, let’s create more spontaneous public works and glue them on to the walls and streets of Washington and the rest of the continent. If the Gran Fury poster is stricken from the transit system in Chicago, let’s put up 20 different posters on those same buses and trains. Those among us who can put together radio and TV transmission devices should do so and break into the airwaves with safer-sex information, telephone numbers and addresses where people can find access to organizations. We have all the tools of the corporate world at our disposal—Fax and Xerox machines, automatic 35 mm and video cameras. We can construct a wall of reality in the form of words, sounds, and images that can transcend the state- and institution- sponsored ignorance in which most people live. We have mirrors, we have cameras, we have typewriters, and we have ourselves and our lovers and friends—we can document our bodies and minds anti their functions and diversities. With our eyes and hands and mouths we can fight and transform.42

FACING PAGE

Figure 5.15. top

Gran Fury, Kissing

Doesn’t Kill displayed in the window of the

Whitney Museum of

American Art, New

York, 1990.

Figure 5.16. BOTTOM

Gran Fury, Kissing Doesn’t Kill, bus panel

displayed at the offices

of the HIV Research

Section, San Francisco

Department of Public

Health, approximately

10′ x 2 1/3′. Photo by

author.

 

 

With its paratactic flow and multilayered form, this passage exemplifies Woj­ narowicz’s voice as both a writer and a visual artist. In contrast to Gran Fury’s catchy slogans and slick graphics, Wojnarowicz’s work enacts a kind of sensory excess, an overload of information and ideas. Through a proliferation of textual voices and visual forms, Wojnarowicz suggests a simultaneity of psychic and physical reality, of internal sensation and external event.

In the passage cited above, Wojnarowicz calls upon his readers to interrupt the flow of the mass culture so as to counter the “state- and institution-sponsored ignorance in which most people live.” He directs lesbians and gay men to docu­ ment experiences that would otherwise be denied, distorted, or erased outright by the dominant culture. Even as Wojnarowicz describes such counterrepresen­ tations as a “wall of reality,” his own work insistently highlights the place and power of fantasy as a response to epidemic reality. Wojnarowicz taps into the force of individual fantasy to contest both the AIDS epidemic and the censorship of homoerotic art.

Witnesses

In the fall of 1989, the photographer Nan Goldin curated an exhibition entitled Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing for Artists Space, a nonprofit gallery in Lower Manhattan. The show, which was partially funded by a $10,000 grant from the NEA, focused on the themes of the AIDS crisis, survival, and self-representa­ tion. After receiving an advance copy of the Witnesses catalog, John Frohnmayer, then chairman of the NEA, decided to rescind the endowment’s S 10,000 grant to Artists Space. In a letter dated November 3, 1989, less than two weeks before the official opening of Witnesses, Frohnmayer demanded that Artists Space relin­ quish all NEA funding to the show and that it distribute a printed disclaimer which would state that “The National Endowment for the Arts has not sup­ ported this exhibition or its catalogue.”43 Artists Space refused to return the grant or to include Frohnmayer’s disclaimer in any of the printed materials related to the show.

in defending his attempt to revoke the grant, Frohnmayer told the Los Angeles Times that,

the show had become so politicized that it no longer met artistic criteria. There is a certain amount of sexually explicit material, but the primary problem is the political nature. It essentially takes on the church. It takes on a number of elected officials anil expresses a great deal of anger over the AIDS situation. I can understand the frustration anti the huge sense of loss and abandonment that people with AIDS feel, but I don’t think the appropriate place of the national endowment is to fund political statements.44

The “primary problem” with the exhibition, from Frohnmayer’s perspective, was its “political nature.’’ As did Christina Orr-Cahall when defending the deci­ sion to cancel The Perfect Moment, Frohnmayer frames political content as the

 

 

undoing of artistic value and as that which has no “appropriate place” within a federally funded art show. According to Frohnmayer, the most explicit and trou­ bling example of this “politicization” occurred in Wojnarowicz’s essay for the exhibition catalog.4’

The face-off between the NEA and Artists Space, occurring as it did within six months of the Corcoran’s cancellation of The Perfect Moment, attracted national attention. Leading members of the arts community voiced their support for Artists Space. The conductor Leonard Bernstein, for example, refused the National Medal of Arts (which he was to have received from then-President Bush in a White House ceremony) in protest against the defunding of Witnesses, and Larry McMurtry, the president of PEN American Center, the American branch of an international writer’s congress, published an editorial in the Washington Post that “condemn[ed] in the strongest terms the cancellation by the National Endowment for the Arts of its grant to Artists Space for its AIDS exhibition, ‘Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing.’”46 In response to such pressures, Frohn­ mayer negotiated a compromise with Artists Space. The NEA chairman agreed to restore funding to the exhibition on the condition that no federal monies were used to fund the catalog.

In considering this episode, we might note that it was Wojnarowicz’s written essav, rather than his visual art (some of which was also included in Witnesses), that was centrally at issue. In that essay,“Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell,” Wojnarowicz launches a wide-ranging indictment of American culture and focuses with particular ferocity on the issues of AIDS policy, the Catholic Church, and the federal government. Wojnarowicz structures the essay in his characteristic stream-of-consciousness format, complete with expletives and willful mistakes of punctuation and capitalization. Although Wojnarowicz’s essay is fairly long, a single passage was almost always mentioned (though never cited verbatim) in press reports about the controversy. The passage in question reads as follows:

I’m beginning to believe that one of the last frontiers left for radical gesture is the imagination. At least in my ungoverned imagination I can fuck somebody without a rubber, or I can, in the privacy of my own skull, douse Helms with a bucket of gasoline anti set his putrid ass on fire or throw rep. William Dannemeyer off the empire state building. These fantasies give me distance from my outrage for a few seconds. They give me momentary comfort.47

This passage is purposely obscene, strategically incendiary. Yet it also insists, and this quite explicitly, on its status as fantasmatic, as existing in the space of my ungoverned imagination” or, again, “in the privacy of my own skull.’’ Wojnarow­ icz tells us that his revenge fantasies “give me distance from my outrage for a few seconds” and thereby suggests that they fulfill a momentary psychic need, that they reside within the coniines of his own imagination rather than within the space of the real.

Although situated at the epicenter of the Witnesses controversy in 1989, this passage was rarely discussed in relation to the larger essay of which it is part. This

 

 

is regrettable insofar as the logic and meaning of the passage are powerfully shaped by its original context. Here are the sentences that immediately precede it in “Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell:”

Recently a critic/novelist had his novel reviewed by the New York Times Book Review and the reviewer took outrage at the novelist’s descriptions of promiscuity, saying “In this age of AIDS, the writer should show more restraint.. .’’ Not only do we have to contend with bonehead newscasters and conservative members of the medical profession telling us to “just say no” to sexuality itself rather than talk about safer sex possibilities, but we have people from the thought police spilling out from the ranks with admonitions that we shouldn’t think about anything other than monogamous or safer sex.48

With these sentences, Wojnarowicz frames the succeeding “bucket of gasoline” passage as a defiance of repressive attitudes concerning AIDS and sexuality. When Wojnarowicz highlights the force of his own fantasy (whether in terms of unsafe sex or political assassination), he does so as a means of contesting the “thought police” who seek to control not only sexual activities but also the very terrain of sexual fantasy and representation. Rather than a gratuitous act of provocation, then, “Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell” aims to counter the censorship of safer sex information and the public policing of same- sex desire and fantasy.

Even as Wojnarowicz fantasizes his lethal revenge on Jesse Helms and William Dannemeyer, he also insists on the insufficiency of language to capture his expe­ rience: “I’m a prisoner of language that doesn’t have a letter or a sign or gesture that approximates what I’m sensing. Rage may be one of the few things that binds or connects me to you.”49 Throughout “Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell,’’AIDS is framed not only a medical syndrome that breaks down the body’s immune system but also as a broader breakdown between internal and external worlds, between private experience and public information. “When I was told that I’d contracted the virus,” Wojnarowicz writes, “it didn’t take me long to realize that I’d contracted a diseased society as well.”50

For Wojnarowicz, “the diseased society” he had contracted along with his HIV infection was nowhere more palpable than in the response to the AIDS crisis by conservative politicians such as Helms and Dannemeyer and by religious leaders such as John Cardinal O’Connor (the archbishop of New York City). Even as Wojnarowicz employed willfully offensive language, including expletives, to describe these leaders, he also made clear why he thought such language was necessary. The artist would, for example, describe O’Connor as “this creep in black skirts [who] has kept safer-sex information off the local television stations and mass transit advertising spaces for the last eight years of the AIDS epidemic thereby helping thousands and thousands to their unnecessary deaths.”51

If Wojnarowicz’s rhetoric was incendiary, so too was that of the conservative politicians and public figures he opposed. Compare Wojnarowicz’s language to that employed, for example, by Patrick Buchanan at the same moment in the AIDS epidemic. In a November 1989 column denouncing the Witnesses exhibi­ tion, Buchanan would describe Wojnarowicz as a“AIDS victim,” while making

 

 

clear that this form of “victimization” should warrant no sympathy from the reader: “The gays yearly die by the thousands of AIDS, crying out in rage for what they cannot have: respect for a lifestyle Americans simply do not respect; billions for medical research to save them from the consequences of their own suicidal self-indulgence. Truly, these are lost souls, fighting a war against the Author of human nature, a war that no man can win.”52 Although Buchanan uses no expletives or slang, his antigay rhetoric is no less aggressive than Wojnarow­ icz’s revenge fantasies. Unlike Wojnarowicz, however, Buchanan aims to stabilize his argument as tactual rather than lantasmatic, as true rather than imagined (“Truly, these are lost souls, fighting a war against the Author of human nature”). Wojnarowicz, by contrast, repeatedly underscores the status of his scenarios as fantasmatic rather than real (“These fantasies give me distance from my outrage for a few seconds”).

Even after the Witnesses show closed, the attacks on Wojnarowicz’s work by religious leaders continued. Beginning in March 1990, Reverend Donald Wild- mon of the American Family Association targeted Wojnarowicz’s work as exem­ plary of the “homosexual obscenity” that the NEA was allegedly funding. Wild- mon focused not on Wojnarowicz’s writing, however, but on the artist’s visual production, particularly a series of photomontages entitled the Sex Series. Before considering the strategies Wildmon used to attack Wojnarowicz’s work, I want to consider the Sex Series in some detail. I want, in other words, to look closely at Wojnarowicz’s art before turning to the ways in which that art was restaged by Wildmon and the American Family Association.

