The Scholar and Feminist Online
Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women

Issue 2.1 - Public Sentiments - Summer 2003

The Witness in the Archive
by Roger Hallas

Unfashionable Memories

When I attended several screenings of AIDS activist videos at the Guggenheim Museum, New York City, in December 2000, I was struck by a bitter irony framing the context in which the work was being shown. Arriving early, as I always do at special screenings, I momentarily experienced that familiar rush of anxiety whenever I see a throng of people in the foyer - the tickets have all gone and I have lost my chance to see the work! Waiting in line, it quickly became apparent to me that my concern was completely unfounded. Wrapped up in their expensive winter wear and completely oblivious to the screenings, the people around me were all trying to get into the blockbuster exhibition on Giorgio Armani.

In the relatively small audiences of the screenings I attended, I recognized mostly the familiar faces of the downtown independent queer media scene, the regulars for such film and video programs. While this small community of viewers tucked away in the museum's basement worked through our memories of a difficult, but in many ways more empowering, historical moment, the crowds upstairs were enjoying a hugely popular show celebrating a designer's fashion that epitomized the conspicuous consumption of the Reagan-Bush era. These bourgeois museum-goers unwittingly replicated the national disinterest in the experience of people with AIDS during the 1980s, which had exacerbated both the spread of the pandemic and its traumatic effect on those affected.

Even amongst the queer media scene, the fatigue over the epidemic is apparent. At the Persistence of Vision Conference in San Francisco in 2001, which was organized to assess the state of contemporary queer media, the single panel dedicated to AIDS media suffered the indignity of panelists outnumbering audience members. While everyone else was contemplating the exciting developments in transgender and digital media, the small group of us in the room worked to analyze the reasons behind the panel's patent "unfashionability."

The Guggenheim screenings constituted a nine-part program entitled "Fever in the Archive," a broad selection of works from the Royal S. Marks AIDS Activist Video Collection of the New York Public Library. The Collection resulted from an initiative in the late 1990s by the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS to preserve the grassroots response to the AIDS crisis by videomakers and activists in the United States. Funded by a number of non-profit and public grants, New York-based filmmaker and archivist Jim Hubbard undertook the principal research, collection, and cataloging of this AIDS activist media from around the country. The New York Public Library was chosen as the recipient of the collection in large part for its willingness to maintain public access to the works. "Fever in the Archive" demonstrated not only the very wide range of styles and forms employed by AIDS activist media, including music video, agit-prop montage, talking head testimony, and the video diary, but also the diverse functions served by such works, including HIV prevention, political mobilization, collective mourning, and media critique.

The historical moment that produced these films and videos is now clearly over. Their entry into the archive merely confirms this realization. To consider the questions of conservation or institutional preservation would remain a low priority at the time when these works were being produced. The exigency of that time required their urgent distribution and circulation. Now, in our different historical moment, what has become urgent is the need to preserve these films and videos, to save them from destruction, deterioration, and oblivion. The Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, a grant-funded nonprofit organization, oversees much of this preservation work. Founded in 1991 to assist visual artists with AIDS organize their estate and the disposition of their work, the Project has since expanded to include all of the visual and performing arts, including film and video. Furthermore, the Project has increasingly become more involved in organizing funding for specific preservation projects. Its major accomplishments with regards to the moving image have been the development of the Marks Collection of activist video and the preservation of works by David Wojnarowicz, Jack Smith, Warren Sonbert, and Jack Waters.

As with all moving image preservation, this work involves a fragile body of material, yet the task is complicated by the endangered bodies of many of those who produced these films and videos. Artists and mediamakers with AIDS have often not had the time, resources, or energy to deal with the future survival of their own work; their priorities usually remain elsewhere. Moreover, gay men continue to live and die in legal frameworks which deny their social and intimate bonds, thus frequently causing substantial difficulties in the preservation of work after the artist or maker has died. The drive to bring these works into the institutional archive emanates from the desire to ensure a form of textual survival, a means to keep their address open beyond death and beyond the initial historical moment in which it was formed.

The "End" of AIDS?

