Visual AIDS marks the twenty-fifty anniversary of Day With(out) Art
by Alina Oswald
If art were a person, she—yes, she—would be a historian, documenting not only our desires and fantasies, but also the part of history usually left untold. And when it comes to documenting the history of AIDS, maybe there’s no better historian than art.
In 1989 Visual AIDS launched the Day With(out) Art programming in response to the epidemic decimating the artistic community, and also as a way to commemorate the lives of artists lost to HIV/AIDS. This year Visual AIDS marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Day With(out) Art with a screening of original short videos about the ongoing epidemic. The program, called “Alternate Endings,” brings together seven artists—including including Rhys Ernst, Glen Fogel, Tom Kalin, Lyle Ashton Harris, Hi Tiger, Derek Jackson, My Barbarian, and Julie Tolentino—to create new and fresh video work in response to old and new issues surrounding HIV/AIDS.
The title, “Alternate Endings,” has its source in screenwriting and Hollywood film, and refers to those different endings that are scripted, and sometimes shot, but never used. In the case of Day With(out) Art, it is meant to suggest the possibilities of someone living with HIV/AIDS longer and in greater health, in contrast to twenty-five years ago when people living with the virus had a much shorter lifespan. The title also suggests we can now flip the script and fight for an ending of our own design.
I recently caught up with filmmaker Tom Kalin, an ACT UP member, a member of the Gran Fury collective, and prominent award-winning artist, who was tapped by Visual AIDS to help organize the film project; and with contributor Derek Jackson, award-winning artist and performer in a band called Hi Tiger (and Visual AIDS archive member), to talk about Alternate Endings, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of Day With(out) Art.
Alina Oswald: Could you explain your collaboration with Visual AIDS on this project?
Tom Kalin: Initially we all put together a long list of artists that we thought might be interesting to consult. There was an attempt to mix generations, in terms of AIDS and experience. The idea was to curate a diverse group of people, not only filmmakers, but also photographers, and visual artists. There are artists whom I’ve known for years, and others I have never met.
Ted Kerr [the former Programs Manager of Visual AIDS] created a visual brief, and a text brief meant to inspire thought [offering] a look at AIDS from the early eighties until present day, [through] images from newspaper, popular culture or activist images, a collection of themes and ideas talking about the global pandemic, and looking at the issues of AIDS and aging, AIDS and gender, and women or transgender populations.
Derek Jackson: Beyond the initial invitation, and now in these final stages of technical post-production and formatting issues, they gave me pretty free reign, which was nice. [The video that I put together for this project] is very simple, very minimal, [a sample of] an intimate performance that we did in July of a song that I liked and have been singing for four years. It’s called “The Village,” by New Order.
You have a film screening at the event, Tom. What is it about?
TK: Over the years I’ve made a bunch of movies that deal with AIDS. This is the most different from anything I’ve done [so far]. It’s quite reflective, ethereal in a way. I’m using high-resolution imagery from the natural world, as well as from the urban world, photographed using time lapse, [to suggest] the passage of time in relationship to AIDS, interweaving personal moments with the public moments.
How about Hi Tiger, Derek? Why did you choose to recreate the song, “The Village”?
DJ: Hi Tiger is an art punk band. [Its] name comes from a song called “Teach Me Tiger,” by April Stevens, a really breathy kind of a love song.
I grew up on the border of Mexico, where British bands were actually popular with Mexicans on the border. You wouldn’t think so, but they identified with this British irony, outsider status. And then Hi Tiger came away to reconnect with that. In terms of HIV/AIDS…new wave, the eighties…this was when it all went down. So that’s why “The Village” is a very sad [song], it’s like I’m singing to ghosts.
Tom, you are an award-winning, prominent artist who’s been vocal about HIV/AIDS-related issues since the very beginning of the epidemic. You continue doing so, when you could have moved on to more…popular topics. Why?
