Video still from Juanita Mohammed's "Homosexuality: One Child's Point of View."

For the 28th annual Day With(out) Art, Visual AIDS presented COMPULSIVE PRACTICE, a video compilation of compulsive, daily, and habitual practices by nine artists and activists—Juanita Mohammed, Ray Navarro (1964–1990), Nelson Sullivan (1948–1989), the Southern AIDS Living Quilt, James Wentzy, Carol Leigh aka Scarlot Harlot, Luna Luis Ortiz, Mark S. King, and Justin B. Terry-Smith—who live with their cameras as one way to manage, reflect upon, and change how they are deeply affected by HIV/AIDS.

Jih-Fei Cheng, assistant professor in the Department of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Scripps College, introduced the COMPULSIVE PRACTICE screening at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles on December 4, 2016. View COMPULSIVE PRACTICE and read Jih-Fei's introduction below.


Loving and Caring as a Compulsive Practice in the Time of Crises

by Jih-Fei Cheng

“What is love?”

“Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more.”

This was the lyrical refrain of Trinidadian artist Nestor Alexander Haddaway’s 1993 global hit electronic dance song “What is Love?” The song’s exhortation anticipates the black and blue bruisings resulting from experiences with romance, perhaps sex, and likely the struggle for community for an African diasporic subject in the midst of the early crisis years of the global AIDS pandemic. This was before life-extending anti-retrovirals hit the market in 1996. In the early 1990s United States—where the song peaked on the charts and could be heard in nightclubs and film for years to come—healthcare was being severely defunded. U.S. military interventions into the Middle East were ramping up. Women’s right to abortion was, again, being attacked. The Savings & Loan scandal marked a flashpoint in the economic recession. Poverty and homelessness were being intensified and criminalized under the domestic “war on drugs” and our prison population swelled. We were coming off two ultra-conservative Republican presidential regimes, including Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan and Texas oil businessman George H. W. Bush. People continued to die of AIDS.

In 1991, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) activists began to experience collective fatigue and splintered. The largely white male-led treatment activists left to form the Treatment Action Group. Meanwhile, women and people of color activists transformed the initial political slogan and goal of “drugs into bodies” into “healthcare not warfare,” as depicted in the 1991 documentary film Voices from the Front by the Testing the Limits Collective.

Yet, today, healthcare continues to be dismantled, our involvement in the Middle East is becoming one of the longest overt U.S. military operations in history, women’s right to choose is again under assault, the 2008 global financial crisis resulted in part from unethical U.S. bank micro-lending practices and the defrauding of investors by major corporations such as Goldman Sachs. We just elected a white nationalist and misogynist real estate businessman and reality TV star to the nation’s highest office to champion “alt-right” white supremacy. Black, Brown, and Indigenous lives continue to be assaulted with dispossession, homelessness, the prison system, racial profiling and police murders, stark barriers to healthcare, alarming rates of HIV-infection, and more. Yet, we have gay marriage to celebrate romantic love and people can be “out” and patriotic while wearing a uniform to kill Black and Brown people at home and abroad. The 2009 Hate Crimes Bill that presumably ended violence against those for their perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, was tacked onto the largest defense spending bill at the time in U.S. history. Meanwhile, in 2015, the largely white male led Human Rights Campaign (HRC) awarded Goldman Sachs and other fortune 1000 companies a “100 percent” rating according to the HRC “Equality Index,” which presumably measures the LGBT friendliness of major U.S. corporations’ employment practices. Ironically—or not—the HRC continues to be critiqued for its own racist, sexist, and transphobic employment practices and work atmosphere, leading one study of its leadership culture to conclude that the HRC is a “White Men’s Club.” HRC aligns itself with seemingly pro-gay rights Republican politicians, which includes the likes of Donald Trump who initially curried the favor of gay conservative voters by proposing to champion gay equality. In actuality, Trump’s regime plans to repeal lesbian and gay rights, alongside its goal to retrench the rights of queer and trans people of color, and people of color generally. Trump already promises to further privatize healthcare, increasing the vulnerability of those at risk for HIV-infection as well as those already living with HIV. Furthermore, any city or state’s defiance against Trump’s intended Muslim registry and anti-immigrant policies face the imminence of defunding, which includes massive cuts to AIDS subsidies. Yet, we have the once-a-day pill called the post-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to stave off HIV infection. Still, it remains largely out of reach for people of color and the global south. Meanwhile, those who are on it have to live with the potential of its toxicity. Also, PrEP does not cure HIV for those living with it, which is constituted largely by people of color and the global south. Again, trans and queer people of color remain the most vulnerable in the face of these more widely felt diminishing freedoms, enduring racism, xenophobia, imperialism, and persistent AIDS stigmatization—as we see with the criminalization of Black and Brown people for HIV transmission, the imprisonment of trans people of color for protecting themselves against transphobic attack, as in the case of CeCe McDonald, and the U.S. patenting of crucial AIDS drugs to prevent the manufacturing of affordable generic versions in global south countries.