To acknowledge that a particular period of the AIDS pandemic, with its specific historical structures of feeling, is now in the past does not equate with the assertion that we have reached the "end of AIDS." Since 1996, when the success of protease inhibitors in keeping down viral levels became widely acknowledged, discourses around the "end of AIDS," "post-AIDS" identities, and cultures "after AIDS" have burgeoned in both mainstream and lesbian and gay media (Román). Most notable amongst such declarations was Andrew Sullivan's controversial article, "When Plagues End," published in November 1996 as a cover story in The New York Times Magazine. Sullivan claims, "A difference between the end of AIDS and the end of many other plagues: for the first time in history, a large proportion of survivors will not simply be those who escaped infection, or were immune to the virus, but those who contracted the illness, contemplated their own death and still survived" (Sullivan, magazine cover, emphasis in original).

To posit that the AIDS crisis is over requires a complex set of disavowals and erasures be performed. First, one must ignore that the AIDS pandemic comprises many epidemics in different places, affecting different groups, each with its own temporality, its own historicity. The experience of AIDS for a white gay man in Manhattan differs greatly from that of a married woman in Nairobi. Access to medical care, social resources, and community support profoundly determine the shape and history of each epidemic. The current struggle by many countries, such as Brazil and South Africa, to secure rights under international trade treaties to generically produce these effective new drugs demonstrates the vast inequalities dividing the different AIDS epidemics around the globe. Second, even to declare the "end of AIDS" only in certain epidemics, such as the gay male epidemic in North America, requires one to disavow the differing rates of HIV infection amongst various groups within those epidemics. In the case of North American gay men, while a great many of the infected are responding successfully to combination therapies, HIV prevention programs are currently battling rising rates of seroconversion amongst younger gay men and gay men of color. Third, protease inhibitors and the new combination therapies they have spawned do not constitute a cure. They reduce the viral load, in the best cases, to a level at which HIV is undetectable in the blood. Many people with AIDS, however, have been unable to take these new therapies because either their bodies can no longer bear any further pharmaceutical toxicity or the therapies remain ineffective against drug-resistant strains of the retrovirus. Even for those who can benefit from these drugs, serious questions remain about their long-term efficacy and side effects.

As David Román has commented, these discourses about the "end of AIDS" consistently imply that "the need to talk about AIDS has ended as well" (1). In many cultural and political contexts, AIDS- and HIV-related issues have become, like the retrovirus itself, almost undetectable. Not restricted to the dominant media, this "unfashionability of AIDS," as Robert Atkins puts it, similarly permeates contemporary gay culture. For instance, the shift in gay political mobilization towards the issues of gay marriage and military service in the Clinton era marked a significant displacement of the epidemic on the part of gay men. Douglas Crimp has pointed out how the fetishization of healthy white gay servicemen in the political struggle over lesbians and gay men in the U.S. military served to displace the gay male body with AIDS (238). By the late 1990s, the figure of the gay man with AIDS had itself undergone iconographic transformation in light of the relative successes of new combination drug therapies.

The "New Faces" of AIDS

An agile rock-climber - young, white, and male - stands proudly on the top of a mountain and gazes across an open vista. A young black woman leans forward on the handlebars of her sports bike, smiling directly into the camera. An interracial gay couple in tuxedos exit a church amidst an exuberant flurry of confetti. These are the new "faces of AIDS" that circulate in publications dedicated to particular niche markets, such as gay men and African Americans, and occasionally in mainstream publications like The New York Times Magazine. One encounters these images in print advertisements for Zerit, Viracept, Combivir, and Crixivan, the various anti-retroviral drugs that make up the current combination therapies used to combat HIV and AIDS. If you happen to skip or miss the accompanying text to these images, you might mistake them for advertisements promoting anything from life insurance to allergy medication. The glossy banality of such images signals the prevailing normalization of AIDS in our current time.

This normalization of AIDS in the West is occurring in the way the epidemic is understood both in social and individual terms. On a social level, normalization does not herald "the end of AIDS," rather its reduction from a crisis to just another "chronic ill" pervading Western societies, like homelessness, poverty, and drug addiction. On an individual level, normalization involves a transformation in the common understanding of the disease from being an "inevitable death sentence" to becoming a "chronic manageable disease," a shift that frequently obscures the issues that continue to render it a major social problem.

