“It’s about twenty minutes later. I just can’t stand my self-consciousness when talking into this thing,” says David Wojnarowicz, speaking into an audio recorder in November/December 1988. One of his eleven tape journals he made from 1981 to 1989, he later admits on the same tape: “I don’t know. I really can’t get at this today.”
As someone who has devoured anything and everything accessible that Wojnarowicz made, wrote, recorded and archived in his life, I’ve witnessed many sides to the artist and activist. I’ve seen his righteous anger at a phobic society, his desire, his tenderness, his loneliness, his melancholy and mourning, and his yearning for escape in the vastness of landscape, whether in the abandoned piers on the Hudson River or the deserts of the Southwest. But, I can’t recall an occasion in which I’ve confronted Wojnarowicz’s vulnerability–at least not to the extent it comes through in his self-conscious and anxiety-ridden tape journals, which have been collected in a new publication Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz. Whether it’s his discomfort with speaking into a recorder or the immediacy of recording an audio diary, as opposed to written language, that creates this sense of confessional intimacy, Weight of the Earth shows Wojnarowicz at some of his rawest, barest and most emotional–not an easy feat considering he never exactly held back in his work.
Recently released by Semiotext(e)/Native Agents, the book provides transcriptions of these audio journals, from his earliest in March 1981 to his last, recorded on his final cross-country trip in 1989. For Wojnarowicz, these tapes link two of his enduring creative interests: diary writing and tape recording. A faithful journaler, as seen in his copious diaries that have been digitized by Fales Library & Special Collections, he was also fascinated by archiving audio, some of which was on view last year in Visual AIDS’s exhibition VOICE = SURVIVAL. As Weight of the Earth editors Lisa Darms, senior archivist at Fales Library & Special Collections, and Bookforum editor David O’Neill note in their introduction, Wojnarowicz’s audio archives include “tapes of conversations with friends, press interviews, radio shows, experiments for film and performance soundtracks, self-help recordings on loneliness and guilt, and answering machine messages.”
There is a challenge, however, in publishing a written version of audio journals, which the editors acknowledge in their introduction. While Darms and O’Neill take care to preserve Wojnarowicz’s cadence and rhythm in the publication, it’s almost impossible not to yearn to hear Wojnarowicz’s impossibly deep, booming voice while reading. Another quality of the recordings that the readers miss, according to Darms and O’Neill, is the background noise: “the ambient sounds of an anonymous, irrecoverable world, cars rushing past, birds chirping, and ghostly snippets of long-gone radio.” Luckily, though, Wojnarowicz is incredibly descriptive of his surroundings in the tapes, much like his writing, so that the reader can imagine sitting with him in his East Village apartment or in the passenger side of his car as he cruises through New Mexico.
“I’m sitting here in this room and it’s around dusk. There’s no light, just the traces of blue in the sky and far over the edges of the tenements,” begins his first tape in March 1981. From here, the tapes take us through an enormous range of Wojnarowicz’s private life and thoughts. These range from worries over a budding romance with a man named Bill, recollections of conversations and hookups at a bar on Second Avenue (now the Queen Vic) and the Anvil, experimentation with heroin, and a concern with death that only increases as his health begins to suffer after his diagnosis and the AIDS pandemic continues to decimate his community. Frequently, the tapes also present long remembrances of his dreams–hallucinatory scenes that, while surreal, often feature important figures in his life like Peter Hujar, Tom Rauffenbart and Keith Davis. In fact, he talks about his dreams so much and in such detail (Paging David Lynch!) that it, at some points, becomes exhausting. However, as he notes in one tape, dreams are important to his work: “I think dreams are an example of how the imagination can break all boundaries, because in a dream you can do anything–from fly to create horror to create pleasure to create incident to create weaponry to create repair.”
More than just dreams, Weight of the Earth provides insight into Wojnarowicz’s ongoing concerns that appear in his art. For example, he often references his ongoing frustration with language, seeing it as inherently restrictive: “I hate the idea of putting these preformed gestures on the tip of my tongue or through my lips or through the inside of my mouth… And it always boils down to the same meaning within those sounds, unless you’re more intense in uttering them, or you precede them or accompany them with certain forms of violence” He also contrasts the failure of language and other repressive, socially constructed norms, which he calls “pre-invented existence,” with the potential for transcendence in imagination. As he notes in a tape made around January 1989, “that in imagination, we can break the images of borders–we can break through the borders of countries, we can break through existing structures of government, or we can break through whatever systems of control are on our shoulders.”
