In conjunction with Art AIDS America, presented at Alphawood Gallery in Chicago, curator Danny Orendorff has put together a poignant exhibition at the DePaul Art Museum entitled One day this kid will get larger, highlighting how younger artists are dealing with HIV/AIDS in this current moment. The rich diversity of voices and experiences, as well as a plethora of resources found in a comprehensive zine library, foregrounds the immediate present for gallery-goers while showing a lineage to the past. Alex Fiorentino spoke with Danny about his curatorial practice and the exhibition, which runs through April 2nd.
Alex Fiorentino: To start, could you tell me a little about your experiences as a curator that have led to your putting together this show in conjunction with Art AIDS America? What did you feel is vital and important about the premise behind this group exhibition?
Danny Orendorff: Well, there’s two answers to this question. The short answer is that I was invited to curate an exhibition at DePaul Art Museum (DPAM) in response to the Chicago iteration of Art AIDS America by the director and curator of DPAM, Julie Rodrigues Widholm. She had been approached by the Alphawood Foundation (the philanthropic organization responsible with bringing Art AIDS America to Chicago) about the possibility of hosting a corresponding exhibition since DPAM is just down the block from the Alphawood Gallery. In turn, Julie invited me to propose a show, and One day this kid will get larger is the product of that invitation, which I am so grateful for.
The longer answer is that I’ve always attempted, over ten years of curating contemporary art exhibitions around the country, to have my work be responsive to conversations occurring both in theoretical/academic/art-world circles and in grassroots social-justice organizing/activist circles - with hope, simultaneously, though not always. Some projects have been more explicitly to do with politics, others more explicitly to do with formal or material developments within subsets of visual art production. As a result, I’ve been very lucky to encounter, befriend, and follow the work of a generation of mostly queer artists-activists that approach their making or their community work through an intersectional framework, unafraid to center their overlapping concerns with power, oppression, race, class, gender, sexuality, and so forth, within their work, writing, and activism.
This is why so many of my projects look beyond the often narrow confines of ‘visual art’ to be inclusive of other kinds of creative practices, both contemporarily and historically. In recent projects, like Loving After Lifetimes of All This at Charlotte Street Foundation in Kansas City, alongside contemporary visual artwork I also exhibited archival materials from such organizations as the Black Archives of Mid-America and the Gay and Lesbian Archives of Mid-America to highlight legacies of creative community work that, until recently, have been mostly excluded from the art historical record.
For this most recent project at DPAM, it was vital and important for me to work with artists, photojournalists, and activists that have direct understanding and engagement with the contemporary state of HIV/AIDS (and its related activism) in North America from the perspective of a community-worker or as a self-identified member of communities affected by the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis. Given DPAM’s affiliation with a majority undergraduate college, it seemed very important to me to be direct, and to educate, rather than be overly ponderous of more lofty, formal, or abstract artwork exploring the topic conceptually or aesthetically.
AF: In the gallery below the show, there is an exhibit exploring the iconography of sainthood. David Wojnarowicz (whose piece the show's title is derived) seems to be the patron saint of One day this kid will get larger. Certainly David means a lot of things to a lot of people, but what about his work in particular do you feel anchors this exhibition?
DO: That’s an interesting way to look at it! I wonder how Wojnarowicz himself would feel about it, particularly given his contentious relationship to the Catholic Church - which was certainly on my mind as I curated this exhibition inspired by his 1990 artwork Untitled (One day this kid) for a private Catholic university, even though DePaul identifies itself with more progressive and social-justice oriented ideals. I like to think that I fearlessly (or even naively) infiltrate spaces I shouldn’t be in, produce a bit of discomfort, and inspire change, or at the very least some productive dialogue. And, I am very grateful to the staff of DPAM and to the Art Institute of Chicago (who loaned Wojnarowicz’s artwork to my exhibition) for going along with me for the ride. I, honestly, never imagined I would get to a place in my weird career that I could borrow and show Wojnarowicz’s artwork, and it’s really thrilling and such an honor to do so.
