AIDS Activist Video and the Evolution of the Archive

Following is the English original. The article appeared in Queer Cinema, published by ventil verlag, in German, edited by Simon Dickel and Dagmar Brunow. To buy a copy of the book in German, see

I have been intimately involved with AIDS Activist Video since 1987 and have seen my relationship with it evolve over time and observed the relationship of AIDS Activist Video to the world change over that period.  I have also been involved in the archiving of AIDS Activist Video since 1995 and seen the relationship of the queer community and the AIDS community to the “archive” change dramatically.  It is impossible for me to write about these subjects in a detached or academic manner. I can only understand them from a personal point of view. 

Around 1995, I became involved with creating a collection of AIDS Activist Video for the New York Public Library. This collection consists of over 1,000 hours of completed tapes and unedited camera original by several important collectives and more than 30 individuals.  It is the largest collection of AIDS-related moving images in the world.

It was only later that I was introduced to the notion of the “archive” as a philosophical construct, as a collection of ideas and feelings rather than, or in addition to, a collection of objects.  This happened when I curated a series of screenings of AIDS Activist Video at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.  The title of the series was “Fever in the Archive: AIDS Activist Video from the Royal S. Marks Collection.”[1]  The title was an apt reference to AIDS, especially as one of the health problems of people with AIDS in the early days of the epidemic was what was known as a “fever of unknown origin.”  Further, it was derived from Jacques Derrida’s book Archive Fever.  The title was originally used for a panel discussion that accompanied the series. The panel was organized and named by Carolyn Dinshaw, who kindly allowed me to appropriate it for the entire series.

In this article I will endeavor to give a brief history and description of AIDS Activist Video, discuss some of the practical considerations of archiving it and end with some theoretical observations based on my work as a filmmaker and archivist inspired by my troubled reading of Derrida.


AIDS Activist Video

First, let me explain what I mean by the term “AIDS Activist Video.”  What I’m thinking of is a large body of video work created by people who saw themselves functioning not as artists creating video work, but as part of a grassroots political movement seeking to change the U.S. government response to the AIDS crisis to better serve the needs of people with AIDS and using video as a means toward that end.  This phenomenon took place largely in New York City, although there are examples of it from a number of places across the U.S. and in Canada and in some European countries.[2]  Most of the work was created in the period 1987 – 1995, but similar grassroots work continues to be made to this day. 

To give a sense of the range of work that might be considered AIDS Activist Video, let me write about several individual pieces.

Testing the Limits, New York City (1987) by Testing the Limits is a half-hour piece that documents the AIDS crisis in New York in 1987.  It ranges widely in its focus and perspective, and engages with many aspects of the burgeoning AIDS crisis, including early ACT UP demonstrations, confronting the New York City Health Commissioner, a community forum on AIDS, positions of those running for President in 1988 concerning AIDS, Latinos and AIDS, needle exchange, PWA (people with AIDS) self-empowerment and community research.  It remains both wildly out-of-date and shockingly up-to-date as so many of the social issues of AIDS have yet to be taken seriously by politicians and policy makers.

Target City Hall (1990) by DIVA TV is a half-hour video that documents ACT UP’s demonstration at New York’s City Hall in March 1989 against the policies of then Mayor Ed Koch. The tape gives a good sense of the varied actions that made up a demonstration that encompassed the entire day. One extended section details the vote of one affinity group on whether go into the street and block traffic. Each member in order is given a chance to vote and the one member who is reluctant to go into the street without more cameras around to protect them is given serious consideration.  The members of the group file into the street and we see them jumping up and down chanting “Health Care is a Right!” then the image begins to slow down and the soundtrack becomes the song “White Bird” by It’s a Beautiful Day, a song that seemed old-fashioned even then.  It is a lovely and unexpected moment.  The next section is about the women members of ACT UP who were arrested and then illegally strip-searched.  The tape retains a sense of urgency, but also demonstrates the strain of collective videomaking.  The disparate sections don’t easily fit together and show how the large collective broke down into smaller groups with different perspectives and interests in order to facilitate editing.

