Phyllis Sharpe

Below is part two of a three part series by A.Anthony, entitled: "Acting Up in Public—HIV/AIDS Documentation and the Stakes of Representation". Read Part One: here. Revisit the Visual AIDS blog in coming weeks for part three.

In Part One, I argued that we return to “POSTCARDS FROM AMERICA X Rays from Hell,” a key section from David Wojnarowicz’s groundbreaking memoir Close to the Knives, A Memoir of Disintegration (1991).In “POSTCARDS” Wojnarowicz encourages fellow activists to act up in public and to document their actions.I argued that acting up hinges upon Wojnarowicz’s image of the postcard, both literal and figurative.I posited that HIV/AIDS activism that continues to address the ongoing nature of the disease allows us to more readily question queer strategies of and for documentation, representation, survival, and resilience.Following Wojnarowicz, I will utilize the following section to discuss contemporary HIV/AIDS documentaries, How to Survive a Plague and United in Anger. If documentary can be both viewed and read as set of postcards, messages sent and received across generations of activists, how can we reflect on how HIV/AIDS has been represented, remembered, and imagined anew?

Part Two: Documentation // Representation // Re-definition // Archival Footage

How to Survive a Plague narrates the history of ACT UP through a focus on medical advancement, healing, and the work of the Treatment and Action Group (TAG). Combining home video, protest documentation, and contemporary interview, How to Survive a Plague portrays the activist as hero seeking access to care. Of all the actions displayed in the film Robert Rafsky’s speech at Mark Fischer’s[1] public funeral is a gesture that speaks most clearly to the bottom line goals of acting up in public.The documentarian strategies of How to Survive a Plague allow the viewer to be surrounded by generations of ACT UP members while attending to government neglect, illness, and resilience. Captured by ACT UP camcorders and re-purposed in How to Survive a Plague, Mark Fischer' funeral produces necessary archival interventions. Following Wojnarowicz, I would like to suggest that we read this scene as a series of penned and received postcards, messages and memories that remain relevant after their ink has disintegrated. How to Survive a Plague is as literary as it is cinematic in its utilization of public death and mourning, “tiny charcoal scratching[s] done as a gesture to mark a person’s response to this epidemic.”[2] Heavily influenced by “POSTCARDS FROM AMERICA,” Fischer’s self-display post-mortem allows his transformation from activist, pen pal, to historian. With every viewing of How to Survive a Plague we walk in stride, we pay witness, and we point our attention to Fischer’s messenger, Robert Rafsky.

“…the question is what does a decent society do to people who hurt themselves because they’re human?” Robert Rafksy [3]

Walking through the streets of New York during an evening of heavy rain, ACT UP delivers the deceased body of Mark Fischer to the front steps of the re-election headquarters for George Bush, Senior. From under a black umbrella Rafsky addresses the camera, Fischer, ACT UP, and future audiences, “This isn’t a political funeral for Mark, it is a political funeral for the man who killed him and so many others, and is slowly killing me.”[4] Rafsky concludes, “In anger and in grief, this fight is not over until all of us are safe.”[5] Through archival footage the film invokes and honors the most well known passage in Close to the Knives, Fischer’s body delivered to the steps of a government official.[6] The memories of ACT UP New York members and documentary footage allow Fischer’s embodied public gesture to reverberate and “deafen the satellites and lift the curtains surrounding the control room”[7] for a contemporary global audience.

“I am here to tell you that more trials should be available for me and the rest of the poor. I have a home now, but about ten months ago I was still homeless.”--Phyllis Sharpe, United in Anger.

From Mark Fischer to Phyllis Sharpe, HIV/AIDS documentary asks the viewer to question the relevancy of Wojnarowicz’s bottom line, the necessity to act up in public. With a focus on language, queer documentarian strategies represent a position close to the knives[8] in United in Anger. ACT UP New Yorkers redefine AIDS, identity politics, and collective efforts at community self-preservation. Director Jim Hubbard and producer Sara Schulman address the ongoing-ness[9] of the epidemic, conjoining the collective history of ACT UP through an archive of “video remains.”[10] Focusing on the image and labor of postcards, I am most interested in the following scene entitled,“May 21, 1990- Storm the NIH – ACT UP protests to demand inclusiveness in AIDS Clinical Trail Groups (ACTG) at the National Institutes of Health.”[11]

As viewers we enter the grounds of the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. Through a bullhorn Sharpe discloses her status as poor and previously homeless while directly addressing the exclusionary representation of the AIDS Clinical Trials Group. Viewed as a postcard from Sharpe to ACT UP, this scene allows United in Anger to center the stories of women of color directly affected by the virus and government neglect. Gesturing directly to the employees of the NIH, Sharpe divulges her own experience of AIDS in order to deliver a message to future generations.Through United in Anger, we continue to watch Sharpe hover above the crowd even after death. For Sharpe, the need to re-define AIDS requires resilient acts of correspondence and the archiving of such acts for the purposes of future generations.

(inter)Connections and New Conversations
Close to the Knives, How to Survive a Plague,
or United in Anger are not above critique. Close to the Knives, although increasingly important to the fight against AIDS is also solipsistic in its approach activism, lacking a broader approach to past social movements. How to Survive a Plague focuses predominantly on white male activists and their legacy via TAG. United in Anger ends where it begins, asking the viewer to join the fight and act up.I have demonstrated the utility of queer archival methods of documentation via the image and the materiality of the postcard. As found objects, postcards allow us to address the ongoing nature of the disease and the need for a shared history of collective activism. I have demonstrated how memoir and documentary form but two modalities of documentation as representation.

In the third and final section of this essay I will discuss public media produced by Visual AIDS, fierce pussy’s postcard from “For the Record,” a visual-image contribution to Day With(out) Art 2013 and Kay Rosen’s tote bag message “AIDS/ON/GOING/GOING/ON.”[12] As a type of ephemerality postcards, tote bags are portable and mobile. Like bookmarks, objects like postcards and canvas bags hold the space and items necessary for return visits.Turning to memorabilia distributed by Visual AIDS, the final section will reiterate the applicability of David Wojnarowicz’s “POSTCARDS.” I will close with an argument for the continued potential of acting up in public. Postcards do not last forever. Yet, if we position ourselves “head turned backwards and forwards at the same time”[13] then we will be better positioned to receive an archive of acting up with ACT UP New York.

A.Anthony is a second year PhD student in the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.His main areas of interest are: American Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, Queer Theory, and Performance Studies.Their larger body of research is focuses on the intersections between sex commerce and service provision in the District of Columbia.As a researcher and an ethnographer A.Anthony works most closely with the DC transgender women of color communities.Contact A.Anthony at: aanthon1@umd.edu

[1] November 2nd 1992

[2] Close to the Knives, p. 122-123.

[3] How to Survive a Plague

[4] Sic.

[5] Sic.

[6] “I imagine what it would be like if, each time a lover, friend or stranger died of this disease, their friends lovers of neighbors would take the dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to Washington D.C. and blast through the gates of the white house and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps” (W. 122).

[7] Close to the Knives, p. 122-123.

[8] Sic.

[9] Visual AIDS. Art by Kay Rosen. New York, 2013.

[10] Alexandra Juhasz. “Video Remains: Nostalgia, Technology, and Queer Archive Activism.”

GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Volume 12, Number 2. Durham: Duke

University Press. 2006. 319-328.

[11] United in Anger.

[12] Printed in red, this message is featured on canvas tote bags produced by the organization Visual AIDS. Art by Kay Rosen. New York, 2013.

[13] Gordon, Avery. “2 distractions. Educated People.” Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the

Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnestoa press. 2008. 57.