February 5, 2013
How can we understand this moment of "AIDS Crisis Revisitation," exemplified by the success of films like United in Anger and How to Survive a Plague. Video artist, activist, and academic Alexandra Juhasz provides some insight.
Making and thinking about AIDS activist video since the mid-'80s, Juhasz coined the term "Queer Archive Activism." In this first of two blog post Visual AIDS interviews her about her term and in the next post we flesh how Queer Archive Activism works in the world. Visit Alexandra Juhasz's website.
Visual AIDS: Can you tell me about your phrase Queer Archive Activism? What does it mean? Where did it come from?
"Queer Archive Activism" is a term I used (or maybe made up?) to discuss my experimental videotape, Video Remains (2004), in concert with a larger conversation ("The GLQ Archive, AIDS Cluster: Twenty-five Years, 1981-2006"), edited by David Roman for GLQ. In my article, "Video Remains: Nostalgia, Technology, and Queer Archive Activism," I say that term is a "practical and theoretical possibility" that might be of good use for people who might be, like me, deeply concerned with the connection between nostalgia, video and AIDS.
Archive: I was an AIDS video activist at the beginning of the AIDS crisis when I was a graduate student in New York City in the late 1980s. Like many of my cohort -- who came into activism in and through AIDS and by using newly available VHS camcorders -- I was left with a private collection of AIDS videotapes: completed documentaries and art videos, as well as footage for projects unrealized, or of our daily interactions as young people growing into adulthood (or not) through AIDS. Since many, or even most of the people documented in those tapes are dead, and because that time of aggressive movement, passion, anger, community and also death is itself also dead, I thought of these tapes as my haunted, cherished, and terrible archive, and, years later, I was concerned about my feelings of nostalgia for that time and those images.
Queer: I made Video Remains from one tape from my archive, a 55-minute long-take video I had shot of my best friend, James Robert Lamb, when he was dying. Ours was a life-creating love and relationship between straight woman and gay man that can only be described as queer. The many lesbians who I worked with as AIDS activists, and then later asked to contribute to the making of Video Remains, also spoke movingly about the love, commitment, and care of lesbians for gay men during that earlier time: what else served this relation but queer? In the article, I wrote: "the tape enacts a queer practice by commingling history and politics with feelings, feelings of desire, love, hope, or despair for both my videotape evidence and my anticipated audience."
Activism: The activism in the phrase is the making of grief, anger, and nostalgia into something present, public, communal, and active. When I wrote the article in 2006, I had a theoretical stake, but also lived experience, that moved me to want to think beyond mourning and melancholia, words that many AIDS activist theorists of my time had quite appropriately ascribed to our daily condition during the deadliest phase of this crisis in the US. Douglas Crimp wrote at the time that these psychological conditions were paralyzing, and this was not a position we had the luxury to take: no paralysis in the face of friends dying. Many years later, I wanted to think if we could communally revisit these deaths, that activism, and our ongoing lives, in a way that was active, and political. I found this description of nostalgia to be quite moving in relation to my needs: "Unlike melancholia, which confines itself to the planes of individual consciousness, nostalgia is about the relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups or nations, between personal and collective memory."
I wrote: "I am committed to understanding the activity and collectivity in video, how through making a video in 2004 about AIDS in 1992 I left my solitary, backward-looking circumstances and made them public and forward-looking through interviewing, screening, and discussing. I made my mourning productive, collective, and interactive through video production, montage, and reception."
Visual AIDS: When do you think it started and why do you think it is happening now?
In 2006, I wrote: "I made Video Remains from an archive of video records of my past and the recent past of AIDS and for my contemporaries, people who lived through this dying, people who, I believe, are currently engaged in a debilitating, private melancholic remembrance of AIDS in the 1980s. We have disciplined ourselves to silence our grief and anger, keeping this private, hidden, and personal; of course, our indifferent culture does not seem to mind this quiet. But silence does equal death, after all. By sacrificing our melancholic memories and making them public, I think we can make our mourning visible (as well as our analysis and our anger) and use this to produce something better for the future."
Now, in 2013, I see two things happening:
1) We have a treasure trove of contemporary documentaries and websites also participating in a Queer Archive Activism. It has been remarkable, astounding, and inspiring to see so many of my past contemporaries engaging in their own public, mourning, angry memorials of the early history of AIDS in the US: Vito, How to Survive a Plague, United in Anger, Inventing Safer Sex, We Were Here.
And 2) And yet silences about AIDS also persist: in mainstream culture, in queer culture, between generations, in hard hit communities of color and poor people.
In both cases, my biggest concern is that both AIDS and AIDS activism are understood as things of the past; as if AIDS is not of the present. We also have lost the sense of power (in the face of hopelessness or death) from that earlier period: the felt belief that our activities and activism matter to AIDS, and each other: our actions could change AIDS and ourselves, not privately, but socially and communally.
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 many later essays about the changing shape of the representation of AIDS including: "From the Scenes of Queens: Genre, AIDS and Queer Love," in The Cinema of Todd Haynes, "So Many Alternatives: The Alternative AIDS Video Movement," From ACT UP to the WTO, "Forgetting ACT UP," ACT UP 25 Forum, Quarterly Journal of Speech, "AIDS Video: To Dream and Dance with the Censor, Jump Cut, She was aguest editor for APLA's Corpus V: Women, Gay Men and AIDS (March 2006) and is interviewed in the ACT UP Oral History project online. As a videomaker, she has made a large number of AIDS educational videos including Living with AIDS: Women and AIDS (1987), Safer and Sexier: A College Student's Guide to Safer Sex (1991), and most recently, Video Remains (2005). She is a Professor of Media Studies at Pitzer College.