The Sex Series

In 1988 and early 1989, Wojnarowicz created a set of eight photomontages that he aggregately entitled the Sex Series. In each work, negatively printed black- and-white porn shots, most featuring male couples engaged in oral or anal sex, are set within larger photographic fields that have themselves been printed in negative (figures 5.17, 5.18, 5.19, 5.20).53 While background image and circu­ lar inset share a reversed black-and-white tonality, they otherwise belong to quite different registers of representation. Where the porn shots present cou­ ples in close-up detail, the background images offer far more expansive sweeps of land, sea, and sky: a thickly wooded forest with swampy underbrush, a resi­ dential landscape offering the upper stories of a clapboard house and water- tower, a set of paratroopers descending from the skies in a tactical exercise or perhaps an outright invasion, an aerial view of New York City featuring the Man­ hattan and Brooklyn Bridges, a train cutting across a canyonlike terrain, a mas­ sive steamship in the midst of an ocean crossing. Whereas in the large, rectangu­ lar photographs, the camera pulls back for a wide exterior shot or aerial view, within the circular disks, it zooms in tight on bodies engaged in sexual exchange, now lopping off a face or pair of legs to focus on a penis being sucked or a pair of buttocks penetrated.

Inset images are commonly used (as, for example, in road maps or anatomical diagrams) to magnify otherwise illegible or insufficiently detailed fragments of a larger field. Perhaps the circular insets in Wojnarowicz’s series fulfill a similar

 

 

Figure 5.17. David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, from the Sex Series, 1988-89. Gelatin silver

print, 18” x 21 1/2″ Courtesy PPOW Gallery, New York.

 

 

Figure 5.18. David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, from the Sex Series, 1988-89. Gelatin silver

print, 18″ x 21 1/2″. Courtesy PPOW Gallery, New York.

 

 

Figure 5.19. David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, from the Sex Series, 1988-89. Gelatin silver

print. Courtesy PPOW Gallery, New York.

 

 

Figure 5.20. David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, from the Sex Series, 1988-89 Gelatin silver

print. Courtesy PPOW Gallery, New York.

 

 

function, serving as apertures that magnify an otherwise unseen or submerged erotics: is this what happens beneath deck or in far reaches of the wood, in the basement, under the bridge, on the piers, or in the private compartment of the train? Or is sexual fantasy itself a kind of aperture or opening in the visual field, one that disrupts the seemingly secure terrains of public space and subverts the stability of what Wojnarowicz often referred to as the “pre-invented world”? We might say that, within these photomontages, the force of sexuality is figured as that which disorients both the viewer and the visual field, as that which erupts into and undoes our relation to the larger environment. The rectangles of photo­ graphic imagery—the primary mappings never set us securely on the ground: we are descending from the skies or in the midst of the sea, high over the Brook­ lyn Bridge or half a story above the earth. Perhaps the inset porn shots figure another -and more symbolic—sort of falling or groundlessness, a loss, in the face of desire, of the spatial and psychic guide posts that might otherwise situate us. On my reading, then, the circular insets arc not only peepholes giving onto secret sexual exchange but also tears in the fabric ol mainstream representation, tunnels of fantasy that disrupt official mappings of residential, military, and regional space.

Rather than merely reproducing pornographic images, Wojnarowicz crops and tonally distorts them. The artist’s manipulation of his pornographic sources erases any sense of narrative specificity or historical detail that they might oth­ erwise impart. While the circular insets always remain recognizable as images of sexual exchange, it is sometimes difficult to make out what, precisely, is go­ ing on in them. In creating the Sex Scries, Wojnarowicz used as his source mate­ rial not contemporary pornography but vintage, primarily amateur stills from the 1950s and 1960s.54 The original porn shots offer highly particularized scenes of sexual exchange while capturing a (now) nostalgic sense of place and period (figure 5.21). In one, a quartet of sailors, two still sporting their white caps and hastily-ripped-open bellbottoms, engage in oral sex before a slatted screen (figure 5.22). Wojnarowicz appropriated this image for the steamship montage, but in such a wav that the recognizable details of the sailor orgy were purposely lost. One must view the original porn shot to recognize the inclusion of a third man in the circular inset, the one who kneels behind, and to the left of, the standing figure. Similarly, the shadow crowning the head of the crouch­ ing figure on the right side of the inset becomes legible as a sailor cap only in the original photograph.

In producing the Sex Series, Wojnarowicz distanced the pornographic body from direct visual purchase by obscuring the textures of skin and hair, the con­ tours of musculature, the specificity of facial features, and the supporting props and details of the scene (here a floral bedspread or 1950s lamp, there a sailor s cap or unbuttoned pair of trousers). Rather than conjuring specific scenarios of sexual activity (e.g., an orgy below deck, an afternoon of hotel-room sex), the porn insets signal the space of sexual fantasy itself, a space that punctures the public mappings of the visual field. The photographs seem to irradiate the sexual act and, in so doing, to override the physiognomic specificity of the par­ ticipants and the period details of the original setting. Far from offering the you are there” fiction of pornography, the inset pictures present themselves as medi-

 

 

Figure 5.21. TOP Copy print of slide

used by David Woj­

narowicz for the Sex

Scries (sec figure 5.19).

Used with permission of PPOW Gallery and

the Estate of David

Wojnarowicz.

Figure 5.22. bottom Copy print of slide

used by David Woj­

narowicz for die Sex

Series (sec figure 5.20),

Used with permission of PPOW Gallery and

the Estate of David

Wojnarowicz.

 

 

ated, patently manipulated signs of sexual exchange. They function less as explicit scenes of pornography than as generalized emblems of it.55

As one part of this blurring of pictorial specificity, there is an occasional slip, page or indeterminacy of gender within the Sex Series. The receptive partner in the paratrooper inset, for example, is not immediately identifiable as the man we have learned he is from the original porn shot (figure 5.21). If Wojnarowicz’s manipulation of this source image opens the false possibility of heterosexual exchange, it also enacts on the body of the receptive partner a certain sliding or confusion of gender codings, a confusion that may render the manipulated porn shot not less “queer” but more so. I employ the term “queer” in this context to suggest not a specifically homosexual practice but a procedure (in this case pic­ torial) that undoes secure distinctions between the normative and the non-nor- mative, between acts of heterosexual and homosexual exchange or between identifiably male and female bodies.56 Rather from framing sexual exchange as a matter of particular activities or orientations, Wojnarowicz pictures the force of sexuality as a disorientation of the visual field, as a queer disturbance of both physical and perceptual relationships. In writing on the Sex Series, Wojnarowicz himself noted that “by mixing variations of sexual expressions, there is the attempt to dismantle the structures formed by category,”57 an attempt to chal­ lenge strict definitions of sexuality according to specific preferences and recog­ nizable identities.

Yet the Sex Series does not simply celebrate the power of queer fantasy to dis­ rupt the terrain of dominant culture—it also pictures the policing of sexuality by that culture. In an extended gloss he wrote on the Sex Series in 1990, Woj­ narowicz described the work in the following terms:

The spherical structures embedded in the series are about examination and/or surveillance. Looking through a microscope or looking through a telescope or the monitoring that takes place in looking through the lens of a set of binoculars. It’s about oppression and suppression. Are you comfortable looking at these images of obvious sexual acts in a crowded room? Do you fear judgment if you pause for a long time before an image of sexual expression? Can you sense absurdity or embrace in the viewing of images?58

What begins as an act of monitoring by the viewing subject (an act of looking as it through a microscope or telescope) becomes, by the end of the passage, a monitoring of the viewing subject: “Are you comfortable looking at these images of obvious sexual acts in a crowded room? Do you fear judgment if you pause? This shift from the viewer as the agent of surveillance to the viewer as the object surveyed—is central to the pictorial logic of the Sex Series. In looking at the pornographic insets, we see both sexual activity and its surveillance from without. The Sex Series confuses the boundary not only between male and female bodies anti between homosexual and heterosexual acts but also between sexual pleasure and social control.

When Wojnarowicz was asked about his use of pornographic imagery in the Sex Series, he made it clear that his intentions were hardly celebratory: The images I use arc just naked bodies, sometimes engaged in explicit sex acts. I

 

 

know they arc loaded images but I’m not just putting sex pictures on a wall, I’m surrounding them with information that reverberates against whatever the image sparks in people.”59 Throughout the Sex Series, Wojnarowicz counters the immediate pleasure that might be “sparked” by pornographic images by embed­ ding those images within radically discontinuous visual fields. Insofar as these larger fields mark the official spaces of public culture, they might be said to pro­ hibit or police the sexual imagery they also contain. The Sex Series concerns the suppression of sexual imagery and information as much as it does the power of sexual expression.

The disciplinary theme becomes explicit in the final three works of the series, each of which includes multiple insets as well as superimposed texts. In one of these works (figure 5.23), the primary image of a long train snaking through a plateau is punctuated by four pictorial bubbles of varying sizes and formats. Scanning clockwise from the upper right, we see a tight close-up of oral sex between men, a newspaper excerpt whose partial words and sentence frag­ ments (“Beaten,”“shouting antihomosexual,’’ “attacked two men on the Upper,” “stabbing one of them”) record the circumstances of a local gay-bashing, a microscopic view of blood platelets, and finally and most insistently (in terms of size) a photograph of police in riot gear and rubber gloves moving into a crowd. The photograph of the police is the only image in the work that is not tonally reversed. Because it is larger, less blurred, and less overtly manipulated than the other insets, the police photograph suggests a rather greater degree of verisimilitude. The photograph, it turns out, was taken by Wojnarowicz himself at a 1988 ACT UP demonstration at the headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration.

Once read in relation to the other insets, the image of fellatio in the upper- right-hand corner becomes linked to a number of threats arising both from within and without: the viral threat of HIV infection, but also, and inextricably, the threat of antigay violence and that of police action against public demonstra­ tions. In contrast to the first five works in the Sex Series, Wojnarowicz here figures the techniques of social control and State surveillance—of riot gear and hate crimes—within the frame of the photomontage. Wojnarowicz pictures the threat of homophobia so as to contest it. Yet as we shall see, the artist’s portrayal of that threat would prove an accurate forecast of the Sex Series’s subsequent pub­ lic reception.

