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by Heather Holmes

Public Ruptures, Public Readerships: AIDS in Writing

I.
Across the Delaware River from where I live is the city of Camden, New Jersey, where in 1989 an inmate in Camden County Jail named Gregory Dean Smith was charged with biting a police officer’s hand after struggling during an X-ray procedure at a nearby hospital. After the alleged biting, Smith, a black HIV-positive man, was then sentenced to the maximum twenty-five years in prison for aggravated assault and attempted murder.[1] In the carceral logic of the prosecutors, Smith had weaponized his own HIV-positive bodily fluid against state agents. Smith died in 2003 in Trenton, New Jersey; he was forty years old.

In an essay in the 2014 collection Queer Necropolitics, Che Gossett invokes the spirit of Gregory Smith and the members of ACT UP Philadelphia who have worked to make visible Smith’s struggle, as well as ongoing HIV criminalization in its many forms, including but not limited to deplorable conditions in US prisons.[2] In Gossett’s essay, they mention Smith’s determination to be heard and understood through written language while incarcerated. As an inmate, Gossett writes, Smith “regularly contributed to the Critical Path newsletter and advocated for AIDS education and treatment inside [...], organized People Living with HIV/AIDS (PWAs), published a newsletter about prison and HIV/AIDS issues and also started writing a memoir.” Smith saw publication both as a generative outlet while incarcerated as well as a form through which to underscore prison as an HIV/AIDS issue, and in this he was not alone. For more than three decades, publication as form has been used to disseminate radical material related to the ongoing epidemic and also as a strategy of liberation and resistance by those living with HIV/AIDS.

Smith was one of many in the 1990s, both within and outside of prison, using physical publication as a means to attenuate the isolation of illness. Publications like Diseased Pariah News (DPN) and Infected Faggot Perspectives (IFP), both published continuously throughout the 1990s, mobilized a kind of dark humor to cut through both the seriousness and the stigma of living with HIV.[3] In DPN’s first issue, the editor’s note, written by Tom Shearer, reads, “So what we’re hoping to do here is bring some much-needed levity to the experience of HIV infection.”[4] In that issue, articles like “I Fisted Jesse Helms” ran right next to “AIDS Testing Problems in Federal Prisons.” Many of the articles published in IFP addressed the reader directly with the words girl or girlfriend: they reached out casually, conversationally, and intimately through language.

The Critical Path newsletter to which Gregory Smith contributed has since shifted to become the informational Greater Philadelphia AIDS Resource Guide, published yearly by Philadelphia FIGHT. It did not share DPN’s and IFP’s emphasis on humor and irreverence, but similarly addressed several needs, publication being a quick, highly distributable, and inexpensive means of conveyance: correspondence, resource-sharing, and education, all while promoting a sense of togetherness, whether “actual” or “imagined.” We know that for people living in prison, letters, newsletters, and other forms of correspondence provide a way for inmates to communicate within the prison and beyond.[5] Through his contributions to Critical Path, as well as the newsletter he regularly distributed, Smith was able to correspond with fellow inmates and with his peers on the outside in ways not otherwise possible.[6] And, since publication at its best is a dialogue, Smith also could have encountered himself in the pages of a zine or pamphlet sent to him by a friend. He would have seen his name there—FREE GREGORY SMITH—on the signs of ACT UP Philadelphia protesters speaking out publicly against the injustice of his incarceration.

In my previous job at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a little over five miles east of the Camden County Jail, I was given the opportunity and budget to organize ICA’s programming for the 2017 iteration of Day With(out) Art. Initiated by Visual AIDS in 1989 as an intervention into art spaces—a call for “mourning and action in response to the AIDS crisis”—Day With(out) Art is recognized annually on December 1 as a prompt for institutions and individuals to take action in various ways. Over the years at ICA, this has taken the form of panel discussions, a ribbon bee, digital projects, and screenings, to name a few. I decided to respond with a publication.

 

the moon will sink into the street (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, 2017).

the moon will sink into the street (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, 2017).

