Andrea Long Chu
in conversation with Emmanuel Olunkwa
“I experienced my transness as a shape the Internet made when it looked at me.”
I visited your show at PS1 right after the Biden administration came out in support of waiving intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines. What did you make of that historic decision given your longtime work for greater access to antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV/AIDS?
Initially I greeted that news with joy because I felt that it was a recognition of the work that global AIDS activists had done in the early 2000s, led by the South African activists—the Treatment Action Campaign. The World Trade Organization (WTO) allowed for the generic production of HIV drugs and/or the purchasing of patented HIV drugs at the lowest market rate available. Though that was a huge victory for the AIDS activist movement, I've often wondered why historically people on the left don't recognize it. They refer to the Battle in Seattle but not the victory of AIDS activists fighting off scores of European and North American pharmaceutical companies that had filed suit to protect their patents. Several radical things happened: the Treatment Action Campaign led by the South African activists in 2001 really pushed the WTO to make good on its agreement, which was to license countries that were experiencing an epidemic to produce generic drugs or buy the cheapest versions on the market. And so, the WTO upheld what was already established in its charter and therefore the scores of European and American drug companies withdrew their suits. Another radical thing that happened was that the Brazilian government at the same time—the late 1990s, early 2000s—authorized its nation’s doctors to reverse engineer drugs that were on the market and develop cheap generics that were then distributed free to all people with AIDS in Brazil. Brazil and the United States halved the mortality rate from HIV at the same time. In the United States, it was done in the capitalist way, by charging exorbitant amounts of money. The Brazilians did it by reverse engineering the drugs, producing a generic, and giving it away for free. So, those are remarkable achievements, and I don't know why they don't get more historical recognition within the larger, you know, anti-globalist or globalist-questioning activism. So, I greeted it with joy because it made sense immediately to me, because it was legible within my history as an AIDS activist.
It made my show relevant in a different way. If you remember the race car in my installation Drive, Pfizer’s logo on the race car just happens to be above one of the wheels that says “generics.” I gave a lot of tours during the beginning of the show, and I would point that out and say this is relevant as President Biden just waved the patents.
Also, unfortunately, the new vaccine technology is not as easy to access as the pills I was just speaking about. And then there’s the question of who can do the generic production. Brazil obviously had the wherewithal in the early 2000s. But now it’s more a question of buying drugs on the open market, which, given scales of economy, creates a situation where the same pill that costs $2 in the United States costs pennies in poorer countries, because consumers in poorer countries don’t have money for a regimen that costs $2 a pill, which shows you that drug pricing is quite fungible. Actually, many people in the United States can’t afford medications sold in the US. And the COVID vaccines are not as easy to produce as pills. Nations with great resources should be making the vaccine(s) available all over the world. For free.
I was curious about the placement of your 2001 video Habit very early on in the show. It also struck me as particularly prescient, both for its form and in terms of the fight for access to drugs that I brought up earlier. For those unfamiliar with the video, it combines diaristic footage of your daily routine with documentation of the advocacy group Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa demanding access to antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV/AIDS.
Habit is part of Drive. The installation was first exhibited at the MCA Chicago, and it was one room. This room is basically the one you see at PS1, though the banner The AIDS Crisis is Still Beginning is in the entrance room to the entire exhibition now at PS1. A very large version of the banner is on the awning attached to the building's courtyard facade of the museum’s entrance as well. At the MCA, the race car was in the middle of the room, and the clocks were on the sides of the room, and the posters were available—much like PS1. Habit was part of that exhibition, but I prefer screenings rather than loops in galleries. So, there was a regularly scheduled screening of Habit and other of my works at the MCA. It was in the theater with great sound. When that show opened there was also a screening that benefited a Chicago legal organization that advocates on behalf of people with HIV. It was a full house, with lots of people engaged in HIV activism and nonprofit organizations in its audience.
Obviously, a lot has changed in the world since the exhibition initially opened at Reed College in 2018, and the Art Institute of Chicago show after that. What’s it been like navigating the show’s various transitions and incarnations, pre-Covid to now?
