Visual AIDS has been working closely this year with Hugh Ryan, Alexandra Juhasz and Jean Carlomusto on both our upcoming La MaMa Galleria exhibition Everyday and our 2016 Day With(out) Art project COMPULSIVE PRACTICE. During a recent meeting, Juhasz and Ryan could not hold back their enthusiasm and energy for Taylor Mac's production of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. Visual AIDS invited Ryan to excerpt his moving coverage of Mac's piece for NYMag's Vulture column, found here, and Juhasz has responded. Together, the pieces provide a pair of perspectives on Mac's endurance performance and its relationship to HIV/AIDS and community.
Excerpt of Hugh Ryan's How Taylor Mac’s 24-Hour Performance Encapsulated the Experience of the AIDS Crisis:
"... Mac informed the audience that our shared physical dissolution was, in fact, the point of the show, an embodied “metaphor for the queer community” that grew out of the AIDS crisis. In that way, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music has been almost 30 years in the making. As a closeted teenage Christian Scientist growing up in Stockton, California, in the 1980s, Mac’s first encounter with out gay people was at an AIDS Walk. Mac was stunned by how AIDS activists created community out of their seeming annihilation — their collective resilience in the face of government abandonment and social stigma. Ever since, Mac had dreamed of a performance that could wholly capture the experience of the AIDS crisis. While 24 hours of performance art could never fully encapsulate 30-plus years of the AIDS crisis, Mac captured the intense emotional catharsis and the failure of the body through his work.
I was reminded of a radical faerie credo Mac had intoned early in the evening: We don’t worship the noun, but the verb. We don’t worship the artist, but the making of art. We don’t worship the creator, but the act of creation. That night, we had become the noun and the verb, the artist and the art, the creator and the creation. We were simultaneously acting in the show, watching the show, and being forged into something new by the show.
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music is like another epic piece of AIDS-related social practice art, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which began in 1987 to memorialize the lives lost to HIV/AIDS, and continues to this day. There are over 96,000 handmade panels, each square a testament to a single life. But its true significance lies in the aggregate. It is as much a social network as it is physical quilt, cementing the bonds between activists, artists, and bereaved friends and families around the world. A 24-Decade History of Popular Music is a dynamic manifestation of this community, a movement symbolically re-created in motion and stillness, song and dance, puppets and Ping-Pong balls."
Alexandra Juhasz response
In just the few weeks that have passed since the end of September, I have communally experienced two fully transformative events: the suicide of a young person in my community, and my participation in Taylor Mac's 24-decade 24-hour performance. Ever since, I have not been able to depart a condition where heightened attention enshrouds my days and especially my nights: to death, music, life, mental illness, costume, bodily pain, suffering, joy, art, graffiti, social networks, photographs, and the deep abiding possibility of community as what can and must hold space for the other given the toxic places of malice, sorrow, illness, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other sanctioned acts of shaming that often surround us and that can and do hurt so many. Hugh writes: "Mac captured the intense emotional catharsis and the failure of the body through his work." Yes. I find I am now that capture and that failure: registering and carrying forth what I learned and experienced as ongoing bodily effects. It seems that Mac's work—with his tribe and with us, his audience—captured and then moved the failures of the body, and also its and our transformative possibilities, to mine, where I carry it still: a weight and a freedom. "That night, we had become the noun and the verb, the artist and the art, the creator and the creation. We were simultaneously acting in the show, watching the show, and being forged into something new by the show." Yes.
Hugh was actually in my row of seats during the last hours of the show (hours 22–24). He did not know I was so near to him. During the AIDS hour 1986–1996, fully 22-hours into the show, I kept trying to make eye contact with him (I was both worried for him, and wanted to mark our connection as those invested in AIDS, as those invested in AIDS together) but his head was enshrouded in a goldenrod hoodie. Every time I glanced to my right, he was looking straight ahead, body bent forward, monkish, perhaps in prayer or meditating. The queen just to my right, on the other hand, seemingly a man of about my age (I’m 52), had completely checked out. He was texting, surfing the internet, and sighing. He was done. I wondered if he actually couldn't take it at this point so late in the game; that perhaps he had been actually shattered; given our age, he would have had to have known scores of men who died in this decade. The room and Mac held the grief, beauty, and pain that Hugh describes, and it seems, we each played our part. For, like my seat-mate, I too did not fully go there—to grief, to beauty, to pain—during the AIDS hour. It was too much and I was too tired. So, perhaps, I now realize, I was looking to Hugh to help me with just that, to help me to feel and to feel connected: as if through community-witness and interactive-holding, depth and an anchor could be created in the face of my shallow flight, or disavowal, or sheer exhaustion.
Yes, the AIDS hour was intense, but with hindsight I can say that there and then, I too was a bit broken and also nearly alone. What transformed me, what woke me up and brought me back, was the hour that followed (23): the 90s, Mac's radical lesbian decade. What woke me up, what enlivened me even at my most tired, was something different from shared pain, grief, and memory. What I encountered, newly, thrillingly, fully, was Mac's generous witnessing, and holding, of my community’s (that is lesbian feminists’) art, politics, culture and experience: so different from, but also learned because of and built out of our close encounters with and care for gay men who had experienced so much illness and death in the 80s.
And here I return, as I must do, to one child's horrid death, and the fragility and failure and power of all of our bodies, and how I have been transformed even so. Holding an other's difference, learning from their specific histories of pain and joy, in a shared self-made environment that prevails outside and against the confines of the ever-present sordid rules of toxic capitalism and misogyny, is our unique gift to each other as radical, ethical humans, artists, friends, and activists. We can and do, at the worst of times, make space for each other, in our difference, in our failure, in our pain and our power: with words, art, and community. Taylor Mac's 24 hours performance allowed for a break in time that broke the rules of daily engagement, and unlike but related to acts of suicide or the random full-scale violence of AIDS in the 80s and since, it marked how some of us can survive and what we owe the other in so doing.
Hugh Ryan is a freelance writer and curator whose work explores the intersection of queer identity, history, and culture. His writing has appeared in venues from like The New York Times, Buzzfeed,Out Magazine, and The LA Review of Books, and he has spoken on queer museology at museums and universities around the world, including the Museum of History and Industry, Rutgers University, New York University, the Swedish Exhibition Agency & National Museum, and The Brooklyn Museum. He is the Founding Director of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History and currently sits on the Board of Advisors for QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, and is the New York Public Library's 2016-2017 Martin Duberman Visiting Scholar, where he is researching the queer history of the Brooklyn waterfront for a 2017 exhibition he is curating at the Brooklyn Historical Society.
Alexandra Juhasz has been making and thinking about AIDS activist video since the mid-80s. She is the author of AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Video (Duke, 1995), and a large number of AIDS educational videos including Living with AIDS: Women and AIDS (with Jean Carlomusto, 1987), Safer and Sexier: A College Student's Guide to Safer Sex (1991), and Video Remains (2005). Most recently she’s been engaging in online cross-generational dialogue with AIDS activists and scholars about the recent spate of AIDS imagery after a lengthy period of representational quiet.