A preamble for shifting gears

[*After some meetings in NYC in February (2020), the LUV team set about a visioning process that should yield the project’s next phase–with a new level of clarity–by the middle of the year. We asked Brad Walrond to help us come up with a new introductory text (something like an artist statement), and we are gonna hold this back until we launch the next LUV. However, in our recent consensus-building process, Brad Walrond, Paula Nishijima and I all wrote (from where we were stood at that moment) about LUV. Here’s mine. xo Todd]

‘The institutions of our life are what hurt us’ says __ (still looking for reference:). This aligns with Michel de Certeau’s dichotomy of tactics and strategies, in which organizations of all sizes create broad sweeping strategies that individual people must create tactics in order to deal with at the single human level. 

I’d known the lefty, 30-50 million dollar-endowed foundation for ten years as a grantee and consultant, and was at the time of disclosing my HIV status working long hours for them as a staff director, but with a weak contract. I had forgotten my medication on a trip I took for the institution, and as my contract was up for renewal I asked for a cost of living allowance (COLA) type pay increase to pay for international / travel health insurance. As a permanent resident of Brasil and US citizen, my contract with the Canadian organization rendered me no more secure than others working in the gig economy, and categorically a freelancer despite being called the Director of Partnerships. This is actually illegal, but happens quite a lot; and which of the three countries’ laws might apply should I want to challenge the abrupt dismissal my disclosure was met with. 

I would say that the few months between dismissal and deciding to make another durational, rights-focused and multi-stakeholder artwork on HIV and related stigmas were my descent towards ‘rock bottom’. I’m in my mid 40s and so the notion of a mid-life crisis seemed to be a somewhat useful template. I hoped I would emerge from the darkness I felt, but I was perplexed as to how on paper the institution’s actions and its ‘social justice’ profile were at odds. Afterall I had developed HIV-related programming for the foundation. My boss, a gay man denied that this was the rationale, but before letting me go, he first cut my salary in half in response to the request for an incremental pay raise. Besides, the program I was managing was flourishing. While it would be hard to explain to my peers (and so I didn’t try to very much), I understood that somehow an HIV-related stigma had crept in and ravaged our decade-long relationship. I intuited that he was acting out of some sort of fear, but one that was layered, obfuscated and very hard to put a finger on. I saw close friends who I had brought on board during my leadership of the new flagship project side with the institution out of financial necessity (for they now had jobs that could be lost), and to this day I miss aspects of the friendship and peer-sharing that we (the boss and I) had built up over working together. As I started to come out of my shell and share with friends what I thought had happened, one of the first people I told, a medical doctor in São Paulo, responded with concern but also a chin-up retort that he had lost his job after mentioning his HIV status on a panel that I had convened/ produced for the the Queer City project I made with the foundation. I needed this reminder that yes indeed HIV still evokes quite strong and coded responses. And, that while medical technology has evolved HIV to a chronic disease, the obscured stigmas that still surround it date back to HIV as a death sentence, and a sexually-related one at that. Of course HIV is not always sexually related, but therein is proof of the inaccuracies stigma can foment. I thought of Sarah Schulman’s book Gentrification of the Mind in which she shows how HIV- gay men speculated on the apartments of dying HIV+ men in NYC’s East Village back during the emergence of the epidemic, and how this was compounded by the lack of gay marriage rights, which meant that leases were not transferrable to co-habitating partners. That the desirability of the chic real estate somehow trumped solidarity among gay men. 

I was quite certain that making an artwork on HIV would not be easy. However making work is my lifeblood and at least allowed for the juggling of my soul when it might otherwise atrophy over this incident. One day I felt my career was ‘on a role’ and the next (or less than a month later) I couldn’t even point to a ‘career path’. At this point I’d made a ten-year project on free expression and artist safety, and a five-year artwork on the right to the city but I’d never said or written much on what I perceived to be ‘my’ methodology. It was around that time that I chose to compile the words ‘durational’ and ‘multi-stakeholder’ and ‘rights-focused’ to describe /suggest this methodology and also introduce Luv ‘til it Hurts as the last in a three-part series. It would be the shortest (at two years), which since I knew it would ‘hurt’ (or rather be the most personal examination of any of the three) was a defense mechanism to make sure that I could endure the immersiveness of a durational project, and too I would need to conjure a blind faith in this methodology I had always just kept to myself. I would need to rely on its success rate in the previous two projects in order to imagine a third one. I would do something that hurt, but I would do it to survive and move on. 

I did not train to become an artist. I trained in other fields such as political science, public administration, community organizing and humanitarian assistance. At the point at which I began making art, I had already worked in present- and post-genocide contexts (Sudan and Rwanda), civil war environments and even HIV/AIDS public health settings mostly in Africa. I backed out of one thing and into art over a general disdain for the international development industrial complex that seemed infected with capitalist and nationalist interests. I would not call myself a militant artist, but would say that I always have one eye on the political economy of what I’m doing and that over time an ethical theory of justice came up in me. If what I’m doing runs counter to these values, I typically change course. I am a history buff by nature, and so art histories do not feel so different to me than political or religious ones. All that to say, that even if I didn’t ‘train’ to be an artist, I did do my homework before self-identifying as such.  The concept of a ‘social turn’ in visual arts has been playing out for about as long as I’d been calling myself an artist. For sure Luv ‘til it Hurts is about HIV and related stigmas, but it would also pick up on the institutional critique that had threaded my past projects, writing and consultancy work together for almost twenty-years since departing the field of international development. So while it is fair to say that I was angry about a recent event, I had also been accruing some constructive criticism for the ‘art world’ over a slightly longer period. 

