Shana Agid is an artist, teacher, writer, and activist whose work focuses on relationships of power and difference, particularly regarding sexuality, race, and gender in visual and political cultures. Agid is an Assistant Professor of Arts, Media, and Communication at Parsons the New School for Design where he teaches book arts, collaborative design, and service design. In Agid’s 2012 book map-fold book Call a Wrecking Ball to Make a Window, the artist maps her paths through New York alongside those walked by artist David Wojnarowicz years earlier. The book, created during a residency at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, is now in the special collections of university and public libraries across the United States. Agid sat down with museum educator Hanna Exel to discuss overdevelopment, the problematics of nostalgia, and what makes Wojnarowicz such an appealing subject.
Hanna Exel: Let’s start by talking about the genesis of this project. Did you originally decide to make a book connecting you to David before the device of a map came into play, or was it always going to be a map and then you decided on the subject?
Shana Agid: It grows out of this larger project – if I finish it by the time I’m sixty I’ll be in great shape – that is attempting to build a fantastical time moment where both David and I are alive and we know each other. Over the course of writing those pieces, which have to do with a combination of nostalgia and an attempt to problematize that nostalgia, at some point I started trying to pull out one thing that could be less resolved and more imagined, and that is what became this book. So it grew directly from wrestling with trying to put these story lines over one another, and I think in a very literal sense that ended up translating into taking the marks of how each of us occupied the island of Manhattan, and laying them on top of each other.
HE: So you see it as a way to deal with the slippery nature of trying to collapse two moments in time onto each other – since they happen in the same geographical space, mapping is how you make the overlap work.
SA: Well, the thing I let myself skip over for the time in making this was what that relationship would actually look like or how to write about it. Instead, what ends up happening in the book is that it starts out with two characters, David and me, and then Manhattan itself ultimately became sort of a third character in it. The relationship, for me, is between this kind of fantasy of the things he’s describing and fantasies about things I either missed out on, or experienced only as losses, since I was coming out in the middle of the AIDS epidemic – coming out into this feeling of loss. I came to New York in ‘93, so people were dying at rapid rates. There are five decades represented, from one before I was born to one after David had died … By making the marks decade by decade, as opposed to separating the two of us out, it does allow for that sort of collapsing, without having to articulate why or what that means.
HE: It’s interesting, this idea of arriving in New York in the ‘90s and stepping into loss, into this void in queer history. It’s still very present in some ways, but of course minus a huge part of a generation. In 1994, the year after you came to New York, I was four and my parents and I lived on 12th Street. My dad had a heart attack and they took him to Saint Vincent’s. Since I moved back to New York as an adult I’ve spent so much time thinking and reading about the AIDS crisis while dwelling so geographically close to these histories, but it’s strange to imagine myself as a four-year-old in Saint Vincent’s in 1994 because I wasn’t at all conscious of AIDS until years later. I’m bringing this up because I think the weird overlap speaks to something your project touches on. I’m thinking of the way that, even being so close to the history geographically and despite some amazing ongoing activism and intergenerational sharing, because there is this devastating void of people it can feel really far away if you weren’t here or if you weren’t involved during those years. And so there’s this desire to map yourself onto – in your case, literally map yourself onto – that history, and make sense of how it can be so close and so far away at the same time.
SA: Yes, and I still wrestle with that in this larger project, in part because I know perfectly well intellectually and also emotionally that none of that stuff was clean and simple and pure good politics at any moment. I’ve talked to other artists from that era about how HIV and AIDS redirected the work of a vast generation of artist and writers from whatever they would have been making work about to AIDS. So sometimes I think about the fact that there are other artists who have affected me as deeply, but for whom accessing their story would have been impossible for me because they’re still alive, or someone like Martin Wong whose work is also important for that moment in ways I can’t articulate – and yet I have no idea how I would have done a project like this with Martin Wong’s work.
HE: So what do you think it is that makes David such a rich subject? Other artists, like Emily Roysdon, have made work engaging with him recently, and the Cynthia Carr biography came out not too long ago. What makes him seem so relevant to you in this moment?
SA: These are really good questions, and ones that I’ve been struggling more and more to answer in my own mind. I think there were two parts to what drew me to his work in particular - one of them is personal timeline and the other is more intellectual. The intellectual part, I think, is that there’s a rage and indignance in his writing that shows him in a very different way than his visual artwork. The rage, the assessment of political reality and call to arms is super prominent and clear in his writing, and I think it turns up in ways that are nuanced in his art.
HE: Right, it’s significant that he left all this amazing writing that makes it possible to form a personal identification or bond that you can’t with a lot of artists. When you have all of these vividly documented thoughts and feelings, it’s a lot easier to connect in a deep way.
SA: Well, the way that I assembled these paths was by going through his journal and a couple of other documents and highlighting every time he talked about walking from one place to another. There’s a thoroughness and obsessiveness to the way that he worked. I think I’m a little envious because I’m not like that … And I think that what you’re saying is right on, that because he has all of these records that we have access to, both personal and mundane, and that makes it very easy for us to imagine who he was. Which obviously we don’t really know on a lot of levels. But he also makes a very good screen to tell a story that is not really his story, but is a use of his story to tell a different story, if that makes sense. And I’m sure that there are many potential critiques to level about the ways in which many of us [artists] have done that. I also think there must be something about him being just close enough, both in time and in some kind of identification space [in terms of gender] … and I think what you said about the writing is on point; it gives people a different kind of way in.
HE: And there are probably a lot of other figures who people could draw these sorts of connections with if they had left better records, which is part of the reason why things like the Fales collection and the Visual AIDS archive are so important. Not to just hold onto the records that are canonized – to have a more varied perspective.
So, you mentioned that the title of the book, Call A Wrecking Ball to Make a Window, is from a poem by LB Thompson. It makes me think of unnecessary force used to clean something up and start again – throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It resonates in this moment in New York where there’s so much redevelopment going on and it feels like there’s a lot of history being thrown out in favor of more economically productive entities.
SA: I think there were two reasons I was so drawn to this line [from an unpublished poem by Thompson] and why it stuck in my head in relationship to this project. The first is exactly what you’re talking about, this idea of urban renewal that you just knock shit down and build it back up better. The other is a way to talk about the unfortunate work nostalgia does, which is to knock down all the extenuating circumstances, the complications and tenuous relationships and all the carefully put-together alliances [of a historical moment]; all of those things that make what people can accomplish together (or not) real, and reduces it to just triumph or defeat [when in reality] this stuff was so nuanced and so important in its nuance. Part of this is me being critical of the heteronormalizing of gay rights, and another part is a gentle critique of myself – of this desire to oversimplify a history to have something to look at. Why is it that I have to make David into something perfect so that I can look at him for something? Why [do we need to see] ACT UP as either fantastic or totally [problematic], you know? And so in that way part of this has to do with identifying what that “wrecking ball-ness” is and trying to make a call to be cautious about how broad we require these strokes to be.
HE: There’s the literal wrecking ball of demolition in New York now and in David’s era, and now with the wrecking ball of the impulse to look back in history and not see the things that were uncomfortable, but instead just to talk about how the rents were so cheap.
SA: I moved to New York soon after Giuliani was elected, and it was clear from the people I was learning from who had been here that the idea of what the city should be and could be shifted so dramatically …. There’s this line in [a talk I presented] about people making a city full of holes and dark spaces their own. The capacity to find those spaces no one else wants seems to also be rapidly disappearing. There are all kinds of places, even in New York where I didn’t grow up, that I can point to and say “here are all these things that used to be possible that are no longer.” And then try not to be overly nostalgic about what that means.