AIDS, COVID-19 and Art: Reflections on Pandemics

Jonathan Alexander sits in a library, facing the camera
Photo credit: Steve Zylius / UCI

In this episode of “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond,” Tyrus Miller, dean of the UCI School of Humanities, interviews Jonathan Alexander, Chancellor’s Professor of English, about the parallels between today’s pandemic and the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Miller (0:04–0:41): Hello, everyone! Thank you for tuning in to “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond.” I’m Tyrus Miller, dean of the School of Humanities, and I’m pleased to be joined by Dr. Jonathan Alexander, Chancellor’s Professor of English and informatics and an expert on new media studies, digital literacies, and writing studies, and I also know from your work for the Los Angeles Review of Books and other venues that you’re also very active in engaging with the visual arts and in reviewing the visual arts, so welcome.

Alexander (0:41–0:42): Thank you, I’m glad to be here!

Miller (0:43–1:23): Today we’re going to be talking about how the coronavirus pandemic brings to mind for many people not just the past flu epidemics like the 1918 pandemic but also the HIV pandemic of the late ’70s, 1980s and obviously continuing to some extent to the day. A lot of parallels, a lot of probably salient differences, and let’s start with that idea of, you know, kind of what connections you see between the two, whether those are convergences or divergences in the experience of those two pandemics.

Alexander (1:23–3:27): There have definitely been some interesting convergences. Even just recently within the last few weeks Dr. Fauci has himself made overt comment about some of the parallels between the emergence of the AIDS virus in the ’80s and the contemporary coronavirus. I have to admit that as early as late February, early March, I was getting a lot of social media postings, seeing a lot of postings on Twitter and Facebook, et cetera, from people like me who had lived through the AIDS crisis in the ’80s and who were feeling, as we say, triggered seeing a definite similarity in how a relative lack of governmental response to the AIDS crisis in the ’80s was very parallel to some initial reluctance or hesitation in addressing the novel coronavirus today. Many people who had either been AIDS activists or who had friends lost to AIDS were definitely seeing some of those initial parallels. There’s obviously a big difference in how the two diseases are transmitted but curiously enough, one of the things that several people are writing about right now is how people were thinking about quarantining AIDS victims or people diagnosed with HIV fairly early on and so there are some interesting resonances around quarantining and certainly some resonances around the unwillingness of the country to allow people in with HIV during the ’80s, so it was definitely a hamper to immigration and we’re seeing that also as obviously health risk reduction in limiting movement across national borders. So again, two very different diseases but in other ways some political activity around them comparable and similar in some interesting ways.

Miller (3:27–4:11): It’s also interesting to think about, you know, with HIV/AIDS it was very striking when it first emerged. Some very specific communities that it was appearing in, obviously in the gay community but also Haitians, I think hemophiliacs because of blood transfusions and very difficult to kind of figure out what the connection might be there. This virus obviously is being presented as being sort of universal, everyone’s in this together, but I also wonder if you have any observations about the ways in which particular communities may be very differently impacted by this.

Alexander (4:12–5:40): Sure. The issue with HIV in the ’80s was that there were innocent victims such as people who contracted the virus through a blood transfusion and then less innocent victims, who were often painted as having done something to contract the virus through their behavior — gay people, for instance, or IV drug users, and they were generally painted in the ’80s as people who, from some political quarters, deserved the disease that they had received. The novel coronavirus definitely does seem like a more universal disease but we still see moments when it is marked in particular ways. Famously, the president marking it as the Chinese virus, for instance, is definitely an attempt to create a sense that the disease comes from a particular set of people and is marked by that association. Now, of course, we know medically this is probably indefensible but at the same time it is intriguing the way these diseases do get attached to different populations in ways that only serve to reinforce differences and even create hostility as we’re seeing with the number of hate crimes that have dramatically gone up against Asian Americans in this country.

Miller (5:40–6:23): So one of the things that I know that you have researched and written about and thought about a lot is the way in which artists and writers that were dealing with the HIV/AIDS crisis in their work basically both took this up as a theme but also were innovating in various ways in terms of the address and the form and the media of the arts at the time as an important mode of both getting the word out and also helping people to connect in an experiential way with what was going on with people. Do you have any observations about what this work from, you know, especially back from the 1980s, 1990s might have to say about the current pandemic?