My durational, multi-stakeholder, rights-focused projects are always imagined to continue after the ‘end date’ but not by my sole leadership, and they are rather open-ended. They do not say exactly where they are going. The timed-period of Luv ‘til it Hurts (what I now playfully term R&D) is almost over. I still maintain that the endgame for LUV will show ways of practically getting urgently-needed resources to artists/activists (grassroots) pursuits addressing HIV, but in the meantime, it takes the form of a curatorial intervention. 

Steal This Game

‘Stealing’ the LUV Game is a bit easier than Hoffman’s book. It is free to begin with. I tell the story of how the LUV Game came about first as an idea from a young Egyptian designer in a description of ACT I, considering how one might discuss (or signal a safe discussion on) HIV in a place like Cairo … starting with a sticker of a game tile he envisioned on the back of a laptop…something that would ‘call out’ to someone entering a busy cafe. Something iconic (a brand of sorts) but coded…like something one learns about on social media but that isn’t explicit in form or words. From the original idea had in Port Said along the edge of the Suez Canal, the game spilled out and its pieces (or tiles) and simple instructions in 10 different languages are available online for download and printing in B/W or color. The game has been test-played in São Paulo during the December 1st (2019) AIDS Walk in Portuguese; in Grenoble with Ankh Association in French and Arabic; and in Bogotá at the culmination of the Luciérnagas Laboratory in Spanish.  

While the LUV Game is not the end game of the LUV project, we do hope that it is used far and wide as an icebreaker for discussing HIV and related stigmas. One idea is that we offer it to an institution to help us scale up (like a research outfit, university, NGO or UN agency), and another is that we work with global techies to make an open source online version, something like the Robyn game / app. We’d LUV for you to ‘steal it’ first and tell us about your particular heist. Let us know how we can ‘distract the guards’ and we’ll lend a hand:)

A series for LovePositiveWomen2020; #LPW2020, pre-C

Image: $oropositiva, by Micaela Cyrino for LovePositiveWomen2019
Collage on greaseproof paper and serigraphy
30 x 40cm

In some ways the whole LUV experience has geared us up for Love Positive Women 2020. In March 2019 I visited Egypt and afterwards, Paris where I met the Ankh (Arab Network for Knowledge on Human Rights) Association. The Ankh guys moved to Paris after a long period of activism on access to HIV meds in Cairo. From Paris they made the Points of Life exhibit that featured artists and activists from Egypt and the Middle East living with HIV. ‘Behind the Curtain’ is an image and text by Iman, an artist living in Egypt. Daniel Santiago Salguero’s project, Luciérnagas began with the idea to consider the changing situation–HIV info, support and medication access–in Bogotá with new arrivals of Venezuelans in the wake of that country’s financial crisis. It ended as an experimental performance in Bogotá’s Botanical Gardens. I met Jackie during the project’s conclusion in October 2019. Daniel interviews her for LovePositiveWomen2020 and further reflects on the Luciérnagas process. 

On a previous project I met the Nhimbe Trust based in Bulawayo (Zimbabwe), and its founder, Joshua Nyapimbi. Originally there was meant to be an event there at their offices during LPW2020, but due to a roof collapse this is not possible. A women’s HIV support group, CHOOSE LIFE meets at Nhimbe Trust and developed a play, MAIDEI to highlight local issues pertaining to HIV care and treatment. CHOOSE LIFE recognizes that there are resources already available in Gokwe South (District where  Bulawayo is located), but positive women do not have full access to these yet. The Nhimbe Trust and CHOOSE LIFE offered the script of MAIDEI to be serialized throughout LPW2020 in six installments. I interviewed Joshua on the history of the piece, and he explained that “the play has been used extensively, initially created with a rural-based support group for HIV positive women who acted in the play. Now it is done by professional actors [trained to] create links with support groups for positive women wherever we tour.” Old African connections yielded a good bit of activity on LPW2020. I met Oma Elzubair when we both worked for the ‘mother of forced migration studies’, Barbara Harrell-Bond in Cairo; Oma is now back in Khartoum (Sudan). She will blog about a range of local activities in Khartoum she’s conducting for LPW2020. And graphic designer, Adham Bakry (Cairo/Port Said, Egypt) made two Arabic versions of the LPW logo in conversation with Oma in Sudan.

Our goal for the next 14 days is to feature mostly articles by women, but also work by others in honor and support of women. On February 2nd, the day Yemanjá (goddess saint for fishers) is celebrated in his home region of Bahia, artist Thiago Correia Gonçalves shares three specially-designed posters (EN, PT, ES) for LPW2020. 

Making an HIV-related project brought me back in touch with an old friend, Emanuel Brauna-Lechat who is making a film on access to healthcare for people of color in Brazil entitled, Dora Não Cansou de Viver… In his second piece for LUV he interviews its lead actress, Momô de Oliveira. We start the series with ‘Feasting with Panthers (and Palestine): Edmund White’s Jean Genet’ by Sarah Schulman. Sarah wrote this piece on the occasion of Edmund White’s 80th birthday. This is her third piece on LUV, including What Does a Queer Urban Future Look Like? and more recently, ‘People in Trouble’ at Thirty: On Realism, Trump, and the AIDS Cataclysm. In the same direction, we invited Cadu Oliveira to comment on LGBTI / HIV activism in the present political climate of Bolsonaro’s Brasil. Our LPW2020 series ends with a Field Note from Paula Nishijima for the Think Twice Collective based in Leiden (Netherlands). 

Here’s a table of contents. We invite you to follow along and join us in celebrating LovePosivitveWomen2020!