There are several things to say about the transition from Reed College to the Art Institute of Chicago to PS1. Going back to your earlier question, the entire exhibition at Reed happened within the large space of the Cooley Memorial Art Gallery at Reed College, but it is one room and so all the work was together—there was no way to chronologically view the work, and I wasn't necessarily interested in that. At Reed it was in the space of a metaphor, and it was condensation, everything all at once. And then when it went to the Art Institute, there was three times the space, so, it kind of moved to the space of narrative where one had to place things one after the other to progress through two and three rooms. When it came to PS1 there were eight rooms and satellite events and so that further produced the problem of sequence. And the way I addressed the problem of narrative with all the curators was to not order works in chronological order. I guess that started at Reed out of necessity.
And how did the show at Reed begin?
The short version is that I met Stephanie Snyder, the Cooley’s curator, at the New Museum when she and Johanna Burton were working on Wynne Greenwood’s show, which also originated at the Cooley. Shortly after I get a call from Stephanie where she says, “Have you ever had a career retrospective?” And I have to say I laughed because I said, “Not only have I never had a retrospective, but I also rarely show in galleries, and I'm not represented. I don't even really think of myself as a gallery artist, per se, though I have made and exhibited works for galleries occasionally. I never imagined that I'm the kind of artist who would get a museum retrospective.” There have been retrospectives of my film work in museums but never a gallery presentation. And she laughed and said, “Well, I would like to offer you one.” I'm greatly indebted to Stephanie for having this vision, and of being able to see my work.
Stephanie is wonderful.
There are not many people who can see all the various things I do as an artist, writer, activist, and teacher within the same frame. Stephanie really understands my work in a way that few people do, until now. I haven't spent much effort trying to make the connections for people. For example, I show up to the Poetry Project and I'm a poet; I show up to a film exhibition and people greet me as a filmmaker; I publish and I'm a writer. I haven't really tried to bring it together. Except in my books—so my collected essays in The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous performs that function in the same way as the show does.
At PS 1, Covid changed everything in that the show was delayed a full year. I'm grateful the museum chose to continue with the plan to exhibit “I Wanna Be Well.” It presented several opportunities because there was more space, and, as with Chicago, I had the opportunity to add new works and keep those works and add even newer works to the PS1 show. The show keeps growing with opportunity. There was no way that I could do the PS1 iteration without recognizing the relationship between the AIDS epidemic and the Covid epidemic, and the ways that I experienced the latter as a long-time survivor of AIDS, as a healthcare activist, and as an artist who’s dealt with these themes. The PS1 show is crafted with the knowledge that the exhibition happens with the museum’s ability to allow people in their spaces under mitigated circumstances.
Covid did change the show. For instance, in Chicago we built individual viewing rooms, which would be my optimum for a museum show. We couldn't do that at PS1 because of airflow. I was completely for safety—I didn't resist any mitigations. Before the pandemic, we had progressed to the point where the show was laid out in SketchUp, but then it was put on hold. When I got the news that the show was going forward, we then had to refigure the show with these new things in mind but we didn't really have to change it too much.
Regarding the relationship between the AIDS epidemic and the Covid epidemic, did you come to any conclusions?
No, but throughout the Covid pandemic, which is continuing, I have been asked as an HIV activist and/or as an artist who addresses these concerns to talk about then and now. I was a guest visitor in many classes during the pandemic and talked about my work. I was a visiting lecturer where I teach [SAIC], which I'd never been before, for the whole school. I couldn't stop myself from talking about it. It was part of my consciousness, part of my pain. Many of my friends who are long-term survivors of HIV and I had been talking on the phone, through Zoom, and texting and emailing about how confused we were to see Dr. Anthony Fauci standing again next to another flailing and failing Republican president. That was somewhat traumatic as we all are traumatized by our experience of having lived through the HIV epidemic in New York, during its worst moments. In the middle of the Covid pandemic—I can't tell you when because I really lost track of time—but I did wake up in the middle of the night one time, and I didn't know what decade it was. Covid activated a lot of dread, feelings of loss, and memories of the AIDS epidemic at varying junctures before the protease inhibitors and after.
There are no resolutions. I realize that it's important to say that AIDS is relatively difficult to contract compared to Covid, but there are still lessons to be learned from harm reduction and HIV education. Most urgent are the lessons around drug distribution, care, and treatment, some of which were learned recently and some of which were not. So that's what I focused on.
