Jack Waters and Peter Cramer are multimedia, award-winning artists and activists who have been creating arousingly visceral work together for the past 35 years. Leading the charge of avant-garde experimentalism through the height of the AIDS epidemic, the two integrated their experiences as HIV-positive gay men into their multimedia mash-ups while demanding that the world do something about the havoc that AIDS was inflicting upon their generation.
Even as new medications have made HIV a manageable if not chronic illness, Waters and Cramer have continued to stand at the forefront of sounding the alarm that viral suppression is not a cure. Their current project, GENERATOR: Pestilence Part 1—which began at the Emily Harvey Foundation in Venice, Italy, in 2006—is bringing them back to the site of some of their earliest performances. This expressionistic and multimedia narrative will fill the performance space at New York City’s La MaMa Theatre for eight interactive performances starting on Feb. 20, 2020. I recently attended rehearsals and spoke with Waters and Cramer about their history as artist-activists and what audiences can expect from their new piece.
A wall of manic belting mixed with melting arpeggios greeted me as I entered the team’s rehearsal space, with the entire cast digging into a rousing number as if they were singing for their lives at a piano bar. “Welcome to GENERATOR,” Cramer purred as he led me to a seat. To my right, a team of technicians worked on video and sound projection, while Waters conferred with his costume and set designers about a pair of paper cocoons that looked as if they’d been rescued from the set of The Lion King.
Before I could gather my bearings, Waters appeared next to me and explained that 75% of the cast and crew were living with HIV, which might have factored into why everything they executed had a sense of urgency to it. Suddenly, with a bang, the entire chorus was screeching an impossibly high note that slowly diminished to an angelic tone.
“A baby’s wail transforms into a soothing, final goodbye,” I thought as Cramer danced at the edge of the stage in his white leather jazz shoes, alternating between conducting the beautiful chaos and making up his own jubilant moves.
“This is a container for my entire creative life; it’s a petri dish of my experience and history,” Waters explained. “One of the themes of the whole cycle is how disease affects culture,” Cramer continued. As the synthesis of 14 years of research and revisions, GENERATOR feels like the summation of the duo’s work. “It’s not a summation,” Waters clarifies. “It’s more like a repository. We have a particularly archival sensibility to the way that we work, and pull from that body whenever it’s relevant.”
After watching part of the rehearsal, I spoke with them about their views on the contemporary HIV/AIDS discourse, and what they see as a mission to not allow HIV to go back in the closet.
“Everyone Has AIDS”
Juan Michael Porter II: What feels most relevant about the piece to me is the idea that everyone has AIDS.
Peter Cramer: Yes. It’s very similar to what people who worked in Black liberation used to say during the ’70s: Racism is not just Black people’s problem, it’s an American problem. As long as AIDS exists, it’s a problem, whether people are diagnosed or not. AIDS is not a disease; it’s a syndrome that is caused by the infection of an identifiable virus, which is HIV. But HIV is only identifiable above 50 copies, and if one can be infected with HIV but not detectable—and therefore never diagnosed—then everyone is potentially HIV positive. But AIDS has only been defined, up until now, by the level of T cells that one has or by an AIDS-defining illness. So, if a person’s T-cell count drops to that level or they have an AIDS-defining illness but they are not diagnosed, then in a scientific and medical sense, everyone potentially has AIDS.
It’s complicated, because of the way that we look at illness in terms of stigma. Most people don’t want to be identified as being ill. And when you have an illness that is identified as being socially stigmatic in the sense that it’s infectious, no one wants you around them. So saying everyone has AIDS is an oversimplification, but it’s a useful way to begin conversations like this.
JMPII: That brings me back to your point that while newer medications are prolonging lives, they are also creating a new closeted mentality.
PC: Our generation didn’t even have the option for that closet, because when we were dying, the symptoms were immediately visible. Now, because of PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] and because of treatment, they’re not visible.
Jack Waters: What proceeds that idea is that we were approached by [writer and activist] Sarah Schulman of MIX NYC, the experimental film festival; we didn’t really identify our work as gay. She felt that it was very important to assert that identity of being out and gay. That was a radical challenge, because one can be a homosexual and be in the closet or present in the normal fashion, and no one will have any idea because that’s your private life, but if it manifests, then you run into the risk of discrimination and persecution and whatever. The whole diagnosis of being HIV positive forced people into another closet, because they were afraid of being treated in the same malicious way that gay people have been for centuries. That’s the whole thing about PrEP and U=U [undetectable equals untransmittable]; everyone can maintain the fact that they’re not infectious, but they’re still positive, and it creates another closet that people can disappear into or evade disclosing.
PC: What’s interesting about that observation is the immediate association of AIDS with being gay. Treatment and PrEP provide the opportunity for a new gay closet, and when you say “closet,” you’re talking about gay.
JMPII: You guys have been together for so long. How do you do it?
PC: It takes work to stay in a loving relationship, and I think we both do the work. But when we talk about a relationship, it reverts to the idea of coupling—with all of its capitalistic associations or specific gender roles—and that gets problematic, because I really don’t like to reinforce the idea that our relationship is exclusively bound around us as a couple. Our relationship involves many people, including blood relatives, chosen family, and our children.
JMPII: Watching rehearsal, I was moved by how respectful and loving you two were towards everyone in the room.