We Care: A Video for Care Providers of People Affected by AIDS (1990) by WAVE (Women’s AIDS Video Enterprise), a remarkable tape made by woman associated with the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force who are care providers for people with AIDS and people with AIDS themselves.  The tape may be technically crude, but is so emotionally sophisticated that it is devastating.  Marie, an African-American woman with AIDS, leads us on a tour of her apartment, showing what’s changed and mostly what hasn’t changed since her diagnosis.  She is so open, so forthright, so matter-of-fact as she tells the story of how she dropped an AZT pill on the floor and how her 3-year-old granddaughter easily finds it and hands it to her.[3]

The Ashes Action (1992) by James Wentzy is the work of a master videomaker dedicated to community and grassroots media making.  The tape documents the demonstration in October 1992, where members of ACT UP dumped the ashes of loved ones on the White House lawn.  The tape has a dynamic, spiral format that echoes the circuitous route that the demonstrators had to take to the White House because of the police barricades.  The videomaker takes us through the demonstration, then circles back and adds details and nuance, explaining the need for the action, exhibiting the emotional toll it took on the participants, the dramatic confrontation where the thousands of demonstrators sit down surrounding the police on horseback, where the horses just stand unable to move.[4] 

AIDS Activist Video was created in a time of extreme urgency.  It was meant to meet the needs of the epidemic.  It was intended to bring (literally) lifesaving information to people with AIDS and to people caring for people with AIDS.  This included tapes on grassroots political organizing and demonstrations intended to explain the politics behind the demonstrations and to encourage additional political work.  Also, it was used to keep AIDS activists safer by documenting police behavior during demonstrations.  It was intended only for the moment and during its creation neither its preservation nor its presentation beyond the immediate future was considered.  

The first venues for these videos were ad hoc screenings. VHS copies were sent to various AIDS groups, friends of the makers, and other grassroots organizations to be shown in community screenings.  For instance, I attended a screening in 1987 at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in New York of an unfinished version ofTesting the Limits, the first tape from the collective of the same name. Most of the collective was there and I remember sitting between Gregg Bordowitz and David Meieran, two members of Testing the Limits.  There was much excitement about the tape and the discussion included suggestions for what might be included in the finished version.  The tape seemed like a newsflash from our own community.  Other examples of grassroots viewings would include We Care screenings at the New York City Department of Housing Preservation Health Fair, the Broadway Women’s Shelter and HACER/Hispanic Women’s Center.

Very quickly the acuteness, ardor and importance of the work led to screenings in museums and universities.  These more mainstream screenings were prompted by the same sense of urgency that created the work.  The museum curators usually had some personal connection to the movement. Either they were lesbian or gay, had gay children or even in some cases had AIDS.  These screenings led via a long and torturous route to a greater openness in the museum world and in the academy to an interest in queer work.  Another impetus for presenting AIDS-related video was the establishment on December 1, 1989 of Day with(out) Art.  Screenings of AIDS activist video was a relatively easy way for a museum that didn’t have any handy AIDS-related art in its collection to observe World AIDS Day.

So, for instance, on December 1, 1990, the Brooklyn Museum presented a screening with DiAna’s Hair Ego (1990), We CareAIDS in the Barrio (1989) and Stop the Church (1990), among others.  On the same day, the Whitney Museum showed Voices from the Front (1992)[5]by Testing the Limits, Fear of Disclosure (1989) by Phil Zwickler and David Wojnarowicz, We CareStop the Church, and DiAna’s Hair Egoas well as two important related short films:  Final Solutions (1990) by Jerry Tartaglia and DHPG Mon Amour  (1989) by Carl Michael George.

I don’t think that the occasional mainstream acceptance of the work changed the political cast of future tapes, although it did help the careers of some of the individual makers. Generally, however, after the first burst of enthusiasm, the tapes were stored in closets and under beds and, if not forgotten, certainly put aside for making newer work that documented the crisis as it unfolded.

AIDS Activist video remains one of the most significant cultural developments of the AIDS crisis.  The tapes grew out of a large-scale, diverse, unorganized, yet concerted effort by activists and videomakers to respond to the epidemic. They were made possible by the then-recent widespread availability of high-quality, relatively inexpensive consumer video and a desperate need to convey life-saving information.  Many of these tapes, although made solely as timely responses to the crisis, retain an extraordinary vitality.  The videomakers clearly positioned themselves in opposition to an unresponsive and often antagonistic U.S. government and mainstream media.  They eschewed the authoritative voice-over, the removed, dispassionate expert and scapegoating, while embracing a vibrant sexuality and righteous anger.

