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“My rage is really about the fact that WHEN I WAS TOLD THAT I’D CONTRACTED THIS VIRUS IT DIDN’T TAKE ME LONG TO REALIZE THAT I’D CONTRACTED A DISEASED SOCIETY AS WELL.” – from David Wojnarowicz, “Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell” (in Close to the Knives, 1991: p. 114).

In 1989, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) withdrew funding from a show (“Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing”) at Artists Space in New York City, because of a controversial accompanying essay by photographer, painter, writer, musician, filmmaker, and East Village luminary David Wojnarowicz. The piece, “Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell,” was a searing j’accuse directed at among other people, Jesse Helms, Ed Koch, and Cardinal O’Connor for poisoning the discourse of AIDS with fear, bigotry, and callous indifference. Soon after, Reverand Donald Wildmon of the right-wing American Family Association (AFA) excerpted images of David’s work in a sensationalist pamphlet designed to further smear Wojnarowicz and decrease public funding for the arts. Wojnarowicz successfully sued the AFA for violation of the New York State Artists’ Authorship Act. He was awarded damages of one dollar.

From the trial:

Mr. Wojnarowicz, apart from the harm that you believe the AFA pamphlet has cause to your reputation as a fine artist, has it affected you personally?

Yes, it has. I live an isolated life. I rarely see people. I spend a great deal of time at home, whether for reasons of health or work, and I have come to depend very seriously on my work as the communication that I engage in with other people; and I feel this work, this mailing that Wildmon created along with the AFA, seriously distorted that communication and caused me a great deal of anxiety and outrage and, when I saw the pamphlet around May 2nd, I went through a period of very intense depression and outrage at feeling unable to combat this representation of my work or what my work was reduced to and the communication that I perceive and believe is inside the work that I make being so severely distorted. (excerpted from A definitive history of five or six years on the lower east side, Semiotext(e) 2006: p. 225)

Twenty years later, Wojnarowicz’s work has been subject to censorship once again, though this time he is not able to sue his censors (he died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1992). The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, in response to pressure from the religious right, the Republican Party, and the media, has removed the film “Fire in My Belly” from its exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.”

The footage for the film was made in 1987 in Mexico, and exists in several versions. One of them features a visceral montage of sometimes shocking images, backed by the genuinely disturbing music of Diamanda Galas, who recites lines from the Book of Leviticus. (The piece is from her long work Plague Mass, a challenging and often frightening meditation on mortality, sickness, and AIDS, in which she makes her voice resound like the last opera on Earth, performed by a banshee who can play her throat like Anthony Braxton plays saxophone.) It is the most powerful of David’s films that I’ve had the privilege of seeing, next to his death-bed film of the late photographer Peter Hujar, his partner, who also succumbed to AIDS.

Though the Smithsonian is ultimately to blame for the decision, we should be alarmed and repelled by yet another instance of the American Right attacking the arts community — often in flagrantly homophobic language — in order to cynically bolster support among the ignorant for their regressive social agenda. The charge this time has been led by Bill Donahue, shameless bigot and President of the Catholic League. The outrage has focused on a brief, Dalí-echoing segment, in which ants crawl along a crucifix which lies on the ground, which is indeed a provocative image, but one which is part of a larger argument that has been lost in the media noise. The film takes the stigma of pollution and contamination associated with the AIDS crisis and displaces it onto, implicitly, the Catholic Church, which was, and continues to be, complicit in the spread of the disease, especially in the developing world, by way its insistent campaigns of misinformation and homophobia. The film is not anti-Christian, but it is unsparing in its contempt for misguided and dangerous Church positions that even the Pope has become equivocal about. Rather than engage the piece with any sort of argument, Donahue et al. have taken a segment out of context and used it made baseless, slanderous accusations against the artist.

Donahue, moreover, apparently did not see the irony in claiming outrage on behalf of an offended minority while trying to silence an AIDS victim on World AIDS Day. This is unsurprising, given that the man has said things like: “We’re not going to allow gay people to adopt children, that’s against nature, it’s against nature’s god.” Republicans in Congress, who alarmingly have a good deal of control over the budget, have repeated this charlatan’s views on the exhibit, and have threatened the Smithsonian and the NEA with funding cuts.

