Tag Archives: PLWA

“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 9

Hi guys.

Prompted by John’s allusion to the intensity of activity in Cape Town last weekend, I just logged on to TAC’s website [ http://www.tac.org.za ] and read the following (excerpted, again for the record).

Deborah

@@@@@

25 August 2002

Dear All:

Over 70 delegates from 21 African countries met in Cape Town from 22 to 24 August to begin developing a Pan-African HIV/AIDS treatment access movement.  The following declaration is an outcome of that meeting.  Please distribute far and wide.

PAN-AFRICAN HIV/AIDS TREATMENT ACCESS MOVEMENT

DECLARATION OF ACTION

We are angry.  Our people are dying.

Without treatment, the 28 million people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWAs) on our continent today will die predictable and avoidable deaths over the next decade.  More than 2 million have died of HIV/AIDS in Africa just this year.  This constitutes a crime against humanity.  Governments, multilateral institutions, the private sector, and civil society must intervene without delay to prevent a holocaust against the poor.  We must ensure access to antiretroviral (ARV) treatment as part of a comprehensive continuum of care for all people with HIV who need it.  In this regard, at a minimum, we call for the immediate implementation of the World Health Organization goal to ensure antiretroviral (ARV) treatment for at least three million people in the developing world by 2005.  Together with our international allies, we will hold governments, international agencies, donors and the private sector accountable to meet this target.

We represent activists and organisations from 21 African countries that met in Cape Town, South Africa, 22-24 August 2002, and launched a Pan-African HIV/AIDS Treatment Access Movement dedicated to mobilising our communities and our continent to ensure access to HIV/AIDS treatment for all people who need it.

We have heard reports on the state of HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention interventions throughout the continent.  Remarkable achievements have been registered in every region resulting in some countries significantly reducing new infections and improving care for individuals, families and communities affected by HIV and AIDS.  However, there was a consensus that current efforts are insufficient.  The AIDS epidemic has exposed many of the problems facing Africa, including poverty, socio-economic and gender inequality, inadequate health-care infrastructures and poor governance.  We insist that access to ARV therapy is not only an ethical imperative, but will also strengthen prevention efforts, increase uptake of voluntary counselling and testing, reduce the incidence of opportunistic infections, and reduce the burden of HIV/AIDS – including the number of orphans – on families, communities and economies.

The recognition of the human rights to life, dignity, equality, freedom and equal access to public goods including health care are the fundamental principles of a successful response to the epidemic.  In this regard, we reaffirm the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.  Furthermore, we recognize that the rights of women, children and youth are particularly vulnerable in Africa.  Treatment and prevention strategies for HIV/AIDS must consider their particular needs.  Critically, the rights of people with HIV/AIDS (PLWAs) must be protected, including equal access to social services and to medical insurance plans.  Discrimination and stigmatisation threaten our dignity and hamper efforts to address the epidemic.  Our experience as African PLWAs has been that of token involvement, not meaningful participation, in decision-making processes.  It is only through active involvement of PLWAs in all policy and implementation decisions related to HIV/AIDS that we will achieve our goals.

Alleviating the effects of the AIDS epidemic will require political leadership and greater accountability from national governments, international organisations, the private sector, especially the pharmaceutical industry, and wealthy countries, particularly the United States and European Union.  We are faced with enormous barriers:  national governments do not prioritise HIV/AIDS treatment; donor countries refuse to fulfill commitments to mobilise necessary resources; pharmaceutical companies deny access to essential medicines and diagnostics by charging exorbitant prices; structural adjustment programmes, driven by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, destroy public health-care systems; and debt to rich countries hampers financing of vital social services, including health care.  Community mobilisation and civil society action are essential for forcing action and ensuring greater accountability from all these institutions.

Health is a prerequisite for sustainable development.  The AIDS epidemic presents an immense challenge to health care systems in Africa.  Sustainable economic development can only be possible through the implementation of sound social security policies that target the poor and include HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programmes….