These attributes can be seen in many of the tapes.  Testing the LimitsVoices from the FrontStop the ChurchDoctors, Liars, and Women (1988) by Jean Carlomusto and Maria Maggenti; I’m You, You’re Me:  Women Surviving Prison, Living with AIDS (1992) by Debra Levine and Catherine Saalfield [Gund], none of these uses voice-over narration, none includes white, male authority figures as experts.  In Fear of DisclosureDiAna’s Hair EgoLike a Prayer (1990) by DIVA TV among many others, safe sex and condom use are forthrightly discussed.

I tried to follow these principles in making United in Anger:  A History of ACT UP (2012).  There is no voice-over, the story is told from the activists point of view and the talking heads are taken from the ACT UP Oral History Project.  Currently, the dominant mode in U.S. documentary making is to choose 6 “characters” who stand in for all the other participants.  In the case of ACT UP, this would have been a total distortion of its nature, which never had one charismatic leader and always had a fluid leadership that changed with the epidemic.  So in United in Anger, many people get to tell the story.  Also, I was insistent that there had to be a section on sex.  AIDS is a disease based in sexual activity – and intravenous drug use – so there had to be an acknowledgement of that.



AIDS activist video is a direct descendant of a rich and varied tradition of alternative cinema.  Its antecedents include the work of Dziga Vertov, the New American Cinema, Cinéma vérité, the portapak tapes made by such groups as TVTV and Videofreex, feminist documentaries of the 1960s and 1970s and the political filmmaking collective Newsreel.  Like their predecessors, these activists continued the practice of using whatever tools were available to convey their message.  In general, they shot on Hi-8 and edited their tapes for little or no money at public access media arts centers, AIDS organizations, schools and, late at night, at commercial facilities.

From 1981, when the syndrome was first recognized, until 1985, when Rock Hudson died, AIDS received scant attention from the U.S. mainstream media.  The reports that did appear relied on scientific experts to explain the disease, blamed gay men and their promiscuous sexual habits for the disease and sought out babies infected in the womb as innocent victims to pity.  These shows were aimed at a presumed “general public” that did not include gay men, lesbians, IV-drug users or people of color.[6]

A handful of AIDS films and videotapes depicting the epidemic in a more nuanced manner made by people with a closer personal relationship to the crisis began appearing in 1984.  These included Stuart Marshall’s Bright Eyes (1984, made for Britain’s Channel 4), Tina DeFeliciantonio’s Living with AIDS (1986), Mark Huestis and Wendy Dallas’s Chuck Solomon:  Coming of Age (1986), Arthur Bressan’s Buddies (1985), Barbara Hammer’s Snow Job: The Media Hysteria of AIDS (1986) and Larry Brose’s An Individual Desires Solution (1986).

AIDS Activist Video began in earnest in 1987, at the same time as a sharp increase in political activism. ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) formed in early March and held its first demonstration on Wall Street on March 24th.  ACT UP was the first organization in the United States that provided a consistent, direct action, non-violent political response to the crisis.  From 1987 till 1995, it created a remarkable sequence of intelligently and strategically planned demonstrations against various parts of the U.S. government, state and city governments and pharmaceutical companies that utterly transformed governmental and corporate response to the epidemic.[7]  ACT UP still exists and, in fact, in recent years, has demonstrated a renewed energy in fighting the present day epidemic.

An earlier organization, GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis) had been formed in January 1982 to provide information and services for people who were getting sick – services that should have been, but weren’t being provided by local, state and federal government agencies.  Its founding predated the adoption of the term AIDS, hence the starkness of its original name.  In 1987, GMHC hired Jean Carlomusto to staff its Audio-Visual Department.  Its Living with AIDS show began regular cable access broadcasts (although a few shows might be dated as early as December 1984).   Also in 1987, Testing the Limits, the first of several AIDS Activist Video collectives, began to document the burgeoning AIDS movement. By 1989, ACT UP/New York spawned a videomaking affinity group, DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activist Television) that, within a year, collectively produced three tapes.