 

the moon will sink into the street, the resulting object, is an eighteen-page, Risograph-printed, saddle-stitched zine that, when wedged between two books on a shelf, nearly disappears. Its thingness was important to me; though it clearly says FREE on the cover, I also wanted it to feel free, like something unprecious enough to put literally in your back pocket. It was distributed across Philadelphia’s LGBT organizations, HIV clinics, student unions, academic buildings, coffee shops, and community centers, in piles as large as each organization would allow. At ICA, I often felt the desire to liberate its exhibition catalogues—some of which sat in storage for years and will for more to come—and set them loose in public where they might be used and loved as intended instead of laying in wait for a potential buyer. In order to actualize some part of this fantasy, the moon will sink into the street needed to be light and small enough to traverse the city quickly. I’m excited by the possibilities the proliferation of a free publication creates; it means a passerby can take one, or take a whole handful, or can just have a ready surface on which to write down a phone number or a note for later.

I have come across the moon will sink into the street four times since its distribution: once at a bar, once at a library, once at a cafe, and once in the waiting room of the Mazzoni Center, a rapid testing clinic in Philadelphia’s Gayborhood. I still find it startling and beautiful to encounter this material in public space: the phrases white supremacy or wet pussy or gathering is bias in a poem by LA Warman; stark and gorgeous portraits drawn by Gustavo Ojeda, the subject of contributor Gabriel Ojeda-Sague’s essay. Waiting for my name to be called in the Mazzoni lobby, I glanced over to their table of free materials and saw it there amidst a shuffle of stickers, condoms, flyers, and pamphlets.[7] I’d gone to the clinic in the midst of the project, the editing of which had made it impossible to ignore how long it had been since I’d gotten an HIV test. There are ways in which, in the act of publication, we become our own publics.

 

LA Warman, untitled contribution excerpt in the moon will sink into the street (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art  at the University of Pennsylvania, 2017): 9–10.

LA Warman, untitled contribution excerpt in the moon will sink into the street (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, 2017): 9–10.

 

II.
I am not a curator—or, perhaps I should say, the word curator has never appeared in my title. It’s possible my own dis/identification with the term matters less than I think. Hanna Kuusela defines literary curators as “actors who mainly mediate, distribute, (re)present, publish, or exhibit in new contexts texts that have been produced by people other than themselves and who thereby create literary phenomena in the public.”[8] This figure, Kuusela continues, differs fundamentally from other established characters in the literary field (agents, editors, publishers) in that her individual artistic identity holds such visibility and prominence that it has the potential to substitute or usurp that of the author(s) she “curates.”

Kuusela understands this emerging cultural figure as part of a mappable trajectory “of promotional culture and attention economy,” among other things, but this assessment leaves me wondering how we might imagine differently those curators working to make visible the ongoingness of AIDS and its activists. Can we consider wide-reaching distribution methods for free publications within the context of “promotional culture” and the inescapable metrics of contemporary life (likes, shares, “reach”) but as also as a tactical response—something like a generative mimicry—to the virality of AIDS? Kuusela notes the emergence of curatorial prominence as emblematic of misplaced priorities: essentially a conflict of interest between where our undivided collective focus “should” be (on the author or artist) and where it ends up being partially or completely diverted (the curator). But given the rich histories of how textual exchange has shaped community within the AIDS crisis, as well as the twinned criminalization of and need for visibility for people living with HIV, I think there is room to push back against Kuusela’s assessments. Whom does it benefit when curators of AIDS-related material invisibilize their own political investments in the name of avoiding self-promotion? What opportunities for dialogue are relinquished in that concealment?

A research assignment in 2016 had me cranking through lesbian archival microfiche to mark the ways in which queer women were addressing themselves and one another in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. The newsletters I dug through were marked by raucous debate. Every publication featured a Letters to the Editor page, and the submissions were by and large either heaped-on praise or borderline vitriolic. “I think lesbian marriages are rediculous [sic]. That’s going right back into oppression,” writes one reader (signed “Disgusted”) of the journal Echo of Sappho in 1972. “I couldn’t believe it when I read about it in your second issue.” Queerness, requiring frequent negotiations and renegotiations, can splinter in the face of a publication that attempts to articulate the political imaginary of an entire group. When it attempts to articulate the group itself. What conspired, in many of these newsletters, was the formation of a Letters from the Editor page, comprised entirely of retorts to the letters received.

 

“Letters and Comments” in Echo of Sappho (New York), Vol. 1, No. 3, 1972.

“Letters and Comments” in Echo of Sappho (New York), Vol. 1, No. 3, 1972.

