WWHIVDD? Action at Art, AIDS, America
Art AIDS America closed last month at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Over the last few months, the WHAT WOULD AN HIV DOULA DO? collective has responded to the exhibition using our bodies, and engaging in our communities through dialogue to work through our anger and a sense of mourning of what could have been.
We are inspired by the Tacoma Action Collective who protested Art AIDS America in Tacoma, the first stop of the exhibition’s national tour. We also honor the artists and work in Art AIDS America, and support museum visitors who are finding power, inspiration and solace in the show. We also stand with the curators, writers and other cultural workers who spoke out about the show and worked to make it better along the way.
As a collective we held community discussions in Manhattan and the Bronx; we visited the museum, talking to visitors about their experiences of the show, letting them know about the previous protests and problems we had with the exhibition; and during the closing weekend ofArt AIDS America we took up space in the museum with our bodies and voices. We got underneath works, a gesture of support in light of the fact that many artists felt unsupported in the process of the exhibition; we took affectual cues from works, joining them in their sense of bravery, urgency and/or fun; and we completed works made undone by curatorial choices. As part of the process we moved throughout the space, supported each other, at times chanted the question: How do you feel in this place?, and engaged in conversation with museum visitors.
In embarking upon this action, we asked ourselves:
• How does the Human Immunodeficiency Virus move?
• How can vulnerability be a kind of activism?
• How can we highlight and keep sight of the ongoing response to HIV/AIDS and the lost narratives amid some AIDS history being calcified into a canon?
Our response to the exhibition comes out a series of evenings of movement and discussion led by artist Julie Tolentino, members of the WWHDD collective and friends. We explored different ways to understand and perform activism; invited change; and experimented with vulnerability to create community, express our upset over the exhibition, and make space for those silenced, disappeared and lost.
Watching early AIDS activist videos, Tolentino’s eye is often drawn not to the drama at the center of the screen, but to the movements of those on the peripheral, often those who can not be arrested, those living with disability, the nervous, the cautious, the caretakers, those expressing anger and loss in other, less championed ways. Tolentino is interested in their somatic experiences and how what often gets lost in the moment and history. She channeled these ideas by leading the WWHDD collective through a series of prompts, exploring the ways in which we can feel, sense and share pain, sadness, frustration, mourning, confusion.
During these gatherings, those present shared their questions, tumult, and ideas. At a gathering at the Bronx Academy of Art and Dance, activist Jawanza Williams shared a vision he has of how HIV moves within his body: a collective of parts vibrating in unison as it travels though his blood. Upon Williams’ sharing, under Tolentino’s guidance, the collective enacted the vision, which largely informed how we moved our bodies through the museum during the closing weekend.
This was the second intervention within the museum made by the WWHDD collective. On October 9th, WWHDD was on hand for the presentation by Art Positive (represented by Hunter Reynolds and Lola Flash) and Sur Rodney Sur (also a WWHDD collective member). The collective members offered visitors the opportunity to consider: What Does Art AIDS America inspire you to question? What questions do you have for Art AIDS America? Responses were gathered on paper and then shared online. Working with the museum, a box was left where folks could continue to respond. Here are the responses:
WHAT DOES ART AIDS AMERICA INSPIRE YOU TO QUESTION?
• Where does the commodification of AIDS end and real education begin?
• Can children learn about AIDS through art and real people stories, not just hard to understand facts?
• Why are there not more shows like this? How can we better preserve art about AIDS and discover art by PWAs who have died? - Brent Nicholson Earle
• Authority: including the authority that assembles art exhibitions.
• We’re still alive after living through multiple hospitalizations from AIDS. And art is vital as awareness to support these still living, yet hustling to keep going through a medial system that doesn’t really support us.
• How much more work there is to do.
• Why this show was so short of artists of color.
• Where are the mothers of people living with AIDS?
• Why not more current artists with AIDS?
• Having created art about AIDS including the (2000) video Short Memory / No History: AIDS Art Activism and 25th Anniversary of Visual AIDS, wonder how they missed our contribution to this dialogue. - Peter Cramer + Jack Waters
• What does it mean to lose people? Is it only their physical objects?
• My role in the struggle, my place in history.
• How to help reform the healthcare system + revive kiss-ins.
• How much more work there is to do?
• How are we taking care of people living with HIV/AIDS now?
• White supremacy.
• Where are the activist videos?
• Why are curators and institutions so lazy about research and so content to retell a white washed story. Specifically, why do gay curators leave out fellow minorities. Don’t they remember being left out?
• Do absences (of experience) turn us on?
WHAT QUESTION DO YOU HAVE FOR ART, AIDS, AMERICA?
• Where are the women?
• What will it take to realize that no one is disposable?
• Where are the “worker bees”? -Lola Flash
• “We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an identity that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future.” -Jose Estaban Munoz
• Why can’t the museumfication of AIDS ever include the ongoing fight against AIDS? ACT UP is still active but no one knows that.
• Is there a dominate narrative of AIDS historizication? If so, what is it?
• Where will a language for today’s HIV/AIDS culture(s) come from?
• I feel AIDS art reinvented American Art, adding mean to an art world that was meaningless.
•Will more women, POC be added?
In a recent essay for Artforum, Julia Bryan-Wilson argues that representations of the protests of Art AIDS America should be woven into the exhibition as it travels. Inspired by this, we offer up the above transcript of visitor questions, along with documentation of some of the responses, and images from our action the last week of the exhibition. We also offer this information and these visuals as a form of an open source archive that can be used to provide context and content to the exhibition, and can also be used to create an educational document that goes with Art AIDS America, celebrating the artists and art in the exhibition, and beginning to fill in and highlight the absences. This stands in conversation with the work of the Tacoma Action Collective, and the work of museums along the way (Check out the Zuckerman’s Press Release and Additional Resources). Other activists, artists and museums are encouraged to contact us with information about what they have done in response to the show. We look to Chicago, the last stop of the exhibition, with hope.
In closing, we ask: What does witnessing our actions and the actions of others of this exhibition offer to you, and your experience of Art, AIDS, of America? What do you want to add?
Leading up to World AIDS Day / Day With(out) Art, at 6:30pm on November 29th, 2016, WWHDD will be presenting on our response to Art AIDS America at a hub event at Independent Curators International (ICI). Please join us.