From 1988 to 1993, an explosion of AIDS Activist Video occurred.  Hundreds of videotapes were produced.  The vast majority of work was made in New York City, although a significant number of videotapes were produced in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago.  In addition, there were videomakers in Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Washington, D.C. and even Ann Arbor, Michigan and Austin, Texas.  I have often puzzled over why the overwhelming majority of this work was created in New York City.  Certainly, New York had an infrastructure for supporting the creation of this work.  There were numerous young people who had studied videomaking in college or art school. There were art schools and media access centers offering classes and inexpensive access to equipment (NYU, Film/Video Arts, Downtown Community Television). In addition, there were institutions such as Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), Downtown Community Television (DCTV) and the Standby Program that facilitated access to editing equipment either free or at low rates, a well-established community of makers, occasional grants (from the New York State Council on the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Jerome Foundation) and even a graduate program forging a theoretical underpinning for the endeavor (the Whitney Independent Studies Program). But there were a number of cities – San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis, for instance – where similar infrastructure existed, but didn’t foster large-scale video production. The only difference seems to be critical mass.  Not only was New York the epicenter of the disease and the dominant center of activism, but also there were so many people in New York eager to take on this work that it created its own momentum. 

Beginning in 1994/5, a perceptible decline in production occurred, corresponding with the waning of street activism.[8]  One notable exception to this was James Wentzy’s AIDS Community Television. Wentzy produced over 150 half-hour programs from 1993-6 and, significantly, maintained his ties to ACT UP throughout.


Representational Strategies

The immediate impetus for AIDS Activist Video was the deadly, inadequate government response and the meager and antagonistic reporting of the mainstream media.  These videomakers felt compelled to tell the story of AIDS from the point of view of people with AIDS.  The tapes portrayed PWAs as neither victims nor pariahs, but as empowered activists taking charge of their health in both the political and medical arenas.  This was not the whole story, but it served as a necessary counterpoint to the relentlessly negative depiction in the mainstream media.  

While AIDS activist video always maintained its critical stance toward the mainstream representation of AIDS, many activist tapes appropriated mass media techniques to convey their message.  Numerous tapes employed the language of music videos  – quick cutting and the use of dance and rap music to accompany demonstrations.  The “talking head” interview imparts authority to the speaker, and thus, substituting PWAs and activists for scientists and doctors asserted the expertise of people actually living with the disease as well as subverting the conventions of the mass media. For an excellent example of this, see Gregg Bordowitz and Jean Carlomusto’s Seize Control of the FDA (1989), where activists sit in front of a bank of television monitors and discuss the motivation for the action, media responses to it and the reaction from the FDA.

The tapes often scrutinized the mainstream media’s representation of AIDS and PWAs and offered an alternative view.  Nearly all mainstream U.S. media employed three characters:  the white gay man wasting away from AIDS, the innocent victim (usually a baby) and the drug abuser of color.  Made from the viewpoint of various communities affected by AIDS, activist video revealed the social, political, economic and medical complexities of the disease.  The videotapes were diverse in style and intent, but what unifies these tapes is their urgency, passion and belief in the complexity of the epidemic, the necessity of a compassionate and coordinated response and the righteousness of their own endeavors.  Made by people who saw themselves as members of a specific community affected by AIDS, many of the tapes speak directly to specific communities on their own terms. While most of the tapes were made from within the Gay AIDS community by people involved in that community, there were tapes made by Haitians directed toward Haitians with AIDS and their loved ones, tapes made by black women who were caregivers and people with AIDS directed at their community, tapes made by intravenous drug users aimed at the drug using community at risk for HIV. Examples include Se Met Ko (1989) by Patricia Benoit, a narrative in Creole that dramatizes the effects of AIDS on Haitians living in Brooklyn.  AIDS in the Barrio: Eso No Me Pasa a Mí (1989) by Peter Biella, David Haas, Alba Martinez and Frances Negrón-Muntaner examines the intertwined problems of drugs, poverty and the complex construction of sexuality among Latinos in Philadelphia.  Fighting in Southwest Louisiana (1991), by Peter Friedman and Jean-François Brunet, a loving portrait of Danny Cooper who, as he delivers the mail and chats with his neighbors, speaks about the response of his tiny hometown to his lover’s death and his own struggle with AIDS, and DiAna's Hair Ego: AIDS Info Up Front (1989) by Ellen Spiro in which the completely fabulous DiAna DiAna distributes condoms and AIDS information while styling hair, making her hair salon the nexus of a vulnerable black community ignored by the government of the state of South Carolina.

