Exhibition photo for ACT UP NEW YORK: ACTIVISM, ART and the AIDS CRISIS 1987- 1993

Exhibitions about HIV/AIDS have been happening since almost the beginning of the epidemic. There has always been an interest to explore and make visible, and share the experience of HIV/AIDS.It has been a prevention tool, an expression of humanity, and always something more.

As we get ready for this evening’s discussion, (re) Presenting AIDS: Culture and Accountability, we find ourselves interested in the cultural production that has occurred in the last few years around HIV/AIDS, as well as curious about reactions to past exhibitions. Central to these curiosities are questions around ethics, intention, and process. What is the point of an exhibition on AIDS? What can it do? Who is it for?

It is interesting to consider how the exhibition, ACT UP NEW YORK: ACTIVISM, ART, AND THE AIDS CRISIS, 1987–1993that debuted at Harvard Carpenter Center in the winter of 2009, can be seen as the beginning of this current era we are in around HIV and culture – a balance between the archived past, and a desire to have an engaged present. Co-curated by Helen Molesworth, Maisie K, James R. Houghton and Claire Grace, the exhibition was a watershed moment, both in terms of reuniting many activists who had not seen each other in years, but also in making visible the seemingly disparate conversations that were being had by about current activist and artistic practices around HIV/AIDS.

One could say that the success ofACT UP NEW YORK, as an exhibition, gave permission to cultural institutions to invest in "AIDS" exhibitions of their own. If true it is important to consider the curators’ process and the role-out of the exhibition as laying a foundation – and maybe even providing a model.

A backbone to the exhibition was the ACT UP Oral History project. Produced by Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard, the Oral History project is an ongoing collection of voices from living ACT UP members. In interview with Schulman, recorded by Hubbard and James Wentzy, activists recall the ACT UP experience. With these voices serving as a foundation to the exhibition, there was a sense of community and plurality built in. It was not an exhibition about AIDS for the sake of AIDS or audience. At the heart of the exhibition where people and their lived, and ongoing experiences.

As part of the exhibition there was also a symposium, and a residency with fierce pussy. Like the inclusions of the Oral History project, these components to the exhibition ensured more voices and means of expression were part of the show. It also cemented in a sort of interactivity – allowing for conflict, discussion, and further connection. In the years that have followed the exhibition many people mark it as a moment when they felt re-engaged, or for people that were not a part of ACT UP NY but are active in the AIDS movement now, the exhibition was a rally cry to get involved – be it as academics, activists or artists (and sometimes as all three).

Since the 2009 exhibition there has been a plethora of AIDS related shows including large retrospectives of artists and collectives (Gran Fury, General Idea, Frank Moore), remountings of historical exhibitions (Rosalind Solomon), exhibitions not about AIDS but where AIDS looms large (NYC 1993: experimental Jet Set Trash and No Star at the New Museum; Brian Weil at the ICA; I, You, We at The Whitney) and many other exhibitions of all sizes in different locations (including the annual exhibitions we at Visual AIDS produce with independent curators).

Have these exhibitions lived up to the standard ACT UP NEW YORK created? Have they created their own standards? Or is it silly and unfair to measure such things? How do we measure exhibitions about AIDS? Can we hold people accountable? How, as David Deitcher asks, do you memorialize a movement that isn't dead?

When considering the current crop of exhibitions, one may also wish to think back to earlier cultural moments around HIV, such as the reaction to Nicholas Nixon’s exhibition at the MoMA, the controversy around Arlene Croce’s unwillingness to write about Bill T Jones’ dance Still / Here, the formation of Art+, and the relationship between General Idea’s AIDS painting, and Gran Fury’s RIOT response. These can be considered foundational conversations that are still relevant and can be seen as part of the ongoing dialogue. How are people with HIV represented in culture? By whom? And Why? How is sexuality and gender represented? How does one evaluate socially engaged art? What are the responsibilities of a critic to take art as it is presented? What is the role of art in an emergency? How can different tactics work together?

At the same time all of these curiosities are happening while the AIDS crisis continues, and cultural production about the ongoing epidemic is being created.

We at Visual AIDS are looking forward to the public forum tonight to tackle some of these ideas, and consider other ones we have not even thought of. As we begin to print out the programs, update the RSVP list and work out last minute tech details for tonight e are left thinking of this quote from Douglas Crimp about art, culture and the ongoing crisis:

“We don’t need a cultural resistance; we need cultural practices actively participating in the struggle against AIDS.”

See you tonight for (re)presenting AIDS: Culture and Accountability