Tag Archives: Patient Zero

“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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“Untitled” (I was here) (Felix Gonzalez-Torres, part 4)

Two more paper stacks created in 1991 and 1993 make explicit the allegorical significance of travel in Gonzalez-Torres’ oeuvre, condensed in an observation of his own:  “Traveling is also about dying.  It is, after all, about death” [quoted in Spector, 81].   The parenthetical subtitle of “Untitled” (Passport), a column of blank white pages, evokes a document authorizing the crossing of international borders, while the work itself offers the viewer its version of the pages on which evidence of past and present voyages is stamped and signed.  [Cf. the opening paragraph of Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor:  “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship.  Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.  Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”]  In retrospect, such inscriptions constitute a kind of elliptical autobiography, “a diary of motion, a chronicle of geographic wanderings, a palimpsest of other spaces and other times” [Spector, 24].  The paper stack also alludes to the passport’s legal function as a form of identification that operates according to established codes of citizenship, gender, and age.  In the absence of information and image, the empty pages here “leave the question of identity open-ended; the blank pages, available for the taking, announce journeys not yet traveled and borders not yet crossed” [Spector, 24], serving in effect as screens both for the projection of travel to come, and against which rigid codes of identity emerge in stark relief.  With “Untitled” (Passport II) (1993), Gonzalez-Torres presents his viewers with giveaway twelve-page booklets, bound and stacked on the floor, that feature photographic images of birds in flight, ignorant of the borders below.

Read in the context of the increasingly global impact of an epidemic-turned-pandemic that recognizes and respects no borders, the “Passport” stacks may subtly conjure contemporaneous epidemiological attempts to locate a mythical “Patient Zero” to whom responsibility for the advent of AIDS in North America might be assigned, and the eventual “identification” of this personified point of origin as Quebecois flight attendant Gaetan Dugas.  The critical force unleashed in this work subdues the temptation of flight, the seduction of escape, driving home the hard truth that there remain no safe harbours (and thus reinflecting the paratactic inscriptions of “Untitled” (1990) – “Somewhere Better Than This Place” and “Nowhere Better Than This Place”).  Moreover, the “Passport” stacks allude to the ethics and politics of the right to travel, to relocate, to cross certain borders, a right too often selectively denied, and withheld from the seropositive specifically solely on the grounds of their putative health status.

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