Before President Biden's announcement about the vaccine patents, activists were pushing for that, and talking about that. I also know that AIDS activists are meeting regularly with Dr. Anthony Fauci; that Dr. Fauci has publicly admitted that he learned a great deal from the AIDS activist movement, and that some of the people that Dr. Fauci was in conversation with, in the 1980s, ’90s, and aughts, continue to be touchstones for him. I'm not one of them because I didn't continue in AIDS work, but I'm talking about people who are working in NGOs and directing AIDS organizations, who are still working on the HIV epidemic and harm reduction issues—needle exchange and things like that.
I want to go back to something you said—this phrase of how you “show up,” whether as artist, activist, or writer. In one of my favorite pieces of your writing, “Materialist Geography and the Knight’s Move,” an incredible lecture you gave at the Hammer Museum in 2014 (which I’m grateful to Shannon Ebner for recommending to me) you talk about how you’ve performed these roles, sometimes as an ethical responsibility. Can we talk more about the three images or problems you set up in that lecture? And also, perhaps about your thinking in thirds, or in a triad? In the talk you discuss the identity as non-fixed and fluid through three thinkers: Stephen Mitchell’s idea of “the many-selved subject,” William James’s idea of the many-sided mind, and the notion of world creation as staged as a set of relations—the two- and three-bodied person as theorized by D.W. Winnicott.
It's unavoidable. Charles Sanders Peirce, the philosopher, developed the notions of firstness, secondness, and thirdness, which is later taken up by André Green, the French psychoanalyst, who's known as the “French Winnicott.” Even Peirce was dismayed that he came up with a triadic structure . . .
Not very pragmatic! I'm kidding . . .
[Laughs.] But it works, you know—it has an elegance, and it works. I'm not saying that triadic structures are necessary for every situation, but they're compelling. I'm also an historical materialist—and I say that wearing that garb loosely, because I remain a Marxist, but I'm a Marxist in 2021. But I still accept some fundamental features of historical materialism such as dialectical thinking, which I understand to be the thesis and negation and the negation of negation. I teach this stuff. So, one way to teach this is to teach the dialectic—you could teach the dialectic as a thesis and antithesis and a synthesis. The word synthesis doesn't quite capture it for me. So, I use the language that I inherited, which is that the dialectic is a premise and assertion that is negated through questions or by a completely different context or another thesis, which doesn't necessarily have to be against that thesis. And the work of the dialectic is to arrive at a negation of negation, which is not a full resolution. If you read Marx, he talks about the dialectic as a thesis and a negation and a negation of the negation that never arrives. That last clause is very important because by the time the negation of the negation occurs, the terms have changed where you're facing a whole new set of dialectical problems.
This is also related to the fact that Marx and Engels wrote very little about communism. They had very little to say about what would happen after the revolution. They give us this idea, this horizon of the revolution. What they have to say about communism is mostly in the Communist Manifesto, which is also fairly vague in terms of what a true international communism would look like [Laughs.]. It was then left up to later theorists—Lenin, Bakunin, Trotsky, Emma Goldman, and others—to figure that out and the numerous variants of Marxism. So, there's Marx and there are Marxisms. And so, I'm familiar with the triadic structure there.
As a person interested in theology, I’ve read about the notion of the father, son, and the holy ghost. But that's not where I'm drawing any inspiration. From Judaism, I inherit a history of debates in Talmud, which has its own traditions and various approaches, which are also like logic: deduction, induction, et cetera. Also, in terms of logic, I learned how to construct a syllogistic argument a long time ago from Douglas Crimp when I wrote for October—he taught me how to write an argument. A plus B equals C.
I find often that the triadic structure works if it dismantles a linear notion of time. So, in the historical materialist sense—the thesis, the negation, the negation of negation—it's important to remember that the negation of the negation never arrives, that it's an elliptical structure. I'm also a student of post-structuralism, of that generation. So, the Nietzsche I inherited via Gilles Deleuze is that of the eternal return, which is never a return of the same. And that's always stuck in my head.
Going back to Peirce: firstness occurs, then secondness, then thirdness appears—however, thirdness was present before thirdness, but it wasn't legible until you pass through a firstness and a secondness. I can explain it in Peirce’s allegory, if you want.
