Sur Rodney (Sur) talks about redressing AIDS lies through art
by Larry Buhl
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
I like to have a good idea of who my subjects are before interviewing them. This is to avoid saying, “How do you, um, define yourself?” before moving on to something more incisive.
My first stop was Sur Rodney (Sur)’s website, where I found pages that would have been amateurish even in 1995—text-based, with every section (curating, writing, archiving, and performance) grudgingly providing a 250-word synopsis of his involvement in those areas and starting with the same line: The enigmatic Sur Rodney Sur…
“The site is a joke,” Sur tells me, explaining that was his nod to the common notion that nobody will take you seriously without a website. So he took conventional wisdom and used a technique he preferred in his early art; he parodied it, here, with generic text frozen in time.
“People want to say I’m a curator, filmmaker, a performer,” he says. “Some of the worlds don’t collide. The black art world doesn’t know about the gay literary world. AIDS and art doesn’t tie into my literary work. On film projects, I’m a producer working behind the scenes so that people don’t recognize that I’m involved until they see the credits roll.”
Sur says his late partner, Geoffrey Hendricks, who collaborated on a series of cultural projects relating to art and AIDS, wanted to be recognized for who he was, while Sur prefers to be recognized for what he’s done.
“But,” Sur adds, “I don’t wear my biography on my sleeve. I’m a modest person, and I don’t announce who and what I am because I’ve never cared about that. Eventually the things I’ve done, people will catch up or not.” Though he breezily mentions that People magazine celebrated him as one of the most intriguing people in 1985. Many might still consider him a most intriguing person. Definitely enigmatic.
When anything was possible, where everything was likely
Sur moved to the East Village in New York City in the summer of 1976 with a degree from Montreal Museum of Fine Arts School of Art and Design, flat broke, just like the city. This was not long after President Gerald Ford denied federal assistance to save New York from bankruptcy. But from urban adversity arose artistic opportunity. Because it was cheap to live there, a community of artists, writers, poets, visual artists and photographers, outsiders to the rest of the world, thrived, without worrying too much about making it big in order to cover the rent. Sur, checking off several of those boxes, quickly became part of the East Village art scene before it was officially a scene.
Sur says one word best describes the art world of New York in the seventies and early eighties: kaboom. “We thought anything was possible. We did our work and we didn’t expect the New York Times to cover it. They were square anyway. We didn’t need to be endorsed. We didn’t have the same financial pressure as today, because you could rent a store front for $600.”
“In the eighties we were figuring out what worked and didn’t. A lot was a comment on what was bad and we parodied it. Like parodying a woman having an abortion. Try doing that today. You can’t. But then, if we bombed, who would know about it? Twenty, fifty people. Now fifty people are taking cell phone video and it goes around the globe immediately. We were experimenting and there wasn’t a fear of being politically correct. We were so incorrect.”
In the eighties, the dust from the seventies art big bang began coalescing into art stars, with press orbiting up-and-coming artists, and big money started flowing in. Star-chasing soon followed, and that subdued innovation, Sur laments. But in the queer art world, and to a certain extent among queer artists with AIDS, the creativity never stopped.
Instead of chasing the star-maker machine, Sur went in a slightly different direction. He became an art curator. With his business partner, Gracie Mansion, Sur co-directed the Gracie Mansion Gallery from 1983 to 1988. The gallery was key to establishing Lower Manhattan’s East Village as an internationally recognized art district, and there Sur cultivated young and edgy artists, including David Wojnarowicz.
Much of Sur’s writing, video and performance work was done before Internet search engines—I’ve looked for them—and live on only in lore. You won’t find the Sur Rodney Sur Show, which he hosted on Manhattan Cable TV. His work as a multimedia performance artist in the Blackheart Collective evaporated into the ether. His writings in publications such as The Road Before Us: One Hundred Black Gay Poets (1991) and Words of Fire (1995)…good luck finding them. YouTube does have links to his series of “free advice” videos from 2008, where Sur provides, from a roadside table with a handmade sign, expertise on a variety of topics.
But the fact that much of his work is gone and maybe forgotten is fine with Sur, because his career emphasis changed, from making art to archiving and preserving others’ art. It was a career course correction spurred by devastation.
By the mid-eighties, AIDS was like a neutron bomb in urban communities. There were no approved medications. Hospitals treated AIDS patients like pariahs. Nurses refused to treat them. People just disappeared. It became clear to Sur by 1988, once his friends began getting sick and dying, that the energy he’d spent on the gallery for five years needed to take another direction. So he walked away from Gracie and became a full-time caregiver.
“I was not involved in any of the political activism,” Sur says. “A lot of my friends were in ACT UP, but I was at doctor’s offices, lawyer’s offices, homes or at a memorial.” And most of his friends, both well and sick, were artists. And he wondered, when they died where would their artwork, papers and files go?
“Many artists asked me to care for their work, because they thought their family would just throw it away.” Sur became a repository for a lot of these artists’ histories, until that effort became overwhelming.
So he asked for help from Visual AIDS, and in 1996 Sur co-founded the Frank Moore Archive Project along with his partner, Geoffrey Hendricks, and Frank Moore. The project supports artists with HIV/AIDS in the management of their estates, with the understanding that, if they couldn’t collect all of their work, and they couldn’t, at least they could document it through photography. Later, in 2012, Visual AIDS established the online Artist+ Registry, the largest database and registry of works by visual artists with HIV/AIDS.
Not long after Archive Project was inaugurated, the fever of the initial AIDS crisis broke. The cocktail was out, people were living longer, and articles came out saying, incorrectly, that AIDS was over. Activism waned. But Sur understood that saving the work of artists with AIDS was even more urgent.
“Visual AIDS became a necessary institution for keeping art and AIDS alive,” Sur says. “If not for Visual AIDS we would know much less than we do now.”