After two decades in which mainstream AIDS representation has figured the person with AIDS as "victim," "pariah," "killer," "carrier," and "hero" - the Other against which the normative "general public" may be posited - people with AIDS are, as Gregg Bordowitz argues, now invited to join the "general public" as a targeted demographic through the consumer address of such advertising (4). Summarizing his analysis of these images, Bordowitz concludes that "The figure of the AIDS consumer is merely the latest addition to a growing collection of portraits, hung in the gallery of the Diseased, found in the wing of the Other, exhibited in the Museum of Modern Identity" (9). The image of the person with AIDS as consumer that is produced by this advertising discourse has now entered the shadow archive of popular representation. It is placed alongside its close relation, the gay man as consumer. Unlike most earlier mainstream representations of homosexuality and AIDS, this emergent iconography of the person with AIDS and the gay man as consumers does not figure them as a phobic "Anti-Body." In their invocation of an affirmative, well-regimented "lifestyle," these figures are in fact barely distinguishable from the normative "Body" of contemporary fitness culture.

Should we thus accept these images of people living with AIDS, now understood as a chronic manageable disease, as precisely the kind of affirmative representation that AIDS activists demanded in 1988 in response to Nicholas Nixon's pathologizing documentary images of people dying from AIDS? Are these the "PWAs who are vibrant, angry, loving, sexy, beautiful, acting up and fighting back" that were called for by ACT UP? Hardly. While this iconography certainly undoes some of the phobic aspects to the "spectacle of AIDS," namely the specter of the emaciated dying homosexual, it continues to individualize and privatize the AIDS pandemic. As Bordowitz points out in his analysis, these advertisements offer only images of individuals or couples, never a group of people who are living with AIDS, since the purpose of these advertisements is to stimulate the private consumption of the companies' pharmaceutical products. Furthermore, addressing people with AIDS as consumers affirms only those who can afford the health coverage that provides access to such medications. A great many people with AIDS in the West have little or no access to these combination drug therapies. Moreover, the number of people similarly disenfranchized elsewhere in the world is infinitely greater. Over the last decade, the discursive construction of "African AIDS" as the foreign Other to the AIDS epidemics in the West has been supplanted by "global AIDS" due to the eventual spread of the pandemic to every country in the world during this period. As in the case of "African AIDS," the dominant iconography of "global AIDS" continues to revolve around the figure of the impoverished "AIDS victim" which has long been normalized within the existing discursive framework of the "Third World" with its supposedly intractable poverty, its chronic hopelessness, and its recurrent human disasters. A January 2001 cover story in The New York Times Magazine demonstrates this reliance on such iconography (Rosenberg). While the title and the content of the article performed a competent analysis of the fundamental commercial and geo-political issues, particularly international patent rights, that are preventing the global South from gaining affordable access to effective anti-retroviral medications, the accompanying visual discourse persisted in a singular focus on the person with AIDS as hopeless, poverty stricken victim. The magazine's cover presented a shadowy monochrome photograph of a gaunt African PWA lying in a decrepit hospital bed. Inside the magazine, this iconography is multiplied 20 times through images of emaciated "AIDS victims" from different specified nations. In replicating the iconography of the isolated hopeless victim of "global AIDS," this photo-spread elides any attempt to visualize the tenacious local AIDS activism and the progressive institutional initiatives which the article describes.

Time and Testimonial Address

In light of this pervasive normalization of AIDS, what significance and relevance do the films and videos of alternative AIDS media from the 1980s and '90s now hold? Have their possible functions or effectiveness changed in the time since the historical context of their production and initial circulation? What are we to make of the fact that many of these works are now being institutionally preserved in the material archive? The motivation for archival preservation derives from the realization that the object's "time" has passed, that it is in need of salvage in the face of possible destruction or oblivion. But what is actually being salvaged in such preservation and for what purpose?

As one of the major practices of AIDS cultural activism, alternative AIDS media produced an extraordinary body of films and videos during the first two decades of the AIDS pandemic. These films and videos worked to articulate both the exigency of the present moment of the pandemic and the historicity of the event, as well as the experience of those affected by it. They bear witness to AIDS through two necessary and simultaneous operations - contesting the dominant representation of AIDS and attesting to the experience of people living with AIDS in the midst of this trauma. Conceived in frameworks that exploit the inter-subjective possibilities of film and video media, these works engendered acts of bearing witness both at the level of production and reception. The AIDS activists, people with AIDS, and mediamakers who were involved in the production of these works, both in front of the camera and behind it, were afforded a medium through which they could bear witness to their experience of AIDS. For gay men, the simultaneously individual and collective trauma of AIDS has forged powerful psychological and political imperatives to bear witness, for which film and video production has provided a particularly effective set of opportunities. AIDS video activists have often commented that their practices were as much about empowering themselves through media production as transforming the consciousness or opinions of others.