Alexander (6:24–12:54): That’s a great question because we live in a moment when even before the current pandemic, for the last few years, there’s been a real increase of interest in art and writing from the 1980s specifically that deals with HIV and AIDS. There’s some new work: Rebecca Makkai’s novel The Great Believers, Tim Murphy’s novel Christodora, the novelist Garth Greenwell just published a long article in The New Yorker about Andrew Halloran’s journalism from the 1980s about HIV and AIDS. And so there’s a lot of interesting work just recently that has emerged to reflect back on that period and that’s inevitably also driven us to think about that period and to reassess some of the artwork.

There’s even a kind of odd nostalgia that has emerged from different quarters, especially from younger scholars and activists, about that particular period of history — not nostalgia necessarily for the disease itself, but nostalgia for the kinds of community and activism that rose up within the LGBTQ and queer communities in order to confront it.

There’s even a kind of odd nostalgia that has emerged from different quarters, especially from younger scholars and activists, about that particular period of history — not nostalgia necessarily for the disease itself, the nostalgia for the kinds of community and activism that rose up within the LGBTQ and queer communities in order to confront it. Our own Lucas Hilderbrand, for instance, from the Department of Film and Media Studies has written about this kind of AIDS nostalgia.

The figure that I’ve been very interested in the last couple of years is the artist and writer and filmmaker David Wojnarowicz, who had a very substantial retrospective exhibition in 2018 at the Whitney. Wojnarowicz was an incredibly outspoken AIDS activist and much of his output as an artist and a writer throughout the ’80s was really focused on kind of raising awareness, agitating around HIV and then also documenting his own illness, and he finally died of AIDS-related causes in 1992. His famous memoir Close to the Knives is an accounting, a very painful, very disturbing accounting of his own succumbing to the disease, but also a harsh critique of a country, particularly the U.S., that had not really spent a lot of time early in the pandemic trying to understand it and was very slow to political and medical action, so harsh in fact that at one point, Wojnarowicz calls America a killing machine.

It’s interesting to kind of see in his artwork, and I have a few images, the first one, this very powerful image of Wojnarowicz himself with his mouth being sewn shut is very reminiscent of a popular slogan during the ’80s: “Silence equals death.” And in fact, Wojnarowicz created this image for a poster for a film about “silence equals death” in 1989. It kind of gives us a sense about how the failure to talk about these kinds of issues and also the stigma attached to disease can only be more and more toxic.

The next image is one that I love and has actually been used in many different venues. It’s a photograph of buffaloes falling off of a cliff and it’s a startling image. It’s not one that Wojnarowicz concocted himself. It’s actually a photo he took from a Washington, D.C. Natural History Museum diorama, which kind of showed a Native American hunting technique. So what Wojnarowicz does is he takes this incredible image out of its original context and starts circulating it in the 1980s as an image of kind of despair, of almost hopelessness, of we are running off of a cliff to our deaths as a culture, the buffalo being a really interesting kind of animal, symbolizing kind of American westward expansion and so it’s a great wide-open West, so it’s a very interesting way in which Wojnarowicz was able to take images and then re-purpose them to make political commentary.

This only intensifies in his painting. So the next image which is curiously called the “Das Reingold” is this image of these two grisly skull-like masks, and if you look closely, and this is actually a very, very large painting. If you look closely, you can see sperm cells, you can see other kinds of cells, red blood cells, white blood cells and then up high in the upper left hand corner, you see all of these small circles that look like cells, it’s actually a dollar bill or an image from it, from an American money currency that has been fractured into these different cell-like organisms. It’s a striking image in part because it equates all of these things. It shows how the conveyance of HIV through sexual intercourse, which was at the time lethal, is put on the same page, in this case literally within the same painting, as the spread of money. And so money itself becomes, and the flow of capital becomes, something that Wojnarowicz really understands as toxic, in part because there were so few dollars early in the AIDS epidemic going towards treatment or going towards prevention or even research.

It shows how the conveyance of HIV through sexual intercourse, which was at the time lethal, is put on the same page, in this case literally within the same painting, as the spread of money. And so money itself becomes, and the flow of capital becomes, something that Wojnarowicz really understands as toxic, in part because there were so few dollars early in the AIDS epidemic going towards treatment or going towards prevention or even research.

And then we finally also see that most powerfully in the fourth image of a gorilla tied to stakes on fire and images of money filtered throughout his abdomen and throughout the entire picture. Wojnarowicz became very concerned that the culture was misplacing its resources and not taking care of its citizenry and I think if there’s anything that really resonates for us today it is this: Where do we put our resources? Where do we put capital in not only fighting disease and assisting our population, but also in maintaining and cultivating the infrastructures to keep our citizenry healthy and productive?