Even if these tapes were specifically and originally intended for a particular community, these are powerful films that were not limited to that community and have the capacity to deeply affect many others whether personally touched by AIDS or not.


Queer Experimental Filmmaking and Video Activism

It’s important to understand the differences between my own practice as a lone experimental filmmaker shooting Super-8 and 16mm celluloid and the practice of these more collectively minded younger videomakers.

I first started filming the gay movement in 1978.  In 1979, I went to Philadelphia to attend a meeting called to plan the first National March on Washington for Lesbian & Gay Rights.  I took my Super-8 camera, thinking I would film some of the events, but not really considering what they might be or what it might mean.  The first thing that happened was a 45-minute vociferous debate on whether cameras should be allowed or not.

On one side were the people who thought that this meeting had historic consequences and should be documented. On the other side, were people who felt, justifiably, that they could lose their lives, their jobs or their children if their homosexuality became known.  It was decided that people who wanted to get filmed would sit on the left side of the auditorium.  People who didn’t want to get filmed or photographed would sit on the right side of the auditorium.  By the end of the weekend, no one was sitting on the right side of the auditorium.  

I immediately realized that I had to film the lives of people for whom capturing their images on film was a life and death issue, although I knew I would never be affected in quite the same way. I knew that I would never have children. I hate kids and thought that one of the great advantages of being homosexual is that one need never feel the pressure to have children, go into the military or get married. I still think that, though, clearly, the larger LGBT movement has veered in an opposite direction.  Nevertheless, this meeting and this discussion shaped the broad outlines of my personal and artistic lives.  Listening to this discussion and filming the events of that weekend confirmed my commitment to an experimental form of filmmaking.  I knew that I could only make the kinds of films that I wanted, to make films that truly reflected the queer community that I was immersed in, as experimental films.  For me, shoehorning Lesbian and Gay characters into the formulas of heterosexual storytelling held no interest.  I should note that I think this is more of a problem in American filmmaking.  The great tradition of European art film would have given me greater leeway for imaginative storytelling, nevertheless, for me, queer and experimental are inextricably intertwined.

This firm commitment to experimental filmmaking meant that I would continually live between two worlds, not really accepted by either.  On the queer side, it meant that lesbian & gay film festivals were reluctant to show my work because it was weird and didn’t have an easily accessible audience. I must emphasize that I wasn’t the only person in this position, but a full explication of the narrowness of vision of lesbian and gay film festival programmers is beyond the scope of this essay.  In addition, my experimental work is strange, difficult, sometimes confusing and always beautiful.  I processed my own film, manipulating the chemical nature of the film, using the color expressionistically rather than naturalistically and I juxtaposed political demonstrations and drag queens.

An example of this is my film Homosexual Desire in Minnesota (1980-85), a feature-length Super-8 film documenting gay life in Minnesota from June 1980 – June 1981.  The title comes from Guy Hocquenghem’s book Homosexual Desire.  Minnesota is a state in the upper Midwest of the United States.  It was at the time 98% white and a bastion of American normalcy and niceness.  I intended to disturb that normalcy by emphasizing that homosexual desire resided even there.  For all its white-breadness, Minnesota also supported a substantial culture of lip-synching drag queen performers and so there are a substantial number of drag queens performing in the 2 Gay Pride sections as well as a section devoted to the drag performers at the Sun Bar and Disco.  But there is also a section on protests in City Hall at the installation of the new police chief.  The film is entirely self-processed.  The viewer is forced to reconcile the formalistic aspects of self-processing, the seemingly apolitical performances of drag queens and the direct actions of grassroots activists.  As a letter I received the day after the world premiere asserted, this caused literal headaches for the audience.  However, in the 30 years since the film’s release, gay life has so utterly changed that the film has become a precious relic of pre-AIDS ordinary gay life. This sense is augmented both by the self-processing, which makes the film look even older than it is, and also by the quaintness of Midwestern life, which even at the time seemed a bit old-fashioned.

