AIDS/Art/Work (CLAGS Report)

art is a response,
a life jacket, a
distraction, a
beginning, a middle, an
end, an income generator,
a money sucker, a strategy,
an attempt. In the face of
AIDS, art is many things,
but is it a cure? What do
we as artists, victims, survivors,
activists, witnesses
and academics do with
Art and the experience of
Coming from Edmonton, Alberta, a
northern city with less than a million people
where I work as an artist with HIV Edmonton,
one of Canada’s first AIDS services
organisations, I wonder about the role of art
within the AIDS movement. A few years ago
when I was first learning about the legendary
ACT UP, a new world opened up where
AIDS and art came together, and the centre
of that world was New York City. So you
can imagine my giddiness when I signed up
for the ART/AIDS/WORK Conference that
took place in New York City on May 30,
Organized by Dr. Paul Sendziuk, Visual
AIDS, and CLAGS, the event was focused
around the central question CAN ART
SAVE LIVES? At first the question seemed
overly simplistic, with undertones of selfcongratulatory
optimism. I was waiting for
the gathered AIDS intelligentsia, many of
whom I assume had experienced the early
days of AIDS and had the fortune/misfortune
to remember it all, to rip the question
apart and use it as sweetener in their coffee.
Up first was Robert Atkins, critic,
writer and one of the founders of Visual
AIDS sharing the first panel with Alexandra
Juhasz and David Román. Since he’s
an intense-looking man with a spark in his
eyes that exude warmth as well as severity, I
expected Atkins to
set a fierce tone for
the panel. Instead
of spewing fire and
brimstone Atkins
dug deeper and unearthed
what would
be the unintended
yet telling theme
of the conference –
the collective reflex
of looking back as a
way of speaking and
seeing in the present.
Early in his presentation he mentioned
that to prepare for this talk he went over
articles he had written decades ago. By
sharing his recorded past and taking the
audience back to the days of Gran Fury
and a socially-conscious world without the
markers of ribbons and rubber bracelets, he
reminded us that in the beginning art was
not a prevention strategy or a fundraising
endeavor – it was a visceral response. Back
in the day, one could argue, art was meant
to save lives. If not save, at least directly
respond to the pandemic.
Like Atkins, Juhasz as well conjured
up the ‘ghosts’ of her younger self through
papers she had written in the past. Quoting
from David Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (One Day
This Kid…) piece Juhaz contextualized the
artist’s prescient words “one day this kid
will talk.” She pointed out how “this kid”
now “larger” with “experience” and “loss”
was speaking through the words of young
artists, activists and academics gathered at
this conference.
From the curious, confronting installations
of Ivan Monforte to the expressive and
touching images of Derek Jackson, from the
elegantly intellectual and moving research
of Julia Bryan-Wilson to the grassroots
curatorial work of Edwin Ramoran, from
the humorous and poignant photography
of Richard Sawdon-Smith to the impressive
far reaching work of Patrick ‘Pato’ Hebert,
these kids talked and shared and were heard.
Here were accomplished artists and
curators whose work can be appreciated in
its own right; however, when viewed within
the context of Wojnarowicz’s this kid their work becomes as much about them and the
present as it is about a collective experience
and the AIDS work that precedes. Hearing
them talk I was reminded, and I hope other
people picked up on this as well, progress is
not always linear. There may be successes and
there may be failures, but the work goes on.
And that’s what matters.
A few years ago in Edmonton during the
Q&A following a speech by Angela Davis
a young woman asked the standard What’s
next? What can I do? question. Davis bowed
her head, seemed exhausted for a moment,
and then said, “You tell me.” Gaining confidence
from her own response she then went
on to survey the impressionable young crowd
as if she was ready to hear what they are doing
and that next time she comes to town she
wants to be in the audience being inspired
by their lives. At the AIDS /ART/ WORK
we saw the type of dialogue desired by Davis
come into fruition.
Presenters like Atkins, Juhasz, Román,
Carlomusto and Hubbard have been in the
forefront of artists’ responses to AIDS since
the beginning. The conference provided a
wonderful venue for them not only to share
their work but also hear, respond, and hopefully
be inspired by the younger generation
represented by people like Jackson, Herbert
and Bryan-Wilson.
David Gere shared the work he is doing
in LA and India, Sendziuk provided his history
of AIDS /ART/ WORK from Australia,
and Marilyn Martin highlighted the pioneering
work that she and her colleagues are doing
in South Africa. Together they brought a
global dimension to the conference.
Out of the big question CAN ART SAVE
LIVES? emerges the collective response: No,
but community can.

Ted Kerr is an artist, writer and activist from
Edmonton Alberta where he works with HIV
Edmonton along with other community groups like
Exposure: Edmonton’s Queer Arts and Culture
Festival and the Edmonton Arts Council. He was
an intern at Visual AIDS for the month of June
2008. You can check out his biweekly column and
other surprises at www.

MAY 30, Graduate Center, CUNY
This remarkably well attended one day conference marked the
culminating event of CLAGS’ Queer Arts theme for the spring
semester calendar. Our heartfelt thanks to our cosponsors Visual
AIDS (Amy Sadao and Nelson Santos), Dr. Paul Sendziuk, CLAGS
director Sarah Chinn, CLAGS staff (Naveed Alam, Alyssa Nitchun,
Lynley Wheaton, Naz, Nomvuyo Nolutshungu, Jasmina Sinanovic,
and Eduardo Tirado), and most importantly, the conference panelists
and participants who provided the energy, enthusiasm, and
inspirational highlights.