 

What now can be narrativized as history was actually, upon closer inspection, many dispersed individuals having these difficult and deeply personal conversations through the form of the newsletter. For all the relief and togetherness offered by publications like Diseased Pariah News and Infected Faggot Perspectives, those, too, were sites of similar debates and fissures over tone, content, and impact. DPN addressed its readers intimately, featured its editors’ voices and faces prominently, and invited its publics into the fold of what was happening behind the scenes. The first five pages of the third issue were devoted to an account of the death of Tom Shearer, the publication’s editor. Shearer’s collaborator and co-founder Beowulf Thorne takes over from there, writing, “Until I can find a qualified person who wants to do DPN, as opposed to doing things for DPN, I’ll be winging it alone [...] Let me know how I’m doing.”[9] The zine then proceeds as usual. The tense debates sparked by DPN’s editorial mission are, I think, not separate from that impulse to share personal trauma with unknown readers, but part and parcel of the intimacies that publication as form can create.

The formal qualities of publication, and its possibilities in terms of distribution, make me feel hopeful about the present and future of better making space for that dialogue around HIV/AIDS to take place within institutions. Screen technologies have played a crucial role across the globe in combating and mitigating this epidemic, but in Philadelphia, for example—where, as of 2013, over a quarter of low-income households lack access to the Internet—we need to reimagine the ever-onward technological thrust of museums when thinking through questions of access.[10] (This goes as well for institutions that charge admission, that do not meet ADA requirements, or whose buildings are not easily reached by public transportation or are situated squarely within centers of wealth and whiteness.) How can work be accessed apart from your gallery walls? How do you host a conversation? What is the role of museums, especially if they receive public donations or tax dollars, in distributing quality-of-life and life-saving information?

The model of “public publication” in fact works against the grain of the literary curator model Hanna Kuusela proposes—a figure who perhaps thrives in more rarefied institutional niches but becomes wonderfully flattened in public space. In this long tradition, they are simply an editor: someone to whom you may write if they do something terribly wrong or terribly right; someone with whom you may have a dialogue. In this way, I’m hopeful that the distribution of a new publication in Philadelphia, a city that is home to almost no physical arts periodicals, registered as a social gesture, bringing individuals together in conversation in ways that might not have occurred otherwise.[11]

At the same time, I’m attracted to the way in which a publication about HIV/AIDS does not gloss over the fundamental isolation both of reading and embodiment. One is never generally as alone as when one reads. It’s rare to encounter forms of community-building that acknowledge and celebrate this aloneness right alongside a hopeful togetherness. In reading as well as being read, aloneness can mean individuation rather than, necessarily, isolation or loneliness. Institutions and curators have much to learn from people like Gregory Dean Smith, who understood the fundamental importance of making contact, and the significance of publication as a platform for developing human connection and sharing information to better the lives of others. Publication manages to hold these messy and necessary dynamics of being in the world with one another simultaneously—collaboration and conflict, alliance and disagreement—and present them as an ongoing invitation for readers to join.


Heather Holmes is a writer and editor whose work concerns the specificities of the body and the built environment. Her writing has been published by The New Museum, The New Inquiry, Art21 Magazine, Art Papers, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, among others. Her works of fiction—novels that use the spatial, temporal, and behavioral coordinates of the zodiac to write about bodies and what we do with them—are published by the Philadelphia-based imprint SWAG PURGATORY.


Notes
1
Joseph F. Sullivan, “Inmate with H.I.V. Who Bit Guard Loses Appeal.” New York Times, February 18, 1993, http://www.nytimes.com/1993/02/18/nyregion/inmate-with-hiv-who-bit-guard-loses-appeal.html.

2 Che Gossett, “We will not rest in peace: AIDS activism, black radicalism, queer and/or trans resistance” in Queer Necropolitics, eds. Jin Haritaworn, Adi Kunstman, and Silvia Posocco (New York: Routledge, 2014), 31–50.

3 Daniel Brouwer uses these two publications as case studies in his 2006 essay that explores the modes through which social structures and counterpublics are created through them. See Daniel C. Brouwer, “Counterpublicity and Corporeality in HIV/AIDS Zines” in Critical Studies in Media Communication Vol. 22, Issue 5 (2005).

4 Tom Shearer, “Welcome to Our Brave New World!” in Diseased Pariah News 1 (1990): 2.

5 Physical mail remains, in many prisons, the slowest but most cost-effective means of communication, both for prisoners as well as their families and friends. In Carceral Capitalism, Jackie Wang notes the “extremely high usage fees” of email and so-called digital visitation systems like HomeWAV, which in some cases are also “accompanied by the phasing out of in-person no-contact visits.” See Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018), 36.

