Mark Addison Smith is an artist who uses language as a core matter of his practice. For his ongoing series relating to Larry Kramer's 2004 speech The Tragedy of Today's Gays, Smith uses excerpted words from the speech to create drawings that evoke grayscale 'color-blind charts' and allow for a reflection upon the AIDS pandemic from 2004 to the present. The Visual AIDS staff interviews Smith here, marking a decade of research and the 10 year anniversary of Kramer's speech, which was given on November 7th, 2004 at Cooper Union.
THE SERIES IN SMITH'S OWN WORDS:
"On November 7, 2004—five days following the 2004 reelection of President George W. Bush—Larry Kramer delivered his incendiary speech,
The Tragedy of Today's Gays, to a defeated audience at New York City's Cooper Union Hall. Kramer declared: We have lost the war against AIDS. His solution: for gay men and lesbians to unite in action, safety, and speech. Ten years later, his words simultaneously resonate and sting.
Using extracted dialogue from his speech, I've generated an illustrated abecedary allowing for a reflection upon the AIDS crisis from 2004 to now—marking a decade of research, longevity, frustration, and death. In keeping with Kramer's kinetic directness, the rules of each drawing exist within a conflicting binary. The larger, foreground word is in disagreement against the smaller, background words, while the middle, fill-in words serve as mediator. By reading the statements back to front or front to back, the viewer, hopefully, will consider then versus now and the grayscale complexities of this ongoing pandemic."
Nelson Santos: Where did you grow up and what kind of things influenced you?
Mark Addison Smith: I grew up in Fayetteville, Georgia, which is approximately thirty miles south of Atlanta. Fayetteville is a small town, not much diversity, but I had a relatively quiet upbringing. I was a pop culture junkie, collected stamps and movie posters from local video stores, admired Keith Haring (still do) and even painted a mural of his iconography on my childhood bedroom walls. I was also obsessed with daytime talk shows. I vividly remember The Phil Donahue Show and seeing gay representation as judged—for better or for worse—by his audience. Phil Donahue was the first talk show host, I believe, to engage the audience and seek out their opinion as a valid litmus for American values. As a closeted gay kid coming-of-age in the eighties, many of their opinions were terrifying…but always fascinating to me. I suppose this is why I'm drawn, still today, to dynamic, divisive, blunt leaders like Larry Kramer.
Nelson Santos: What drew you to Larry Kramer's speech "The Tragedy of Today's Gays"?
MAS: I'll never grow tired of artistically interpreting someone's speech—meaning: their chosen words, voice inflection, what's deliberate and afterthought, what's unsaid—as a portrait of themselves. This is a practice I take on every day with my daily, on-going You Look Like The Right Type conversation-illustration series. So, the interest is really within words (communication exchange), rather than speeches (podium performances) as a whole.
I am in awe of Larry Kramer. He's a fighter. He's a rabble-rouser. I wish I could always say that I stand up against injustice…I try. I'm humbled by him. He's living and breathing a very hard fight against gay inequality and in favor of health advocacy so that our community can exist. I first bought a paperback of this speech, The Tragedy of Today's Gays, in 2010 at The Brown Elephant in Chicago. The Brown Elephant is part of the Howard Brown Health Center, and all proceeds from sales benefit HIV/STD prevention, medical care, and research. It's a flagship in the Chicago LGBT community. The striking title caught my eye, I read it in a couple of hours, and it haunted me. The drawings really just emerged. They were always in a circular form; I thought of them, early on, as grayscale color-blind charts because Larry Kramer was challenging us to see. My first drawing was 'B—Blind Before Better,' drawn in 2010. My last drawing, number 24 in the series, was completed this past Wednesday night: 'L—Leader Loses Lover.' A personal goal was to complete the abecedary in advance of the November 7th anniversary date.
Nelson Santos: Why did you choose to divide this speech into alphabetical sections?
MAS: The word AIDS, purely on a semiotic level and devoid of meaning, consists of four simple little letterforms that, when analyzed, contain a multitude of permutations and histories and lives and complications and emotions…somehow, I guess, the distillation of his speech into an alphabetical arrangement, and encircling the letterforms within a circular, Petri dish, viewfinder lens, global circle, eye chart—whatever you make of it—made sense to me.
On another front: Larry Kramer's speech is alarming and heartbreaking and complicated and terrifying. Somehow, I suppose, this orderly arrangement helps me unpack it. I've read the speech as many times as I've generated a drawing and I have a different reaction each time.
Nelson Santos: What is your interest in language as an art form?
