It's really about love.
That was Amy Sadao, Executive Director of Visual AIDS, speaking in 2010 at the Postcards from the Edge benefit show. She was talking about continuing the dialog about HIV and AIDS through art and activism, keeping alive the works of artists who have died from the disease, and providing support to a community of HIV+ artists. This has always been the goal of Visual AIDS since its beginnings in 1988.
AIDS is as much about love as it is about loss. Consider, for instance, the compassion we have and feel in caring for a friend, a lover, or a family member who is ill. This image of compassion, of feeling, was absent from how the popular media, blighted by fear and ignorance, portrayed the environment of AIDS in the 1980s. And from seeing the acronyms of HIV and AIDS alone, it might be difficult to access the human experience in the seemingly cold letters abbreviated by science for the sake of clarity and convenience.
The discovery of the virus was mired in misinformation and homophobia. In 1981, when the Center for Disease Control first published a report about five young men being treated for a deadly strain of pneumonia, a link was drawn between infection and homosexuality. In 1982, GRID—gay-related immune deficiency—was inaccurately used to name the disease. It’s a dangerous link that has been difficult to sever, binding the image of love between two men with disease. Research and tests would prove that the demographics of the virus were not just young gay men, but also other people on the margins of society. In fact, the virus can be transmitted through contaminated needles and from faulty blood transfusions; through heterosexual intercourse and from an infected mother to her newborn. “AIDS”—acquired immune deficiency syndrome—became the official and more accurate descriptor. But it did little to combat the burgeoning ignorance and discrimination. It wasn’t until 1984 that the retrovirus, HIV—human immunodeficiency virus—was identified as the infectious agent that weakens the immune system, and which can eventually lead to AIDS.
Awareness about AIDS was slow to come, even in a media-drenched world of advertisement and corporate news, where images flash continuously through anyone’s field of vision, beckoning the eyes, and with it the body, to come have a look and take part in a brand—or to be overloaded, confused, and numbed.
These are the issues central to General Idea’s multimedia work Imagevirus, which co-opts Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE (1970) by replacing it with another four-letter word. AIDS becomes a grid that portrays and complicates the issues underlying the existence of the virus in an image-driven culture. From 1987 to 1994, the acronym infiltrated public spaces in the form of painting, wallpaper, poster, sculpture, etc. The writer and artist Gregg Bordowitz, writing on Imagevirus for Afterall’s One Work series (published in 2010), explores the complexities of the work, fleshing out its controversial character of linking the virus with love:
“Did love lead to AIDS? Of course not. There are no causal links, only resemblances and inferences. Certainly, AIDS, with its erotic components, enfolds love and its complexity. And certainly, by choosing Indiana’s LOVE, General Idea dragged along an entire art-historical genealogy that included Duchamp, Demuth and others.”
In Imagevirus, the connection between love and AIDS isn’t causal but metaphorical. As an acronym alone, AIDS could stand as a cold, formal abstraction. But linked with a known logo, bearing a resemblance to the colorful form of modernism, the word-image becomes a sensuous irritant that could begin a dialog about the virus in a public domain, or, at the very least, bring awareness to its presence.
“A virus, like all forms of nature,” Bordowitz writes, “must enter into language for humans to recognize its existence. If there are no words to describe it, it does not exist. But words are also images, and both are constituent parts of a larger picture registered and held by sensory experience.”
I could see how, in an atmosphere where there was a stifling and blinding mass of silence and denial about AIDS, a complex work like Imagevirus could be confusing and perceived as aloof and cruel. In the book, Bordowitz discusses the genesis of Imagevirus, imagining the members of General Idea (AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal) brainstorming and realizing the power of that work. Bordowitz does not shy away from speaking about Imagevirus being perceived as a potentially perverse conflation of disease and life-giving force. In fact, he dives in and confronts his own reservations about the work that he had held in the past. In the 1980s, the implications of Imagevirus ran the risk of dovetailing the ignorant and deadly misconception that AIDS was the consequence of a love considered illicit by right-wing conservatives. These contradictions are woven into the work; the way Bordowitz speaks about Imagevirus feels like a current of words that flows and connects various influences and ideas, from William Burroughs and Gertrude Stein to Marshall MacLuhan and television. He brings to light the conflicting characteristics of Imagevirus and the heated atmosphere into which it was introduced. Bordowitz doesn’t offer clean resolutions, but he doesn’t impose a cold interpretation either. He gives a personal, heartfelt account and scholarship of Imagevirus, showing the often unseen connections that the virus has presented.