*Pre-teaser: New versions of LPW logo in Arabic, Portuguese & Spanish by Adham Bakry & Gustavo Marcasse (Jan 31)

(1) ‘Feasting with Panthers (and Palestine): Edmund White’s Jean Genet’ by Sarah Schulman
(2) ‘Bobó for Yemanjá’ by Thiago Correia Gonçalves
(3) ‘Maidei’, Synopsis + Scene 1: Choose Life Women’s Group (Bulawayo)
(4) Emanuel Brauna-Lechat interviews Momô de Oliveira
(5) ‘Maidei’, Scene 2: Choose Life Women’s Group (Bulawayo)
(6) Interview with Cadu Oliveira on LGBTQIA+ organizing in São Paulo
(7) ‘Maidei’, Scene 3: Choose Life Women’s Group (Bulawayo)
(8) ‘Behind the Curtain’ by Iman (with Ankh Association)
(9) ‘Maidei’, Scenes 4 & 5: Choose Life Women’s Group (Bulawayo)
(10) Blog from Khartoum by Oma Elzubair
(11) ‘Maidei’, Scenes 6, 7, 8: Choose Life Women’s Group (Bulawayo)(12) Daniel Santiago Salguero interviews Jacqueline Sanchez for Luciérnagas
(13) ‘Maidei’, Scenes 9, 10: Choose Life Women’s Group (Bulawayo)
(14) Field Note from Paula Nishijima

*Post-teaser: A special surprise from one of my favorite graphic novelists, Power Paola at the end of LPW2020 

What I’m learning about participatory art; #LPW2020, pre-B & Elpenor method, #2

This year Love Positive Women is so big for us it constitutes an ACT … Act 1.5 to be exact. The acts are dramaturgically useful for steering Luv ’til it Hurts toward its endpoint in mid-2020, and in that way reveal various ‘assemblages’ (or intense clusters) along the two-year course. While the ‘business plan’ of ACT II is about to be revealed (around Feb 14) with a graphic poster by Brasilian illustrator, chef, Umbandista and cat lover, PogoLand (who says artists don’t make worlds?), the co-making of activities in São Paulo, Khartoum and NYC for Love Positive Women 2020 and sequencing 14 days of women-authored and -focused online content took on a life (or ‘act’ as it were) of its own. Working with Canadian artist, Jessica Whitbread and using her ‘open source’ model for the Love Positive Women fourteen-day holiday has been a labor of LUV. And as such, we’ve learned some things. When we first started talking about her work in 2018, Jessica sent me the 2018 Love Positive Women holiday implementation guide (please download and use). I have written before on the LUV site about making (or why making) an ‘open work’, which is a reference to Umberto Eco’s writing at length on the prospect. Whether duration is called out by name or not, an open or open source work must consider duration and endurance. And, I think, whether it is growing in the intended direction over time. I’ve made three durational, rights-themed, multi-stakeholder projects for 10, 5 and 2 years respectively. So, I am familiar with the vernacular and semantics–and a new phrase, ‘articulation curve’–involved in the creation of a long-term project, and in this case a new 14-day holiday to celebrate positive women. 

There has been a ‘turn’ within participatory art toward generosity. I imagine that generosity in terms of activism predates the art terms, so I won’t attempt to historicize the nuances of gesture, participation and generosity–e.g. giving away something at the museum and/or the less tangible offering of hospitality–at this point. Even if I find it extremely interesting. The other day at MASP, George and I picked up blank white posters with black trim from a Felix Gonzalez-Torres piece and we found ourselves talking about gestures and offerings. I was already working on LPW2020 at the time and I considered Gonzalez-Torres’ offerings to the public: a poster, candy, etc. The audience or public go away with something, and it’s supposed to create a reaction. It doesn’t quite tell one what to do though, or instruct (require) a return (reciprocal) gesture.

Love Positive Women is a more direct question or prompt: Will you consider poz women in these fourteen days running up to the North American Valentine’s Day (Feb 14). As a North American (gringo) living in Brasil, I realize that this big place doesn’t use the same date for romance; Dia dos Namorados is celebrated on June 12 because of its proximity to  Saint Anthony’s Day on June 13. It basically uses another catholic marker than North America and Europe, but thankfully the days, 1-14 February fall just before carnival, and there is nice warm weather and a festive atmosphere. 

Over the course of making Luv ’til it Hurts, I’ve been able to witness the works of other artists in different parts of the world. In Bogotá I got to be a part of the final act or performance for Luciérnagas, a project led by Daniel Santiago Salguero that includes a majority of poz folks who are not artists. In this and other contexts the introduction of art concepts can be lost. Like getting together in solidarity to raise awareness on HIV is central, and that it is an art project for one person takes a backseat. Art becomes a minor subject within a bigger deal. While through an art lens, Luciérnagas contains elements of visual/conceptual art, performance and theatre, it stands as a transferrable, flexible mode of community organizing that was created using art terms and art funding. Because I make interpretable (enter-able) projects, I understand the intentions of Love Positive Women (or rather actively synthesize what I learn from Jessica’s work into broader considerations on participatory art). Given that LUV works with poets and others for whom visual/conceptual art terms can be foreign, we ran into some confusion. For example it was not entirely clear to an HIV+ poet how one conceptual ‘group’ project (Luv ’til it Hurts) could participate in another conceptual ‘group’ project. In this instance (and as a man), it would have been more beneficial to put the two HIV+ women artists in direct contact. However, that was not something I had time to do before the implementation of LUV’s workplan for LPW2020. In this instance, I felt that part of the confusion was my gender (somehow). Like why would a male artist with another project be pushing a female’s art project that focuses on women? I felt that perhaps my own intention of generosity was not understood. In the end, a planned event with the poet was scrapped, but the conversations gave way to a new idea, which was a focus on spaces that anyone can use. We decided to ‘outfit’ (or style) a couple cultural spaces in São Paulo’s Center with language-appropriate materials and design on the Love Positive Women (Amem Mulheres Positivas) movement. This plan reaches the publics of the spaces during multiple events (in each) from February 1-14, 2020, and encourages women to use the spaces year-round for support groups and cultural activities. 