Cut and Paste

The Sex Series was first exhibited in its entirety at a 1990 retrospective of Woj­ narowicz’s work, entitled Tongues of Flame, held at the art galleries of Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. A grant of $15,000 from the NEA covered a portion of the budget for the show’s catalog. Shortly alter the close of the exhibi­ tion, the Reverend Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association sent out nearly 200,000 flyers denouncing Wojnarowicz’s work to church leaders, Christian radio and television stations, and the lull membership of the U.S. Con­ gress.60 The flyer, which bore the headline “Your Tax Dollars Helped Pay for These ‘Works of Art,”’ was illustrated with fourteen images identified as the

 

 

Figure 5.25. David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, from The Sex Series, 1988-89. Gelatin silver

print. Courtesy PPOW Gallery, New York.

 

 

work of David Wojnarowicz. Each of the images was, in fact, a detail (and in some cases a quite small detail) from a collage, montage, or photographic series by the artist (figures 5.24, 5.25). Though Wojnarowicz’s art was never composed exclusively or even primarily of pornographic imagery, it was cut and pasted to appear as such by Reverend Wildmon and the American Family Association. Wildmon cropped, recombined, and rephotographed Wojnarowicz’s work so as to provoke the righteous outrage of his constituents, the U.S. Congress, and the public at large.

Wildmon’s appropriation of pictorial details from Wojnarowicz’s art might well be said to contradict the Reverend’s stated intentions. The single nonporno- graphic image on the back side of the dyer is a detail of Jesus Christ shooting up with a hypodermic needle and tourniquet. The detail has been ripped bv Rev­ erend Wildmon from a 1979 Wojnarowicz collage entitled Genet (figure 5.26) that portrayed the French author as a saint in the foreground of a vaulted cathe­ dral with an injecting Christ at an oversized altar toward the back. In reproduc­ ing this particular detail, Wildmon was recalling (anti in a sense reviving) the previous year’s furor over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a furor that had itself been fueled by the efforts of the American Family Association.61 Predictably, the jux­ taposition of Jesus Christ shooting up alongside pictures of gay pornography aroused the fury of clergy and lawmakers alike. It is worth noting, however, that Christ has been inserted into a larger field of oral and anal sex not by Wojnarow­ icz but by Reverend Wildmon’s ferocious reediting (and reimagining) ofWoj- narowicz’s work.

Wojnarowicz responded to the flyer by suing Reverend Wildmon and the American Family Association for libel and copyright infringement. Wojnarow­ icz’s suit marked the first time that an artist had pursued legal action against a Christian Right organization. In his court affidavit, Wojnarowicz argued that “the images represented in the Pamphlet to be my work had been so severely muti­ lated that I could not consider them my own.”62 In a similar vein, the artist told the Washington Post that the members of the AFA were “creating pieces of their own. They’re not even my pieces, when they’ve gotten through with them.”65

And just what kind of piece is it that Reverend Wildmon and his association have created? In framing Wojnarowicz’s work as nothing more than the sum of its pornographic details, the flyer produces its own pictorial orgy of drugs and sex, of shooting up and getting off. Reverend Wildmon has, in short, insistently focused upon and proliferated the imagery he claims to abhor. As I argued above, the Sex Series enacts a disorientation of the visual field by setting reverse-tone porn shots within larger, and quite differently ordered, mappings of public space. Wildmon’s fiver attempts to undo this visual complexity, this pictorial vertigo, by grounding the Sex Scries in its pornographic details and thereby locat­ ing it as a definitive site of obscenity. Yet Reverend Wildmon, in his fanatical overproduction of these details, enacts his own dizzying spectacle of sexual exchange and display, of what he himself termed “perversion” and “pornogra­ phy.”64 As the flyer moves from the positive prints of its uppermost tier to the negative peepholes below, it seems both to close in upon (through those circular apertures) and to lose hold of (through those X-ray-like blurrings) the sexual

imagery it must therefore continue, compulsively, to reproduce.6’

 

 

Figure 5.24. American Family Association, “Your Tax Dollars Helped Pay for These ‘Works of Art,’” liver (front).The David Wojnarowicz Papers, Fales Library/Special Collections, New York University.

Although it never came to pass, the possibility that Wildmon might be prose­ cuted by the postal service for sending materials that he himself had declared

obscene through the U.S. mail was mentioned in the press coverage of this episode.66 Wildmon and the American Family Association sealed each of the Wojnarowicz flyers inside an envelope marked “Caution—Contains Extremely Offensive Material. 67 Given that the A FA had gone to no small effort to cut,

paste, reproduce, and distribute this “Extremely Offensive Material,” its cau­ tionary warning might also be taken as a solicitation of further interest from the reader. Like the flyer it accompanies, the warning showcases the material it simultaneously finds offense in.

On August 8, 1990, the U.S. District Court judge presiding over the case of Dai id Wojnarowicz r. American Family Association and Donald E. Wildmon ruled in

 

 

favor of Wojnarowicz. The court barred the AFA from distributing any further copies of the flyer at issue and compelled the organization to send a“corrective communication” explaining the misleading nature of the flyer to all previous recipients.68 Because the judge found no evidence that Wojnarowicz had suf­ fered material losses as a result of the flyer, he awarded the artist but a single, symbolic dollar in damages.69 According to David Cole, the lawyer representing Wojnarowicz in the case, “When the suit ended, David insisted on receiving his payment in a one-dollar check signed by Wildmon. He planned to use the check in his art—back on his own turf.”70 Although Wojnarowicz never recycled the check within the space of his art (“his own turf”), neither did he cash it in. Retained by the artist until his death in 1992, the check is now housed in the Special Collections of the Fales Library at New York University (figure 5.27). In

Figure 5.25. American Family

Association, “Your

Tax Dollars Helped

Pay for These

‘Works of Art,’” flyer (back). The

David Wojnarowicz

Papers, Fales Librarv/Special

Collections, New

York University.

 

 

Figure 5.26. David Wojnarow­

icz, Genet, 1979. Photocopied col­

lage, 8 1/2″ x 11″.

Courtesy PPOW

Gallery, New York

contrast to its near worthlessness in monetary terms, the uncashed check per­ sists as a powerful symbol of Wojnarowicz’s struggle against the AFA and, more broadly, against the appropriation and attempted censorship of his art.

In the midst of his run-in with Reverend Wildmon, Wojnarowicz attempted to figure the force of silencing within the frame of representation. For the fall 1990 cover of the magazine High Performance, Wojnarowicz collaborated on an image in which his lips appear to have been sutured closed (figure 5.28). On the most obvious level, the cover image and its accompanying caption (“Why Is Reverend Wildmon Trving to CensorThis Man?”) indict Wildmon and the AFA for their attempted censorship of Wojnarowicz. The image might also be said, however, to depict an act of self-censorship, a refusal of the artist to speak because he now knows the uses to which his words—and his work—will be put. Even as it mutes the artist’s voice, however, censorship is here made to perform its radical surgery across the visible surface of the body and so to enact, in brutely pictorial terms, its symbolic violence. While Wojnarowicz figures censorship as a form of mutilation, he does not frame that trauma within the conventions of victim pho­ tography. The High Performance cover image does not solicit pathos or pity for its sewn-up subject. Instead, the picture enacts silence so as to contest it. Like the “Silence = Death” slogan of AIDS activism (figure 5.29), the cover photograph offers a hyperbolized image of censorship that paradoxically functions as a form of aggressive expression.71

In a somewhat similar strategy later in his career, Wojnarowicz figured the experience of vanishing, of bodily disappearance, as a form of active confronta­ tion (figure 5.30). In a photomontage from 1992, the artist offers a pair of

 

 

filthy, Heavily bandaged hands held open in a gesture of either supplication or self-inspection. A long text in red ink, superimposed over the hands, reads as follows:

Sometimes I come to hate people because they can’t see where I am. I’ve gone empty, completely empty and all they see is the visual form; my arms and legs, my face, my height and posture, the sounds that come from mv throat. But I’m fucking empty.The person I was just one year ago no longer exists; drifts spinning slowly into the ether somewhere way back there. I’m a xerox of my former self. I can’t abstract my own dying any longer. I am a stranger to others and to myself and I refuse to pretend that I am familiar or that I have history attached to my heels. I am glass, clear empty glass. I see the world spinning behind and through me. I see casualness and mundane effects of gesture made by constant populations. I look familiar but I am a complete stranger being mistaken for my former selves. I am a stranger and I am moving. I am moving on two legs soon to be on all fours. I am no longer animal vegetable or mineral. I am no longer made of circuits or disks. I am no longer coded or deciphered. I am all emptiness and futility. I am an empty stranger, a carbon copy of my form. I can no longer find what I’m looking for outside of myself. It doesn’t exist out there. Maybe it’s only in here, inside my head. But my head is glass and my eyes have stopped being cameras, the tape has run out and nobody’s words can touch me. No gesture can touch me. I’ve been dropped into all this from another world and I can’t speak your language any longer. See the signs I try to make with my hands and fingers. See the vague movements of my lips among the sheets. I’m a blank spot in a hectic civilization. I’m a dark smudge in the air that dissipates without notice. I feel like a window, maybe a broken window. I am a glass human. I am a glass human disappearing in rain. I am standing among all of you waving my invisible arms and hands. I am shouting my invisible words. I am getting so weary. I am growing tired. I am waving to you from here. I am crawling and looking for the aperture of complete and final emptiness. I am vibrating in isolation among you. I am screaming but it comes out like pieces of clear ice. I am signalling that the volume of all this is too high. I am waving. I am waving my hands. I am disappearing. I am disappearing but not fast enough.

Figure 5.27. Check for one dol­

lar payable to David

Wojnarowicz.The

David Wojnarowicz

Papers, Fales

Librarv/Special

Collections, New

York University.

 

 

Figure 5.28. TOP High Performance: A Quarterly Magazine

for the New Arts, no. 51 (Fall 1990).

Cover photograph of David Woj –

narowicz by Andreas Sterzing. From

the film Silence = Death by Phil Zwick-

ler and Rosa Von Prauheim. Courtesy:

High Performance and The David

Wojnarowicz Papers, Fales

Library/Special Collections,

New York University.

