"Fever in the Archive: AIDS Activist Video"
by Jim Hubbard. 2001
This essay and the program notes that follow were written for the "Fever in the Archive" exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. It was guest-curated by Jim Hubbard, Project Director for the Estate Project's AIDS Activist Video Preservation Program. Hubbard is a filmmaker, whose films include "Elegy in the Streets" and "Two Marches," both of which explore personal and political responses to the AIDS crisis and is co-founder of MIX: the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival.
It is featured on the ARTERY web site (a project of the Estate Project)
AIDS activist video remains one of the most significant cultural developments of the AIDS crisis. The tapes grew out of a diverse and large-scale, unorganized, yet concerted effort by activists and videomakers to respond to the epidemic. They resulted from the widespread availability of high-quality, relatively inexpensive consumer video and a desperate need to convey life-saving information. Many of these tapes, although made solely as timely responses to the crisis, retain an extraordinary vitality. The videomakers clearly positioned themselves in opposition to an unresponsive and often antagonistic government and mainstream media. They eschewed the authoritative voice-over, the removed, dispassionate expert, and the media's tendency to scapegoat, while embracing a vibrant sexuality and righteous anger.The tapes in this series were drawn from the Royal S. Marks AIDS Activist Video Collection of the New York Public Library. This collection resulted from an effort by the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, a project of the Alliance for the Arts, to preserve the grassroots response of video artists and activists to the AIDS crisis. Made possible by major support from the New York Community Trust?Royal S. Marks Foundation Fund with additional support from the Snowdon Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts, the collection consists of over two thousand hours of videotape. One thousand hours of these tapes will be remastered for archival and research purposes.Early on, Patrick Moore, the director of the Estate Project, advocated preserving this work and its remarkable story of AIDS activism. He felt a strong commitment to AIDS video because of his long and intense involvement with ACT UP. In order to convey fully the historical significance of AIDS activism, as well as highlighting the artistic achievement of individual videomakers, the collection includes not only finished works, but also large amounts of unedited camera original. The New York Public Library was the only institution in the country that demonstrated both an interest in the material and the ability to care for it. In addition, Mimi Bowling, the curator of the Division of Archives and Manuscripts, was personally enthusiastic about receiving the collection.
A Short History of AIDS Activist Video
AIDS activist video is a direct descendant of a rich and varied tradition of alternative cinema. Its antecedents include the work of Dziga Vertov, the New American Cinema, the portapak tapes made by such groups as TVTV and Videofreex, feminist documentaries of the sixties and seventies and the political filmmaking collective Newsreel. Like their predecessors, AIDS activists continued the practice of using whatever tools were available to convey their message. In general, they shot on Hi-8 and edited their tapes for little or no money at public access media arts centers, AIDS organizations, schools and, late at night, at commercial facilities.
From 1981, when the syndrome was first recognized, until 1985, when Rock Hudson died, AIDS received scant attention from the mainstream media. The reports that did appear relied on scientific experts to explain the disease, blamed gay men and their promiscuous sexual habits for the disease, and sought out innocent victims to ghoulishly pity. These shows were aimed at a presumed "general" public that did not include gay men, lesbians, IV-drug users or people of color.
A handful of AIDS films and videotapes depicting the epidemic from the inside began appearing in 1984. These included Stuart Marshall's "Bright Eyes" (1984, made for Britain's Channel 4), Tina DeFeliciantonio's "Living with AIDS" (1986), Mark Huestis and Wendy Dallas's "Chuck Solomon: Coming of Age" (1986), Arthur Bressan's "Buddies" (1985), Barbara Hammer's "Snow Job: The Media Hysteria of AIDS" (1986) and Larry Brose's "An Individual Desires Solution" (1986).
AIDS activist video began in earnest in 1987, at the same time as a sharp increase in political activism. ACT UP formed in early March and held its first demonstration on Wall Street on March 24th. GMHC hired Jean Carlomusto to staff its Audio-Visual Department and the "Living with AIDS" show began regular cable access broadcasts (although a few shows can be dated as early as December 1984.) Also in 1987, Testing the Limits began to document the burgeoning AIDS movement. By 1989, ACT UP/New York spawned a videomaking affinity group, Damned Interfering Video Activist Television (DIVA TV) that, within a year, collectively produced three tapes.
From 1988 to 1993, an explosion of AIDS activist video occurred. Hundreds of videotapes were produced. The vast majority of work was made in New York City, although a significant number of videotapes were also produced in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. In addition, there were videomakers in Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Washington, D.C. and even Ann Arbor, Michigan and Austin, Texas. More tapes were produced in New York not only because it was epicenter of the disease and the dominant center of activism, but also because there was an infrastructure of support for alternative video. There were art schools and media access centers offering classes and inexpensive access to equipment (NYU, Film/Video Arts, Downtown Community Television), a well-established community of makers, occasional grants and even a graduate program forging a theoretical underpinning for the endeavor (the Whitney Independent Studies Program).
Beginning in 1994/5, a perceptible decline in production occurred, corresponding with the waning of street activism (see ACT UP/New York's Timeline DEB LINK at www.actupny.org/documents/capsule-home.html). One notable exception to this was James Wentzy's "AIDS Community Television." Wentzy produced over 150 half-hour programs from 1993-6 and, significantly, maintained his ties to ACT UP throughout.
Characteristics of AIDS Activist Video
The immediate impetus for AIDS activist video was the deadly, inadequate government response and the meager and antagonistic reporting of the mainstream media. These videomakers felt compelled to tell the real story of AIDS from the point of view of people with AIDS. The tapes portrayed People With AIDS (PWAs) as neither victims nor pariahs, but as empowered activists taking charge of their health in both the political and medical arenas. This was not the whole story, but it served as a necessary counterpoint to the relentlessly negative depictions by the mainstream media.
While AIDS activist video always maintained its critical stance toward the mainstream representation of AIDS, many activist tapes appropriated mass media techniques to convey their message. Numerous tapes employed the language of music videos-?quick cutting and the use of dance and rap music to accompany demonstrations. The "talking head" interview imparts authority to the speaker, and thus, substituting PWAs and activists for scientists and doctors asserted the expertise of people actually living with the disease as well as subverting the conventions of the mass media.
The tapes often scrutinized the mainstream media's representation of AIDS and PWAs and offered an alternative view. Nearly all mainstream media employed three characters: the white gay man wasting away from AIDS, the innocent victim and the drug abuser of color. From the viewpoint of various communities affected by AIDS, activist video revealed the social, political, economic and medical complexities of the disease. The eight shows and more than forty pieces in this series indicate the broad range of AIDS activist video. What unifies these tapes is their urgency, passion and strongly-held belief. Made by members of a particular community affected by AIDS, each tape speaks directly to a community in its own language.Visit ARTERY for the complete film/video program: "Fever in the Archive: AIDS Activist Video"