Originaly published in Portugues as O New Queer Cinema em relação ao cinema experimental e a videoarte no combate à aids, in New Queer Cinema, Cinema Sexualidade e Política, organização Lucas Murari e Mateus Nagime, Caixa Cultural 2015
New Queer Cinema in relation to experimental film and video-art fighting AIDS.
When AIDS appears in the early 80’s, filmmakers took a while to respond to such an event which was rapidly turning into a health crisis as much as a social and political crisis. The spreading of the decease has not only change the way we act and think about our sexual behavior but also its representation and its contradictory display. As Roger Hallas wrote in his study of Aids and Queer Moving Image : “The homosexual bodies were put on display as a traumatizing threat to the general public, while traumatized queer lives were discounted”.
Facing this “plague” many filmmakers and video makers such as Gregg Bordowitz, Jean Carlomutso, Richard Fung or Tom Kalin working within activism, often on a collective basis (such as: Diva TV, GMHC, Gran Fury Collective), redefined ways of thinking and practicing documentary and or experimental work. The way they dealt with such matter was through a diversity of content and context and at the same time clashing practices of experimental filmmakers and video artist in order to shape ways to handle, face and respond to such an epidemic. You had to create new forms, new paths in which the documentary, the educational, the militant the experimental could intermingle.
When Ruby Rich create the term New Queer Cinema in the early 90’s, AIDS had already modified deeply the way filmmakers were dealing with representation of sexuality, identities and gender. But somehow the term of queer applied to film was praised by a group of film and video dealing with the construction and representation of gay and lesbian subject within a conference and film and video series, which took place in New York in 1989.
In September 1992, I was part of a conference on New Queer Cinema at the Ica in London in which Ruby Rich summed up her ideas about the expansion of this “genre” giving a special emphasis on lesbian video makers while I was given an international perspective from the history of experimental cinema.
The experimental film scene, video art and activism from the 80’s involving questions regarding AIDS, race and gender was transformed through an affirmation and re examination of the narrative, which had been itself challenged by the Feminist, the Punk movement, the No Wave Cinema and the Cinema of Transgression. Some of the filmmakers which are keys figures within the New Queer Cinema were using simultaneously different type of film practices. For example Derek Jarman, or Isaac Julien in England, John Greyson and Richard Fung in Canada, were dealing with features, experimental super 8 mm work, music video, documentary. The boundaries between media were bend and crossed over. A kind of integration -should we speak or disintegration-, a kind of blending between support and forms was taking place from which music video had been an earlier example but echoes the spreading of the illness for which separation of race and gender or classes did not exist.
The AIDS crisis was provoking different answers which will change according to visibility, access to informations and education. One should not forget that AIDS was not an issue outside the gay community; it was simply not an issue. Ronald Reagan spoke for the first time of AIDS during its second mandate. Within the media, AIDS was not visible; therefore one of the first things to do was to make it appears on screens, making it visible, and not only in the form of living dead figures. Show that you not only died of AIDS but lived with AIDS; for this purpose action had to be made. One could not avoid to realize, see and feel that the representation of AIDS within the media, press and television was very partial, to not say sectarian. As Stuart Hall said : “How could we say that the question of AIDS is not also a question of who gets represented and who does not? AIDS is the site at which the advance of sexual politics is being rolled back ».
The question of representation of AIDS became an essential ground to occupy and fight for, to counteract the production the media coverage in order to provide alternative to these images rendering visible and accessible informations being about illness, people with HIV and people living with AIDS, as much as dealing with rights, prevention, sexuality and pornography. It was essential to deconstruct the production of discourses through words and images and this very often would take place within an experimental film and video practices or within films which have been labelled as New Queer Cinema from which The Ads Epidemic (1987) and Zero Patience (1993) are key markers. In the mid 80’s experimental cinema was going through a reformulation of its aims facing questions towards its formalism in regard to narrative, minority. The influential role of music video reshaped the landscape of filmic experience by combining support and techniques. It became obvious that video was gaining strength while creating new forms of collaboration, intervention, and distribution offering alternative ways to intervene within different levels of society. The works done were bearing all types of filmmaking and attitudes in a manner which was breaking the habit of seeing as much as way of thinking in making film. It seems that the works done crossing and collaging different attitudes within one work a creating a kind of mosaic of styles as much as one could experience with postmodernism. The autobiographical, the personal could become an essay, an activist work would claimed how to fight the consequence of the discrimination imposed by the hetero-normativity (Bright Eyes by Stuart Marshall is exemplary in this aspect of deconstruction).
This “perversion (contamination)” of experiences was already at works (dealing separately or not) through an examination of races such for example Sankofa in Britain with the work of Isaac Julien (Territories 1984, Looking For Langston 1989), Richard Fung in Canada with Orientations 1986, Fighting Chance 1990), gender (Sheila McLaughin with She Must Be Seeing Things 1987) or working within music video (Derek Jarman, Tom Kalin).