MAS: I've always been enamored by letterforms and branding. When I was a child, I would draw movie logos from the movie-listing section of the newspaper—as if I was drawing a still-life. No tracing, but redrawing from visual analysis. So, to satisfy both admirations later in life, I studied film and video in undergraduate and graphic design in graduate school. In graduate school, I began working with language as narrative within my art practice. Today, I am drawn to language fragments—snippets of conversation that unpack a lifetime of history in a handful of words. I'm particularly drawn to journalist-investigation with regard to language: the who, what, when, where, why, and how of just a few words on a page. Within another drawing series of mine, You Look Like The Right Type, I've been listening in and illustrating eavesdropped conversation fragments each day since 2008, not missing a day since November 23, 2008. I've always been fascinated by the ambiguity or concision of words and how either of these binary directives can provide the viewer with more questions or final conclusions—all of which drive a larger narrative.
I'm also drawn to visible and conceptual rules within my work and the work of others. I admire the work of Kay Rosen immensely. As far as I'm concerned, she's tops. In graduate school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I worked with Kay during my thesis year—she was one of my advisors and a wonderful mentor. She really taught me the value of concision and rule-making within text-based art—and how a set of rules can define a style and thicken a concept.
Within my Larry Kramer abecedary series, I'm asking the viewer to negotiate a push and a pull—a grayscale issue—within the black and white word associations of each drawing. My hope is they will consider the duality within each issue as it relates to the AIDS crisis both then and now, ten years later. Here, my rules are: I can only use words spoken within his November 7, 2004 speech, The Tragedy of Today's Gays; the background to middle ground to foreground words must complete a three-word phrase that can be interpreted back to front or front to back; the large, foreground word and the smaller background words should exist as bookends—binaries—to some larger-scale issue.
Nelson Santos: Which word or words appears the most?
MAS: The single word that appears the most is 'I'. It appears over two-hundred times (I counted 207, but my count might be rough). 'You' is next in frequency—I counted 196 times. I like this dichotomy between 'I' and 'you' appearing with the greatest urgency; Larry Kramer is using his own experience to inform the masses that change cannot happen without both parties, you and I, so this close-frequency makes sense.
An aside of interest: 'we' appears, roughly, 178 times. 'Gay' or 'gays' appears 57 times, AIDS appears 14 times, 'faggots'—a word commonly associated with Kramer as it's the title of his 1978 book—appears twice.
Nelson Santos: Were there any particular words or letters that you were surprised to find or not come across at all?
MAS: On a level of fascination, the word 'cabal' appears quite a bit throughout the speech. This single word drives Larry Kramer's tone, I think, as he's referencing leaders—anyone from politicians to health care providers to other gay men to the heteronormative majority, really—who are, according to Kramer, undermining…or murdering, to pull out his language…our ability, as a marginalized community, to win the fight against AIDS. On many levels, the speech becomes an 'us' versus 'them' war. Action versus stagnation.
I kept trying to find the word 'kissing' in the speech. It's not there. I thought it would make a poetic bookend against 'killing.' Instead, I went with 'knowledge,' which is even more resonant, I think. Larry Kramer mentions the word 'hope' 7 times, but it's never used as source of optimism. He first references 'hope' in the context of George W. Bush's reelection: I hope we all realize that, as of November 2nd, gay rights are officially dead.
In my prep work for each alphabetical panel, I would first scan the speech for words within a given category (all 'J'-words, for example) and begin to make three-word associations that were both provocative, or even poetic, in some way—a provocation that has a larger, implied question behind it—but also a phrase that felt in-the-spirit of Kramer's speech. Some letters were easier than others: 'W' and 'C' and 'R' all have a wealth of possibilities…Larry Kramer uses a lot of 'W,' 'C,' and 'R' words (I used 'Wrong Way Washington,' 'Civil Courage Contaminated,' and 'Research Requires Response', respectively), while 'J,' in contrast, is hardly used—twenty words, only, in the entire talk. So, a constraint of abundance or limitation became part of my artistic puzzle. For 'J,' I ended up using 'July' as the large, driving word to reference the July 3, 1981 New York Times article which reported the initial 41 cases of HIV-infected gay men—the 'rare cancer,' as the Times called it.
This abecedary contains 24 drawings within the complete set, as there are no 'X' or 'Z' words spoken in The Tragedy of Today's Gays.
Nelson Santos: What is your favorite part of his speech?
