Tag Archives: Felix Gonzalez-Torres

“Give me a copy of your phone number”

The following paragraphs from Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus jumped off the page as I read them again just now.  What would Benjamin make of them?

Or Gonzalez-Torres, for that matter?

The internet is the first public medium to have post-Gutenberg economics.  You don’t need to understand anything about its plumbing to appreciate how different it is from any form of media in the previous five hundred years.  Since all the data is digital (expressed as numbers), there is no such thing as a copy anymore.  Every piece of data, whether an e-mailed love letter or a boring corporate presentation, is identical to every other version of the same piece of data.

You can see this reflected in common parlance.  No one ever says, Give me a copy of your phone number.  Your phone number is the same number for everybody, and since data is made of numbers, the data is the same for everybody.  Because of this curious property of numbers, the old distinction between copying tools for professionals and those for amateurs – printing presses that make high-quality versions for the pros, copy machines for the rest of us – is over.  Everyone has access to a medium that makes versions so identical that the old distinction between originals and copies has given way to an unlimited number of equally perfect versions. [54-55]

To be continued, in one form or another.

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“Cc…: CCC,” part 8

We’ve exceeded fever pitch and are now hurtling thru the delirium of prep.  Luckily we’ve lost the thermometer.  All hugely funny, or at least we giggle at times.  The weekend was intense:  while Zackie was chairing an all-Africa treatment action congress, trying to conduct traffic for 70 delegates who couldn’t decide which side of the road they were driving on, Jack and I were deep in an all-weekend rehearsal with our two brill actors.  We’ve cast completely against type, so it was a gender workshop uber-mondo-deluxe, teaching a fem and a butch how to swap roles, with all the expected confusion/conflation of sex/gender/desire that you could imagine.  Much fun!  So hot!  No wonder the thermometer broke.

Having travelled thru too many airports recently, I’ve been struck by how devalued time has become, as its demands become ever more invasive.  When I was out in Vancouver visiting my great aunt for her 100th birthday last week, I saw her father’s retirement gold watch on her dresser, the legendary family heirloom of many jokes that never kept accurate time.  Her dad had never had a watch before, during his whole working life he never knew what time it was.

That afternoon, I passed by an airport stand with watches on sale for $5 each.  My great grandfather’s watch had value and stature, giving time a gravitas, but only as his time was running out.  In the airport, a mother was impulse-buying her indifferent 8-year-old daughter a watch, the same way you might buy Fritos.  It was, shall we say, lacking in the gravitas department.

Because, in part, of ubiquity.  Digitally flickering around that 8-year-old girl were a dozen different read-outs to choose from, mostly in agreement about what time it was.  As I write now, I can’t help noticing the clock on the screen which tells me I’ve got ten minutes left before we go off to casting.  For the digital middle class, we have (at least the illusion of) time, clock faces which declare that Time is everywhere.  We think we always know what time it is.  That’s why we’re always late….

The first thing that slams me when I look at Felix’s twinned clocks is how fast and cheap they are.  Has any artist ever been sooo sublimely fast and cheap?  Fast and cheap, raised to the status of celestial transcendence.

Whoops – time run out.

More late, I mean later,


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“Cc…: CCC,” part 3

Hi all:

There’s certainly nothing to argue about with Piot’s imperative:  “Now act!”  Deb, if your book among other things is tracing the myriad ways in which “time” as both metaphor and material fact has indelibly marked the work of Derek, Felix, Stephen, et.al., then few phrases could be more on the nose, echoing down the years.  (Among other reverberations, ACT UP’s national network acronym was of course ACT NOW!:  AIDS Coalition to Network, Organize and Win.)  Think how many times we’ve heard those words, said them, shouted them, bellowed them, repeated them to the point of platitude.  Indeed, AIDS over two decades and six continents has been marked like a music score by this same recurring lament:  Now act.  Act.  Now.

Though the “now” part has almost never been “acted” upon – big and small power brokers seem equally incapable of doing anything “now” – there has nevertheless been some acting:  often begrudging, often too little, often too late, but nevertheless.  Over time, through time, people have acted, continued to act.  Except of course, like Felix’s clocks, when their batteries, when their time runs out.

John G.

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“Cc…: CCC,” part 2

Dear Gregg, John, Jack and Kendall,

I hope this message finds each of you well, wherever and whenever it reaches you.  I hope, too, that it will serve to initiate an e-mail exchange about the virus and the pandemic that will appear at the conclusion of my recently completed The Brevity of Life:  What AIDS Makes Legible.  The manuscript, parts of which some of you may already have had a chance to read, and others surely not as yet, includes as the volume’s proposed frontispiece a photograph of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), dated 1987-1990, an installation that features two apparently identical clocks hung side by side, barely touching one another, and synchronized such that both read “2:43:58” (or “14:43:58”).