He also rants at length about the social politicking of the art world, an irony viewed through the lens of 2018’s hypercapitalist art market, which recently saw Wojnarowicz’s painting Science Lesson grab over $700,000 at Christie’s. “…I started thinking about the art world, and I started thinking of the show in February, and I started feeling a lot of anxiety. And I started feeling anxiety because–actually it was probably not anxiety, it was rage. I started thinking of the structure of the art world, and I started thinking of the collectors, and I started thinking of the politicking,” he explains in 1988. He follows his observations of the 1980s art world with a fantasy of breaking all his artwork so he doesn’t have to participate in that system. “Suddenly,” he says, “I got struck with a feeling that I wanted to start smashing things, and I wanted all the art in the apartment–all the paintings and sculptures, the photographs, everything that I made or all the things that came back from the last gallery I was in, lined up against the wall–I just wanted to grab things like this plaster head and start smashing it on the floor. Start smashing the paintings and breaking them up and breaking them into pieces and taking a buzz saw and just cutting through the center of canvases and just ripping out every nail.” Imagine how he would feel now seeing his work pimped out in international art fairs as a marker of progressive politics. He’d probably conclude as he did then: “People always give power to the biggest fucking assholes.”
However, while all this is illuminating for those, like me, who stan Wojnarowicz, his utter vulnerability in the tapes is what makes this publication into more than just another archive of his prodigious creativity. This vulnerability can be found in his moments of worrying about being accepted by a partner (“…having a fear of showing myself completely to somebody that I desire: that it will drive them away or give them cause to become disinterested, mostly because of the way that I feel, that I think and that I approach things”), doubt about his path in life (“The fact that I’m twenty-six and I’m doing what I’m doing, wondering if any of it’s meaningful, if it’s futile.”) and his fear of dying (“But I just feel very desperate, very sad, very anxious, a little bit sad. And the thing I keep thinking about is my own death and not wanting to die: this incredible fear of dying…Really I just don’t want to fucking die”).
He often references anxiety and weariness, two emotional states that I rarely associate with the fearlessness with which he approached both his art making and activism. At one point he says in a tape from November and December 1988, “I’m so sick of the anxiety, and I’m so sick of thinking of certain things. Like, I never let these things get in my way, but it’s like I have to shove all of them away. And I felt like a fucking mess.” This not only illustrates the stress on his mental health during the period, but it’s also an honesty that is completely refreshing and relatable.
Granted, there is a tension in publishing these tapes and revealing Wojnarowicz’s innermost thoughts that were never intended to be heard by the general public. He even balks in one tape at the “idea of someone witnessing the tape.” And yet, this publication’s significance seems to overshadow this potential awkward ethical territory. One reason is that ever since the censorship of his unfinished video A Fire In My Belly by the National Portrait Gallery in 2010, Wojnarowicz has emerged, increasingly, as a larger than life cult figure. When I first began writing about Wojnarowicz’s work, people would stare blankly when I mentioned his name. Now, not only is he the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney that opens this week, but there are even $99 LOEWE T-shirts emblazoned with his artwork (not, with proceeds going to Visual AIDS, they aren’t for a worthy cause).
He’s even become something of a martyr figure, particularly thanks to haphazard and hastily organized galleries dedicated to the AIDS crisis in major institutions, which nearly always feature Wojnarowicz’s photographs of Peter Hujar after his death (usually coupled with representations of other dying cis white gay men). You don’t have to look any farther than ArtForum editor-in-chief David Velasco’s head-scratching and grossly disappointing introduction “No Motive” to Weight of the Earth for an example of the widespread impulse to canonize Wojnarowicz. Now, I don’t want to spend too much time dissecting Velasco’s dud of an essay, which mars an otherwise flawless publication. For example, expressing the loss he feels of possible mentors, lovers and friends due to HIV/AIDS, he writes, “I hate them so much for dying.” I don’t think I need to lay out why someone should have stopped that particular thought from being published (tip: hate government-sanctioned ignorance and institutional inaction, but not the people who died). Mostly though, Velasco’s essay does its part in bestowing sainthood on Wojnarowicz, referring to him as a “patron saint” and later observing: “David’s imagination/activism is what makes him a saint. We get to make our own saints to help guide us through this place, to get back from one place in our head to another.”
Now, I understand what Velasco is saying: that being alienated from dominant society’s role models (saints, as he would say), we must make our own, ones that can be there for us in times of violence and potential threat. And he’s not wrong. However, in referencing sainthood, he erases Wojnarowicz’s humanity, making him only a tool for use by others–a public figure rather than a nuanced man who lived with his own anxieties, fears, self-doubts, traumas, and periods of uncertainty, loneliness and struggle. In her essay “The Burning House” in the catalogue for the Whitney’s David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake At Night, Hanya Yanagihara (yes, A Little Life Hanya!) cautions against romanticizing Wojnarowicz, as well as the period in which he lived and worked. She writes, “When we make artists into martyrs, we stop their movement and affix them to a sheet of paper, rendering them immobile.” In 2018, we can’t afford to affix figures like Wojnarowicz to a sheet of paper and Weight of the Earth combats this by giving an inordinately intimate view into Wojnarowicz’s mindset–his ride, as he says in his last tape in June 1989, in “this body vehicle and I’m lying down and this vehicle keeps moving.”