featured gallery for May 2017

Vignettes and Monotony

My image selection begins with David Wojnarowicz, who was one of the voices that gave shape to my own feelings of helplessness and the rage this condition engendered towards an establishment indifferent to suffering and dying. As with most research, my understanding of both the picture and the figure of David began to expand. In the end, I found out David was friends with the performers at a Silverlake club I researched, and Ron Athey dedicated Scene 1 of Martyrs and Saints to David as he died just 4 months before.

The relatively clean single subject compositions I offer for direct and indirect contextualization. I’m interested in who is underrepresented in the public discourse of the day. 

As Keiko Lane notes, "In the push to get every gay man on PrEP and every HIV+ person undetectable, I wanted to also acknowledge the pressure and challenges. But I also worry that when we cheer so loudly for such a narrow goal, we forget to relentlessly name the complexity and intersectionality of context. Not everyone can get to  undetectable. And not everyone who does stays there. My fear concerns who gets left out of the conversation about the possibilities and meanings of survival when undetectable signifies success."

Most of all I wanted to use this opportunity to personalize an account of HIV/AIDS and the non-glamourous life of housing subsidies, disability, and a rapidly changing urban landscape.

My childhood/teen best friend Forrest Matthews and I have learned a lot in this 25 year journey. The title Vignettes and Monotony, of course, represents this general feeling of uneasiness. 

Every room has the subtle or not so subtle suggestion of a personal wunderkammer, all around little affective vignettes are carefully and unconsciously arranged. Each invokes a specific set of memories, scents, feelings and imagery of people who are no longer alive. Meals remembered is what my later partner, artist Scott Miller of Cleveland, called the melancholy practice of remembering and retelling. I’m surrounded by artwork and objects and photos each imbued with powerful memories of the people who created, owned, or gifted them. I started documenting furiously in the mid 90s towards the end of my Saturn returns. It’s a practice I’m still engaged in although it has slowed. In 6 months my Google photo roll has only amassed 18,000 images. This is based on my own experiences with personal loss and the collective experience of HIV/AIDS deaths. I know all too well from going without, the importance of the physical trace as stand in of a loved one’s former presence.

I don’t recall where or when I first saw the image of David Wojnarowicz with his mouth stitched shut. I knew as if by instinct the power of such a gesture, of silencing. The sight became a recurrent image in my life so that even now I experience a small pang of familiarity when I see it. I understood the gesture instinctively but was never told what it connoted. The act of being silenced is oft a violent and powerful gesture that speaks to a community or group, not just the bearer. Like the Dadaist responding to the incomprehensibility of mass war casualties, this extreme perverse martyrological act spoke to a collectively induced trauma. I’d seen Ron Athey sew my friend Forrest’s lips shut onstage at Peanuts on Santa Monica Blvd, the 2nd home of the infamous club called FUCK! (though it’s possible it was the spinoff club, Sinematic).

Forrest was the second person I knew personally to be diagnosed with HIV. I remember feeling like my friend had been given a death sentence at the age of 19. I made a commitment to myself to give him the best send off I could until the time came that we couldn’t have fun any longer. One of our regular episodes involved somehow getting into a bar in the seedy parts of the industrial blue collar town of North Long Beach. The 12 hour beer bust at Bulldogs started us off right and 40 ounce beers in the alley behind Circus of Books got us ready to go to the infamous FUCK! at Silverlake’s Basgo’s, a working class Latino bar most other nights. The alley was both dangerous and freezing cold in our 2 or 3 pieces of clothing. Lingerie, boots, leather, very little else save for black eyeliner and homemade piercings. I used to sneak Forrest in to my beloved leather bars that populated the area. I remember being thrown out of the Eagle one night and being told never to bring my underage friends in again. I was all of 16 at the time but with Forrest’s gorgeous blonde twink looks it was impossible to tell. We were bad kids who chose the immediacy of what felt good instead of deferring to a suburban existence where we were despised. So we refused to conform. There was the prom scandal from the very brief time I was being integrated back into a regular high school from the class of 8 severely emotionally disturbed (SED) kids. Thankfully that didn’t last long. I took the proficiency at 16 and then unofficially became Forest’s case manager by proxy. He reminded me that I coached him on his interview for social security disability benefits. I encouraged him to stay out all night and to arrive in his pajamas. But with long term survival comes an indescribable malaise. I had created in Forrest a permanent dependant of the State and his emotional life suffered.