AIDS redress and truth telling
Sur still sees his primary role as truth teller about the AIDS crisis and the artists who were lost to it. AIDS in the eighties, Sur maintains, didn’t stop the art-making. Instead, it turned off people from wanting to deal with artists with HIV/AIDS. “People just wanted to push it away because it was too sad and ugly but also dangerous.”
And that shunning continued for decades. Sur recalls an art exhibit in the nineties that featured a work by artist David Wojnarowicz, where Sur was asked to write wall text explaining the imagery of a photo where the artist’s head was buried in the earth. “I wrote about the body and mortality and an artist living with AIDS. They came back and said, ‘I’m sorry we can’t say this; it’s too upsetting. Can you take out any reference to AIDS?’”
“You couldn’t talk about anyone’s work. Like Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died of AIDS, and his lover died of AIDS. The foundation that represents him will not include him in any exhibitions that deal with the HIV/AIDS pandemic because they do not want him categorized as an AIDS artist, because they think his work is more universal. They think as soon as you mention his relationship to AIDS, that’s what he becomes.”
It takes years of redress before it sinks into people’s minds, Sur says. What needs to be redressed? For one, the revisionist history, he says, that AIDS activism is at the behest of white gay men. “The women were the organizers of the biggest ACT UP demonstrations, the church, the Wall Street fake money event and throwing the ashes on the White House lawn. The guys in ACT UP had all this energy wanted to do this but they had no organizing skills.”
“Then all the women fighting for the recognition of people with AIDS to get certain services. Huge contingents of women but you never know about that there were women a part of that. There were a lot of women and mothers [in ACT UP] and they’d bring their kids because they couldn’t get babysitters. You never see any film about AIDS activism where kids are present, or people of color. The reality was a lot more complicated.”
“For a long time if you were a person of color you couldn’t get into a drug trial, because there was this thinking that you’re not reliable enough to take your meds. That kind of racism, a lot of people don’t know about. We need a fuller picture of HIV/AIDS past, present and future.”
The eighties are dead; long live the eighties
Sur admits that he’s “stuck in the eighties,” and says that it’s a good thing. He insists he has a mission to keep the queerness and fierceness of that time alive and enlighten a new generation of artists and art fans.
“When I was organizing a show for Visual AIDS’ twenty-fifth anniversary, I asked these young people, kids in their early twenties, what do you remember about artists and AIDS in the eighties. They mentioned the same few names, Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring. And then I tell them the queer thing in the eighties was driving the art world. I mentioned these huge cultural icons in the eighties that are dead, and I showed them their work. [The kids] got angry and said, ‘Why didn’t we know about this?’”
He points to a “fracture” of a quarter century that keeps younger generations from grasping what happened in the 80s. “They are not going to understand it in one show,” he says.
“With AIDS and queer culture, if the mainstream doesn’t have a use for it within the capitalist machine, then they don’t talk about it. Because you haven’t heard about it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.”
Sur explains that AIDS, and society’s response to it, cut the cultural transmission of one generation to another. “When people began dying, people started de-queering. Being gay was then seen as bad, unhealthy, irresponsible. The generation coming up then, their parents didn’t want to talk about it. They were protecting them from family infected with AIDS because they thought it was too sad, and they pushed it back and forgot about it.”
Sur tells me that there’s a big difference in art made by people with HIV/AIDS in the eighties and nineties and art made about HIV/AIDS today.
“Most artists making art in the eighties were not making it about their condition. Kids today are. There wasn’t a network or a community of people with AIDS making art. And they’re angry. The way people expressed their art in the eighties was very subtle and coded, with the exception of Wojnarowicz. Now it’s not subtle or coded.”
Sur says that part of that artistic freedom—or is it a mandate?—to create explicit works about HIV/AIDS, or queer art, or both, comes from the rise of queer and cultural theory. And he suggests that cultural theory can cut both ways. It can lead to greater truth-telling, but it can also direct artists in ways they don’t want to go.
Sur explains that, artists with HIV/AIDS or self-identified queer artists in the eighties were on a creative [roll] and wanted to keep doing what they were doing, no matter whether their art was explicitly about themselves, or HIV/AIDS, or not. “Now, a queer artist will think they have to figure out how it’s relevant to society. Because the whole teaching about AIDS with queer and cultural theory has changed how people consider art. In the eighties it was a free-for-all. We were trying an experiment. Now there isn’t that will to experiment. You have to be focused.”
Not to mention the cost of renting a storefront has increased more than tenfold nearly anywhere in New York.
But, Sur says, he doesn’t want to preach to the younger generation. Rather, he says he wants to educate them about how things were and what was important, but to also understand what they’re dealing with and experiencing now.
“Back then you would see someone with KS walking around looking like a skeleton and a week later they’d be dead. These kids today don’t understand anything like that. You can’t make them understand. The older generation shouldn’t be talking at them, when their experience is very different. We need to hear what they have to say. That’s important to our survival moving forward.”
I couldn’t help noticing that Sur does preach to the younger generation—a bit—when it comes to safer sex, and he has choice words for people who think PrEP gives them a get-out-of-AIDS-free card. “People from my generation are saying ‘why would you infuse chemicals in your body to have a joy ride just because you can’t think of a more creative way to have sex without exchanging body fluids?’”
Rather than an older guy’s rant about promiscuity, it may be a fatherly need to take care of others. “AIDS is not over,” he says. “It’s still as urgent and difficult to manage as it ever was. People are getting infected. There is HIV criminalization, and there is a lot of people who don’t want to get tested. What about all the people walking around thinking they’re negative? We need to remember that AIDS is still with us and still a stigma.”
Larry Buhl is a multimedia journalist, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @LarryBuhl.