Monday, September 30, 2013

Reflections on ACT NOW: Perspectives on Performance, HIV, and Lost Communities

 Richard Deagle

Thinking about the long history of queer political performanceand protest, Radical Homosexual Agenda’s parades without a permit and Gay Activist Alliance zaps come to mind.  Yet, these gestures just scratche the surface of a decade long procession of creative direct actions.  When I first started going to SexPanic! Meetings in the late 1990s, I heard the expression, ‘demo diva.’  It was a campy way of describing a distinct sensibility queer activists often bring to activism, performance, and street protest, tracing a line from the cabaret and the picket line, the club to the art gallery, and back again.

RHA parade without a permit action April 2007.
Tim after parade without a permit.
Photo by Fred Askew

Ted called me in August, wanting to talk about a session he was putting together at the New Museum.  In between vacations, we managed to correspond a bit by email and then to get together, but not for coffee.  Instead, we met at the ACT UP August 15th zap of the Department of Health, chatting along the picket line.  Merging performance with street activism, this meeting spot seemed entirely appropriate a planning session for an our event on AIDS and performance.

Ted at the ACT UP Zap of the NYDOH

Over the next few weeks, Ted and I corresponded about the panel.  He sent me a draft on some thoughts, which I edited, adding a line two.

Performance has long been a powerful means of expression in dealing with the ongoing crisis of AIDS. Early on work by Karen Finely, John Kelly and others embodied the rage, sadness and confusion caused by the epidemic. Soon strong emotions boiled over from the artists, and  into the art world. Works by Tony Kushner and Bill T Jones' reminded us that AIDS was the story of our time. Around this time activist groups like ACT UP were laying their bodies down and on the line at Wall Street, at the offices of the CDC, in the Halls of St Patrick’s cathedral, and anywhere else where they could capture the nation's attention to the silences which allowed to epidemic to rage unabated. While it was activism, not performance art, for those there at the time, and those visiting the demos now in films, the use of bodies and the sense of urgency leaves the door open to contemplation as well as a richer, more embodied, authentic form of political performance, a queerer, more delicious, daring, and defiant form of high octane street.
“Whose dick you have to blow to get arrested around here,”
David Feinberg lamented during one zap, bringing the life affirming gallows humor to the better to laugh than cry spectacle of AIDS activism.  Members of the group brought their activism and defiant form of radical street performance into streets, offices, bathrooms, jails, opera houses, sex clubs and even the theater. In the 30 years AIDS has been with us, a greater understanding of the every day as performance has penetrated the culture, changing it.  Tonight, with milestones in mind we will discuss performance and HIV, weaving the past, the present and the future together, in an attempt to conjure up new perspectives in performance and HIV through a discussion of the work of Justin Vivian Bond, Hunter Reynolds, and Julie Tolentino whose works each approach the ongoing AIDS crisis in a variety of important and profound ways. Moderated by myself Benjamin Shepard, the discussion will explore the evolving role that performance has played in the context of HIV/AIDS, while highlighting a diverse spectrum of performance practices that exemplify contemporary HIV/AIDS engagement.  The talk is organized in conjunction with “NOT OVER,” a project honoring Visual AIDS’s twenty-five years of activity, and “Performance Archiving Performance,” part of the Fall 2013 Season: “Archives” at the New Museum.

 My job was to moderate the panel, introducing each artist, and asking them to discuss how their work relates to HIV/AIDS and a larger conversation about queer political performance and community building. Looking at their work and bios, I was star struck and intimidated.  After watching their videos, the lines between their work felt tenuous.  At least this is what I felt riding over to the event from Brooklyn where I had been teaching, the sunset was going down on the Manhattan Bridge riding over to the Bowery.
Ted was at the museum lobby to greet me and walk me down, past a line of people, including  Michael Tikili and several other friends, such as Jack and Peter from Petit Versailles, all waiting to get inside.

