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by Jaime Shearn Coan

How to Catalogue a Crisis: An Afterword to Lost and Found: Dance, HIV/AIDS, New York, Then and Now (2016)


One day someone asks[1] you to remember, to return to a time you don’t return to often, and to do so in public, in print, uneraseable. It is both an honor and a burden. You send your words to an email address, a name you don’t recognize, and then you get an answer back. The name you don’t recognize has read your words and treated them with care, sent them back to you caressed and clean. This is a new feeling and unexpected. You start to think of the name you don’t recognize as having dimension, having listening ears, and you know nothing about them except the way they handle your words.

You are writing about ghosts to a ghost, and then you are no longer a ghost, or your ghosts are no longer ghosts. They enter into a three-way with you and your ghosts, they know things although they weren’t there. They are the bridge that puts you into relationship with the others. You can’t know what the others are writing, but you feel the edges around you, you feel them waiting to receive you. How do you know you can trust your own memory, your own way through the words and the years?

You wanted to create a memorial, or you wanted to destroy one. You wanted to speak clearly but softly. You wanted an apology, or to apologize. I was cc’d. The managing editor. I had all these strings hanging from me. I was hungry and exhausted and needy, but quiet about it. You were surprised at how closely I looked, how I took apart the words in my hands and reshaped them before they could harden against themselves.


I. Platform as Curatorial Model and Iteration

Danspace Project’s Platform 2016: Lost and Found reckoned with the impact of HIV/AIDS on downtown dance in New York. More specifically, it sought to explore how the early years of the epidemic affected multiple generations of dancemakers. It did so by taking a multifaceted approach, including performance reconstructions, newly commissioned dance works, film screenings, readings, conversations, a zine project, a vigil, and a catalogue. The Platform model, an artist-curated “set of exhibitions that unfold over time,”[2] was developed in 2009-2010 by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Executive Director of Danspace Project.

Lost and Found was co-curated by Ishmael Houston-Jones and Will Rawls, two black queer men of different generations, backgrounds, and aesthetics, both connected to downtown dance and invested in questions of blackness, queerness, and experimental dance. They desired to mitigate the erasure of people of color from historical and contemporary narratives of HIV/AIDS, to emphasize the current demographics of HIV/AIDS, and to address and honor the work of grieving and caregiving that has so often been performed by women.[3] The initial impetus for the Platform was Houston-Jones’ rediscovery of a zine he and his friends had made in 1998 on the 10th anniversary of the death of their friend John Bernd. Thus, the Platform was initiated by an archive but also by an absence—what dance works might have been brought into existence? What were the effects of illness, trauma, and death on aesthetics, on relationships, on younger artists deprived of mentors and teachers?

II. What’s in a Catalogue?
I was brought on as a Curatorial Fellow to work on the Platform primarily because my doctoral research focused on queer sociality and performance in ‘80s-‘90s New York in the context of the advent of HIV/AIDS. Additionally, I was, and am, a dance writer and active in the community. Long accustomed to working independently, I suddenly found myself part of a curatorial team (a durational performance if there ever was one). We would sit around a table in a windowless conference room on Second Avenue: Will, Judy, Ishmael, Lydia Bell, (Program Director at DSP), myself, sometimes others. The walls were orangey-pink, and we could choose lamplight or overhead fluorescents. We met and we swapped ideas, threw out names of performers, allocated tasks, created timelines. This was a collaboration, nothing belonged to anyone, we had a common goal and we wanted to get there together. It was beautiful, the way our minds worked together: high-speed, short-cutting, adding to, dialogic.