For me, this particular piece by Wojnarowicz speaks to how homophobia, hate, xenophobia, and other forms of stigma pre-condition our experiences of the world we are all born into. We deliver infants into a world mostly controlled and defined by violent white hetero-patriarchy that seems to have already pre-determined a child’s life-chances based on that child’s race, sexuality, gender-identity, citizenship, religious upbringing, class, location, and so on. I think that Wojnarowicz deploys the nearly-universal belief that ‘every child is born innocent’ towards really affective ends in this piece, calling out the unforgivable violence of institutional structures and powers-that-be who continue to thrust young lives into a world that does not want to see difference survive, thrive, or proliferate. Through looking at the experiences and conditions of the young, we are able to see how this is the world we’ve created, endured, or allowed, and that they’ve had to inherit.
AF: How did you go about choosing the artists to be included in this show? I know many are from Chicago, but what kinds of considerations were made besides most of the artists being born after the 1970s? How many did you know before putting together the show?
DO: Since I only had about 6-8 months to organize this exhibition, I certainly did rely upon the creative communities I was already affiliated with to flesh out this exhibition and I am happy to have worked with several of the artists in this show in other exhibitions before this one (Aay Preston-Myint, Chris Vargas, Lenn Keller, and Matt Wolf).
That being said, though, organizing an exhibition is always a great excuse to reach out to new artists you admire, and my research led me to the wonderful work of Tiona McClodden, Samantha Box, Katja Heinemann, Angela Davis Fegan, and Ivan Monforte, who I am so happy to now have in my life. Others, like Ted Kerr, LJ Roberts, Rashaad Newsome, My Barbarian, Oli Rodriguez, Rami George, and Demian DinéYazhi’ are artists I’ve known or admired for quite some time based on their own outspoken work in this subject area. And, it should definitely not go unsaid that the Visual AIDS artist registry and blog led me to the work of yet another handful of artists - Nancer LeMoins, Shan Kelley, and Vincent Chevalier.
Artists also introduced me to artists, and through Ted Kerr I was introduced to the work of his many collaborators (Niknaz, Chaplain Christopher Jones, Jun Bae, and Shawn Torres), as well as the incredible Charles Ryan Long - who contributed a free mini-zine to the publication, which he also designed, and who has helped out with public programs at DPAM since I live in New York now.
AF: Oli Rodriguez’s The Papi Project is one of the first works one sees upon entering the gallery, and is one of the most subversive and moving. Certainly it fits within the subcategory of Childhoods, but its literal merging of the past and present reveals so much about the continuing stigmas and taboos concerning HIV/AIDS. What do you feel an audience can learn from the inclusion of such a complex work?
DO: Well, I think that what Oli accomplishes really beautifully in that work is a simultaneous depiction of love for queer and biological family. All too often, coming out narratives (whether that be coming out as homosexual, trans, or HIV+) seem to entail some kind of traumatic rupture or rejection, and Oli sidesteps that moralistic cliché or pitfall entirely. Instead, he dwells in complexity and utilizes curiosity and intimacy as strategy for better understanding his biological father, who died of AIDS-related illness in 1993. I think that an audience can see, and feel, Oli’s embrace of the messiness, uncertainty, and even randomness of life, love, and family in this work.
AF: In the opening wall text for the exhibition, you give the statistic that as of 2014, “young people (18-24) account for more than 1 in 5 new HIV diagnoses each year.” As a 24-year-old gay man, this feels particularly relevant to me, but as a white gay man I have had the privilege to be able to see myself in the “canon” of art about the epidemic. Representation and diversity is an important facet of your exhibition; could you tell me about how you came upon the artist Tiona McClodden and the video Bumming Cigarettes?
