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by Edward Belleville

Stones and Water Weight: Working Out Past and Future with Mykki Blanco

At the German premiere of 120 battements par minute, director Robin Campillo recalled helping dress the body of a friend’s dead lover. From the audience, veteran activists were impatient to share their own anecdotes about the Paris and Berlin and New York chapters of ACT UP. They tutted when they grew bored. I took notes.

Much early AIDS activism was intended to be memorable. Shocking, disruptive, and effective, the interventions of ACT UP and other activist communities have been popping up again in recent years, on screens and in galleries: part of what Theodore (ted) Kerr, editor of this issue of On Curating, and Alexandra Juhasz call the AIDS Crisis Revisitation. According to Kerr[1], this representational trend began around 2008 and has undertaken valuable work in commemorating the early crisis response of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Nonetheless, his critique also draws attention to how exclusions of race, gender, and class continue to structure these discourses of memory, in such a way that gay white cisgender men in urban settings tend to emerge as lone protagonists of the AIDS narrative. Juhasz has discussed how a focus on certain forms of activism have privileged those who were “more photogenic, wealthier, more powerful, and simply sexier (in the eyes of dominant culture)[2].” These are typically the AIDS stories that have been recorded in archives, discussed by researchers like myself, and even now made object of a certain nostalgia for community-based action. To combat this narrowing of AIDS narratives, artists and organizers are increasingly working to reflect the diversity of experiences and responses to the epidemic.

It was snowing a week later as I walked to the screening of the 2017 Day With(out) Art film project, “Alternate Endings, Radical Beginnings.” Visual AIDS inaugurated the first Day With(out) Art on December 1, 1988, calling on the art world to contribute its resources and participate actively in the AIDS response. More recently, Visual AIDS has been marking December 1 by distributing audiovisual works (such as the ACT UP documentary United in Anger in 2012) or commissioning short films. For the 2017 edition, Visual AIDS commissioned black filmmakers to create new work about their experiences of HIV, to be projected both locally and internationally on December 1, from the Whitney Museum in Manhattan to my corner of Neukölln in Berlin. The project’s title references 2014’s film Alternate Endings with that extra clause, as a finger pointing in the direction of the future. Making black HIV experience the explicit focus of these seven short films, in the words of curators Erin Christovale and Vivian Crockett, is “a reclamation and affirmation of what has always been there”[3] but till now marginalized or overlooked.

In the snowfall, a song lyric was bouncing around my head: “If you wanna see me…” the chorus looped. Back when I was newly arrived in Berlin, disembarking from my own terrible year, I saw Mykki Blanco perform at Club Gretchen. His first album had just come out and it insinuated its way into the rhythm of my nights and days. The alter-ego of Michael Quattlebaum Jr., Blanco’s crossover success has marked new space for socially conscious, queer-identifying rappers in the mainstream. He has also spoken candidly about the challenges of living with HIV since disclosing his status via Facebook in 2015. His openness and his global visibility as an artist (surpassing that of earlier HIV+ gay rappers like Tim’m T. West of Deep Dickollective[4]) have made Blanco’s a powerful and arguably unprecedented voice for seropositivity in the 21st century. This is especially true for the younger generation that largely constitutes his audience, who did not experience the AIDS crisis first-hand, and whose knowledge of HIV bodies is shaped by the representations and collective remembering undertaken on days such as the Day With(out) Art.

Among a roster of renowned and talented artists who contributed to “Alternate Endings, Radical Beginnings,” Blanco is one of the headliners. In the statement for his short film, Stones and Water Weight, Blanco speaks about HIV renewing the sense of how he produces his work and artistic persona: “I physically have to be somewhere, in a location moving my body.”[5] The doing and becoming of physical performance is how Blanco has learned to “intrinsically survive,” how to pay his bills but also make a living artistically—a form of representational survival that, by performing the body of his own continuation, resists hegemonic narratives. He has explored issues of visibility, gender identity, shame, and empowerment in his previous work, such as the video for 2017 track “Hideaway,” which was released to mark National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day (and from which that lyric, “If you wanna see me…” loops). In Stones and Water Weight, Blanco further thinks about how certain bodies are made to ‘fit’ a cultural view of health and wellness that rewards self-perfection and erases otherness.