Simply Gorgeous! — with Jackie RudinBenjamin Heim ShepardAlice O'MalleyHunter Reynolds,Shelley MarlowGail ThackerJustin Vivian Bondand Julie Tolentino at New Museum.
Photo by Peewee Nyob

Inside I met everyone and talked with Jack and Peter.  We all chatted for a minute or two.  I told V about going to a party for the Yes Men, she was attending.  The room was aflutter with the news she was coming.  “Well, Andy should be…” V mused.
After some intros, I read their bios.
o    Justin Vivian Bond is a writer, singer, painter, and performance artist. V Bond was nominated for a Tony Award for Kiki & Herb: Alive On Broadway in 2007. Other notable theatrical endeavors include starring as Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis in Scott Wittman’s production of Jukebox Jackie: Snatches of Jackie Curtis as part of La Mama E.T.C.’s 50th Anniversary Season, originating the role of Herculine Barbin in Kate Bornstein’s groundbreaking play Hidden: A Gender, touring with the performance troupe The Big Art Group, and appearing in John Cameron Mitchell’s film Shortbus.
o    Julie Tolentino’s career spans over two decades of dance, installation, and site-specific durational performance. Her diverse roles have included host, producer, mentor, and collaborator with artists such as Meg Stuart, Ron Athey, Madonna, Catherine Opie, David Rousseve, Juliana Snapper, Diamanda Galàs, Stosh Fila, Robert Crouch, Elana Mann, Mark So, Gran Fury, and Rodarte. Tolentino is deeply influenced by her extensive experience as a caregiver, an Eastern and aquatic bodyworker, a highly disciplined contemporary dancer, and as proprietress of Clit Club in New York. Her manifold, exploratory duet/solo practice includes installation, dance-for-camera, and durational performance engaging improvisation one-to-one score-making and fluids, including blood, tears, and honey. As an extension of her practice after twenty-five years in New York City, she designed and built a solar-powered live–work residency in the Mohave Desert calledFERAL House and Studio, where she explores the remote forms of physical inquiry through landscape and texts. 
o    Hunter Reynolds is a visual artist and AIDS activist and He is a Visual AIDS artist member. He was a an early member of ACT UP, and in 1989 co-founded Art Positive, an affinity group of ACT-UP to fight homophobia and censorship in the arts. For over twenty years, Reynolds has been using performance, photography, and installations to express his experience as an HIV-positive gay man living in the age of AIDS. Reynolds’s works address issues of gender identity, political, social, and sexual histories, mourning and loss, survival, hope and healing. Some of his best-known performance projects are The Patina du Prey’s Memorial Dress, The Drag Pose Series, Blood Spot Series and Mummification Series.  He has collaborated on major performance projects the Banquet with Chrysanne Stathacos and I-Dea The Goddess with Maxine Heneryson.

We watched films of several of their works, starting with one of Hunter’s mummification performances.  The film showed Reynolds being dragged through the streets, bound like he was being arrested.   The performance seemed to AIDS activism, queer political performance and direct action.  He described the rationale for the work, narrating with a series of slides on his life as an AIDS activist and artist. 


His first slide build on the point, showing him being arrested at St Patrick’s cathedral in ACT UP’s famous stop the Church action.  “I was not able to be in the die in so the police arrested me on the street,” he explained.  “I told them I want to die,” he continued, directing the police about where he wanted to lay down for his arrest.  In the months after that iconic action, several of Hunter’s friends, including Ray   Navarro, who played Jesus doing color commentary at the action, got sick.  The pain in the air, the losses became the basis for his next, the memorial dress project, in which the artist listed the names of some of the 350,000 named listed on the early 1990’s AIDS  memorial quilt.  Reynolds showed several slides from him Survival AIDS show, built of AIDS related news articles, forming the basis for his 2011 show at Participants Inc.
He also described the rationale for Survival AIDS:
Survival AIDS is a new series of works that incorporate elements spanning 25 years of my image making, and constructed around my experience as a gay man living in the age of AIDS. I have been living as a person with HIV and AIDS since 1984. I began to express this experience in my art practice beginning in 1987, at which time I also became a member of ACT UP. For Survival AIDS, I am combining three modalities that I have used in various ways in my work over the years: the Blood Spot series, Mummification Performance Skins, and  Photo Weavings. In the early ‘90s I did a series of performances in which I extracted my own blood and dropped it onto paper, creating an abstract image from my diseased blood-body. I then scanned a single perfectly shaped spot of blood to use as a vehicle, to cleanse and reclaim it in various forms in my artwork. Between 1989 and 1993, I clipped every newspaper article and advertisement that I came across in the New York Times and other newspapers that had anything to do with AIDS and LGBT culture. During my career, performance art has been another mode of working. My drag alter ego, Patina du Prey; The Memorial Dress; my Mummification Performances; and The Goddess Within Dervish Performances are all sites in which I use my body as a transformative vessel to process and present, through my art, the emotional and physical experience of AIDS in my life and in the world around me. Survival AIDS is an installation combining three of those elements: the Blood Spots, the Mummification Performances, and the archival newspapers used to create larges cale Photo Weavings. I have been making these Photo Weavings for over 20 years, and have combined them together with other aspects of my installations such as The Memorial Dress and The Bed Sculptures. They look like wall tapestries or quilts and some of them are floor pieces.