In a famous letter to Lady Welby, a British philosopher, to whom he was eager to explain his ideas, he came up with this metaphor: You're in a hot air balloon floating way above the earth and you hear silence, you become aware that all is silent. And then far below a train whistle blows. Now the train whistle blowing is secondness. You weren’t even aware of firstness because you were immersed in the sensation of stillness, and then interrupted. So secondness is a kind of interruption, which sets into motion a developmental experience. Then you can say to yourself, “Well, it was quiet, but then the train whistle blew.” And that's when you establish the relationship of firstness to secondness. The fact that you recognized the interruption of the stillness by the train whistle, that creates this space of thirdness, where you're now seeing how you're outside of the two instances of firstness and secondness, the stillness and the train whistle—you're outside of it and that's the space of thirdness. Because you're narrativizing the events as you experienced them. So, thirdness is what precedes firstness. It was the space you were in before, but it wasn't legible until you saw these two junctures can occur in time. So thirdness is a durationless ground. It's what precedes what can't be seen until you pass through these experiential steps.
This is all picked up by André Green, a psychologist I’m very interested in. Green and Lacan were close. Green famously criticized Lacan for adopting Saussure as the model for his psychoanalytic theories. Green felt that the adoption of Saussurean linguistics had limits, and that Lacan could just read the transcript of the session and make determinations, whereas Green felt that presence and especially the notion of time were much more important. So, for Green the psychoanalytic session includes the time when you're waiting to go into the analyst's office, the time that you're in the analyst's office, the time you were last in the analyst's office, the time that you leave analyst's office and everything that happens outside of the encounter between the analyst and the analysand. Also, Green’s notion of duration is much closer to Freud’s understanding of the unconscious, which recognizes no time. Freud's example of the unconscious in Civilization and its Discontents is: picture a city upon which every building that's standing now stands in the same place as every building that ever was, and every building that will ever be, including all their ruins.
This reminds me of that William James idea I mentioned: of the many-sided mind as polyhedron that is turned to rest on different facets by profound experiences.
James and Freud are fascinating to compare because James did not believe in an unconscious. They were both using the same German neuroscience of the time. I don't even think it was called neuroscience, but whatever experiments that were done on the nervous system and papers that were published about the human nervous system, Freud and James were fascinated with the same clinical papers, like papers about "phantom limbs," for example—people who had pain in limbs that were amputated and no longer there. James did not investigate or come up with a notion of the unconscious. But he was preoccupied with the same problems as Freud: are we able to hold two thoughts at once or do they come in succession? What's the relationship between continuity and discontinuity? How is it that we live a life that is subject to tremendous amounts of discontinuity intervened upon all the time by events beyond our control, and yet maintain some sense of continuity of a self? Also, James and Freud, and many other psychologists, were fascinated with Joseph Jastrow’s drawing of the duck rabbit—a famous drawing, which I’m sure you know of.
Oh yes, I have a children's book about it—Duck! Rabbit!—which my daughter loves.
So, the question was can you see both the duck and the rabbit at the same time? It’s very difficult for most people. Some say it's impossible, that you either see the duck or the rabbit, and that if you see the duck, you must look away and look back and then you might see the rabbit or the other way around. The question most interesting to me, which I got from Fred Moten in conversation, is: what space are you in that precedes the encounter with the image of the duck rabbit? Thirdness. It’s that thirdness that Peirce describes. Of course, this is Moten’s important question: What precedes creation? What precedes consciousness? What precedes perception? So, it was through this interlocutory relationship that I have with Fred that I was able to piece a lot of that together. Especially at the time that I was writing my book on Glenn Ligon [Untitled (I Am a Man)] because I refer to Pierce and Green in that book.
Can you speak a little bit about your new book, Some Styles of Masculinity? In it, you consider three totems of masculinity formative to you as you came of age in New York City in the 1970s and ’80s: the rock star, the rabbi, and the comedian—thinking in thirds again?—and you make a case for inhabiting many identities and speaking with many voices.
The new book published by Triple Canopy and distributed by D.A.P. is a compilation of transcripts from a series of three-night performances. In 2017, I was invited by Johanna Burton and Sara O’Keefe to perform in the show “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” at the New Museum in New York. That’s where I developed the structure and protocols for an improvised three-night series of performances interrogating how gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and class are conjugated into constructions of national identity.
