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Volume 9: On AIDS

By Ryan Mangione

This volume proceeds from the acknowledgement of a fact: AIDS is here to stay. The implications of this statement are within themselves neutral—by acknowledging this truth, we neither intend to sound cynical regarding the possibility of a future that treats people living with HIV with greater dignity, nor obtuse regarding the profoundly important steps towards a more dignified existence that have already been won through the exhaustive efforts of everyday people; neither defeatist in the face of power’s substantive ability to commodify dissent, nor utopian about the notion that concepts such as “bearing witness,” “mourning,” and “remembrance” are unimpeachably effective pursuits to take up in the face of suffocating power. What we’re interested in, rather, is how one chooses to read this statement, and what consequences one’s particular reading du jour have regarding the active production of a still unfolding thing called “AIDS history.” We aren’t interested in trying to sell you a political program here, much less tear down any of the numerous political programs that have emerged in the past decade or so (a decade which, as Alexandra Juhasz and previous November interviewee Ted Kerr have poignantly argued, has been defined by a resurgence of cultural and intellectual projects intent on simultaneously, though not always in the same breath, revisiting and normalizing the AIDS crisis). Instead, we’ve taken a stab here at turning the gaze back on cultural production itself—we’re interested in pulling back the hood and taking a closer look at the ways in which artists and intellectuals are not only metabolizing AIDS history today, but also how their engagements with AIDS history today stand to reproduce it anew tomorrow.

The content of AIDS history is the same, yet the form has changed: the same artists and intellectuals who were once excluded from the halls of power are now the central points around which a booming revival culture industry has propped itself up; the same rhizomatic webs of sexual contact rendered legible through AIDS, stretching across lines of classed, gendered, and racial difference, which once provided an intellectual basis for the formation of queer theory are now so often the complicating vectors employed to critique queer theory’s central aims; the very same images of queer sexuality that were once demonized by the Right’s campaigns of cultural repression are now employed by centrist politicians and pharmaceutical branding campaigns to dog whistle their “profoundly benign” tolerance for sexual diversity. The form of AIDS history is the same, yet the content has changed: sex apps like Grindr and daily medications like PrEP have ostensibly promised us increased options for both navigating and disclosing sero-status in a “safer” manner, yet have done nothing to shift the burdens of stigma and collective care off of those already living with HIV; we have unprecedented archival access to a wealth of political theories that emerged through the ranks of AIDS activism, yet fewer avenues for enacting these politics, much less avenues for re-evaluating the current use-value of such politics in our present; we have “AIDS-era” heroes now, but only because we now exist in a context where the pacifying idolization of martyrs is actively encouraged in lieu of more sober, grounded forms of analysis.

In 1987, Douglas Crimp deftly located the task of AIDS cultural analysis as a matter of active, temporally contextual, and performative cultural production, writing, “AIDS does not exist apart from the practices that conceptualize it, represent it, and respond to it.” 1 The passage of time, or, more specifically, the steady erosion of a semi-clean structural relation between oppressor and oppressed upon which Crimp’s representational battle stood to be legibly waged, has left us in need of an update: in order to hold water, the notion that we can alter AIDS’ existence via its representations first depends on a level of faith in the idea that one’s particular representation of AIDS will retain the same meaning when placed in a context outside of one’s particular peer group. The issue turns on the act of cultural production itself: how does one go about working through history in the absence of any steady assurance that we collectively understand ourselves as belonging to a shared history in the first place?

Initially, this volume began as an attempt to evaluate the continued significance of some of the core ideas first presented in the Douglas Crimp edited 1987 October book AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism—a landmark text which established many of the intellectual boundaries through which AIDS was to be engaged with on the level of cultural theory. Our intention was not to provide a post-mortem on Crimp and co.’s work, nor to call for some form of uncritical return to its core propositions, but rather to take up its central interrogative impulse: what is the relationship between cultural analysis and cultural action today? In order to treat this question with both fidelity and good faith, we necessarily had to abandon a strict adherence to Crimp’s October book itself—in order to honor the spirit of its inquiry, the text itself must necessarily be somewhat discarded (although never too far out of sight) in order to clear up space to think through the particular implications of our own desires for historical subjectivity in this moment.

