"It is not the remembering and it is neither the history, nor the material culture nor the valorization of the battles won and lost that impedes our movement forward," writes Vincent Chevalier and Ian Bradley-Perrin for their poster/VIRUS artist statement,"but rather the unpinning of our past from the circumstances from which the fights were born," Their poster, “Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me” was the first poster released for poster/VIRUS 2013 from Toronto’s AIDS Action Now, curated by Jessica Whitbread and Alex McClelland. Visual AIDS interviews Chevalier and Bradley-Perrin about how the poster came to be, their influences and what they mean by death and nostalgia.
Visual AIDS: How did the poster come to be?
Ian: I began thinking about nostalgia in response to some of the cultural production coming out of a handful of artists within the movement. I initially had an intense reaction to a reproduction of “the past” of AIDS, which foreclosed a possibility of an experience in the present, and at the time (as is still the case), I was negotiating what it meant to be poz today. My initial visions of the statement as a poster were rooted in an historical understanding of nostalgia and particularly colonial nostalgia and the role it has played in overwriting the realities of the period with visual cues of comfort and community and had discussed it with some close friends who similarly took on the phrase as a rallying point around which to discuss and challenge some of the production of this present moment.
Vincent: For better or worse, this poster emerged from social media. For a while I’d witnessed an increasing nostalgia pervading the blogs and Facebook feeds of my internet community. This nostalgia manifest itself to me both aesthetically and politically: I found that it was more than just a nostalgic imagery being disseminated via these platforms. This turn was showing up in the work that people were doing, the art people were making, the actions people were supporting. I first came across the phrase, “Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me!” during a heated Facebook exchange between an activist and artist. The activist was levelling the accusation against a video the artist had produced that uncritically deployed nostalgia in its message and aesthetics. Further down, the activist suggested that the artist take a break from art and engage in more direct action by joining one of the many reemerging chapters of ACT UP. What I found interesting about this exchange was both the artist and the activist were prominent members of organizations developing contemporary cultural and institutional critiques around HIV/AIDS and its related systemic issues. But in this instance both were adhering to nostalgic solutions to art and organizing.
These thoughts lingered and I decided to appropriate the phrase “Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me!” as the slogan for my AAN poster. Appropriation seemed to be a key strategy in uncovering the ways that nostalgia has embedded itself into our modes of representation, both of our selves and our movements, on and off the web. It was only after posting a screen cap of a quick and dirty rough draft onto my Facebook that I found out Ian had been the originator of the phrase. After an earnest conversation with Ian and a humbling moment where I had to think hard about what it meant to just snatch uncredited ephemera from the web, he proposed that we collaborate together on the concept, design, and writing around the poster. Our teenage AIDS bedroom baby was born.
Visual AIDS: In what ways do you feel nostalgia is killing you?
Ian: What initially drew me into conversations around nostalgia was its incongruity with an experience in the present and I feel like this is really the deadly part. In what ways is an aesthetically prepackaged memory of AIDS, the AIDS movement, and particular moments of the crisis occupying a critical discussion space which could be better filled with the pressing issues of the “now moment” of AIDS?
When we think about the 80’s and the 90’s and we talk about the ashes action and the public funerals and we uproot them from their historical specificity- when we say things are different for us now- we are not thinking about the ways in which criminalization is exacting a “death” on poz people today. When we celebrate and idolize certain community actions and successes, we close the conversation to ongoing struggles for treatment access and healthcare access. And as we canonize certain producers of culture and certain moments of memory, we are also closing a space in which a complication of narratives could arise through varied experience. The unevenness of experience that existed then, as it does now, make necessary the production of false memories that unify—nostalgia— but they dislocate the lived experiences of the past in the present. What we are left with are palatable and commodified “memory” representative of the past in the present. This reproduces many of the inequities of the past in the present telling of the story, the same people get left out as before and the same experiences get privileged. And in that way I think things aren’t so different now.
Visual AIDS: Whose nostalgia?
Ian: This seems like the perfect moment to talk about “intergenerational sharing.” In my academic work and particularly in my work with oral histories and life stories the art of reading through the stories being told to understand why they are being told in the way they are and what is motivating this kind of telling is essential. What is privileged in the sharing of a story, a personal narrative with political consequences, between people?