Julie in Red Hot and Blue's "Safe Sex is Hot Sex" poster and Gran Fury's national bus campaign "Kissing Doesn't Kill."
Julie Tolentino followed, showing a slideshow of work reflecting on work as an AIDS activist, performer, and proprietress of the Clit Club.  Her elegiac stories, as well as works highlight the link between embodied experience, club, and public sexual culture.   Like Hunter, her works seemed to build on the pieces of memories of people and lost communities.
 Julie Tolentino's works, bottom "The Unsung, The Malcontent, The Weirdos, The Invisible, The Enduring The Beloved Wretcheds of the Earth: I Want To Give You Devotion"
 Her work and story suggests here is another life out there, another world out there, where communities take shape through the intersections of bodies, the practice of non-monogamy, care and connection.

Bond as Kiki top, glasses middle, bottom MARK TUSK 2010 JUSTIN BOND, NATHAN CARRERA

Justin Vivian Bond’s stories and performances build on a theme - of connections.  I spent the afternoon watching her videos, videos, and stories on the internet, feeling a kindred spirit with Bond’s journey from San Francisco to New York’s queer public commons.  Bond was initially put off by men, but found a lovely group of homosexual comrades in San Francisco.  Yet, over the years, many shuffled off after encountering the virus.  Even after their losses, their spirit became part of Bond’s shows. “I would do a performance that carried the spirit of their community,” explained Bond.  When V moved to New York in 1994, Bond was struck by the sex negative tenor taking hold.  V joined other sex positive activists to start Club Crème, in the East Village where the Cock is today.  There, Bond helped a distinctly queer, whimsical form of political performance, facilitating often ridiculous  sexual scenarios, including smelly cock tastings, cabaret, and other whimsical contests.   V’s show Kiki and Herb built on this commitment to a distinctly queer sensibility and sexuality. 
Over the next hour, the conversation between Justin, Hunter, and Julie, expanded out of this self-reflection.  Each considered a few questions, reflecting on those are no longer in the room, yet are part of the work, each reflected on the embodied qualities of their work, and the ways the artist and viewer touch, in the streets and in clubs.    They talked about who or what has most influenced the form that HIV/AIDS politics assumes in their work? And How?  HIV is still raging and queer youth continue to be arrested for carrying condoms or hanging out in public spaces.  How has the politics of sex changed over the years particularly around questions about public sexual culture, queer performance, and the ongoing epidemic?  Whats the line between direct action and queer political performance, across and between venues, from the street to the club, the gallery to the museum, within the different kinds of performance contexts on their work: the club, the gallery, the street, the theater, through different modes of performative response: performance art, cabaret, comedy, musical theater, drama, dance, social practice, etc….And the role of humor in V’s work. Humor as activating agent.   We talked about public sex, public spaces, the Clit Club, Club Fuck, and a queer world of their own creation.  Reflecting on the distinctly queer links been the trans, punk, and arts, “The thing I take away from it is not to be afraid of death,” mused Bond. 
Everyone few minutes V would turn around, looking at me, as if to say, can we move this thing along.   And the conversation still flowed.
Finishing the questions, I looked out at an amazing group in the crowd.  “I used to think I could change the world, now I’m just trying to get out of this room with my dignity intact,” I noted to Bond, referring to V’s line from Shortbus, I’m going to open it to the audience for a question and answer.  
Gay Liberation Front and Studio 54 aficionado, Jim Fouratt raised his hand to open the questions.  “I want to bring some people back into the room John Sex, Dean Johnson. 