There were a few other ‘slow downs’ in our LPW2020 planning as well. For example, a trans woman asked me if I felt that she and I (poz folks) could make an event for poz women. Her question is great because it points to some issues (like vertical transmission) that had not affected either of us. But my answer is yes, I do. Still. In that conversation as well as another one just yesterday, the issue of payment came up. On one hand, I have a quick reaction that ‘no one is paying me’ but on the other–and in relation to how scarce cultural funding is today in Brasil–I understand. Funding is an issue that pervades HIV culture work. It is one that the LUV project is concentrated on. LUV plans for Amem Mulheres Positivas 2020 is all in place and with this moment to reflect, I think of a few other participatory projects I’ve had the chance to be a part of over the years–Human HotelHomeBase Project and Publication Studio–and how they might have clued me in to Jessica Whitbread’s work on Love Positive Women. 


Astraea’s Multi-Gendered Work (repost from 2011)

WHERE: USA – New York

I first encountered the work of Astraea in 2007. I was living in Egypt and met some of the sexuality rights movement-builders from the Arab region when they passed through Cairo. One such pioneer, Rauda Marcos, co-founded Aswat, a Palestinian Lesbian Women’s organization. She told me about Aswat’s work, which is made possible both by members’ determination and funding from Astraea. Aswat members held community clean-up days taking care of their neighborhoods and leading by example.  According to Rauda, the first step was to show strength in numbers.  Community clean-up days were a simple tactic to be out, proud and present in the community.

When I first read Astraea’s mission, I remember asking myself for the first time, what does it mean for me, Todd Lester, to be an allied community member? What roles can gay men play in supporting LGBTQI organizations that are committed to the leadership of lesbians, queer women and transgender people? How are our struggles interconnected?

History answers some of these questions for me: When the AIDS crisis hit my community in full force in the 1980s, it was nothing less than devastating. But amid this devastation, the lesbian community showed up for their gay brothers in our living rooms as care-givers and on the streets leading ACT UP demonstrations to demand our meds (see footnote 1). In 1995, the Brothers for Sisters campaign emerged in the Bay Area as a way for men to give back to the women’s community who had been the first to step up when HIV ravaged San Francisco’s gay community. This history of showing up women for gay men and, in turn, men for lesbians resonated with the showing up and being present that Rauda was talking about with Aswat’s community service days.

Why is it important for me to show up? When I was in Cairo, I learned about a support network of lesbians and transgender women from diverse backgrounds who would meet in private homes around Cairo. I became close friends with Kholoud, the network’s coordinator, another brave LGBTQI leader in the Arab region.  She told me she is often mistaken for a gay man and thus harassed relentlessly. On these occasions, she regains her safety by letting people know she is a woman. And yet in other circumstances, she is thought to be a man and receives positive attention until onlookers realize she is a woman and become aggressive and sometimes violent.  There is no way for her to simply be herself without the expectations of others curtailing her freedom to live, work and socialize.

Witnessing the challenges Kholoud faces on a daily basis in her life and work helped me understand the need for allies and highlighted who I am already in community with. Seeing these daily moments of courage by others being who they are and negotiating their identities reminds us all of our complex and shared histories.

I remember growing up in the rural South, in Tennessee, and tactically instinctually learning how to pass as straight in order to stay safe from all the threatening and volatile forces that my young mind sensed around me.  Flash forward to today: I’m living in New York City at a time when I feel comfortable presenting and carrying myself in any way I so choose. When I am sharing spaces with people socially or at work we understand and celebrate our uniqueness casually. Our differences are not the first thing we focus on.

But still, what is my role as a gay white man living in the US conditions that usually mean I can walk down the street and not worry about being harassed or experience the ramifications of standing out? For starters, I can remember, stand with and financially support my allied community members in their work all over the world. By doing so, it means I don’t take my own good circumstances for granted. And an active way for me to do that has been to join this team to create the resources for the next phase of Astraea’s important work.

Around the world, gay, lesbian and transgender communities share a history of movement-building. And were it not for the connections we carved out to support one another and work hand-in-hand in the past, we would not be where we are in the present, making strides in LGBTQI justice. Being part of the diverse, informed and strategic community of donors across the economic spectrum that support Astraea is a tangible way for me to show up. As a global funder, Astraea funds organizations in the Middle East working for LGBTQI rights, as well as those in under-resourced communities in the US, including some in the rural South.

Astraea’s mission is based on an enduring commitment to feminism, progressive social change and an end to all forms of exploitation and discrimination based on race, age, sex, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, class, physical and mental ability, anti-Semitism, and other such factors. Together, we are transforming the social justice landscape for LGBTQI people around the world.

This is why I say that Astraea is a foundation who knows who she is! It is also why, for me, as a gay man, supporting her is a vehicle for me to show up, across the globe, standing in partnership with my friends and allies.  I am confident that this is the way forward, and I’m asking other men to stand with Astraea in her work for freedom for us all.

by Todd Lester

Footnote 1: For more on this history, be sure to check out We Were There, a film in progress that just received Astraea funding through the U.S. Annual Fund.

__________________________

Originally published on Dec. 21 2011, here.

considering attach-ability (#2)

hi guys,

So, I’ve had an idea for you both for around 6 months now and have regrettably failed to share it in a robust form. I would like to do so now. 

We may thank Brad Walrond for texting with me overnight (why he was awake, I do not know:).  Jonathan, Brad archives Pony’s work and/or that of his house.

Jonathan, remember when I mentioned I wanted to talk to you on insta the other day. Well, maybe we can do that in person on February 9th. I want to invite you to a performance at the home of Livia Alexander. It is rumored that Brad will perform there/then. Pony, you are most welcome also. 

Pony is the maker/father/legend of the House of Zion. Jonathan I presume you know a bit about the NYC and global ballroom/voguing houses. 