I think we all tell our stories within certain cultural strictures—even if they are not so simple as beginning, middle, end—we nonetheless create arcs and archetypes, climaxes, heroes and antiheros. There are certain material remnants of these stories we pass on and want to pass on (I save all the AAN! posters for instance) and we accompany these with stories that validate and valorize their worth, we create the conditions that permit their fetishization.
So on the one hand, yes, old timers love the good old days. But also there is a serious deficit in deep listening on the receiving end of this. The value of first hand narratives cannot be overstated, to have lived experience of the moment of the 1980’s and that of the 1990’s in the crisis is a gift to the younger generation but there is a certain onus on the listener, the receiver of these stories to recognize that the storyteller- the bearer of these memories is not just a voice of that moment but one shaped by the years since and a product of much of the same culture that has produced the canon.
Taking for instance, “Silence=Death” which was the product of a specific moment in 1987 when comparisons between the genocidal action of the Nazi regime against gay and lesbian people and the inaction of the government in face of AIDS was employed as a tactic and narrative by the Silence=Death collective to bring AIDS into the national and international spotlight, stating, “‘silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.” Memories of the significance of this image are not just informed by this moment but are also informed by the years of use and reuse and overuse of this image and are digested not only as memories of the moment but memories of the canonization of the image. When this is told in stories, shared between generations, and here I mean broadly cultural sharing because this is one of the those images that is everywhere, we don’t remember its specific claims to genocide, it isn’t told as such (by most) and it isn’t heard, received and passed on in context. It becomes an image of AIDS point finale. And it seems that in fact the intense overabundance of the image speaks now less to a silence around AIDS and more to an abundance of meaningless white noise on the subject, and this too equals death. The reality is that this image has great pertanence to the “now” moment but it is trapped in its own historicity. I would add to their statement, “silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now AND NOW, must be broken as a matter of our survival.” Because there isn’t much that approaches the direness of death quite like imprisonment and sickness- and these are the alternatives that our now moment is presenting poz people.
Vincent: I’m going to take this space to talk about a different type of nostalgia that I am reacting against with this poster. So much of visual/internet culture longs for this mid-90s, web 1.0, glitchy, 8-bit, digital kitsch aesthetic. Just as the digital has manifested itself in the art world and mass visual culture, through recent trends such as the New Aesthetic, so too have contemporary representations of AIDS art and AIDS art histories been permeated by hypermediated content and modes of dissemination. With a twisted humour and acknowledgement to the viral quality of language, I like to dub the poster as a type of “New AIDS Aesthetic.” This is acknowledging that the turn towards nostalgia is tied into technology, whereas we often read nostalgia as a disavowal of contemporary technology (I’m thinking of that recent Claire Bishop Artforum article/letter response where she took the art world to task re: the fetishization and prevalence of the archive and analogue technology in curation). So I think nostalgia is more than just a problem in the AIDS organizing world, but is more generally affecting the way some artists represent the world around them as nostalgic. On tumblr I’ve seen this play out on sites like TEENWITCH and in visual arts the work of Cory Arcangel or aids-3d.