After the election, a student in my Feminist and Queer Research Methods course asked, “What is love?” She wanted to identify some principles and strategies for moving forward and she questioned the latest catchphrase “Love Trumps Hate.” Does “love trump hate?” If so, how? I find particularly instructive the words of Caleb Luna. Luna recently wrote on the limits of “romantic love,” which Luna describes is an experience denied to someone who lives as a queer, Brown, fat, and fem individual, and who remains single and “unloveable” in the supposed time of gay and AIDS progress. He writes,

When I think about the benefits of romantic partnerships as exhibited both in popular culture and my own observations via my friends’ romances, I recognize that these benefits are not purely financial or physical. They are about daily and mundane interpersonal interactions of reciprocity. In short: investment, and care. The practice of investing in and caring enough for someone to incorporate them into your life in such significant ways that their presence begins to feel necessary, if not compulsive (emphasis added).

So, unless you find romantic love, you may not find that others call upon you, remember you, or find your existence necessary. Yet, throughout these times of crises, AIDS activists have loved and cared for the most isolated and the most vulnerable. During the early AIDS pandemic, they challenged Trump’s formative role in producing both housing and AIDS crises. Today, AIDS activists are once again facing-off with the Trump regime’s looming austerity measures.

A lot has changed since the early years of the AIDS crisis—the media platforms, our modes of social interaction, and the increased privization and militarization of public space to tamp down on protest. Under these conditions, there seems marked improvement in the quality of life for the smaller and smaller number of people who find romantic love, partnership or marriage, and property-ownership possible. But, a lot hasn’t changed for those who withstand the unrelenting forms of structural violence. Through structural violence, the global AIDS crisis persists. The blackness and blueness of trans and queer of color love, as portrayed in recent films such as Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016), Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night (2016), and Sean S. Baker’s Tangerine (2015), to name a few, record stories about unmet desires, unrequited romance, poverty, prison, and the everlasting struggles for kinship and community for trans and queer people of color in the time of AIDS. In these films, AIDS is not explicit; it is a matter of fact and inherent to the chances for trans and queer of color survival. AIDS looms large.

As I argue in my forthcoming book, AIDS and Its Afterlives in Science and Media: Race, Gender, and the Queer Radical Imagination, AIDS video artist and activist collectives recorded and cared for the bodies and images of those who were most vulnerable to the pandemic not simply to prolong life—although that was indeed a primary aim. These artist-activists also anticipated that these videos and images would return as the afterlives of those who might come to pass.

In COMPULSIVE PRACTICE, we get to see the ongoing strategies for collective survival. We get to experience continual love in the time of crises—practices of love left behind as the afterlives of those who have passed and sustained by the love and care of those living in the present. For example, in an excerpt from AIDS artist-activist Juanita Mohammed’s 1993 video Homosexuality: One Child’s Point of View, her daughter Jasmine’s provides a resonating meditation in her poem titled “What is Love?”:

“Love is you / love is me / love is everyone / love is not hate / but love is friends loving friends / love is brotherhood / love is women loving women / love is men loving men / love is women and men loving each other / love is not hate.”

Love, performed here, is a compulsion to intervene into its narrowing definitions, but also to document, archive, and redistribute the images and politics of those past and present. It is, to return to and enfold the words of Luna, the compulsion to “car[e] enough for [those who have passed and those who remain most vulnerable to crises such that we] incorporate them—through images, but also through daily practice—into [our lives, consciousness, and social and political engagements] in such significant ways that their presence begins to feel necessary.”