Jim Fouratt

Collectively, each of these artists are part of why I moved to New York.  I recall gazing at images of the Mud Club as a kid in the suburbs, staring at images of the graffiti stained club and the East Village scene, transmitted across the world through the images of  performers such as Johnson, whom I met in Dallas in after a show in Dallas in 1990.

“Can I get your autograph Dean?”  I gushed.
“Whats your name ?”
 “Sure Ben, bend over!” Dean ordered so he could write me the autograph.

That conversation flashed across my mind, listening to Jim complete his question.  “There is a distinct sex energy, or sex magic Harry Hay used to describe,” noted Jim. “A whimsical quality of this display, of this space without shame.”

“Even if not performing in public sex, you were still a part of it,” mused Hunter.  “You were still a part of it.  You still feel it.”
Julie followed recalling “sensual and sexual channels, acts of recognition, touch and care.”  She noted there were no photos of the Clit Club.  But if there had been, they would have been wonderful.
Yet the pictures people take sometimes rob these spaces of their spontaneity, noted V.
And so the conversation  about queer public  commons of New York City, continued.  HIV still rages and so does homophobia.   Jack and Peter from Petit Versailles community garden asked questions about career and activism, as well as the struggles with homophobia and persecution coming from Russia.
Justin Bond noted the attacks started with Pussy Riot and an assault on women, followed by a new law legalizing attacks on queers.   But activists are fighting back. “Its still good to have a big mouth,” V concluded.     

Finishing the panel, Hunter pointed out that Ann Northrop was standing up to talk.  So we all stopped, as Ann, ACT UP’s long time facilitator, announce Queer Nation was planning a zap for the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera around the Russia issue.  

As we concluded, V leaned over and give me a hug. 

V and the author. Photo by Caroline Shepard

 As everyone was leaving, Jim Fouratt asked me if I agreed about ACT UP approach to pushing the DOH for more access to pre and post exposure prophylaxis. 

I said I supported it.

“I would expect more of a PhD than that,” he followed, noting that PEP potentially alters the DNA in the body. 

“What study are you referring to?” I asked.   Jim said he would send me information on the topic.

Later that night I wrote Jim Eigo, who has been working HIV prevention issues for years now taking a lead on the PEP access issue with ACT UP, asking him about Jim’s concerns. 

Eigo at the summer DOH action. 

Eigo wrote me back quickly after my email about the need for more effective approaches to HIV prevention. With his permission to quote him, this is what he wrote: 

I fully value Jim F's contrary voice, not least because we share a lot of the same values and suspicions. (Anti big pharma, conservative about what we put into our bodies.) 

Annette Gaudino recently reminded me that Maxine Wolfe once said, "If it's a pill, it's capitalism." And she's right. But "the pill" also gave women historically unprecedented control of their destinies. Those two facts are not easily reconciled. Maybe we just have to hold them in suspension.
One of ACT UP's successes so far has been in forcing the state to issue new 
guidelines for PEP a few months ahead of time. A major problem with old 
guidelines is that the regimen of PEP drugs for sexual exposure to HIV still 
included AZT. I doubt that short-term AZT (28 days) at the dose given would 
cause permanent damage. But it certainly caused extreme nausea in many, 
sometime so severe that people on PEP had to abandon it. (Some docs told 
their patients to abandon the AZT and stay on the other drug in the old 
regimen, Truvada.) 

The new PEP combo is Truvada and raltegravir. "Ral" has a very low toxicity 
compared to other HIV drugs. I looked up the figures and all the 
complaints of minor side effects--nausea, trouble sleeping--were 4% or lower. 

Truvada itself bundles two drugs, tenofovir and emtricitibine. Again, at 
the doses used, short-term side effects are very low. Long-term, Truvada has 
been associated with liver damage, kidney damage and bone-thinning. Brent 
Earle, ACT UP member and a personal hero of mine, has been on Truvada a 
while and his docs tell him he has suffered bone loss as a result, and I have 
no reason not to believe his doctors. This has resulted in tooth loss and 
impaired walking--which must be a special trial for a former runner. Mark 
Harrington on the other hand has been on Truvada for many years and claims no 
observable side effects. 

