Tag Archives: Jack Lewis

“Cc…: CCC,” part 11

[John Greyson, in continuation]

In late July [2002], 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.

XXX  John

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“Cc…: CCC,” part 10

Dear all:

TAC’s call, “to prevent a holocaust against the poor,” inevitably reminds me of another holocaust, and another puzzle of time.  In 1987, UK video artist Stuart Marshall produced an extraordinary tape about AIDS, history and representation entitled Bright Eyes.  Stuart was certainly one of the first artists (and PWAs) to critically historicize the pandemic, using a mixed-genre collage of fake news reports, critical interpretations, and dramatic excerpts to tease out AIDS and its historical metaphors, lurking like the dancing shadows around the hearth of the virus.  In particular, he explored if and how useful analogies could be drawn between the slaughter by design of pink triangle prisoners in the concentration camps, and the slaughter by indifference of so many gay men in the early years of the epidemic, succumbing to AIDS while the world dithered about green monkeys and Patient Zero.

His representational techniques always leave this explosive question hanging in the air, for his viewers to wrestle with:  is it illuminating or productive to juxtapose the Third Reich’s homophobia with that of Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney?  Do we learn from history, or do we do history a disservice by recasting its specificity into a generalized metaphor for today’s agendas, today’s needs?  Are the fruits of history apples and oranges, or indeed Granny Smiths and Macs?

One extraordinary scene involves archival footage of the burning of the Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Institute in Berlin.  Hirschfeld was of course the pioneering sexologist who had led the campaign against the recriminalization of homosexuality under the Nazis, the infamous Paragraph 175.

In retaliation, the Nazis razed his institute, committing to the pyre a lifetime’s achievement concerning human sexuality.  Stuart shows how Hirschfeld actually witnessed the incident.  It was weeks later, and the good doctor was in a film theatre in London, having fled the Nazis, watching a newsreel about the incident before the main feature.  There’s something unbearably poignant about the scene:  the footage itself, of course, but more, the flicker of blue light on the expressionless face of Hirschfeld, as he watches his life’s work incinerate, a thousand miles and several weeks’ distant from the real event.

Stuart’s puzzle:  How can we ever hope to truly imagine the times of Hirschfeld, and his relation to time?  Last week on CNN, we perhaps watched a TAC speaker address the side conference on sustainable development in Jo’burg, live [at the Earth Summit convened in Johannesburg in September 2002].  Next week, we perhaps may watch the incineration of Iraq, live.  Real time commands the new, true-blue test of value:  We now only venerate images of towers if they’re tumbling as we watch them live, the realness of the digital clock on the lower left of the screen goldplating our participatory frisson.

[John Greyson’s e-mail continues in “Cc…:  CCC,” part 11]

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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,

John

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“Cc…: CCC,” part 7

Dear all:

Perhaps Jack and Zackie could outline more of the circumstances of their tea party with Nelson this last Sunday – which sounds like it just might shake the world, or at the very least rattle the President’s china.  Photos of the tea service, please!  Menu tidbits:  you said he drank mint tea with honey, but the biscuits?

Because Jack’s right – what could be more about right now, more about acting right now, more in the present tense, more about hope, than Zackie having tea with Nelson, while Jack shoots every sip and crumb?  Now there’s some activism as performance art that would make Derek & Co. purr!

John

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While we await details of the historic tea party….  I just had my first opportunity to see Gregg’s powerful video, Habit, which borrows footage from Jack’s work to great effect, and features Zackie, speaking on behalf of the Treatment Action Campaign in July 2000, making the point that well-meaning volunteers who might want to contribute to current efforts on the ground in South Africa “should have the humility not to arrive in the morning and try to rule the country by lunchtime.”  For me, this resonates powerfully not only with the images of Gregg’s calendar pillbox, helpfully dividing the days for those who have access to the most effective therapies at this stage, but also with the red thread of our conversation to this point.

For the record, I also want to impart two further points that John raised in his response to reading the manuscript of The Brevity of Life.  The first has to do with an argument made by Andrew Sullivan, writing in the New York Times Magazine to the effect that (I’m quoting John) “the AIDS cultural debate is ‘dated,’ ‘old-fashioned,’ ‘nineties’… the art world has moved on, and artists have followed suit, almost no one is making AIDS work any more – these are all oft-repeated commonplaces that seem to need some unpacking…partly because these assumptions go right to the ugly heart of who actually decrees suitable subject matter, and trends, and practices.”

John’s other observation also has to do with material practices:  “I kept thinking about the time it takes to make work, when you’re running out of time.  Felix chose to expedite – his pieces took almost NO time – go to the department store and buy two clocks.

With Blue, Derek had no shoot – he called the lab and said give me ninety minutes of blue.  Manufactured solutions replacing the labour of the artist’s hand….

And then there’s Stephen – faced with the ticking clock, he dreams up excruciating, labour-intensive projects which replicate industrial processes which could be accomplished in minutes by a phone call:  scan this, blow this up.

Faced with a deadline (what’s the origin of that word, anyway?), these five made radically different choices about how to spend their time.”

Again, my thanks,

Deborah

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“Cc…: CCC,” part 5

Gregg,

For me, at least, your unsparing “What,” “Who,” and “When” effectively expose the bad faith of a certain alibi inscribed in the general lament condensed in Piot’s phrasing (I do not here ascribe the bad faith to Piot himself).  I’m struck by the imperatives you offer in response, as a kind of necessary supplement – a supplement of hope, as you note – to the official “Now act!”:  “Let us be superstitious.  Let us hope the utterance this time works.”  Would you (any of you) care to gloss the hope that Gregg has invoked – vis-a-vis its possible sources or outcomes, for example, or in terms (whether conceptual or pragmatic) of negotiating the multiple temporalities specific to hope with those specific to impatience, say, or to despair?

With thanks,

Deborah

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Did u get this pic?

[Jack’s reference is to a J-peg image of Zackie Achmat, co-founder of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), at tea with Nelson Mandela, which he circulated among the participants in the e-mail exchange.]

From where we’re sitting, it’s about as “hopeful” as things can get….  Mandela has written a letter to our president.  We don’t yet know its contents – but I suspect it appeals for treatment to be made available to save lives.  The political class is prickling after Mandela said that Zackie was a “loyal and disciplined member of the ANC” – words which I first heard him use about himself just after his release when explaining his standpoint on negotiations with the white government.  Something is up!

Jack

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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,

Deborah

** 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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