6 Smith’s mailing address at South Woods State Prison is still listed on the ACT UP New York website on a page devoted to his case, alongside instructions to contact him directly: “You can also contact Greg: activists on the outside have worked beside Greg through many crises, including getting medication lines for prisoners moved indoors, fighting mandatory health care co-payments, and fighting Greg’s termination from kitchen service jobs because of his HIV status.” See http://www.actupny.org/reports/gregsmith.html.

7 Mazzoni made national headlines in 2017 when, following the resignation of the Center’s medical director after allegations of sexual misconduct and medical negligence surfaced against him, more than sixty full-time Center staffers walked out in protest of the organization’s CEO. In solidarity and protest, former Center staffer Abdul-Aliy Muhammad publicly refused their HAART medication until the CEO, Nurit Shein, stepped down. “I...concluded that this is a useful form of resistance,” said Muhammad in a 2017 interview. “Mazzoni is acting like a corporation and therefore deliverables, funders, and legacy are placed as valuable, while made-vulnerable staff and patients deal with sexual assault, cycles of poverty, and increased surveillance because of poz, trans*, and disabled identities.” See Ernest Owens, “Meet the Activist Who Protested Mazzoni With an HIV Meds Strike,” Philadelphia Magazine, April 4, 2017, https://www.phillymag.com/g-philly/2017/04/24/abdul-aliy-muhammad-meds-strike-mazzoni/.

8 Hanna Kuusela, “Publisher, Promoter, and Genius: The Rise of Curatorial Ethos in Contemporary Literature” in Publishing as Artistic Practice, ed. Annette Gilbert (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016), 118–133.

9 Beowulf Thorne, “Cranky Words: Darn! One of Our Editors is Dead!” in Diseased Pariah News 3 (1991): 3.

10 “Ten Facts About Internet Access in Philadelphia,” The Pew Charitable Trusts, November 12, 2013, http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/2013/11/12/ten-facts-about-internet-access-in-philadelphia.

11 POZ Magazine, to name one national publication, has been publishing continuously since 1994—including everything from arts reviews and features to resource guides and quizzes. Visual AIDS has mobilized this publication-as-conversation model effectively and beautifully through their DUETS series (2014–present), which “pairs artists, activists, writers, and thinkers in dialogue about their creative practices and current social issues around HIV/AIDS.” See https://www.poz.com/ and https://www.visualaids.org/projects/detail/duets.


Go back

Issue 42

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

 

by Theodore (ted) Kerr

Framing The Issue

by Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad and Louie Ortiz-Fonseca

A Brief History of HIV: A Conversation Between Two Friends

by Sheldon Raymore

Waniyetu Wowapi and HIV/AIDS

by Michael McFadden

Luckiest Guy

by Rahne Alexander

The Lost and The Found

by Adam Barbu and John Paul Ricco

Inheriting AIDS: A Conversation

by David Kahn and Brooklyn Historical Society

April 20, 1993

by Dudu Quintanilha

In Case You Forgot How I Looked

Artist Kelvin Atmadibrata in Conversation with Oral Historian Benji de la Piedra

HIV Ambivalence and Game-Playing Influence

by Emily Bass and Yvette Raphael

Looking for the Faces of Our Friends

by the People with AIDS advisory committee

The Denver Principles

A Conversation Between Szymon Adamczak, Luiza Kempińska, and Hubert Zięba

Poland and AIDS

by Demian DinéYazhi' and R.I.S.E.

HIV Affects Indigenous Communities

An Exchange to Expand on the PrEP Manifesto between Carlos Motta and John Arthur Peetz

Because PrEP is Not About AIDS

A Conversation Between Mavi Veloso and Nicholas D’Avella

Fingerprints, Unfinished

A Conversation Between Jean Carlomusto, Alexandra Juhasz, and Hugh Ryan

Abiding Relations Through Recovery, Restoration and Curation

by Nelson Santos

Love Happened Here

by Tacoma Action Collective

#StopErasingBlackPeople

by Vladimir Čajkovac

How to (Dis)quiet a Vampire

by Cecilia Chung, Olivia Ford, Deon Haywood, Naina Khanna, Suraj Madoori, Charles Stephens

Intersectionality, HIV Justice, and the Future of Our Movement