Img 0921
Jordan Arseneault is an artist, writer and activist, often performing as Peaches Lepage. For the last eight months he has been working as part of a collective on PROPOSITIONS FOR THE AIDS MUSEUM, an interdisciplinary performance that explores the history of activism that emerged from the AIDS crisis. The show runs October 16, 17, 18 in Montreal as apart of the Éclectique series of Phenomena Festival 2014. The creators of PROPOSITIONS say: "through embodiment, text and image, our team will attempt to makes sense of stories which have been erased from official accounts, and to reflect on the possibility of reactivating this struggle in the current political context." In the interview below Ted Kerr interviews Arseneault about the PROPOSITIONS, and how this work fits into his larger practice.

Visual AIDS: Tell us how you are involved in Propositions for the AIDS Museum?
Jordan Arseneault: I was approached about Propositions for the AIDS Museum by director Philippe Dumaine and his collaborator Mylène Bergeron, two Montreal creators of feminist and queer theatre. Their 2012 piece Orphée Revolver, which was a retelling of the Orpheus myth from the perspective of Eurydice, was challenging and original. When they approached me last fall about being part of this project, it was a huge proposition: study the AIDS crisis with a new team of people for 8 months and then we create a devised theatre project for no money and do something that could reinvigorate how we consider the crisis here.

Visual AIDS: As an artist, writer, and organizer you have been instrumental in pushing forward specificity of experience in relation to HIV/AIDS. I am thinking here of your infamous “Silence = Sex” poster, and your organizing that has helped people with diverse experiences living with HIV to find a place to talk, listen and find community outside of AIDS inc. In this work how do you balance the commonality of a shared experience with the desire to be seen for who you are?
Jordan Arseneault: One of things I was happiest about from “Silence = Sex” was that both HIV-negative and poz people felt touched by it. I wrote it not to speak to the terrible “middle-class ignorant They” that I feel so much AIDS art and activist spoken word is written at. I was interested in showing the hypocrisy I have seen within the queer hipster activist “community.” Interestingly, Philippe and the gang have chosen to include a new recitation of the poem by performer Joseph Israël Elliot Gorman, a very vulnerable and wiry cute fellow who will deliver the piece in French. Interestingly, while the criminalization of HIV non-disclosure in Canada affects my well-being, I have to admit I’m statistically less likely to be accused or charged with this crime given my race and class privilege. It’s more of “J’accuse!” against the people who are complicit in stigmatizing poz people while pretending to be allies. Propositions is a whole new gig: we are to ignite a reimagining of crisis-era activism as a psychic and political tool-kit for today.

Visual AIDS: Literature about the show promises that it will examine: “art as a mnemonic device, loss as a catalyst for political action, and deconstructing barriers between disciplines as a position from which to engage in resistance.” What does all this mean to you?
Jordan Arseneault: That part definitely comes from the intellectual approach that Philippe and Mylène have with hybris. Fundamentally, it starts with their process: of the 7 of us, 5 have been involved for months, working “backwards,” in a way, from a giant bibliography (of films, artworks, activist histories, interviews) and then we create scenes—monologues, dance, amazing music by Mykalle Bielinksi, videos of crisis-era actions in Montreal and NYC—based on our research. The narratives are then scrambled so that the piece doesn’t feel like a performed lecture (I would love it if Alexandra Juhasz and Sarah Schulman could see this work!). The idea is not that you just have a 'director' who gives everyone prepared texts and a choreographer who tells everyone what to do and when. It’s collaborative, and we want the piece to stand for something. The entire troupe will also be participating in an anti-austerity action later this fall in connection to a street that the City of Montreal wants to rename after a homophobic AIDS-obstructionist politician. More on that after the show is over!

Visual AIDS: Artist Chris Vargas started MOTHA inspired in part by General Idea and their 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion. Is there a similar draw for you? Is it motivated by the World AIDS Museum in Florida? Or are you all motivated by something different?
Jordan Arseneault: General Idea is a major inspiration for more than one scene in this piece. There won’t be a museum boutique, but Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Portrait of Ross in L.A. (Untitled, 1991) will make a scrambled appearance, and the notion of revisionism is motivating for us as well. One of the things we are not doing (I don’t think!) is making anything like a physical museum or even a satire thereof. Vargas’s project is important and fabulous (archiving is caring!), but it’s also not part of our intention. The museum we have in mind is an embodied one that can change as often as you update your Tumblr. For me as a performer and activist, my question started with “Why weren’t there any great lasting plays about the crisis written in Québec?” All our major playwright laureates are gay men (Michael Marc Bouchard, Michel Tremblay, René-Richard Cyr), but none of them wrote anything whatsoever like a Normal Heart or an Angels. I think we’re making the play that could have been made 20 years ago but wasn’t, but with the tools of both then and now. Instead we have Jean-Marc Vallée making that melodramatic Matthew McConaughey vehicle that was completely disconnected from the Québec reality by virtue of being set in Texas and being made 20 years too late as well.