DO: I first heard of Tiona and her work from my friend Jesse Harrod, an artist in Philadelphia, where Tiona also lives and works. As it happens, Julie at DPAM had also heard about and was very interested in Tiona’s work, so the Bumming Cigarettes film has been on my checklist from the beginning. I drove to Philly one day last summer to meet Tiona while she was installing a show, and we just had an amazing conversation that didn’t even necessarily center upon her artwork, but on our thoughts and feelings relative to the inter-subjectivities of Blackness and the GLBTQ community, as well as the corresponding dynamics of race, gender, and HIV-prevention work - which is why I ultimately pursued Bumming Cigarettes for my exhibition.
Tiona is an expert, and in addition to being an incredibly skilled artist and filmmaker, is an exceptional researcher and writer - her multi-media project Affixing Ceremony: Four Movements for Essex continues essential inquiries initiated by the poet Essex Hemphill while also honoring his life, work, and legacy. Pursuing continuity between the past, present, and future of oppressed peoples through creative contributions - especially in the wake of mass death and disruption - is an interest she and I share, and I am so honored to have had the opportunity to work with her.
AF: This show champions such a diverse group of artists who have experienced HIV/AIDS in ways that are seldom represented: indigenous individuals, women, older people infected later in life, parents. Much of this work is a declaration of existence, a fight against erasure. Can you discuss the importance of these narratives in regards to discussions of HIV/AIDS today?
DO: This is all part of the broader project to decentralize the image of white, gay men as the primary image of HIV/AIDS and its corresponding activism out of concern over what that primacy perpetuates - the pre-mature deaths of people of color, trans-people, and women in mass, disproportionate numbers.
Mountains of thanks and praise are due to the Tacoma Action Collective, who staged the initial demonstrations in protest to the original iteration of Art AIDS America at the Tacoma Art Museum and first articulated the critique of that show under the banner ‘Stop Erasing Black People.’ The artwork, activism, experiences, and narratives of people of color are essential to understanding HIV/AIDS today and historically, given the fact that non-whites have been and continue to be primarily affected by the disease. TAC’s critique reveals the incredible disconnects between the ‘real world’ and the ‘art world’ on this issue in particular, but also in general.
TAC’s critique also opens up many conversations about institutional bias within the art world, but also the healthcare industry, the criminal justice system, and in public education - all of which are the creations of or conditioned by white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy. So, if the ultimate project of artwork and activism relative to HIV/AIDS is to change the establishment and save or improve people’s lives, it only seems logical to me that you emphasize the lives and experiences of those most neglected, silenced, or overlooked by the establishment. To that end, and in the spirit of self-critique as a vehicle for improvement, I regret that I did not delve deeper into the experiences of people who inject drugs within my exhibition.
AF: With such a diverse group of artists, there is also so many different mediums utilized. Photography, prints, collage, pamphlets, audio and video are among them, derived from a pluralist tradition since the earliest art addressing the virus. Have you found that many of these artists are directly referencing artists like Wojnarowicz and others included in Art AIDS America? What do young artists bring to the table?
DO: I think that younger artists benefit from an art world that has, to some degree, loosened its rigidity around the definition of art. More and more established art foundations and museums do show and support community-oriented projects now, rather than those projects being relegated to underfunded community arts centers that don’t have the capacity to collect or that don’t have the capacity to really care for the remnants of that creative community-work in perpetuity. It’s inconceivable to me how much has been lost because the art world didn’t deem it art or valuable or deserving of long-term care and maintenance. This is why community archives, particularly grassroots archives, are so essential to really understanding the history of struggle in this country, rather than art museum collections. It’s also why the work I selected for the show is often documentary in nature, while gorgeous in composition or concept.
Matt Wolf’s video Smalltown Boys might be the only work in the show that directly references Wojnarowicz or artists included in Art AIDS America, but I think it’s - rather - the spirit of mobilizing art towards social justice ends, and how those mobilizations force art institutions to change, that is most continuous from some of the work or projects included in Art AIDS America.
AF: I was personally enamored with the audio mix by CQQCHIFRUIT (Jacquelyn Carmen Guerrero) as it was paired with the installation by Aay Preston-Myint, evocative of a nightclub dancefloor. Can you talk a little about queer nightlife as a vehicle for AIDS activism in our time?
