Paul Schulz & Christian Lütjens Help Us Visualize Gay Male History
by Chael Needle
Positive Pictures: A Gay History (Bruno Gmünder) assembles an archive of images that asks us, when reflecting on contemporary gay realities, to see AIDS differently—the lifebeat within the loss, the dream within the nightmare, the epiphanies within the epidemic.
“…[N]othing since Stonewall has changed gay men’s lives as much as HIV. We live differently, love differently, have different sex. We act differently towards one another, and we approach our own selves differently,” write authors Paul Schulz, deputy editor in chief of Männer magazine and co-editor in chief of M+ magazine, and Christian Lütjens, editor at large at Männer and co-editor in chief of M+, in their introductory raison d’être. The authors also seek to honor those who have died and reignite the living, writing: “There’s an Asian proverb that says we make the dead live again when we say their names. So we’re saying them in many different ways and letting others say them in many different voices, representing various positions. And we also wanted to make this book because so many of us are still living and have lots of interesting things to show and tell.”
Positive Pictures engages a chronology that covers the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Within each timelined section, inaugurated by portraits and companioned by images and essays, subdivisions are tagged Art, Movement, Porn & Sex, Medicine, and Entertainment. Interviews with film director Rosa von Praunheim, porn director Chi Chi LaRue, and advocate and model Jack Mackenroth [A&U, November 2010] also help to create linkages among the lived experiences of those within the gay diaspora that was at first hardest hit.
Bringing together activists Larry Kramer and David Kato, actors Rock Hudson and Erik Rhodes, artists Steven Arnold and Joe De Hoyos, musicians Klaus Nomi and Andy Bell, advocates Edwin Cameron and Timothy Ray Brown, among others, Positive Pictures uncovers diverse intellectual, sensual, emotional, and aesthetic expressions across pamphlets, posters, paintings, photos, quilt panels, film stills, and more. With a bilingual text in English and German, the book’s prose and visuals are as inspiring as they are dazzling.
A&U had a chance to speak with the Germany-based authors via e-mail.
Chael Needle: “To look at a thing is very different from seeing it”—you introduce the book with this quote from Oscar Wilde. Why do you feel it is
important to emphasize the visual? Is it related to how visible the gay community has become as a result of HIV/AIDS and our response to HIV/AIDS?
Paul Schulz: In one word: Yes. HIV/AIDS were (and are) catalysts for the visibility of gay men (and women and transgender individuals) everywhere. The virus was (and is) an enormous thread for LGBT communities around the globe and that prompted an explosive reaction from activists and artists in the western world and still does so today in many other countries.
In the beginning of the 1980s, gay men didn’t have time to be afraid anymore, because many of us were dying or very sick. Things had to be done, the time for patience and polite requests to the establishment was over. Within five years, there were literally tens of thousands of visual, literary, or other artistic reactions to HIV and AIDS. Art merged with political activism as it had rarely done before in human history. The result was an artistic language that incorporates the political, that asks questions and has opinions, instead of being merely beautiful, sexy, funny, or pleasing to the eye. All these aspects are there, but combined with a sense of urgency, that had not been seen before. The result was completely new and at the same time very, very gay. All NGOs that are admired for their drastic imagery today learned from the fight against HIV/AIDS how to do that. PETA or Greenpeace would not use the kind of visual style they have, if HIV/AIDS activists had not invented that language. The “die-ins” of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence or everything ACT UP did not only change the face of the gay movement, they changed the entire visual make-up of political activism.
We’ve tried to illustrate that development in Positive Pictures. At the same time we hope the book can help to educate younger generations about the heroics of their gay forefathers.
Christian Lütjens: In addition to this, the quote is a perfect metaphor for the gap between pictures that are most often associated with HIV and AIDS and what the reality looks like. That was a subject that we dealt with all the time while working on this book. So many people said: “What? You’re working on a book about HIV? What a depressing subject. People don’t want to look at people dying, do they?” That’s a common and understandable reaction. But it’s superficial as well. It’s just a first “look at things.” Not every picture dealing with HIV and AIDS is dealing with death. On the contrary. There is so much lust for life in so-called HIV art. You need to dig deeper to “see” this. That’s what we do with this book.
