Tara Burk at WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW COULD FILL A MUSEUM

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 Tara Buck discuses her connection to the discussion, and the importance of collective and feminist practices of creation, dissemination, and remembering.

TARA BURK: Hi. I’m very happy to be on this panel, especially to be back at the Sackler Center for Feminist Art, where I was an intern for the inaugural Global Feminisms exhibition in 2007. To position myself, I am literally a child of the 1980s, too young to have participated directly in the decade’s activism and scenes and as a result admittedly idealistic about much of that history. Part of my work as an art historian is to negotiate my distance and proximity to the topic I’m writing about. The phenomenon of intergenerationality is particular to queer experience and plays an important role in how we understand AIDS art and activism (and it helps me position myself to its histories and representations). Some examples include Gregg Bordowitz’s evocation of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater Company (in his 1993 essay “The AIDS Crisis is Ridiculous”) or Gang and fierce pussy’s activist posters and mailings of the early 1990s, which referenced feminist cunt art aesthetics of the 1990s.

I am working on a dissertation at The Graduate Center, CUNY, on the American activist art collectives Silence=Death Project, Gran Fury, and fierce pussy. I argue that the creation and dissemination in the urban public sphere of New York (and beyond) of cultural ephemera addressing the AIDS crisis and queer sexuality was a central tactic of the American culture wars. My publications, including “From the Streets to the Gallery: Exhibiting the Visual Ephemera of AIDS Cultural Activism” (Journal of Curatorial Studies, Winter 2013) and “Radical Distribution: AIDS Cultural Activism in New York City, 1986-1992” (Space and Culture, forthcoming 2014), build upon these questions. Ephemera – as a formal practice and a signifying practice – is key to my approach to this subject. That is, just as ephemeral materials – cheap, easily reproduced and distributed - have been exemplary for voicing dissent during the AIDS crisis, so too did they (particularly in NYC in the 80s and early 90s) bear a certain pathos, literalizing the dispossession and disappearance of HIV-infected populations.

I’d like to share this quote from Eileen Myles, from her Artforum review of the 2010 exhibition ACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993 at Harvard University, organized by Helen Molesworth and Claire Grace. Myles wrote:

Surprisingly – and maybe, when you think about it, a little ecstatically – very little material is still extant out of the enormous output of ACT UP’s many individual artists and groups. So much work by these artists virtually disappeared into the very environment that spawned it. Their production was absorbed by the world of their time. In terms of distribution, that’s an utter coup.

So, in thinking about the questions guiding this event, I was struck by ideas of the partial, of recuperation, and of responsibility.

I have studied and researched many artists involved in the creation and dissemination of AIDS-related work over the past 25 years which has been interesting for me because I am struck by the remarkable range of aesthetic and political responses to the AIDS crisis. Many of these cultural practices reconfigured both political and artistic activity in deeply impactful ways for subsequent generations, as is evident today. Going back to the 1980s, for example, the proximity of Let the Record Show -- the activist art installation by ACT UP at New Museum of Contemporary Art (fall 1987), an information-laden, photo-and-text based piece in a street-facing window on Broadway, literally intended as a demonstration -- with Against Nature, an exhibition organized by Dennis Cooper and Richard Hawkins at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (winter 1988) of personal, highly aestheticized works not necessarily “about” AIDS but most certainly interfacing with the crisis. Against Nature was a reaction to what some perceived as an increasingly dogmatic, art-hating camp of agitprop-producing cultural activists.

As more exhibitions and documentaries emerge concerning this historical period these questions are vital: what does it mean to blur the boundaries between art and activism? Are there appropriate and inappropriate responses to HIV/AIDS? What does it mean that to date the history of AIDS art and activism has been written, recorded, and managed by its participants? What does it mean to exhibit something in a museum that was never intended as “art”?

Ann Cvetkovich (from her essay “Video, AIDS, Activism”), “A history remains to be written about how participation in ACT UP and AIDS activism has influenced an entire generation of cultural workers whose work continues to blur the boundaries between art and activism even when it is produced individually rather than collectively.” Along these lines, Sarah Schulman concludes many ACT UP Oral History Project interviews with a similar question about the legacy of ACT UP on subsequent cultural production.

Part of the story I’m interested in is the studio projects of queer (women) artists during and after their participation in AIDS activism/art activism, including Zoe Leonard, Marlene McCarty, Suzanne Wright, and Carrie Moyer, for example.

All of the thoughts I’m trying to coalesce here and in service of what Avram Finkelstein has cautioned against – a tidy canon detailing the art history of AIDS cultural activism, one that is often hindered by historical inaccuracies and misinformation (for example – SILENCE=DEATH was created in 1986 by a small consciousness-raising group of 6 gay men formed in response to a dearth of political action around the AIDS crisis, it predated both ACT UP and Gran Fury although it is frequently misattributed to both). Art and cultural activism made in response to AIDS goes way beyond binaries of sloganeering/elegiac, or collective/individual. It’s hard to even find language to describe it. It’s an exciting time as many turn towards the work and legacies of the 80s and 90s, but for these reasons it also comes with great responsibility. And certainly AIDS is not over. It is ongoing, it is going on. As Kay Rosen so wonderfully put it for the Visual AIDS tote. There have been many activist art responses to AIDS throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Today, I’m only addressing what I’m currently working on, the period of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but I am aware of the exigencies that accompany activist histories and archives (see Cvetkovich quote below).

As art historians, critics, filmmakers, curators, activists – how should we organize and represent this history? What models are available and useful to us? A useful thought from Ann Cvetkovich: “The challenge is to ensure that activist history never becomes dead history; it must be actively integrated into the lives of its audience. The history of activism offers testimony that because activism has happened before, it can happen again.”

The types of institutions that have, to date, presented shows on AIDS art and activism is instructive: universities (Harvard, NYU), libraries (NYPL), historical societies (NYHS, Lesbian Herstory Archives – recent shows on fierce pussy and Dyke Action Machine), small independent galleries (White Columns, Printed Matter – fierce pussy retrospective 2008).

A striking thread through most recent exhibitions and documentaries about AIDS activism in the 80s and 90s is a sense of historical memory as partial, even contested, rather than complete. This method of framing is critical, since any endeavor to represent these histories is inevitably forestalled by the fact that so much historical memory has been lost due to deaths of participants. Jim Hubbard has phrased it (at the recent Visual AIDS event at the Graduate Center) as “a responsibility to tell the story of all my friends who died.”) Avram Finkelstein (in “AIDS 2.0” published in POZ magazine last year, on the recent emergence of cultural work around the subject) has said, “After decades of shell-shocked contemplation, those who were there are finally able to speak about it.”

Tara Burk is a Ph.D. Candidate in Art History at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her dissertation examines queer and feminist public art collectives active in New York City from the late 1980s through the early 1990s. In 2004 Burk graduated summa cum laude from Stony Brook University with a B.A. degree in Art History and Women’s Studies. She has a forthcoming essay in the refereed journal WSQ on the 1977 “Lesbian Art and Artists” issue of the journal Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics.

You can download the complete transcripts below, with and without photos.