No Resolution: Toward the End of the End of AIDS

11.1 / All the World’s End

No Resolution: Toward the End of the End of AIDS

By Elena Gross December 18, 2019

“The first step in liquidating a people...is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.”

— Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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The first episode of the Ryan Murphy-produced network series Pose, centered on a cadre of Black and Latinx trans ball performers in late 1980s New York, shows the band of resourceful outsiders literally stealing the clothes of the backs off the mannequins in the Brooklyn Museum to outfit themselves for the night’s ball theme: “Royals.” The scenario is one so improbable, so excessive, so delightfully whimsical and over-the-top, that, while the idea of such a stunt is the stuff of legend, no one could ever believe that this was anything more than great TV. 

Fast forward to the first episode of the second season, in which two of the show’s most prominent characters walk hand-in-hand through a Bronx graveyard littered with the numbered caskets of hundreds of unclaimed bodies, many of them casualties of the ever-growing AIDS epidemic then ripping through major urban centers like New York and San Francisco.

In the sophomore season of Pose, the showrunners seemed to take the most successful, and subsequently most risky, variables in the show’s formula and double-down on them: the daring confidence in predominantly queer/trans storytelling and acting on mainstream television, and the attention to historic and cultural verisimilitude as it pertained to the late 1980s and early 1990s AIDS crisis. While the Met scene delights and initially draws the audience in with the promise of fun, campy illusion—though, still dripping with the promise of pathos and underdog melodrama—the second season opens with a firm dose of harsh, cold reality. 

Like the Brooklyn Museum, Hart Island, the place alluded to in Pose’s second season opener, is very much a real place. And in the 1980s, the island did function as the last earthly repository for the countless lives lost to AIDS-related deaths. This was a time when the public perception of the disease was marked equally by mystery, ignorance, hysteria, and apathy. Much of the coverage of the crisis seemed relegated to coastal cities, and specifically to the plight of inner-urban communities, safely out of view and out of reach of white-bred normative society. Watching this episode, and specifically this scene, with my mother—someone who had become newly invested in the series only a few weeks before—she remarked, incredulously, “Could you even imagine?” 

I bring up this small and relatively benign response because of how incredulous I found it at the time. Not to shame the comment’s innocence—or ignorance, depending on how you see it—but to draw a circle around the strange absurdity of it. Why did this scene feel so deeply familiar to me and so foreign to my mother? The second season of Pose begins in winter 1991—I would have just turned one year old, my mother would have just turned twenty-seven. Not unlike many of the characters of this fictionalized series. And not unlike the many, many real people dying in the early 1990s. 

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Writer, professor, and cultural critic Sarah Schulman theorizes in her emphatic text Gentrification of the Mind that, in the present day, there exist two different kinds of AIDS. Not differentiated by strain, or transmutability, but by cultural and temporal imagining: “AIDS of the past” and “ongoing AIDS.” Though meted out in name alone, differentiating between the two is ultimately a very complex and entangled enterprise. Schulman goes on to say: 

“Do you know what I mean when I refer to ‘AIDS of the past’? I am talking about the Plague (the overlapping period between Perestroika and Gentrification). The years 1981 to 1996, when there was a mass death experience of young people. Where folks my age watched in horror as our friends, their lovers, cultural heroes, influences, buddies, the people who witnessed our lives as we witnessed theirs, as these folks sickened and died consistently for fifteen years. Have you heard about it?”1 

But I wonder, then, would the Hart Island of Pose, or any of the representations and re-creations of historic AIDS activism, fall in the category of “AIDS of the past” or “ongoing AIDS?” This question, I feel, goes beyond merely understanding the tropes and nuances of period drama but instead challenges us to think about how a phenomenon like the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s has been historicized—even as many would argue the reality of AIDS is vast, active, and currently without end. 

