Angrier, Braver, Louder
Editors Hank Trout & Chael Needle discuss a new documentary about artist & writer David Wojnarowicz

The title of this documentary, Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker is perfectly aligned with the artist’s ethos of resisting politeness and saying what needs to be said. F**k You F*ggot F**ker is the title of one of David Wojnarowicz’ paintings and the sexual epithet comes from a homophobic slur that he found on a piece of paper, discarded on the street. In Wojnarowicz’ hands, it becomes a reclamation—defusing oppressive words by exposing them and creating art out of them.

Using the artist’s journals, cassette recordings, phone messages, street recordings, photos and super 8 films, the director, Chris McKim, has created a documentary that has the same energy and visual punch as a Wojnarowicz painting. Current interviews with people in his circle—from his brother Steven to gallerists Gracie Mansion and Sur Rodney Sur [A&U, February 2019], from artist/collaborator Marion Scemama to Stephen Koch, the Peter Hujar archive director—add a wealth of information and insight about David the artist, the writer, the friend, the lover, the activist. Early on, he flees with his mother to escape his abusive father, living in Hell’s Kitchen, and then living on the streets, working as a hustler. He struggles at first as an artist and writer but then gains recognition through the East Village art scene explosion. We see his relationship with photographer Peter Hujar morph from lover to friend (Fran Lebowitz, a friend, describe them as father and son). We see his experiments in art, helping to create with Mike Bidlo a space for artists in a decaying building on Pier 34. The documentary covers his other artistic collaborations, his relationships with his siblings, his stint in a band, and his contributions to AIDS activism—the viewer swims in a murky and swift-moving Hudson River of images and words, kept afloat by David’s persistence to create.

The documentary ends with lover Tom Rauffenbart and others visiting a recent Whitney exhibit devoted to Wojnarowicz’ work, “David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night.” It’s odd to see Wojnarowicz’ work in the sparkly-new Whitney, near a boutique interpretation of the Meatpacking District and the revamped Hudson piers, a short subway ride from the gentrified East Village. And while this type of wealth has always existed, it has not yet swallowed up the power of Wojnarowicz’ voice. It is reminiscent of something Wojnarowicz says in the documentary, as he compares himself to Hujar, who had the “same desperate and at times confused outlook but minus the one seed of hope that I have in me.”

Produced by WOW Doc & World of Wonder’s Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, the documentary received special jury recognition at 2020 DOC NYC for Best Use of Archival Materials and was an Official Selection at 2020 Tribeca Film Festival and 2020 HOT DOCS. The movie’s distributor is Kino Lorber.

To honor the film and the works of David Wojnarowicz, A&U editors Hank Trout and Chael Needle corresponded by email to create this dialogue.

Director Chris McKim. Photo by Patrick McPheron

Hank Trout: So, we both watched the new documentary Fuck You Faggot Fucker about artist, activist, and provocateur David Wojnarowicz. I really enjoyed it. Even though I’ve researched and written about Wojnarowicz, I learned a good bit about him that I didn’t know. For instance, I didn’t know about 3 Teens Kill 4, the punk rock band he fronted. Also, I didn’t know that he was the creator of the slogan, “If I die of AIDS, forget burial, just dump my body on the steps of the F.D.A.” I knew about the slogan, of course, and had seen photos of the jacket he wrote it on for an ACT UP demonstration, but didn’t know that Wojnarowicz created it. I also learned more about his pre-AIDS art and activism.
Chael Needle: The documentary seems thoroughly researched and the interviews with his colleagues, family members and collaborators are priceless. I learned a good bit about him, too, including how he drew on his life experiences and circumstances to create art. The film connects the dots between his life and creative output in a way that made it all make sense. It is pretty impressive that Wojnarowicz excelled both as a visual artist and a writer—that combination seems to be a rarity and I don’t think I ever fully appreciated that.

HT: I, too, was surprised by his writing. I’ve encountered his writing in the texts that he used in his artwork, like “Untitled (One day this kid…)” and some of his later works, and I knew about his controversial essay for the exhibit “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” exhibit that got him into trouble with the NEA. But other than that, I knew nothing about his writing.

You mentioned the interviews with colleagues etc. The director, Chris McKim, made some very interesting and effective choices. Most of what we hear is Wojnarowicz’ own voice. The interviews are all conducted off camera. We sometimes see photos of the speakers (most memorably the portraits that Peter Hujar took), but we never see them speaking, we hear their voices in the background—McKim doesn’t distract us with cutting away to a “talking head.” He keeps the attention on Wojnarowicz and his work, where it should be. McKim seems to recognize the power in Wojnarowicz’ voice, especially when he’s angry.
CN: Yes, allowing viewers to hear Wojnarowicz’ voice was a great choice by McKim; it almost becomes narration. Hearing his anger in the moment is important; it’s not the composed voice of someone being interviewed and looking back at those years. But I also noted the frustration in his voice—his work represents his life experiences and is “political” because others have politicized gay and lesbian sexuality, economic insecurity, and access to healthcare. I was heartened to see that he didn’t silo these issues but understood how all were connected. So many thinkers and activists and writers were lost to AIDS. I don’t think we can ever measure the loss.

