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Tracing AIDS-Driven Cultural Production Across Generations

We Are Having This Conversation Now: The Times of AIDS Cultural Production by Alexandra Juhasz and Theodore Kerr. Duke University Press, 280 pages.

LATELY I HAVE FOUND MYSELF repeatedly returning to scroll through the collected drawings of the late East Village rock star, activist, and educator Chloe Dzubilo. This corpus currently resides in NYU’s Fales Library, but one hundred images of Dzubilo’s sketches—all of which I have scrutinized, many of which I have saved or sent to friends—are featured on the website for Visual AIDS. There are scribbled demonstrations of how to deal with unwanted attention, cops, and intimidators; commentary on Tatum O’Neal’s performance in the film Paper Moon; and scenes from Dzubilo’s hospital bed, from which many of the images were likely drawn (Dzubilo was diagnosed with HIV in 1987). The dashed-off doodles—intimate and instructive, morbid and ironic—are ephemeral, and yet seem to hold so much of Dzubilo’s personality, as well as her passion for her community and those who shared her illness.

One of Dzubilo’s sketches from this collection serves as the cover of Alexandra Juhasz and Theodore Kerr’s book We Are Having This Conversation NowThe Times of AIDS Cultural Production. It’s a crowded calendar teeming with dates and times: doctors’ appointments next to art happenings, friends’ names listed alongside reminders to eat or not eat or to take medication. The book—formed entirely around an extended conversation between the two authors, pulling from years of coauthored writing—prominently features Dzubilo and her archive in a section where Ted Kerr recalls interning at Visual AIDS in 2011, the year of Dzubilo’s passing. Before “bins and bags and boxes” of Dzubilo’s artwork and personal artifacts arrived at the Fales Library for accessioning, they temporarily resided in Visual AIDS’s one-room office in Chelsea, where they took up a considerable amount of space, physically and spiritually: “There is a real weight to her brilliance and therefore her things,” Kerr recalls. The employees of Visual AIDS ended up simply rearranging their own belongings to make more room to coexist with these traces of Dzubilo.

We Are Having This Conversation Now returns again and again to objects: videotapes, posters, quilt panels, red ribbons, the jacket left behind by a lover. Numerous books have been published in the last few years that deal with tending to and caring for the products of queer culture-making in the time of AIDS—notably Marika Cifor’s Viral Cultures: Activist Archiving in the Age of AIDS and Cait McKinney’s Information Activism: A Queer History of Lesbian Media Technologies—but We Are Having This Conversation Now differs in its intent to use these works as a starting point for intergenerational conversation. Juhasz, in addition to being a filmmaker and former member of ACT UP’s various video affinity groups, is a media archivist, and Kerr, a queer historian, cultural critic, and founding member of What Would an HIV Doula Do?, embody this: Kerr is much younger than Juhasz and began his AIDS advocacy and organizing work a generation later. The book continually emphasizes how this difference can be generative, both to the conversation being recorded and public discourse in general.

Central to the dialogue is the idea of the counter-archive, or counter-memorial. Ann Cvetkovich—in an essay in the 2011 anthology Cruising the Archive: Queer Art and Culture in Los Angeles, 1945–1980—writes that “queer archive activism” insists that the archive must not only exist as a repository for safeguarding objects but also as a resource that “‘comes out’ into the world to perform public interventions.” Kerr cites Holocaust scholar James E. Young as informing his theory and practice on the subject, writing that “a successful memorial does not allow the object to do the heavy lifting of remembering. This is a problematic offloading of the human task of memory work. [Young] says good counter-memorials index the past and place the memory work back onto individuals and communities.” Juhasz puts it succinctly: all of these “things” are “not tchotchkes, they are talismans.”

The first object considered in the book is an educational videotape from Juhasz’s collection. Its title is unknown, but its provenance can be traced to a Philadelphia community-based AIDS organization called Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues, or Bebashi, circa 1990. Henceforth known in the book as “the Bebashi tape”—the repetition of which lends it a sort of talismanic property—it contains three vignettes with the same non-professional cast and presents brief moments in the life of a young Black mother with AIDS. Juhasz and Kerr both acknowledge that they are not the imagined audience for the video and that they are perhaps imbuing it with an investment that its unknown makers might not even share. However, they find the format useful: intended as a “trigger tape,” each vignette is suddenly ruptured in media res, at which point the tape is meant to be paused in whatever communal space, such as a support group for those with AIDS, it is playing for discussion. In this spirit, Juhasz and Kerr have, in addition to their close read of the tape, uploaded the video to YouTube and printed the URL on the page, inviting the reader into the conversation. The book itself also adopts the form of a “trigger” object: at the end of each section there are questions posed (“Locate something that you have kept in your possession for a long time. How have you been able to keep it?”), scripts to be read aloud, and ideas and supplemental materials to be considered, ideally in the company of others.

I was previously unfamiliar with both the work of Bebashi and the idea of trigger tapes, and it’s these two elements that open We Are Having This Conversation Now to a wider—and more diverse—public forum than many retrospective conversations on AIDS artmaking, which generally skew towards the cultural production of ACT UP and Visual AIDS.

Read entire article at The Baffler