No doc I have spoken to thinks that one pill a day of Truvada for 28 days 
will cause long-term damage. 

I am a proponent of PEP precisely because long-term use of AIDS meds can 
cause long-term damage. (I should add that the further we get into the 
epidemic, and the more AIDS drugs we have--there are now about three dozen--the 
better docs and patients get at avoiding significant side effects.) I 
believe that if PEP, 28 days of meds, can prevent an HIV infection after the risk 
of an HIV exposure, it is far preferable to take 28 days of meds to taking 
a lifetime of them. 

I do not know the source of Jim F's DNA fears, and if, perhaps, they were 
fueled by the first generation of AIDS drugs, hightly toxic, especially 
because, taken alone, they had to be taken at high doses. Combination therapy 
has mollified toxicity in general, short-term and long-term. (HIV 
replication in the body involves transcribing the viral RNA into host DNA and many of 
the drugs that fight AIDS aim to interfere with that process; they all 
involve DNA to that extent.) 

A more general philosophical issue: I was always an unlikely crusader for 
AIDS drugs, because I do not personally "believe" in drugs. I do not use 
them regularly in my life: at 62, I take no meds. I take steps to remain 
healthy, and I guess I have good genes. But recently a decades-old root canal 
reinfected, and I was certainly glad to have antibiotics to fight what was a 
considerable infection--so I am not religiously opposed to the use of 

But HIV is a diabolically clever and dangerous virus. It takes over the 
host body at the level of the blood cell, and hides out in several other kinds 
of cell. So I never had much patience, right from the first days of the 
epidemic, with my fellow naturalists who opposed the use of strong drugs to 
fight a more deadly virus. Nor have I had much patience with my fellow 
anti-big-capitalists, with whom I share healthy anti-big Pharma sentiments, 
when I hear some of the conspiracy theories they come up with. I certainly 
think we have to monitor big Pharma--which wants to make money off us; and 
monitor the medical establishment: which often wants to prescribe pills as 
the default solution to any medical condition, rather than bestow real care, 
which takes time and energy and therefore money. 

But we have needed these drugs, and still do. Because there are now many 
drugs, people can usually take them in combination at sub-toxic levels. Some 
will have long-term side effects. We are both old enough to remember a 
time when just about anyone with HIV would have gladly traded the certain 
death sentence that HIV infection once was for a future with some long-term 
side effects. I hope no young person with HIV will ever suffer the side 
effects that Brent (who is my age) has. I hope we can use PEP, and in small 
numbers of people, PrEP, to bring about a future with fewer and fewer 
infections, and therefore, fewer and fewer people having to take a full dose of meds 
over a lifetime. I myself, in my personal life, am a proponent of 
behavioral HIV prevention, not pharmaceutical HIV prevention; for me that has meant 
pursuing lower-risk sex acts in the majority of my sex contacts, and using 
condoms for high risk sex (buttfucking). But I know not everyone shares my 
philosophy or sex habits, and I have always been a proponent of giving 
people the information and the tools they need in order to make the best 
decisions for them and carry those decisions out. 

Brent himself attended the Thursday meeting, and proposed that we act 
against the drug company Gilead--holder of the patent for Truvada. Not because 
Truvada has eaten away at Brent's bones, but because Gilead has done nothing 
to tell physicians and potential patients in high risk sub populations 
that Truvada is now available prophylactically. I have not brought the irony 
of this up with Brent. But I think he understands that deciding to take 
prophylactic Truvada for a period of time is superior to having HIV infection 
and having to take Truvada as long-term, perhaps lifetime, treatment. 


And so the spectacle of AIDS prevention, education, and queer political performance  remain imperative.  So do the conversations, extending from the Jim Fouratt’s history of activism dating back to the Stonewall era through Jim Eigo’s prevention activism,  V’s humor, Hunter’s mummification, and Julie’s stories and touch.  It is a line which extends through all of us.  

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