Time for the Dead to have a Word with the Living:The AIDS Uncanny

by Ultra-red

Turning his attention from his clinical practice to the literary, Freud once defined the uncanny (a rather inexact translation of the German unheimlich) as a specific affect in art where familiarity gives way to anxiety. Finding the aesthetic theory of his day lacking (123), Freud distinguished the uncanny from the standard definition of intellectual uncertainty. Using the example of E. T. A. Hoffmann's gothic short story, "The Sandman," Freud argues that what produces the uncanny is not the intellectual uncertainty surrounding the status of the automaton, Olympia. If this were the sole origins of the uncanny it would be hardly successful since the reader understands Olympia's mechanical nature quite early in the story. Rather, argues Freud, the uncanny describes that which "has been repressed and now returns" (147).

In horror films, the uncanny describes the killer who reappears over and over again with each false ending. Politically, it is the rise and rise again of the neo-nazi movement, and the ascendancy of a neo-conservatism thought vanquished by the polite canine smiles of neo-liberalism. In the art world, the uncanny wraps its arms around art forms thought assigned to the dustbin, whether neo-expressionism, neo-conceptualism, neo-minimalism, neo-social realism and so on. Whether one examines 19th century gothic fiction or the theatre of cruelty of Diamanda Galas's AIDS cycle, Masque of the Red Death (1986 - 1993), the uncanny names that affect of the returning thing believed to be resolved. Covered in blood-red lighting, Galas performed the shrieking lament to and of the dead. Writer and visual artist David Wojnarowicz graphically incorporated SILENCE = DEATH by having himself photographed with his lips sewn together. Performance artist Ron Athey realized the AIDSphobic imaginary but hoisting bloodied towels over audiences. In each of these AIDS performances, anger transubstantiated into critical resistance.

While much of this work figured in the larger culture as part of debates over the limits of expression and other conservative-controlled rhetoric, the audience invoked was the AIDS community itself. Similarly, although eschewing the abjection of Galas or Wojnarowicz, the savvy protest design of Gran Fury and other ACT UP graphic artists and collectives served to sustain the tenor of outrage in the AIDS activist community. AIDS activist art amplified a collective response to historical events and sublimated (in terms of articulating a set of symbols) those responses in the direction of action. Taking seriously the claim that ACT UP was a “non-partisan group of diverse individuals united in anger to end the AIDS crisis through direct action,” artists adopted rage as the affective semiotic in their practice.

This essay is written between the cracks of remembrance and repetition. The present moment instills us with dread as we watch compassionate conservatives slash public health funding for AIDS services. Long held principles around HIV prevention, harm reduction and privacy have all come under fire. Nearly thirty years into the epidemic, AIDS service providers find themselves losing ground. At the same time, attending the echoes of the past seems to be in the air among alumni of AIDS activist art. But how grateful would the dead be of our remembrances if we close our ears to the context we occupy at this moment? Perhaps it is in the nature of remembrance and the affects which demand its labor that our imagination closes itself off from today's conditions around the crisis. Nostalgia hampers listening, even among those of us who possess a keen sense of the necessity for reflection accompanied by struggle.

In the summer of 2004, the specific history around AIDS activism in Los Angeles County was conjured up by a group of people with AIDS (PWA), AIDS activist veterans, artists, and others compelled by the growing assault on long-held fundamentals of AIDS politics. This reckoning with the AIDS uncanny occurs at a specific moment within a specific social project. Those of us compelled to conjure up the specter of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in Southern California, face a decisive juncture in our organizing. Increasingly evident is the difference in affective regimes between the ACT UP of our past, and the ACT UP of our present. That difference which characterizes this moment demands attention from activists and artists alike. Before any representation is crafted, before any campaign launched, the mood demands analysis. From that reflection we can begin materialization in action and in art of the AIDS uncanny.

* * *

Responses to the news could not be more opposite. On the one hand we hear that people feel an urgent need for ACT UP. Faced with massive cuts in public health and cuts in AIDS funding and services, many people involved in the day to day management of the crisis recognize that a direct action social movement fighting AIDS will push these urgent matters into the public arena. Even those AIDS Service Organization (ASO) managers and health officials, who in the past opposed ACT UP for its perceived radicalism, eagerly welcome the return of direct action politics. Of course the pretence of unanimous agreement around the content of that politics disintegrated relatively quickly after the re-forming of ACT UP due to disagreements over the names-reporting issue. We will speak more about that latter. In general, AIDS advocates fear a return to the desperate days of before the availability of Anti-Retrovirals unless there is swift and large-scale intervention. “We’re so glad to have ACT UP back,” is a refrain we hear repeatedly.

