People who have seen the haunting image of buffalo falling off a cliff on the album cover of U2’s 1992 hit “One,” or perhaps who have seen a very iconic piece of gay art known as “One Day This Kid …,” may not even know that those works were made by David Wojnarowicz, who overcame a brutal childhood to make nearly two decades’ worth of mixed-media art that tackled homophobia and American conservatism before he died of AIDS at age 37 in 1992. Not as celebrity-level as peers including Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring, who also worked in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s before dying of AIDS, Wojnarowicz still put out a body of work that not only gained him critical and commercial success in the 1980s but is now within an archive of work from downtown New York artists of that time, many of them queer, that has become part of the contemporary art canon.
From his famed series of late 1970s self-portraits wearing a mask of Rimbaud around the city to paintings that juxtaposed images of nature, capitalism, and gay sex—and, not surprisingly, got caught up in the late ’80s/early ’90s culture wars over federal funding of (homo)sexually explicit art—Wojnarowicz’s work was shaped by his self-image as a sexual outlaw ultimately sentenced to die by a state too cruel and right-wing to care for its pariah citizens, such as gay people and drug users. Now, with the support of producers Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey (the producers behind RuPaul’s Drag Race), documentary filmmaker Chris McKim (who also worked on RPDR) brings us Wojnarowicz, a new doc that, as part of the (virtual) 2020 DOC NYC festival, will be watchable (for a $12 ticket) from Nov. 11 to 19 (for 48 hours once you buy your ticket). A permanent platform for the doc is still being sought.
TheBody talked to McKim about why and how he made a documentary about Wojnarowicz.
Tim Murphy: Hi, Chris! Thanks for talking to us. So, first of all, I have to ask you what it was like being the showrunner of the first four seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Chris McKim: When I came on, World of Wonder [Barbato and Bailey’s production company] had just sold the show to Logo, so there was no show yet, so it was amazing for me to help create what has now become this universal juggernaut. I shared a cubicle with Ru and he came in every day, and we had meetings and would kick around crazy ideas. I remember Ru coming in one morning and saying I was with [former RPDR producer] Mathu Andersen last night and he suggested, “Sashay away, shanté you stay.” I remember the first time Ru said, “Good luck ... and don’t fuck it up.” We didn’t know those things were going to turn out to be [signature lines on the show], but we definitely knew we were doing something that no one had ever seen before. It was the summer of the 2008 election, so we took Obama’s winning as a good sign for the show.
Murphy: Great. And your bio also said something about once hitting Harvey Weinstein with a door?
McKim: Yes, right out of college around 1996, I was working in post-production at Miramax and always running between floors. And Harvey and Bob had suites with two doors on either side where their assistants sat, and I opened one of the doors once when Harvey was setting down his briefcase, bent over in front of the door on the other side, and I banged him on the head. He stood up and roared, and all the blood drained from my face. But nothing else happened.
Murphy: Wow. And you’ve also produced some docs before this one, right? How did this new doc come to be?
McKim: Yes, I did Freedia Got a Gun, about gun violence in [bounce music queen] Big Freedia’s New Orleans, and also Out of Iraq. Both Wojnarowicz and Big Freedia were supposed to premiere in April this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, but then COVID hit.
Wojnarowicz was my idea. The summer of 2017, with Trump in office, I was between projects. I’d used a considerable amount of archiv[al material] for Out of Iraq, which I liked, so I wanted to find another archival project set in the 1970s or 1980s that could speak to today. I was looking at different artists who had passed away from AIDS and I stumbled across David, who I’d been aware of but did not know much about. I realized after about an afternoon of internet research that there was a good archive of his stuff out there, and also that in 2018 there was going to be a Whitney Museum retrospective of his work in New York. So I reached out to P.P.O.W., which was his final gallery in New York and which managed his estate; then I came to New York to meet with them.
And not long after that, I told Randy and Fenton about it and got them interested. They’d produced the 2016 documentary on Mapplethorpe, so they knew what an uphill battle it was to get attention for a doc about an artist who’d died of AIDS. But they were willing to pay for Wojnarowicz.
Murphy: What was the process of sourcing archival material like?
McKim: That’s where David’s estate was very handy. Years before, they had moved his archive to the Fales Library at NYU, so it was all in one place. I think they had nearly 200 audio cassettes which comprised the tape journals that David kept from about the mid-’70s to the end of his life, as well as cassettes of his answering machine messages and mix tapes. His contact sheets and negatives were there as well, over 10,000 images. So I went through all of this, then looked for the people who came up in the archive. I tried to grab things that seemed to correspond to specific events. There was also lots of Super 8 raw footage that had never been developed.