To find Isaac Julien and Derek Jarman at the forefront of such a transformation within experimental film reflects the importance of the question of identities and the way it nourished and transformed film practices. It seems that both Jarman and Julien dealt with the articulation of the personal toward the public, but in the case of Isaac Julien the elaboration of a black consciousness had to be done through an investigation about the representation of the black experience in England and through a re-vision of the Harlem Renaissance. These early works paved the road of the new queer cinema from the fact that they refused to portray and stigmatized gays as the usual business and promote other visions of gays where the queer identity is shown as a transgressive experience. Inverting the stigmatization and the abjection of gays, fighting against the blame of an epidemic which they were hold as responsible for, New Queer Cinema produced other characters other stories, tacking its challenging view from the history of experimental film. On the level of the experimental cinema AIDS will challenge filmmakers on different levels in which the question of how to deal with the illness, how to represent oneself sick, dying… In DHPG Mon Amour (1989) the filmmaker Carl Michael George is dealing in super 8 with the daily life of two men (David Conover and Joe Walsh) experiencing with the drug DHPG documenting the effect of it, with the hope that it could help other survivors. The super 8 film differs from Silverlake Life (1993) which address mostly itself to a mainstream audience, but both films are dealing with similar question about the drugs one has to take to fight AIDS, and their comment about the drug, science and politics. This is shown through a gay relationship. The diary dimension of these films is shared by many filmmakers but the years they were made fathom the experience itself. At that time, treatment were experimental and death was the fatal outcome. An Individual Desires Solution (1986) by Larry Brose make us listen to the conversation of Larry’s lover before he died in Sussex. Shot in Super 8 the film break all convention to impose a discomfort while viewing . Having this in mind, filmmakers were turning into other means in order to generate and create a landscape of friction in which the political and social dimension will be present and vindicate. It is in that sense that we can understand some of the works of David Wojnarowicz, Rosa Von Prauheim, Mike Hoolboom, Jim Hubbard, Matthias Muller. In Richard Fung tapes and in Sea in the Blood (2000) , the personal dimension is articulated with colonialism, racism and sexuality, in a manner that intermingled his own story with poetical and political statement through multiple type of representation which goes from documentary to diary, essay….
One should recognize that the New Queer Cinema has always been relate to the traditional cinema in a sense that Hollywood has always produced a certain type of image of gays and lesbians despite the fact that it was very often pejorative. If the avant-garde had cut itself from the public, through an intense deny of pleasure, understood as visual pleasure then the task of the new queer cinema was to reintroduce the notion of pleasure and work to establish new code and archetype will escape from Hollywood clichés. Theatricality and pictoriality were re-introduced within the narrative and were already at work in Derek Jarman Sebastiane (1976) and Sally Potter Thriller (1979). This emphasis on theatricality was borrowed and ate same time perverting the notion of camp largely employed by the american underground filmmakers. The use of tableau and of vignette could be encounter within the works of Jack Smith and Andy Warhol… In this sense a subversion of forms is at work within the short films of John Greyson : The Ads Epidemic (1987) or Isaac Julien : This is not an AIDS Advertisment (1987). These films mix genre and aesthetics, colliding high and low culture, the chic and the trash; these works are breaking the dominant form of representation with fragmentation and excess tauntingly the production of authority. Both films were using music video language to fight the fear and stigmatization of gays and their sexualities.
These short films are dealing with questions of desire, pleasure as does Gran Fury in Kissing Doesn’t Kill (1990). The activism in these works is different than the one encounter with Fear of Disclosure (1990), in which David Wojnarowicz and Phil Zwickler questioned the sexual apartheid of the HIV-positive and the HIV-status unknown gay men. In this tape a text is delivered by Wojnarowicz in which the fear of rejection confront the fear of contamination. The activist dimension of the work is induced by the contradictory juxtaposition of the emotional uttering of David and the two golden go-go boys dancing. The association of these elements induce a strong tension between what seems to be public informations and its personal deliverance. The oscillation between these two domains is often at works within experimental film and video art dealing with AIDS. Here come in mind the works of Matthias Mueller, Mike Hoolboom, Gregg Bordowicz, Marlon Riggs, Derek Jarman, Richard Fung and mine.