The catalogue was an ambitious project, not only because of the far-reaching and interdisciplinary nature of the Platform, but also because of the weight of representing historical and ongoing HIV/AIDS: it was a too much/not enough problem.[4] We wanted archival materials, seminal texts, fresh approaches; we wanted poetry, and interviews, and artwork. We wanted a lot of voices, and we wanted them to talk to each other. Will was interested in queer zines as a “locale where fandom, rage and sex can meet feminist, minority and queer politics and history,”[5] and he helped drive the catalogue in the direction of a zine, with self-contained sections, and strange bedfellows on opposing pages—eventually it even took on the aesthetics of a zine, with the aid of the designer, Judith Walker. Will brought in other anthologies and catalogues for inspiration, including the two-volume anthology Queer Zines and the catalogue for This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s. I brought up the relevance of black gay literary anthologies such as In the Life, Brother to Brother, Blackheart, Other Countries, and The Road Before Us, also independently published in the ‘80s and ‘90s, which provided much-needed space to address the impact of HIV/AIDS as it intersected with racism and homophobia.

While the zine (short for fanzine), is generally associated with DIY punk music/culture,[6] the anthology as a genre goes back to the early 17th century—and was generally a collection of poems by various authors (its literal translation from the Greek is flower-gathering).[7] The word catalogue derives from 14th-century French and means “list” or “index.”[8] The zine, the anthology, and the catalogue have different histories, functions, and economies; our catalogue aimed to incorporate elements from all three. Exhibition catalogues involve, at a minimum, the documentation of included works and often provide critical context for an exhibition.[9] Documenting a Platform made up of live events poses unique challenges, not the least of which is the fact that the catalogue is printed before the events take place. So, while there is a schedule of events to be found at the back of the catalogue, as well as a bio for each artist involved, it is inevitable that the catalogue would be skewed more towards the critical apparatus, and look to documenting and archiving through other means.[10] [11]

Documenting the impact of HIV/AIDS brings with it its own set of challenges and anxieties. Beyond providing evidence: We were here, this really happened, etc., we wanted to ensure that we didn’t fill our pages with the most visible and oft-cited voices. We wanted to respect the traumatic losses experienced by survivors of the early years of the epidemic while also avoiding the reinforcement of the mistaken notion that AIDS is “over” and no longer a crisis. We sought to do this by creating space for younger voices and perspectives and by putting them in intergenerational conversation. But no matter what, as Will Rawls wrote of the Memory Palace section of the catalogue, “It is an unfinished building”[12]; the catalogue, as evidence, as an object that lasts, reflects a live dialogue among people with the limitations of their own knowledge and experiences, as well as the material constraints of time and budget.

III. Editing and Intimacy
It was agreed early on that I would be the Managing Editor; while the conceptualization of the catalogue was collaborative, I was to manage the workflow. The curators sent out invitations and requests.[13] The curatorial team created the structure together, and then I began to receive the real effects of the invitations: the texts. I began working one-on-one as an editor. (Full disclosure: for the catalogue, I edited an essay by Theodore Kerr, the editor of this issue of On Curating.) It was careful work, requiring timeliness, attentiveness to the texts and to the politics and emotions around them, and really, care. I was conscious that a lot of the contributors were caretakers and survivors, had taken care of others without necessarily assessing the toll that had taken on them.

I received the texts, and they were still partially attached to real people. I had to carefully remove them, and sometimes they were still wet and I had to proceed with caution, with care. It was impossible not to develop intimacy. I became a repository for fears, for doubts, for anger, for I don’t know what else. How did I proceed? Intuitively. The words, my love for them, what moved between us, they made us unstrange to each other, as we both strove to make them stronger. Track changes, phone calls—it wasn’t just the process of writing, it was the occasion (the harrowing, revelation, doomsday) that we were marking.

Editing is largely an invisible labor. It’s collaborative, and it requires compromise. It was agreed upon that I could be promoted to co-editor because of my role in suggesting contributors and materials, the fact that I edited each piece (not always exclusively), and that I worked closely with the designer. I considered, and consider, myself extremely lucky to have been able to enter into such direct relationships with so many people that I admired. I knew that I could edit, due to my background as a writer, reader, and over a decade of teaching writing, but it wasn’t until this project that I learned I was a skillful editor, and had that labor valued. The intimate nature of the editing process meant that the import of my work often did not travel outwards, was not necessarily legible. There was also my status as a curatorial fellow—my involvement in the Platform was significant but not really explicit. When the catalogue release party was planned to take place at the New Museum, aside from being asked if I had suggestions for who should read, I was not invited to take part in the event. Honestly, that did not feel great.