DO: Thanks! Both Aay and Jackie are members of the DJ and grant-giving collective Chances Dances, which has served the queer communities of Chicago and beyond for over ten years now. I certainly have benefited from their organizing and activism, in terms of having place to dance, hook-up, socialize, and discover comrades within a pleasure-positive, intentional, and intersectional environment. I don’t know if it’s really possible to summarize just what kind of impact Chances Dances has had on the lives of queer kids in Chicago, who dis-identify from more white, mainstream, corporate, and conservative manifestations of GLBTQ community as epitomized by present-day Boystown in Chicago. I don’t leave my politics at home when I go out to dance, and Chances Dances really gets that - and keeps it sexy.
I think that queer nightlife as a vehicle for AIDS activism is part of a historical tradition of GLBTQ people claiming and occupying spaces as their own, disseminating information directly, and providing direct on-site services. That’s really nothing new. But, I think that today the dance-floor as a space of queer, black, and brown joy and resistance is one that we’ve seen under violent attack both directly (as with the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando) and more covertly (as with the closing of so many official and unofficial queer venues or spaces due to ‘free-market’ / neoliberal economic policy shifts that see these vulnerable independent spaces under siege by city fines, over taxation, changes in permitting, and gentrification more broadly). I don’t think it’s any secret that as queer people or as people living with HIV - we depend on one another to keep ourselves safe, sheltered and alive - and nightlife is an incredible vehicle for finding one another in the first place, and transporting us towards a better world in the second. I think that is partially why portals and light-beams and motion figures so heavily into Aay’s mural, for instance.
AF: So much of ballroom culture has become assimilated into the mainstream lexicon, with Paris is Burning entering the popular consciousness in recent years. It was incredible seeing artists like Samantha Box and Rashaad Newsome create personal pieces related to that scene. Certainly there is so much that is glamorous and fun about ballroom culture, but how do you feel these artists reveal more about a relationship to the realities of this network?
DO: This is related to your last question. For me, ballroom and Kiki scenes are such incredible spaces of joy, resistance, and community/identity-work. Ballroom and Kiki can act as a harbor that is simultaneously safe and brave, encouraging of self-expression and experimentation, and home to a network of individuals establishing worlds, economic opportunities, and systems of mutual support. Certainly there are dazzling aesthetic dimensions to ballroom and Kiki communities, but I think what both Rashaad and Samantha pursue in their work is a depiction of the deeper function these communities serve in the spiritual and emotional lives of human beings, many of whom live under the constant threat of violence or poverty. Within Rashaad’s work, in particular, I see a strong parallel between the function of church and the function of ballroom/Kiki scenes, as well as an exploration of the ecstatic (in art or experience) as a method for opening up new horizons of possibility.
AF: For young people studying and writing about HIV/AIDS and the art it has inspired, what do you feel is our main responsibility, both in honoring the past and serving the living?
DO: To remember that the AIDS crisis is not over, and to look deeply at the ways in which HIV/AIDS provides insight into the problems we must confront in our healthcare, housing, education, and justice systems. Artwork about HIV/AIDS can and is always deeply personal, but it can also be outward looking - interrogating the world and institutions around us, and how that world and those institutions distribute life-chances differently. To that end, artwork and activism about HIV/AIDS is not only done or made by those who are HIV+, though it is essential to emphasize the many different kinds of experiences of those who are.
The work we all do relative to HIV/AIDS should also not solely concentrate on prevention, but should also be focused on improving the lives and conditions of those living with HIV, as well as the stories of those who have already died without ever having a platform. Stigma still exists (both socially and in the form of HIV-criminalization) and people are still dying, let’s not forget that ever.
Alex Fiorentino is currently a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, pursuing his Masters in Modern and Contemporary Art History, Theory and Criticism. He is an arts writer and scholar of contemporary American art with emphasis on queer histories, particularly the AIDS Epidemic.