Miller (12:55–14:43): If I can make just a couple of observations about what I experienced of AIDS-related art. On the one hand, it was an extraordinary upsurge and exemplary moment of political art, even in lots of ways hearkening back to, you know, the sort of avant-gardes of the teens and ’20s of the 20th century with manifestos and scandals and disruptions and the exploration of a whole set of things to get out in the public sphere and to get people’s attention, and on the other hand, a kind of extraordinary, almost, I would say, without too much paradox, a kind of almost embrace of illness and mortality as a means of spurring creativity and new forms of expression. And I recall seeing a documentary about Anna Halprin’s dance piece, “Positive Motion,” that involved basically working with HIV- and AIDS-affected men and taking what might be seen as sort of disabilities or lacks in the ability to execute movements and utilizing them in a collective choreography in a way that’s extraordinarily moving. So I’m curious if you have any thoughts about what we might see in terms of artistic manifestations coming out of the current pandemic and the ways in which artists and writers might be addressing that?

Alexander (14:45–18:29): It’s a great question and something I’ve definitely been thinking about. I’ve got two ideas and one is an image that I will send to you, that I hope we can get into the interview, it’s one that I’m just now thinking about. It’s actually a Wojnarowicz image called “A Worker,” in which we see an individual worker carrying a lamb across a polluted landscape with a factory spilling toxins into the atmosphere in the background. And it’s contemporaneous with these other images that are very specifically about HIV. This particular one, “A Worker,” not explicitly about HIV, but definitely tied to a larger ecological consciousness and the sense that we need to think about our relationship to the environment very carefully. And this is very relevant in part for the novel coronavirus and its spread across the globe, which largely has been facilitated, as some epidemiologists are reporting, by just globalization, by the increased globalization of our planet. And in fact, there are more and more works coming out, not only epidemiological research but also some reports from the Centers for Disease Control, which are linking the spread of many of these viruses to just human global networks. So thinking more carefully and critically about our relationship to the environment, ecological awareness, will be important in thinking about the spread of these diseases going forward. I’ve not seen a lot of immediate artwork that deals specifically with the novel coronavirus, though I’m eagerly anticipating it.

I did have the chance to view a couple of exhibits online. I had intended to go to LA for a couple of days to look at some exhibits at galleries that were unfortunately shut down because of the pandemic, and I was really eager to see this set of murals by the Austin-based trans artist Xavier Schipani and I have an image, and these are images just from the online version of the exhibit, since you can’t actually see them, images from the Lowell Ryan gallery. And what’s interesting about them is that they’re these wonderful murals which are clearly designed to be enjoyed in person. They’re multiple bodies, different kinds of bodies, diverse bodies, diverse genders. They’re about people playing together, people enjoying one another. They’re images of joy. In fact, the exhibit is called “They Laughed with Pleasure” and it’s supposed to be a reminder of the delights of the body and of communing with one another, and what I find striking about viewing them online at a distance is the cavernousness of the rooms in which these murals are. There’s nobody there to view them, no one there to see them, and so here are these images, which are definitely not about social distancing, they’re about people enjoying one another’s company, that are basically abandoned right now in these rooms. While this exhibit is not specifically about the novel coronavirus, there’s a weird way in which it has become an exhibit about the experience of the novel coronavirus and of social distancing and social isolation.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more and more of these kinds of experiences being documented and discussed as people are getting used to a new way of experiencing art.

Miller (18:29–18:45): And maybe as you say, almost mobilizing that as a part of the artwork. In this case, it sounds like a kind of melancholy shadow that might be contingent but also is something that is part of the communication channel of the work of art.

Alexander (18:45–19:10): Absolutely. Absolutely—and that nostalgia is important. You call it a sort of melancholy. Whether we identify it as melancholia or nostalgia, we certainly have the opportunity to meditate and to reflect on what kind of art we need right now and the value of art in our lives to think about the experiences we’re having.

Miller (19:10–19:15): Well, thank you so much, Jonathan, for this amazing conversation.

Alexander (19:15–19:16): Thank you!

Miller (19:16–19:33): And for sharing your expertise and these also remarkable images, which I’m sure people will be interested to know about. I want to thank our audience for watching and for tuning in and we’ll see you in our next episode of “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond.” Thanks, Jonathan!

Alexander (19:33–19:34): Thank you!

Related links:

The official account of the UCI School of Humanities: Ideas that Matter.

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