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Learning you are living with HIV can be the start of a profound period of time in which you look back at your life in pursuit of discovering a way ways forward. As artist Christopher emerges from a period of healing isolation, he shares his journey along with a meaningful romantic encounter, reflections on past violence, and the enduring power of friendship and art.


“To be an artist, you have to nurture the things that most people discard.”
- Richard Avedon


PART 1: a sense of surrounding
“No, I can’t give you your results over the phone but you should come down here right away,” a rehearsed script and the nurse abruptly hung up with a digital beep. I stood laughing with the indifference of my iPhone screen in the cold ceramic-tiled silence of my studio apartment, the beginnings of dusk outside, and I checked the clock to see how much time I had left. The doctor’s office closed in 45 minutes.

Everything felt like I would never again in my life have enough time. Above me in a corner, a cobweb caught itself on a draft, fluttered like Spanish moss, strands mixed with the last rays of sunlight. The neon red of my alarm clock stared back and the sound of my own breathing became heavy, filling my ears.

Upstairs in another apartment a radio played a baseball game; a sound in the distance of something far away.

My doctor wasn’t in. I saw the tending physician who was less than thrilled at being given this task of delivering an HIV diagnosis to a terrified young man at the end of his shift. I remember he kept his distance, speaking to me from across the room in the corner; his gaze felt cold. I imagined hearing him call me a slut, telling me ‘you should have known better’.

There was a run-down about how things were different now, medications were much better and a host of other catch-phrases that were the psychosocial equivalent of a good pat on the back. Never before was it so starkly underlined to me how the clinical aspects of the medical profession can attract a can attract a different sort of personality than the assumed nurturing qualities do.

Everything seemed out of focus, muffled and slightly removed from itself. The subway ride back to my apartment felt like an international flight to the unknown. Crossing the East River was like flying over the North Atlantic in the black of night, cold dark and turbulent; maddeningly slow but with an immediacy, and yet seemingly outside of time.


PART 2: the future from the past
I remember six years ago being at a party where my friend Jack was reading palms. We had all had a few glasses of wine and decided to test out her skills and see what she could tell us about our pasts and our futures.

My friend Ann went first, sitting down on the futon next to Jack and laying her hand out with her palm under the soft glow of the umber fringe lamp next to her. Jack took her hand and scanned the lines with her eyes like a crossword puzzle.

"Your father died when you were young." I knew this to be true, and my heart skipped a beat as I watched Ann’s pallor wax as the blood rushed out of her face.

My turn was next; I sat down and her brow furrowed a bit as she looked into my hand.

“Your life-line is broken halfway through but the two parts overlap. Halfway through your life you will get sick. It won’t kill you, but it will force you to become who you were meant to be.”

***

I met him one night at a bar, a backyard full of pawing fronds and stern wood planks at right angles of erotic tension. Black-velvet corner pockets of muffled conversation and harsh filament pools of crystalline focused in knowing stares.

He caught me in his teeth, the razor edge of a shadow cutting just above his lip and the light behind his canines making them look acrylic as he laughed and a mop of curly hair shaking in the dark. That is how I remember him— a tuft of hair, a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, and a smile that entered a room before the rest of him.

He was a long lazy Saturday in bed because neither of us were morning people. He was the puppy calendar from the dollar store he brought as a gift to a holiday party because he worked at a coffee shop and didn’t have much money. He was friends telling me ‘this is one you bring home to mom’ and it seemed like he was going to totally change my life, until he did. But by then he had disappeared.

He left my apartment early on a Sunday morning to go to work, I was half asleep and I remember a kiss goodbye that was already over before it started and I returned to black, deep, empty, bottomless sleep; the last I would have for some years.

We were supposed to go to the movies that night. He didn’t call me after work. I ran errands and got ready for my week and sort of forgot about our plans. Instead I dealt with the laundry, got a good bottle of wine and a book and settled in to the sort of quiet Sunday evening tinged with melancholy, that Brooklyn excels at when the insides of laundromats become Hopper paintings of transcendent banality.

When he stopped answering his phone, I figured I had been ‘ghosted’ and was prepared to lick my wounds of rejection. In the short time we dated, I never knew exactly where he lived, and I wasn’t completely sure of the name of the coffee shop he worked at so a few weeks later when I developed a rash on my arms, legs and torso that had no real explanation, I had no way of finding him.