Figure 5.29. bottom

Silence = Death Project, Silence =

Death, 1986. Offset lithography

(poster), 24″ x 29″. Subsequently used as placard,T-shirt, button, and

sticker. Courtesy Gran Fury.

 

 

Figure 5.30. David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, 1992. Gelatin silver print and silkscreen

text, 38″ x 26″. Courtesy PPOW Gallery, New York.

 

 

Wojnarowicz’s sentences, most of which begin with the declarative “I am,” figure a vanishing sense of self as the body undergoes disintegration. Alongside this dis­ appearance, the text conveys the willed ignorance of a culture that refuses to acknowledge—to hear or to see—the suffering within its midst. Metaphors of sentience and bodily distress escalate as the text moves from visual experience (“I’m a blank spot,” “I’m the dark smudge”) to touch (“I am waving,” “I am vibrat­ ing in isolation”) to voice (“I am screaming,”“the volume of all this is too high”) to disintegration (“I am disappearing. I am disappearing but not fast enough”) Boundaries between corporeal sensation and material objects collapse into each other (“I am screaming but it comes out like pieces of clear ice”) as the subject dissipates. The complexity of the text, its simultaneous sense of cognitive disso­ nance and physical disintegration, is reinforced by the layered visual format of the photomontage. The type, purposely difficult to read over the hands, force us to strain, to experience on the perceptual level some small measure of the con­ fusion and dislocation it describes.

When Wojnarowicz was asked by his gallery whether this work was a self-por­ trait, whether the hands depicted were his own, he repeatedly refused to say.72 Like the text of the photomontage, the artist’s refusal to claim or name the band­ aged hands (“mine” or “not mine”) contests the boundary between internal self and external world, between the image of someone else’s abjection and the experience of one’s own. The fact this photomontage was the last artwork Woj­ narowicz would complete before his AIDS-related death a few weeks later can­ not be extricated from the history of the work itself. Neither, however, can it be made equivalent to it. The paradox at the heart of the piece is that vanishing is used to figure the presence of rage and that disappearance is made to speak through a series of insistent self-declarations. Wojnarowicz’s collage offers no easy space of externality. In the portrayal of (his own) vanishing, Wojnarowicz asserts a first-person subject, a self, who cannot be fully dissociated from the viewer and, in this sense, cannot be silenced from without.

Flaming Absences

The vanishing act staged in Wojnarowicz’s 1992 photomontage anticipates the artist’s death as a result of AIDS, a death that occurred shortly after the work was completed. But as I have suggested above, the experience of vanishing portrayed in this work cannot be understood strictly in terms of individual tragedy or per­ sonal loss, even though the loss at issue is, on the most immediate level, that of the artist’s own life. The disappearance at the core of Wojnarowicz’s 1992 photomon­ tage echoes broader shifts in the social and political terms of the AIDS crisis at the time, including the decline of ACT UP, the grassroots AIDS activist group in which Wojnarowicz had been active. The waning of radical AIDS activism in and around 1992 stemmed in part from the prior success of groups such as ACT UP in raising AIDS awareness, influencing federal policy, and forcing the development and release of new drug treatments. But it also stemmed from a mounting level of exhaustion among AIDS activists, a fatigue resulting from years of fighting the

epidemic and (still) losing so many friends and colleagues to it.

 

 

In 1992, Gran Fury unofficially disbanded, which is to say, the group stopped working together as a collective without formally announcing its dissolution. Gran Fury’s decision was provoked hy many of same factors that contributed to ACT UP’s decline at the same moment. By 1992, informational projects on AIDS had appeared throughout the United States, on public transportation, bill­ boards, television, and in mass-circulation mailings.73 Within this expanded field of AIDS representation, much of it visually sophisticated and commercially produced, Gran Fury’s work no longer constituted such a crucial intervention. The year 1992 also marked the moment of Bill Clinton’s election, a moment that seemed to promise a political breakthrough in terms of the federal govern­ ment’s responsiveness to the epidemic and to gay and lesbian issues more gener­ ally. After four years of making AIDS activist art and agitprop, the members of Gran Fury believed that their message had, to a meaningful extent, been heard.

Alongside this guarded optimism, however, Gran Fury had to contend with the increasingly common perception of AIDS as a grim fact of everyday life, an ongoing condition rather than a temporary medical and political crisis. Writing in 1995, the critic (and former ACT UP member) Douglas Crimp observed that “there is a new kind of indifference . . . that has been called the normalization of AIDS. . . . How often do we hear the list recited?—poverty, crime, drugs, homelessness, and AIDS. AIDS is no longer an emergency. It’s merely a perma­ nent disaster.”74 Flow could artists anti activists respond to AIDS as a “permanent disaster” rather than a state of medical and political emergency? What strategies of visual address, if any, might work within this new—and newly “normal­ ized”—moment in the AIDS crisis?

In 1993, a group of four AIDS activists, all former members of Gran Fury, produced a small black-and-white poster that they pasted throughout the streets and storefronts of Lower Manhattan (figure 5.31).The modest format and negli­ gible cost of the poster stood in stark contrast to the slickly produced billboards, busboards, and crack-and-peel stickers of Gran Fury’s earlier work. The rhetori­ cal tone of the poster also marked a departure from the activist work that had preceded it. Rather than grabbing the viewer’s attention in a spectacular fashion, it spoke modestly, even softly. Entirely devoid of graphic imagery, the poster presented a series of questions in small, typewritten print: “Do you resent peo­ ple with AIDS?”“Do you trust HIV-negatives?”“Have you given up hope for a cure?” and “When was the last time you cried?” Rather than making a demand, the poster asked its viewers to reflect on the emotional stakes of the AIDS crisis. Rather than speaking in the collective voice of outrage that characterized Gran Fury’s earlier work (e.g., “The Government Has Blood on Its Hands, All Peo­ ple with AIDS Arc Innocent”) the poster touched upon issues of individual sub­ jectivity and response, of personal despondency and defeat (“Have you given up hope lor a cure?”“When was the last time you cried?”).

With its miniature black text against a field of white space, the poster suggests not only a sense of intimacy and individual address but also of disappearance. It is as though Gran Fury’s once- bold slogans and full-color graphics had all but with­ ered away, leaving behind just these four small sentences. The 1993 poster did not bear the Gran Fury logo, and its relation to the larger collective remained

unclear. The four creators of the poster considered it a Gran Fury project, set

 

 

Figure 5.31. Gran Fury (ad hoc committee of four members), Untitled, 1993. Poster

20″ x 24″. Courtesy Loring McAlpin.

 

 

eral other members of the larger, but now defunct, collective did not. The inde­ terminate status of the “four questions” poster (is it by Gran Fury or isn’t it?) bespeaks something of confusion and ambivalence that marked the waning of AIDS activism at the time.

Like the “four questions” poster, the public billboards of Felix Gonzalez-Tor­ res characterize a move away from activist instrumentality and toward more allusive and ambiguous interventions in the epidemic. A dramatic shift in repre­ sentational strategy separates the artist’s 1990 billboard demanding universal health care (figure 5.32) from a 1991 project that spoke, in far less explicit terms, of both comfort and vanishing within the public sphere (figure 5.33). In the earlier work, the bold typography of the slogan “Health Care Is a Right” and blaring white-on-red color scheme arrest our vision, forcibly compelling us to “get the message .’’The billboard is a kind of visual alarm, the sounding of a state of medical and political emergency.75

The 1991 work, by contrast, depicts a space of comfort—but also of bodily- absence and longing—within the commercial sphere. The near-monochrome image, entirely devoid of text, offers a bed that bears the visible impression but not the physical presence of two reclining bodies. Rather than a surface to be quickly scanned, the billboard opens up a space that viewers might “fall into”on the visual and fantasmatic level. Far from the immediate legibility that advertis­ ing images and agitprop posters typically extend, the bed billboard sets up a more complex dialogue between desire and its frustration. Gonzalez-Torres placed the bed billboard at twenty-four sites throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens (figures 5.34, 5.35, 5.36).The proliferation of the bill­ boards opened up multiple spaces of private loss within the public sphere of New York City.

From a museum brochure on the bed billboards, I learned that Gonzalez- Torres had lost his lover, Ross Laycock, to AIDS in 1991 and that the project might therefore be seen as an individual memorial or tribute to the artist s absent partner.76 Once offered, this biographical information becomes inextri­ cable from any experience of the work’s meaning. Yet in its willful ambiguity and open appeal to individual fantasy, the billboard project cannot be confined to any one message about the epidemic or to any single act of memorialization. The bed billboards open up a space within the public sphere lor the registration of absence and exhaustion. In this project, Gonzalez-Torres conveys an experience of individual loss anti bodily vanishing without confining his work to the explicit production of “art about AIDS”.77 Rather than reconstituting the artist s lost lover as a pictorial presence, the bed billboards offer the visual trace of two bod­

ies that have, as it were, disappeared before our very eyes. In addition to the double disappearance portrayed in the bed billboards,

Gonzalez-Torres would couple commercially produced objects (electric clocks, lightbulbs, mirrors) as a metaphor for same-sex pairing. Gonzalez-Torres de­ scribed works such as Perfect Lovers (figure 5.37) as a partial response to the con­ troversies surrounding homoerotic art in the wake of the Mapplethorpe and

Wojnarowicz affairs: “It going to be very difficult for members of Congress to tell their constituents that money is being expended for the promotion of homo sexual art when all they have to show are two plugs side by side, or two mirror

 

 

side by side, or two light bulbs side by side.”78 Gonzalez-Torres responded to the threat of censorship by refusing to offer the expected (and, for would-be cen­ sors, indispensable) image of homosexuality. The absence that structures both the bed billboard and Perfect Lovers is not only that of the human figure but also that of any content that might arouse censorship. Such strategies of erasure may, however, court a different kind of danger, namely, that they mimic invisibility so well as to enact the very suppressions they seek to elude. To put the problem another way, we might ask whether works such as Perfect Lovers or the bed bill­ boards reinforce, however unintentionally, the external threat of censorship to which gay artists are subjected.

