How Do We Make Them Listen: Thoughts on (re)Presenting AIDS: Culture & Accountability

Visual AIDS totebag with image by Kay Rosen handed out at (re)Presenting AIDS

Visual AIDS totebag with image by Kay Rosen handed out at (re)Presenting AIDS

From this summer’s New York Historical Society’s AIDS in New York: The First Five Years, Visual AIDS’s Not Over: 25 Years of Visual AIDS and Bruce Silverstein’s Rosalind Solomon: Portraits in the Time of AIDS, 1988, as well as countless exhibitions from Frank Moore at the Grey Art Gallery to Gran Fury at 80 WSE Galleries and upcoming shows such as the New York Public Library’s Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism and Hide/Seek curator Jonathan David Katz’s ArtAIDSAmerica, HIV/AIDS has recently garnered mainstream institutional attention, which has both reinvigorated the dialogue about the HIV/AIDS and, in some cases, relegated HIV/AIDS to a historical, long-finished crisis.

Addressing these issues and more last night, Visual AIDS and the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History hosted a public forum, (re)Presenting AIDS: Culture & Accountability, to discuss the responsibilities of museums, galleries and other institutions when mounting exhibitions about HIV/AIDS. Organized in part due to Pop-Up Museum of Queer History’s Hugh Ryan’s insightful New York Times editorial “How To Whitewash A Plague,” the forum was designed to, as moderator Ann Northrop described, create a space for “productive thinking for future work,” as well as understand the way the community interacts with cultural institutions.

Featuring a huge panel of voices from the art, institutional and queer communities from, just to name a few, Amy Sadao, former director of Visual AIDS and current director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia to Kris Nuzzi, co-curator of Not Over, to Jim Hubbard, director of the incredible film United in Anger, to Karl McCool from Dirty Looks, and Hunter O’Hanian, the director of the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, the panel sought to answer a series of questions related to the roles of curators and institutions when representing the AIDS crisis.

Since the audience was capped off at 80 people, I feel like it’s necessary to repeat the questions raised by the panel’s organizers so that others who were not able to attend the forum can consider their own answers to these questions:

1. How “should” HIV/AIDS be represented in the public sphere?

2. In what ways do museums and galleries create history as much as they display it?

3. When “history” still has dire consequences for the present moment, what kind of engagement should historical institutions have with the communities whose stories they are telling?

4. As the crisis of AIDS continues, how do we ensure that the stories that need to be shared are told and heard by those who need them the most?

Going down the line of the panelists, the discussion ranged from personal experiences dealing with institutions to thoughts on how to portray the history of AIDS as a living, ongoing crisis. The most common idea pervading the panel discussion seemed to be a need for institutions to create a sense of emergency about the AIDS crisis, reminding viewers that AIDS is not over and that it is not just a historical event to be looked back upon.

From Jason Baumann from the New York Public Library to Kia Benbow, a young artist/activist who created grenAIDS, an artist collective dealing with HIV/AIDS aimed at educating a younger generation, many of the panelists pointed out that representations about AIDS in institutions have been either normalized or stagnant, losing the sense of urgency necessary to talk about the crisis.

Highlighting what I felt was the power of Visual AIDS’ Not Over exhibition, Kris Nuzzi, the show’s co-curator, added that the way she and co-curator Sur Rodney (Sur) placed AIDS in a contemporary context was through blending the past, present and the future of the crisis, bringing artists who were inspired by the first generation of AIDS activists and artists into dialogue with the older generation.

Perhaps the most powerful ideas came from Hugh Ryan and Hunter O’Hanian, as well as activist Bill Dobbs, who all three asserted that it is the responsibility of the community to say something and stand up to the institutions, as well as maintain the integrity of queer history. While there was some certainly valid questioning at the forum last night of what exactly that “community” is, I feel like the idea of a community, even just a community of people affected by discussions of HIV/AIDS whether queer, PWA’s, etc., is an important tool, particularly when speaking to these enormous cultural institutions.

As the founding director of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, Ryan maintained that queer history is kept by queer people and while there is currently some mainstream recognition of that history, queer people should not give up their right to create and represent their own history. Similarly, O’Hanian revealed that the community needs to be out there, saying something, to these institutions since the museums, galleries and other institutions are driven by the influence of board members, donors, collectors and directors.

However even though the panelists brought important ideas to the table about exhibitions related to HIV/AIDS, (re)Presenting AIDS: Culture & Accountability was first and foremost a forum for the audience members as well as the panelists. Like the panel, the audience also consisted of vocal queer activists, artists, ACT-UP members, writers, critics and other creative contributors to the HIV/AIDS activist community.