TK: It’s just my nature. I was an interdisciplinary in art major. My own career has traveled in different forms. The AIDS crisis is still a global pandemic that’s taking the lives of people all over the world. I think it’s really in my nature to believe in the possibility of social change, and, while in the middle of my career—and my life—I find it stimulating to meet emerging artists through a project like this, and to use whatever exposure I have in my own career to help them. Because artists who were critics of my work, when I moved to New York in the eighties, were incredibly important to me.
Derek, you evolved as an artist, from writer to visual artist, and now a performer in your own band. You also raise AIDS awareness. Can you explain this artistic evolution?
DJ: It’s about the generative process. I observe the experiences, stories, and I play with forms of documenting them. Certainly, I love curating exhibitions, but with a band, working with music videos [and] live performances, it feels like a natural evolution.
[And I raise AIDS awareness] because of the way [AIDS] has affected my life, and the lives of people around me. It’s something that I struggle with.
How do you see Day With(out) Art today compared to the one a quarter-century ago?
TK: The condition of the AIDS crisis is in a different state now than it was twenty-five years ago. There are now life-saving antiretroviral drugs to fight the progression of AIDS. There are a lot of changes with HIV prevention, most significant the introduction of a [PrEP] drug like Truvada, as new ways to deal with the issue of HIV transmission. [And yet,] we still don’t have an effective vaccine. Because of [its] history, Day With(out) Art is about reflecting on what has happened before and looking at what it’s going to come.
DJ: Twenty-five years ago I was a junior or senior in high school, in Tennessee. Then I moved to New York, and there was certainly an awareness surrounding HIV/AIDS. It was very pressed upon us to be safe. And as a young artist, with an interest in activism, I volunteered, attended meetings, and tried to become educated.
I’ve definitely seen more compassion toward people living with HIV. Ten years ago, people had no problem brandishing words like “clean.” Sero-sorting was part of people’s personal prevention habits. The thinking around that has evolved. So the language has changed, and evolved.
What’s really amazing is the preservation of legacy and history [of AIDS]. There are so many artists that I can think about. I can see them in the sky looking down on me when I do stupid things, wagging their finger, or maybe showing me the way. And if those artists hadn’t been lost, they might have actually been my mentors. So [Day With(out) Art] is about honoring their legacy, and then sharing it the best I can…because I am here.
What do you wish for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Day With(out) Art?
TK: I hope that the project is an effective reminder that the HIV/AIDS crisis is not over. There’s enormous hope and cause for optimism about the tools we have to fight the crisis. In this country we deal with healthcare in a way that we’ve never done before. No matter what people think of President Obama’s healthcare initiative, [they may start] thinking of more holistic ways of dealing with the human body, death and dying, access to logical and rational healthcare. It’s important, because AIDS is a part of this larger conversation.
DJ: I am excited to share this amazing video work, and [different] perspectives about art and AIDS. Representations of [HIV/AIDS] can be very textured, idiosyncratic, beautiful, and might inspire [people] in their own lives to create that relationship to HIV/AIDS.
I couldn’t end the conversation without bringing up the Ebola crisis, and the parallels drawn between behaviors surrounding it here in the U.S. (panic, quarantine) and the early AIDS crisis. Derek Jackson reminds that tens of thousands of people had died before AIDS was called an epidemic. And yet, he believes that we can learn from history, and avoid mistakes made in the past. Tom Kalin, on the other hand, is not that certain. “It’s useful for me to remember that in ACT UP many of us learned from members within that activist organization who were older than we were, and who experienced the civil rights movement of the sixties. The optimistic part of me believes that we learn from what we did right and wrong in the past, and correct things,” he adds. “In light of the emerging Ebola crisis, it’s hard for me not to think back to the early days of AIDS….But they are totally different, separate crises.”
For more information about Visual AIDS and the twenty-fifth anniversary of Day With(out) Art and its related events, please log on to: www.visualaids.org.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.