The NEA’s annual budget is tens of millions of dollars smaller than the daily cost of fighting the war in Afghanistan, that Sisyphean spectacle of pointless and unending violence which seems to “offend” no one in the American political establishment, least of all the Democrats who were elected on an anti-war mandate. It is also about one-tenth of one percent of the sum the Republicans want to give away in tax cuts to the richest people in America over the next ten years. By contrast, the Wojnarowicz piece, and indeed the entire exhibit in question, was funded with exactly zero taxpayer dollars. To put it in even bleaker relief: the artist died so miserably partially because he had no health insurance. To frame this as a question of budgetary priorities, then, is dishonest and perverse in the extreme. This is a cynical game, a game playing on cultural anxieties and homophobia, and one which reveals the House Republicans as the vacuous, reactionary philistines that they are.

If you are in Washington, D.C., and you would like to see the film, the Transformer Gallery is screening it. They are also marching to the National Portrait Gallery to stage a protest tonight, December 2nd, at 5:30pm.

UPDATE: The New Museum on the Bowery in New York City is also screening the entire work in their lobby until late January, as is PPOW (which represents David’s work), and a rogue demonstrator inside the National Portrait Gallery. I also encourage everyone to boycott the NPG until the work is reinstated and a sincere apology is offered.

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Matt Kish’s most recent drawing. One suspects autobiographical undertones.

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Something about the gargantuan, almost destructive nature of committing one’s vision and ability so completely to one endeavor really appeals to me.

Matt Kish

As will become apparent as I shake off the winter blues and start putting more energy into this blog, one of the guiding themes will be something I previously dubbed “benign obsession.” I am interested in hopelessly laborious projects, impossible archives, secret histories, and enthusiasms that border on the psychotic; obsessions which mutate into monstrous forms and stalk us in our sleep.

Dreaming.

Matt Kish, no doubt, dreams of whales and stretches of sea. Beginning in August 2009, Kish — struck with a case of the hypos, disappointed that his creative output had lulled — decided to drive off the spleen with a project prosaically titled “One Drawing for Every Page of Moby Dick.” (As he has acknowledged, Zak Smith’s similar project on Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is a precedent and an inspiration.)

His previous drawings were taking up far too much time, so in order to produce more work, he conceived of the project as a way to create something new each day: “With the Moby-Dick project, I am making a conscious effort to let the art flow very quickly from my mind to the paper, working rapidly, intuitively and almost crudely,” he said. He chooses a single sentence, passage, or image from a page and completes a drawing to accompany it; they are not quite “illustrations” and are not intended to convey narrative. These are done with cheap acrylic paint, ballpoint pens, and other similarly modest materials on found paper repurposed from discarded books (and, occasionally, on pages from Moby Dick).

There are often some nice aleatory resonances with the found material: Queequeg over a map of the Pacific, for instance, or more strictly formal rhymes between some of the diagrams and Kish’s use of line. The frenetic pace also produces some happy accidents. In one piece, spots of red ink were made to represent blood only after he had knocked the bottle over.

The Whiteness of the Whale. Notice the water damage that has been incorporated into the piece.

I saw Matt speak and present some of his drawings on Tuesday at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg. Being, as he is, a married (sub-sub?) librarian from Ohio, he frames his work in the most modest of terms; for those of us in places like New York, accustomed to grandiose and deliberately obfuscatory manifestos accompanying exhibitions of empty bottles or lengths of pipe, the warmth and humility of Kish’s presentation was, perhaps paradoxically, rather exhilarating. So many artists and writers treat public talks as something only slightly more appealing than jury duty, but Matt was genuinely ecstatic to have the opportunity to share his artwork with us.

I was as surprised as he at the size of the crowd; we had to pack together in the dimly lit room, crouched on the floor, as if it were the Spouter Inn. I have never seen Pete’s Candy Store so crowded, even for up-and-coming rock bands. (One of the charms of the place is that you can usually sit at a table, drink cheaply and comfortably, and see 2 or 3 sets for free). Since I attended as a jaded graduate student on an invitation from a friend who has recently finished a rather dense thesis on “Melville and Religion,” I expected only people of like sort would choose this as their entertainment for the evening. To my delight, this did not seem to be the case.