Consider, as a partial response to this question, one last artwork by Woj­ narowicz, a self-portrait of the artist, partially buried beneath the Chaco Canyon in California (figure 5.38). Wojnarowicz’s face and bright white front teeth pro­ trude through the surface of the earth. It is as though the remains of his body, uncannily well preserved, have just been dug up. Or perhaps the burial of the body has only just begun. Much of the image’s power derives from the way it

Figure 5.32.

Felix Gonzalez-

Torres, Untitled,

1990. Billboard.

Location: 144th

Street/Grand

Concourse, Mott

Haven, The Bronx. Photo by Peter

Muscato. Courtesy Andrea Rosen

Gallery, New York.

 

 

Figure 5.35. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled, 1991. Billboard, as installed for the

Museum of Modern Art, New York, “Projects 34: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Ma 30,1992, in twenty-four locations throughout New York City. Location #24 31-11

Twenty-first Street, Long Island City. Photo by Peter Muscato. Courtesy A

Gallery, New York.

 

 

Figure 5.54. TOP Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled,

1991. Billboard, as installed for

the Museum of Modern Art, New York,“Projects 54: Felix Gonzalez-

Torres,’’May 16-June 30, 1992, in

twenty-four locations throughout

NewYork City. Location #6:

47—5 3 South Fifth Street/Berry Street, Brooklyn. Photo by Peter

Muscato. Courtesy Andrea Rosen

Gallery, New York.

Figure 5.35. middle

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled,

1991. Billboard, as installed for

the Museum of Modern Art, New

York, “Projects 34: Felix Gonzalez-

Torres,”May 16-Junc 30, 1992, in

twenty-four locations throughout

NcwYork City. Location #11:

31-33 Second Avenue at East Sec­

ond Street, Manhattan. Photo by

Peter Muscato. Courtesy Andrea

Rosen Gallery, New York.

Figure 5.36. BOTTOM

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled,

1991. Billboard, as installed for

the Museum of Modern Art, New

York,“Projects 34: Felix Gonzalez-

Torres,” May 16-June 30,1992, in

twenty-four locations throughout

New York City. Location #18: 365

West Fiftieth Street, between

Eighth and Ninth Avenues, Manhat­

tan. Photo by Peter Muscato.

Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery,

New York.

 

 

suggests both excavation and entombment, both burial and disinterment. The photograph was shot in 1991, the year before Wojnarowicz’s death, but it was not printed until 1993, the year alter. The experience of disappearance that the photograph figures thus resonates with the history of its material produc­ tion. The image stages a burial that has yet to take place even as it memorializes a death that has, from the moment the photograph is printed, always already- occurred.

The theatricalized staging of his own burial is something Wojnarowicz enacted not only as an individual artist but also as an AIDS activist. The artist partici­ pated, for example, in a 1988 “die-in” held at the headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration in Rockville, Maryland. The die-in was one part of a mas­ sive ACT UP demonstration that closed down the offices of the FDA and suc­ cessfully applied pressure on the agency to accelerate the pace of clinical drug trials and quicken the release of experimental AIDS drugs. Within the terms of ACT UP’s die-in, death is enacted as a form not of individual disappearance but of collective protest, one in which the mock epitaph or grave marker stands as both political indictment and call to arms: “Never Had a Chance,” “AZT Wasn’t Enough,”“I Died for the Sins of the FDA,’’“I Got the Placebo, R.I.P.,”“Dead, I Needed Aerosol Pentamadine,”“Dead: As a Person of Color I Was Exempt from DrugTrials.”This last epitaph was inscribed on a mock gravestone held by Woj­ narowicz, who clipped a photograph of the demonstration from the Washington Post and sent it along with an identifying notation (“me”) to some friends in Europe (figure 5.39).

As in ACT UP’s 1988 die-in, Wojnarowicz’s self-portrait in the Chaco Canyon stages a mock death, a false burial that both defies and redoubles the disappear­ ance of the person with AIDS, including (but not limited to) the disappearance of the artist himself. Like the bed billboards of Gonzalez-Torres and the four questions” poster of Gran Fury, Wojnarowicz’s self-portrait uses the thematics of vanishing to make the disintegration of the subject into something insistent and

Figure 5.37. Felix Gonzalez-

Torres, Untitled (Perfect Lovers),

1987-90. Clocks, 14″ x 28″ x 2 3/4″

overall, two parts

each 14″ diameter,

edition of 3. Photo by Peter Muscato.

Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, NewYork.

 

 

Figure 5.58. David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, 1995. Gelatin silver print, 28 1/2″ x 28 1/2″.

Courtesy PPOW Gallery, NewYork.

 

 

present. Wojnarowicz solicits not a liberal response of concern about the AIDS crisis but a questioning, on the part of each viewer, as to his or her own psychic and corporeal vulnerability. The AIDS epidemic and the losses it has wrought hover near the scene of his later work, ever present but never explicitly named or pictured. “Somewhere in me,” said Wojnarowicz in 1990,“I feel that I don’t want to be polite. I don’t want that pressure of dying in a very clean way, making it easy for people. Somewhere, I want the world to have my rage and reactions.”79 By staging his own disappearance while refusing the role of either tragic victim or heroic survivor, Wojnarowicz made “somewhere” the space of his work.

David Wojnarowicz died on July 22, 1992. One week later, a “political funeral” procession devoted to the artist was held on the streets of Manhattan’s East Village. The procession was adapted from one of AIDS activism’s most dra­ matic strategies of protest: the public presentation of corpses at political sites such as the White House or New York City Hall. Wojnarowicz himself wrote about the symbolic force of political funerals in “Post Cards from America: X-

Ravs from Hell.”

Figure 5.39. Photocopy of per­

sonal clipping by

David Wojnarowicz

of Washington Post photograph of

ACT-UP’s 1988

die-in at the offices

of the Food and

Drug Administra­

tion in Rockville,

Md. Used with per

mission of PPOW

Gallery and the Estate of David

Wojnarowicz.

 

 

Figure 5.40. TOP Still from “David Wojnarowicz: Political Funeral, July 29, 1992,” video­

tape. Courtesy James Wentzy, DIVA (Damned Interfering Video Activists) TV.

Figure 5.41. bottom Still from “David Wojnarowicz: Political Funeral, July 29, 1992, videotape. Courtesy James Wentzy, DIVA (Damned Interfering Video Activists)TV.

 

 

I imagine what it would be like if, each time a lover or friend or stranger died of this disease, their friends, lovers or neighbors would take the dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to Washington d.c. and blast through the gates of the white house and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps. It would he comforting to see those friends, neighbors, lovers, and strangers mark time and place and history in such a public way.80

In this passage, Wojnarowicz recasts the ritual of mourning as a collective act of rage, as a “blast through the gates of the white house” that would finally make vis­ ible the death and disappearance of people with AIDS. Wojnarowicz s own political funeral” featured the presentation not of the artist’s body but, rather, of

his body of work. Behind a banner reading“David Wojnarowicz / 1954-1992 / Died of AIDS / Due to Government Neglect,’’ participants carried placards with reproductions of Wojnarowicz drawings, photographs, collages, and perform­ ances as well as quotations from the artist’s writings (figures 5.40 ,5.41). At the conclusion of the march, the banner and placards were set on fire to create a kind of funeral pyre (figure 5.42). Even as they went up in smoke, Wojnarowicz s words and pictures did not simply disappear. They created a combustible image fully in keeping with this artist’s life and work, an image of private loss flaming

into public protest.

Figure 5.42. Still from “David

Wojnarowicz:

Political Funeral,

July 29, 1992,”

videotape. Cour­ tesy James Wentzy DIVA (Damned

Interfering Video

Activists) TV.

 

 

Basks in Eye of Arts Storm,” New York Times,

July 27,1989: 1. 145. Charles Babington, “JesseRiles

Again,” Museum and Arts: Washington, Novem-

bcr/Decembcr 1989: 59. 146. Proceedings and Debates of the torsi

Congress, 1st sess., July 26, 1989:S8807. 147. See “Helms Says AIDS Quarantines

a Must,” San Diego Union-Tribune, June 15, 1987: A2. In November 1987, ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) created

an installation entitled Let the Record Show . . for the front window of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. The work, which will be discussed in detail in chapter 5, included a cardboard cutout of

Helms’s face along with an inscription citing his proposal for an AIDS quarantine.

148. On the 1987 Helms amendment, see “AIDS Booklet Stirs Senate to Halt Funds Los Angeles Times, October 14, 1987: 1 “Limit Voted on AIDS Funds,” New York Times, October 15, 1987:B12.

149. See Congressional Record, October 14, 1987: S14200-S14210: “Discussion of amendment no. 956-‘To prohibit the use of any funds provided under this Act to the Centers for Disease Control from being used to provide AIDS education, informa­ tion, or prevention materials and activities that promote, encourage, or condone homosexual sexual activities or the intra­ venous use of illegal drugs.'”

Helms’s logic for making the assertion that “every case of AIDS can he traced hack to a homosexual act” is as follows:

A hemophiliac who contracts AIDS from a blood bank has gotten it from a homo­ sexual with AIDS who contributed blood or a heterosexual infected by an infected bisexual. For the prostitute, she got it from an infected man who hail had sexual relations with a bisexual or a homosex­ ual. For the drug addict, somewhere along the line the needle has been used by a homosexual or a bisexual man or a het­ erosexual woman infected by a bisexual or homosexual. Heterosexuals are infected only from bisexuals or other het­ erosexuals who have had sexual relations with bisexuals.

So it seems quite elementary that until we make up our minds to start

insisting on distributing educational

materials which emphasize abstinence outside of a sexually monogamous mar­ riage including abstinence from homo­ sexual activity and abstinence from intra­ venous use of illegal drugs—and

discourage the types of behavior which brought on the AIDS epidemic in the first place, we will be simply be adding fuel to a raging fire which is killing a lot of peo­ ple. Anil, as with so many other things, Mr. President, this will take courage. It will force this country to slam the door on the wayward, warped sexual revolu­ tion which has ravaged this Nation for the past quarter of a century. (Congressional Record Ibid.)

150. Dominick Dunne,“Robert Mapple­ thorpe’s Proud Finale,” Vanity Fair, February 1988): 126.

151. Susan Weiley, “Prince of Darkness,

Angel of Light,” Artnews 87, no. 10 (Decem­ ber 1988): 109.