You’ll recall that on August 2017, several hundred white nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis had recently marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. A car driven by a neo-Nazi purposefully plowed into crowds killing one anti-racist protestor, Heather Heyer, and injuring dozens of others. The white supremacists who marched in the “Unite the Right” rally, carried torches and chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” Right wing extremists were interviewed about the chant. They explained how they believe that Jews are leading a conspiracy to have Black and brown people steal their jobs.
Given the prompt of the New Museum exhibition regarding gender, and considering recent events, I decided to schmear my queer Jewish pinko self in schmaltz and go out and grease up the stage. Identifying three figures—the Rock Star, the Rabbi and the Comedian—gave me categories for three successive nights to dwell on many influences that contributed to structure my consciousness, my many selves dwelling within this single person (me). I figure that rock stars can be Rabbis and Rabbis can be rock stars and everyone’s a comedian. I’m thinking about how Robert Zimmerman, er I mean, Bob Dylan, or Jeffrey Hyman, ha, sorry, Joey Ramone, can be thought of together with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Allen Ginsberg, and too many comedians to list here. Jewish masculinity has a specific cultural history that’s entangled with notions of race, ethnicity, and nation—as well as gender and sexuality.
Stuart Hall’s lectures published as The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation gave me a theoretical framework and underpinnings for three interlocking performances considering music, entertainment, religion, humor, childhood, and youth, and how all together they structure and affirm varying and overlapping selves and identities.
My book was edited by Alexander Provan and Maya Binyam of Triple Canopy and they did an excellent job combining bits from different performances together with new material I developed to publish this text version of the project. The transcripts of the recorded performances are the body of the texts. They were all originally improvised. I “write” routines in my head and come to the stage with stories that I can order, juxtapose, and even discover on stage. This is a very well-developed process that requires an enormous amount of research. My practice of writing daily certainly helps, but I don’t write scripts. And I don’t perform by way of rote memorization or rehearsals of previously written material. The book draws from transcripts of performances at the New Museum, Reed College, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Some Styles of Masculinity—the performances—are a unified piece, a composition, that can be restaged differently according to context. As part of my exhibition at PS1, I’m performing new material, still using the same categories under the title "Beyamin Zev’s Succos Spectacular. A Gregg Bordowitz production." Benyamin Zev is my Hebrew name.
When was your first encounter with activism?
I declared myself a socialist when I was sixteen. At the time my paternal grandfather gave voice to a much beloved cliche: “If you're not a socialist by the time you're sixteen, you have no heart. If you’re still a socialist by the time you're twenty-five, you have no brains.” I don't know if this saying is Jewish, but I know it's been said to other Jewish people that I know. And so, he was accepting of my youthful socialism, which never went away. Well, my youthful socialism did, but not my socialism. I started reading about socialism and the Communist Manifesto and things like that as a teenager and arrived in New York to go to art school, the month I turned eighteen. I was at the School of Visual Arts, which I did not graduate from, and immediately got involved with CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador). CISPES was actively involved with protesting US intervention in Central and South America, specifically in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. And so, this is the stuff of Iran-Contra, of the subsidizing of death squads, of assassinations of liberation theology Cardinals, and activists in Guatemala and El Salvador, and then the Nicaraguan revolution. I learned very well how to paint the silhouette of a helicopter with brush strokes for banners. The helicopter seemed to be like the image of fear and represented American policy at that time. I went to local marches, marches in DC, was one of several CISPES organizers at the School of Visual Arts. Mark Dion and I were part of the Lower East Side sister city project, which had adopted a Sandinista city in Nicaragua and our group was sending medical supplies around the US embargo in Nicaragua through Canadian shipping vessels to our sister city in Nicaragua, and we were protesting the US intervention that was undermining the Sandinista revolution.
I was living in a Latinx neighborhood at the time that was largely Dominican and Puerto Rican, although there were also people from Central America, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The group had a lot of Latinx folks but it was also very diverse and white Bohemians and activists, like me and Mark were part of it. I was very ardent about my politics and that cause, but things were happening immediately around me—being queer, people getting sick not knowing why, and rumors that there was a gay cancer.