 

Mykki Blanco, Stones & Water Weight (video still), 2017. Courtesy of Visual AIDS.

Mykki Blanco, Stones & Water Weight (video still), 2017. Courtesy of Visual AIDS.

 

The film consists of a single shot of a rocky landscape. It bears no marks of time or place, no horizon or sense of scale in which to situate the frame. For a full minute, its emptiness is all we have to gaze at before the figure of Blanco emerges into the upper right corner and proceeds cautiously to the center of the shot. He seems small, easily lost against the jagged stones, as he carries with him a Judy-Garland-as-Dorothy-style basket. This scene offers a visual representation of marginalized space where bodies like Blanco’s are made precarious. Judith Butler theorizes precariousness as the “politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death.”[6] Strongly concerned with how racialization produces such relations of inequality, enacted onto bodies, Blanco has in the past spoken about the “nutritional racism” that deprives non-white communities of affordable food. These racial divisions are furthermore central to recognizing the ongoing effects of the epidemic in the US, which disproportionately affects non-white groups (particularly men but not exclusively) living away from coastal urban centers. Blanco’s careful movements across the jagged rocks, then, can be read as part of a wider intervention to represent and counter these trends. By materializing and positioning his Black seropositivity for the camera lens, Blanco undertakes what he calls in his statement “a show, a ceremony”[7] of making a living visible.

We cannot, of course, represent whatever we want. As Butler makes clear in her reading of Foucault, “There is no body outside of power, for the materiality of the body—indeed, materiality itself—is produced by and in direct relation to the investment of power.”[8] The body is produced through the subjection of identity, by which power makes us (momentarily, imperfectly) visible as a particular kind of someone. Blanco’s body remains undisclosed throughout the performance, beyond the baggy green outfit he wears, but as he reaches the center of the shot he puts down his basket and begins to pull out pink clothing, which he lays in a circle around him. The pink materials suggest hidden or forbidden significations: the feminine and the sexual, readings that Blanco’s body (marked as male and as HIV+) exists in tension with. This is suggestive perhaps of Blanco’s own fluid gender identity, which has moved from trans-identifying to gay male in recent years.[9] However, he does not inhabit the embodiments that each pink garment suggests but arranges them and seems to highlight the split between body and potential body markers.

As he does so, two off-camera voices speak up, both voiced by Blanco. Their incoherent and overlapping speech seems to describe different mental states: the deeper voice speaks of paranoia and shame, while the other is earnest about the need for inner cleansing and a restored connection to Gaia. They speculate about the goal of wellbeing without reaching any outcomes, and in this way their repeated and distorted monologues give voice to the loops of self-scrutiny that determine how we present our bodies. Though the circle of pink material contains and protects Blanco, marking a new locus for action from abject space, yet in these off-screen voices we hear underlying narratives of anxiety and self-estrangement. We are confronted with what our own gaze, as the camera’s, seeks to project and affirm of Blanco’s body: whom do we have to satisfy, to look and feel well? Whose bodies are seen ‘fit’ for inclusion in regimes of value?

I read the rest of the performance as Blanco’s response to this central question, through a complex repositioning of signifying practices that situates his bodily ceremony in relation to discourses of fitness and self-improvement. The pink circle complete, Blanco picks up a rock and holds it out in front of him. In silence we watch him strain and tremble under this new weight, his eyes shut and lips pressed together. This posture puts him in a tradition of classical strongmen, whose taut bodies stand on podiums and perform extraordinary feats of strength, coded from Atlas to Arnold Schwarzenegger as the pinnacle of masculine power. I suggest that Blanco is also commenting, however, on contemporary obsessions with fitness imperatives, as part of wider shifts in how we think about our bodies ethically, as subjects of biopolitical and neoliberal regimes of power.

