Read My Lips

GANG, READ MY LIPS,1992, photocopy on paper 17" X 11"

This summer, Martabel Wasserman curated an exhibition for Maloney Fine Art in Los Angeles entitled FIRE IN HER BELLY, a reference to "Fire in my Belly", an unfinished video work by the late artist David Wojnarowicz. The exhibition was a contemporary way of understanding not only some of the work that has been made in response to the ongoing AIDS crisis, but a look at censorship, emotion, and what is at stake for work made in emergency. Below Wasseran responds to questions about the exhibition, considers the art of Julie Tolentino, and sheds light on the work of GANG.

VISUAL AIDS: This summer you curated an exhibition entitled FIRE IN HER BELLY. At first glance people could understand the show as being about women and AIDS, yet the show was so much more than that. How would you describe the exhibition?

The initial prompt for the exhibition presented to me was about re-evaluating the work of artists who had been censored during the culture wars: Mapplethorpe, Serrano, and Wonjnarowicz. I was given the opportunity to create a conversation around some of their available work.

I began researching women artists who had been censored both before and during the AIDS crisis. The turn towards pre-AIDS artwork by women was inspired by how the influence of feminist organizing on ACT UP and AIDS activism is documented by Ann Cvetkovich in an An Archive of Feeling, and by Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman in the ACT UP Oral History Project. I wanted to trace that thread visually.

On the one hand, the show was about looking at the effects of censorship on female artists as compared to their male contemporaries. Identity politics were a starting point but I inevitability came up against their limits. Censorship also needed to be complicated as an idea. I ended up finding a lot of internal censorship among groups, such as Women’s Art Caucus, as well as works that were obscured by less explicit forces. As the show evolved, it raised a series of new questions about the collective process of visualizing dissent. It was an exploration of how tropes are translated and meanings morph as different bodies mobilize them.

VISUAL AIDS: There seems to be a lot of writers, curators and others wrestling with affect, AIDS and art. Is this area of study a foregone conclusion? What do you see as being the limitations of this line of inquiry – if any?

There are tactics we can rework as well as struggles that are on-going. There are still a lot of direct connections between the initial responses to the crisis and the aesthetics of demanding systemic change. The ACT UP and Occupy Wall Street Robin Hood campaign is one example of the continuity between the beginning of the AIDS crisis and the present.

I became interested in this area of study through ACT UP New York: Art, Activism and the AIDS Crisis 1987-1993 curated by Helen Molesworth and Claire Grace. My undergraduate thesis was an exhibition catalog for the show. I interviewed almost everyone who participated in the extensive programming surrounding the exhibition. It was a very challenging and humbling undertaking. There were moments when I would be caught up in intellectualizing a concept with someone and then the reality of what we were grappling with would manifest in someone bursting into tears. The conclusions I came to being involved in these two shows opened up into another set of questions. As a queer artist invested in social change, I think I will be returning to this topic throughout my life.

VISUAL AIDS: In the essay you wrote for FIRE IN HER BELLY, you quote Lucy Lippard as saying, “ We were trying to get under the cosmeticized skin of representation.” What draws you to this quote and what relationship does it have to the exhibition?

The quote is from an essay on the culture wars, “Too Political? Forget It.” It continues, “…not only in the mass media but also in art itself, to develop a more complex understanding of the connections between studio and street work, academic and populist writing, and all the stuff in between.”

Returning to the previous question about affect, AIDS, and art; this quote animates a kind of energy that is hard to access as the art work from that era gets contained within the canon. By pairing work for the street, like the GANG poster, or the Anita Steckel print which was originally a window display, with Mapplethorpe and Serrano, I was hoping to return to the question she raises about developing a more complex understanding between the two.

VISUAL AIDS: The exhibition included many artists easily associated with HIV including Julie Tolentino, Robert Mapplethorpe and David Wojnarowicz. But also some names people may recognize and might be pleasantly surprised to see grouped together such as Ai Weiwei and Pussy Riot. Can you tell me about some of these surprises and the connections you see?

When I was thinking through the initial prompt of censorship, I wanted to look at how it was currently functioning on a transnational level and also highlight how images are circulating virtually in ways that are both distinct and similar to street interventions. These two examples came up in initial conversations and I ended up including them on a video loop with Fire in My Belly. I didn’t want the exhibition to feel like it was trying to present a sealed narrative.

Including these was one way to open up the questions about the enduring critiques of the relationship between nationalism, religion, and the policing of identity. Including the videos was to highlight two specific issues I wanted to talk about in relation to the history of art and activism. The Ai Weiwei video, Dumbass, specifically dealt with incarceration, which echoed loudly with the hunger strike in California prisons. The Pussy Riot video was a gesture of solidarity, and solidarity takes reminding ourselves constantly of the struggles we align ourselves with. Both of these contemporary examples raise the question of risk, they remind us of the stakes of making work that speaks directly to power without the historical distance.

On that note, I also want to mention how inspired I am by the work of John Greyson, in particular his work on solidarity. As I write about these things from a distance of both time and space, I have to remind myself of the artists and activists on the frontlines who need our support.

VISUAL AIDS: Included in the exhibition is a photocopy on paper by GANG. Unlike Gran Fury, this collective is not often name checked. Can you say more about them and their work?

The poster that I included, “Read My Lips,” was also in the show ACT UP New York.It is a great example of refusing to let silence = death; it insists upon visibility. I love the photograph by Zoe Leonard, which references her institutional critique at Documenta IX, but also connects it to the realm of street level guerrilla intervention.The members of the collective I know of include Holly Hughes, Adam Rolston, Suzanne Wright and Loring McAlpin. Fire In Her Belly opened right around when Wendy Davis was doing her filibuster in Texas. In some ways, the poster was clearly out of date because it said call Senators Moynihan and D’Amato, in others way was uncannily contemporary.

VISUAL AIDS: A poignant line in the essay is, “In the trenches, activists knew the virus was transmitted through specific acts, not specific identities.” I wonder if you can make a connection between this idea and the work you write about from Julie Tolentino?

One of the themes that came up in the curatorial process was the relationship between the emergence of fluid identity categories, like queer, and the necessary attention to fluid exchange between bodies during the AIDS crisis. The work included by Ron Athey, Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, Andres Serrano, and Julie Tolentino, all directly engage with bodily fluids and identity. Julie Tolentino’s work was crucial in thinking about this relationship. There was documentation from two her performances: It Will All End in (ultra red) Tears and Self-Obliteration #1 with Ron Athey as part of her on-going archival project THE SKY REMAINS THE SAME in the show.

The presence of blood in these works became my point of entry for thinking through these issues. Blood signifies differently when it comes from different bodies and we see her negotiate that with her collaborators (Pig Pen and Athey). In these two very different performances she is both highlighting that and pushing the limits of the individual, the body, and identity. I am still very much thinking through these works. I wish I could attend ACT NOW and participate in that conversation with community in New York. Activating connections between coalitional organizing and representation was the aspirational undertone driving the show. Her work, and Visual AIDS, are two inspiring examples of how to bridge those two realms.

Be part of ACT NOW: Perspectives on Contemporary Performance and HIV/AIDS. Featuring Justin Vivian Bond, Hunter Reynolds, Julie Tolentino, and Benjamin Shepard.