Reflecting on AIDS in New York City: Jenny Holzer in Collaboration with Surface
In the lead up to the opening of the New York City AIDS Memorial, Surface spoke with notable cultural figures who experienced the height of the crisis. Jenny Holzer turned excerpts from those interviews into a new series of artworks projected onto the city's buildings.
AIDS exposed what was then a deeply prejudiced, dysfunctional ignorance and attitude towards sexuality and toward healthcare. It was a particularly toxic moment in the political life of the country, when you had a fierce, deeply reactionary strain of right-wing Republicanism that was hell bent on holding back social change and exploiting a medical calamity to propagate hatred. It became more than just something about the suffering and urgency of the problem; it was a crucible. Out of it came, slowly, inexorably, changing attitudes toward sexuality, and awareness that this was a health crisis that was about not just sexuality, but also poverty, and about a whole lot of other people who were not immediately represented in depictions and explanations of what was happening. It was revealed to be a global issue that involved race and religion.
It was almost like a war, like this invisible war. It wasn’t as if someone had been shot and killed, or mortally wounded and died right away. It just went on and on with people trying to hide it from others. They were suffering; they had to hide their suffering. You were so helpless to do something. There was this feeling that you’re going down a well, and there was so much rejection and fear, but on the other hand, there was so much hope. You really hope: They’re going to make it, they can break through this, that they had to find a vaccination. But very little money was going into it—we were all very aware of that—and the federal government did not want to deal with it. It took a terrible toll on the creative world in New York.
For me, AIDS was always personal. Fear kept me safe, but a large—too large—cohort of friends did not stay safe. Like me, they emerged from university into a world that had suddenly become a biological minefield. Unlike me, they didn’t miraculously skip clear without ever treading on a mine. In the bars and clubs the whispers multiplied. “There is no cure.” “You will die.’” “There is no cure.” “There is no cure.” “You will die.” “For certain you will die.” “There is no cure.” In my twenties I went to too many funerals. More funerals than anyone my age had gone to since the last war, I suppose.
In the early days, it was this looming, dark cloud. No one could talk about AIDS because the stigma was so devastating. There were no treatments, there were no therapies, there was only the risk of being ostracized, being unemployed, and being homeless. People never got tested, never wanted to know their status, and didn’t want to alter their lifestyle. They didn’t want to disclose or discuss. It’s still that way in much of the world. I could make the argument that stigma has killed more than the virus itself. The biggest threat is that people have lost interest in AIDS. If we don’t get our arms around this within the next few years it could get out of control. A lot of people are finding themselves resistant to these drugs now and they have to take a higher dosage, which is far more expensive. If we don’t get on track, it could go back to historical proportions and never be under control.
Commercial galleries, curators, writers, people who love art—they were all bound together, not by the market, not by art history. They were bound together because many of them had lived through the first wave of AIDS in the United States. Sarah Schulman makes this great distinction of AIDS of the past and AIDS now, and so sometimes people see that break in ’96 with the introduction of antiviral drugs. But if I were speaking about it right now, one of the things that inspires me is the thinking of younger writers and artists, addressing what Ted Kerr has talked about as the second silence around HIV and AIDS, and the ways in which thinkers from David Deitcher to Sur Rodney (Sur), and artists like Kia LaBeija and Derek Jackson, are making it contemporary, making it a lived experience. It’s never not in your mind—it’s in everything. For me, it’s intrinsically linked with everything I know about contemporary art. In a lot of situations, when I introduce the work I did at Visual AIDS, there are nods in the room, because people are living with HIV in their communities, in their families, and they know what it means.
There was a rumor that there was a “gay cancer.” Nobody knew what it was, and there was complete panic. What are we going to do? What is this? Why are we getting this? And then you would see a man with Kaposi’s sarcoma, the spots, and this look in their eyes, that they knew there was no hope, absolutely no hope. It was like they’d seen hell or they’re in hell. It was like walking into a nightmare. We really knew hell. AIDS had spread and some people wouldn’t touch or hug a sick person, and that’s exactly what people needed, to be hugged and loved. I think about all those people, their families, and their partners. It was horrible that somebody would be in the hospital and their partner wasn’t able to be there, because they weren’t married or the family wasn’t allowing the partner to be there at the very end because they were in denial about the son being gay.
It was a potent, powerful, and painful time. When I was working on The Ryan White Story Ryan was still alive, and I remember a reporter asking him, “How did people treat you?” He said, “People would spit at me and call me a fag.” We’re talking about a community that was dying and being disenfranchised. The level of homophobia that was shoved under the carpet you could finally notice and feel in the response, in the way that people were being vilified. We we were losing so many people week after week. I remember going with friends to hospitals and being with young people we didn’t even know. They were dying alone, because their families had disavowed them.
The pandemic has gotten even more complex. In the beginning it seemed like there was one united voice. The charge was really clear—bring drugs into bodies. Now it’s more complicated. There are issues like the growth of HIV criminalization, and what does it mean to be undetectable, and now that we have PEP and PrEP, what is safer sex? Many illnesses can be considered a deadly weapon; why is HIV the only one treated that way? [At Visual AIDS], we are watching what’s going on in discussions of HIV/AIDS and saying, “That’s not the full story” or “Where are the people of color in your discussion?” We try to safeguard the history.
Artists were dying. There was art that would never get the chance to be done. The community and the public were losing artists, and art was a victim. It really was like a plague. To bring that into a big public focus and make people realize what the loss was. There was this sense of an unknown, ravaging beast that was set loose in the world. It was mysterious, frightening, and incredibly sad. It was this swelling of people together feeling the loss. Feeling the frustration. The terror. The fright. We felt impotent. So many things were not clear. It was confusing.
Image: friend with eight glass prongs extruding from his ribcage, the lungs (New York, 1984). My roommate: treated like crap by the male prisoners—patients—”You brought it on yourself” (San Francisco, 1985). Sweet smell of jaundice. Image of my angel: eyes popped with terror, a tube coming from the neck artery (San Diego, 1986). The air is humid and lime green and the city is silent, thousands of eyeballs on vigils in small dark rooms, that stink of sweat, urine, and feces through the endless days. The city is screaming (New York, 1988). The heresy of a greeting. Image of dearest friend: body made miniature, staring at me and crying, sitting in a hospital, the room cavernous. Goodbye (New York, 1996).
Interviews by Spencer Bailey, Logan Baker, Charles Curkin, Chloe Foussianes, Michael Fragoso, William Hanley, Courtney Kenefick, Shyam Patel, and Rachel Small
Read our profile of Jenny Holzer from the American Influence issue.