There have been a lot of mixed messages about AIDS that continue to this day, but it is better to have them out in the open, blaringly visible, than to keep them hidden in the dark alleys of silence. In public, those nuances can be discussed and energized into action. But remaining in shadows like an unresolved trauma, they can fester as violence that repeats and propagates itself.
This past June, I saw a show of text-based works at La Mama Galleria, curated by John Chaich for Visual AIDS, that speaks against that self-repeating violence. “Mixed Messages” had a galvanizing spirit to it, probably because many of the works were created as agitprops and meant to rally people into action. With over forty artists and collectives, the show seemed to take its cue from General Idea’s Imagevirus, which was the oldest work there. Language, as word-images, becomes a way to access and feel sensuous, human experiences, which communication design, as advertisements have shown us, can stealthily and violently manipulate, distort, and dismiss. But with these works, graphic media is felt. It has body. The violence of written language, being able to sharply define a bodily experience at a distance, rendering it detached and cold, is subverted here to bring sensation back to the experience of reading and feeling the text.
Some works directly allude to the human form as they can be worn or carried. For instance, there was a tote bag by Chloe Dzubilo and T De Long asking the viewer to pay attention to AIDS prevention, written in script on dark fabric. It is written twice, in lavender blue and white that overlap each other. To obscure, perhaps, or to emphasize the request for awareness.
Protest is more effective with signs and logos. And indeed there were a lot of posters (or works that resembled posters) by Experimental Jetset, Anthony Burrill, James Joyce, Nightsweat & T-Cells, and David Wojnarowicz. Their messages vary from ironic wordplay to poignant narrative.
Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (One Day This Kid…) (1990) is the most haunting. Although it does not directly address AIDS, it highlights the social limitations that AIDS has rendered visible: apathy and hatred from both the government and the public. A photographic image of the artist as a child is captioned by an oracular text listing the future of the boy as he discovers himself and the violence he will confront in a homophobic world.
Other works combine smirking irony and self-awareness with confrontational bluntness. Paul Chisholm’s makeshift crucifix, Love & H*I*V (2010), and Andrew Graham’s AIDS is God’s Curse (2009), are two of those purposely disturbing and inflammatory word-images. Like Imagevirus, they’re meant to make you feel uncomfortable with their double entendre. Chisholm’s vinyl letters on two crisscrossing pieces of plywood read “Fuck me I have… love and HIV." It’s a message that points to a complicated doubling which exists inherently in language. Fuck me, because I have love. Fuck me, too, for my circumstances. Similarly, Graham’s wordsmithry overturns Fred Phelps’s hate mongering by placing the onus on God; AIDS is His curse. Ultimately, as these artists have shown, the meaning of a word or an image comes down to the reading, to the context in which it exists.
I’m reminded of a painting by Paul Thek, who died from AIDS in 1988. The painting was not in the show, but I think its message is an underlying theme of the text-based works. Written in yellow, the following aphorism inhabits the violet surface of a small canvas as a sensuous text-body: "Afflict the Comfortable. Comfort the Afflicted." This is the power of words and images. They can act as aesthetic alarms to the senses, forcing the viewer to feel, to participate; he or she becomes implicated. Words and images can return us to an awareness of the body, to the erotic self that feels and thinks—whether it is the work of art we are confronted with or our very own human bodies. Reading Bordowitz’s writing is like that. It is a kind of affliction that, like the liquid surface of a painting, makes me aware of the sensuousness of his words and ideas, and of the painful history and present he speaks about; it shakes me out of a numbed comfort that can fall like a spell or a paralysis, and rattles me back into consciousness.
~Aldrin Valdez, a writer living in New York.
(Images: General Idea, Imagevirus (Poster), 1989; Courtesy General Idea; David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (One day this kid...), photostat, 30.75 x 41 inches, edition of 10; Courtesy Estate of David Wojnarowicz; Paul Thek, Afflict the Comfortable, Comfort the Afflicted, 1985, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 24 inches; Courtesy of Alexander and Bonin and the Estate of Paul Thek)