Our lives were each individually messy with bouts of clarity. My clarity was to move the hell out of Orange County to San Francisco where I was taken in by a house of gay erotic filmmakers and artists. SF is where I came of age and at no time was my life not surrounded and impacted by the sudden and continual loss of friends and neighbors. What I lacked and craved more than stability was connection. I felt this profoundly at several low ebbs in my life. The weekends were the worst and I’d count the days until Monday when I could return to my happy office community. Somehow I found my way to a small residential zen center that housed the renegade Buddhist AIDS hospice, MAITRI. I’m sure collectively facilitating 144 deaths from AIDS has produced some level of trauma, but not the kind that needs resolving.

It was not until I was doing research for ONE Archives at USC during an oral history capture interview that the precise significance and complete lineage of David Wojnarowicz’ sewn mouth bore its source. At FUCK! the illness stricken body was embraced and co-founder Cliff “Phyllis” Diller danced in leather garters, lingerie, and thigh highs on a podium with a PICC IV line under gauze and clear tape. The nightly, often bloody, show took on a ritualistic feeling perhaps containing the excess of affect like a communal battery. These workshopped performances would come to form the basis of Ron Athey’s Martyrs and Saints which saw its debut at L.A.C.E. in November 1992, one month after Cliff’s sudden death. Performance artist Pigpen experienced his first piercing play that night. His sewn together lips externalized the raw grief palpable in the room.

According to feminist media theorist Alexandra Juhasz, the move to historicize and claim, for lack of a more apt term, the narrative of HIV/AIDS history has been one largely representing white gay men. Gay liberation was modelled after this default figure, and any poc person who navigates the chum filled waters of the online gay world can tell you that no asians, no blacks or no effeminate dudes is just the new no fats, no femmes. Within the last decade plus a couple years there has been a push to reclaim histories of “the plague years” for varying reasons. (The plague years is what my friend, therapist Keiko Lane, calls the pre-cocktail time.) In the case of HBO's The Normal Heart, it was for the project of revisionist history demanding AIDS labor for the benefit of same sex marriage. I cannot comment on the two other major filmic vehicles of note because I have not seen them. I’ve heard one film in particular asserts a heroic narrative. Quite frankly, I could channel the rage that these likely would produce in much more productive or at least satisfying ways. I also am not ready to revisit something that is still very much part of my life and has been for nearly 3 decades. I say 3 decades because that was about the time Forrest tested positive. About a decade in, that feeling of "my friend is going to die" prematurely left me. Not because of AZT or any other drug. Certain friends for whatever reason remained staples in my life despite the diagnosis.

It’s the present day and the deep booming emphatic voice of David Wojnarowicz fills my room. David’s voice has been in my head for months since Sylvère Lotringer asked me to transcribe a film by Marion Scemama for the Whitney retrospective. David is not histrionic and he doesn’t use hyperbole. Every sentence sounds matter of fact, matter of course. He speaks about preparing to die at 37, while most have a lifetime to reconcile this. His words are fixed in the moment of the 2nd wave. There is an abundance of fear and no hope on the horizon. I was hesitant to begin transcription because it meant acknowledging, and like a super sense memory, allowing those feelings to come back into my body. I was the gallery attendant during Art AIDS America's preview in West Hollywood. The gallery was intimate enough that visitors would stop and begin to talk to me about their experience or their feelings dealing with HIV today. I identified with their experience and I shared my own. We connected. I did this for 3 months and I found there was a particular population, most over 50, that held all this unacknowledged trauma inside. To resolve it would mean to relive it. For the majority of visitors this was the first time in 20 years they’d actively revisited the plague years. But it’s akin to the shock of life, or death, or receiving the diagnosis even. It's painful and it lets us know that we are in fact still alive and I’m not sure it needs to be resolved.