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 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 ‘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, 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 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 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.

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