Historicization, in this case, can mean many things and take many forms. There is, of course, the desire and need to document and keep record, to amass an archive, and to bear witness through the collection of ephemera, through the publishing of anthologies, through the storing of letters and correspondences, through endless, endless Polaroids and other photographs. 

But I grow skeptical of historicizing. There is no archive that exists that is neutral, that is not created and constructed out of specific interests, or narratives, or agendas. It is important to ask: who benefits from this archive? On the one hand, those living with and/or deeply affected by the ongoing reality of HIV/AIDS benefit from these archives’ existence as part of their cultural legacy or heritage. But on the other, historicizing something as far-reaching and always heavily politically mediated as HIV/AIDS can also lead to erasure and loss. In a way, the historicization of the AIDS crisis speaks to the problem of a cultural forgetting: those who historicize from a desire not to forget and those making an effort to tuck that moment in history away. 

To historicize is often a measure to make sense of something, and to make sense of something is often a measure to resolve it. But how do we “resolve” a disease that, as Schulman rightly points out, has radically re-shaped and re-defined our society at large? How do we resolve a disease that is ongoing, without precedent, and shows no sure sign of ending in our own lifetime?2

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"What Would An HIV Doula Do?" We Don’t Want a Disaster for a President, 2017. Courtesy of WWHIVDD. (source: http://hivdoula.work/downloads)

“10. How do we make it clear that any expression of AIDS-related culture is just a sliver of a sliver of the larger conversations about HIV/AIDS?”3

The artist, writer, curator, and activist Theodore (ted) Kerr4 has been one of the most visible and active cultural producers creating workshops, building communities, and publishing broadly on AIDS-related art and activism in recent years. kerr is a founding member of the collective “What Would an HIV Doula Do?” and in 2018, led the group, in partnering with the publication Triple Canopy, to host an open dialogue around the impact of HIV/AIDS within art institutions and among creative practitioners, including artists, writers, curators, and administrators. This gathering of forty individuals produced a reflective and non-comprehensive list of questions titled, “Twenty-One Questions to Consider When Embarking on AIDS-Related Cultural Production.” 

In the introduction to the list, the organizers state, “[t]hese questions are meant to be provocations and are not put forward with the implication that there are correct answers.” Indeed, the questions themselves range in immediate answerability. For example, while the first question seems relatively straightforward, “Are you living with HIV?”, a later question asks, “How do we account for the ways in which HIV/AIDS keeps all of our bodies entangled and vulnerable?” 

Invoking the personal—especially personal responsibility—into the discourse around current HIV/AIDS feels like a necessary tactic. Like all successful social critique, these questions ask the audience to question not only their positioning but also the gaps within their knowledge. 

Like Schulman’s dual “AIDS of the past” and “ongoing AIDS,” kerr’s work with WWHIVDD conceives of a similar joint phenomena that he coins the “Second Silence” and “AIDS Crisis Revisitation,”5 marked by a “prolonged absence of AIDS-related culture in the public realm [...] followed up by an intense onslaught of cultural production regarding AIDS history.” kerr argues that we can identify the start of the Second Silence around 1996 with the increased availability of drugs combating the disease. If we look at the Second Silence as another means to erase and historicize an active cultural movement, and entire communities of people living with and grappling with the realities of HIV/AIDS today, then a guide like "Twenty-One Questions" becomes a vital intervention, tool, and institutional critique.

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Nearly 30 years since their inception, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) has been staging direct actions across the country to raise awareness about the reality of AIDS and hold lawmakers, pharmaceutical companies, and dangerously apathetic and complacent white dominant culture accountable for the spread and fatality of the illness. ACT UP’s place within AIDS history has long been cemented as one of the foundational artist-activist groups within the AIDS rights movements. 