Regarding their reception, the address to an other inscribed in these films and videos potentially served two significant functions. The first was to bear witness within one's community, to address other witnesses in the service of acknowledging the magnitude of the trauma and of sustaining community bonds. The second function was to bear witness to others outside the trauma of the epidemic, to produce new witnesses to it rather than mere spectators of it. It was an address rooted in a call for solidarity, to relate to the problems and suffering of people with AIDS as if they were one's own, to share in the responsibility of addressing the social and political determinants of the AIDS crisis. The major problem for enacting this form of address arose from the difficulty many films and videos encountered in accessing viable distribution opportunities outside counter-public spheres. Works with a less politically defined address, such as Silverlake Life: The View from Here (Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman, 1993), were able to access a public television audience in the U.S., while activist video productions like Voices from the Front (Testing the Limits, 1991) were shut out of such distribution. Although the former video generated an impressive public response to its address from its PBS audience, we cannot know what the public response from that same audience would have been to the latter video's address. However, one of the most effective venues for the enactment of this form of address has been the university classroom. The production of alternative AIDS media coincided with the institutionalization of lesbian and gay studies within the academe, allowing academics to teach classes that could incorporate such media. While alternative AIDS media has now virtually disappeared from the spaces in which it regularly screened in the 1980s and 1990s - galleries, lesbian and gay film festivals, public access television, and community organizations - it has retained a modest presence within college curricula, although often relegated to the category of media history.

Are we thus now to regard this body of work as only a chapter in the history of alternative media or the history of the AIDS pandemic? To what might these works now bear witness in our "normalized" present? Despite substantial improvements in the lives of the seropositive and people with AIDS, so many people, particularly gay men, are still dealing with the trauma of multiple loss. Thus many works of alternative AIDS media continue to resonate with the needs of the present, to bear witness to unspeakable loss and alienation. It is not only works originally conceived as projects of mourning which now serve such a function. At one point in Gregg Bordowitz's Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993), Jean Carlomusto comments how activist footage from the heyday of ACT UP has now also become a record of loss. What was once so energizing and empowering has become difficult for her to watch, almost a burden. Time has rendered militancy into mourning.

Collective Memory and the Archived Witness

We should not, however, dismiss the militancy inscribed in many of the videos as a matter confined to history. In light of what she calls the contemporary "gentrification of the mind," lesbian writer Sarah Schulman argues for the historically redemptive value of that militancy:

I would say, that in this horrible selfish, dishonest, "private" social moment, the kind of "activism" based on an ethic that people are responsible for how others act and how they are treated is pretty much impossible. . .. I'm glad I witnessed the gorgeousness of ACT UP so that I know that it is right and possible to intervene on behalf of others. But I don't expect to see a moment like that right now. The status quo on AIDS is a consequence of this moment. It will change and this change requires a different counter-culture of personal values. I believe that it will come, and talking about it is part of making it possible - even if the timeline of change is a long one. (Schulman, my emphasis)

Schulman is part of a generation of lesbians and gay men who maintain a paradoxical relation to the late 1980s and early 1990s. On the one hand, it is a painful period filled with so many deaths, but on the other hand, it is also a time of collective intervention and mutual responsibility, this "gorgeousness of ACT UP" that Schulman recalls. She thus stresses the redemptive necessity in sustaining the memory of that time and culture.

The nostalgia for the mutuality embodied by ACT UP and its culture is not restricted to the generations who participated in it. At a recent symposium marking 20 years of the AIDS pandemic, I heard a gay man in his early twenties explain his deep sense of nostalgia for the culture of ACT UP, an experience he missed by a generation. His comments characterize a feeling amongst many young gay men of alienation towards the normalized and commodified gay culture in which they have come out. The mutuality and activism of the ACT UP era thus serves as a powerful popular memory for them. In light of this, alternative AIDS media from this period provide an invaluable tool for such a politics of memory, bearing witness to this cultural and political moment and all its redemptive potentialities. As the testimonial practices of Holocaust memory continue to demonstrate more than 50 years after the event, the address inscribed in the act of bearing witness may carry across time, and even become stronger with time. It is in this context that our understanding of bearing witness may draw from two particular meanings of the verb "to bear": to sustain and to carry in thought or memory.