Shelley McKenzie suggests it was in the fitness culture of the 1980s that buff male gym bodies went mainstream[10]. Previously, exercise trends emphasized health benefits, like the rise of jogging in the 1970s. Exercising for looks had been viewed as suspiciously homoerotic and limited to bodybuilding subculture, but as the male body became more visible and commercialized (iconically packaged in Calvin Klein briefs) so too was a new habitus forming through the gentrification of gyms. Young and ambitious corporate athletes flocked to these sanitized spaces, wearing branded sportswear and getting to grips with user-friendly equipment like the Nautilus, to work out the new fitness imperative and build a gym body.

Reclaiming the podium for a different sort of workout, Blanco uses the central image of weight to challenge fitness outcomes of gaining and displaying muscle mass. By holding onto the stone, he grips the burden of trauma in an act of épreuve that resignifies the ‘strength’ of muscle men with the pain and resilience of culturally ‘unfit’ bodies like his own. Encompassing these exclusions, Blanco ultimately produces a queer form of self-knowledge that again plays on questions of visibility and value. Of the two elements in the film’s title, Stone and Water Weight, only the first is apparent in the scene. Stones surround Blanco and provide an image of fixed weight and body measurement on which fitness practices are founded. Of water, there is not a drop in sight: the expression ‘water weight’ in fact plays on a term from fitness discourse. One Muscle and Fitness article describes water weight as the “subcutaneous fluid stored in your cells, causing your skin to have a puffy, inflated look, and ultimately covering any muscle definition you may have earned.[11]” In other words, this retained water weight disrupts the making visible of fitness.

As he comments in his statement, though, Blanco’s water weight has another symbolic function: as “the easiest to shed,” water weight signifies the need for “release” of physical and mental trauma[12]. Blanco plays with the language of fitness as well as its practices, then, to suggest an alternative to the visible heaviness in kilos and pounds of the stone in his hands. His performance invites us to consider a weight of remove that is traced through the body’s displacement of itself, as working through and exorcising the obstructive past. We do not see the water Blanco sheds as sweat during his work-out but imagine the crossing over that transpires, undetectably, through his skin in its exchange with inert rock. Here in the precarious space of unrepresented bodies, working out such alternative queer forms of weight offers a personal ritual and practice of embodied memory that addresses itself not to the stringent regard of culture but to personal and collective survival.

These concerns challenge us to engage furthermore with how certain bodies (dis)appear in discourses of health and fitness. As a black person, Blanco’s body is subject to racial discourses of hyper-sexuality and hyper-masculinity that, as discussed in a recent collection by Brittany Slatton and Kamesha Spates, produce black male bodies in terms of threatening criminal physicality.[13] In these discourses, muscular black male bodies are not typically ‘fit’ for the same aspirational narratives as white ones, rather they are imagined within abiding racist logics as dangerous and poor, an unruly element against which social violence is justified.

When gay male bodies work out, they too mean something else than the white heteronormative ideal. Tim Dean argues that, in health discourses of risk, keeping a fit body is the sign of being a self-disciplined, productive member of society.[14] In the context of the AIDS crisis, gay bodies came under enormous pressure to distinguish themselves from ‘unethical’ (uncontrolled, polluting, HIV-transmitting) sexual desire and the dread potential to conceal illness. The fit gay body has thus been produced in tandem with the stigma of AIDS, which emerged in the public imagination through educational campaigns and media images of sarcoma, muscle wastage, and grieving bedside relatives. Having the right musculature presents an ethical gay subject under the control of a fitness regime, contained by the duty to enhance and display the body. Originating with ‘80s “clone culture,” muscled gay bodies can also be seen as part of cultivating and idealizing classically male attributes, which reinforce a fantasy of coherent and normative gender: a rugged and unambiguously ‘male’ body that resists maligned and improper femininization.