My hope was that Gonzalez-Torres’ work, photographed in situ, would resonate with a citation I was considering as an epigraph for the book:  Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), writing in his “Foreword” to the Encyclopedia of AIDS that “the worldwide AIDS epidemic has become a permanent challenge to human integrity and solidarity.  Given the scale of suffering, given the proven effectiveness of several approaches, and given the prospect of furthering other human goals through the fight against AIDS, an expanded response makes ethical and practical sense.  Instead of letting AIDS turn back the clock, let us use our response to the epidemic to turn humanity’s clock ahead.”

Now John, who was kind enough to take the time recently to read the manuscript and to respond with characteristic generosity and insight, wondered in an e-mail to me whether Piot’s language in this instance set a tone in keeping with the chapters that follow.  I take the liberty of citing from John’s message:  “Peter Piot [citation]:  for me it set the wrong tone, starting your book like that – I’m sure I’m carrying around too much baggage vis a vis UNAIDS and that very mainstream don’t really rock the boat agenda…. Couldn’t you start with Seneca – maybe juxtaposed with Ben and his phone card?” **

John’s thoughtful and wide-ranging response reached me on July 15, as I was reading the Report on the global epidemic  just released by UNAIDS.  Writing in the report’s preface, Piot notes that “In 2001, the world marked 20 years of AIDS.  It was an occasion to lament the fact that the epidemic has turned out to be far worse than predicted, saying ‘if only we knew then what we know now.’  But we do know now.  We know that the epidemic is still in its early stages, that effective responses are possible but only when they are politically backed and full-scale, and that unless more is done today and tomorrow, the epidemic will continue to grow….  The time has come to put all the pieces together.  Plans have been made.  Needs are clear.  Solutions are available.  Now act!”

With your permission, I would like to take Piot’s language in the preface to the UNAIDS report as a provisional point of departure for our exchange.  In what context or contexts do you place this brief exercise in historiography on Piot’s part?  More specifically, perhaps, how do you read and respond to its concluding imperative?

With my thanks in advance, and warm regards,


** John here alludes to one of the epigraphs to the prologue, which cites Ben, a long-time seropositive man who tells the New York Times that he feels like someone with a phone card who knows that at some point he will hear the inevitable “you have two minutes left.”

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“Cc…: CCC,” part 1

As I wind down the project of making most of the manuscript of The Brevity of Life public in the form of a series of blog posts, in preparation for some research and writing in a different vein, I feel compelled to add to the chapters already reproduced a final postscript of sorts, which is arguably the most valuable part of the book in its historiographic function.  It takes the form of an e-mail exchange that took place between July and September of 2002, initiated by me and made possible by Gregg Bordowitz, John Greyson, Jack Lewis and Kendall Thomas, who generously agreed to take part.  I will record it in this and the next several posts, under the title “Cc…:  CCC.”  The “Cc” is self-evidently grounded in the structure and operation of a group e-mail exchange.  “CCC” is an acronym for “complex continuing care,” the parlance commonly used in North American tertiary care centers to designate a relative level of medical intervention (relative to “acute care,” for example, or “sub-acute care”).  The process of designating such levels of care involves “RIW,” short for “relative intensity weighting,” and is intimately associated with resource allocation.  In the Canadian public health care system, level-of-care designations derive from an assessment of the clinical and medical supports required to treat a particular “case mix.”

The archive has always been a pledge, and like every pledge, a token of the future.    

 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever:  A Freudian Impression, 1995, 18

Chiefly on the basis of the five exemplary instances they analyze [Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Derek Jarman, Herve Guibert, Aaron Shurin and Stephen Andrews], the foregoing posts make the case that in order to read what HIV/AIDS makes legible we must first of all and among other things recognize the differential temporalities inscribed in the virus and the epidemic-turned-pandemic, and likewise in their artifactual remains.  The wager that underwrites The Brevity of Life is that only a labour of reading attentive to the multiple specific structures and operations of time enables a responsible reconsideration, now and henceforth, of the grave challenges with which the global crisis persists in confronting us.

In making public the exchange transcribed in the following posts, the participants ask the reader to take account of the complex temporalities that traverse it.  Derek Jarman’s reflections on the difficulty of translating HIV/AIDS, whether in autobiographical or more broadly historiographical terms, onto film may help make legible here a fundamental incommensurability between the multiple temporalities of a pandemic that continues to outstrip our best efforts to make sense of what is occurring today (and what it may portend for the future) and a mode of production – in this case, electronic mail – whose impact over time remains, for us, an open question.  As Derrida observes in Archive Fever,

Electronic mail today, even more than the fax, is on the way to transforming the entire public and private space of humanity, and first of all the limit between the private, the secret (private or public), and the public or the phenomenal.  It is not only a technique, in the ordinary and limited sense of the term:  at an unprecedented rhythm, in quasi-instantaneous fashion, this instrumental possibility of production, of printing, of conservation, and of destruction of the archive must inevitably be accompanied by juridical and thus political transformations.  [17]

With much at stake – psychically, socially, politically – the participants in this exchange accepted the risks entailed in the terms of a tacit contract struck first of all among themselves, but in effect with their eventual readers as well.  The willingness of Gregg Bordowitz, John Greyson, Jack Lewis and Kendall Thomas to take part, in the knowledge that these virtual communications circulated initially among a handful of trusted friends and comrades in the spirit of a conversation would be transcribed and subsequently consigned to the public sphere bespeaks an extraordinary generosity, a readiness to assume the attendant burdens (among them, perhaps,a sense of vulnerability, an unaccustomed hesitancy, an unanticipated resistance to the format) for the sake of the matter at hand.

