In this project, I examine my cultural cohort’s current nostalgia for the fashion and visual culture of the 80s and early 90s, a moment marked by the mass death of a generation to AIDS. I initially began thinking about this project after attending the Keith Haring retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum in the spring of 2012; while looking at photos of the artist, I couldn’t help but feel that these images were strikingly similar to the photos I see on my friends’ Facebook feeds every day. Though separated by two or three decades, many of the styles were the same, from haircuts to fabric patterns to the attitude with which people posed in front of the camera. Thanks to apps like Instagram, even the coloration and (faux-)material quality of the images were similar. In the following months, as I continued to look at images from this era, I’d often catch myself momentarily thinking I recognized friends in photographs—that is, until I reminded myself that many of the people in the photos were long gone. And yet, these visual similarities offered at least a fleeting sense of continuity, a way to think about those who died as members of a community much like my own, rather than as abstracted martyrs or unnamed faces.
Being almost as old as the plague itself and at an age at which many of my forebears died, I find myself often thinking about what it would have been like if all of my friends were dying or dead. And yet, I’m often surprised by how many of my contemporaries know very little about those who came before us. Over the past couple of years, a new wave of writing and filmmaking—including David Weissman’s We Were Here, Ira Sachs’s Last Address, and most notably, Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind—has explored the impact of the loss of a generation in economic and cultural terms, particularly the demographic and aesthetic changes in cities. However, I have seen little work by younger artists that explores this legacy of the crisis, despite the fact that many are grappling with themes similar to their predecessors. Schulman asks of this absence, “Do they wonder why there are so few sixty-year-old versions of themselves passing by on the sidewalk?” (63). I find that question haunting me.
Somewhat concurrently, academic circles have produced a new body of queer theory looking at issues of temporality, futurity, and failure, with notable contributions from Heather Love, Jose Esteban Muñoz, Elizabeth Freeman, and Jack Halberstam. Much of this literature questions both normative modes of time—including a resistance to terms that are necessarily linear, generational, effectual, or uninterrupted—as well as normative modes of success. Instead, many seek to theorize queer lives and histories in ways that privilege forgetting, repetition, rupture, temporariness, or starting over. As Halberstam suggests in The Queer Art of Failure, “queer lives seek to uncouple change from the supposedly organic and immutable forms of family and inheritance… We may want to forget family and forget lineage and forget tradition in order to start from a new place, not the place where the old engenders the new, where the old makes place for the new, but where the new begins afresh, unfettered by memory, tradition, and usable pasts” (70). However, in the context of HIV and AIDS, where so much work has been done by artists, historians, and public health officials to ensure that this legacy is not forgotten, I ask, what might be the value in forgetting?
With this project, then, I’m trying to bring these two strains of thought together to make sense of what it means for my generation to casually replay moments in history that many of us know little about and certainly don’t fully understand. Is it a superficial attempt to show our street cred with a Keith Haring iPhone case? A nostalgic yearning for ACT UP-style mass struggle at a time when many of us feel angry and hopeless in the face of similar neoliberal neglect? Could this phenomenon itself be a symptom of loss, an awkward, if unintentional, repetition of a time unknown? Or perhaps instead an attempt to subconsciously disavow what may be too heavy of a legacy, while still remaining haunted by the past? I think it may be all of the above. And it may be those very contradictions—a tension between different times as well as epistemologies—that speak most to a queer articulation of my generation’s relationship to AIDS.
The portraits I am creating for this series draw contemporary models from young, queer artist and activist communities whose style or sensibility reflects those often seen in the visual culture immediately before and during the height of the AIDS crisis in the US. Though the poses are staged and the wardrobe specifically chosen to evoke earlier times, the images are not so far from how many subjects present themselves in their daily (or nightly) lives. In some cases, I have suggested specific historical referents as sources of inspiration for the contemporary subjects; in others, I draw spatial connections by staging the images in historically queer San Francisco venues. Thus, while the portraits are not impersonations or restagings of particular moments, I intentionally and problematically play with the multiple temporalities of reenactment.
Additionally, I am especially interested in the ways in which emerging digital technologies aid in the performance of nostalgia, and also create images that are themselves quickly forgotten. For this reason, the project takes the form of short videos meant to look like still photos, reflecting analog video technology that emerged through the arts and activist practices of the 80s. And yet, though the motion captured in the videos is subtle, it offers a compelling and somewhat unsettling sense of aliveness, presented through technologies that are unambiguously contemporary. Furthermore, I heavily (and heavy-handedly) manipulate the images with common consumer techniques that evoke sentimental reminiscence, notably slow motion and discoloration filters that reference vintage cameras and film stocks. The videos are intended to appear in digital frames or as projections, played forward and backward in a continuous loop without a clear beginning or end, leaving the viewer to contemplate the subjects caught in a constantly-moving but perpetual moment.