Untitled, 1993 gelatin silver print, 28.5x28.5 Courtesy of the estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W., New York

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

In David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives, A Memoir of Disintegration the reader is drawn into a trans-historical HIV/AIDS activist community. Wojnarowicz is theorist, pen pal, and narrator to an archive of acting up. The power of text as praxis is particularly illuminated in the section “POSTCARDS FROM AMERICA X Rays from Hell.” In “POSTCARDS,” Wojnarowicz stretches the limits of literary-audio-visual queer narrative. What is most striking about Wojnarowicz’s postcard to generations of a reading public is his work on the impact of public display. For Wojnarowicz gestures, of any magnitude, are deeply transformative in our ability to address the ongoing nature of the epidemic. We can imagine HIV/AIDS activism to be like a collection of postcards sent from hell to the realm of possibility. Further, acting up in public requires that we reach out and towards acts of self-representation that speak to communities continually ravaged by HIV/AIDS. Is Wojnarowicz’s notion of the postcard as a gesture of public still useful? Do gestures, like postcards disintegrate like ink on aging paper?

In Acting Up in Public—HIV/AIDS Documentation and the Stakes of Representation I will explore HIV/AIDS activism, documentation, documentary, and public art that speak to the ongoing nature of the disease. Divided into three parts, this first section will explore our relationship to David Wojnarowicz’s “POSTCARDS” as literal, textual, and ephemeral components of HIV/AIDS activism, documentation, and representation. The second section will discuss HIV/AIDS documentary, and the final section and conclusion will enter a discussion on postcards as a form of public art and documentation through pieces distributed by Visual AIDS.

Queer acts of disintegration, like paper postcards, can be personalized and exchanged through publicly established systems, or informally without postage. Postcards are performative, cardstock inscribed with a message. Postcards mark travel destinations, they mark time and location, they show us where we can go, and, more importantly, they remind us where we are coming from. In short, postcards allow us to dream of ongoing possibilities. In the digital age of instant short-form communication, postcards are hard to find. In tourist heavy districts postcards are emblazoned with images from the American imagination, the Lincoln Memorial, Marilyn Monroe. David Wojnarowicz’s “POSTCARDS” asks its recipient to act up against social disintegration, physical, and psychic violence. Close to the Knives is a postcard, a message, a historical vignette, a memoir, and a call to document/ary. Close to the Knives is an X Ray, an archival tool of illumination. For Wojnarowicz (an American) hell demands resilient acts, correspondence, (inter)connections, and new conversations.

“POSTCARDS” is as cinematic as it is literary. Wojnarowicz’s documentarian practices textualize the mundane and extraordinary materiality of postcards. Close to the Knives is a three dimensional object, a site that expands documentary beyond its celluloid frames. Much like Avery Gordon, Wojnarowicz asks that our reading practices bring us to a vantage point close(r) to the knives, “head turned backwards and forwards at the same time.”(1) The following passage from “POSTCARDS FROM AMERICA X Rays from Hell” serves as a theoretical framework for this discussion.

“But, bottom line, this is my own feeling of urgency and need; bottom line, emotionally, even a tiny charcoal scratching done as a gesture to mark a person’s response to this epidemic means whole worlds to me if it is hung in public; bottom line, emotionally, each and every gesture carries a reverberation that is meaningful in its diversity; bottom line, we have to find our own forms of gesture and communication. You can never depend on the mas media to reflect us or our needs or our states of mind; bottom line, with enough gestures we can deafen the satellites and lift the curtains surrounding the control room.” (2)

It is the continued relevancy of Wojnarowicz’s bottom line that is of central concern to this essay. When experienced as a postcard, Close to the Knives allows us to question queer strategies of and for documentation, representation, survival, and resilience. Turning from the image of postcards to HIV/AIDS documentary, I ask, can we continue to act up in public? And if this is still possible, what do our postcards look like now? As a HIV seronegative, queer and trans-of-color scholar, and a doctoral student in the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, I experience the beginnings of ACT UP through documentary film. In this way Close to the Knives can guide our viewing of HIV/AIDS documentary and incite us into public acts of activism.

Documentation, Memory, and Action—documentary as a postcard
In late 2012 two documentaries were released on the history of ACT UP New York, How to Survive a Plague and United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. As the myriad readers of the Visual AIDS’ blog are well aware, these films mined archival footage in order to create divergent yet intertwining narratives of the heyday of ACT UP. It is my hope that this essay will enter a larger conversation on the reassessment of HIV/AIDS documentarian strategies, our bottom line goals (3), and future processes of activist archival methodologies. It is my hope that our bottom line goals have the capacity to address the ongoing nature of HIV/AIDS and HIV/AIDS activisms. The ability to “find our own forms of gesture and communication” asks that we reflect on how HIV/AIDS has been represented, remembered, and imagined anew (4). Focusing on the violence, illness, and joy, HIV/AIDS documentation as a set of postcards requires a visual-literary analysis.” (5) Whether viewing documentary, participating in an action, reading a novel, or writing a postcard, I ask that we return to David Wojnarowicz’s focus on the importance of public gesture in order to address the ongoing necessity to address the epidemic.

In the following two installments of this essay, I will discuss "How to Survive a Plague" and "United in Anger", followed by a reading of fierce pussy’s postcard from “For the Record,’ a visual-image contribution to Day With(out) Art 2013, and will close with a discussion of Kay Rosen’s tote bag as produced for and distributed by Visual AIDS (6). Much like Rosen, this essay aims to address how documentarian strategies, like postcards, gesture towards HIV/AIDS as, “AIDS/ON/GOING/GOING/ON.” (7)

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] Gordon, Avery. “2 distractions. Educated People.” Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnestoa press. 2008. 57.

[2] Wojnarowicz, David. Close to the Knives, A Memoir of Disintegration. New York: Vintage Books. 1991. 122-123.

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

[4] Sic.

[5] A.Anthony, “You’re Killing Us!Stop it. Stop It!” –ACT UP New York, Documentation,Narration, and Documentary.” University of Maryland, Fall 2013.

[6] fierce pussy’s engagement in public art and vandalism as a form of consciousness raising were central to Visual AIDS programing for the international day of action, read World AIDS DAY (December 1, 2013).All four images created by fierce pussy are available free for download online at— www.visualaids.org/projects.

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

David Wojnarowicz