I was in the East Village when the AIDS crisis was emerging. I considered myself at that time anarcho-syndicalist and that extended to sexual politics. I would have sex with people who consented to have sex with me, regardless of gender. I was a drug user. And I didn't really identify with the gay culture of the West Village, even though I used to go over to the West Village and cruise. But I mostly felt that neighborhood was for “clones.” I was much more involved with the punk and no wave scene on the east side, which had its own set of politics. Important to me were the rock against racism concerts in the bandshell of the old Tompkins Square Park. I was at the Tompkins Square riots.
I’ve always been an advocate of nonviolence, which came to full realization in ACT UP when I was trained by the Quakers, the American Friends Service Committee, and the War Resisters League, to become a nonviolent civil disobedience trainer. A core group of us took that training, and then we became the nonviolent civil disobedience training committee for ACT UP. So, with all that history—the East Village punk and no wave scenes, my understanding of anarcho-syndicalism and various Marxisms, Anarchism, particularly Emma Goldman, and a very well worked out sexual politics that was the successor and inheritor of the free-love movement—I realized that I was not only implicated, but possibly subject to whatever was causing the illness at the time that was first known as GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency), then AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) or ARC (AIDS-related complex), finally HIV disease.
I had some of the tell-tale opportunistic symptoms and was told that I probably had HIV in 1985 or ’86. I didn't get tested right then. Many of the activists at the time were not advocating testing until anonymous testing became available. So, I didn't get my HIV test until the spring of 1988 at an anonymous site in Chelsea. By then I was in ACT UP already for a year. From 1986 on, I started to incorporate safer sex practices, which were compromised by my drinking and drug use. After I tested positive, I got clean and sober the first time—and I was clean and sober throughout into the mid-1990s. But then I had to get clean and sober a couple more times.
I thought it was interesting to see how Sarah Schulman’s book Let the Record Show portrayed you. She mentions that you were the “Romeo” of the group, that women and men in ACT UP talk about you as a love partner or love object more often than any other person. I also noticed Douglas Crimp mentions his fondness for you in his foreword to your collected writings book. He says you were a “major crush for maybe half of the men and women in the group.” So, it sounds like people were enamored with you, but they must have also been inspired by you. How did that feel?
It's very nice to hear. I don't know how to respond to that question. I read the Romeo quote, and maybe it was my neurotic response, but it didn't sound like I was being described as Romeo, who only had eyes for Juliet. I felt like I was being called out more like Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter. I'm just joking. I was a little embarrassed.
More than once she says that you were one of the most influential people in ACT UP.
That's very kind and gracious. I was a very visible activist. I knew I was one among several leaders. My politics are such that I don't think groups need leaders. I do think they need the function of leadership, and it was my great privilege and honor and pleasure to serve in the leadership of ACT UP. Activist groups historically abandon their leaders, or get dissatisfied with their leaders, especially if the crisis continues. I saw leadership turnover in ACT UP, which affected the way I worked in ACT UP. I entered not knowing anyone. I didn't even know who Larry Kramer was, and I objected in a meeting—the meetings were run according to Robert's Rules of Order, which involved a calling on hands in the order that they're seen by a facilitator—but there was one person who could just say anything he wanted at any time, and interrupt everybody. So, finally, I stood up and I said, “Who the hell is this guy? I've had my hand raised for like ten minutes.” And someone next to me said, “Shhh shhh! That’s Larry Kramer.” And I said, “Who the fuck is Larry Kramer?” [Laughs.]
Well, quickly I learned who Larry Kramer was, and why people were so deferential to Larry. I had a very Oedipal relationship with Larry. I, of course, admired him and kind of came to adore him. I also found myself having completely different politics than Larry. And I can go into detail on that or not. It doesn't really matter. Larry was what we needed at the time. He was the voice of our rage that came with costs and consequences to him, to the group. He was the only one who would go out on television and say the things that were necessary for others to hear. He did represent our rage.
I was always involved with actions. Many of my close friends were in the Treatment and Data group, but I was really involved with the actions—that's where my talents or my propensities led me. I found that I had organizational skills. I remember realizing that the way to get a message across in ACT UP was to be concise. People would raise their hands but not have really formulated their thoughts, and had very important things to say, but would ramble a bit. Concision is not my strong suit, but in that situation, I realized that I would raise my hand, and weigh in on opinions and in three sentences or less. And so, I developed a way of communicating with the group that was direct, and it was directly from my experience. For example, I’d say, “I just started taking AZT, it's hell, this is what I think we should do.” I developed a reputation for being able to speak succinctly. I rose through the ranks and worked with the Actions Committee and then spun off with the Actions Committee for specific groups. So, I was one of the lead organizers of the nonviolent takeover of the FDA (the Food and Drug Administration) in 1988, and the nonviolent takeover of City Hall.