The pervasive demands on gay bodies to embrace fitness—as the required signifier of ethical self-control and gendered desirability—have produced a commercialization of gay muscles that continues to sell not just memberships at gay gyms but underwear, cruises, and Pride parties: part of the apolitical consumerist gay lifestyle that Lisa Duggan has critiqued as the homonormative.[15] A glance at apps like Grindr underscores the dominance of this form of embodied fitness: the gallery of headless torsos is like the wing of a museum packed with antique sculptures, all variations of the same “highly athletic, toned, lean, hairless, Caucasian body ideal.”[16] Of course, such accounts need to be wary of reproducing a discourse of over-sexed and body-obsessed gay narcissists. Recent scientific research has been criticized for producing “a gay male body dissatisfaction imperative”[17] that over-determines gay men as endlessly desiring their own bodies (harder abs, tighter glutes) to pathological excess, an inversion of eroticism turned inwards rather than out, unlike their fit straight counterparts.

I would suggest that, taking the intersection of black and gay readings into account, Blanco uses the significations of fitness practice to present a wider challenge as an HIV+ subject to the imperatives and restrictions of health. Though increasingly critical of being asked about his own health, Blanco has identified in the past as a “health nut” who avoids institutionalized healthcare by following a rigorously individual approach: “I honestly think it just comes down to how I personally take care of my body [...] I literally do everything that I can to keep my body and my mind healthy.”[18] He furthermore speaks in his statement of his frustration that fans compliment him on how well he looks, their assumption being that he is “somehow ill or incapable.”[19] He calls for “new interpretations of the HIV+ person”[20] that will no longer treat seropositivity as a position of compromised health.

It is an understandable desire to break with past assumptions about HIV bodies. Since being developed in the late 1990s, antiretroviral therapy has made it possible to suppress HIV and reduce the virus to ‘undetectable’ levels in the blood, which prevents transmission and makes HIV a manageable condition for those with access to daily medications. This shift in medical technology has reconfigured the most stigmatizing effects of illness—physical decline and risk of communicability—which raises the paradox of an HIV+ body that is irrevocably ‘ill’ at the same time as being fit and undetectable. Does this count as health? I would say that Blanco’s seropositive workout encourages us to dismantle the categorization of ‘health’ as an essential and an absolute, and to think instead about an unstable relation we move in and out of over the course of our lives.

Yet is it enough to resist being called ‘ill’? I would suggest that our ongoing resistance to silencing and assimilation calls for us to consider occupying and resignifying the marginality of illness, towards an analysis that might also accommodate intersections with discourses of disability and mental health among others. If we are less prone to recoil from being identified as ‘ill’ in the eyes of culture, even as HIV is becoming manageable medically, we might avoid reproducing the exclusionary binary of health that stigmatizes particular bodies. Furthermore, the potential for HIV+ bodies to achieve viral suppression through antiretroviral therapy should prompt us to interrogate current and future conditions of seropositivity. Who has access to these treatments, both nationally and internationally? Who, through their exclusion from the discourse of medical undetectability, just as much as from that of AIDS memory, continues to be forgotten or ignored by our HIV narratives?

Nonetheless, within a context of racial discrimination and historical effacement, contesting the illness of HIV bodies is for me a radical enough beginning for a gay rapper lifting a stone. Dropping it again, Blanco lifts his face and eyes to the sky as the screen fades to black. We might read lament or redemption into this final gesture, or just grit. Redefining things involves more than the will to transcend them, and while the option to become undetectable is still unavailable to so many, the visibility of art such as Blanco’s is a political necessity. It restores imagery of what has been left out, experiences that must be struggled with and against in the difficult processes of working out and fitting into seropositivity. This difficulty should also prevent us from simple narratives of overcoming. A recent survey on poz.com posed the question of whether respondents felt their HIV diagnosis had made them “ultimately stronger.” Results were inconclusive: at the time of writing, 39% said yes, 27% no, and 34% did not have the virus.[21]

The crowd in the bar in Neukölln was smaller than I had expected, and nobody said very much in the post-screening discussion—not till after the projector was turned off and the music back on. As the snow continued to drift outside, there was no hurry to leave. We chatted about what we had seen: Blanco, and the other short films by Cheryl Dunye and Ellen Spiro, Reina Gossett, and Thomas Allen Harris, among others. We shared what we were doing in our different cities, and how these efforts were part of the outpourings and commemoration, the ongoing discussion of how to work out the past and the future—Blanco and I and the millions of others who were not around while ACT UP was on the rampage.

