[John Greyson, in continuation]
In late July , Zackie was scheduled as a plenary speaker at the Barcelona [International AIDS] conference. (This is very much Jack, TAC and Zackie’s story; I’m only contributing it now because they’re upstairs sleeping, and I’m sure they’ll throw in their corrections at all my errors and misinterpretations!) Because he was too sick to attend, a video was shot and edited by Jack and his Beat It! crew a couple of nights before. The tape was couriered to the conference, where it was played on huge monitors to the thousand-odd delegates.
International news teams shot clips off the screen; some broadcasters even carried it live. The world thus saw Zackie, explaining how HIV and the epidemic had prevented him from addressing the conference in person, live. It was an unforgettable intervention, rife with urgency: the real toll of the epidemic, illuminated by technology, portrayed by a voice nearly silenced by AIDS, able to speak only on a screen, thousands of miles and several days distant from the real event.
Because of this mediated moment, the Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkhulu Ndungane, visited Zackie the next week, to convey concern, best wishes and blessings. Coincidentally, a TV crew was in attendance. The blessing thus went out live to the nation, a broadcast that was seen by millions, and also by Mandela. Who picked up the phone and invited himself over for tea. Which led to the tea party, and discussions of how Mandela’s AIDS foundation and TAC could work together to set up treatment clinics, despite governmental resistance. Which of course was carried by every TV station and newspaper in the country, and, to a much lesser degree, around the world. (I myself participated in a bit of real-time posturing, boasting to friends how I was the lucky recipient of the Zackie/Nelson pic, courtesy of Jack’s email J-peg, an hour after the tea party, and hours before the mass media had circulated any images).
In this way, the necessities of illness triggered a chain of reactions, all mediated by miles and technologies and urgency, mediated most of all by the poignancies of time, which resulted in a tangible step forward in the war against AIDS.
In their press release, TAC also called for the meaningful inclusion of PLWAs at every level of decision-making in Africa’s pandemic. For artists, there has been since the early eighties a related implicit corollary (one that too many institutions and power-brokers have thoughtlessly ignored): to give special priority to the words and pictures created by PLWAs. Earlier, we mentioned Andrew Sullivan’s notorious and nonsensical contention that for North American artists, AIDS is now passe. As much as there is a need for northern artists to continue to vigourously interrogate AIDS and all its meanings, it is equally important that we work right now to hear the voices of African artists, addressing AIDS through myriad paradigms and aesthetic strategies. The voices are emphatically there – why does the north not hear them more, encourage them more, assist them more? Why was there so little AIDS work in this year’s Documenta, especially when so much of the show revolved around questions of culture and activism in a global context? Why aren’t there more commissions, exchanges, exibitions, grants, specifically for African artists addressing HIV/AIDS? What have we done, or more likely, not done?
Following this, how can northern artists contribute to a meaningful dialogue, without falling back on patronizing missionary tropes? We all have relationships (so often fraught!) with various institutions, schools, arts centres, granting bodies. How can they be mobilized? Art exhibitions: can these contribute to a truly two-way exchange of aesthetics and ideas? Video residencies: what makes these viable and effective? Should video artists be brought to the Banff Centres and Charles Streets, or should the priority be given to getting more state-of-the-art tech and training to African artists? Why wasn’t the massive African AIDS series Steps for the Future (whatever limitations it might have), which included episodes by/about Jack, TAC and Zackie, not shown in its entirety in North America? How can art supplies be collected, shipped and distributed to PLWA artists most effectively? And so on: as many questions as there are ideas, but equally, as many things to act on. Now.