For museums and avant-garde showcases, there was a similar reluctance to show my work, usually because of its subject matter – again those demonstrations with drag queens.  This was a strange phenomenon, because for a previous generation, queer work formed the foundation of the avant-garde.  New American Cinema would not exist in the absence of Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, James Broughton, Jack Smith, the Kuchar Brothers, and Gregory Markopoulos.  Although all these people challenged sexual norms and in some cases portrayed homosexuality, it was in the context of the generalized rebellion of the 1960s. Somehow self-conscious gay liberationist work was not acceptable and wouldn’t be until the AIDS crisis transformed the straight view of queer people 15 or 20 years later.

My response to much of this was to try to build a community to appreciate the kind of work that I saw as important. My dear friend the writer and cultural critic Sarah Schulman and I both realized that there was an incredible body of work that wasn’t being seen because of its existence between these two worlds, so we started the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival, now known as MIX NYC.  This was the beginning of our long and intense collaboration.  It is this same sense of community and our understanding that a rich and important part of history was being lost that led us to create the ACT UP Oral History Project.

I continued to film the Lesbian & Gay movement over the next decade as the AIDS epidemic developed in the United States.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I would often be the only person at a demonstration with a camera.  I was seen as either very odd or as a threat.  I was accused of being an agent for FBI more than once, something that was more indicative of gay people’s suspicion of cameras than of anything I was doing.  I shot on Super-8 until the mid-1980s when I switched to 16mm.  As a filmmaker, I made a practice of processing my own film, so the physical nature of the medium was of paramount importance to me.  

Then in March 1987, ACT UP burst onto the scene.  Suddenly demonstrations became larger, more raucous, more politically focused and filled with anger about the government’s neglect of the AIDS crisis.  They also became more visually arresting and graphically sophisticated.

I also noticed another significant difference.  All of a sudden I wasn’t the only person with a camera.  At first, a couple of people, then a half-dozen, then dozens of people were videotaping ACT UP’s demonstrations.  These people were part of a self-consciously, politically astute effort to document the AIDS crisis.  

Something had changed dramatically, but there were significant differences between what I was doing and what the video activists were doing.  First, they were shooting video and I was shooting film.  This may not seem like a significant difference in a time when all moving images are classed the same, but at the time it seemed like an unbridgeable gulf.  Video had significant advantages in this situation.  It had the advantage of speed and easily recorded sync sound.  Footage shot at a demonstration could be seen immediately afterward.  Film had to be sent to a lab to be developed, printed if you were shooting negative and then projected.  My practice had even more of a time lag because I processed my own film.  Usually what I did was amass a large amount of film and then process it all at once.  It could be months before my footage was seen.  I realized that what I could do was to be more contemplative.  I had the advantage of being able to step back and think about what these actions meant.  I wouldn’t be saving lives with my films, but I had the luxury of ruminating on the actions.

Another great distinction was that most of the video activists were working in groups.  The first prominent collective was Testing the Limits, six people who took turns shooting footage and doing sound and then collectively edited the tape.  I did not have the patience or sense of solidarity to work in a situation where 6 people had to reach consensus on where to cut a shot.  Another group was DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activist Television), an affinity group of ACT UP.  There were perhaps 12 core members, but at the demonstrations Target City Hall or Stop the Church there might have been as many as 30 people shooting and contributing footage. 

My film Elegy in the Streets (1989) best illustrates the differences. When AIDS first appeared in the early 1980s, I decided that I had to make a film about it.  I wanted to explore both the private, emotional responses to AIDS as well as the public, political consequences of mass death.  I had a great deal of trouble finding a way to do that.  I refused to barge into hospital rooms to show people on their deathbeds, literally in the worst light possible.  Also, because the U.S. government was not providing the necessary services, activists were pre-occupied constructing an infrastructure out of nothing and there was very little political response that lent itself to filming.