Day With(out) Art was started by Visual AIDS on December 1, 1989, initially closing down museums and art programming to imagine a dystopic world in which artists do not live. Today, Day With(out) Art highlights the unending work of AIDS artists and activists, deceased and alive. In this “video compilation of compulsive, daily, and habitual practices by nine artists and activists who live with their cameras as one way to manage, reflect upon, and change how they are deeply affected by HIV/AIDS,” we see definitions and demonstrations of love that compel us to build solidarity in and through crises; to stay vulnerable to our uneven vulnerabilities; to articulate and demand justice in spite of the active attempts to silence and criminalize dissent; to draw connections between past and present in order to collectively forge a different and more viable future.

I first encountered the work of Ray Navarro in 1997 during college when I took a course on queer film and video taught by Jack Halberstam. We watched the 1991 film Voices from the Front, in which Navarro talks about AIDS activists’ political and rhetorical shift from “drugs into bodies” to “healthcare not warfare.” I read his co-authored article with Catherine Gund, called “Shocking Pink Praxis.” In it, he comments at length on the sexism and racism in ACT UP and how AIDS video activism embeds anti-colonial and feminist histories into the official archive. After college, many of my friends and I became involved in AIDS work because the crisis was not and has not been over, particularly for people of color. People were and are still becoming infected and dying. Navarro’s work continues to instruct me. He makes brief yet poignant appearances in the recent film How to Survive a Plague (2012), which tells a moving story about white gay male survival of the early crisis years. I wrote about this film, and about Navarro, and presented initial thoughts on it at a conference. Through my engagements with Navarro’s work, I encountered Alexandra Juhasz. Alex gifted me her own film, Video Remains (2005), in which Navarro’s name is invoked during a recorded conversation she has with fellow AIDS video activist Ellen Spiro. This helped me trace the video footage of Navarro that appears otherwise decontextualized in How to Survive a Plague, wherein Spiro holds the camera and records the intimate and touching moments of Navarro in the hospital with his mother, Patricia Navarro.

During the December 4, 2016 screening of COMPULSIVE PRACTICE at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Patricia Navarro appeared in the audience and offered heartening and galvanizing details about Ray and her own involvement in ACT UP. Audience members who recently lost friends in the Oakland warehouse fire that claimed the lives of so many artists and queer and trans people of color spoke up about their deep sense of loss. They also raised issue with the Bay Area’s housing crisis that led to the disaster. In turn, they drew connections between past and present queer and trans of color artists and activists, expressing a sense of community offered by COMPULSIVE PRACTICE and those who had gathered there and in the multiple sites across the world to see its screenings. This is the continuous labor of AIDS activist love and care. Today, as a compulsive practice, I show Voices from the Front in my classes. Navarro and earlier AIDS activists, living and deceased, continue to offer guidance and alternative ways through present-day crises.

In COMPULSIVE PRACTICE, footage shows Ray Navarro respond with humor to the accusation that early crisis AIDS video-makers were “MTV activists.” Like taking back the words “Black” and/or “queer” to undermine their pejorative usages, Navarro claims that AIDS requires “MTV activism” precisely because AIDS is MTV: “more than a virus.” AIDS is “more than a virus” because it will not end with a biomedical solution. Instead, it requires our collective unwillingness to concede to the false promise of piecemeal and trickle-down rights distribution. The AIDS crisis demands that we compulsively love and care about each other so that everyone’s presence—and not just those who are “lucky in love,” or have the means and access to afford adequate healthcare—feels and is deemed necessary.

Jih-Fei Cheng is Assistant Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Scripps College. He earned his M.A. in Asian American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles and his Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity, with an emphasis in Visual Studies, at the University of Southern California. From 2010-2013, he served as the managing editor for American Quarterly, the official publication of the American Studies Association. Cheng’s research examines the intersections between science, media, surveillance, and social movements. His book manuscript, AIDS and Its Afterlives in Science and Media: Race, Gender, and the Queer Radical Imagination, examines how the experimental videos of feminist and queer of color AIDS activists’ produced during the U.S. early crisis years (1980s to early-1990s) continue to intervene into contemporary popular and activist media, scientific conceptions, and social movements. He has published articles in Amerasia Journal; Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience; Women’s Studies Quarterly; and AIDS Education and Prevention: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

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Ray Navarro