Pony, do you know Battery Dance?  BD is a lot of things. If I may: anchor dance/thought leader in downtown (for how long now, Jonathan?); key role in post 9/11 ‘being’ in downtown; cultural diplomacy/choreography/peacebuilding/dance … Well, they have a site where you can read all this:)

They use a tagline, ‘Dancing to Connect’, and I do feel that is an understatement!

Jonathan, Pony’s is a very special house. In 2015/16 I began researching types of exchange in ballroom thinking about local work I was seeing in São Paulo on HIV, public health access, and other right to the city concerns. Just before this period, I contracted HIV in São Paulo. So that also made the site of Lanchonete.org (a project on the right to the city) likely to consider HIV as one of its themes. We did this through Cidade Queer, a year-long series of encounters in 2016. I visited a site in Lecce, Italy to see Pony offering a workshop, and shortly after invited him to be a part of Cidade Queer and its culmination in late 2016. After a group production of the first ball (of its size) in São Paulo (called Ataque, September 2016)–something made by many people at once–Pony invited a Brazilian mother and father to take the reins of the new House of Zion-Brasil. 

In 2019, Pony returned to visit the house (along with Brad Walrond), and participated in the Ball: Vera Verão put on by Coletivo Amem and House of Zion-Brasil. I think perhaps Brad will perform the (not same:) 1986 piece on Feb. 9 that he did at this ball. 

In fact, Jonathan, I think I introduced you to the Coletivo Amem / House of Zion-Brasil guys on e-mail once. It was around the time that I first had this idea…the one that is coming. But also Pony was a part of the launch of my project Luv ’til it Hurts on HIV and stigma (back in October 2018), as was Brad. This collaboration led to their visit in January 2019.



I remember this email because I spoke of dancers and choreographers in the ballroom world ‘aging out’ … like that moment when the body won’t give the same as before. Of course this is different for each person, each dancer. 

These encounters–2015, 2016, 2018, 2019–allowed Pony and I the time to get to know each other. And, now I follow him on Insta:) Pony, am I right to say that VogueFitness is taking off? And, dude, you are looking buff!!

I remember what you told me of your idea. I luved it!! I hope I can ask you to share it here with Jonathan (and me again) … as I’m sure it’s changed / developed a bit since we last talked. 

Jonathan, it would not surprise me if you have also thought of concepts and solutions on this broad spectrum of wellness, professional transition support, public health issues, NYC, fitness … wellness. 

So, what I’m proposing is that you two guys might have things to talk about, ideas to make together. That is if you don’t already know each other. Uptown … Downtown.

Recently I was talking to a festival curator about a possible LUV ‘entry’ late this year. I don’t really have anything to offer. I have ideas, but some are limited by living far away in São Paulo. 

You know that place where ideas reside, usually early in the morning. An idea was there, and it recurred some times. If you two came up with a concept, perhaps LUV could present it to the or at the festival. Or vice versa. I don’t know. 

Would you guys have time to speak about this the first couple weeks in February and, please mark Sunday Feb 9 (LUV Iemanjá) on your calendars … if you are around?

luv

todd

remembering my first AIDS work

I cannot remember what was my first AIDS work. It was either flying from Cameroon to South Africa with my wife (at the time) to attend and volunteer at the Durban AIDS Conference in 2000, or walking with Minette and ‘her girls’ on International AIDS Day (1999 or 2000?) on the dirt roads of Batouri in the East Province of Cameroon. 

The AIDS Conference was heady given its location. I remember talks by both Nelson and Winnie Mandela as well as Justice Edwin Cameron. Among other things. Zackie Achmat and the Treatment Action Campaign loom large in my memory. 

Minette befriended my wife and I soon after we arrived in Batouri as Peace Corps Volunteers. She is a madame and had the most prominently placed bar for truckers to meet ‘her girls’ (as she called them). She is also a very good cook. As I was passing straight at the time, and newly speaking French, I guess there was some flirtation that transpired between she and I. HIV/AIDS was not our official work as volunteers, but we ended up doing a lot on it in those years (1999-2002). I would move to Bangui (Central African Republic) for a while at the end of our stay to make a project for Population Services International. The regional director (based in Yaoundé whose wife ran the chimpanzee sanctuary near Batouri, and closer to where the Chad-Cameroon pipeline was ‘coming through’ and spiking HIV rates as large construction projects can) noticed what I was doing in Batouri and Bertoua at the intersection of public health and media. We drank together one night and he almost dared me to go to CAR to make a multimedia campaign (TV, radio, billboard) in both Sango and French for their new ‘socially marketed’ condom. I accepted and then called him the next day excitedly to make sure he wasn’t bluffing … or remembered what he offered. This is of course where I fawned over Eriq Ebouaney at the hotel bar during the making of  Le silence de la forêt

My wife and I (small/medium business vols) banded together with water sanitation, English and health volunteers living nearby to make public health programming, and specifically HIV/AIDS sensitization. She was already quite focused on her public health career. At the end of our term, it was with PSI and UNICEF that we had a province-wide cultural festival in Bertoua on World AIDS Day. Jay and I traveled from Yaoundé by bus and there is the picture of him in a blow-up pool in the group house in the provincial capital, Bertoua… where it could get quite hot. 

On World AIDS Day (in 1999 or 2000) we walked a square (or the square) of the town. We marched even. We had AIDS Day t-shirts. And, maybe Minette had a banner with the name of her ‘association’. The sex workers who worked for Minette liked us too. We shared mutual respect, I remember. They helped new gringos feel welcome in a small, rough logging town. Minette is a good cook. 

Once I went there with our tupperware to get some lunch. Maybe I was getting it for Bethani too, or maybe just me. Minette called me into her bedroom, the room adjacent to kitchen /serving room. She lifted up the mattress on her single bed. It reminded me of a time my father tried to enthuse me by letting me get close to a still-writhing poisonous snake he’d just killed. When it startled me instead. 