I tried filming a friend of mine who had AIDS, but he quickly grew impatient with me and my camera.  Two things happened.  First, my ex-lover filmmaker Roger Jacoby was diagnosed with AIDS and wanted to be filmed.  I documented the last year and a half of his life and then inherited his outtakes, so I had a large body of personal material to draw on.  Secondly, ACT UP erupted and provided the highly visually arresting public, political response to the epidemic.  These two elements worked together as a filmic equivalent of the elegy, a poetic form that uses the death of someone close to the maker as a pretext to make a larger political statement.  The hand processing adds an emotional and poetic layer to the entire work.


Archival Practice

The issues around the preservation and archiving AIDS Activist Video are numerous and complex.  There are practical concerns and philosophical issues.  I got into film and video preservation quite by accident. I was working at Anthology Film Archives in 1992 on the exhibition side.  After one of the frequent financial crises, the archivist was laid off. One morning when I walked in there was a meter high pile of books on my chair.  It was the background information on the project to create a computerized catalog of Anthology’s collection and since I was the only person working there who knew how to use a computer, the project was dumped on me, literally.

An organization in Los Angeles called the National Moving Image Database (NAMID) had given Anthology a grant to create a computerized catalog from the 3x5 inch card catalog.  The plan was that NAMID sent someone who knew MARC (MAchine Readable Cataloging) to take the information from the cards and write it in a designated order.  The information was then sent to California where people were paid minimum wage to type it into Word Perfect, a then popular word-processing software program. I thought this was cockamamie. Why weren’t they using a database, which would have been much more flexible and usable?  It actually turned out to be an elegant solution to dealing with a technologically backward institution.  NAMID planned on taking the Word Perfect files and ingesting them into a proper film-cataloging database. 

This story illustrates some of the problems surrounding archiving, including access to material, access to technology, what kinds of data are necessary and/or useful, money, time, and space.

In 1994, ACT UP/New York faced a financial crisis that necessitated its giving up its workspace.  Much of the organization’s paper archive was housed there.  This crisis engendered an important philosophical debate about its legacy.  Essentially the debate was over whether it was more appropriate to donate the papers to a community-based archive or a large, prominent institution.  The argument for a community-based organization was that only an organization fully steeped in the sub-culture could understand and care for the material.  Important documents such as flyers or posters need to be valued for what they convey about the crisis, but also are crucial artifacts conveying important information about the community.  In a large archive, they would be considered “ephemera” and that sounded like a dismissal of their importance to some members of ACT UP.  

The argument for a large, prominent institution was that it was more likely that such an institution would still be around in a 100 years (or even a 1,000), that it had the personnel, storage space, climate-control and other resources to deal with large amounts of material.  Furthermore, and most significantly, ACT UP was an important institution not only in the community, but also in the culture at large and should be recognized and valued as such.  This recognition was only possible in a prestigious institution outside the community.

Ultimately, the decision was made in haste because of the financial situation.  The ACT UP papers were donated to the Division of Manuscripts and Archives of the New York Public Library (NYPL).  This turned out to be an excellent decision that fundamentally changed the New York Public Library and made it much more responsive to the queer community, the AIDS community, and to other communities as well.  The Library has done a wonderful job of taking care of ACT UP’s material. The New York Public Library, which has always been one of the great democratic institutions of the United States, came to have an institutional commitment to collecting not only AIDS related material, but also Queer material.  The ACT UP Collection is reportedly among the most used collections in the Division of Manuscripts and Archives.

In 1995, I began consulting with the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS exploring the issue of archiving AIDS activist video.  Patrick Moore, the head of the Estate Project, first conceptualized the notion of archiving AIDS Activist Video.  He was a longtime member of ACT UP and a curator with an intense interest in preserving the legacy of AIDS activists and especially the video record of their achievements.

Since the NYPL had been such a good home to ACT UP New York’s paper archive, it seemed like a very good place to house the AIDS Activist Video Collection.  Not only did it have the strong commitment to AIDS-related material, but also it had the capacity to take care of a collection of over 2,000 videotapes.