IV. Letters and Limitations
How does editing relate to curation? How does editing relate to HIV/AIDS? Some intersections include caretaking, patience, the conditions of/around the writing, grief, and trauma. Past exclusions. Relational fissures. There is also the specificity of the medium of written language and the unease around writing that many people experience. HIV/AIDS was the connection between us. By nature, the role of the editor is to focus on the writer. As for myself, I was somewhat anonymous, a supportive and skillful procurer, not clear about my own stakes, and yet my stakes and my experience very much shaped the feedback process. Participating in the process of extending catalogue invites, I saw that a mere invitation could not possibly make up for decades of exclusion and under-citation, for resentments and splits within the dance community, often along the fault lines of race and gender.

This awareness crystallized in the context of my communication with the artist Julie Tolentino, who has helped me to see how the Memory Palace invitation, and its prescribed length, was not quite as neutral as we imagined it to be. While we had specified one hundred words max in the call, informally we decided to just work with what we got—sometimes the contributions were so long that we took them out of the Memory Palace section. However, I imagine that not everyone felt equally entitled to push beyond the space they were allotted, did not view the parameters as negotiable, according to their own histories of marginalization. Therefore, we were complicit in reinforcing already existing access and privilege patterns. The word limit was an effort to equally distribute page space—in retrospect though, that’s not really how equity works, is it? I’m grateful to Julie for taking the time to illustrate with grace the emotional weight that accompanied her inclusion in the catalogue. Here’s an email she sent during the editing process, used with her permission:[14]

 

Subject: Re: Lost and Found: Memory Palace
Date: July 10, 2016 at 11:29:59 PM EDT

Dear Jaime:

Appreciate others who can be so concise to meet the parameters for submission.

I write about, with, and for a fellow brown queer dear friend who had limited time here - and in (the) dance (world.)  

I offer too much: A self with another and its imprecise, rambling, righteous disassembly/combination of words, secrets, realness, reading, & resistance. 

A "photo or 100 words" could never get us there. 
(This border-crossing into 445+ words is a meager offering.)

Appreciate sharing with you.  

Means the world.

 

Julie Tolentino, Anthony Ledesma (rear view), 2016. Pen on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Julie Tolentino, Anthony Ledesma (rear view), 2016. Pen on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

 

That last phrase of Julie’s: “Means the world,” conjures not just a gesture of gratitude, but also, the tender and difficult ways of knowing, of being, that make our worlds. The people we are in relationship with and those whose legacies we bear have shaped the way our worlds mean. As cultural producers and curators who care about HIV/AIDS, how do we ensure that all these worlds keep meaning? How do we care for the survivors, the living-linked-to-the-dead, the currently impacted, ourselves, as we attempt to expand and reconstitute histories of HIV/AIDS?

V. On Canon(s)
I believe that the strength of the catalogue lies in its multiple modalities—its non-linear and non-chronological approach, enabled by the content and design, to some of the intersections of HIV/AIDS and performance. It wasn’t until we were a couple drafts in, working with the designer, that someone, I think Judy, noticed a huge proofreading error. The word “forward” rather than “foreword” was featured in blocky bolded letters at the start of the essay with which she opened the catalogue. We all laughed (with relief) at the discovery. The foreword is preparatory, meant to ready the reader for what is to come, and forward is future-looking. But with a little digging, I found that the two words are not as distinct as they appear to be. The word “foreword” didn’t come into use until the mid 19th century and seems to be an adaptation from German.[15] It is differentiated from a preface by usually being written by an outside commentator rather than the author, and being signed. “Forward” proved a little more complicated: Forward (adj): Old English (16th century) forewearde “toward the front, in front; toward the future; at the beginning.[16]

It is everywhere at once. It is pointing in multiple directions. In Derrida’s 1995 text, Archive Fever (written before the arrival of protease inhibitors in 1996, so that I can’t help but read into it the specificity of HIV/AIDS), he refutes the assignment of archives to the past. Rather, what archives bring into being is:

[T]he question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow. The archive: if we want to know what that will have meant, we will only know in times to come. Perhaps. Not tomorrow, but in times to come, later on or perhaps never.[17]

If we consider the catalogue as an archive (imperfect as it is), each time it is engaged with, passed on, thumbed through, it tangles out into more possibility. “The archivist produces more archive, and that is why the archive is never closed, it opens out of the future.”[18] An epilogue promises to provide closure, to tie up any remaining loose knots, but to do that here would be to do violence, much as the call for “the end of AIDS” raises the question of where that places those who are currently seropositive. I hope this essay can operate as an Afterword, providing more but not all of the context for the production of the catalogue, which will continue to circulate, growing more historical by the minute. At the same time, I wish for the catalogue a continual expansion—through shadow texts, addendums, appendixes, hyperlinks, marginalia—a multi-directional forward movement.

Some of you may be familiar with the term from dance composition, “canon,” where a unison movement phrase is begun/ends at different points in time (variations in facing, pacing, etc. are also possible) by a group of dancers. Many more of you are likely familiar with the term as one that denotes a literary or artistic list of great works; a term associated with legacies of power, patriarchy, colonialism, etc.[19] [20] I first made the connection between these two canons while watching Stage-Gun-Dance (1988) by Neil Greenberg (a choreographer also involved in the Platform)[21] on video about a year ago, as part of my research into his long-standing, often playful but not apolitical, interrogation of the ways in which meaning-making occurs in dance. In this dance, Greenberg projects a slide that reads, “A canon.” as the dancers are seen dancing, indeed, in canon. A few minutes later, using the same formatting, he projects a drawing of a cannon, which garners a few laughs.

While a phrase danced in canon has no inherent subversive value, it does provide a visceral experience of taking in more than one approach at once. This choreographic strategy has been adapted from musical composition, where it is described as the “strictest form of contrapuntal imitation.”[22] Counterpoint, in turn, is defined as:

The ability, unique to music [sic], to say two or more things at once comprehensibly. The term derives from the expression punctus contra punctum, i.e. “point against point” or “note against note.” In common usage the word refers to the combination of simultaneous parts, each of significance in itself and the whole resulting in a coherent texture, and is, in this sense, synonymous with polyphony.[23]

There is something generative I think, in applying this choreographic tool to the work of curation related to HIV/AIDS. Rather than fixing and reinforcing canons in performance and the arts more broadly, rather than looking only at individual works and individual artists, we can look at alliances and disconnections, overlaps and cross-overs, work that was created at the same time but facing different directions. “[F]or music to be truly contrapuntal there must always be a balance between independence and interdependence.”[24] Inclusion and interrelation. Counterpoint is a useful heuristic to take up in relations to counternarratives. Rather than thinking of counternarratives as opposed to or against a mainstream or authorized narrative, we can think of them as simultaneous, polyphonic. This also guards against the essentializing and simplifying that can occur when one counternarrative is offered to the exclusion of many others.

Dancing in canon is about relationship across difference. Although performing in canon can imply a hierarchical structure (there is some “original, true phrase” and its reconfigurations), the pleasure and excitement that comes with witnessing this movement lies in the feeling of familiarity and estrangement: Have I seen this before? On another body, in a different spatial arrangement? It’s often impossible to pinpoint an origin, an originary appearance. It’s all variation. When did it begin? When did it end? Who is leading? And then suddenly everyone falls into unison for a moment and you are pleased and relieved—you hadn’t imagined it after all, it was there the whole time.

 

Jaime Shearn Coan is a writer, editor, and PhD Candidate in English at The Graduate Center, CUNY.  He is the recipient of the 2019-2020 CUNY/Schomburg Archival Dissertation Fellowship, awarded towards the completion of his dissertation project, Metamorphosis Theater: Performance at the Intersection of HIV/AIDS, Race, and Sexuality. Jaime’s writing has appeared in publications including TDR: The Drama Review, Critical Correspondence, Drain Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Jacket2, Movement Research Performance Journal, Gulf Coast, Women & Performance, and Bodies of Evidence: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Politics of Movement. With Tara Aisha Willis, he co-curated Marking the Occasion at Mount Tremper Arts (NY) in June 2019. Jaime is a co-editor of Danspace Project's 2016 Platform catalogue: Lost and Found: Dance, New York, HIV/AIDS, Then and Now and author of the chapbook Turn it Over, published by Argos Books.