“I wonder if any of this will be remembered; probably not.”  Jarman’s musing in the journal entry that serves as the epigraph to “Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s Blue, Part 1), brought to bear on e-mail communications, might translate as a kind of optimism according to which we typically assume that the electronic script on which we are increasingly reliant is invariably ephemeral, short-lived, impermanent, never fully realized – indeed, that it is bound to disappear, sooner rather than later, that it is in the process of disappearing even as we hit “Send.”  Our utilization of a postal technology that seems to court oblivion opens up a certain freedom to muse, to hypothesize, to risk the kinds of formulations that may or may not stand the test of time, and do not pretend otherwise.

The participants can only hope, then, that readers of their exchange will respect the terms of the contract on which it rests, however uneasily:  that the latter will assume responsibility for discerning and seeking to negotiate the variable temporalities and rhythms involved, and honour the spirit in which this joint venture was undertaken.

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“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 5)

2.  As the examples enlisted in the foregoing posts eloquently demonstrate, the need to tell time is also the need to attest, to testify in words and images not just to a time that is, as Derek Jarman has it, “all awry,” but to an unfolding history that depends upon such testimony for its own survival in collective memory.  The tasks of writing and reading the historiography of HIV/AIDS were outlined in advance by Walter Benjamin, who summoned us, prospective readers of his theses “On the Concept of History,” to recognize in the image of the past what urgently concerns our own present, lest it disappear, perhaps irretrievably.  

Paul Klee, "Angelus Novus"

Writing decades later in his capacity as witness to the pandemic’s devastation, Aaron Shurin likewise proposes to read and record “the process of history itself disappearing,” in an effort to “turn it around.”  Like Herve Guibert’s autothanatographical roman, like the giveaway paper stacks and candy spills proffered by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, like Stephen Andrews’ “Untitled” (2000-2001), with its poignant and pointed citation of Jarman’s Blue, Shurin’s Unbound can claim to be of AIDS, with the full force of the partitive. 

Invoking “the oracular remark of the greatest of poets,” which has itself effectively disappeared, leaving our posterity only the barest, most prosaic traces of its former glory, Seneca ventures in “De brevitate vitae” that “‘It is but a small part of life we really live.’  Indeed, all the rest is not life, but merely time.”  The foregoing posts drawn from the manuscript of The Brevity of Life urge with all due humility that it is time that we have interminably to tell in our attempts to reckon with what we have come (only belatedly) to call AIDS.

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“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 3)

The more-than-questionable claim [that the “distribution of AIDS cocktails would be complicated by Africans’ inability to tell time”] was first made by a suitably “unnamed Treasury Department official” who told the New York Times in April, 2001 that Africans lack the “concept of time” required to adhere to the demanding protocols associated with combination therapies.  Shortly thereafter, in testimony before the international relations committee of the House of Representatives and again in an interview, both in June 2001, Andrew Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, made a case against substantially increased funding for anti-retroviral drug treatment in Africa, where “People do not know what watches and clocks are.  They do not use Western means for telling time.  They use the sun” (Donnelly, A 14).

The comments, paraphrases rather than citations of The West Wing, were themselves cited as well as paraphrased in media coverage of the debate and again by activists protesting the failure of U.S. policy to meet the demands of a global crisis.  All of this unfolded as the world marked the twentieth anniversary of the pandemic’s official inception.  In an editorial entitled “Stinginess on AIDS,” the New York Times found fault with the Bush administration’s pledge in 2001 of a mere $200 million to the newly-instituted global fund for AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria (which had set a worldwide goal of ten billion dollars), suggesting that

the real problem is that AIDS overseas is a low priority for politicians.  Many believe, or find it convenient to echo, arguments that the money would be wasted.  People are still saying that Africans cannot take AIDS medicine because they do not own watches.

The newest AIDS medications, however, are simple to take, with two pills at sunup and two at sundown, and pilot programs show that African patients are perfectly able to take medicine on time when a steady supply is available.  [New York Times, August 19, 2001]

Donnelly’s report concluded on a comparable note:  “The comments by Mr. Natsios and the unnamed Treasury official assume that using the AIDS cocktails effectively requires taking a dozen pills or more at various times of the day.  But health experts say recent advances now allow people to take one or two pills daily, each containing several anti-AIDS drugs.  This regimen, now being used in several small African trials, means there is no need to tell time”  (Donnelly, A14).

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