I don’t know what Minette was serving that day (usually one domestic and one bush meat with fixings). Under her mattress was a hobbled Pangolin. She wanted me to see what would be for supper. 

hiv / art / establishment (#1)

[*The pink elephant image is borrowed from a Facebook intervention made by Niki Singleton and Todd Lanier Lester several years ago called Coming out of the Web 2.0 Closet.]

There is definitely an HIV art establishment. I have met it in a few forms over the first 3/4 of Luv ’til it Hurts, a two-year project that also aspires to elicit a few forms. In fact, I guess this broad ‘establishment’ may have factored into the form of LUV in the first place. I am an artist who works in organizational or immaterial form now for almost twenty-years. This can also be other things at the same time, like ‘site specific’ as was Lanchonete.org or a field-invading ‘sea change’ as I hoped freeDimensional would become. For the purposes of this field note, I would say that content or theme or issue inform the form(s) that are aimed for. LUV aspires to forge a philanthropic device (or mechanism) that can be taken and used freely at the end of the two-year process, which will be around July 2020 and when it is fully explained. I also think that style, affect and notions of gesture inform ‘forms’. In my own practice I understand that these styles, affects and attempts at gesture can be rehearsed over years and in different contexts. 

This explanation should pick up pace around February 14 2020. And, hopefully LUV will keep going in unimagined ways after its official ‘end date’ in July 2020. Here I want to talk about the philanthropic device (of things); however if you would like to see how LUV is also research, take a peek here in How LUV is research, in part (Part 1).

I was working for the blackberry foundation. It uses a clever name to suggest artist support, and indeed it does do things with artists. In Portuguese blackberries are a part of the broader group of ‘frutas vermelhas’ (or red fruits). So, yeah it’s a bit confusing to work for a social art, money-giving outfit that turns out to have a charred, atrophied heart. I read this great quote which I’ll cite when I find it again (it’s on a piece of paper I picked up at Bard a few years ago at T’s graduation) that goes something like, ‘it is the institutions of our life that hurt us.’ 

This idea of pain provision fits a de Certeau-esque mode of seeing organizations and institutions (from The Practices of Everyday Life). And for sure my response of making a ‘philanthropic device’ for two years while also mourning this particular ‘blackberry’ engagement does constitute form for me and (if I understand correctly) a ‘tactic’ in de Certeau-esque terms. The foundation ‘strategized’ upon me, and talking about it (writing about it) is my humble ‘tactic’ in response. I liken this tactic to a meeting in NYC in January this year when I broke down crying amidst a mild argument amongst colleagues from two different organizations. There were a few reasons to cry. It was for all of them, including the uncomfortable position I was being put in by my colleagues. One allowing the other to chide me while knowing that there were more details involved, and some of which were not on me. To call out these details would only make the argument more ‘hot’ and so I just let myself have a good cry. It resulted in a sorta prayer circle with my two colleagues, which, hey, worked for me.

However, the smaller actions (in fields of production, publishing, editing, grant-raising and re-distributing, curating, administrating, criticizing and so forth) that comprise the Luv ’til it Hurts project’s two-year calendar of milestones, well those are more related to the topic or theme of HIV and stigma and are meant to be performed for quality and mutual value. 

In fact in many ways what I knew how to do for the blackberry crew is what I know how to do for the LUV project. The Cidade Queer project is an example of a Lanchonete.org ‘episode’ and multiply-curated (as was the curatorial ‘bringing of’ Publication Studio to São Paulo) during the period of my foundation engagement. During this multi-year, contractual engagement, I was called a few things, such as Director of Partnerships. I have an immersive practice, which I term durational. This is most nuanced perhaps for Lanchonete.org, the five-year project on the right to the city from a lunch counter in São Paulo. So while immersed in (um) São Paulo and Lanchonete.org as a ‘container’ of produced ideas questioning the right to the city (in different ways through a collective approach) I was also in business with this blackberry foundation, and therefore sharing my immersive tendencies between two big projects that were choreographed to intersect at times. I also did things outside of Lanchonete.org yet in Brasil and many more things for the project internationally. I was helping them start an online publication thats about arts, everywhere (in the world). Having over 20 years experience making art, and producing that of others all over the world made me qualified to help such an artist-centered online publication, which would be the signature new project of the foundation. Its branding and brand awareness would grow to merge with that of the cleverly-named foundation. In true immersive fashion, I opened up channels of info and knowledge and connections to the already well-equipped foundation. I mean I doubt I was essential for this project, but in that I was invited to help as an internationally-networked artist to build such a concept. Well, things grew to be indelibly bound (up) quite quickly. While I do not claim that I was the lifeblood of the project, I do claim to have helped breath life–vital life–into the idea for publishing arts, everywhere. I recognize my signature on and inside the project to promote arts, everywhere.

The lawyer on the board of the outfit, the one who visited our multiply-curated projects in São Paulo and who has long worked on AIDS-related art she informed me. She did let me know to be careful in using the name of the foundation after I was let go. I do know that lawyers yield a certain power, so I will heed her warning. When I think of the blackberry foundation, I see red. So, you can imagine how the Portuguese translation imbibes me just a little. Frutas. Vermelhas. The LUV site is red, but I have failed to find a direct reference to anything except familiarity with organizational and institutional ‘seeing red’.