Who do you aspire to create the work for? In their interview for this volume, fierce pussy elucidates one particular strategy for working in relation to art institutions: use them for their heightened visibility and reach, yet create something distributable, something that only takes on its real meaning once thumbtacked to the living room wall of a rosy-tinted twenty year old looking for permission to think of themselves as an inheritor of AIDS history, or perhaps when placed on a dusty bedroom desk upon which it will witness a hundred one-night-stands—make work that reminds the audience they are the target. Elsewhere in this volume, Cynthia Carr speaks to the dual roles of undying love and emotional attachment: create work to avenge those who have been viciously mistreated by this society, but also equally create the work as a means for doing right by those loved ones who not only lived, but who were further made to live with the undying knowledge of just how severely the dead were wronged.

The dissolution of a certain bygone optimism regarding the promises of gay liberation recurs throughout much of this volume. Robert Glück reflects upon the historical transformation of gay social life from a condition that once perhaps inherently demanded a self-awareness of one’s own constructedness as a commodifiable sexual identity, on towards its present condition, in which many queer people are allotted a tangible yet always tenuous freedom to live sexual lives unencumbered by the neuroses of historical self-consciousness. All the same, Glück resolves upon the notion that we still need queer writing, because we still need a method for recognizing ourselves. Glück’s Bay Area neighbor Brontez Purnell offers a slightly more cynical, yet equally incisive, reading of the situation, proclaiming, “The current revolution did not necessarily create more space for gay men… faggotry, in general, is still on the short end of the stick.”

Another thread that emerges throughout this volume is the largely undertheorized need to think through cultural production and the bodily implications of pharmaceutical politics in tandem—while much ink has been spilled regarding both topics in their independent relations to AIDS history, analysis by and large has failed to adequately interrogate the intellectual tendency to silo the two off from one another, as if it were perfectly natural to consider the artist and the body the artist is forced to inhabit on a daily basis as discrete concerns. In our “AIDS Inc.” roundtable, a coterie of artists, writers, dancers, and filmmakers parse apart the ways in which bodily precarity has impacted their work, working through a far-flung range of topics, from the sexualized aesthetics of pharmaceutical branding and younger generations of HIV-positive artists to the evaporation of a culture of collective care and the frailty of personal memory. Elsewhere, the curator Alper Turan and writer Tannon Reckling weigh the potent challenges that the embodied perspective of HIV-undetectability stands to pose to broader art world discourses surrounding representation, the weaponization of identity, and institutional complicity.

Of course, despite our best efforts to honor the need for some level of intellectual distance from Crimp’s October issue, this volume would be impossible without Douglas Crimp and incomplete without a serious engagement of his legacy. In order to attend to this realization, we brought together a wide-ranging group of Crimp’s collaborators and intellectual inheritors to think through the continued, if also perhaps altered, significance of Crimp’s work today—as Gregg Bordowitz puts it in his opening remarks, “I want to keep this in the present tense, because Douglas is still here.” In place of either a heroic eulogy or an analytically detached re-evaluation of Crimp’s legacy, what transpires is a deep consideration of Crimp’s ability to place seemingly disparate political and cultural struggles into conversation with one another: alongside Crimp, “the AIDS theorist,” emerges a side of Crimp that speaks to Israel’s ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people, a side of Crimp that speaks to the life-affirming power of art, theater, and dance, and a side of Crimp that speaks to the progressive struggle to sustain a vibrant notion of urban culture in the face of successive waves of financial and political trampling.

This volume does not aspire to produce any lasting or definitive statement regarding AIDS history—to attempt to do so would be indicative of a fundamental inability to understand the immensity with which AIDS has penetrated, fractured, and reproduced anew the fabric of so much of our daily lives (and continues to, most notably through our future actions). Rather, if anything, this volume is an attempt to re-instill a sense of forward motion into our contemporary engagements with AIDS, an attempt to isolate what is being talked around (namely, the significance of what it means to understand oneself within a specific juncture of AIDS history and to operate within the confines of this historical specificity) and to turn the camera as intensely as possible upon this nodal point. With any luck, this pressure might open up some space for an as of yet unanticipated, novel entry point into the conversation—but what such an entry point might look like is for the successive work of others to decide.



Douglas Crimp,  “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism, ed. Douglas Crimp, MIT Press 1988.

Next from this Volume

Cynthia Carr
in conversation with Ryan Mangione

“I couldn’t help but notice that other critics weren’t at the Pyramid Club or 8BC at 2 in the morning.”