This summer, Visual AIDS program manager Ted Kerr, had a chance to catch Xaviera Simmons' "Archive as Impetus (Not on View)", at MoMA. It was a powerful and considered interaction with the museum, that Kerr argues, also communicated the silences that AIDS initially caused within the art world. Read about his experience below, and join Visual AIDS for more related discussion at ACT NOW: Perspectives on Contemporary Performance and HIV/AIDS.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has cultivated in its audience a desire for expectation. The curators and museum brass, it can be argued, have trained us to anticipate the unexpected: Tilda Swinton sleeping in a box, Marina Abramović staring at us, Yoko Ono singing Katy Perry songs.

In June, artist Xaviera Simmons made use of the theater of expectation, pairing it with a passion for the archive, and a flare for the proletariat and activist aesthetics, to perform Archive as Impetus (Not on View), part of MoMA’s Artists Experiment initiative.

On an intentionally irregular basis, Simmons and a rotating cast of women in Red Overalls—carrying placards featuring art work from the MoMA’s collection—marched to the Agnes Gund Garden Lobby and set up a mic and music stand to read segments selected by Simmons from MoMA’s archive, focusing on moments of social unrest and response. While the performance could be read as part of the larger trend of institutional critique happening by responsive intuitions around the world, Archive as Impetus can also be viewed as a way of providing context to work with powerful histories, and ongoing resonance.

Archive as Impetus moved through the archives following a chronological order, beginning with the museum’s founding, continuing through union issues, the civil rights movement, the rise of feminism and ending with OCCUPY. In the middle, towards the end, was AIDS.

For every section, a performer read grievances or letters, or press releases from a black binder. Words gave shape to political moments as placards, held up by the other performers ground the unrest in seminal artworks. It was not a pairing, a one to one ratio – rather an illustration of constellations: this was happening at this time – and oh, so was this. A through line was developed, and more—a web of artifacts, affect and art.

The whoosh of the papers in the black binder as the performers read offered a hushed reminder of silence. The work not being held up was left leaning behind the performers, an inelegant trick serving as a nod to the value of primary sources and the way art may be disregarded when it falls out of time and favor, all a commentary on the non-discretionary nature of replication.

Catching my eye the day I was at the museum, (and enchanting me to stay longer than I had anticipated) was the sight of works by General Idea, David Wojnarowicz, and others on the placards being marched in by the Red Overalls. I loved watching these images—all of them, at various times, sacred to me—being handled in such a pedestrian way. Knowing the care that Andrea Rosen Gallery takes as the Executor of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Estate, my heart did a back flip when the placard of the Untitled (Perfect Lovers) replication was leaning upside down facing the garden. It was stunning and scary.

Each performer had a strong voice that brought muscle and a sense of urgency to the archives. Enjoying the audible aspect of the spectacle I turned my attention to the crowd, watching as the shifting audience tried to figure out if they had entered a museum take over, or if they were witnessing a happening. I could imagine for those who experienced OCCUPY peripherally, Simmon’s performance could seem like legit activism. Whereas seasoned activists would see the music stand and the mic attached to expensive sound equipment and know it was an institution-sponsored event.

I was brought back to the performance when a voice was interrupted by silence. I looked and the woman at the mic was shrugging her shoulders as one of the Red Overalls flipped rapidly through the pages of the black binder. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. The others stood motionless as Perfect Lovers, the AIDS Wallpaper, and a David Wojnarowicz Untitled trembled in hands of uncertainty. It was a frenzy trying to be disguised as nothing.

After a few moments the Red Overalls reassembled a line, and the performer at the mic began speaking again – her voice deflated. The words were disconnected from what she had been saying. Maybe a page had gone missing or was out of order—but there was no mention of this, no clarity, or apology, or acknowledgment—the show went on like nothing had happened, a performance of continuity.

The break broke the energy of the room. Some people left, and newly approaching tourists stood just long enough to figure out if the performance was worth it. In an interview Xaviera Simmons did for the MOMA website, she states, “ I wanted the work to have some sense of awkwardness, which it did. It’s very awkward; it’s kind of annoying. I like that it’s awkward and annoying! And I didn’t mind [the occasional mistakes] … when you deal with performance, you have to deal with the aliveness and the humanness of it.”

In those moments of uncertainty, when the whoosh of the black binder was everything, I whispered to my friend, “AIDS is always disruptive”. I wasn’t joking. It is. But that is not all that was at play in the moment, as evidenced by Simmons’ work. By allowing for the humanness of what was happening in the art world when AIDS arrived on the scene to bleed past the archives and through performance, Simmons made space for the impacts of AIDS and the role art played at the time to be communicated. While those running institutions couldn’t hide the ineptitude of systems in the face of human suffering, and many individuals were lost in a wave of death, grief, fear and indifference, art was a call to action, a place for emotion, and a space for community, prevention and care. It was not enough but it was present; In Archive as Impetus, this truth shines through. Spectacle is not enough, but it can draw attention to silences.

Learn more about Xavier Simmons and her work.