Brontez Purnell, "100 Boyfriends Mixtape (The Demo)," 2017. Still courtesy the artist.

For Day With(out) Art 2017, Visual AIDS commissioned seven new and innovative short videos from artists Mykki Blanco, Cheryl Dunye & Ellen Spiro, Reina Gossett, Thomas Allen Harris, Kia LaBeija, Tiona Nekkia McClodden and Brontez Purnell. Curated by Erin Christovale and Vivian Crockett for Visual AIDS, the video program ALTERNATE ENDINGS, RADICAL BEGINNINGS prioritized Black narratives within the ongoing AIDS epidemic.

Below, Kenyon Farrow responds to Brontez Purnell's video 100 Boyfriends Mixtape (The Demo). Read Brontez Purnell's artist statement here.


"100 Boyfriends Mixtape (The Demo)" has #nofilter

by Kenyon Farrow

We are living in a moment not unlike the 1950s, when we saw the first form of small, mediated images, packaged for people’s homes. Television presented a nearly impossible world of the white imagination—white male patriarchs who worked, women who stayed home, separate beds for presumably sexless marriages outside of the sometimes present children. And then there were occasional Blacks, either on their own shows or as maids and hired help of the main stars.

Outside of the great boob tube, a black cast-iron cauldron long bubbling over was beginning to crack at the base. It is this: a dichotomy, a cognitive dissonance between the façade of American life vis-à-vis Hollywood and the entertainment world, and that of another nation of Blacks, marching, determined to break it.

Today, social media has, in many respects, become the television of the 1950s, only it is our own self-making that is the art (or the “content”—much of it is artless images and words that fill space and time). It is the sense of being in love, like Narcissus, with our own image—taken with angles and great lighting, filtered and carefully crafted—and festering, as we are falling into our liquid, pixelated selves, soon to drown.

Brontez Purnell’s character in his short film 100 Boyfriends Mixtape (The Demo), commissioned for Visual AIDS’ 2017 Day With(out) Art program ALTERNATE ENDINGS, RADICAL BEGINNINGS, is in many ways representative of where we are, and where we are not. The character is sitting in a bathtub with a poster of Tupac as the backdrop. He’s waist-deep in bathwater, wearing jeans to shrink to skin, face painted with charcoal-thick eyeliner and lashes to match. He’s talking, presumably to a friend, with no particular aim, as with most phone calls with friends—a random and winding road, an update of things seen, people done, stunts pulled. It’s part of the self-obsessed culture and totally stream of conscious at the same time.

Everything about the conversation presented here lacks the kind of self-consciousness so present in a lot of work now. It’s a character who talks about stealing clothes, getting fucked by Mexican men in public parks, and taking an HIV test with the implied motivation just to get the financial incentives, even though he already knows he's positive. Many people on the left who make or write about culture often decry “the politics of respectability” but fall short of producing art that actually makes people uncomfortable, makes us really see flawed subjects as ultimately human beings whose stories need to be told, even if they do or say things that fall outside of one’s idea of a deserving “progressive.”

One of the things I love about Brontez’s work is its honesty and immediacy in a world of such mediated, carefully crafted content. There are very few artists of any kind right now—particularly ones who see themselves as progressive, woke, left, or whatever—who are able to present their work without what has become the obvious filter, that sense that you’ve pre-treated your work in order to evade critique for being labeled “fucked up.” This is especially daring for an artist based in the Bay Area, which was once a place where the most lowbrow, daring work happened. Now, it is difficult to see characters that don’t use all of the buzzwords of today’s political left in order to explore a real, living, breathing human being. Brontez's work always makes me slightly uncomfortable, a little unnerved, and that is precisely what art is supposed to do.

As Baldwin noted in his essay Everybody’s Protest Novel, “The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone that is real and which cannot be transcended.”

As such, Brontez's character is not presented as one to simply harangue against racism, homophobia and white supremacy—yes, he talks about white men adopting children of color, but he’s fucked both men also. The character isn’t an avatar for an ideal fantasy of a Black queer and “woke” subject. And this is something that is harder to do as an artist working right now, in the age of social media, where people are actively waiting to read or see an off-color word or phrase to dismiss an entire work for its creative value, the overall political messages embedded in it, and often, the person themselves.

It’s hard to not to see this black and white short, in all its black queer hilarity, and not think of Portrait of Jason, the 1967 documentary starring Jason Holliday. Portrait of Jason was shot at the Chelsea Hotel overnight for 12 hours, where white filmmaker Shirley Clarke and her boyfriend Carl Lee are heard in the background, antagonizing Jason until he, drunk on alcohol supplied by the filmmakers, begins to break down before our very eyes. While Jason was sympathetic as a subject, his filmmakers were not. Both Jason and Brontez are Black queer men, giving us a kind of cinéma vérité view into their respective lives, but 100 Boyfriends Mixtape (The Demo) isn’t an outside take, like that of white filmmakers in Portrait of Jason who provoke and delight in Jason’s drunken demise. It’s both a selfless and self-conscious view of the life of a poor Black queer man now, as unpretty and grating as it may be in moments.

In the age of self-making through social media, 100 Boyfriends Mixtape (The Demo) is a refreshing look at what it means to be a Black queer man now—#nofilter.

Kenyon Farrow is the senior editor with TheBody.com and TheBodyPro.com. Kenyon has a long track record working in communities impacted by HIV as an activist, writer, and strategist. Prior to joining TheBody.com, he served as U.S. & Global Health Policy director for Treatment Action Group (TAG), where he led a research project to explore the role of community mobilization in the U.S. HIV response and helped develop strategies for southern jurisdiction's ending-the-epidemic campaigns. Kenyon has also worked on campaigns large and small, local, national, and global on issues related to criminalization/mass imprisonment, homelessness, and LGBT rights.

In addition to his political work, Kenyon is a prolific essayist and author. He is the co-editor of the book Letters From Young Activists: Today's Rebels Speak Out. His work has also appeared in many anthologies including Spirited: Affirming the Soul of Black Lesbian and Gay Identity, For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Still Not Enough, We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America, and Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam's Call. His work has also appeared on websites and in publications such as The Body.com, POZ, The Atlantic, TheGrio, Colorlines, ReWire News, The American Prospect, and AlterNet.

Brontez Purnell