There was my life before and after him, neatly cleaved. Deep in the pit of my stomach I knew what had happened, that I had contracted HIV.

Like many others before me I suspect, my life was irrevocably altered by someone who vanished; and in a strange sort of paradox, in his absence, he is forever a part of me every day. His disappearance was a void into which I could put all of the things that had happened in my life to bring me there - both an exit from one life and an entrance to another; until I began the process of becoming whole again, a process I am still very much in today.


PART 3: childhood was a time
In the grove of trees at the far end of the field behind the property our families owned, I woke up to the older boy next door hovering over me, his adolescent body pressed against mine. I was seven. There was kissing. He put himself in my mouth. As he turned me over I felt queasy. I was terrified of what was happening to me, but also frightened because I liked it.

I floated outside my body as he fucked me. I’m not sure I’v ever really made it all the way back in.

The next year I entered the second grade and inside my skull was a sharp and constant screaming that would persist for the next twenty years.

***

For the first six years of my life I had only one dream, the same dream, every night: I open a door leading to a set of long cellar stairs descending into a vast chasm of endless blackness. I open the door and begin to climb down, I don’t want to go down but the pull is magnetic and I am inevitably brought to the edge of the great void. Every night I slip over and fall into nothing, into a blackness of forever until I hit the ground and die. And then I would wake up.

***

In 2008 I was assaulted outside of a Brooklyn gay bar and it left me with a titanium plate in my head. I had been having a few drinks with friends and we parted ways. On my way to the train I stumbled into a dead zone, an intersection with no stores or bars. Two stout white guys with buzzed heads stepped out of the darkness - “hey faggot” , a bright flash and a metallic ringing in my ears as the bones of his knuckles connected to my skull with a sickly hollow *crack*.

The pavement rose to meet me and I descended into a darkness, a blackness of forever.

After the Doctors stopped the hemorrhaging in my brain, I finally got surgery to fix my face, with minimal scars around my eye and the back of my head. I can feel the steel part of my skull that is inorganic, especially on particularly cold days or when my sinuses are backed up. It is a constant nagging, a reminder of horror, a wound on the inside.


PART 4: this is where detritus and re-integration come in
Being diagnosed with HIV proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. I developed intense agoraphobia and panic attacks. I could not leave my apartment for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time. I suffered a nervous breakdown, and would later be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the cumulative traumas in my life.

I had been pushed past the point of breaking and for a full year I barely left the confines of my studio apartment, except to get basic necessities. I quit all social media except for a semi-anonymous tumblr. I cut everyone I knew out of my life except one or two friends. I had bouts of rage, crying that seemed like it would never stop, and long gray stretches of absolute emptiness. I fully disappeared myself. When I slowly began to socialize a year or two later many of the people I had known told me they thought I had moved out of New York.

I had previously been engaged with the New York City arts community but the idea of trying to navigate the high pressure art world was too much to bear for someone who could barely go buy paper towels without curling up in the fetal position. I stopped making creative work entirely, and did what corporate video editing I needed to do from home in order to pay the rent.

I spent long hours meditating in my apartment, re-invigorating my passion for Zen Buddhism, and broke apart my psyche piece by piece in a long process, like the untying of a series of knots. Every aspect of myself I didn’t like, I examined what it resulted from, and tried as best as possible to remove it from my behavior patterns and concept of self. I broke myself down psychologically as far as I could in order to lay the foundation to begin a process of rebuilding my life.

I slowly began to leave my apartment for longer periods of time, taking walks around my neighborhood and setting goals of basic tasks: I would do my laundry and force myself to remain in the laundromat for the entire duration, or force myself to walk to the furthest possible pharmacy to get a new toothbrush.

Once I could make it through a period of roughly 24 hours without being seized by a bout of rage or overwhelming panic, I began to think about making creative work again.

Slowly I began to make statements, but I had to begin at the bottom. I had to find redemption in the most mundane of human interactions and activities before I could even think about starting to make complex artistic statements again. I had to find the lowest common denominator of meaning in the very rudimentary life I was living.

I needed to redeem the garbage in my life, the waste, the castoff and the excess - if art did not exist somewhere within there then it did not matter to me anymore.