JW: Well, it’s the only way you can get anything done. You can’t really be at each other’s throats, not to say that it doesn’t happen—but it’s more about the fact that we met as dancers, and to me, dance is more than just the physical body. It’s the means of expression that encompasses multiple disciplines. So if you’re tracing our histories, we go from dancers, to filmmakers, to installation artists, to administrators and art curators who are all about community building and working in a collectivist ideal.
JMPII: Do funders have a hard time understanding that or classifying what you do?
PC: Having the language to describe what we do has always been a challenge. And although I think the culture within the art world has expanded as to what multidisciplinary is, it’s still rather conservative, because their money comes from sources that tend to be conservative. Especially after the culture wars of the 1980s. That has made it difficult for funding us. We have gotten individual grants from Visual AIDS, which has been very generous and very supportive of us, but it’s not been easy. The economics play into the work itself; it becomes almost Marxist in that the means and the end are part and parcel to each other. Kembra Pfahler calls it “availablism” (making art where and when you can, by using what materials are available).
JMPII: Can we talk about your activism?
PC: Initially, our activism was attending demonstrations or speaking up in public. It’s gone from protesting for nuclear disarmament to ACT UP, to ABC No Rio—which challenged the ideas of gentrification and the lack of government action, whether it’s in housing, elderly centers, or places of art—and then creating Le Petit Versailles garden, which became recognized as a queer art space. We’re not in the street chanting and protesting, but when push comes to shove we do get involved in those things too. During the second Bush election, we were able to provide a safe space for activists from across the United States and Europe; this group became known as Queer Fist (an anti-assimilationist, anti-capitalist, and anti-authoritarian street action group). There is also a group of queer activists that we had been associated with internationally called Queeruption. So we’ve been always involved in these movements of activism, but it’s not traditional—
JW: It’s not mainstream.
PC: Last year, the garden was a hub for Reclaim Pride, which was a reaction to what Pride has become because of—
PC: Yes, so leading up to Stonewall 50, we used the garden to link people who came from early Gay Lib and the formations of Pride to the Radical Faeries and all of the younger people that Peter and I have worked with, largely through our art. We continue to do our art, and that makes us activists by default. It wraps back into this question of language and labeling. People ask us how we feel about the HIV community; there are many HIV communities, so there are many approaches to activism. Ours is through our creative practice.
Art as Activism by Doing Away With the Conventional
For Waters and Cramer, the language we use is a function of the HIV virus itself. The very thing that is supposed to transmit awareness about staying healthy—language—is being used to continue the spread of HIV.
So how does that manifest onstage? There are visual projections of the virus, while the chorus uses contact improv to emulate how the virus functions. Meanwhile, a narrator speaks Waters’ poetic text as the voice of HIV. “I am in you. I am you,” he says. At different junctures, the chorus dances and uses props, including microphones, to vocalize and interact with the audience as they break the fourth wall. Imagine catching the eye of a performer who suddenly stops what she is doing to connect with you before going back to her previous task. This sense of spontaneity and chance is a major component of GENERATOR.
“It’s expressive, it’s just not literal,” Cramer explains. It’s an approach that he and Waters have been perfecting ever since they met as dancers at Battery Dance Festival 39 years ago. The duo broke off to form their own company, POOL (Performance On One Leg), and began curating major multimedia-anything-goes events—including Seven Days of Creation, Out and Exposed Show, The Real Estate Show, and The Times Square Show—at ABC No Rio while fighting the city’s attempts to evict them and working to establish practices that addressed queer concerns long before being gay and sassy was a popular trend.
GENERATOR includes seven different generations of performers who have all engaged with HIV, the arts, and activism from a range of specific vantage points. Waters and Cramer may be the “village elders,” but they treat their younger collaborators—most of whom are brand new to the duo—with great respect and appreciation for what they bring to the production. Nothing is taken for granted, even when someone asks to take a break to discuss what just happened.
This way of working was entirely new to me. In my experience, a performer usually works out a problem on their own while suffering in silence and hoping that their decision is in line with the director’s vision. Because this show requires so much trust between the performers—who may decide to change things up at a moment’s notice—Waters and Cramer encourage the cast to ask questions or to workshop moments in several disparate ways that suit their own individual interpretations.
“The act of doing this [rehearsal] is as much ‘the work’ as what will be seen on the stage,” said Cramer. The result is that even when I didn’t know exactly what was going on, I felt drawn in, as if I were a participant myself. During the end of one section, a woman began to stand and speak. Her fellow creatures ran away because prior to this moment, they had never encountered sentience. It was like watching the evolution of a human being, but it also felt incredibly lonely, because as the first woman with linguistic capabilities, this person had no one else to converse with.
“That’s the isolation in the desert scene!” Waters declared excitedly. “We use that image as a jumping off point of being isolated from your group.” That feeling of otherness is directly related to the idea of being diagnosed with AIDS or being HIV positive, and finding a way of coping with it through processes that are not really part of an accepted language.”
It all stems from feeling alone. I was glad that I understood what was going on, but I also felt like the actress was making it up as she was going along. That was intentional.
“The fact that you feel that it may not have been intentional is what we’re striving towards,” Waters explains. “We’re striving away from that sense of contrivance.”
Escaping the conventional and giving audiences and performers a place to question the status quo; it’s a lifelong practice of Waters and Cramer and ultimately what GENERATOR: Pestilence Part I is all about. Catch the show at La MaMa Theatre on Feb. 20 through March 1, 2020. For more information, visit http://lamama.org/generator/.