Notes
1
Echo of One Day Pina Asked, a documentary film by Chantal Ackerman that follows the work of the choreographer Pina Bausch (1983).

2
“Programs,” Danspace Project website, http://www.danspaceproject.org/programs/.

3 Ishmael Houston-Jones, “Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life” in Lost and Found: Dance, HIV/AIDS, New York, Then and Now, Jaime Shearn Coan, Ishmael Houston-Jones, and Will Rawls, eds. (New York: Danspace Project, 2016), p. 10.

4 The inclusion of a catalogue has been a component of Judy Hussie-Taylor’s Platform model since the beginning, and she and her editors have undoubtedly also grappled with a lot of these questions.

5 Will Rawls, “Letters and Numbers” in Lost and Found: Dance, HIV/AIDS, New York, Then and Now, p. 19.

6 “Zine,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zine.

7 “Anthology (n),” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/anthology.

8 “Catalogue (n),” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/catalogue.

9 The history and generic specificity of exhibition catalogues is a vastly underwritten topic. Frits Seers, former Curator of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, outlines some early history and editorial approaches in “Preliminaries for a Bibliography of Museum Collection Catalogues: Some Historical Observations on a Hitherto Neglected Aspect of Museum History,” Art Libraries Journal 22:2 (1997): 26-34.

10 In addition to the catalogue, I edited an issue of the online Danspace Project Journal, in consultation with Judy Hussie-Taylor and Lydia Bell, and with the assistance of Lily Cohen and Michael DiPietro, which served as an extension of the Platform (and catalogue), as it provided documentation via video clips (edited by Alexis Moh), and responses to the programming by writer-in-residence Alex Fiahlo, as well more supplementary materials, including oral history interviews by Svetlana Kitto, music playlists, recommended reading lists, excerpt of Storycorps, and excerpts from the catalogue and other relevant, recent publications. The content of the journal accumulated over the course of several weeks, providing an experience in line with the temporal unfolding of the Platform.

11 One other text-based project was produced within the span of the Platform. Will Rawls coordinated zine residencies with two collectives: AUNTS and Le Petit Versailles/Allied Productions, Inc., each of which cultivated a temporary social gathering space for performance and zine construction. Zines were consequently handed out at Platform events.

12 Rawls, “Letters and Numbers,” 29.

13 In the aftermath of the Platform, I noticed that artists often mentioned who had personally invited them to participate, either Will or Ishmael, often noting the significance of the generation each is associated with. This demonstrates how the collective curatorial work was not visible and also how deeply personal and emotional these asks were—embedded in historical relationships both social and professional.

14 Tolentino included this image in her correspondence in order to contextualize her Memory Palace contribution, which addressed and invoked her friend, the artist Anthony Ledesma.

15 “Foreword (n.),” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/foreword.

16 “Forward (adj.),” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/forward.

17 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1995] 1996), p. 36.

18 bid. p. 68.

19 “Canon (n.),” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/anthology.

20 For more on canons and curation, see Issue 11 of Manifesta Journal: “The Canon of Curating” (2010-2011).

21 My writing on Greenberg can be found here: http://drainmag.com/i-dont-know-what-made-this-private-in-the-first-place-neil-greenbergs-not-about-aids-dance-and-the-disco-project/

22 “Canon,” The Oxford Dictionary of Music (6 ed.), Tim Rutherford-Johnson, Michael Kennedy, and Joyce Bourne Kennedy, eds. ( New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). Current online version: 2013.

23 “Counterpoint,” The Oxford Dictionary of Music (6 ed.).

24 “Counterpoint,” The Oxford Companion to Music, Alison Latham, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Current online version: 2011.


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Issue 42

WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT AIDS COULD FILL A MUSEUM

 

by Theodore (ted) Kerr

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The Lost and The Found

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