Tag Archives: Zackie Achmat

“Cc…: CCC,” part 13

Hi  all,

John, your invocation of Stuart Marshall’s effort to historicize the epidemic in his 1987 videotape brought to mind your own indelible contributions in this regard, notably Zero Patience, which dates from 1993.  As Paula Treichler writes of your film in How to Have Theory in an Epidemic, “Early in Greyson’s musical…the character of Sir Richard Burton performs an ode to empirical science:  ‘A culture of certainty,’ he sings, ‘will wipe out every doubt.’  But by the end of the film, virtually every apparent certainty has been called into question, including some of the most treasured certainties of AIDS treatment activism.  The character of George, losing his sight from CMV, is also losing patience with treatment orthodoxies, no matter whose they are.  But even as his poignant refrain asserts this condition of radical uncertainty – ‘I know I know I know I know that I don’t know’ – Greyson’s story of the stories of the epidemic never lets us forget what we do know:  That a narrative can be powerfully persuasive, that a democratic technoculture must find ways to acknowledge the power of competing narratives, and that, for all the power of narrative, this epidemic leaves hundreds of thousands of people dead.”  She goes on to remark that, as the film unfolds, the various codes and conventions that have characterized the historiography of the epidemic “are self-consciously framed, contrasted, and denaturalized:  repeatedly called ‘tales,’ ‘stories,’ and ‘histories,’ they are used and manipulated to furnish data for grant proposals, fed to the media, distorted by the media, juxtaposed to other stories, told differently by different people, espoused and repudiated, hammed up, camped up, acted out, politicized, ridiculed, idealized, and discredited.  In this sense, they represent competing regimes of credibility…placed in visible collision.”

In the aftermath of writing The Brevity of Life, this recalls for me the threat to historiography formulated by Walter Benjamin in his fifth thesis On the Concept of History:  “The true image of the past flits by.  The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again…. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own threatens to disappear irretrievably.”  Like the dancing shadows John invoked in his last message to us, flitting around the hearth of the virus, whose company presumably includes a number of more and less helpful, useful, risky analogies.  As William Haver notes in his admirable essay “Interminable AIDS,” “The ghost is the figure of what we can never quite forget altogether, but also of that which memory can never satisfactorily recover:  the figure of the impossibility of forgetting what we have forgotten.  The ghost is the figure of what disrupts every attempt at historiographical pacification.”  Witness Zackie’s video phantom addressing the conference delegates and the world from the screens temporarily erected in Barcelona for the occasion.

And John’s question – “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?” – resonates with Gertrude Stein’s singular history lesson, the final line of her poem “If I told him”:  “Let me recite what history teaches.  History teaches.”  If, as Gregg contends (with Benjamin), “A radical break with history can only follow from a radical break with an understanding of history,” we urgently need to attend to what HIV/AIDS has to tell us, to teach us, about our understanding of history.  For example, as Gregg also points out, “When we are forced to contemplate the AIDS crisis in the U.S. [in 2002], all illusions of progress disintegrate.”  Hence our received understanding of what Benjamin calls “the historical progress of mankind” is radically undercut by the material events that constitute the history of the pandemic to date, and in particular is shown to rely on a notion of our progression through a homogeneous, empty time.

More later, I hope.

Deborah

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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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“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

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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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“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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