Tag Archives: Treatment Action Campaign

“Cc…: CCC,” part 12

Thinking out loud in response to John’s last e-mail:

The analogy between the AIDS crisis and the Nazi holocaust was once very common in AIDS discourse in North America.  I have, for a long time now, doubted the usefulness of analogies between the AIDS crisis and the Holocaust (and by the term Holocaust I understand that to refer to the Nazi Holocaust) because through analogy we lose our ability to grasp the crisis at hand in its specificity.  The use of analogy is somewhat useful to gain immediate attention and it’s perhaps useful as a shorthand for ethical criteria established through the experience of the Holocaust.  However, we gain little through the analogy because we foreclose on the possibility of new outcomes when we resort to historical analogies.  In other words, what we attempt to change and avoid through the use of analogy, we can doom to repetition in our analysis.  Through analogy we risk closing our minds to current options and possibilities.

I do not accept the old adage that those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Rather, I believe that those who fail to grasp the present, in all its complexity and specificity, are doomed to repetition.  A radical break with history can only follow from a radical break with an understanding of history.

Regarding the problem of doing something “here,” from the vantage of the privileged north, that will help “there,” in the disadvantaged south:  I have been preoccupied with this problem ever since I returned to  Chicago from Durban in July 2000.  Initially, after returning from the Durban conference, I found receptive audiences for consciousness raising and fundraising, specifically about AIDS in Africa and the efforts of the Treatment Action Campaign.  These efforts were supported and amplified by the established press.  Papers such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal gave a great amount of coverage to AIDS in the “third world” and the battles over pharmaceutical drug company patents.

The success of the efforts I have been involved with – fundraising, lecturing and the production of advocate video work – has reached a limit for a number of interesting reasons.  Discussions here and in the U.S. about AIDS in the resource-poor world inevitably, and perhaps rightly, lead back to discussions about AIDS in our country [the U.S.].  When we are forced to contemplate the AIDS crisis in the U.S., all illusions of progress disintegrate.  Sure, there are a large number of people on life-saving drugs, far larger proportionately than in the resource-poor world, BUT there are many other things to consider.  Over half of the million people in the U.S. who have HIV don’t know it.  Among those who do know it, the number of those who have access to drugs and adequate medical treatment is small AND may get smaller.  The government is now attacking and seriously threatening to dismantle the benefit system AIDS activists fought hard to establish.  ADAP (the AIDS drug assistance program) is currently under attack.  Plus, the Bush administration is also quietly going about the business of undermining and discrediting already compromised and underfunded prevention programs.

The needs of people in the resource-poor world are far greater in scale than the needs of people in wealthy countries.  There remain a great many unsolved inequities in wealthy nations.  How do the needs of people with AIDS in poor countries and the needs of the poor in rich countries become separate and competing problems in the minds of those who think about AIDS?  Given the shortage of resources to fight AIDS here or abroad, how do AIDS activists choose effective courses of action?

There is a crisis of community among those hardest hit in the U.S.  A kind of complacency has set in about AIDS.  The reasons for this are very complex and will have to be thoroughly considered in a following e-mail.  For the moment, let us recognize that the negative effects of privatization, the suffocation of the public sphere through capitalist incorporation and instrumentalization of all organic community structures has stymied and arrested those hardest hit by AIDS.  Though things are getting bad, in ways that feel very much the same as the late eighties, the communities hardest hit do not seem to have the wherewithal to fight back.  And it is hard to rally people simply by referring them back to the late eighties.  Again the problem with analogy.

In the past two weeks, I have learned of two friends, gay men, who after a decade or more of remaining HIV negative, have now seroconverted.  This is by now a common experience for many of us, witnessing the seroconversion of our friends.  And we have developed an ethical response to the experience.  No judgment.  We must immediately make ourselves available to our friends, support them, love them, help them to make appropriate treatment decisions, and help them get access to treatment.  That may sound odd to others.  Of course you should respond that way!  It took some of us a while to get past our anger and frustration, to develop a complex understanding of the role of the unconscious and the limits of safer sex, to be able to respond ethically, with love and not anger or resentment, to recent seroconversions.  The complexity of all this preoccupies me now.

More later.  XOXO  Gregg

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“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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