Art is a response, a life jacket, a distraction, a beginning, a middle, an end, an income generator, a money sucker, a strategy, an attempt. In the face of AIDS art is many things but is it a cure? What do we as artists, victims, survivors, activists, witnesses and academics do with Art and the experience of AIDS?
Coming from Edmonton Alberta, a northern city with under a million people where I work as an artist with HIV Edmonton, one of Canada’s first ASOs I wonder about the role of art within the AIDS movement. I remember a few years ago when I was first getting into the legend of ACT UP a new world opened up where AIDS and art came together and the centre of that world was New York. So you can imagine my giddiness, when I signed myself up for the ART/AIDS/WORK conference that happened a few weeks ago in New York City.
Put together by Dr. Paul Sendziuk, Visual AIDS and CLAGS the event was focused around the central question CAN ART SAVE LIVES? At first the question seemed to me overly simplistic, laced with what appeared to be a hidden agenda of optimism. I was waiting for the gathered AIDS Intelligentsia, many of whom I assume had seen the early days of AIDS up-close and had the fortune/misfortune to remember it all to rip the question apart and use it as sweetener in their coffee.
Up first was Robert Atkins, critic, writer and one of the founders of Visual AIDS as part of a panel with Alexander Juhasz and David Roman. As an intense looking man with eyes that even from the audience gleamed acceptingly kind yet unforgiving in a flash I looked to him to set the tone of the fierce verbal gymnastics I thought were to come. But instead of piss and vinegar spewing forward Atkins dug deeper and unearthed what would be the unintended yet telling theme of the conference- the collective reflex of looking back as a way of speaking and seeing in the present.
Early in his presentation he said that in preparation to speak he had looked over articles he had written decades ago. By sharing his recorded past and taking the audience back to the days of Gran Fury and a socially conscious world without the markers of ribbons and rubber bracelets he reminded us that in the beginning art was not a prevention strategy or a fundraising endeavor- it was a knee-jerk, gut response that one could argue, at least back then, did indeed save lives.
Like Atkins, Juhasz as well conjured up the ‘ghosts’ of her younger self through papers she had written in the past. In her work from long ago but maybe not that far away she quoted the words of David Wojnarowicz.
Reading from his Untitled (one day this kid…) piece she added weight to his warning that “one day this kid will talk” by creating a frame in which to see many of the youthful artists, activists and academics that would be presenting at the conference as Wojnarowicz’s this kid. Now ‘larger’ with ‘experience’ and ‘loss’ under their belts, this kid in all his forms and power was being unleashed:
From the curious, confronting installations of Ivan Monforte to the expressive and touching images of Derek Jackson, from the elegantly intellectual moving research of Julia Bryan-Wilson to the grassroots curation of Edwin Ramoran, from the humorous and poignant photography of Richard Sawdon-Smith to the impressive far reaching work of Patrick ‘Pato’ Hebert these kids talked and shared and were heard. In their work a line is drawn a continuum is created.
Viewed as Wajnarowicz’s this kid while hearing them speak and seeing them as accomplished and rigorous creators in their own right their work becomes as much about them and the present as it is about a collective experience and the AIDS work that has been done before them. In them and their work, I and hopefully other people at the conference were reminded that time is not a line, progress is not a guarantee and the work done in the past does not always mean results in the present and the future. The work goes on.
A few years ago in Edmonton during the question period that followed a speech by activist Angela Davis a young woman in the crowd asked her the standard What’s next? What can I do? questions. Davis looked down, appearing exhausted for a moment and then said, “You tell me.” Gaining steam from her own response she then went on to school the assembled wide eyes that she was ready to hear what they are doing and that next time she comes to town she wants to be the one in the audience being inspired by their lives.
At the ART /AIDS/ WORK conference I think we saw the type of dialogue that Davis outlined starting to happen.
Individuals like Atkins, Juhasz, Roman as well as Jean Carlomusto and Jim Hubbard who also presented at the conference, all of whom have been responding to AIDS from the beginning where able to share their own work but also hear about, respond to and hopefully be inspired by new ART/AIDS/WORK being created from people like Jackson, Herbert and Bryn-Wilson.
With David Gere who shared work he is doing in LA and India, Sendziuk providing his history of AIDS /ART/ WORK from Australia and Marilyn Martin, illuminating the trail blazing work that she and her colleges are doing in South Africa the conference also provided some global insight as well.
And so out the largeness of the question CAN ART SAVE LIVES? emerges many hands outstretched together sharing the same response; Can art save lives? No, but community can.
Bio: Ted Kerr is an artist, writer and activist from Edmonton Alberta where he works with HIV Edmonton along with other community groups like Exposure: Edmonton’s Queer Arts and Culture Festival and the Edmonton Arts Council. He was an intern at Visual AIDS for the month of June 2008. You can check out his biweekly column and other surprises at www. tedkerrted.blogspot.com
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