In 1980s’ “Love Vigilantes” section, you mention images that were able to show “the momentous scope of the events taking place,” like the Challenger explosion and people dancing on the Berlin Wall, in contrast to the absence of a definitive AIDS-related image at that time. In light of this, did choosing images for the book seem like a daunting task?
Christian: Not at all. That’s a point directly connected with what I just said. The absence of “the one” picture illustrating HIV and AIDS was a chance to have a closer look at the imagery related to the subject. I’d say it was more challenging than daunting. And it was fun as there was still so much to discover.
Paul: Only in the end [as] we had so many things we wanted to show and we had so many pictures we wanted to have in the book, that we did not know the copyright holder of. There are many, many pictures that are not in the book for that reason, because the artist was dead and we could not find out who to get permission from to use them. Frustrating.
But the process was also wonderful: We discovered and rediscovered so much great art and many wonderful artists during our initial research, it wasn’t exactly daunting but a little overwhelming. Every day, for months on end, we dug up pictures that “are just unbelievable. People need to know this stuff. And why don’t we know this already?” Because nobody had told us. Because many of those pictures are not in the canon of gay imagery anymore. Every time we showed gay men in their twenties what we had, they were amazed at what had been done, at the audacity of what artists had tried to do. And that made us want to tell people about it even more.
Which image in the book has the most resonance for you? Why?
Paul: I love the two pictures of a German artist group called NURR we have in the book. They are part of a larger group of pictures called “Light Infection” and are at the same time very sad and very playful and just move me.
Christian: The work of BEWEGUNG NURR is a favorite of us both. For me there is as well the picture of the empty bed by Felix Gonzales-Torres. It’s such an impressive symbol for that “presence of absence” aspect which came up in the nineties when so many people had died already.
You write: “This book exists because we wanted to know how we got where we are.” What did you learn, or how did your thinking change, about gay male
history in the process of compiling the book?
Paul: We talked about that a little already. Writing and editing the book has reaffirmed my belief that gay men can literally change the world if they want to, because they’ve done it at least once already and do it again every day, in many countries. It was wonderful to comprehend a little more what fighters we can be, how loud, how direct, how unwavering in our need to be heard and understood. I love how proud the work on the book made me to be a gay man, because of what we have achieved as a group when it comes to HIV/AIDS.
Christian: Working on this book was a lesson about how important solidarity is to move things in life.
The book seems to be about the past as much as it is about the future. Do you feel there is a danger that our history will be forgotten? Or that we might think we can one day close the book on this chapter of history?
Paul: I think we need to start a project that is much larger than this book or A&U magazine to save all that has been written and made by artists during the AIDS Crisis. Many of the books are out of print, much of the art is not very well taken care of but rotting away in attics and garages. That has to change. All of that is gay history and it is vital to preserve it, so future generations can see it and understand it. I hope to live to see the day when there is a cure for AIDS, but I don’t think we can ever fully close the book on this chapter artistically, the world has been changed by it and gay life will forever be different for it.
Christian: First question: Of course. People tend to forget things very quickly, especially if their situation is comfortable enough to not constantly be pushed to reflect on their roots and identity. For that reason it’s very important that there are institutions and publications to preserve our history. Second question: Maybe we can close the book on this chapter one day but we must not forget about it. It’s a part of gay identity and it will always be.
The book ends with, “It’s not 1984 anymore. But Toto: we’re not quite home yet.” You could also say, then, that the end of the book is also a beginning. What do you hope that readers derive from the book?
Paul: A greater sense of gay history. A sense of pride of all that has already been done in the fight against HIV/AIDS, a sense of solidarity with those who are still fighting today everywhere in the world. And the idea that we also fight against the virus every time we do anything against homophobia anywhere on the planet.
Christian: It may sound pathetic but: If people recognize the importance of really living their own lives, defending their points of view and fighting for their rights after spending time with our book that would be perfect. We’re very concerned with imitating heterosexual lifestyles these days. From this point of view it’s even more important to look back in time from time to time.
Is there anything we have not addressed that you would like to address?
Paul + Christian: We want people to have fun with the book and we hope they do. We made it as beautiful as we could.
For more information about ordering Positive Pictures, visit the publisher’s Web site at: www.brunogmuender.com.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.