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.
Justin Vivian BondHunter 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 Rudin, Benjamin Heim Shepard, Alice O'Malley, Hunter Reynolds,Shelley Marlow, Gail Thacker, Justin 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 called House and Studio, where she explores the remote forms of physical inquiry through landscape and texts.
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:
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 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
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
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.