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Film still from David Wojnarowicz, Fire in My Belly (unfinished film, 1987)

David Deitcher on the International Center of Photography’s David Wojnarowicz Panel 12.16.2010
ICP-Bard Blog (December 22, 2010)

Last Thursday evening’s extraordinary special event at the ICP—a panel discussion in response to the censorship of a video from Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, the exhibition that Jonathan D. Katz organized for the National Portrait Gallery—was most memorable for this observer as a bundle of unexpected, alternately irritating and demoralizing contradictions.

ICP director, Buzz Hartshorn, introduced the panel which a group of ICP museum and school staff members organized in urgent response to the news December 1 (not coincidentally World AIDS Day) that the Smithsonian had caved to right-wing pressure tactics and removed from the exhibition what can best be described as a work derived from David Wojnarowicz’s unfinished film, Fire in My Belly. Buzz was himself clearly fired up, insisting that the responsibility of museum directors to promote and protect freedom of expression (especially unpopular expression) from political pressure tactics of any kind is, or anyway should be, nonnegotiable. Better an institution should fold, or that its director should fall on his or her sword to protect such American values, than that such institutional spinelessness be considered even an option.

At the start of the panel, ICP/Bard chair Nayland Blake spoke eloquently about this latest episode of institutional capitulation to the knee-jerk homophobia of the Christian (and/or tea-party) Right in terms of the erasure, yet again, of queer culture and history by institutions that, like the National Portrait Gallery, are charged with preserving the history of all Americans. Nayland recounted the unrelenting efforts of conservatives in and out of government to roll back the fragile, hard-won progress of gay men and lesbians in securing our civil rights, our visibility, and our claim to a history with which queers can identify. No less important, he maintained, is the unreliability of the Internet as an archival resource. To demonstrate this last point, Nayland noted that a search for Wojnarowicz’s Fire in My Belly on YouTube turns up a version that Marvin Taylor, founder and executive director of NYU’s Fales Collection, described as an unauthorized travesty—“a mess.”

After noting her friendship with David and his surviving lover, editor and panelist Amy Scholder addressed the YouTube version of Fire in My Belly to which Blake referred in his opening remark, which is accompanied by a soundtrack excerpted from Diamanda Galas’ Plague Mass. Scholder emphasized that, though friendly with David, Galas had never worked with him, and had never authorized the use of an excerpt from her performance to accompany his unfinished film. She noted that Galas’ own work had also been subject to institutional erasure and distortion. Amy likened her experience of watching the YouTube version of David’s film to trauma—for its lack of fidelity to historical fact, and for its fabricator’s disregard for the integrity of the works by each of its makers.

Marvin Taylor’s presence on the panel lent a note of prudence and scholarship to the proceedings. He projected scans of wholly remarkable, personally annotated pages from David’s production notes for the film he never finished. Taylor had no axe to grind, little vanity, and no discernible self-promotional agenda. He was visibly supportive of his fellow panelists—sometimes to a greater extent than cranky observer would have liked.

Marvin noted that the extensive Wojanrowicz holdings in the Fales’s invaluable Downtown Collection include two versions of the unfinished work: a 14- and a 7-minute cut, both of which consist of silent, super-8 footage, much, if not all of it shot in Mexico. There followed a screening of the 4-minute adaptation of Wojnarowicz’s unfinished film that Hide/Seek organizer and panelist Jonathan D. Katz included in his exhibition. I was shocked to realize that in this, the censored version, Wojnarowicz’s footage bears a soundtrack of ACT UP (NY) members, noisily acting up. Had Wojnarowicz ever authorized or even considered such aural accompaniment? As I suspected, and as both Katz and Taylor confirmed, he had not. Katz had re-edited the footage he had borrowed from the Fales Collection and added the soundtrack, both by curatorial fiat. And now, by virtue of this video’s suppression, Katz’s version, of the unfinished work is and will be attributed by people who don’t know any better (the mainstream press, for example; just check out the Web) as Wojanrowicz’s work. In this sense, Nayland’s assertion that the Internet is not only an immensely handy resource for information, but also a site where historical distortion and erasure routinely take place, applies to “real” as well as virtual space..

Artist/activist and panelist Joy Episalla delivered an impassioned presentation, one in which she somewhat too simply claimed Wojnarowicz for ACT UP (NY). I cannot say this with certainty, but as a member of ACT UP from 1987-90, and as an acquaintance of David's from 1989, I don't remember his being a particularly active member of the group. I never saw him at the weekly Monday evening meetings at the queer center, or participating in actions, with one notable exception: David was allegedly part of ACT UP's early and altogether remarkable action, Seize Control of the FDA (October 11, 1988). In part as a result of this action, one year later the NIH and the FDA adopted a method first conceived by ACT UP members, and now known as “parallel track,” for clinical trials of experimental AIDS drugs. While I don’t doubt that the spectacle of queer men and women acting up to save our lives would also have been a source of inspiration to him, I tend to think of David more as an honorary ACT UP member, an ultimately martyred source of militant inspiration. He inspired members of ACT UP by his deeply affecting example. His book, Closer to the Knives, contains a passage that Episalla, to her credit, read aloud. In that passage, David imagines (and implicitly advocates) racing down to the nation’s capitol in a speeding car with the dead bodies of friends, lovers, comrades; smashing through the White House gates to “dump their lifeless form on the front steps.” As Episalla noted, this passage inspired the “political funerals” of the early 90s, powerful, gruesome events in which Episalla was a prominent participant.

After Nayland opened the discussion to the floor, we learned that AA Bronson, founding member of the Canadian queer artist collective General Idea, had requested that his own famously powerful work, Felix, June 5, 1994, be removed from the exhibition to protest the Smithsonian’s cowardice. The thought of removing that traumatic image of General Idea member Felix Partz on his deathbed induced audience member Jonathan Ned Katz to rise in dismay. Noting that as a queer historian for 40 years, he understands visibility as the movement’s central “metaphor.” He then argued that to remove such a work—or any work—from such an exhibition would be a terrible contradiction. I then added to Jonathan’s point that to remove such a powerful work from the exhibition would also be to do the bidding of Bill Donohue, the mouthpiece for the so-called Catholic League, and thereby to help the Right to realize its goal.

Perhaps it was Buzz or Nayland who observed at some point that many students today have never heard of the “Culture Wars,” or anyway don’t know to what it refers. (Note to self: be a better educator.) Somebody else referred to signs of “nostalgia” for the activism and militancy of the late 1980s (i.e. White Columns’ restaging of Helen Molesworth’s ACT UP show). Panelists and audience members emphasized the need to revive that militancy, to create anew the kind of savvy strategic coalition in which members can figure out how persuasively to talk back to the religious Right and the tea baggers with “talking points” as clear and effectively political as theirs.

The event ended somewhat somberly with a screening of the 13- and 7-minutes of footage that resides at the Fales. Seeing that silent footage served to underscore the extent to which David’s unfinished work was not only not anti-Catholic and/or irreligious, but steeped in the iconography of Mexican Catholicism and often religiously informed popular culture; and to remind viewers once again of how deeply embedded David and his work were in the, art, performance, and neo-Bohemian world of the late, not-entirely-lamented, East Village scene.