Murphy: As someone who desperately wishes I had kept my answering machine tapes from the ’80s and ’90s, I must say it’s very intimate and moving to hear those messages from people in his life, from his lover-turned-mentor [the gay photographer] Peter Hujar, whose messages are so sweetly odd and quirky, to his brother and sister, to Gracie Mansion, his gallerist in the early ’80s. What picture of a person emerged for you as you delved in David’s archive?
McKim: The audiotapes were everything. Each audio file comprised one side of a tape, about 45 minutes. They seemed to start from his cross-country road trip in 1976. I just loaded them up onto my iPhone and would listen to them when hiking, or when walking around the East Village in New York. They’re conversations with himself, so they’re completely open and honest and raw. So I felt like I knew him. They’re relatable to anyone in the arts, because he’s saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing, nobody likes my stuff, am I any good?”
I thought he was a very thoughtful and inquisitive person, observant.
Murphy: I have to admit that unlike with Mapplethorpe, where there’s kind of a dark, sexy, twisted glamor, and with Haring, where there’s a sweet, childlike playfulness, there’s such an anger and sadness to David’s work and vibe. The trauma he and his siblings suffered at the hands of his father, that the doc illuminates, really seemed to help me understand that better. His life did not start from a happy place.
McKim: I also heard a lot of things [on the tapes] I thought were funny. Plenty of people calling and saying, “David, let’s go out and do something.” I didn’t feel it to be exclusively sad or rageful. He would give a very detailed account of going to the [sex club] Anvil and cruising for sex in the basement.
Murphy: How did you decide to piece all the elements together?
McKim: I decided early on to do interviews [with his surviving peers] as voiceovers to create an immersive world [of David’s time and place]. Sometimes, these films can end up being as much about the people who survived as the subjects. So it was about organizing the film into tight sections of five to 10 minutes, almost like cutting a podcast, then we would figure out what images to use. As a general rule, if we weren’t going to have David’s perspective on something in his own voice, we weren’t necessarily including it. There are only a couple sections where he doesn’t chime in, like around 1985 when he’s so busy because he’s in the Whitney Biennial that year, and also the section about [how he sparked a guerrilla art movement inside a massive abandoned building on the West Side piers in 1983-4].
Murphy: What did you find that most surprised you?
McKim: So many things. His [surviving] brother Steven had told me about the final fight on the phone they had where they never spoke again, but then I discovered later on that David had taped his half of the call.
Murphy: Yes, that is a very painful part to listen to, when he is well advanced with AIDS. His rage is so palpable.
McKim: Yes. And also finding so much of Peter Hujar in the answering-machine tapes.
Murphy: Yes, he has such a sweet, weird sense of humor.
McKim: Yes, that loving playfulness. You realize just how special that relationship was to David. I think David had that goofy side as well, and that was part of the attraction.
Murphy: What was the most challenging part of making the doc?
McKim: Keeping the interviews off-camera, because then you’re starting with [a] black [screen] and you have to find what footage or visuals you can sprinkle around that. It becomes a burden to have to cover everything, because we never had the benefit of cutting to someone on camera. But that’s what creates the ride and the experience. We used a lot of photographs.
Murphy: I did kind of feel that, as much as you show most of his art throughout the film in great detail, there is not a lot of analysis or criticism of the art per se, or where it kind of fits in contemporary art history—his use of found materials, garbage, for one thing, or a bigger context about protest art or agitprop.
McKim: Along the way, all sorts of things made their way in but then fell out. We had [cultural critic and curator] Carlo McCormick talking about the art, about the influence that Peter [Hujar] had on David, and he describes David’s work as this kind of sloppy Expressionism. He was self-taught.
Murphy: I noticed that on a few occasions where David is talking about fascism, which he very much felt that Reagan and Bush’s near-indifferent response to AIDS embodied, you flash quickly to Trump—so fast it almost feels subliminal.
McKim: The Trump era led to this film being made. It was cathartic and the reason why David’s story was important for me to tell. David calls himself and others to action in the course of the film, often in his writing. David’s spirit and willingness to speak truth to power made the film a joy to make. It felt like a response to our times. It was very frustrating to not be able to premiere it at Tribeca. I think his legacy is activism, how important it is to put yourself on the line in your work. How every time we do that, we apply a tiny bit of pressure on the system of fascism. That feels so relevant today.