We know that this is an immense challenge.  Millions of lives are at stake.  We must succeed.

 

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Numbered Days (‘To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life,’ part 9)

But the modality of the “perhaps” is also inscribed in the “something completely unexpected,” the hasard extraordinaire invoked in the first paragraph and repeatedly thereafter, that punctuates the fictional three months when Herve “had AIDS.”  It inhabits the possibility of a reprieve from his death sentence afforded by an experimental vaccine that, by an extraordinary chance, Herve’s friend Bill has a hand in developing.  On that fateful March 18, 1988 comes the news flash:  “[Bill] tells us right off the bat that in America they’ve just come up with an effective vaccine against AIDS, well not really a vaccine, since in principle a vaccine is preventive, so let’s call it a curative vaccine, obtained from the HIV virus and given to patients who are seropositive but don’t display any symptoms of the disease…to block the virus and keep it from beginning its destructive process….” [E 156; F 173].  In no time, the constative content of the unexpected bulletin is translated into the performativity of a promise, albeit one that is never issued as such, according to the linguistic laws that govern speech acts.  Bill’s unspoken promise is nothing less than a pledge to save the life of his dying friend by providing access to the experimental treatment (whose still unproven efficacy as a “curative vaccine” would come belatedly, after the fact of infection, since it is not properly preventive).  And the force of this implicit performative exceeds the limits that might be ascribed to the text’s self-declared genre, in keeping with the circumscription in some speech act theory of the gravity and consequence of fictional utterances.  For Bill’s tacit offer, sustained over a year and a half as Herve’s health suffers a precipitous decline, allegorizes, as part of a “work of fiction,” the very real promise of more effective treatment and, in the event, a cure for HIV/AIDS that has underwritten the history of the pandemic over nearly three decades.  It is the intervention of time into the configuration of the promise and its redemption that invites the perhaps, and with it the risk that time will run out before redemption can take place.

As we are now in a position to recognize, Herve’s terrible ambivalence as he enters the “new phase” inaugurated by Bill’s announcement prefigures the effect on many PLWAs of the advent of more promising treatment options, and specifically the new generation of combination therapies including protease inhibitors that became selectively available in and after 1996, transplanting death’s near horizon to a newly uncertain distance.

…I was afraid this new pact with fate might upset the slow advance – which was rather soothing actually – of inevitable death…. For though it was certainly an inexorable illness, it wasn’t immediately catastrophic, it was an illness in stages, a very long flight of steps that led assuredly to death, but whose every step represented a unique apprenticeship.  It was a disease that gave death time to live and its victims time to die, time to discover time, and in the end to discover life [c’etait une maladie qui donnait le temps de mourir, et qui donnait a la mort le temps de vivre, le temps de decouvrir le temps et de decouvrir enfin la vie]….  And unhappiness, once you were completely sunk in it, was a lot more livable than the presentiment of unhappiness, a lot less cruel, in fact, than one would have thought.  If life was nothing but the presentiment of death and the constant torture of wondering when the axe would fall, then AIDS, by setting an official limit to our life span – six years of seropositivity, plus two years with AZT in the best of cases, or a few months without it – made us men who were fully conscious of our lives, and freed us from our ignorance.  If Bill were to file an appeal against my death sentence with his vaccine, he’d plunge me back into my former state of ignorance.  [E 164-5; F 181-2]

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“Untitled” (I was here) (Felix Gonzalez-Torres, part 6)

The work presented in the gallery’s second room under the title “Travel #2” figures the waiting with that precedes the belated waiting for that Derrida calls the “contretemps of mourning” [Aporias, 66].  Rendered in graphite and gouache on paper, each of thirteen identical grids bears a diagonal red line tracing an unwavering descent from the upper left-hand corner to the lower right.  The series’ title, “Untitled” (Bloodwork – Steady Decline), refers the charts to an ominous tendency as monitored by doctor, patient, and anxious loved one, thus remarking, in Spector’s formulation, “the reality of AIDS’ destructive force in the most graphic of terms.  The repetitive nature of the work, whether it manifests the fate of one person [“day by day” for thirteen days – Ed.] or of thirteen, underscores the terminal character of this illness, another journey through time” [25].