Sustaining a collective gay memory of the trauma of AIDS poses a specific challenge that differentiates it from other collective traumas that have produced extensive testimonial practices, such as the Holocaust and Hiroshima-Nagasaki. Jewish collective memory of the Shoah, for instance, has been significantly grounded in the initial familial transfer of memory to "second generation witnesses" (Hartman). Sons and daughters of survivors grew up in families where the trauma of the Holocaust was still very present, either consciously through testimonial practices or unconsciously through traumatic repetition and transference. Marianne Hirsch has proposed the notion of "postmemory" to describe the psychological specificities of such "passing on":

Postmemory most specifically describes the relationship of children of survivors of cultural or collective trauma to the experiences of their parents, experiences that they "remember" only as the narratives and images with which they grew up, but that are so powerful, so monumental, as to constitute memories in their own right. (9)

While lesbians and gay men have developed alternative structures of familial and affective bonds, it is precisely these bonds which have been so endangered by the AIDS epidemic. Generational transference of collective memory and structures of feeling necessarily occurs later in the adult lives of lesbians and gay men, rather than during childhood within the structure of the biological family, as is the case with ethnic communities and groups.

Therefore the preservation of cultural practices and the objects they produce, such as films and videos, becomes all the more important for sustaining lesbian and gay collective memory. Communicating the magnitude of the AIDS epidemic to future generations of lesbians and gay men cannot be left only to the material archive of dominant AIDS representation, for it risks replicating the objectification and pathology which such representation originally produced. That material archive of representation will survive because of the institutional hegemony that produced it. It will probably also come to be profoundly useful for future film- and videomakers in a similar way that the material archive of heteronormative postwar U.S. culture has proved so conducive to appropriation by many queer and feminist filmmakers. But the preservation of the material archive of alternative AIDS media will always be a more significant issue for lesbians and gay men since we cannot assume that any public or private institution will necessarily take on such a responsibility.

The efforts of the Estate Project, DIVA TV, and other organizations to preserve the work of alternative AIDS media thus appear all the more requisite. The challenge for this work of preservation will be to sustain the address of these films and videos in the present and not just for the future. The decision to place the Royal S. Marks Collection in the New York Public Library with public access to most of the works reflects an important effort to face this challenge. Similarly, James Wentzy's placement of downloadable AIDS activist videos on the DIVA TV website marks a promising development in maintaining access to this material archive, in sustaining the address of the works within it. The Internet may in fact come to be a vital resource for continuing the work of bearing witness to the AIDS epidemic through this material archive. Additionally, we should not forget that continuing to write about and discuss these films and videos is equally important. If the history of film studies as a discipline can teach us anything about the archive and the preservation of memory, it is that works produced on the margins need people to continue to discuss them if they are to survive, both intellectually and materially. I have come to see my own research within the framework of such an endeavor - to sustain the address of these films and videos, to bear witness to it by carrying it forward in thought and memory.

Works Cited

Atkins, Robert. "Symposium: The Unfashionability of AIDS," in Artery: The AIDS Arts Forum, available at

Bordowitz, Gregg. "Guest List for a Cocktail Party." Camerawork 25.1 (1998): 4-9.

Crimp, Douglas. Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2002.

Hartman, Geoffrey. The Longest Shadow: In the Aftermath of the Holocaust. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996.

Hirsch, Marianne. "Surviving Images: Holocaust Photographs and the Work of Postmemory," Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001): 5-37.

Román, David. "Not-About-AIDS." GLQ 6.1 (2000): 1-28.

Rosenberg, Tina. "How to Solve the World's AIDS Crisis," New York Times Magazine, 28 January 2001: 26-31, 52, 58-63.

Schulman, Sarah. "Symposium: Gentrification of the Mind," available at

Sullivan, Andrew. "When Plagues End: Notes on the Twilight of an Epidemic," New York Times Magazine, 10 November 1996: 52-62, 76-77, 84.

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