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I often think of progress as a small ball, on a figure 8 track, on a set of wheels going slightly downhill. While the track is moving ahead on the wheels, so too does the ball as it traverses backwards and forwards, always barreling towards the future. It isn’t the clearest image but it helps understand why going back is the surest way forward.

Through the New Museum’s exhibition, XFR STN, Visual AIDS had the opportunity to go back, and digitize VHS tapes we have long had in our office. Provided a generous— yet all too short—three hour time frame, we decided to transfer tapes of media coverage of early Day Without Art events (1989), AIDS related PSAs made by youth (2001), MTV clips featuring artist members (1994), a Day Without Art concert featuring performances across the US (1991), and the opening monologue of the 1991 Emmys (I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?). As someone immersed in HIV/AIDS related culture, and the Programs Manager at Visual AIDS, the experience of seeing these historic works being transferred was thrilling. What would be reveled? (Click on the links above the watch the digitized footage)

Set up on the 5th floor of the museum, XFR STN was made up of different stations with computers, monitors and stacked tape decks. It was the first stop of a process that would see footage migrate to digital file storage, and then to the Internet—trapped on outdated technology on a dusty box on a shelf in the VA office to screens around the world.

On the walls of the XFR STN exhibition were looping projections of work recently digitized—early videos of Carmelita Tropicana performing in what looked like an east village club in the late 80s, a room of people meeting in a Bronx community space, a sullen David Wojnarowicz reading from the side of his mouth at a museum in the Midwest. Working with Rebecca, a helpful XFR STN employee, the first video we transferred was the 1991 Emmy Awards. It was the year the Visual AIDS Artist Caucus created the red ribbon, the year a seemingly innocuous strip of red would come to symbolize something too enormous for words, and change how “issues” were marketed. Rebecca and I watched on a small screen. The camera panned the audience—Angela Lansbury, that tall blond woman from Designing Women, Tim the Tool Man Taylor, all amid a sea of Red Ribbons on tux lapels and evening dresses. James Earl Jones standing behind a podium, commanding the crowd’s attention announced, “The awards this year are dedicated to inspiring men and women….”

I watched with baited breath—the camera got close to Jones’ face—amid the red ribbons, and the fact the recording was saved, I was anticipating a passionate soliloquy on HIV/AIDS, the epidemic, the struggle.

But no.

Instead: WHAM, a pie in Jones’ face.
And the crowd went wild! Through a face of dessert, Jones announced the 1991 Emmys were dedicated to the brave men and women of…are you ready for it…comedy. The audience applauded wildly, their red ribbons crushed in the process.(Interesting to note, that while it first glance it may seem that Jones has one on, he is in fact not wearing a Red Ribbon during his "gag".)

Watching this twenty-three years later after it aired, I grapple with trying to understand the moment, importantly, why was it recorded, let alone saved. I understand the sight of the ribbons alone is worth the price of posterity, but I want more. I want the camera to turn impossibly around so I am taken into the living room of who ever recoded the ceremony. I want to know who they are, and what they felt watching the awards for the first time. Were they giddy? Pleased? Let down like I was? Did they watch in disbelief as the host Denis Miller delivered a nearly ten minute monologue with a red ribbon dropping from his lapel, without mentioning AIDS?

It was the unknown, in part, that made XFR STN so thrilling, the disconnect between the reality of the recorded past and the present. And it’s for this, in part, what the transferring is all about, saving primary sources from oblivion, making accessible seemingly banal or outdated moments for others to grapple with, and creating circumstances under which future conversations about the past can be had.

“Art stems from a communal experience,” said photographer Vincent Cianni, on the Visual AIDS panel, “What You Don’t Know Could Fill A Museum” at the Brooklyn Museum early this year. The talk was the second part of our ongoing series of public conversations about the ways in which HIV is being represented in art and culture which began with. The conversations began the previous summer with, “(re)Presenting AIDS: Culture and Accountability” at CUNY.

On the panel, which included Hugh Ryan, Tara Burk, and Jean Carlomusto, Cianni, shared his idea that for him museums and galleries are places that connect humanity to art—those moments of commune—and so, not only is there a responsibility for archives to be cultivated, maintained and nurtured, they also have to be tended to. “The failure,” suggests Cianni that occurs when archival material gets abused, used too narrowly, or misunderstood in a current moment, “usually stems from those who are invested in these interests (i.e., the administrators, their supporters and their audiences and the politics that stem from them) and those who present the work (i.e. curators) and their lack of understanding and scholarship on these issues. “In his estimation, the best way to combat this abuse is to have considerate and rigorous people tending to the archive along the way.It is not enough to focus on the collecting and holding organizations, we need to consider —and invest in—the artists and scholars and other members of the public that will dig into the archives for their work. Who are they? What is their point of view? What do they need to do their best job possible?

And from there, suggests Cianni, “we must look to political and advocacy organizations that utilize art…to disseminate this art and these ideas,” suggesting here the findings and archival excavations cannot live in a vacuum. The work of researchers, scholars and activists must be activated through exhibition and programming, generating more cultural discussion. And it is here that not only do we come full circle, but we also use the archival material to push ahead. “Finally,” states Cianni, “artist cooperatives who fight against injustices, such as Gran Fury and Fierce Pussy need to establish a public presence. In a sense we must go back…and rely on oral histories, telling (or relaying) our own stories, writing our own histories.” Meaning, the work gets collected, scholars of all types activate and share the work, and then it needs to return, as active conversation, to the communities in which it sprang, and currently impacts.

I email artist and designer Harvey Weiss the 1991 Emmys clip for his reaction. He was an early and active member of the Visual AIDS community, who along with others was responsible for the Red Ribbon Cavalcade, a creative intervention in which famous queens and other performers would wear costumes made with and inspired by red ribbons designed by Weiss. At fundraisers, parades and other events the Cavalcade would come and talk about AIDS, discuss safer sex, and promote fun. In my email I mention to Weiss my frustration at over the fact that AIDS is not even mentioned at the Emmys. Considering the Ribbon had debuted earlier that year and had received a lot of press by awards season, Harvey suggested there was already a cultural understanding of the ribbon and that could account for the silence, or as he also suggested, “its possible the producers of the show may have instructed participants not to bring it up.” The silence then becomes important, and a site for more questions. Was the red ribbon a banal statement so soon after it debuted it warranted not even a mention? Or was there a ban on talking about AIDS, the idea that HIV could be seen but not heard (about)? Looking at the photo now, can we see the ribbon as a symbol of defiance, daring to be seen, even though no one mentioned it?

While it may be obvious, it is worth stating: archival material is not always meant to answer questions; rather it can be powerful in forming and asking new questions. And sometimes it provokes questions that might not be worth answering. “But the real question is,” jokes Weiss of the 1991 Emmys, “were suits really that baggy then?”

The small ball, having surged ahead on the wheels, loops back on the track, bringing with it the experience of having moved forward on its way to the past.