But then I saw that my currency was waning, and I was splitting with the group. For example, I opposed the action at the church because I thought it was largely symbolic. I wanted to maintain a separation between church and state, even though the church was getting money to provide AIDS services. I was really pushing to go to Albany—I thought that we could get socialized medicine if not in the U.S., at least in New York state. I saw this moment where ACT UP could join the Healthcare Workers Union in that effort.
I was split as a person with HIV because—if you read Sarah's book, you'll understand—there was a split between the sick and the well. There was this urgency that people with AIDS felt— it was just about drugs into bodies, drugs into my body. I wasn’t waiting for capitalism to end. I thought, I’m not trying to end capitalism—I'm trying to live. The other side was nuanced. So, I was split, because on the one hand I knew that I desperately needed drugs into my body, while on the other hand, because of all the politics we've talked about, I really glimpsed this moment where it seemed possible where our movement could win something for the entire country, and we could get socialized medicine. I was just split. And that led me away from Stop the Church. Although, in that moment, my consciousness was such that I thought, “Groups are wiser than me. If ACT UP decides to stop the church, then I'm going to participate but I'll participate in the way that I feel I can provide my most ardent support.” And so, I went together with AIDS video activist and filmmaker Jean Carlomusto, and we documented that action.
I had to some extent stopped documenting actions and started organizing and getting arrested. I had worked with the Testing the Limits Collective, then I left that collective for a more spontaneous collective—DIVA (Damned Interfering Video Activists) TV. That's reflective of my thoughts around leadership and decision-making processes. Or maybe it’s just what I needed to do. It's more reflective of what I wanted to do within the collective. I didn't feel like I had time to get non-profit status and wait for grants. I wasn't going to devote the next five to ten years of my life getting enough money to get a documentary on HBO—which the Testing the Limits Collective did, and it's a fine documentary, but they did it without me. I was more interested in being involved in a kind of anarchist collective that trained people how to use video. With ten or so other people, we started DIVA TV.
As far as the actions go, I built up a trust with the ACT UP such that I could be a leading voice and a member of the leadership for the FDA action, City Hall, some other large actions. I was very much at the center of that. I was New York ACT UP’s representative to the national umbrella group ACT NOW. I was very interested in linking the various ACT UPs around the world. But, like I said, I really saw my currency waning, especially when I started to depart from the direction where the group was going. I decided to focus on issues other than large-scale nonviolent takeovers. I became involved with needle exchange, which was very much supported by the group, but was a much smaller leaner committee that wasn't constantly having to make large group decisions. I am very proud of my work in that. We won the necessity defense, meaning that we were found not guilty even though we were committing a crime by distributing needles. We were found not guilty because the crime committed was to prevent a greater crime, which was the state not providing clean sterile hypodermic needles to drug users. That's what many activists who are working in that trajectory of trying to change law hope for.
Absolutely. It reminds me of feminist lawyers fighting to get the phrase sexual harassment into laws . . . which brings me to my questions for you about feminism and ACT UP. Schulman is excellent on this topic in her book, but I wanted to hear from you as well.
Feminism was extremely important to ACT UP. The feminist healthcare movement was the model for ACT UP. We had feminists such as Maxine Wolfe, Marion Banzhaf, Rebecca Cole, and many, many people who had been very involved with the feminist movement in the 1970s and after that. We were indebted to feminism. My video practice was also inspired by feminist video makers—Dee Dee Halleck, Sherry Millner—who were breaking out of minimalism within the art world and focused on counter-hegemonic media. I was really influenced by feminist work in both activism and art, which were never separate for me.
There was also Craig Owens’s piecing together feminist theory with homosexuality, which you discuss in your pivotal essay “My Postmodernism.”
