Tuesday, July 3, 2018

On David Wojnarowicz, politics, and gestures.

Professor of women's and gender studies, State University of New York at Stony Brook

Next week, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York will launch a major exhibition of the work of David Wojnarowicz, "History Keeps Me Awake at Night." It notes that Wojnarowicz was “queer and HIV-positive” and an “impassioned advocate for people with AIDS,” who would die of AIDS in 1992 at age 37. Publicity for the exhibition also indicates concern that because of Wojnarowicz’s association with the AIDS crisis and the culture wars of the 1980s, his work is “too frequently treated as a footnote” to this historical moment. I am excited about the retrospective at the Whitney, both as an opportunity to celebrate Wojnarowicz’s work as more than a footnote and as an opportunity to return to a particular moment in time that still reverberates in the present.

In my work, I am interested in the conjunction of illness-thought-activism in time. Or, put another way, I am concerned with illness and disability in action in particular times and places. My recent book Indirect Action explores this conjunction in the period just before and after the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the United States, challenging the frequently repeated origin story that locates AIDS activism in particular and health activism more generally as emerging with the formation of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in 1987. Attempting to demonstrate the conceptual and practical uses of indirection, I conceived of the overall form of the project diagrammatically as a spatial network of interlinked experiences and events of illness, with shorter chapters, which I call snapshots, as nodes in the network that condense and encapsulate the overall structure. The image that helped me conceive of this form was the cover of a xeroxed catalog for David Wojnarowicz’s show In the Shadow of Forward Motion at P.P.O.W. gallery in New York City in 1989. Thinker/writer/activist Félix Guattari contributed a foreword of sorts to the catalog, and his name, along with Wojnarowicz’s, is on the cover of the catalog.

In 1989 Felix Guattari contributed a foreword to a xeroxed catalog
for a show of David Wojnarowicz's In The Shadow of Forward Motion
at the P.P.O.W. gallery in New York City. 

The cover image on the catalog, a detail from Wojnarowicz’s Sex Series, is a copy of an x-ray photograph of a sexual encounter as if viewed through a microscope or pinhole. What we see is difficult to discern, and we must peer closely at the image to see there are two men in the scene; as microscoped, x-rayed, and then photocopied fragment, sex is not simply impersonalized but depersonalized. The sex is both there for all to see and difficult to discern. Our own voyeuristic desire is captured in the pinhole’s structuring call to look. The image vibrates eerily on a black background while the text boxes—“David Wojnarowicz,” “In the Shadow of Forward Motion,” and “Notes by Felix Guattari”—float in white rectangular blocks above and below the image. The catalog materially and conceptually links the names, words, and ideas of Guattari and Wojnarowicz, even though the two men never met.

A name not on the cover of the catalog is that of the photographer, Marion Scemama, who collaborated with Wojnarowicz and was a friend of Guattari’s; it was Scemama who brought the two men together at the very end of the first decade of AIDS, in 1989, three years before both of their deaths, only weeks apart, in 1992. In an interview with Sylvère Lotringer, the founder of Semiotext(e), a cultural theorist and archiver of French theory in the United States, Scemama describes how Guattari’s involvement in the catalog came about and the pleasure Wojnarowicz felt in having his work linked with Guattari’s. Because Guattari couldn’t come to New York to meet Wojnarowicz or see his work in person, Guattari’s “David Wojnarowicz” is, Scemama believes, a “little superficial” but nonetheless important as “a gesture.” “Gesture” is a key word and concept in Wojnarowicz’s work and features frequently in his diaries. Wojnarowicz’s concept of the gesture emerges not only from his practices of art and writing but also from his practices of sex. For Wojnarowicz the gesture is a link between word and image, writing and painting, sex and intimacy. For example, in a diary entry in September 1981, Wojnarowicz describes picking up a guy in a park in the East Village and going for coffee with him. As they make “slow spare conversation,” Wojnarowicz explains, “I knew I wanted to lie down with him but nothing was mentioned. I wondered how it would be approached, if at all. What words, what gestures.” Or as Agamben puts it in his “Notes on Gesture,” “The gesture is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the process of making a means visible as such.” The snapshots in my project are meant to function like gestures: they are intertexts and interimages that make a means visible—here, linking sex, illness, art, and politics before and after AIDS.

In his superficial gesture, Guattari argues that Wojnarowicz reinvents the “inspiration of the great 60s movements” in order to “transcend the style of passivity and abandon of the entropic slope of fate which characterizes this present period.” A superficial gesture, then, links Wojnarowicz back to the social movements of the 1960s, and forward or, perhaps we should say, in the shadow of a forward motion to “a singular message that allows us to perceive an enunciation in process,” as Guattari puts it. The enunciation in process catalogs macroevents, like the worldwide devastation of AIDS, the detritus of capitalism, and the expropriation and exploitation of land once inhabited by Native Americans. In his writing and visual art, Wojnarowicz demonstrates the metamorphosis of all things—rusted-out factories, defunct machines, and insect shells are placed side by side as images of “what history means reached through the compression of time.”

My own superficial and small gesture redraws a line between Guattari and Scemama and Wojnarowicz. The redrawing of the line is not meant simply as a reminder that politics is about the personal, in the sense that through personal relationships we make politics, although of course personal relationships are an important aspect of the practice of all politics. Rather, what I want to think about are those figures who act as relays between people, places, ideas, and entire movements: Scemama between Guattari and Wojnarowicz but also Guattari and Wojnarowicz between the radical psychiatric politics of the 1960s and 1970s and forms of AIDS activism in the 1980s. Like Wojnarowicz, I am interested in “what history means reached through the compression of time,” a snapshot or a xeroxed catalog linking two names, word and image, sex and love, art and politics. Doing politics is about all kinds of further gestures: personal and impersonal, large and small, profound and superficial.


Lisa Diedrich is professor of women's and gender studies at State University of New York at Stony Brook. She is author of Indirect Action: Schizophrenia, Epilepsy, AIDS, and the Course of Health Activism and Treatments: Language, Politics, and the Culture of Illness.

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