MAS: Throughout the speech, Larry Kramer uses a refrain four times in which he proclaims his love for being gay and matter-of-factly states that gay people are better than anyone else. It's his 'iron fist in a velvet glove' approach, amidst a speech that acknowledges our losses, to remind the gay community that yes, we still are everything.
His words: I love being gay. And I love gay people. I think we’re better than other people. I really do. I think we’re smarter and more talented and more aware and I do, I do, I totally do. And I think we’re more tuned in to what’s happening, tuned into the moment, tuned into our emotions, and other people’s emotions, and we’re better friends. I really do think all of these things. And I try not to forget them.
Nelson Santos: Larry Kramer is certainly know for the power of his speeches, both in what he is saying but also his literal "speaking voice." What is your interest in removing that voice and in doing so, what kind of power do you see these extracted words still contain?
MAS: As an artist and typographer, I'm fascinated with the baggage that language contains. So, a driving question behind a lot of my work emerges: Does a word or phrase, stripped out of context, still maintain the authority and presence of the mind and the voice—the intent—behind the source word or phrase? I get really charged by figuring out ways to covey this baggage—the intent—in works on paper.
To answer the question more concretely: This series, to me, is an analysis of Larry Kramer's words and an exercise in obsessive repetition. The process of writing and rewriting and rewriting a single word hundreds of times, as I did in each drawing, reminded me of the metaphor of 'beating someone over the head' with information until they absorb it. A shock strategy, or the verbal behavior of someone who is dying to be heard and won't stop talking until change happens. I see this as a testimony to Kramer's tireless advocacy: When will we listen? I hope there's an obsession and a tension and a weariness—and a resulting, heightened importance—with this viewed repetition.
The more drawings I finished, the more I thought about each word substituting for an individual person, standing beside another person in a unified crowd—perhaps even the crowd listening at Cooper Union on November 7, 2004 in mass support of gay rights. This seems to be the flip-side of what I just described, but it's also at the heart of The Tragedy of Today's Gays.
Nelson Santos: His speech was a “call to action” - do you think the LBGT community has responded to that call since 2004?
MAS: Our visibility has become stronger over the past decade. The Obama Administration has been a strong advocate for the LGBTQ community, which wasn't the case under the Republican regime of 2004. I am reminded of President Obama's historic mention of gay equality in his 2013 inaugural address.
The Tragedy of Today's Gays was presented 5 days following the reelection of former president George W. Bush. The speech was an attack on him and the Republican administration as much as it was an attack against the gay community for not banding together as a visible, viable force. The speech was made in an effort to simultaneously unify and alarm the gay community into taking action against an unsupportive leader…the 'us' versus 'them' that I mentioned earlier.
Longevity, too, is on our side, both as a positive and as a negative. Strides in research and medical care expand health longevity. But, a younger generation now exists that doesn't know a life outside of the AIDS crisis. The distance of time, since the early eighties and even over the past decade, has allowed this global pandemic to become a status quo. So, in a way, an urgency for action has dissipated, or deflated. We are experiencing a familiar revival of a different fear right now amidst the ebola crisis. Steven Petrow wrote a poignant Washington Post article on October 15th, entitled: Why 'Fearbola' reminds me of the early AIDS panic. I look at some of my Larry Kramer abecedary drawings and can't help but map this contemporary crisis onto his prescient language.
Nelson Santos: What your favorite piece from this series?
MAS: My favorite text is probably 'Y—Years Yet Yesterday,' because it encapsulates this ten year anniversary in the blink of an eye while also acknowledging the vast amount of work that still remains. And, I'm struck by both the phrase and the corresponding drawing for 'H—Horror Highest Hope'. The words are almost indistinguishable from one another: horror blends with hope, hope blend with horror. It's a conceptual and visual embodiment of the method in which I approached the series, with two binary sides of an issue defining all of these messy shades of gray.
Mark Addison Smith's design specialization is typographic storytelling: allowing illustrative text to convey a visual narrative through printed matter, artist's books, and site installations. With his on-going, text-based archive, You Look Like The Right Type, he has been illustrating fragments of overheard conversations every day since 2008 and exhibiting them as larger-scale conversations in venues including A+D Gallery in Chicago, Brooklyn Artists Gym, and MAGMA Brand Design's Slanted Magazine. He has spoken about linguistics and letterforms—specifically as they relate to gender dynamics within bathroom graffiti—at American University and Manchester Metropolitan University. Permanent collections include the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City. He holds a Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and teaches in the Art Department at The City College of New York.
Nelson Santos is Executive Director of Visual AIDS