“Why would you want to repeat that again?” counters another group upon hearing of ACT UP’s return to Los Angeles. These more skeptical observers include those queers who remember with disdain ACT UP disrupting traffic on the Golden Gate bridge, sit-ins during mass at New York's St. Patrick’s Cathedral, name-calling, telephone and fax assaults on “enemies” to people with AIDS, as well as attacks on health professionals ACT UP deemed hypocritical or exploitative. Not all who lived through the late 1980s and early 1990s consider ACT UP a proud moment of community mobilization. Then there are the former members of ACT UP who regard nostalgia for the past a doomed attempt to jump-start the glory days of activism. “But the meetings were so boring?” sighed one former ACT UP member. “And what about all those lunatics?” chimed in another. For them, a re-formed ACT UP signals little more than a desperate return to spent ideas and weary solutions. What this present historical moment needs is not a return to ACT UP. What is needed now is a return to the present.

Between these two apparently opposing responses lies something resembling a way forward. While the refrain goes that the AIDS crisis is over, the visible manifestations of the crisis itself have in fact been dispersed and distributed across a wider portion of the world’s population. Fifteen years ago ACT UP adorned American cities with stickers designed by Gran Fury. The sticker showed a bloody handprint and the words, “The Government has blood on its hands: one AIDS death every half hour." The time was soon scratched out and replaced with fifteen minutes, then twelve, then seven, then six. Today we can say that the global pandemic claims one person roughly every ten seconds. In any given day, eight thousand people die from AIDS.

Domestically, we have all heard the statistics about the dramatic increases in HIV infections among African American women, Latino gay men, and prisoners. But do we need to be moved by statistics to understand the ever-present specter of the crisis? In the six months since ACT UP reconstituted itself in Los Angeles, three of our members have died from AIDS-related illnesses. The introduction of Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapies (HAART) into our lives may have given many people with AIDS a reprieve from the constant onslaught of death. However, there are growing concerns about whether our bodies can endure the treatment indefinitely. Meanwhile, HIV ravages where poverty, homelessness and homophobia make war on entire communities.

In August of 2004, a small group of ACT UP alumni and their friends recognized the specter of crisis and began the work of re-launching a Los Angeles chapter. Hearing from many in the ASO sphere that ACT UP's return was urgently needed, this group went ahead convening the first general meeting. Although appearances at neighborhood street festivals had yielded over 700 signatures of people interested in ACT UP, fewer than two-dozen showed up to North Hollywood in the Fireside Room of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church. Discussions ensued whether the group had miscalculated. In the past, ACT UP Los Angeles had a reputation for being a white gay man’s organization, meeting in West Hollywood and organizing aggressively in the AIDS-effected gay community. While Los Angeles County in fact claims numerous lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities including North Hollywood, the city of West Hollywood continues to hold a certain iconic status as a gay municipality even as census figures show otherwise.

Nevertheless, it was our contention that if a newly organized ACT UP chapter was to reflect the pandemic economically, racially, geographically, and in terms of sexual and gender identity, the meetings needed to be located elsewhere than West Hollywood. Was this a mistake? Perhaps, but an even more fundamental question asks us to consider what does an AIDS activist mobilization sound like at this point in the epidemic?

Fifteen years ago, the disenfranchisement of large numbers of PWAs from the public health system led to the constitution of ACT UP chapters through-out the United States. Angry that disenfranchisement was killing people and turning an infectious disease into a social disaster, people quickly politicized themselves and gathered the will to put their bodies into direct action politics. ACT UP offered a necessary counter platform to the moral platitudes about personal responsibility and the wages of sexual liberty. For AIDS activists, a health crisis on the scale of AIDS was not produced by personal irresponsibility or the natural progression of a virus. Rather the very constitution of the crisis stemmed directly from the deadly confluence of corporate greed (sick people make money for the pharmaceutical industry) and state-sponsored homophobia, racism, sexism and poverty. The Government had blood on its hands.

This analysis profoundly impacted how common people made sense of their experiences with HIV / AIDS. Understanding how AIDS thrives where public health systems break down gave activists a critical perspective on the way the AIDS crisis developed. For the hundreds of artists involved in ACT UP at that time, art had the potential to do more than remove stigma or humanize the epidemic. Art amplified anger. If AIDS activist art interrogated representations of PWAs as informing and informed by ideologies around sex, race, class and gender (in a sophisticated reversal of the base/superstructure model of culture’s relationship to the economic), the mode of that interrogation was anger.