152. Carol S. Vance,“The War on Cul­ ture,” 41 .

153. Patrick Buchanan,“How Can We Clean Up Our Art Act?” Washington Times, June 19, 1989: D1. For Vance’s discussion of this passage, see “The War on Culture,”41.

154. Ingrid Sischy,“White and Black,” New Yorker, November 13, 1989: 139-40.

155. The concept of“victim photogra­ phy” is discussed by Martha Rosier in her essay “in, around, and afterthoughts (on

documentary photography),” in The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, ed. Richard Bolton (Cambridge: MIT Press,

1992). 156. Douglas Crimp,“Portraits of People

with AIDS,” in Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossbert, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Tre- ichler (New York: Routledge, 1992),

117-33. 157. Ibid., 120. 158. Ibid., 132.

Chapter 5

1. William F. Buckley, “Crucial Steps in Combating the AIDS Epidemic: Identify All the Carriers,”New York Times, March 18,

1986:A27. 2. The differentiation at issue is not only

between the ailing and the healthy homo­ sexual, or between the infected and the

 

 

“common needle-user “but also between

the person with AIDS and the so-called gen­

eral public (e.g., nonhomosexuals, non -IV drug users, non people with AIDS).

3. On this work, Let the Record Show…, sec Douglas Crimp,“AIDS: Cultural Analy­ sis/Cultural Activism,”in AIDS:Cultural

Analysis/Cultural Activism, ed. Douglas Crimp (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988):

7-1J- 4. As Simon Watney points out,“The last

time people were forcibly tattooed was

under Nazi rule, when millions were slaughtered because their politics or race or sexuality, or combinations of these, did not conform to the master plan of a totalitarian state. Such prescriptions remain unthink­ able in relation to any other category of

American citizen. But Buckley clearly regards gay men (and IV drug users) as so far ‘outside’ the body politic that no measure is

too extreme to contemplate. What is so very remarkable about such pronounce­ ments, however, is that they are announced

on behalf of gay men [and IV drug users]” (Watney’s emphasis). Policing Desire:Pornog­ raphy, AIDS, and the Media, 2d ed. (Min­ neapolis: University of Minnesota Press,

1989), 44. 5. On the visual representation of people

with AIDS in the late 1980s, see Jan Zita Grover, “Visible Lesions: Images of People with AIDS,” Afterimage 17, no. 1 (Summer 1989): 10—15 : Watney, Policing Desire-, and Timothy Landers, “Bodies and Anti-Bodies:

A Crisis in Representation,” The Independent 11 ,no. 1 (January/February 1988): 18-24, reprinted in Global Television, ed. Cynthia Schneider and Brian Wallis (NewYork and

Cambridge: Wedge Press and MIT Press,

1988): 281-99. 6. David Roman, Acts of Intervention: Per­

formance, Gay Culture, and AIDS (Bloomington

and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998), xxii. Roman continues, “The encap­ sulation of AIDS as ‘homosexual,’ despite the knowledge that HIV and AIDS surfaced

simultaneously in other populations not contained within the category of ‘homosex­ ual’—IV drug users, ‘Haitians,’ and hemo­ philiacs, for example locked in the linkage between homosexuals and AIDS as a founda­ tional logic in the cultural understanding of

AIDS.” 7. In Let the Record Show…, the fourth

figure represented is the televangelist Jerry Falwell. The quote inscribed on his slab reads AIDS is God’s judgment of a society that does not live by His rules.” Falwell thus

situates AIDS as divine retribution for such rule-breaking activities as homosexuality

and IV drug use.

8. Roman, Acts of Intervention, xxii. 9. Gran Fury fact sheet and exhibition

history (unpublished). Personal archives of

Loring McAlpin, New York, N.Y.

10. Douglas Crimp with Adam Rolston, AIDS Demo/Graphics (Seattle: Bay Press, 1990), 16.

It. The Captive was one of three plays raided by the New York City police on the

evening of February 9,1927; the others

were Sex (a Mae West vehicle) and The Virgin Man (a comedy about a woman who attempts to seduce her young brother-in- law, a sexually inexperienced college stu­ dent). Various cast members, including Mae West, and producers from Sex and The Virgin Alan were also arrested that night. The police crackdown on these three “dirt plays” (as Variety called them) is described in detail in Kaier Curtin, We Can Always Call Them Bul­ gur ians:The Emergence of Lesbians and Gay Men on the American Stage (Boston: Alyson Publi­ cations, 1987), 43-67.

12. Sec Abe Laufe, The Wicked Stage: .1 History of Theater Censorship and Harassment in the United States (NewYork: Frederick

Llngar, 1978), 60. On The Captive, see Curtin, We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians, 43-67. According to the February 15,1927- edition of the Baltimore Daily Post, The com­

pany and producer [of The Captive] were arrested” by New York City police. The star of the production, Helen Menken,“was released on $1,000 bail by a night court pending trial Monday.” Baltimore Daily Post clipping reprinted in Steve Hogan and Lee Hudson, Completely Queer: The Gay and Lesbian Encyclopedia (NewYork: Henry Holt anti

Company, 1998), 539. 13. On this law, sec Jonathan Ned Katz,

Gay/Lesbian Almanac. A New Documentary First Carol & Graf Edition (New York: Carroll &

Graf, 1994)., 426-28. 14. Read My Lips would acquire an extra

layer of significance (and irony) a few months later when George Bush made his

notorious vow “Read My Lips: No New Taxes” during his acceptance speech at the

 

 

Republican National Convention. On Bush’s

use of the phrase, see William Satire, “On Language: Read My Lips,” New York Times,

September 4, 1988:sec.6,p. 22. 15. The “dav of protest” against homo­

phobia was one of nine such days (each devoted to a different issue related to the AIDS crisis) that ACT UP chapters through­ out the United States organized in April 1988. For more on the “nine days of

protest,”see Crimp and Rolston, AIDS

Demo/Graphics, 52-69. 16. ACT UP fact sheet on the New York

kiss-in (April 29, 1988), cited in ibid., 55. 17. Philip Brian Harper, Private Affairs:

Critical Ventures in the Culture of Social Rela­

tions (New York: New York University Press,

1999). 22 18. Max Kozloff, in an article on photo­

graphic representations of the kiss, observed that “to be made witness of a kiss or embrace at close range is generally to he given a spec­ tacle whose good cheer, tenderness, or erotic vitality intimates a positive value from which all beholders are instantly excluded. Such personal binding brings home the fact that we the watchers are not at this moment in the same kind of solidarity with anyone are not being attended to, comforted, or fussed over in like measure.” “Passion Play,” Artforum 27, no. 4 (December 1988): 80.

19. The cropping of the source image was, among other things, a savvy design decision on the part of Gran Fury. In the original photograph, the sailors’ kiss, how ­

ever passionate, is somewhat trumped by the visibility of their exposed penises. By removing the most explicitly sexual part of the image, Gran Fury showcases (or “zooms

in on”) the sailors’ kiss, a focus then redou­ bled by the slogan “Read My Lips.”

20. Cindy Patton, Sex and Germs: The Poli­ tics of AIDS (Boston: South End Press, 1985),

142. 21. In a 1989 interview, Torn Kalin

argued that such works as Kissing Doesn’t Kill were both politically adversarial and sexu­ ally affirmative:“Speaking personally, I think that along with being enraged and wanting

to engage in direct action … we should also be giving ourselves something to look for­

ward to. The media and information that we make doesn’t have to be only adversarial. It

can also be affirmative at a certain level and

necessarily should be that way.” Avram

Finkelstein, another collective member, responded, “Of course, in the given context being affirmative about sex is being adver­

sarial “David Deitcher, “Gran Fury” (inter-

view), Discourses: Conversations in Postmodern Art and Culture cd., Russell Ferguson, William Olander, Marcia Tucker, and Karen Fiss (New York: New Museum, 1989), 201.

22. Quoted in Karrie Jacobs,“Night Dis

course,” in Angry Graphics: Protest Posters of the Reagan/Bush Era, ed. Steven Heller and Kar­ rie Jacobs (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1991), 12.

23. Quoted in Deitcher, “Gran Fury,”

198. 24. According to the joint catalog for Art

against AIDS: San Francisco/Art against AIDS: On the Road, “The primary objectives of AMFAR’s Art Against AIDS campaign are to raise urgently needed money for medical research, patient services, and public educa­ tion, and to open the doors to significant corporate and philanthropic giving for AIDS organizations.” Introduction to Art against

AIDS: San Francisco/Art against AIDS: On the Road (San Francisco and New York: Ameri­ can Foundation for AIDS Research, 1989), 4. On the relation between AMFAR,“Art

against AIDS on the Road,” and Gran Furv, see Kristen Engberg, “Marketing the (Ad)Just(ed) Cause,” New Art Examiner, vol.

18, no. 9 (May 1991): 27. 25. This according to McAlpin (inter­

view by author, April 20, 1993) and Eng­ berg, “Marketing the (Ad)Just(ed) Cause,”

27. AMFAR has steadfastly refused to com­ ment on the episode.

26. McAlpin interview. 27. In 1990, Gran Fury raised funds,

with the assistance of Creative Time, Inc., to exhibit Kissing Doesn’t Kill in its complete format on New York City mass transit. That episode was also marked by forms of institu­ tional resistance in this case from AMNI

America Inc., which sells ad space on New York City buses. According to New York Newsday,.\MN\ initially claimed that Kissing Doesn’t Kill was “unacceptable” for public display on city buses anti asked Creative Time to make the work “more palatable.” Both Crcative Time and Gran Fury refused

to change the work, and AMNI eventually

relented and agreed to install Kissing Doesn’t Ki//as submitted. See Michael Fleming and

Karen Freifeld,“Inside New York: TeIling

 

 

‘Kiss’ Ads Debatable for Buses,”NewYork

Newsday, June 22, 1990. Kissing Doesn’t Kill was also exhibited, from November 1989 to

February 1990, in the front window of the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of the Image World exhibition. This dual

exposure (on New York buses, in the Whit­ ney) underscores Gran Fury’s status as both an activist collective committed to the pub­

lic sphere and a high-profile presence within

the New York art world of the late 1980s and early 1990s. See Marvin Heiferman and Lisa Phillips, Image World:Arl and Media Culture (New York: Whitney Museum of American

Art, 1990). 28. Like every other graphic in the cam­

paign, Kissing Doesn’t Kill was as accompanied by an Art against AIDS on the Road logo.