A flake at a time, it falls on us.


Edward Belleville is a writer, translator, and MA student in English Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. He is recipient of a DAAD scholarship to support his research into representations of HIV and AIDS in post-apartheid South African texts. His wider interests include the cultural production of bodies and health, within frameworks of queer, postcolonial, and globalization theory.


Notes

[1] Kerr, Theodore Ted. 'AIDS 1969: HIV, History, and Race.' Drain. 13:2 (2016) www.drainmag.com/aids-1969-hiv-history-and-race/

[2] Juhasz, Alexandra. ‘Forgetting ACT UP.’ Quarterly Journal of Speech. 98:1 (2012) 69–74.

[3] Christovale, Erin and Vivian Crockett. ‘Alternate Endings, Radical Beginnings: Curatorial statement.’ The Visual AIDS Blog. 29 November 2017: www.visualaids.org/blog/detail/curatorial-statement.

[4] For more on the influence of D/DC, see Wilson, Mark D. “Post-Pomo Hip-Hop Homos: Hip-Hop Art, Gay Rappers, and Social Change” Social Justice 34:1 (2007) 117–140.

[5] Blanco, Mykki. ‘Alternate Endings, Radical Beginnings: Curatorial statement to “Stones and Water Weight”.’ The Visual AIDS Blog. 20 December 2017: www.visualaids.org/blog/detail/alternate-endings-radical-beginnings-video-artist-statement-mykki-blanco.

[6] Butler, Judith. ‘Performativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics.’ Antropólogos Iberoamericanos en Red, 4:3 (2009) 1–13. 2.

[7] Blanco, ‘Curatorial Statement’.

[8] Butler Judith. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford University Press, 1997. 91.

[9] Valerie Lee, “Mykki Blanco: The idea that there is one singular transgender narrative is not true for everyone,” Mixmag, September 26, 2017, accessed May 24, 2019, http://mixmag.net/read/mykki-blanco-the-idea-that-there-is-one-singular-transgender-narrative-is-not-true-for-everyone-news.

[10] McKenzie, Shelley. Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America. University Press of Kansas, 2013.

[11] Moore, Tiffany. ‘9 Ways to Cut Water Weight and Reveal Your Abs.’ Muscle and Fitness: www.muscleandfitness.com/nutrition/lose-fat/9-ways-cut-water-weight-and-reveal-your-abs.

[12] Blanco, ‘Curatorial Statement’.

[13] Slatton, Brittany C. and Kamesha Spates. Hyper Sexual, Hyper Masculine?: Gender, Race and Sexuality in the Identities of Contemporary Black Men. Routledge, 2014.

[14] Dean, Tim. Unlimited intimacy: reflections on the subculture of barebacking. University of Chicago Press, 2009

[15] Duggan, Lisa. ‘The New Homonormativity.’ Materializing Democracy: Towards a Revitalized Cultural Politics. Edited by Russ Castronovo & Dana Nelson. Duke University Press, 2002.

[16] Duncan, Duane. ‘Embodying the gay self: Body image, reflexivity and embodied identity.’ Health Sociology Review 19:4 (2010) 437–450. 438.

[17] Gurevich, Maria and Alexander T Vasilovsky. ‘“The body that cannot be contained”: Queering mainstream psychology’s gay male body dissatisfaction imperative.’ Sexualities, 20:5-6 (2017) 622–643.

[18] Blanco, Mykki. ‘Mykki Blanco Is A Health Nut. Because Who Can Afford To Be Sick?’ The Fader. 04 October 2016: www.thefader.com/2016/10/04/mykki-blanco-interview.

[19] Blanco, ‘Curatorial Statement’.

[20] Blanco, ‘Curatorial Statement’.

[21] ‘POZ Poll: Did your HIV diagnosis ultimately make you a stronger, more resilient person?’ Poz.com. www.poz.com/poll/diagnosis-make-you-stronger.

 

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