The 12th annual Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards (VAVA Voom) recognize the contributions of individuals who, through their work, talent and dedication, strengthen our communities and reinforce the mission of Visual AIDS. This year Visual AIDS is proud to honor Zoe Leonard, Sur Rodney (Sur) and Eric Rhein and recognize Brice Brown.
Zoe Leonard, an artist primarily known for her photography, sculpture, and site-specific installations, is also an influential feminist and queer activist who started working in New York City in the 1980s, an era marked by overwhelming loss during the AIDS epidemic. Throughout her work from that time, Leonard references the enormous loss of close friends and fellow artists and activists whose absence still reverberates today. Here, Visual AIDS interviews Zoe's friend and collaborator Nancy Brooks Brody about Zoe's art, activism and their time together in the artist collective fierce pussy.
VA: Describe the first time you met Zoe and how your friendship developed?
NBB: The first time I saw Zoe was at the Mudd Club - I was a senior in high school. I used to see her there a lot. My best friend David Svitzer knew her and I thought he was really lucky for that. My high school job was at Moishe's Bakery on the Lower East Side, and on Sunday mornings I worked at the one on East Houston Street. Zoe lived around the corner. Sometimes as I was starting work, Zoe would be coming home all dressed up from a night out. She would come in to get a bagel or some bread and I would always slip her some cakes and cookies. One late night, my friend Kathy brought me to Haoui Montaug's loft on the Bowery, and Zoe was there. We sat on the couch and talked into the morning. Then, in 1981, just back from my first trip to Europe, I ran into her at Danceteria. I will never forget - she cut quite a figure in her custom made suit. She asked me where I was living, and I said I didn't really have a place, so she invited me to move in. The very next day, I moved into her apartment on Stanton and Ludlow. Those were the days I could move with two shopping bags. I stayed there for the next six months. From the night I arrived, we started laughing and talking and basically never stopped. That's how I met one of the funniest, smartest people I have ever known.
VA: Can you speak to your involvement in ACT UP and some of the activist issues Zoe worked on relating to AIDS?
NBB: The first person I heard of that got sick and died was Klaus Nomi. We started to hear more and more about people getting sick. There were a lot of unknowns. A friend took me to the very first ACT UP demonstration at City Hall. Later, I found out there were meetings. When I went, Zoe was there. She was really interested in and involved with how the disease manifested in women. There was a saying "women don't get AIDS, they just die from it." She and a group of women co-wrote the seminal book, Women, AIDS & Activism (1990). Their research, along with others, showed that HIV manifested differently in women, and was influential in the Centers for Disease Control changing the definition of AIDS. Zoe was also involved in one of the city's first needle exchange programs, which operated out of the back of my basement art studio on Ludlow Street. Zoe and I were comrades in arms, at countless meetings and demonstrations. Between civil disobedience, police presence, outrage, loss and anger, ACT UP demonstrations could get very intense. I really trusted her instincts in those moments. Zoe is a terrific political organizer. Her dedication, clarity and commitment to the cause did much for the movement.
VA: How did fierce pussy, the collective you have collaborated on with Zoe and many others over the years, develop? I'm also interested in hearing specifically about For The Record..., fierce pussy's 2013 Day With(out) Art project for Visual AIDS.
NBB: fierce pussy started from an open call for queer women at ACT UP. We wanted to create a collective that addressed lesbian identity and visibility in the city. We had our first meeting in 1991. It was at Zoe's house. We made our first project that night on her typewriter - the lists. By our second meeting, we were out on the streets wheatpasting. We did many projects, including using our own baby photos, renaming streets on Gay Pride, printing on toilet paper, stenciling the streets, the truck project and more. Initially, the last project fierce pussy made was in 1994. Years later, in 2008, Printed Matter invited us to make a book and have a fierce pussy retrospective at the book store. Another open call was put out and four of us showed up: myself, Joy Episalla, Carrie Yamaoka, and Zoe. We wheatpasted a re-mix of the lists on their store front windows. It got so many complaints, the police were sent. We were surprised, but it showed us how relevant our work still is and how queer phobia is still alive and well.
In 2009, Helen Molesworth and Claire Grace were curating the ACT UP show at Harvard and invited fierce pussy to participate. Being there and listening to the panel discussions and revisiting that time in our lives, we discovered that there was still so much mourning and loss inside of us. We each felt so strongly the impact AIDS still has on our lives. We decided to make a piece about AIDS from the now. When the exhibition moved to White Columns in 2010, we made a new piece called "Get Up Everybody And Sing." After that, when Visual AIDS asked us to do a project for A Day Without Art in 2013, we decided to turn that text into a broadside. We called it For the Record... It speaks to the painful reality of all that loss.
VA: Was Zoe taking photographs throughout this time? I'm interested to hear more about your perspective on her personal artwork and her creative practice as an artist.
NBB: Ever since I've known Zoe, she's been taking pictures. She doesn't just randomly shoot images hoping to land on something. Her work is deliberate and specific. It weaves together public and private, personal and political, exploring gender, institutionalized misogyny, the female body, nature, and science. She studies and examines the world through her images. Her curiosity and strong aesthetic are present throughout all of her different bodies of work. During our years in ACT UP, when so many of our friends were dying, making art could seem extraneous. Zoe found her way through it and understood how making art is an important way of knowing ourselves, documenting our lives and making a place in the world.
Visual AIDS: Describe Zoe Leonard in one sentence.
Nancy Brooks Brody: She is a fierce pussy.
Zoe Leonard’s work has been shown in solo exhibitions at major institutions including MoMA, New York (2015); Chinati Foundation, Marfa, TX (2013); Dia, Beacon (2008); and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (2008), and in international exhibitions including Whitney Biennials in 1993, 1997, and 2014; Documenta IX (1992) and Documenta XII (2007). She has participated in recent group exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago (2016); The Kitchen, New York (2016); MoMA PS1, Long Island City (2015); Tate Liverpool (2015); and the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2014). Monographic publications include Analogue (2007), Zoe Leonard: Photographs (2008), You see I am here after all (2010), and Available Light (2014). She is a founding member of fierce pussy, a collective of queer women artists. Leonard is also the author of the well known text, I want a president. Written in 1992, this work circulated widely during the 2016 presidential campaign and in the months since the election it has become something of an anthem for resistance and change.