Cruel Valentine will be performing at Queer, Ill and Okay

Soon after learning he was living with HIV, artist and producer Joseph R. Varisco started putting together the group performance, crowded-sourced show, Queer, Ill and Okay that explores the intersection of queerness, illness, and —if we may—okayness. As described in the marketing materials, Queer, Ill and Okay, is an "emerging experimental performance series exploring the intersections of queer identity and living with HIV and other forms of chronic illness, premiering July 5th & 6th at Defibrillator Performing Arts Gallery in Chicago's Wicker Park." In the interview below, JRV talks to Visual AIDS about how the show came to be, the slipperiness of the term "chronic illness" and the impact community has on his health.

Visual AIDS: In reading about the show, it says that Queer, Ill and Okay was “born out of your HIV diagnosis”. Can you say a bit more about this?
Joseph R. Varisco: Queer, Ill, & Okay was born out of my diagnosis in a couple of stages. As a curator, documentarian, and queer historian of some variety I tend to look at art and media as a way of relating to the world. When I was diagnosed I tried to do the same—looking at film, music, literature, theater, etc. to find a way to connect and relate to what I was feeling. Many of the narratives I came across were similar, but in many ways outdated. That work is vital to our history, but I did not see my face nor that of many of my peers represented. Queer, Ill, & Okay became a vehicle for understanding the exponential differences in treatment and living standards associated with HIV and other forms of chronic illness and spoken by faces often neglected from popular media.

VA: In working with other queer artists living with chronic illness, what have been some of the similarities and differences you all have come across?
JRV: One of the most powerful conversations revolves around disclosure of an illness. For some of us it was easier to conceal our illness or maintain a level of discretion than it is for others and of course there are those that are open about their illness. I think exploring what it felt like to navigate disclosure with our communities, parents, lovers, partners, colleagues offered a vast amount of similarities and differences. It also allows us to examine the varying privileges of intersecting identities. This is visible in the original work artists are producing for Queer, Ill, & Okay. You may see a few similar themes such as disclosure, with many different perspectives.

VA: In looking up the line up, it seems like a powerful and talented group of people. How did you find each other? What role has community played in your health?
JRV: I am very excited about this lineup! I had a few ideas in mind about how to expand and improve upon the first Queer, Ill, & Okay for Poonie's Cabaret at Links Hall Theater last year. I posted an artist call via an amazing local utility called the Chicago Artists Resource. The call was modeled off Rik Haber's call for their Queer Cultural Center project SICK. I wanted to be intentional with high expectations, but leave room for folk to play in whatever medium they chose. The one suggestion was that the piece somehow have an interactive component. From there many folk started sending in proposals. There were a few folk who attended the first show and immediately following told me they'd be interested to do the next one, which is pretty much the reason there was a next one. That person is Sara Kerastas and they were one of the first four artists to join Queer, Ill, & Okay.

For myself, community plays a larger role in my health. It consistently provides resources, support and kindness. One of the most vital components my community has provided to my health is opportunity. Opportunity to do the work that I am passionate about and has deep meaning to me. This sustains me. The fact that I can openly discuss my HIV+ status and answer questions to others, or ask questions when I do not have the answer, alleviates the stigmas and pressures and fear. We also have some incredible community health services like Howard Brown Health Center.

VA: To put a show together like this not only takes vision but also admin skills. How are you balancing the parts of yourself while still staying true to your artistic impulses?
JRV: Haha. That is a wonderfully amusing and astute question. I have had the privilege of a administrative mind for a while in my work. I suppose I have a personality prone to ordering and organizing and I have an affinity for finding conducive creative chaos that my skills match with in artists and projects. It is not always a simple one-person operation. Fortunately, I work with a ton of really talented and brilliant folk who have volunteered their time and experience to help me along. These are also the folk that keep me artistically centered. It is an ongoing collaborative experience that often keeps us on our toes.

VA: For many around the world, including in the US, HIV is not a chronic illness. Have you received any pushback or feedback on the term ‘ chronic illness’?
JRV: 'Chronic illness' itself is a divisive term. What is illness? How do we negotiate the politics of language and identity in daily life? Where are we drawing lines? One of the aims of Queer, Ill, & Okay is to ask and complicate questions.

VA: What has been a memorable moment for you since this show began?
JRV: The most memorable moment was during the first edition of Queer, Ill, & Okay for Poonie's Cabaret at Links Hall Theater, watching people fill in the aisles, lean against walls, sit on the stage floor just to get in and then their staying afterwards for nearly two hours—artists and audience, talking together about the work. As for the current edition of Queer, Ill, & Okay, I would have to say the messages from strangers I have received about how much this work means to them. Last week when I was out at an event a person came up to me and began telling me about their friend being a part of Queer, Ill, & Okay and how that has allowed them to feel agency over their own illness. I think it is incredibly valuable to look to one another and find answers or at least comfort in asking questions, Queer, Ill, & Okay seems to be doing a small part in toward that end.

VA:If you could suggest one thing to people newly living with HIV, what would it be?
JRV: Connect to people! Talk about what you are going through, what scares you, what you want and what you need. Talk to other positive people in your community. Talk with culturally competent health care professionals. Howard Brown Health Center and case management team have been critical in allowing me to feel, manage, and understand, my body in relationship to HIV (specifically since I had no health insurance at first and was living off freelance work).

VA: You have an open call for the show. What kind of work are you looking for? Who should apply?
JRV: We do! The open call is just another couple of days (though I may extend the deadline a few days). We are looking for work that experiments with various performance mediums, includes some kind of interactive component, and that represents identities not yet present in the show. EVERYONE who is considering applying should apply! Queer, Ill, & Okay intends to be an annual event. An event that explores other modes of expression perhaps through film and literary works and provides workshops to people and places interested in exploring these topics. Essentially, there is opportunity to connect to community here and I am excited to engage in conversation with as many folk as possible. So far we have received a couple dozen proposals.

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