Visual AIDS: As you know Museum is a touchy subject when it comes to AIDS. It can be a place of whitewashing responses to the crisis, and where nostalgia may rule the narrative. Are these ideas that come into the project?
Jordan Arseneault: “What you don’t know could fill a museum” kind of slapped me in the face when I read that title, because we were in the middle of developing the Propositions bibliography when the show, panel, and web posts came out about it. And then of course, it’s the cultural moment of so much historicizing since the end of the “second silence,” as you (Ted) have referred to it. Definitely whitewashing and nostalgia are the two biggest traps we have tried to avoid. In Montreal, there are only a couple of projects VIHsibilité and the HIV/AIDS Lecture Series that are doing anything to both preserve the history of organizing and encourage the kind of reflection and attention required to move it forward. But these are approaches from the academic sphere, which, though fertile, is limited. We want to make an aesthetically stimulating piece, so for me the biggest challenge of all is to not make “hipster art”: i.e. art that looks rad but essentially changes nothing/no one and just makes audiences feel cool and rad for having seen it, this would be the opposite of my and hybris’s goal. The knife’s edge we are walking is how to show what happened without just exploiting people’s stories: hence we don’t have any retold stories of previously unpublished/unexhibited AIDS narratives in the piece.

Visual AIDS: PFTAM is multi-discipline collaborative multi-lingual experience. Which I think can and does mirror the experience of HIV—for better and worse. What are your thoughts on this?
Jordan Arseneault: Ha! Never thought of that. I would say no. What will be mirrored is the feeling of collaborative responses as socially concerned artists and citizens. Our original working title was You Got To Burn To Shine which we actually got permission from John Giorno (published as an essay and poetry collection by High Risk in 1994) to use for our project, but only after we had workshopped an alternate title (Propositions for the AIDS Museum) in case he said no. Giorno's "I don't need it, I don't want it, and you cheated me out of it" and "You got to burn to shine" became seminal texts for the show, along with The Valley (text by William Burroughs illustrated in prints by Keith Haring in 1989–90), and the Edmund White-edited Loss Within Loss. Yeah you might ask, "why so New York, Québec?" and that will come out in the wash. The performance will be lovingly interrupted by (SPOILER ALERT) a different live interview each night with Montreal AIDS crisis survivors and activists Puelo Gregory Deir, Karen Herland, and Roger Leclerc.

Visual AIDS: What do you hope people take away from the show?
Jordan Arseneault: An undying love and fear of Peaches Lepage and a feeling that they can do something now about the challenges we face in terms of stigma, austerity, and erasure, that art is and should be a bulwark against bullshit, not a machine for it.

Born in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1980, Jordan Arseneault is a bilingual artist of mixed Acadian extraction. He has a BA in Philosophy from McGill University (2005) and works as an editor, translator, freelance critic, facilitator, organizer and MC in Montréal. Active in Montréal’s independent performance scene since 2008, Jordan employs song, spoken word, cello, drag, humour and movement in his staged work, which is often improvisational. His social practice workshop “Fear Drag” employs elements of theatre of the oppressed to stimulate dialogue and group performance on themes of relational anxieties and fears (presented as workshops at Concordia University and in community settings). Both his performances and participative workshops address issues of criminalization, stigma, mental health, HIV/AIDS, addiction, biculturalism, inherited trauma, queerness and community. Primarily a solo artist, Jordan has also worked with interdisciplinary artists Jessica MacCormack, Johnny Nawracaj, Alexis O’Hara, and with (for Tightrope at Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times, and for the Triennale of the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal). In Fall 2014, he will be part of the projets hybris performance escapade Propositions for the AIDS Museum and premiere a new work with Matthew-Robin Nye at MIX NYC.

Click here to learn more about the performance, as well as how you can contribute.
Click here to buy tickets for the performance.