* * *

Barring a connection to direct action, today's desire to preserve a lost affective mode (anger) and a profound awareness of that mode as lost inflects our conversations in ACT UP. During a day-long organizing retreat in November of 2004, ACT UP revisited the classic AIDS activist documentary Voices from the Front (1992). The images of mass mobilizations at the FDA, the NIH and the Sixth International AIDS Conference in San Francisco elicited wistful responses from the activists in the room. For most of us, even the long-time survivors, the images of outrage seemed distant and remote. Responded one activist; "Filling our heads with images of large demonstrations of hundreds of angry PWAs will only set us up for disappointment."

If we can offer any assessment of the current mood of AIDS, we would be hard pressed for a more descriptive word than disappointment. The appearance of the AIDS uncanny in the present moment does little to inspire white hot anger - at least not in sufficient amounts to motivate spontaneous mobilization. Instead, we taste the bitterness of disappointment, the sting of grief and even cynicism. The same can be witnessed in the recent string of projects that construct an ACT UP memorial. Jim Hubbard's and Sarah Schulman's ACT UP Oral History Project (2004) and Alexandra Juhasz’s Video Remains (2004) both attempt to recover the memory of ACT UP New York. Juhasz’s video goes one step further juxtaposing video images of a dear friend who died during the video-maker’s involvement in ACT UP, with telephone conversations between fellow ACT UP alumni. These retrospective voices and images are then layered on top of clips from Juhasz’s work with an AIDS Project Los Angeles youth support group. The gravity of the activists' reflections are set against comments by young people whose relationship to HIV shows no traces of AIDS activist discourse or that history in which Juhasz was an agent. The accumulative affect of this exchange is one of profound loss: loss of a political discourse, its history and analysis.

Is the role of art at this moment to trace that loss for some hope of restoring what is absent? This is a dubious project. Central to the antagonisms within AIDS advocacy is the tension between long-term survivors of AIDS who function as the epidemic's living memory and the more recently sero-converted that see themselves as living under radically different conditions than the epidemic fifteen years ago. This tension takes on additional layers of race and gender when people with HIV are led to believe they are denied services available to people with AIDS. In Los Angeles County, a number of ASOs and members of the County AIDS Commission would rather adopt HIV names reporting protocols than protest new Centers for Disease Control HIV surveillance guidelines. To muster support in the AIDS community, proponents of names reporting offer contradictory rationale for the policy change. Among these claims is the promise that names reporting will clear the way for HIV positive people to access the same services currently available only to people with AIDS. Constructing a notion of scarcity of resources based on whether a person is symptomatic, proponents use this tension to cast HIV positive people of color (many of whom are women) against gay men living with AIDS. When the latter speak at public hearings and remind the community that opposition to names reporting has been a fundamental of the movement, advocates of names reporting accuse them of irrelevance and obfuscation. Worse, organizations like Being Alive and ACT UP are accused of endangering the lives of HIV positive people, specifically men and women of color.

One can see how the AIDS uncanny has returned within a new set of social coordinates. The backdrop for this sort of tension within the AIDS community is ten years of depoliticization. AIDS activists have long critiqued the ASO-sector for failing to politicize their base and instead reducing PWAs to passive consumers of drugs and services. When an ASO does mobilize people with HIV and AIDS, the reasons are generally to stave off threats to their own funding. Once the threat is gone, the crisis returns to manageability and politics go back in the closet. In the absence of a sustained critique around the economics of AIDS and the contradictions of a profit-driven health care delivery system, divisions are bound to arise. Through budget cuts and ideologically-driven policies, the current government has fomented ever-increasing divisions. For example, many ASOs mobilize clients at any hint of cuts to State and Federal AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAP). Those same ASOs do little to protest the way ADAP subsidizes big pharma profits with public money. Neither are there protests against the Federal Government's refusal to regulate the costs of the very drugs being subsidized. On an international level, global AIDS advocates work with big pharma developing barriers that will prevent generic drugs from reaching North America and Europe. Conversely, domestic ASOs partner with the Bush administration’s unilateral global AIDS fund, subscribing to Bush prevention policy around abstinence and the refutation of harm reduction and family planning.

Community-based advocacy has taken a hit under the Bush administration where ideology trumps basic science. Previously, the disenfranchisement of people with AIDS from public discourse (both in terms of representation and actual health institutions) produced a palatable level of outrage. Shaming health officials and demonstrating the dehumanizing biopolitics around HIV and AIDS, led to the successful seizure of the political moment. Today one is forced to ask, in an era of shamelessness, what effect can outrage and righteous indignation have when hypocrisy is the order of the day? Even if anger were possible around AIDS, would it effect the same transformations as fifteen years ago? Ultimately the question is moot. That level of rage simply does not exist. But neither does that fact automatically mean that all of us impacted by AIDS are apathetic or self-satisfied. Accessing services, adhering to drug regimes and maintaining health retain their proto-political character, building the conditions for potential collective action.