I began taking my camera with me on my walks and taking pictures of whatever caught my eye but with a sort of purposeful inelegance. I wanted the photographs to look like the leftovers on a reel of film you might find in a basket at some off-ramp flea market in a forgotten rust belt town. Garish colors, dilapidated buildings, rusted signs and the accumulation of dirt and debris became the visual language of the work which evolved into something called ‘detritus.’

I also began saving receipts, fliers, business cards, dry cleaning tags; any sort of scrap of paper that was handed to me or in some way signified an exchange with another person I kept and scanned and incorporated into the work; all the accumulated ephemera that collected around my life as it grew increasingly complex. 'Detritus’ was a record of my first steps out of that dark tunnel of isolation. Through the art-context-as-redemption of the unwanted, inconsequential and discarded in our everyday existence, I began to find my voice again.

My personality type leans toward the introverted, and I already suffered from social anxiety before my self-imposed year long exile, so as I began to build my life outward again I found it easiest to engage with people in some sort of structured environment. This, in tandem with my wish to avoid the pitfalls of depression and self-pity, led me to start volunteering at the Ali Forney Center. My impulse was that helping those who had less than I did, and who were struggling to surmount even greater obstacles than those I faced in my own life, would help me move past some of the fear and anxiety, or at least place them in a larger context or perspective.

During this period I also stumbled into doing nightlife photography for parties and drag performances. A lot of my friends are DJ’s , drag queens and musicians and are very heavily involved in the Brooklyn nightlife scene. They knew I studied film and photography and had a lot of equipment so I was asked to start taking photos for a weekly party at the very bar I had been bashed outside of years earlier. It felt cathartic, a form of closure. Having a camera provided me with a role to play and served as an intermediary between myself and other people. Small talk and casual socialization does not come easily to me, the camera provided me a way to engage with people that felt safe.

As I lived with my diagnosis and began the process of disclosing to certain loved ones, I gradually started re-emerging and step by step became more comfortable with joining HIV/AIDS organizations and participating publicly in the HIV/AIDS community - in my second year I started raising money for the New York City AIDS Walk and have continued to do so with friends.

My first introduction to Visual AIDS was through my friend Vincent whom I had met via tumblr during my year of isolation. We began to email and chat and have Facebook conversations and gradually I learned more about HIV/AIDS art and activism on a level much deeper and more pervasive than I had previously been exposed to. He was in the NOT OVER exhibition in the summer of 2013 at La MaMa Galleria. He traveled down for the opening and I invited him to stay with me in Brooklyn. I went to the opening with him and was moved by the work and overwhelmed by the history of what I was seeing. I met vibrant people. I hoped someday, when I was ready, I would be a part this world.


PART 5: the present is art
A year or so later I felt I had come far enough in dealing with my diagnosis, and felt comfortable enough talking about it in a much more open way, that I was ready to take a big step out into the world being much more open with my HIV status. One night I lay in bed with my laptop and uploaded some of the work I had been making in the time between what I call my ‘lost year’ and that time. I created an artists profile and uploaded 100 or so images into the Visual AIDS artist registry. I intended to let them sit there for awhile; that step alone was big enough for the time being.

Almost immediately I got an email from Ted, programs manager at Visual AIDS. He sped up my getting involved—somewhat against my will, but also in a way I am grateful for. I’m looking to make new friends and meet people in a structured environment, which is usually the type of environment that eases my social anxiety. I’ve been bringing my camera to events and taping them. It keeps me busy from feeling self-conscious, and as Warhol said of his artistic practice,”it gives me something to do.”

I am not in a rush to make work about HIV/AIDS, however I am eager to connect with people and find some sort of community as I reemerge into the world. I am still navigating my relationship to my status, my life, and my creative practices: to rush to make projects around this aspect of my life that I’m still coming to understand would feel inauthentic and disingenuous.

Except for taking a pill once a day, my life has changed little since my diagnosis—save on the existential plane. I have only crossed that invisible line between a negative symbol from a positive one - the invisible border between what Susan Sontag demarcated as the dual “kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick”,between worlds like a Japanese ghost.

A few months after my diagnosis I sat down with my friend Jack, the one who read my palm and told me my life line was cut in two. I asked her if she remembered it. She said she did, and that it was the last time she had ever read anyone’s palm again.

Nothing has changed, and yet everything has.

Christoph3r C0nry