featured gallery for December 2018

Activism and the Archive

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

– Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” IX1

The enormity of the AIDS pandemic—its sheer scale and horror—seem to render it incomprehensible as either experience or as history. Similar in scale to the other human and natural disasters of the past century, with a toll of tens of millions of human deaths and hundreds of millions of lives affected by suffering and loss, how can we hope to understand it and end it?

Art has given us some of the tools to understand AIDS as experience and as history. Science has brought us tools with which to control HIV infection in those living with HIV and prevent its acquisition by the uninfected. Activism has accelerated the progress of science against the disease and helped to save millions of lives and prevent millions of new infections.

Art and the active work of archivists, artists, and activists—and in particular the activities which seek to preserve and explain the work of artists involved and sometimes lost in the course of the HIV pandemic—in short, the creation and expansion of archives such as those like The Archive Project at Visual AIDS—is a form of activism which strengthens our solidarity and our ability to overcome the epidemic, while remembering some of what it has been like and honoring the memories of some of those we have lost.

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The historian and gay activist Vito Russo died on November 6, 1990. Two days later my friend Aldo Hernandez, with the activist art collective ART+POSITIVE, opened the exhibition entitled “An Army of LoversCombatting AIDS, Homophobia, and Censorship” at PS122 on 155 First Avenue at East 9th Street. Contributing artists included ART+POSITIVE, David Armstrong, Ana Ferrer, Karen Finley, Diamanda Galas, Nan Goldin, Paul H-O & Siobhan Liddell, Robbie Lourenco, Dona Ann McAdams, Ray Navarro & Zoe Leonard, Alyson Pou, James Siena, Fred Tomaselli, Robert Vazquez, David Whyte, George Wittman, and David Wojnarowicz. I contributed a 1987 collage that included the image of two World War II sailors kissing later used by Gran Fury in its anti-homophobia poster from 1988 “Kissing Doesn’t Kill.” The activist, artist, and photographer Ray Navarro died on November 9, 1990. The next day I went to Washington, D.C., where an early meeting of the AIDS Clinical Trials Group, which studied experimental therapies for HIV and related opportunistic infections and cancers, was underway. “An Army of Lovers” ran until December 2, 1990. It would be six more years before effective therapy to treat HIV infection, in the form of combination antiretroviral therapy (ART) was discovered and became available in developed countries.

ART+POSITIVE brought together AIDS activism and artists affected by the epidemic. It was one of countless activist affinity groups that formed in response to the epidemic. ART+POSITIVE had previously released a 1990 calendar including works by Donna Binder, David Bradshaw, Dennis Davidson, Ana de Obregoso, Lola Flash, Martha Fleming & Lyne Lapointe, Aldo Hernandez, Tracy Mostovoy, Hunter Reynolds, Anthony Viti, Michael Wakefield, and David Wojnarowicz.

As you can see from these lists of those contributing to the 1990 calendar and exhibition, not everyone in ART+POSITIVE would survive the next few years of the epidemic. David Wojnarowicz, for example, died on July 22, 1992. In response to his death, activists marched in the East Village and began a series of political funerals to mourn, defy, and commemorate those dead from AIDS and to demand political action, funding, and an end to discrimination against people with HIV and others affected by the pandemic.

However, ART+POSITIVE and its legacy survive. A book edited by Dr. Daniel Berger and John Neff, Militant Eroticism: The ART+Positive Archives was published by Sternberg Press in 2017. The work of ART+POSITIVE was the focus of a recent panel "An Army of Lovers: Art+Positive Artists In Conversation" that took place at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York, involving artists Dennis Davidson, Lola Flash, and Aldo Hernandez, moderated by Vivian Crockett, with comments by Dr. Daniel Berger, who continues to steward the materials of the Art+Positive Archive.

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According to the latest data from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), “In 2017, there were 2,157 new HIV diagnoses and 1,239 new AIDS diagnoses in New York City. As of the end of 2017, 125,884 people had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, reported in New York City and were presumed to be living. As of March 31, 2018, there were 1,343 deaths reported among people with HIV in 2017." 2 This was the lowest number of HIV-related deaths since surveillance began. In addition, the City estimated there were 1,800 new HIV infections in NYC in 20173—again, a record low.

These numbers tell us how far we have come in our ability to keep people with HIV alive, and prevent new HIV infections—and they also tell us how far we still have to go to get to zero new HIV infections and zero AIDS deaths.

What the numbers do not tell—and what the online Artist+ Registry of Visual AIDS do tell, and in abundance—are of the lives of those we have lost and the lives of those who are still living with HIV. This work of recuperation and remembrance and a kind of redemption is a precious and almost priceless resource for those of us who are working to end the epidemic, and to keep alive the legacy and the work of those who have fallen.

Take note of the vital work of these archivists and living legacy of the artists whose work lives on here.

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[1] Walter Benjamin. “[Theses] On the Concept of History. [1940], © Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main. 1955/tr. 1968 Harcourt Brace & World, tr. Harry Zohn, Illuminations, Schocken (New York) 1969/ 5th printing, pp. 257–8.

[2] NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. HIV Surveillance Annual Report, 2017, p. 2. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/dire...

[3] NYC DOHMH, Ibid., p. 7.