A fictionalized version of ACT UP even made it to season two of Pose, with one of the lead characters, Pray Tell, joining in at an ACT UP rally after becoming disenchanted with the lack of response to the disease not only within mainstream culture but within ballroom, as well, a community already disproportionately affected by the disease. To show the radicalization of a character like Pray Tell—a black, femme, gay man—within AIDS activism is a monumental rebuttal to the public white-washing of AIDS history and to dispelling the myth that AIDS activism has largely always been white. 

During the recent retrospective of the artist and activist David Wojnarowicz at the Whitney Museum of American Art, members of ACT UP staged a protest calling for the museum to address the relevance of Wojnarowicz’s life, work, and activism in the context of the present-day realities of HIV/AIDS. 

The action involved protesters holding up recent articles and statements from publications like The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Washington Post, designed to resemble exhibition text and wall labels, next to specific works in the exhibition, connecting Wojnarowicz’s art and legacy to the present-day: “AIDS of the past” becomes “ongoing AIDS.”6

“The first goal of this action was to draw attention to the fact that the Whitney has a featured exhibition by a well-known member of ACT UP—who addresses AIDS in much of his art, who died of AIDS—that does not make explicit connections to the present AIDS crisis within the exhibit [...] The Whitney acknowledges this phenomenon in its concurrent Incomplete History of Protest exhibit—and then participates in historicization anyway. Historicization reinforces distance, a sense of ‘This is history; this doesn’t affect me,’ and therefore does a disservice to present activism: People who think AIDS is over won’t see any reason to donate money to AIDS-related causes, to take the most obvious example. They also won’t see any reason to tell their friends about PrEP and U=U, to take a less obvious one.”7

In their official protest statement, ACT UP points to what is both the fear around AIDS historicization and ultimately it’s outcome: “historicization reinforces distance…” The ability to separate oneself from the disease can lead to the false presumption that the worst is behind us, “we,” as a collective populace, have won against it. In reality, transmission rates in certain populations continue to grow unabated. Premature historicization—or willful historicization, depending on how we choose to frame this exercise—lends the possibility of ignoring, maligning, and imperiling those communities most vulnerable. One way we can read the continued activism of ACT UP, the expansive and multidisciplinary work of curator-activists like ted kerr, and the re-presentation of historic events in popular culture like Pose, is in an effort to reposition and recontextualize “AIDS of the past” as firmly within, and integral to understanding, “ongoing AIDS.” The work is not yet done. AIDS, it turns out, is far from over. 

 

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this piece listed that the opening scene of Pose took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and as been updated to reflect the correct location. 

Notes

  1. Sarah Schulman, “The Gentrification of AIDS,” Gentrification of the Mind (University of California Press, 2013), p. 45
  2. I say “our own lifetime” fully knowing that I cannot know the strides medical research may take in the next fifty+ years. But I say this also to adequately reflect the many people, who would be very much in their own midlife, who have not lived to see the end of this disease.
  3. What Would An HIV Doula Do?, “Twenty-One Questions to Consider When Embarking on AIDS Related Cultural Production,” Triple Canopyhttps://www.on-curating.org/issue-42-reader/twenty-one-questions-to-consider-when-embarking-upon-aids-related-cultural-production.html#.XfkQuC2ZN0u
  4. To be referred to hereby after as ted kerr.
  5. While kerr has coined the terms, it has been through published discussions with Alexandra Juhasz that together they have come to find deeper meaning to the terms. See "Home Video Returns: Media Ecologies of the Past of HIV/AIDS (Web Exclusive)" in Cinaste and "Stacked on Her Office Shelf: Stewardship and AIDS Archives" in The Center for Humanities Blog for more information. 
  6. The list of articles presented during this action can be found here: https://actupny.com/drawing-attention-to-the-modern-hiv-epidemic-for-act-up-artist-david-wojnarowicz/
  7. ACT UP, “Drawing Attention To The Modern Hiv Epidemic For Act Up Artist David Wojnarowicz,” actupny.com/drawing-attention-to-the-modern-hiv-epidemic-for-act-up-artist-david-wojnarowicz/

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