*   *   *

In closing, let us attempt to posit three tactical propositions for considering an AIDS politics art practice within this moment of the AIDS uncanny. First, we remain doubtful that restaging the art of outrage from the early '90s will succeed in an alchemical change in our disappointment. Perhaps outrage will come should conditions around the pandemic worsen due to further budget cuts and an escalating imposition of ideological reaction. (Do we really believe Faith Based Initiatives are a better choice for AIDS service delivery than GMHC, San Francisco AIDS Foundation, or AIDS Project Los Angeles?) Anticipating catastrophe as a means of mobilizing a base is not only useless in the present, it is ethically untenable. We end up sounding like Larry Kramer with his macabre fantasies of piles of corpses as a means to a political end. Fantasizing about wide-scale death and misery is the logical outcome of binding political mobilization to an absent anger. Activists and artists need to work with the affective condition in which we reside.

In terms of art and its capacity to sustain and signify affect, the problematic can not be exhausted in cathartic performances of lament. In a post-911 society, our grief has been too speedily resolved into vengeance. Rather -- and here is our second proposition -- our challenge is to produce work that suspends resolution and that employs duration to construct spaces in which our loss and grief can acquire a critical language directed against dehumanization. If "Political art produces irresolution," says artist and AIDS activist Gregg Bordowitz, then our work must resist solidification as objects in the room but rather seek to construct the room itself. Assuming temporal forms such as performance, installation and social process, a renewed AIDS activist art may pursue the durational to the point of becoming a spatial practice.

Thirdly, reviewing activist art from ACT UP's past, we should not feel bound to the mode of propaganda, or utterances and objects that shock us into action. If the function of AIDS activist art is to hail the activist community, to materialize its affective modalities into a constitutive community, and to articulate the spaces for the collective construction of critical discourse, then the art of ACT UP's return must do precisely that in the midst of our grief and our disappointments. The AIDS uncanny has not arrived at this moment adorned in a spectacle of the abject. Rather, a new AIDS aesthetic needs to perform what writer Grant Kester has called "dialogical aesthetics." As Kester argues, since modernism art has possessed the capacity to "open space within contemporary culture: a space in which certain questions can be asked, certain critical analyses articulated, that would not be accepted or tolerated elsewhere" (68). This capacity goes to the very threat art poses in an increasingly totalitarian regime. Thus, for Kester, assigning the appellate of art to "dialogical and collaborative encounters with others" opens up a space within the "broader cultural and political arena within which these various forms of aesthetic knowledge can be mobilized" (69).

A dialogical aesthetic embraces the durational and the space between subjects to invite participation in the creation of a critical discourse. In reflecting existing conditions around the AIDS crisis, that discourse functions not as a resolution but as a problem. The artist constructs the affective architecture in which PWAs, AIDS activists, case managers and service providers can take up questions systematically erased from our social exchanges. Instead of asking how we might manage the epidemic, a dialogical aesthetic gives agency to questions such as, how might we end the AIDS crisis? What institutions, policies and political actors are responsible for sustaining the crisis? What policies and institutions are responsible for making an HIV diagnosis a means of escape from chronic homelessness, lack of access to healthcare, and relief from mental illness? What and who has produced the dehumanization and stigma of living with HIV and AIDS? In other words, artists possess the capacity to give permission for the sort of questions that would translate our grief and disillusionment in an analysis for direct action. Fueling that capacity is an ability to listen, or, what Paulo Freire calls, "the discipline of silence."

Fifteen years ago, Douglas Crimp argued that "the aesthetic values of the traditional art world are of little consequence to AIDS activists" (15). A guiding pragmatism led to a suspicion of work that insisted on its status as art. At this moment claiming our conversations as an aesthetic practice makes available a valorization of collective affects.  A renewed AIDS activist art forgoes the question of constructing the ideal political affect -- where being united in anger serves as the necessary condition for ending the AIDS crisis. Instead, art as a participatory conversation listens to the politics of the way we feel now. Art is no longer the rarefied labor of the artist, but "the product of a collaboratively generated insight" (Kester, 95). Taking the claim of art seriously offers more than merely an aestheticization of our politics, but rather makes available the politics of our affects. This sort of turn helps us to comprehend how this moment "has its own integrity, its own logic." An art practice of ACT UP's return must help us symbolize the timbre of now as much as clarify its distinction from then. Through reflection, analysis and struggle, may that art also assist us in reaching a better future.

Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, trans. David McLintock (New York: Penguin Books, 2003).

Writing specifically about AIDS activist graphics, Douglas Crimp and Adam Rolston explain in their classic text AIDS Demo Graphics (Seattle: Bay Press, 1990) how the art of groups like Gran Fury hailed the AIDS activists. ACT UP graphics "function as an organizing tool, by conveying, in compressed form, information and political positions to others affected by the epidemic, to onlookers at demonstrations, and to the dominant media. But their primary audience is the movement itself. AIDS activist graphics enunciate AIDS politics to and for all of us in the movement" (20).  Strategically, artists turned to posters, billboards, public access television and other interventions into the public sphere. If PWAs were going to be disenfranchised with deadly consequences from discourse around public health, then artists and activists alike would insert themselves into that public with all the vengeance of the return of the repressed.

This essay benefited greatly from a number of conversations. Thanks go to the ACT UP training and outreach working group Agents of Change, the LAID:CC study group, David Gere and the Make Art / Stop AIDS project, Alexandra Juhasz, Robert Sember, AA Bronson, Gregg Bordowitz, Ming-Yuen S. Ma, Bob Fink and our compañeros in Ultra-red. Thanks also to the AIDS service organizations Ultra-red interviewed in Spring 2005 while preparing for the "Sound Politics" exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

We speak here of the return of ACT UP to the specific context of Southern California. The original chapter of ACT UP in New York has remained a vital force in AIDS activism as has the Philadelphia chapter. For the sake of abbreviation, this essay will refrain from the full-name of ACT UP Southern California. Those who have remained in the fight in New York and Philadelphia (as well as ACT UP Paris) will forgive us the slip of the tongue. Nevertheless, even in those contexts, a consideration of this return poses a poignant set of challenges. In the realm of uncanny, the thing that returns never went away: so it is for large numbers of artists and AIDS activists even in New York who have long withdrawn from ACT UP.

Another reason for skepticism around ACT UP's return has to do with damage done to the name and the politics by ACT UP Hollywood. Siding with those who denied HIV was the cause of AIDS, ACT UP Hollywood succeeded in garnering enough support among local global justice activists that they were able to co-opt the history and tactics of the movement. The new Southern California chapter of ACT UP rejects the positions of the AIDS denialists. For a refutation of HIV denialism, visit the ACT UP New York website at: http://www.actupny.org.

This question first arose in our own practice during research for Ultra-red's performance as part of the "Sound Politics" exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art in April 2005. Thanks to Robert Sember for articulating the original formulation during an interview with PJ Gouldmann, former Chair of the Ryan White Care Act Planning Council of Baltimore.

To this list we can also add James Wentzy's Fight Back, Fight AIDS: 15 Years of ACT UP (2002) and Ann Cvetkovich's book An Archive of Feelings (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

See Esther Kaplan, With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George W. Bush's White House (New York: The New Press, 2004).

Diamanda Galas self-consciously modeled her performance after the role of women in pre-modern European cultures employed to act out the grief of others. While for Galas, the women performed a gesture of resistance against oppression, in the context of the AIDS epidemic the image of the wailing mourner for hire epitomizes an understanding of art which objectifies the affective states of the listener for purposes of resolution (or the popular parlance, "closure"). See Ian Penman, "Matters of Life and Death: Mourning Becomes Diamanda Galas," The Wire 190/191, January 2000: 59 - 65.

Gregg Bordowitz, The AIDS Crisis is Ridiculous and Other Writings, 1986 - 2003 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003): 278.

In distinguishing dialogical aesthetics from Nicolas Bourriaud's more liberal relational aesthetics, Kester turns to Bakhtin's notion "that the work of art can be viewed as a kind of conversation -- a locus of different meanings, interpretations, and points of view" (10). Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California, 2004).

Describing how a radical education represents existing social conditions, or "meaningful thematics" back to the community from whom that representation was constructed, Paulo Freire writes: "The task of the dialogical teacher […] is to 're-present' that universe to the people from whom he first received it -- and 're-present' it not as a lecture, but as a problem" (101). Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: The Seabury Press, 1970).

"In the process of speaking and listening, the discipline of silence, which needs to be developed with serious intent by subjects who speak and listen, is a sine qua non of dialogical communication" (105). Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage, trans. Patrick Clarke (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001). See also Ultra-red, "Listening Material: 'Democracy When? And an Art Practice of Organizing," Fuse Magazine, Vol. 26, No. 2, April 2003: 26 - 31.

These are Bordowitz's words describing the singularity of AIDS activism in South Africa. (274).