The artists made films about AIDS for reasons which embrace militancy as such as Barbara Hammer’s Snow Job The media Hysteria of Aids (1986) which deals with the hysteria of the media during the Reagan years. In that film focussing on the media treatment of AIDS, the filmmakers recycled printed headings, looping titles, speeches mostly reactionary, intolerant, racist…. The inclusion of this discriminating text reverse the disgust, the hatred into a powerful tool in order to fight back. In the AIDS trilogy Jerry Tartaglia will examine several issues related “to the medicalization of morality, the policing of desire, and the management of the disease through cultural assimilation into the mainstream”. This strategy of appropriation and redistribution with a slight transformation is encountered mostly in minority liberation movement and has been revitalized by the AIDS activism in the West, being with Act-up or other collective. The tension arising within the incorporation of militancy within the personal is inseparable of the attitude that filmmaker and video maker are engaged with at the time establishing a front line against a society of denials. Echoes of this insertion are found within many features films of the New Queer Cinema, such has the films of Derek Jarman, John Greyson, and to some extend with Gregg Araki and Todd Haynes. in which the moment of activism become an element of perturbation, a fragment of fight (out of control) within the narrative. With experimental films this is packed all together shaping a form of essay film. Mike Hoolboom Franck’s Cock (1993) would define a way to articulate the personal on the soundtrack while the screen would be divided in four different image that we scan over.
In that film –which echoes Aus der ferne The memo Book of Matthias Müller, because of the richness of the texture of the image and the use of found footage, the density of the editing but mostly because it is somehow a story about the other one, the one who is living– the recourse of the subjective point of view in opposition with the image play with a potential type of synchronicity between the two elements transforming the experience of listening into a kind of sharing; we are not only looking at but being part of at the moment of junction.
With Letters From Home (1996), the issue is different because we heard the voices of people with AIDS. Among them, the filmmaker’s one saying : “Members of my family who get all their information from reading the newspapers and watching television know two things about me – that I’m going to die and that the government is doing everything in its power to save me. They’re wrong on both counts.” The film is based on a speech delivered by Vito Russo in 1988, and on text written by Mike. The film is a collection of remembrances and found footage organized in a such way that fragment of the images counterpoint the text at this time when the cocktaïl of drugs gave more time, gave us a life after a programmed death. Using different sources of material, such as film faded, decayed, tinted, rephotographed, recycled, Letters from Home is a collection of audio visual memories, establishing a space for us to think about what it is living at a time of AIDS.
This film shares with Matthias Mueller Aus der Ferne this idea about vulnerability of personal body as much as the fragility of a film, but Aus der Ferne is concerned about mourning and recovering while the films of Mike Hoolboom opened a political dimension through testimonies and articulation of a polyphonic discourse. It is interesting to note that Mike Hoolboom voice is used as the voice over of Pensão Globo (1997) and also in Tu, sempre (2001). In both case the fictional and autobiographical dimension written and delivered by Hoolboom add a layer at what is said and showed within these two projects giving a twist within the personal. In Still Life (1997) such as in John Lindell tapes the activism is dominant, the personal will appear through the voice over of David Wojnarowicz, Derek Jarman and mine, each one speaking about our relation to AIDS, through a lover being at the hospital, the effect of a medication or the modification of our sexual acts.
If the new queer cinema showed fascination for the entertainment industry (Swoon being a remake of The Rope), it was according to most filmmakers due to the fact that the avant-garde cut itself from the narrative of pleasure and from the pleasure of narrative. Some experimental filmmakers were always incorporating elements from the entertainment industry or dealing with such issue (Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, Jack Smith…), but here, it is not a question of quotation or parody (as in the films of the Kuchar brothers) or its remake (as made by Ken Jacobs in some of it’s works…), but of appropriation via found footage from which you could tell new cruising stories between two stars of the silver screen: Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo in Cecilia Barriga’s with Meeting of Two Queens (1991) .
Incorporating images from the industry being cinematographic or televisual is part of the daily routine of filmmakers. The use of sequences from films or newsreels, being famous shots or not, is a recognition of the importance of the moving images in the construction of one individual as a social being. Using the representation of stars and give them a touch of pink, is a way to produce our own stories from the data base of the cinema history which as music, is one of the major source of production of oneself. In that sense the use of found footage, the incorporation of external images and sound and its redistribution within film and video signed to a certain extend the refusal of imposed meaning, by subverting it. In this sense the used of the sequence in which Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly dance together in Aus der Ferne, followed with different titles The End affirmed the mixing in one’s mind of public image and private memory. This dance is articulated not only with the text The end but also with image of the deceased lover shots in Super8. The question of the representation of gay sexual act would become once again an issue at the time of AIDS, at a time when bigotry, moralism and a conservatism backlash were dominating the media. It became obvious that within the field of experimental film and video art as much as with educational tapes sexual acts were to be shown; Richard Fung made this explicit with Steam Clean (1990) or Jean Carlomusto dealing with lesbian sexuality in Current Flow (1989).
In the 90’s it became very important to show sexual acts to counteract not only the moralism but to save life.
It seems that it is still relevant today to make works with an emphasis on homosexuality in regard to the constant increasing of the new contamination within the gay community. In that sense the work done by the filmmakers and video makes need to be continued.
yann beauvais Recife march 2015