Mourning, Militancy and Art In ‘Let The Record Show’

John Kelly in still from Let The Record Show (all images courtesy Rebekah Dewald)

John Kelly in still from Let The Record Show (all images courtesy Rebekah Dewald)

In the now famous conclusion of his call-to-action essay “Mourning and Militancy,” Douglas Crimp states, “There is no question but that we must fight the unspeakable violence we incur from the society in which we find ourselves. But if we understand that violence is able to reap its horrible rewards through the very psychic mechanisms that make us part of this society, then we may also be able to recognize—along with our rage—our terror, our guilt, and our profound sadness. Militancy, of course, then, but mourning too: mourning and militancy” (18).

Following Crimp’s prescription, the recent documentary film Let The Record Show presents a historical record of both the mourning and militancy inherent in the New York arts community’s relation to the ongoing AIDS epidemic. Devastating, enraging, moving, motivating and yes, militant, Let The Record Show succeeds in powerfully and captivatingly revealing the innumerable and almost incomprehensible losses to the arts community, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as that community’s strong and outspoken response to the crisis.

While I was lucky enough to be given a screener copy of the film by the filmmakers, the film is currently being shown in various film festivals (the filmmakers are also raising money to apply for future festivals. You can donate money to the film at Fractured Atlas) such as the upcoming Qfest Film Festival in Houston on July 24-28 and the LA Diversity Film Festival on August 8-10.

Titled after ACT UP’s strikingly confrontational 1987-8 installation in the window of the New Museum, featuring a glowing fluorescent sign proclaiming Silence = Death and nauseating quotes by national figures such as Jerry Falwell, Let The Record Show follows in the footsteps of several recent documentaries on the AIDS crisis such as United in Anger and How To Survive A Plague. Produced and directed by mother/daughter team Rebekah and Demetrea Dewald, Let The Record Show is, however, the first documentary to focus entirely on the art and the art community’s place in the response to the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York City.

Patrick O'Connell in Let The Record Show

Patrick O’Connell in Let The Record Show

Originating with a conversation with founding Visual AIDS director Patrick O’Connell about the development of the red ribbon, the Dewalds quickly realized that the relation of New York art to the HIV/AIDS was a barely discussed history that needed to be told. Although, in recent years, the AIDS crisis has seen numerous exhibitions and documentaries, the importance of art dealing with issues surrounding the ongoing AIDS crisis continues to be largely ignored or overlooked by the dominant art  historical field. As the filmmakers described on the Let The Record Show website, “There is no museum dedicated to the AIDS movement, no outlet for young artists to learn from their mentors.”

The film opens with a characteristically outspoken performance by Karen Finley who speaks about her friend who had AIDS and “decided to take his own life last night.” As she continues, “My friend had no reason to live but he had a reason to die. He couldn’t control the suffering. He couldn’t control the anger. He couldn’t control the depression. He couldn’t control this government. He couldn’t control the hatred. He couldn’t control this country but he could control his own death.”

Finley’s stunning words act as an indicator of the mixture of rage and profound sadness pervading the film, which merges interviews with AIDS activists like Larry Kramer and artists such as the queen of the underground Penny Arcade and the operatic John Kelly with clips of performances by artists such as David Wojanrowicz, Hunter Reynolds and Arcade herself.

RuPaul in Nelson Sullivan's video in Let The Record Show

RuPaul in Nelson Sullivan’s video in Let The Record Show

Beginning with an introduction to the arts scene, largely in Lower Manhattan, before the onset of the AIDS epidemic, the film employs the videos of Downtown documentarian Nelson Sullivan, who filmed in clubs such as the Pyramid Club, Danceteria and the Saint, to portray the freewheeling, fun, experimental and sexually fluid era of the pre-AIDS art community. In the film, John Kelly reflects that it was “a last gasp of genuine bohemia in Manhattan.”

With photographs of David Wojnarowicz painting murals in the cruising grounds of the abandoned Hudson River piers to footage of Penny Arcade discussing her newfound community in “Bitch! Dyke! Fag Hag! Whore!,” the film reflects the harrowing and sudden loss of this sense of artistic and sexual community. As Cee Scott Brown of Creative Time and Art Matters explains, “There was very little fear. That changed for most people once the AIDS epidemic hit.”

One of the significant sections of the film that I was particularly thankful for was the assertion of the importance of Klaus Nomi and the trauma of his death in 1983. With Nomi’s haunting song “The Twist” playing several times in the film, Let The Record Show presents Nomi’s death, through interviews with musician Stephanie Kaye, as a distinct turning point in the Downtown artistic community. “I wasn’t aware of it until it happened to my friend,” Kaye observed.

Michael Hunt Stolbach discusses the development of the red ribbon in Let The Record Show

Michael Hunt Stolbach discusses the development of the red ribbon in Let The Record Show

Depicting the development of activist artworks such as Silence = Death, Gran Fury’s provocative “Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do” bus poster and Visual AIDS’ red ribbon and Day Without Art, the film represents the ways art played a role in opening dialogue, encouraging activism, and voicing both rage and loss. While the militancy of the artistic response to the ongoing AIDS crisis is certainly inspiring and influential, I was most touched by the inescapable sense of loss and mourning throughout the film.

In “Mourning and Militancy,”  Douglas Crimp employs Freud’s essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” as a basis for understanding the need and affective possibility for mourning in regards to the AIDS crisis while acknowledging the difficulty of utilizing Freud to discuss queer sexuality. As Crimp quotes, “Freud tells us that mourning is the reaction not only to the death of a loved person but also “to the loss of some abstraction which has taken place of one such as fatherland, liberty, an ideal…”(11).

For Crimp, this notion of a loss of some abstraction directly relates to the loss of a “culture of sexual possibility” due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic (11). Similarly, Let The Record Show captures the loss of artistic possibility, as well as the loss of countless talented and beloved artists. As Stephanie Kaye says, “I’ve talked to my daughter a lot about it since. I wanted her to understand that it was a disease that hit everybody–it wasn’t just a homosexual disease. I always wanted her to understand the kind of community I lived in. I want kids to know what New York was like before the plague. I want kids to know how it was changed forever.”

One of the most powerful and emotionally taxing moments in the film was its conclusion, ending with a slideshow of photographs and videos of a selection of artists and performers who passed away from complications from HIV/AIDS. Featuring David Wojnarowicz, Cookie Mueller, Keith Haring, Martin Wong, John Sex, Peter Hujar and Robert Mapplethorpe, among others, I couldn’t help but mourn the loss of these individual artists as well as the community in which they participated.

After watching Let The Record Show, I kept thinking about Gran Fury’s artwork, which states “Art Is Not Enough,” and wondering “Is art enough?” While clearly a deceptively simple question begging for a complicated answer, Let The Record Show exists as proof that, while perhaps not enough, art is a powerful source to document, record, confront, educate, participate and most importantly, fight indifference.

As the film begins with a quote by Elie Weisel:

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference
The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference
The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference
And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference”

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