29. See, for example, the Chicago resi­ dents and aldermen quoted in Garv Wash­ burn, “AIDS ‘Kiss’ Posters Going Up on CTA,” Chicago Tribune, August 15, 1990: C1, C8.

30. Cited in Robert Davis, “Council to Join Fray over Bus AIDS Ad, “Chicago Tribune,

June 6, 1990: C2. 31. Quoted in Washburn,“AIDS ‘Kiss’

Posters,” 8. 32. Quoted in Rick Pearson and Paul

Wagner, “Senate Votes to Ban AIDS Posters from CTA,” Chicago Tribune, June 23, 1990:

Ci. 33. The rhetoric of “homosexual recruit­

ment” was deployed with particular ferocity by Anita Bryant during her 1977 “Save Our Children” campaign in Dade County,

Florida. Bryant was especially effective at exploiting the image of the homosexual as

someone who cannot (or wishes not to) reproduce. “As a mother,” Bryant told Florida voters in 1977,“I know that homo­ sexuals, biologically, cannot reproduce chil­ dren; therefore they must recruit our chil­

dren.” See Frank Rose, “ Trouble in Paradise,” New Times, vol. 8, no. 8 (April 15,

1977): 48. 34. Cited in Pearson and Wagner, “Sen­

ate Votes to Ban AIDS Posters,” 1.

35. David Olson, “State Senate Denounces Art against AIDS,” Windy City

Times, June 28, 1990: 8. 36. On the exchange between Mayor

Daley and Gran Fury, see Engberg, “Market­

ing the (Ad)Just(ed) Cause,” 27. 37. Cited in Fran Spielman and Ray Han-

nai, “AIDS Posters Need New Look, Daley Tells CIA, Chicago Sun-Times, August 16,

1990: 12.The Chicago Tribune likewise reported that “Aid. Robert Shaw … said he has been contacted by several black clergy­

man [sic] who plan cither to paint out the ads or tear them down. ‘I don’t encourage this, but I have been told that a campaign of civil disobedience will begin soon,’ Shaw said at a

City Hall press conference. ‘There are peo­ ple in this town who are furious.’” Notice the way in which Shaw simultaneously

announces the threat of vandalism and attributes that threat to others, to unnamed “black clergy.” Gary Washburn and Robert

Davis,“AIDS Poster Debuts, Fans Contro­ versy,” Chicago Tribune, August 16, 1990.

58. An Associated Press photograph of a defaced Kissing Doesn’t Kill billboard on a Chicago train platform was reproduced in

“AIDS Poster’s Same-Sex Couples Raise an Outcry in Chicago,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 17,1990: 20, as well as “AIDS Awareness Poster Stirs Free Speech Debate,” San Juan Star, August 17,1990:14. The same picture was also published as a stand-alone photograph (with caption) in the August 17,1990, edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal. A similar photograph was published (again as a stand-alone picture with caption) in the August 17,1990, edi­

tion of USA Today (News section). 59. Jean Latz Griffin and Gary Wash­

burn, “Experts Cast Doubts on AIDS

Poster,” Chicago Tribune, August 17, 1990:

sec. 2,p. 2. 40. Engberg,“Marketing the

(Ad)Just(ed) Cause,” 28. 41. Paul O’Malley, phone interview by

author, May 20, 1999. 42. David Wojnarowicz, “With Our Eyes

and Hands and Mouths,” Outweek, August 8,

1990:61-62. 43. John Frohnmayer, “Letter to Susan

Wyatt, “November 3, 1989, reprinted in Culture Wars:DocumentsJrom the Recent Contro­ versies in the Arts, ed. Richard Bolton (New-

York: New Press, 1992). 126. 44. Cited in Allan Parachini,“Arts

Groups Say NEA Future at Risk: Los Angeles

Times, November 10,1989:F1. 45. “Mr. Frohnmayer said that while

he considered some of the images in the [Witnesses] show in ‘questionable taste,’ his principal objection to the grant was to the

 

 

catalogue.”William H. Honan,“The Endow­

ment vs. the Arts: Anger and Concern,” New

York Times, November io, 1989:C33. Speaking in reference to Wojnarowicz’s

essay in the Witnesses catalog, Frohnmayer would assert that “I strongly believe in the ability of people to speak their minds under

the First Amendment, but the endowment should not be funding that discourse.” Cited

in “Front Page: NEA Chairman Does Turn- about on AIDS Exhibition,”Art in America

vol. 78, no. 1 (January 1990): 51. 46. See Larry McMurtry,“When Art Is

‘Too Political,’” Washington Post, November 10,1989: A27. On Bernstein’s rejection of the National Medal of Arts, see Elizabeth Kastor, “Bernstein Rejects Medal in Arts Controversy; Composer Acts as Clash over Canceled NEA Grant Escalates,” Washington

Post, November 16, 1989: A1. 47. DavidWojnarowicz,“Post Cards

from America: X-Rays from Hell ,”in Wit- nesscs: Against Our Vanishing exhibition cata­ log (New York: Artists Space, 1989), to.

48. Ibid. 49. Ibid., 8-9. 50. Ibid.,7. 51. Ibid. 52. Patrick Buchanan,“Where aWall Is

Needed,” WashingtonT imcs, November 22, 1989, reprinted in Bolton, Culture Hire,

137-38. 53. The method by which Wojnarowicz

created the Sex Series is rather more complex than a simple printing of negative imagery. According to critic John Carlin, Wojnarow­ icz produced the series by “putting color slides in an enlarger and exposing them directly onto black and white photographic paper, which gives them an eerie negative quality like an X-ray. The basic image is then combined with various elements made by-

exposing areas of the paper which were masked in the earlier development process. Some of these images were then given an overlay of text made of white letters which drop out of the black background.” John Carlin, “David Wojnarowicz: As the World

Turns, in David Wojnarowicz: Tongues of Flame, exhibition catalog (Normal, IL: University Galleries of Illinois State University, 1990).

54. These two source images were among

Wojnarowicz’s personal effects at the time of his death, along with several hundred other pornographic prints (both amateur

and professional) from the 1950s and 1960s.

According to Wojnarowicz, the porno­ graphic images on which he based the Sex Series insets came from “a box of photo­

graphs that Peter [Hujar] was throwing out, and I look the original photographs, which had no reference to authorship, or anything else and I … photographed with color film a section of the work, a section of the photo source, I photographed it on to color slide film and then had that developed; and in the darkroom I put the color slide film in a black and white enlarger and put light through the color slide, so that when it appeared on the photographic paper, it greatly changed the image that was the source image, and it cre­ ated what was like a weird negative which

you can see here [in the Sex Series].Trial tran­ script, David Wojnarowicz, Plaintiff v. American Family Association and Donald E. Wildmon, Defendants, United States District Court, Southern District of New York, June 25,

1990,71. 55. According to Wojnarowicz, “The

images of sexuality in my works are not meant to titillate the viewer—whether het­ erosexual or homosexual—but arc part of a broad comment on many aspects of human

experience.” Affidavit of David Wojnarow­ icz, United States District Court, Southern District of New York, David Wojnarowicz, Plaintiff, v. American Family Association and Donald E. Wildmon, Defendants, Civil Action No. 90 Civ. 2457 (WCC), notarized, May

18,1990,7. 56. The significance of “queer” lies in the

way the term (like Wojnarowicz’s montage) muddies structural binarisms of sex

(male/female) and sexual practice (homo/hetero) and thereby throws into relief what cannot be assimilated about them. This is not to claim that a mere lin­ guistic term can override the sexual defini­ tion of subjects along hetero/homo and

male/female binaries. It is, however, to point out the descriptive usefulness of

“queer” (as opposed to “gay”) in this context. On the significance of the term “queer,”see

Michael Warner, “From Queer to Eternity: An Army of Theorists Cannot Fail,” Village

Voice Literary Supplement, June 1992: 18; Judith Butler,“Critically Queer,”in Bodies That Matter (New York: Routledge, 1993),

223-42, 281-84. 57. David Wojnarowicz, In the Shadow of

 

 

Forward Motion (New York: privately printed, 1990), unpaginated. A photocopy of this

booklet is housed in the tiles of PPOW Gallery, New York. Quoted with permission

of PPOW. 58. Ibid. 59. Quoted in Adam Kuby, “The Art of

David Wojnarowicz,” Outlook vol. 4, no. 3

(Winter 1992): 59-60. 60. The AFA, formerly known as the

National Federation for Decency, is a multi-

million-dollar agency that organizes public boycotts and national censorship campaigns against films, television shows, magazines, and works of art it deems indecent. On Rev­ erend Wildmon and the AFA,see Bruce Sel-

craig, “Reverend Wildmon’s War on the

Arts,” New York Times Magazine, September 2,

1990:22-25, 43, 52-53. On the AFA ’s campaign against Woj­

narowicz, see Brian Wallis, “Wojnarowicz Show Riles Right-Wingers,” Art in America

78, no. 6 (June 1990): 45 .According to Wal­ lis, Wildmon “sent a mid-April mailing to every member of Congress denouncing the work of N.Y. artist David Wojnarowicz and

criticizing the NEA for funding a museum exhibition of it. In the letter (also sent to

3,200 Christian leaders, 1,000 Christian

radio stations, too Christian television sta­ tions, and 178,000 pastors), Wildmon implied that the NEA grant violates the so- called Helms amendment, which bans NEA funding for obscene art.”

61. In April 1989, the AFA sent out over 1 million letters of protest against Serrano’s Piss Christ and the NEA. On this and other

censorship campaigns organized by Rev­ erend Wildmon, see Selcraig, “Reverend Wildmon’s War on the Arts.”