Yes. Craig was enormously important. He introduced me to so many theoretical coordinates. He wrote about the Pictures Generation, as did Douglas Crimp, who became my close friend, fellow activist, and interlocutor for thirty years. They were both influential. I met Craig first in a class he was teaching at the School of Visual Arts, before I dropped out. So many artists were studying with him: Andrea Fraser, Mark Dion, Elizabeth Peyton, Tom Burr, Collier Schorr. . . I could go on. Craig was thinking a lot about feminist art practices—Louise Lawler, Barbara Kruger, Martha Rosler, Dara Birnbaum, and of course Yvonne Rainer. I studied with Yvonne at the Whitney ISP program. I owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude for thirty years now of friendship. And, to Jason Simon and Moyra Davey. All these people are very important to me. I could go on and on. I’ve been very fortunate.
It’s a bit like that Stephen Mitchell idea we discussed before—that identity is something we produce in the moment, from one to many, many to many, and between two. So, I have one last question, also about friendship. Can you speak a little about Jack Whitten and his drawing in your show? And your 2007 poem to him that’s also presented in a vitrine?
Yes, I met Jack through the artist Ulrike Müller when she was working in David Reed’s studio, and David was working with the art historian Katy Siegel on the exhibition and book High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967–1975. Shortly after that I was invited to be a guest professor at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. So, I moved to Vienna for a year and met Achim Hochdörfer, who was then a curator at Mumok, a modern and contemporary art museum in Vienna. He gave me a budget to program a series of talks, which we called “Malerei und Affekt,” to invite artists to be in conversation about painting. To begin we invited Alfred Leslie, Maria Lassnig, and Jack Whitten. Jack came over with his wife Mary, and we had a great time. When I got back to the United States, I went over to Jack’s studio and his home for dinner a few times.
I wrote that poem in Vienna because, well, we just really hit it off. I remember I felt embarrassed, but it was like a compulsion—I just wanted to give him something. So, I wrote up this poem and then I typed it up and put it in an envelope and gave it to him one night, during a big dinner. Later Jack included part of the poem in a catalogue he had for a show in Atlanta of his “Memorial” paintings. Jack and I developed a friendship. I do have a history of having older friends. I value them. I cherish them, and I keep those friendships.
So, much later, Jack is lecturing at the Art Institute in Chicago, in the painting department. And it turns out it’s a very significant wedding anniversary for him and Mary. Jack says to me, “Can you recommend a restaurant? We don't like pretentious restaurants, but we like good food with a great wine list.” And I said, “Perfect. I know the exact place, Lula Cafe: locally sourced, not pretentious, great wine list.” And he says, “Great.” They didn't take reservations, but I knew them because I lived across the street. I called and I said, “Look, I know you don't take reservations, but I have very dear friends celebrating this enormously significant wedding anniversary. Can you seat them at seven o'clock on this night? And they said, yeah, yeah, yeah.” So, I call Jack back and I say, “Okay, Jack, you're all set seven o'clock, Lula Cafe. Here's the address.” And he said, “What about you?” And I said, “What about me? It's your anniversary!” [Laughs.] And then he says, “You have to come! We won't take no for an answer.” I realized later that Jack and Mary wanted me at the anniversary dinner so they could tell me all their stories. They told me the entire story of their courtship, early lives, the hard times, the good times. They wanted a witness.
So, long story short, we went to Lula Cafe, the three of us, and Jack hands me this box, and says, “I have a present for you.” And I'm already excited; I'm vibrating out of my seat. And it was that drawing that’s in my show. With the drawing was this note, which is in the vitrine in the show as well, where Jack annotates exactly what it is. It's a study for paintings he’s already done, from 1975—Study for Lapsang, Chinese Sincerity, Hall’s Café—the drawing was made after the paintings. Chinese Sincerity is one of my all-time favorite paintings.
Peter Eleey, the curator of the show at PS1, took Jack’s drawing, which was always in a vitrine before about relations among artists. Instead of the ephemera vitrine, Peter put Jack’s drawing next to my most recent work, which are calligraphic drawings—namely a piece called Tetragrammaton. I found that juxtaposition very difficult, almost sacrilegious. But I trusted Peter and I consulted with some close friends. That's how it all happened.
“I experienced my transness as a shape the Internet made when it looked at me.”
“Historically, queer women have been on the front lines of every progressive movement, but not always openly.”