Gran Fury, "Art is Not Enough" (1988), printed in the Village Voice

Gran Fury, “Art is Not Enough” (1988), printed in the Village Voice

Coming out of the forum, I had about a million thoughts swirling through my head, which I was not able to articulate at the forum itself. Instead, I am going to deal with three of my main thoughts/questions here:

1. How do we reach the younger generations?

One of the most touching, chilling and honest moments in the forum was Kia Benbow’s description of addressing an assembly of middle-schoolers when she was still in high school. Benbow, who was born HIV positive, revealed that she had 7th and 8th graders coming up to her after her speech, thanking her for telling her story because “we don’t know anything about this.”

Benbow’s story reminded me of a similar story told to me by Gran Fury member Marlene McCarthy. McCarthy, who toured freshman year university students through the Gran Fury exhibition at 80 WSE at NYU, explained that these students had no idea what Karposi’s sarcoma lesions were when looking at photographs of People With AIDS.

These types of troubling stories have always stuck with me as a writer who is unfortunately all too aware that art writing is not going to impact the younger generation. How do museums, activists or other cultural institutions make sure that information about and representation of HIV/AIDS reaches younger people who are not receiving the right education, stories or language from other sources? How do we encourage younger people to continue the discussion of AIDS as an ongoing crisis?

2. The Basics vs. Complexity in exhibitions on HIV/AIDS

During the discussion, Jim Saslow, a professor who defended the New York Historical Society’s exhibition by explaining that sometimes curators and institutions have to only show a basic, simplified history in order to teach those viewers who come into the exhibition knowing absolutely nothing.  Speaking from his position as a professor of Renaissance Art, he explained that he cannot go into detailed analysis of colonialism and power when he discovers that his students do not even know where Peru is.

While I understand the need for basic knowledge, particularly in exhibitions like the New York Historical Society, which will undoubtedly have visitors from all levels of understanding about HIV/AIDS, the first years of the AIDS crisis and the ongoing AIDS crisis, I think that is an incredibly jaded way to look at educating the public. The thought that the general public cannot understand complex and even contradictory representations of HIV/AIDS is what holds exhibitions and other representations of HIV/AIDS back from fully delving into essential issues. For me, if I did not have a professor who believed that I, at 18, could handle understanding David Wojnarowicz, Foucault, Dennis Cooper and Kathy Acker, I would never be where I am today.

Just because viewers do not know the basics does not mean that they can’t learn them as well as the complex nuances.

3. How do we open up the discussion?

On a final note, I couldn’t help but leave (re)Presenting AIDS: Culture & Accountability feeling that while the panelists and participants raised extremely significant ideas and questions, these ideas were not hitting the people that need to hear them the most.

Most of the crowd last night consisted of activists, artists, members of the queer community or just people I always see at similar panel discussions who are already well-versed in the issues surrounding the representations of HIV/AIDS. I could not stop thinking that the people who should be sitting in the audience listening–people who curate ignorant exhibitions or write ignorant articles about HIV/AIDS–were absent. Even though we, as members of the community who deeply care about issues related to HIV/AIDS, can assert ourselves, we are not the only ones who write, curate or historicize HIV/AIDS.

And to that end, where was Jean Ashton, curator of AIDS in New York: The First Five Years from the New York Historical Society? Apparently, the curators from the New York Historical Society were invited but did not show up. Why not? How can curators ever improve if they refuse to hear criticism?

Where were other curators from major institutions? Not Jonathan David Katz, who wrote a statement about these critical issues for the forum, not Kris Nuzzi or the other curators sitting on the panel and in the room, who are already passionately involved in these discussions, but where were the high-profile MoMA or New Museum curators, institutions who have fallen consistently flat on HIV/AIDS and queer issues?

Similarly, where were my art critic colleagues? I see them at every press preview, where were they last night? Where were the art critics who have reviewed the exhibitions specifically discussed? The conversations raised in the forum were for writers as much as they were for curators and gallerists.

I’m aware, as previously stated, that the audience was capped at 80 people but I still cannot believe that these people could not make the cut. How do we get those people involved? How do we tell the New Museum that they need to create a deeper context to the AIDS crisis than just dropping viewers right into 1993 and have them hear this criticism? How do we tell art critics that they should be looking for exhibitions on AIDS activism that frame the crisis as ongoing and that they should be well-versed in the language–as well as the history, activism and loss inherent in it–used to speak about HIV/AIDS?

How do we make them listen?

2 thoughts on “How Do We Make Them Listen: Thoughts on (re)Presenting AIDS: Culture & Accountability

Leave a Reply