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Past in Present

AIDS cultural production across the 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 Now: The 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.

Nostalgia is its own knotty, many-tentacled beast.

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. A large amount of activist video from the period that Juhasz and Kerr deem “AIDS Crisis Culture” (1987–1996) is either footage of physical actions and protests, or personal, autobiographical works of self-memorialization. Meanwhile, Kerr describes Bebashi as an intersectional grassroots organization “enmeshed in the world of parenting, intergenerational care, sex work, and drug use.” Their aims in media-making feel akin to what Juhasz herself was striving to accomplish with the discussion-based videos that she participated in as a member of the collective Women’s AIDS Video Enterprise (WAVE), which consisted predominantly of working class women of color across the Bronx and Brooklyn. Juhasz says of Bebashi’s productions that “the tapes were made to move audiences into collective understandings about the struggles and realities of their own lives . . . what is at risk for them personally.”

Juhasz and Kerr do address the unavoidable irony that the term “trigger” today means something quite different in relation to viewing images. While both definitions are undergirded by care, one is an invitation to conversation while the other is a preemptive offer to opt out. The difference, as Juhasz points out, is that images today are received often uninvited and in a constant stream, viewed “in isolation and without context.” The idea of reverting to a physical forum, a supportive environment where traumatic media could be discussed and unpacked as it is received, is attractive. I felt a bit sad that I was reading the book by my lonesome; the many thoughts generated by Juhasz and Kerr’s discourses confined to swirl in my head unspoken. Kerr stresses the importance of communion in a space and time: he quotes theorists Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, who define “study” as “what you do with other people . . . talking and walking . . . working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice.”

The lack of information available about the Bebashi tape (it contains no credits) highlights the tension between the desire for biographical information and encountering a media object on its own terms across time. Kerr recalls speaking with Bebashi cofounder Rashidah Abdul-Khabeer about locating the women who worked on the tape; she responded that there were no credits because recognition and posterity were not priorities. The women involved were simply enacting loosely scripted scenarios for their own community to respond to. Whenever Kerr or someone at Bebashi thought they had located data on the topic, it led back to a familiar source—a small paragraph in Alexandra Juhasz’s own book, the crucial AIDS TV: Identity, Community, and Alternative Video, published in 1995.

Kerr admits to revisiting Juhasz’s prior scholarship in preparation for the conversation, which causes what I perceive as a slight intergenerational discord. Juhasz questions the necessity of this eternal return to the legacy work that was done during the time of Crisis Culture, a painful time to revisit and one that is not shared between the authors. “Must I return to my past every time it is evoked by you or others?” Juhasz asks Kerr. “Why and also how do we carefully and caringly make, save, share, and revisit? . . . and since I am trying to treat myself with the same care that I would give any tape, or you, I am not making myself go back to read a paragraph I wrote when I was twenty-five.” I found myself continually going back to this exchange, not because of the unsettling puncture of dispute (the only truly irreconcilable generational conflict in the book occurs when Kerr invokes Lana del Rey, whose image he has co-opted in his “Lana del AIDS” series of postcards, much to the bafflement of Juhasz, who is unfamiliar) but because Juhasz speaks so explicitly about an omnipresent tension in contemporary AIDS culture writing: that of nostalgia for ACT UP and the time of Crisis Culture.

Nostalgia is its own knotty, many-tentacled beast. The word, rife with connotations both positive and negative, appears in many key activist archiving texts relating to ACT UP. In Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings, the word is used to describe the author’s sense of loss not only for her deceased comrades in ACT UP Austin, but for what Douglas Crimp would describe as “the affective conditions of political activism”—a sense of community, culture-making, and sexual frisson. Lucas Hilderbrand builds on this from an intergenerational standpoint in his essay “Retroactivism,” arguing for a nostalgia that “accounts for generative historical fascination, of imagining, feeling, and drawing from history.” And then there’s “Your Nostalgia is Killing Me,” a poster designed by Vincent Chevalier and Ian Bradley Perrin in 2013 that depicts a teenage bedroom filled with pop art ACT UP signifiers—Keith Haring wallpaper, Gran Fury posters, the pink triangle. Kerr recalls an event put on by Visual AIDS at the New York Public Library meant to be a forum of discussion in light of the contentious response to the poster by former ACT UP members, highlighting an intervention by the young artist Kia LaBeija, who spoke of the dangers of focusing on AIDS as an idea as opposed to the material conditions of AIDS in the present. Kerr and Juhasz use all of these definitions interchangeably—discussing both the dangers of grounding AIDS culture in the past and the usefulness of continually returning to aspirations both achieved and unachieved by ACT UP.

Liberating information about AIDS history from the narrow focus of LGBTQ collections in archives is a queer issue.

We Are Having This Conversation Now carves a terrain of multimedia and citations—including the Bebashi tape, Chloe Dzubilo’s boxes, “Your Nostalgia is Killing Me,” and Juhasz’s own film Video Remains from 2005—that is delineated by the book’s opening timeline. Juhasz and Kerr define the generations of AIDS activism as belonging to several different representational epochs, which are marked by changes in policy and medication such as the introduction of AZT—approved by the FDA in early 1987—and the introduction of PrEP in 2012. The book is predominantly concerned with what the authors call “The Second Silence” (1996–2008), the time after the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy in which AIDS retreated from a public crisis to a private one, and the “Revisitation” (2008–present), a period of prolific art-making and archiving relating to AIDS. As the authors are quick to point out, silence=private and silence=death.

While the “Revisitation” ushered in a number of new cultural works representing AIDS, some of the more mainstream works suffer from a skewed white male perspective, the most well-known and oft-relitigated being David France’s 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague. Kerr and Juhasz make the point that this sort of selective memorializing places AIDS in a uniformly gay male past, while in the present it is predominantly this demographic that has access to PrEP and the resources of LGBTQ health care centers. Liberating information about AIDS history from the narrow focus of LGBTQ collections in archives is, then, a queer issue: “HIV is as much about race, poverty, gender, and even geography as it is about sexuality and identity.” This seems an especially timely concern when contemporary HIV outbreaks such as the one among people who inject drugs in Kanawha County, West Virginia, have intersected with public policy decisions during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

In recent months, I’ve seen a lot of smug self-satisfaction from queers on social media around how quickly and effectively the monkeypox outbreak was stymied in the United States, the implication being that queer community and cultural production networks are set up for information sharing and know exactly how to handle such things, as opposed to the fumbled nationwide response to Covid-19. This obscures the fact that AIDS in the United States has shifted outside of coastal urban centers to the cities and suburbs of the South, which tend to lack well-funded queer health services such as Callen-Lorde Community Health Center or Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York. The CDC reported in 2019 that 52 percent of new HIV cases occur in southern states, and of these cases were in African Americans—predominantly in Black men who have sex with other men. “Naming something is not enough,” says Kerr. “There is no actual legacy work being done that can’t and won’t be easily ignored, disrespected, or eradicated over time.” We Are Having This Conversation Now’s push to talk about AIDS across temporalities is an effort to drag conversations around AIDS and AIDS cultural production into a public present and keep them there.