Visual AIDS: How did you select the images? What got left on the Photoshop cutting room
Vincent: Originally I was playing with the idea of the poster being a tumblr blog filled with a bunch of AIDS imagery: Silence=Death; Gran Fury; General Idea AIDS wallpaper; protest photos; etc. To embellish and give it the feeling of a typically innocuous tumblr, I wanted to add some instagram-filtered porn images of white gay boys, floral patterns, and fashion photography. In this way, the AIDS imagery would be sorta levelled out with the banal tastes of an imaginary prosumer on the other side of the blog dashboard. It is this flattening of history and context where I find nostalgia to present itself so prominently on the internet. When Ian came on board, he proposed the teenage bedroom as the setting for our nostalgia, specifically that of the 90s youth, emblematizing moment when mass media representations of AIDS were bursting into the private space of the home via MTV (MuchMusic), Jerry Springer, Degrassi, etc. My task was to translate this setting to the imagined media landscape that I originally had in mind. Still working with my original plan to only use appropriated images, I began a Google search for “AIDS Art.” In doing so I came across Richard Hamilton’s 1992 version of Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? featuring General Idea’s AIDS imagevirus as part of the composition.The piece was commissioned by the BBC with the intention to represent what the artist felt the average household would be like during the 1990s. I was really excited about this and decided to emulate the piece, borrowing both the form and spirit of Hamilton’s composition to create my own version of a 90s teenage bedroom. I used Google Sketchup to model the imaginary space. In Sketchup, you can easily design architectural schematics and populate them with furniture sourced from a virtual “warehouse” of models created by other users. Every surface in your model can be textured with a graphic skin, generally representing building materials (wood, concrete, glass, stone, etc.) but also images. Basically, I could wallpaper every surface of my teenage bedroom with AIDS art. I plastered one wall with General Idea and the other with a Keith Haring drawing. I also installed a set of Felix Gonzalez Torres clocks and a General Idea AZT pill. I borrowed from other art historical movements like the YBA (Tracey Emin’s bed) and a teddy bear in a Paul McCarthy/Jeff Koons-y vein. There is a laptop with a tumblr post about Gaetan Dugas (Patient Zero) on the bed. Outside the window is an image of an ACT UP political funeral and there are numerous posters from the same period, including Silence=Death and AIDSGATE. And for shock value, the David Kirby portrait by Therese Frare for United Colors of Benetton and Justin Bieber in an ACT UP t-shirt at the Country Music Awards (what!?). Try as I might, I was unable to incorporate a red ribbon. As much as I’ve grown to loathe that particular symbol of half-assed solidarity I couldn’t bear to position it within the room. I don’t know, maybe it was a sense that it was too sacred, that by insulting it I would be accusing so many earnest and caring people that their symbol of remembrance was “killing me”, I would be taking a step to far. Or maybe the symbol was too tacky even for this smorgasbord of signifiers.
Visual AIDS: The work asserts a frustration with the Internet and the role it plays in
disseminating images often “unpinning” them from their context? Are you arguing
for people to be more responsible on the Internet with sharing images? Or are
you saying something different?
Vincent: One of the alternative slogans that we played with was I don’t know much about AIDS but my blog looks fierce! I was riffing off that Amanda Lepore song, My Hair Looks Fierce, in which she has that monologue talking about Mexican children in an LA sweatshop who made her dress and talking about how great it was. The joke is that she’s talking about horrific labour policies in the fashion industry but instead of affecting change with her speech, she’s just upping the cultural caché of her personal style. In a way I feel that a lot of what I come across in my excessive tumblring is working in this mode of irony/nostalgia, using the imagery of conflict or rebellion as a sot of wallpaper for coolness. While tumblr as a platform has been a site for a lot of political work (I feel I’ve learned a shit ton about critical race politics, social justice, queer and trans issues, and YES, alternative AIDS histories) there is also a trend towards the shallow, particularly in the dissemination of imagery. In a way I think that when you have so much aggregate content it is difficult to have a pointed critique or discussion of the representations you are blogging and reblogging. And the political stakes of dissemination change between a bricks and mortar archive or museum, a working group, an art gallery, and an online dashboard or newsfeed. How do you define a political or historical context for an image online when the syntax of communication is appropriation and virality? I don’t know what a more “responsible” way of sharing images would be considering that the minute you put language into the world it ceases to be something that you can control. We saw that with General Idea’s imagevirus and we can also remember the controversy their action took within certain parts of the AIDS activist world (see Gran Fury’s RIOT as response).
Visual AIDS: What posters did you guys have in your bedrooms growing up?
Vincent: When I was 11, I put up a newspaper clipping about a baby dying of SIDS on the wall in my kitchen. I remember being challenged on it by the person who my mother and I were rooming with. When he asked why I had put it up I replied that I thought it was sad. He told me that in order for something to be posted on the wall it needed to be important and not just sad. I took it down and vowed to never post something uninteresting again.
Ian: I had one poster of Alanis Morisette, a poster of At the Folies-Bergères by Manet and lots of mirrors in my bedroom.
Learn more about poster/VIRUS and see more of the work from 2013 by visiting: postervirus.tumblr.com