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When and How AIDS Activism Finally Found Its Voice and Power http://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/01/arts/01CHOI.html December 1, 2000
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
It is a common assumption in these comfortable times that the primary role played by politically activist art in the United States tends to be neurotic, self-dramatizing personal venting. According to this smug, rose-colored view, such art may rarely accomplish anything concrete, but at least it releases the rage of malcontents who make it while validating everyone's personal freedom of expression. In other words, it's a necessary irritant.
But a close look at the videotapes in the Guggenheim Museum's vast and impressive new program, "Fever in the Archive: AIDS Activist Videotapes From the Royal S. Marks Collection," which begins today, suggests otherwise. Most of the work in the show, which is thematically divided into nine afternoon and evening programs through Dec. 9, dates from the late 1980's and early 90's, when AIDS activism was at its furious peak.
It offers a potent reminder of how effective the tactics of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (Act Up) and related organizations were in speeding up the development, testing and manufacture of life-saving drugs and in pushing the government to spend more money on AIDS research. These successes came despite the mainstream media's looking askance at AIDS activism and its equivocating way of demonizing people with AIDS in deference to some right-wing religious ideologues.
To many, Act Up and its radical, anything-for-attention street actions were simply a nuisance. But as this exhibition demonstrates, Act Up's media-savvy forays into the public arena prodded and shamed the government and drug companies alike into addressing the crisis.
A number of these videos are very specific about the direct effect of a particular action. Eric Slade and Mic Sweeney's 1992 video, "Acting Up for Prisoners," for instance, shows how effective Act Up was in publicizing the shameful health conditions in the California Institute for Women and forcing the state prison system to provide better care for prisoners (many with AIDS).
A guiding principle of Act Up was to engage the media by any means necessary, and one of its slogans (heard in a number of videos) was to announce, "The whole world is watching." Yet seeing the videos of demonstrations at City Hall in New York, at St. Patrick's Cathedral and in front of the White House, one is amazed at how infrequently this material was shown on mainstream television. Act Up was clearly correct in assuming that extreme provocation and street theater were the surest way to glean media coverage it was too exciting to resist even if it was scanty and often condescending.
"Doctors, Liars and Women: AIDS Activists Say No to Cosmo" recorded angry protest demonstrations against the Hearst Corporation in 1988 after Cosmopolitan published an article assuring readers that unprotected sex was safe for women. When some of those demonstrators appeared on television later, they were treated with contempt and skepticism. But by keeping their cool they were able to get their message across.
A lot of the material in the show is emotionally searing, since so many of the demonstrators and the creators of these videos were fighting for their lives in a race against time. Many have since died. The program "First Person Singular" (Dec. 2 at 5 p.m.) is a wrenching collection of portraits of people with AIDS (mostly gay men) in various stages of illness.
Taken together, the videos show the emergence of a new kind of political art in the fusion of street theater and video. The courageous video makers from groups like DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activist Television) worked from inside the fray, where we see people being dragged off by the police officers who know they were being filmed. Much of this work still exudes the heat of wartime battle scenes shot on the front lines. For as the famous video of the Rodney King beating illustrated, a visual record of an event can have a hugely catalyzing effect. For better or worse, millions of people trust live video and cin ma v rit as unvarnished reality.
"Fever in the Archive" also includes a number of AIDS education videos, some strictly instructional, others dramatized, aimed at various groups. They remind us that the debate about safer sex that began filtering onto mainstream television more than a decade ago profoundly changed the way millions of people thought and talked about sex. It forced onto television an unprecedented nuts-and-bolts language that has extended to the four corners of the mainstream, from the chirpy gay-oriented banter of "Will and Grace," to the comic kink of "Sex and the City," to MTV's sexual roundtables, to the forthcoming "Queer as Folk," with its unprecedented blitz of gay male sex.
The one disturbing aspect of "Fever in the Archive" is that all this work is presented as history. There is an underlying implication that all that's behind us now, when AIDS is still very much present, with infection rates rising among younger gay men as AIDS prevention programs have relaxed. One of the few works to address the present is an excerpt from "Undetectable," the video maker and actor Jay Corcoran's powerful work in progress about three men and three women with AIDS in Boston being treated with various drug combinations and their reactions over time. The new drug therapies may have made the death rate from AIDS in this country plummet and may have prolonged countless thousands of lives, but the drugs are not a cure. As the excerpt shows, they have agonizing side effects, and the strict regimen is hard to follow.
The sad fact is that for all the profound and positive changes AIDS activism has wrought, it hasn't prevented American culture (at least for now) from retreating into a disturbing complacency that is only a small step away from outright denial.
"Fever in the Archive: AIDS Activist Videotapes From the Royal S. Marks Collection" is at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, at 89th Street, through Dec. 9. Screenings today at 7 p.m. and tomorrow at 3, 5 and 7 p.m. Also Dec. 6, 8 and 9 at 7 p.m. and Dec. 9 at 3 and 5 p.m. Included in museum admission: $12; $8 for students and the elderly. Information: (212) 423-3500; film schedule, (212) 360-4321.
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