David Wojnarowicz, Fuck You Faggot Fucker, 1984 © Estate of David Wojnarowicz. Courtesy of the Estate and P.P.O.W

HT: I remember that many artists who responded to the AIDS pandemic were criticized for making their art “too political,” ignoring the fact that it was (and remains) impossible to write about the pandemic during the 1980s and ‘90s without being political. So much of the devastation of the pandemic in those first twenty years was the direct, foreseeable result of our government’s and politicians’ insanely inadequate, bigoted responses to it. And the censorship of that art was definitely politically motivated. I was glad to see that Wojnarowicz recognized that he was just one more of the artists, including Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, whose work was condemned by the likes of Jesse Helms and Dana Rohrabacher in the halls of Congress and litigated in courthouses.

Wojnarowicz wasn’t the first to write and make art about the kind of intersectionality you mentioned, but he certainly understood it. He encapsulated it pretty well when he said, “When I was told that I’d contracted the virus, it didn’t take me long to realize that I’d contracted a diseased society as well.” As he battled the disease, he also battled poverty, prejudice, lack of healthcare—it’s no wonder his writing and art are often so confrontational. Just look at the title of this documentary, taken from one of his exhibits. Fuck You Faggot Fucker is not a title designed to draw people in!
CN: No, it’s not! I interpret the title as the documentary’s creative forces making it clear that they see the importance of standing alongside Wojnarowicz, shoulder to shoulder. Like David’s art and writings, the title is not ready-made for Netflix.

This reminds me—I found his critique of the limits of capitalism and art as commodity refreshing. These days everyone has a “brand.” It made me pause and remember that not everyone can be made as accessible as Keith Haring, a contemporary of Wojnarowicz who also responded to AIDS. Today, Haring’s “radiant baby” seems ubiquitous——posters, coffee cups, T-shirts——while Wojnarowicz’s “burning man” would be anathema to the mass market. So, here I want to celebrate the artist/writer who is important and powerful and engaging, but who will most likely always be marginalized.

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Burning House), 1982. © Estate of David Wojnarowicz. Courtesy of the Estate and P.P.O.W

HT: His stinging critique of the “art world” feels both old and new. That is, “outsiders” to the art world have always complained about commercialism and a lack of support from the established art world, and still do. Wojnarowicz’ disdain for the established art world can be seen in his nonchalant response to being included in the 1985 Whitney Biennial with Jasper Johns, Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin and others. I wonder what he would have thought of the Whitney’s retrospective “History Keeps Me Awake at Night” from a couple years ago. And talk about an anti-capitalism critique! When the Mnuchins (parents of the last administration’s Secretary of the Treasury) commissioned him to create an art installation in their basement, he filled the place with the nastiest, filthiest trash he could find! How perfect!

It’s sad that the East Village art scene explosion of the early 1980s lasted for such a short time. Wojnarowicz mounted his first solo exhibition in 1983 and sold well, and continued selling; small, experimental galleries popped up all over the East Village. But by 1987, the East Village art scene was in its death throes—at Wojnarowicz’ solo show that year, nothing sold. That had to be devastating for the artist, especially coming as it did so soon after the death from AIDS of his collaborator and sometime boyfriend, Peter Hujar.
CN: He may have been devastated. Perhaps Peter Hujar, who had weathered the ups and downs of an art career, advised him from the start in this regard. Wojnarowicz must have been heartened that a week after he gave his exhibit introduction speech at the Illinois State University-Normal an ACT UP chapter was formed on campus. Whatever his success in the art world, he effected positive transformative change in society through his activism. Do you think the documentary speaks to today’s audiences? If so, how?

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, 1988-89. © Estate of David Wojnarowicz. Courtesy of the Estate and P.P.O.W

HT: I think it speaks very powerfully to today’s LGBTQ and HIV communities, especially to any queer artists who are creating transgressive art and struggling to find an audience (and buyers) for that art, and to activists who may need to be reminded of the power of storming St. Patrick’s Cathedral and putting our bodies on the line in the streets. The film also made me want to know more about Wojnarowicz’ relationships with Peter Hujar and then with Tom Rauffenbart; I suspect that those relationships would yield really fascinating, complicated love stories. Mostly, for me, the film is a study of passion born out of desperation, a passion to create, a passion to live—and that is something that all of us who spent the 1980s and ‘90s fighting for our lives can easily relate to. Even though Wojnarowicz has been dead nearly thirty years, his art and his life can still inspire us to be braver, louder, angrier.

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Hank Trout and Chael Needle have worked together as editors at A&U for five years and counting.