The Fin-Back is not gregarious.

Each piece is more or less self-contained, and the project as a whole is not guided by some grand reading of the text; Kish is very far removed from the loveless interpretation-as-autopsy culture of contemporary literature departments. His approach is something like, to borrow Sontag’s phrase, an erotics of art. The relation to the text is affective, playful and improvisatory. He recognizes the novel as something uncontainable, something as slippery and elusive as the white whale itself. (This is where Kish’s obsessive drive, as keen as it is, differs from Ahab’s, with its murderous insistence on a decisive conquest).

Despite what he claims to be his artistic limitations — a weakness at rendering human figures seems to be his principal complaint — the range of the work is fairly astounding. The styles range from collage, to pieces reminiscent of comics and graphic novels, to geometric abstraction, and even vistas that look like they could be in a Super Nintendo game. The tone ranges from the quaint and ludic to the macabre and somber. Each new slide was strikingly unique, which is amazing considering the pace at which he works; how great must the temptation be to draw the same whale over and over again? But that, of course, would be joyless, and while Matt is by this point yearning for the project’s close he is clearly unwilling to cut corners. The laboriousness of some of the work is palpable, almost painfully so.

Kish’s quest is a continual process of discovery, a bizarre voyage at sea. I am still absorbing the material myself. It could be the subject of a much more sustained critical effort, though we are only halfway through.

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Nelson Sullivan (1948-1989) is an unsung master of cinema vérité, who became through the force of benign obsession one of the great documentarians of New York City. A relatively penniless music-store worker originally from the repressive confines of the rural South, he began renting an unassuming apartment at 5 9th Avenue in the Meatpacking District in the early 1980s. (The building still exists, but is in a rather different real estate bracket; a restaurant downstairs now sells twelve dollar omelets). Over the next decade, until his sudden death of a heart attack on July 4, 1989, Nelson used the new technology of videocassette recording to compile almost 2,000 hours of footage documenting his life on the fringes of the city’s art world and gay scene. The dramatis personae of this project is incalculably long : RuPaul and Andy Warhol, Deee-Lite and Michael Musto, and scores of other figures both major and minor.  But the more quotidian material, of Nelson taking the M14 bus, walking his dog Blackout along the river, attending the much feistier gay pride parades of decades past,  is also extraordinary. Nelson’s unpretentious approach, and mastery of technique – notice the flawless transitions of point of view, the spontaneous interviews, the stream-of-consciousness narration,  all contributing to a sense of participatory spectatorship – makes the archive more than a documentary nostalgia tour. Tragically, Sullivan died only days before he was to begin preparing the footage for television broadcast, and consequently only a handful of people could see any of his recordings until recently.

I only know of  Sullivan’s remarkable body of work from watching, against my initial judgment, and out of sheer boredom, a short film in the extra features section of the Party Monster documentary, based on the memoir Disco Bloodbath by James St. James: a perversely enjoyable account of the decadence (in both senses of the word) of downtown in the 1990s, by means of a story of the rise and fall of “club kid” impresario, drug vacuum, and eventual murderer Michael Alig. (The book was also turned into a 2003 feature film starring Macaulay Culkin). Sullivan sadly remains associated with these characters despite their peripheral presence in his life.

One can only assume there are no plans to release the collection in its entirety, but friends of Nelson have set up the 5ninthavenueproject on Youtube to share some highlights, in addition to a few DVDs. He remains obscure,  even in his now basically unrecognizable Manhattan; in fact, more public exhibitions of his work have been held in France than in New York.

Here are some samples:

Stonewall 20: Waiting for the Judy Garland contingent.

A jaunt across town.

A jubilant and yet heartbreaking performance of “Downtown” by Petula Clark, as an AIDS fundraiser by many people who would later die of the disease themselves.

Links:

http://www.nelsonsullivan.tv/

http://www.youtube.com/user/5ninthavenueproject

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