‘Archiving an Epidemic’: Book Review

Louisa Hann reviews Robb Hernández’s Archiving an Epidemic: Art, AIDS, and the Queer Avant-Garde (New York: New York University Press, 2019).

The broad and ever-expanding domain of HIV/AIDS arts and performance scholarship has faced somewhat of a reckoning in recent years. As anyone with even a cursory understanding of the field will know, the vast majority of critically acclaimed artworks responding to the epidemic since the 1980s have privileged the experiences of the white, the male, and the financially affluent, thus shaping how HIV/AIDS has been historicised and critically examined within the academy.

As Jih-Fei Cheng recently noted in a timely and urgent volume entitled AIDS and the Distribution of Crises (2020), the ongoing crises of knowledge production facing marginalised constituencies affected by HIV/AIDS cannot be remedied simply by expanding the scope of narratives examined, such is the extent to which the epidemic is understood via the lens of a standardised gay, white, and male experience. Indeed,

women of color feminisms and queer and trans of color critiques […] understand that we cannot begin with AIDS as the object of study within our institutions or as the central object of critique in our social movements. Otherwise, women of color and queer and trans peoples of color will always need to be added, as afterthoughts, to the popular narrative that AIDS and its activism have been about and by white men. (2020, 77)

Fortunately, a vanguard of thinkers has started subverting such structures of knowledge creation, not only shining a light on underappreciated or scantly documented works of art, film, and literature, but critiquing the institutional power structures that have contributed to such inequities in the first place.

Amongst such scholars is Robb Hernández, author of Archiving an Epidemic: Art, AIDS, and the Queer Chicanx Avant-Garde, which homes in on how the works of queer Chicanx artists and performers affected by HIV/AIDS are remembered, preserved, and re-evaluated in the twenty-first century United States. The volume will surely be of interest to a broad audience, including those engaged in analysis of queer and Chicanx art, HIV/AIDS scholarship, and archival studies more generally, bringing together as it does a diverse compendium of photographs, paintings, anecdotes, marginalia, personal histories, and long-cherished ephemera to piece together a genealogy of marginalised artists working in Los Angeles from the 1960s onwards.

Book cover of Robb Hernández’s Archiving an Epidemic: Art, AIDS, and the Queer Avant-Garde (2019)

Hernández makes clear the politics of this scholarly intervention at the very beginning of Archiving an Epidemic, titling its introductory chapter “How AZT Changed Aztlán”. A play on “How AIDS Changed American Art” – queer historian Jonathan Katz’s principal curatorial essay for the Tacoma Art Museum’s controversial ART/AIDS/AMERICA exhibition in 2016 – this chapter clearly and thoroughly lays bare the exclusionary function that such cultural events have come to represent.

The institutional mechanisms that currently govern how artworks are culturally consecrated, memorialised, and preserved, Hernández contends, are fraught with elitist practices that side-line the works of queers of colour. Exhibitions such as ART/AIDS/AMERICA, whose roster constituted only 12% non-white artists, are perfect examples of such whitewashing. Encouragingly, the actions of activist groups such as the Tacoma Action Collective, who staged a die-in protest at Katz’s exhibition, have started to roil up conversations surrounding such whitewashing. By centring queer Chicanx artistic responses to the HIV/AIDS crisis, Hernández makes valuable and novel interventions in this discursive field, developing an investigative method he terms “queer detrital analysis” in the process.

Straddling the line between activism and academic enquiry, Hernández’s queer detrital analysis challenges conventional archival practices by making “AIDS losses tangible through physical substitutions and reproductions of nonextant works to augment or resolve missing pieces with unknown or inaccessible whereabouts” (23). It recognises the value of fragments, damaged works, or uncorroborated tales in preserving Chicanx histories of HIV/AIDS, keeping artistic legacies alive in spite of the threat of institutional erasure.

The results of such analysis are, in many cases, surprising and revelatory. In Chapter Two, for instance, Hernández channels his efforts into uncovering the cultural record of artist and window dresser Mundo Meza, whose vestigial oeuvre primarily survives in photographic form, depicting daring shopfront displays on Los Angeles’ Melrose Boulevard. Meza’s displays were often fashioned with the explicit intention of provoking passers-by, featuring scenes of animal abuse, lynching, and child abduction in a bid to satirise the brutality of US imperialism and hostility toward immigrants.

When Meza was diagnosed with AIDS in the early 1980s, friend and artistic collaborator Simon Doonan seized the opportunity to impose Meza’s provocative displays on an even broader public while working as a set designer on the film Beverly Hills Cop, one of the highest-grossing films of the 1980s. In one of Doonan’s carefully arranged scenes, actor Eddie Murphy lingers in an art exhibition populated by plastic mannequins, one of which had previously inhabited Meza’s window displays as a Mexican matador. In its new setting, the mannequin has become a servant draped in thick chains, a “carefully codified requiem about Meza and AIDS outbreak” and “a shackle anchoring Meza to the political establishment in refusing to address this disease” (105). Such guerrilla tactics represented a cunning and resourceful way for Meza and his contemporaries to encode messages surrounding their marginalisation in popular media. As Hernández explains, “the sparsity of physical evidence documenting [Meza’s] art and life reveals why commercial media is a critical resource for queer detrital analysis and AIDS visual studies” (107).

