Visual AIDS presented WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW COULD FILL A MUSEUM last January as part of the Brooklyn Museum's Target Free Saturday. Moderated by Brittany Duck, featuring Hugh Ryan, Jean Carlomusto, Tara Burk and Vincent Cianni, the event was part 2 of our ongoing public conversation about art, AIDS and representation. Below, panelist Vincent Cianni talks about his practice as a photographer and the need for people to populate the archive.

VINCENT CIANNI: Hello, I’m a documentary photographer whose work investigates community, memory, and the human condition through image, text and audio. My career has been built on telling stories. My interests are in marginalized communities, social justice and human and civil rights issues. I teach photography at Parsons The New School for Design and the International Center of Photography. Duke University’s Rubenstein Library established a study archive to collect all my documentary and personal photography projects.

Although HIV/AIDS has not been a constant subject in my artistic inquiry and I do not identify myself as a gay artist or as an artist whose work focuses on HIV/AIDS, I have culled a series of pictures that were made over 25 years as I documented my personal experience during the early years of AIDS. I see this work as relevant to my identity as We Skate Hardcore, Gays in the Military, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the effects of fracking on a Pennsylvania town. All focus on underrepresented communities, populations who at one time or another had little access to political, social or economic freedoms and choices.

Therefore my perspective sitting on this panel is one of inclusion in a wider more expansive history. The questions surrounding queer art and queer artists, HIV/AIDS art and artists are the same questions that arise when speaking about black art and black artists. Interestingly enough, 2013 is said to be the year for black films. But in describing the great filmmaking that emanated from the African American community as black filmmaking sets it apart from the larger industry and history of “filmmaking”. Why does it have to be discussed as different or separately?

I am often asked where my ideas for projects come from. They arise from my experience. They are an extension of my life, my history, my memories. What allows them to be understood universally? I think that in a world of 7.1 billion people, where everyone is a complex fabric of identities, relationships, experiences and histories, each of us is uniquely different. We belong to different communities, and none of us have that same make-up of identities and communities. So what ties us together?

My answer would be the preservation of human rights, dignity and respect, those desires and freedoms that are common to us all as humans, life (and health I would add), liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Hanna Arendt says that, “the perception of human rights is understood when a group of people have lost them and it takes a political and activist community to stand up and fight for inclusion. More importantly these rights are acknowledged when other people observe the violations of inalienable human dignitas from a distance, for example in drawings, in photographs, in newspapers, in posters and in public art.” Our role as artists is to make this work so that others can understand our humanity (and therefore our commonalities) and hopefully bring about change.

Simply put, all art stems from a communal experience. The first form of human expression (or art) was dance. In primitive cultures, before history was being told with language or written with words, stories and memory were relayed through the reenactment of last years hunt, of recent births and death, etc. These reenactments were repeated to establish an identity, a sense of community.

And so this brings me to the central point of the discussion today: What is the museum’s role in representing HIV/AIDS? My answer would be: the same as in any other issue. My view is that museums, galleries, cultural institutions, and academies have their own agendas and we cannot rely entirely on them to define history. In particular, museums are concerned with objects and how they embody the history they reference. But they are focused on the artist as creator, not the artist as activist. And many times when grappling with these issues, the failure usually stems from those who are invested in these interests (i.e., the administrators, their supporters and their audiences and the politics that stem from them) and those who present the work (i.e. curators) and their lack of understanding and scholarship on these issues.

So we must look to organizations that focus their energies and scholarship on HIV/AIDS issues, on the preservation of these histories, usually more often found in library collections such as gay and lesbian archives at the New York Public Library, Yale University’s Beineke Library and the San Francisco Public Library. I think the greatest strength is for LGBTQ artists and scholars, especially young LGBTQ scholars, some of whom are sitting on this panel, to be the ones who define these histories and present them to the public in the form of exhibitions, books, and films - those who lived the experience, those who commented on their experience through their words and art, those who thoroughly studied the histories of those experiences.

And even more so, we must look to political and advocacy organizations that utilize our art, such as Visual AIDS or in the case of Gays in the Military, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, to disseminate this art and these ideas. Finally, artist cooperatives who fight against injustices, such as Gran Fury and Fierce Pussy, to establish a public presence. In a sense we must go back to the primitives and rely on oral histories, telling (or relaying) our own stories, writing our own histories.

I have always pursued establishing relationships with institutions, archives, libraries and organizations that advocate for human and civil rights, whether it be homeless shelters in Newburgh, HIV/AIDS service organizations or LGBT military political advocacy groups. I see a great distinction between the world of museums and the world of activists and archives. My own history is important. In understanding who I am as an artist and the photographs I make, it is important to see my work as a whole and my life as a whole. Growing up in a coal-mining town in PA made up of mostly Italian Americans is as important as squatting in an abandoned building in East Berlin for six months, living in a Brooklyn Puerto Rican community for fifteen years, living with HIV for 25 years and being gay all my life. Thank you.

Download the rest of the conversation below.

Vincent Cianni is a documentary photographer. His work explores community and memory, the human condition, and the use of image and text. His photographs have been exhibited at Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Nasher Museum, Photographers’ Gallery, London; the 7th International Photography Festival in Mannheim; and the George Eastman House. A major survey of his work was exhibited at the Museum of the City of New York in 2006.


Vincent Cianni