The bloodwork graphs’ precise geometry is made possible and rendered legible through the abstraction of the body as well as of time – indeed, of the body in time, over time, hence ultimately of mortality.  Such abstraction, aspects of which remain indispensable for purposes of analysis and diagnosis, of course occurs before and outside the practice of contemporary western bio-science, which, however, takes it to new levels of sophistication.  Spector’s reading of “Untitled” (Bloodwork – Steady Decline) situates the series in the context of a regime in which the diseased body is routinely “defined, diagrammed, and controlled by a biomedical authority whose value system adheres to deeply entrenched cultural and historical precepts.  This ‘authority’ treats the AIDS patient – like others who suffer from life-threatening illnesses – as an abstraction, a compilation of symptoms and statistics in which there is no place, or need, for an account of the human side of infirmity.  Within the scopic regime of the medical system, the body is studied, treated, and hopefully cured, but this body will inevitably remain an object.  Biomedical authority demands a disembodied subject…in order to function at optimum efficiency.  The doctor must abstract the patient in order properly to diagnose physical pathology” [166-7].

But the Person Living With AIDS is and is not “like others who suffer from life-threatening illnesses.”  What authorizes the viewer to refer Gonzalez-Torres’ bloodwork graphs and the “steady decline” they chart specifically to an immune system under assault by HIV is the precision with which CD4 and T-cell counts, at the time the primary medical indicators of the virus’s effects, may be measured, and translated as clinical guidelines, social policy, and psychological conviction based on a number – 200 – that defined the point of diagnosis of the onset of AIDS.  (Subsequently, the indicators of HIV would come to include new, more accurate measures, among them “total viral load”; by this latter gauge, a “steady decline” would be a welcome development.)

While the work’s portentous descending lines do not correspond precisely to a declining T-cell count, they effectively figure the dire psychological, social and political realities of an era characterized by increasingly accurate diagnosis and reliable monitoring, but capable only of a promise of more effective treatments not yet made good.  In other words, the graphs’ rigid geometry situates the work both historically and geographically, recalling its origins in a time when the first generation of AZT treatments was becoming more widely available in parts of North America and Europe, while other potential medications remained in various stages of clinical trial.  The sharp red diagonals of “Untitled” (Bloodwork – Steady Decline) remark its provenance as an age preceding the introduction of combination therapies including protease inhibitors, which promised the possibility of outcomes – which is to say, of futures – that might be mapped otherwise.  Moreover, they attest that even those with access to the most advanced medical care on the planet were not sufficiently privileged to reverse the downward tendency, and concomitantly, that faith in the inevitability of bio-medical “progress” was likewise suffering a precipitous decline.

While the polemical force of “Untitled” (Bloodwork – Steady Decline) issues from a particular time and place, its reach surpasses its circumstances of origin.  In the absence of effective treatments in the 1980s and early 1990s, the vast multiplicity of identities and experiences of PLWAs could legitimately be abstracted in the form of a line that traced a shared “fate.”  With the subsequent advent of therapies that promised longer, higher-quality survival, the graphs redirect their force and acquire a new, arguably prophetic dimension.  Read a decade and more following its creation and initial exhibition, in a radically different clinical and political context, “Untitled” (Bloodwork – Steady Decline) figures not only the potential aftermath of HIV diagnosis, but also the matter of access, critically remarking the social, economic and geopolitical inequities that brutally divide the few who have it from the many who, to date, still lack it.  The series thus attests to the specificity of its origins, and then recasts that specificity in light of events, making the question of “whether it manifests the fate of one person or of thirteen” matter in a different way.

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