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. 

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