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Documentation in the time of AIDS

Documentation in the time of AIDS

This week, 2B Magazine features an article about being 30 years old in the 30th year of the AIDS crisis. A handful of writers, including myself, speak about sharing a proximate birthday with the pandemic. As an extension of this discussion, I’d like to briefly outline some of the documents from the AIDS epidemic that I think are imperative cultural beacons. These works inspire rage, desire, and a sense of community. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but pieces that hold special meaning to my personal growth as a queer individual.

Sarah Schulman’s Stagestruck: Theatre, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America.

Author, playwright, teacher, and activist Sarah Schulman is one of my favourite authors. While I love her novels, Stagestruck is a searing piece of nonfiction that indicts the culture industry for creating and supporting art that evacuates all history and meaning from the AIDS crisis. Schulman is particularly interested in works where marginalized populations—who in the history of the epidemic are key players/fighters/activists—are turned into one-dimensional supporting cast members who buttress the heroic, white, heterosexual lead. Stagestruck examines what sorts of cultural representations of AIDS and queerness are permitted in pop culture. Likewise, the author dissects the systemic racism, misogyny, and homophobia that suppress articulate books, plays, and films created by the queer community.

Diamanda Galás’ Plague Mass (1984—End of the Epidemic)

Music critic Fiona Scott-Norman writes in her 2001 review of Galás, “to hear her is to have your soul scoured clean.” Such an apt description. Galás’ sound reaches an unsurpassed intensity on this recording of her 1990 performance in NYC’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Plague Mass is the live culmination of her Masque of the Red Death trilogy; all works that deal expressly with the AIDS crisis. If ever there was question whether or not sound can function as a weapon, Plague Mass is the answer. Heavy metal magazine Terrorizer calls the mass the most violent album of the 90s. With a vocal athleticism that knows no bounds, Galás brings us from the Biblical laws of Leviticus, to the poetry of Corbiere, to spiritual hymns, in order to create a call to arms. Performing on the altar of the second largest cathedral in North America while naked from the waist up, covered in ceremonial blood, the Plague Mass is Galás’ act of war. It demands retribution in the face of the governmental and religious genocide-through-inaction of the 80s and 90s. Unfortunately, there is very little quality visual documentation of the mass, but the album itself stands as one of the most brutal and brilliant recordings of all time.

Francisco Ibañez-Carrasco’s AIDS Testimonials: The Possibilities of Telling One’s Own Story

It might be difficult to find this essay from a 1995 issue of FUSE Magazine, but Ibañez-Carrasco’s writing is always eloquent and indelible, be it nonfiction like this essay, or his equally potent works of fiction, such as Flesh Wounds and Purple Flowers: The Cha-Cha Years. Nonetheless, I believe this essay speaks to the other pieces I’ve listed here. Ibañez-Carrasco remarks on the importance of powerful testimonials, politically aware autobiographies that speak, yell, demand, and refute subordination. The author suggests this form of cultural product is very different from voyeuristic confessionals, where innocent/guilty victims are powerless in the face the panoptic tabloid/talk-show slop bucket. This essay also addresses the importance of borderlands, different dialects, and citizenship in the production of testimonials. With wit and honesty,  Ibañez-Carrasco proposes a pedagogical shift in how we access the act of storytelling.

David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives

As a queer living in a straight man’s world, Wojnarowicz’s writing is incendiary accelerant. His is a voice erupting from a landscape on fire. His work germinates in the shadows of the piers and other mythic cruising grounds that have now been paved over for tourist attractions and sporting complexes. His work travels along highways that stretch across endless hostile lands. Wojnarowicz is a poet of concrete, hospital rooms, abandoned factories illuminated by the high beams of cruising cars, and the eroticism that ignites between queer men hunting for sex. Close to the Knives is as much a memoir as it is a manifesto, straddling the line between wrath and desire.

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