The other staffer allowed me to show him around Dakar, a city I’ve grown to know rather well since I went there the first time for Dak’Art 2006 with my ex-wife. I was performing some official duties for Res Artis on whose board I served. On the 2017 site visit to Dakar, the other staffer bemoaned the challenge of getting another $20 million transferred over from the donors to the foundation. He feared that the son would be a factor. I didn’t need much more context to understand his trials and tribulations. We were laying by the pool in a fairly plush hotel spread. Maybe I helped him buy gifts in the market. I enjoy bartering with the merchants and love to see the crafts and art work and old flea market finds out in the African capital street. I once bought someone’s stamp collection in the weekend market of Bangui out in front of the church, not so far from where the students burned tires on the day I flew back to Yaoundé. I had finished the condom commercial in both French and Sango in various media (TV spot, radio spot, photography potential for billboard usage). I had swooned over Lumumba (oops, I mean Eriq Ebouaney) in the hotel lobby. Bassek ba Kobhio let me tag along in similar ways as Eric Kabera and Imruh Bakari would later. I had a thing for African and Third Cinema and I suppose my curiosity was operational. Like picture white geek wanting to know something from black intellectual. My intentions were genuine and oft worked. Since there is really no other way to tell you that I once shared a taxi with Nicolas Cazalé in Ougadougou when Le Grand Voyage was premiering at FESPACO, I will do so here. My coming out was a long and arduous journey of star crushes. However, I only started starfucking in earnest when watching Hugh Dancy dance with a Tutsi woman at a backyard evening party during the filming of ‘Shooting Dogs’, and again more recently with LUV

My wife and I were living with Jay in the capital of Cameroon in this period, and I would travel for work in the region. Sometimes we would travel together as we did to East Legon (Accra) to help set up the Academy of Screen Arts. We worked at the first AIDS conference in Durban as volunteers and would later present a poster on our AIDS/HIV related work (in Cameroon) at the Barcelona AIDS conference a few years later. Sometimes she would travel first for work and I would tag along. This was the case in both Rwanda and Sudan. My hometown newspaper, the Cannon Courier said we were missionaries in an article after we first went to Cameroon for the Peace Corps. I can assure you we were not!

Cameroon is rather accessible in the center of São Paulo by way of a few African eateries that cater to frequent new waves of African / Diaspora arrivals to the city. The Burkinabe experience (and perhaps Abdoulaye’s) is a bit different than that of Nigerians, Senegalese, Haitians and Cameroonians. The rougher Cameroonian bar near Arouche, that’s where Edgar and I went the other night. Manu told me he was kicked out for kissing a guy there, which perversely excited me. However, Edgar and I would not be kissing. We sat with some female patrons. We chatted with others and along the way Edgar became a bit startled. As we walked away, we stopped at the next bar to discuss the mise-en-scène we’d just passed thru.

My wife and I were already back in NYC (and me at the New School) when Christopher called from Rwanda to tell us that Jay drowned off the coast of South Africa. I had caught Jay once at a house party when I saw his eyes roll back, signaling the onset of an epileptic fit. Once Thom’s boyfriend Ben got his finger caught in Jay’s mouth thinking that there was a risk of him swallowing his tongue. Jay told him after that this is physically impossible. Jay suffered a head injury once in Morocco when falling down a few steps in his apartment. I have a volcanic rock from Goma somewhere (I know I kept it) that Jay gave me when CRS sent him from Yaoundé to the DRC for volcano aid atop other years of humanitarian disaster. Our long-time friend, Brad who had met Jay in Cameroon heard from him when he was in S. Africa. Maybe I can share what he said in that final email here:

>> > Subject: long time…from Jason
>> > …..
>> > So now I_m in South Africa.  I_m going to finish
>> up
>> > some final reports this week and then head around
>> the
>> > country visiting some friends that I haven_t seen
>> for
>> > a while.  I_ll head to Mozambique from here.  All
>> in
>> > all, I_ve got about 6 weeks to play with, and
>> would
>> > like to spend a chunk of it on the beach.  I
>> figured
>> > that Malawi would be a bit sad to visit these days
>> > with the famine going on.  I_ll just have to make
>> it
>> > there next time.  In any case, I can learn to
>> Scuba
>> > dive in Mozambique the same as I can in Malawi, so
>> I
>> > am looking forward to it.  My sister also has a
>> couple
>> > of friends that I know living there.  So I_ll stop
>> by
>> > and visit them.  There is some hiking that I_ve
>> been
>> > meaning to do as well.  I_m starting to get really
>> > excited about this.  It_s been a while since I_ve
>> been
>> > backpacking or hiking.  I had hoped to start on
>> this a
>> > bit sooner, but even now I_m finishing up the
>> work, so
>> > there wasn_t too much chance of getting done
>> sooner.
>> > But 6 weeks will be better than 5, which certainly
>> is
>> > better than 4.

But back to the blackberry foundation and the HIV establishment. I helped conceive large program ideas that focused on different facets of HIV, such as but not limited to Cidade Queer in partnership with the blackberry foundation. I forgot my meds on a trip, one of eight I made with or for the foundation in 2017. When my ‘life breathing’ services contract was nearing its end (aligned w/ the 2017 year-end), I asked for an incidental raise to account for the growing workload and to cover travel insurance. In so doing I disclosed my HIV status to the organization. I was dismissed from the outfit (and my various titles such as Partnership Director) rather quickly after this point, sometime in September 2017. I had flown to Canada to attend the Creative Time Summit where Queer City had a book and film launch; something in the Maritimes; and Primary Colors, an indigenous artist and first nation leaders summit out in BC. I was invited to things like the Maritimes big art convening on my own artistic credentials and merit (I assert), but all such trips would want to have one of the various foundation titles co-branded alongside my name, and naturally so. I allowed this. This was a symbiosis that at times worked out well for me over the ten years of knowing the outfit. And in turn I gave my ‘all’ to the making of this new face or new phase of the outfit’s existence. I counted the other staffer as someone who would lay by the pool with me in Dakar (where I ran into this other Todd I know); someone who would host my husband when he passed through the guy’s city to meet me on a work trip; someone who wouldn’t get weird on me whenever I decided to disclose my HIV status. And, yet things got really weird for me. 

