When The End Is The Beginning: Art AIDS America
Interview for Sixty Inches From Center
In the final minutes of Viral Representation: On AIDS and Art, a day-long conference held at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center that presented research on artistic responses to AIDS as part of the exhibition Art AIDS America, I found the nerve to raise my hand and pose a question to the roundtable that included all twelve speakers who presented or spoke that day.
“Where are the women?”
Tangled up with many other unnecessary words, the question slipped out of my mouth clumsily as words do when they’ve been stuck in my throat for a while. There was a heavy silence that followed as the speakers, only two of which were women, looked at one another to see who would offer a response.
Joshua Chambers-Letson, an assistant professor of performance studies at Northwestern, cut the silence by refining my question—“…women of color.”
Where are the women of color? Or the women? Or the people of color? Or youth? And others largely omitted from these conversations and this research? Where is the information buried? These questions—which have been raised by others such as Kia Labeija and Sur Rodney (Sur)— have been on my mind since I first went to see the show at the Alphawood Foundation’s newly adapted exhibition space in Lincoln Park. These questions seemed like obvious ones. They were the loudest silences in the building during my walkthrough of the exhibition with curator Jonathan Katz back in December. While not completely absent from the exhibition, the low presence of these voices within this art-world context doesn’t quite reflect the scale of the nation-wide impact that AIDS was having (and continues to have) on these communities within the US during the 80s and 90s. If one were to rely solely on what the gallery walls tell us, a viewer might be led to believe that the artistic response to AIDS began as a mostly white American undertaking that revolved around gay men.
That narrative begins to expand once you start to dig into the other parts of the exhibition. The catalog, packed with essays, additional points of reference, and beautiful plates for each work, offers more information for those who are curious, though it only goes so far as to include works from the original exhibition and not the artists who were added to customize the show based on each new location as it traveled starting with a preview version in Los Angeles to full versions in Tacoma, Atlanta, and the Bronx before settling in Chicago. (Chicago’s iteration had the largest addition to the exhibition roster with several relevant local artists incorporated into the checklist.)
Then, Chicago showed up as only this city can through an ambitious lineup of programspresented by Alphawood Foundation, QUEER, ILL + OKAY, and a long list of partners in many corners of the city. The exhibition was pulled further into a present-day context through performances, talks, symposia, screenings, AIDS education events, tours, readings, and sister exhibitions—all of which helped to address the blindspots and blanks left exposed in the voids between works on gallery walls. It was in the programming where women, people of color, the Ls, the Bs, the Ts, the Qs and many others who are obscured from view were given microphones.
Although we are often told to consider programming, publications, and the objects on display all as separate components that together make the whole, the truth is that these parts aren’t circulated and moved forward in history in the same way. Some parts stick while others evaporate or become fragments, remembered in the minds of individuals, photos on a hard drive, a buried Facebook post, or a video in the abyss of Youtube. These events reminded the curator in me of the inherent limitations of static exhibitions and why programming is so important. Then, it reminded the historian in me of how often programming is ephemeral and doesn’t reach as wide an audience as an exhibition does while a catalog, often created leading up to an exhibition, fails to document the important dialogues and art generated once artists, writers, scholars, advocates, and the public encounter it. All parts of an exhibition are not treated equally by history and our collective memory. Chances are the work that comes after Art AIDS America will be built primarily from what was easily commodified—in this case, the catalog and maybe websites and reviews, along with some printed programs and other collateral. But this work is far too important to let its elements slip away.
It took me over three months to write about this because I needed to watch how it all unfolded. Also, for me, the conversation around Art AIDS America being presented in Chicago wasn’t simply about creating press around this opening moment. Nor was it about the giant and generous gesture of the Alphawood Foundation to make space for this exhibition when other major institutions decided not to. More than anything, Art AIDS America provides an historical backdrop to the complexities of these three A’s—art, AIDS, and our country. It is a physical, mental, cultural, and extremely personal site for shaking out the nuances. As silly as it would be to claim that exhibition-making is easy, the truth is that doing the research, collecting the work, developing didactic materials, and mounting it in a space is the easy part of this project when compared to the work that comes next, which is to address the big questions that remain: Why are people of color largely absent from the mainstream understanding of the early impact of AIDS in the United States, and even more so in conversations about the artwork that was made in its immediate wake? With so many people of color, particularly African Americans, affected by HIV and AIDS making up such a small piece of the most widely circulated foundational narratives, what is the curator’s role in derailing those fractured histories? How do we measure due diligence in scholarship and curatorial practice? Then, what conversations need to be had about the privilege and the freedom to fight and struggle in public versus having to pick and choose your battles because deciding between fighting for the survival of a wider community impacted by AIDS and fighting for your own individual survival as someone who is othered within the othered (positive, queer, woman, of color) can all be considered a matter of life and death?
I say this not as a negative critique of Art AIDS America, but more as a critique of the fragmenting nature of exhibition-making, and as a call to those building on this history. I challenge those of us who work to fill in the gaps and pull these stories forward to see this as a point of departure into further and fuller research. I challenge us to find additional ways to capture what happened here, seek out the voices that are missing, and thoughtfully pursue a variety of ways to make this information easily accessible five, ten, or fifty years from now.
I have to say it again. Creating an historic exhibition that is anchored in the early years of AIDS and tracks its cultural and social impact in the US is by no means an easy task. The work presented and uncovered is nothing short of admirable and incredible. But the shaky responses to the question I posed at the Logan Center makes clear that there is still quite a bit of work to be done. And here we are in the final week of the show. It is from this position of looking back while standing at what could be seen as a new starting line that I share my conversation with curator Jonathan Katz that happened in December.
Read the interview with Jonathan Katz here...
Photo Credit (top to bottom):
 Installation view. (Foreground) Trojan Boxes by Adam Rolston; (Background, left to right)Joey Terrill, Kia Labeija, Frank Moore, and Dean Sameshima. Photo by Sixty Inches From Center.
 Installation View. (Left) Barbara Kruger, Jack Pierson. Photo by Sixty Inches From Center.
 (Right) Derek Jackson, Perfect Kiss, slideshow, 2007. Photo by Sixty Inches From Center.
 Installation view. Photo by Sixty Inches From Center.
 Installation view. Photo by Sixty Inches From Center.
 Ann P. Meredith, Until That Last Breath! San Francisco, Ca, 1987. Photo by Sixty Inches From Center.
 (Left) Tino Rodriguez’s Eternal Lovers, Oil on wood, 2010. (Right) Whitfield Lovell. Photo by Sixty Inches From Center.