62. Affidavit of David Wojnarowicz, David Wojnarowicz, Plaintiff, v. American Family Association and Donald F. Wildmon, Defendants

(seen. 55). 65. Kim Masters,“NEA-Funded Art

Exhibit Protested, Wildmon Mails Sexual Images to Congress,” Washington Part, April

21, 1990:C1. 64. William H. Honan,“Multi-Media

Artist Sues Political Action Group,” New York

Times, May 22, 1990: C14. 65. Ina slightly different reading of

Wildmon’s brochure, Caroline Jones writes that Wildmon’s “composition evokes paired

filmstrips or a bank of video monitors.

returning Wojnarowicz’s images to an imag­ ined (and titillating) source in the pornogra­ phy industry. The bodies in Wildmon’s

image no longer read as negatives or coun­ terweights to a dominant and suppressive reality, but as reality itself: a dark reality in which sex is a kind of aggression, not its rad­

ical alternative.” “Greenberg’s Politics and

Postmodernism’s Account” (unpublished

ms., 1993), 25. Jones has published a French translation of this essay as “La Politique de Greenberg et le Discours Posmodernistc.” Cahicrs du Musec National d’Art Moderne, no. 45-46 (Autumn-Winter 1993), 105157. My thanks to Caroline Jones for graciouslv sharing this work with me.

66. See JoeJarrell,“God Is in the Details: Wojnarowicz Is in the Courts,” High Performance 51 ,vol. 13, no. 3 (Fall 1990): 20. As Jarrell points out,“In trying to make Woj­

narowicz’s art look as offensive as possible, Wildmon ironically ended up creating what some might consider a pornographic pam­ phlet, fueled entirely by his own aggressive imagination. If the government deems Wild­ mon s liver porno (and Wildmon himself calls the images he is sending obscene), Wildmon makes himself eligible for federal prosecution for sending such a flyer over

state lines.” An article in the Washington Post cited

Wildmon to the effect that the flyer in ques­ tion, although mailed to nearly 200,000 people, was not intended for the main­ stream public: “’It’s not the kind of mailing vou can send to the general public,’Wild­ mon said. ‘I could be prosecuted by the U.S. Postal Service for that mailing. What I’m trying to do is put it into the hands of key leaders.’” Cited in Kim Masters, “NEA- Funded Art Exhibit Protested; Wildmon Mails Sexual Images to Congress,” Washing-

ton Post, April 21, 1990: C1. Underscoring a similar paradox concern­

ing the Christian Coalition’s attack on Map­ plethorpe’s photography, the November 5, 1990, edition of the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger- Enquirer carried an article entitled “Pat Robertson: Porn Distributor?” The article

opened with the question “Is evangelist Pat Robertson a pornography distributor? and

then reported:

Robertson sgroup, [The] Christian Coalition, mailed photographs that

 

 

Robertson calls pornographic to more than 10,000 homes in Atlanta’s 4th Con­ gressional District. He hopes to help

Republican challenger John Linder unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Jones.

The photos by Robert Map­ plethorpe depict a young boy and girl with their genitals exposed, a man urinat­ ing in another man’s mouth, and a paint­ ing [sic] of Christ injecting heroin into his

arm…. If Robertson deems Mapplethorpe’s

work pornographic, how can he justify an unsolicited mailing of it to thousands of

unsuspecting families. He is distributing pornography, by his definition.

Frankie Abourjalie, a spokeswoman for Robertson, said the evangelist does not consider this to be pornography dis­ tribution. He considers it voter educa­

tion, she said.

“Pat Robertson: Porn Distributor?,” Colum- bus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer, November 5, 1990, unpaginated clipping in the archives of Peo­

ple for the American Wav, Washington, D.C. (clippings file on the Christian Coalition). Even as the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer reveals the contradiction through which Pat Robertson distributes the very images he also denounces, the article makes its own set of factual errors and symbolic slippages, first by conflating the work of Mapplethorpe with that of Wojnarowicz (the artist respon­ sible for the photocollage from which the image of the injecting Christ has been appropriated) and then by characterizing that image as a painting.

67. Envelope for “YourTax Dollars…” fiver, accompanied direct mail letter signed by the Reverend Donald Wildmon, dated April 12, 1990, printed on American Family Association letterhead. Copies of the letter, flyer, and envelope are on file in the archives of People for the American Way. My thanks to them for providing access to their exten­ sive files on the censorship campaigns of the AFA and the Christian Coalition.

68. See “Judge Orders a Correction,” New York Times, August 9, 1990: C14.

69. “The court allowed that the artist’s

reputation had probably suffered as a result of the AFA mailing, but it found no evidence that any museum or gallery exhibitions had been canceled as a result. Wojnarowicz was

awarded only a symbolic $1 in damages.” Christopher Phillips, “Wojnarowicz Bags Buck,” Art in Amcrica 78, no. to (October

1990): 240. 70. David Cole quoted in David Woj-

narouicz: brush Fires in the Social Landscape, Aperture 137 (special issue, Fall 1994): 37. When asked by the press what he would do with the dollar, Wojnarowicz responded, “I’ll use it to buy cither an ice-cream cone or a condom, depending [on] how hot I feel.” Cited in Phillips, “Wojnarowicz Bags Buck,” 240. The comment wryly underscores the negligible amount of the check. But it also suggests Wojnarowicz’s continued insistence on sexuality, including and especially his own, in response to the Christian Right.

71. The photograph of Wojnarowicz on the cover of High Performance was, in fact, drawn from an AIDS activist film entitled “Silence = Death” in which the artist appeared Inal 990 photomontage entitled

Silence Thu Economics, Wojnarowicz. included a similar, though more tightly cropped, pic­ ture of a mouth sutured closed. On the motil of forcible silencing in Wojnarwoicz’ work, see Mysoon Rizk,“Nature, Death, and Spirituality in the Work of David Woj­ narowicz,” Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1997, 175-176.

In this context, we might note that the slogan “Silence = Death” calls for action by

linking the absence of speech to the eradica­ tion of the self. As Lee Edelman has argued, “What is striking about ‘Silence = Death’ as the most widely publicized, gay-articulated language of response to the ‘AIDS’ epidemic is its insistence upon the therapeutic prop­ erty of discourse without specifying in any wav what should or must be said. Indeed, as a text produced in response to a medical and political emergency,’Silence = Death’ is a stunningly self-reflexive slogan. It takes the form of a rallying cry, but its call for resist­ ance is no call to arms; rather, it calls for the

production of discourse, the production, that is, of more text, as a mode of defense against the opportunism of mainstream medical and legislative responses to the con­

tinuing epidemic.” Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory (New York:

Routledge, 1994), 87. 72. Scott Catto, gallery director of

PPOW, interview by author, October 2,

1995.

 

 

73. These projects were produced not only by AIDS activist groups such as Gran Fury but also by AIDS service organizations

(the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York,

the San Francisco AIDS Foundation) as well as local and state health departments.

74. Douglas Crimp,“Right on Girl­ friend,” in Fear of a Queer Plana,ed. Michael

Warner (Minneapolis: University of Min­

nesota Press, 1995), 304. 75. In its entirety, Gonzalez-Torres’s bill­

board reads:

health care is a right, a government by the people, for the people must pro­

vide adequate healthcare to the people.

NO EXCUSES.

LOS SERVICIOS DE SALUD SON UN DERECHO. Un gobierno para el pueblo, por el pueblo, debe de provear servicios de salud adecuados para todo el pueblo.

NO MAS EXCUSAS.

This Billboard is a “registered nonwork” of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Registered non­ works arc those that the artist “removed” from his official oeuvre prior to his death in

1995. A complete list of the artist’s regis­ tered nonworks appears in Dietmar Elgar,

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Catalogue Raisonne (Ost- fildern-Ruit: CantzVerlag, 1997), 146-48.

76. See Anne Umland, “Museum of Modern Art,” Projects 34 (May 16-Junc 30, 1992): unpaginated; Amei Wallach, “Two Artists in Conflict,”New York Newsday, March

to, 1985. 77. Gonzalez-Torres was quite explicit

about the problem of visibility posed by the AIDS crisis: “When people think about AIDS, they think of images of hospital beds, medicine, needles, and all such garish things. That’s not AIDS. That part of it, but AIDS also, unfortunately, includes discrimi­ nation, fear, shame, desperation, and politi­ cal repression. The fact that gays still cannot serve openly in the military, because people

still want to believe it’s just a gay disease— that’s AIDS too. I don’t need to see an image of someone dying in a hospital bed to under­ stand AIDS. No one needs to see that; we’ve seen it before, and we’ll see more.”Citcd ill

Nancy Spector, Felix Gonzalez- lorres (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1995), 166.

78. Cited in Ibid., 73. 79. Wojnarowicz, quoted in David

Hirsh,“Courage and Censorship: A Conver­

sation with David Wojnarowicz,” Neiv York Native, May 7, 1990:19.

80. Wojnarowicz, “Post Cards from America,” 122.

Afterword

1. David Wojnarowicz,“Do Not Doubt the Dangerousness of the 12-Inch Politician”

(1990), in Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Dis­

integration (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 150.

2. On the reclamation of the term “queer” in the 1990s and the conflicts aroused by it, see David J.Thomas,“The‘Q’ Word,” Socialist Review 25, no. I (Special 25th Anniversary Issue 1995): 69-94.

3. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex “(New York: Rout- ledge, 1995), 226.

4. While a public reclamation of the term “queer” may be a product of the early 1990s, the antinormative strategy behind that reclamation most certainly is not. Attempts to trouble the conventional codes ol gender and sexuality, to highlight the per­ formative aspects of identity, and to oppose the tyranny of “the normal” are woven into the historical fabric of homosexuality and its

representation. 5. Cited in National Endowment for the

Arts, et ol., r. Karen Finley, et al., Supreme Court of the United States (October Term, 1997), Brief for Claes Oldenburg, Arthur Miller, Jasper Johns, Hans Haacke, et al.

(Amici Curae),4. 6. Congressional Record,“Helms Amend­

ment No. 420,” July 26,1989: S8862. In October 1989, the Helms amendment was rejected by the Senate in favor of “compro­ mise legislation” that included much of Helms’s original wording as well as language drawn from the Supreme Court’s 1973 rul­ ing (in Miller v. California) on obscenity. The compromise legislation prohibited the use

of federal funds “to promote, disseminate or produce materials which in the judgment of the National Endowment for the Arts or the

National Endowment for the Humanities may be considered obscene, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of

children or individuals engaged in sex acts and which, when taken as a whole, do not

 

  • 5Vanishing Points
  • Activist Erotics
  • Kissing Doesn’t Kill
  • Witnesses
  • The Sex Series
  • Cut and Paste
  • Flaming Absences

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