Somewhere along that rocky patch of understanding the foundation no longer needed me, and within close enough chronology to my disclosure that (and given no other justification) it stands to reason HIV was somehow involved. I make projects that I really care about. I mix things for different results. I would not have wanted so easily to be severed from the HIV-related projects I was helping or had come up with for the foundation. No, that would have hurt very bad. That these projects continue in some ways is not a bad thing. No, as I said some did not bear my ideation. For some I was to incorporate them into exchange and site-specific work from São Paulo. I wasn’t forced though, no it was collegial work that I was paid for, as an artist… from here, there and ‘everywhere’. Ok, I’ll give an example. An art space in Brasil is going to do a pedagogic /school year in Athens during a big art event. A series of writing is commissioned from its international cast of ‘participants’. It is arranged by me with the head of the art space, and implemented by another Brasilian friend who happens to be a participant of the intervention. I am glad those pieces exist.

I thought I was building a year or two more-future with the outfit. It was even discussed. But instead I was pushed out rather quickly. Let’s say it had nothing to do with HIV, or like the foundation just wanted to work on HIV but not have a poz staffer. Seems like the other staffer would have waited a bit to let me go. Seems like he wouldn’t have wanted to keep the other staffers I trained for him. I mean if something was wrong, all major decisions I made for the outfit would be called into question, right? Like what if they were infected by my style or what I consider to be signature. Signature style? Gosh, that’s high-concept, and–ya know–art is different, everywhere. 

So, like, maybe the establishment was right there .. in that morass. When I first opened the LUV project, a young artist told me that a curator wanted to know if I was poz. Since I assumed the young artist had told him I am, I just considered what a ‘pink elephant’ disclosure and the ‘hot stuff’ around it would become throughout the LUV project. I have more to say on this, so maybe I’ll write a book about the pink elephants of participatory art, in methodological terms (that would be pretty cool), or maybe I’ll pursue my new stickering career and fahgettaboudit. I’ll let you know.

How LUV is research, in part (part 1)

[* For the LUV site, this is part one of a set. Let’s call it the Elpenor Set. See part two, here.]

The purpose of this ‘entry’ is to introduce Ismar Tirelli Neto. I’m writing a book right now. It’s called Variations in Worldmaking. I can’t wait until it’s finished because it might be driving me crazy. It’s like birthing a set of gremlins … or so it presently seems. The book covers the span of my three durational, multi-stakeholder, rights-focused works. freeDimensional was a ten-year focus on free expression, artist safety and shelter. Lanchonete.org was a site-specific (São Paulo) five-year focus on the right to the city. And, Luv ’til it Hurts is a two-year focus on HIV and stigma. I chose to begin the book in the same time period as the two years of LUV, July 2018-2020. I thought that one process might help the other. At least in my head. They are both (art) works. I am applying a methodology for durational, multi-stakeholder, rights-focused projects that has been developed over the course of freeDimensional, Lanchonete.org and in giving support to other projects, in the making of Luv ’til it Hurts. I think the same can be said for the making of Lanchonete.org drawing on lessons learned from freeDimensional, but I was not concurrently writing criticism in that instance. Ishmar is working with me on the book, and also features in the book. We started conjuring these relations during a poetry workshop he offered at São João Farm Residency in Rio State (Brasil), and now we meet weekly for a writing class. Below is Ishmar’s ‘opener’ from an excerpt of the book in which I describe its 20 characters. 

After reading his LUV intro, I hope you’ll check out Some tenets of Elpenor thought , a text I refer to in my research. When we met in July 2019 I was already thinking about the role of ‘hero’ as it pertains to the art world. And, after we set on working together, I noticed it coming up again in a Whatsapp discussion with egosumfrank (Part 1 and Part IV) and MetaMorphineFuriosaXXX, one of our esteemed ‘coalition’ members. Therefore I mention Ismar’s work in these as well as a previous LUV piece, Character Development à la Proust

***

I met Ismar Tirelli Neto at São João Farm Residency in Rio State. He offered a poetry / writing workshop on his ideas around Elpenor, the youngest of Odysseus’ co-patriots. He is building up a body of thought and writing around Elpenor and other anti-heroes. We spoke of a quest for methodological understanding, and too about levels of protectiveness of text. I am not protecting the text right now. I am letting it flow rather unbounded. The numbered characters are a parameter as are the set of ‘devices’ I’ll share next. The characters and devices intersect in a matrix. I am coming up with this approach and language while also asking Ismar about his approach and the literary form it takes. We are both attracted to the Elpenor character and able to discuss it in terms of contemporary politics and a natural tendency of the art market to both crave and manufacture heroes. We ask ourselves together how does one share observations, texts, gestures, forms and/or criticism under today’s societal and market-enforced conditions on expression. In making a durational project, the idea cannot be immediately revealed. The idea is becoming, but already imagined. There is no need to rush it. The timespan is tailored for it to have enough time to fructify. This holding back as conscious effort brings ones awareness to territorialisms, competition, ranking, showboating, acceleration, pedigree-toting tendencies that can result in hero-making by default. The market needs the heroes because they are brand names, and that sells in primary and secondary art markets as well as through affiliation. Power and money are traded along these lines. It is not often that these resources can be convened and deployed for a social urgency. The market cannot both destabilize and stabilize in perfect ways. If art wants to make a radical work or gesture, it must first pass muster with the relative patrons who hold the purse strings to the semio-capital that BIFO speaks of. The same resources may be enough to resolve social ills or convene urgent conversations. It would first need to be configured or sequenced in a way that these social priorities held priority over sales and relation to market. Let’s face it: such a set-up is very rare. So, what of the ‘art hero’ role, and can it be bypassed while still offering up big ideas for the future. And to a public.

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