In some ways, this exigent focus on the commercial sphere explains why Archiving an Epidemic is replete with cameos by famous names and artists enthusiastically valorised within mainstream cultural spheres. Other appearances include Robert Mapplethorpe, David Hockney, Vivienne Westwood, and Malcolm McLaren, emphasising, of course, the extent to which the Chicanx artists in question were thrust to the peripheries of what are so often historicised as cutting-edge vanguard movements of the 1980s and ‘90s. By expanding the scope of the archive, Hernández’s work offers us a way in to reconsider the politics of HIV/AIDS cultures and histories in LA, and the extent to which particular constituencies and movements worked with, within, and against the exclusionary tides of hegemony.

For all of the book’s thorough and resourceful piecing together of visual artworks and long-treasured relics, however, its focus on avant-garde performance is markedly patchier. In the introduction to the volume, Hernández states that upcoming chapters will elucidate a queer genealogy of post-1960s “creative agents […] notorious for their garish performance personas, provocative visual spectacles, and ‘living art’ statements” (4). Having studied the broad field of HIV/AIDS theatre and performance art in depth over the past few years, I am all too familiar with the difficulties that unearthing and documenting such spectacles presents. I was thus tantalised by the opportunity to contextualise an underexplored network of performers within a wider gamut of HIV/AIDS avant-garde performance history.

Robert “Cyclona” Legorreta's performance installation "Alien Skins" (2019)
Robert “Cyclona” Legorreta’s performance installation “Alien Skins” (2019)

The book begins promisingly, opening readers up to the world of drag artist Robert “Cyclona” Legorreta, whose queer, trash-can-burning street performances gleefully angered and offended the residents of East LA, disrupting the “heterosexual models of masculinity in the barrio and even terroriz[ing] the racialized and straight barriers of urban space” (48). Indeed, the adoption of this decadent, trash aesthetic aligns with a broader art-as-terrorism trope that arose within HIV/AIDS performance cultures in the US at the end of the twentieth century (seen, for example, in the work of Reza Abdoh, Ron Vawter and members of the maligned NEA Four), offering fruitful new lines of scholarly enquiry. References to performances of other artists in later chapters, however, are less fleshed out, a product no doubt of the ephemerality of their subject matter. While such incompleteness was clearly unavoidable, I was left wondering whether queer detrital analysis was, in fact, so easily applicable to performance art forms compared to their material visual counterparts.

Despite such minor frustrations, I came away from Hernández’s work convinced of its call for an ideological shift surrounding archival practices whereby we “continue to expand the terms and methods for queer Chicanx visual cultures, finding radical ways to make AIDS matter” (242). Such practical demands respond effectively to the urgency of our current moment, riven as it is by a multiplicity of healthcare crises that disproportionately affect poor and marginalised constituencies the world over.

It is in this way that Archiving an Epidemic joins a burgeoning pool of activist and scholarly work that reimagines the connections between art, healthcare, and the fight for social justice. I think most pointedly here of Cassie Thornton’s recent pamphlet The Hologram, a concise artwork-cum-instruction-manual that uses the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as a starting point to reconsider how we give and receive care under capitalism. Against a neoliberal medical-industrial complex fated always to privilege the interests of the few, she argues, hope and solidarity can best be found in “‘art’ practices that limit their ties to conventional (art) institutions, seeing them as a means to access resources for social activism and refusing to rely on or contribute to their circuits of cultural capital” (Härtelova, 103-4).

Having demonstrated the value in queer detrital analysis, therefore, Hernández leaves readers to reflect on similarly challenging provocations. owHOw How can art and scholarly analysis help to redress ongoing health inequities surrounding HIV/AIDS within Chicanx communities and beyond? And how can the capitalist social relations that produce such inequities be circumvented using the tools of avant-garde creativity?

References

Cheng, Ji-Fei. 2020. “AIDS, Women of Color Feminisms, Queer and Trans of Color Critiques, and the Crises of Knowledge Production.” In AIDS and the Distribution of Crises, edited by Jih-Fei Chen, Alexandra Juhasz, and Nishant Shahani, 76-92. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Härtelova, Magdalena Jadwiga. 2020. “Contextualizing The Hologram: Feminist Ethics, Post-Work Commons and Commons in Exile.” In The Hologram: Feminist, Peer-to-Peer Health for a Post-Pandemic Future, edited by Cassie Thornton, 95-105. London: Pluto Press.

Louisa Hann is an early career researcher and freelance writer who has just completed a PhD examining contemporary HIV/AIDS theatre at the University of Manchester. She has published work on the memorialisation of HIV/AIDS on the contemporary stage and the use of documentary theatre as a harm reduction tool. She is currently working on a project exploring the pedagogical role of Shakespeare within queer communities.

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