An important concern once the material had been sent to the Library was how to get the Library, an institution used to moving at a glacial pace, to move quickly on a collection that needed immediate attention. The AIDS Activist Video Collection came into the collection as a ragtag bunch of videotapes – Video 8, Hi-8, ¾ inch (known in the rest of the world as U-matic), VHS.  It needed to be remastered and remastered quickly if it was to last and become useful.  We knew that if we relied on the Library to hire someone to do the work that it would take many years before the project could begin, so we devised this scheme. The Estate Project would raise the money to buy the equipment necessary to remaster the tapes.  The money also allowed the Estate Project to hire James Wentzy to work at the Library to remaster the material.  This scheme allowed hundreds of tapes to be remastered in about two years.

Before Wentzy was even finished remastering the tapes, they were being used.  A Belgian production company making a documentary on the history of AZT brought equipment in to make PAL copies of footage.  My own film United in Anger: A History of ACT UP (2012) and How to Survive a Plague (2012) by David France made extensive use of the material.  It continues to be used in such films as History Doesn’t Have to Repeat Itself (Rien n'oblige à répéter l'histoire) (2014) by Stéphane Gérard.  

The entire collection has now been digitized.  This was an effort completely driven by the Library, which did the fundraising and prioritized this material, showing its ongoing and now institutionalized commitment to the material.  Anyone can view the digitized tapes, but this must be done at the NYPL’s central location on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street in Manhattan. It would be great if all the material were available for free on the internet, but even now there are technological, legal and philosophical barriers to putting 1,000 hours of moving images on the internet.  

Although the physical objects were donated to the Library, copyright was retained by all of the makers.  Unresolved issues around the ownership of collectively made video remain. For instance, when someone wishes to use video shot by Testing the Limits (TTL), I advise makers to get permission from all 6 original members of TTL, but the membership changed over time. Does that mean one would have to establish the membership on the day the material was shot in order to ask permission? Jean Carlomusto provided another example:  On any given day, she could be taping for herself, for TTL, for DIVA TV or for GMHC or some combination of these entities.  How could you determine, except to ask Jean and rely on her memory, whose permission would be necessary to use that material?

Once the NYPL’s collection was established, the Estate Project arranged for a series of screenings of work from the collection. I curated this series with guidance from John Hanhardt, the head of the Guggenheim’s film department.  As an adjunct to the screening series, Carolyn Dinshaw put together a panel discussion at NYU entitled, “Fever in the Archive.”  I’m terrible at titles and I hadn’t been able to find a satisfactory one for the screening series.  I appropriated the title for the series.  The title had come from Jacques Derrida’s book Archive Fever.  I had never heard of Derrida’s book, so I figured that I should read it if I was going to steal the title.  For the next six months, I sludged through the very slim volume of highly theoretical thinking.

Until I read that book, I thought of an archive as only an actual physical repository. I’m a very practical person and I believe in the universe of things.  I believe in 16mm film and cutting little pieces of film and taping them together.  For years, I processed my own film.  I loved mixing chemicals and really messing with the molecular nature of image making. I never learned to edit videotape because it seemed so electronic and unphysical.  Now that I edit on a computer, I’ve become reconciled to the evanescence of the digital realm.

It’s not that I’m totally uninterested in theory, although I have a great deal of trouble reading much of it. Also, because the Internet was only coming into existence at the time, the only way to see films and videos was through the physical means of projecting films and putting tapes into machines.  And so the preservation of the actual tapes was paramount and, at the time the preservation of them as physical entities and the transfer to newer physical entities was the only way to preserve them.  Now that everything is digital that has utterly changed.  Because of digital, moving images are much more accessible, although the work to make older images available remains huge and arduous.  To tell the truth, I don’t expect the digital copies to last very long. The formats change too quickly; files are too easily lost or corrupted.  I guess if I really wanted my work to last, I should have worked in bronze or stone.


Theoretical Observations

I can’t pretend to understand Derrida’s Archive Fever fully and much of it is not relevant to the archiving of AIDS Activist Video, nevertheless it raises certain issues that are crucial to understanding the position of AIDS Activist Video.  I must emphasize however, that much of what follows are my thoughts on the nature of the archive and, while inspired by reading Derrida, do not necessarily derive directly from the book.

First, we have to accept that that which has been archived is that which has been deemed important.  The donor felt it was important enough to offer to the archive and the decision was made to accept the material. Certainly, individual archivists and librarians do, to a certain extent, make this decision, but it can never be solely an individual decision.  The larger community always influences what anyone deems as important, even when an individual librarian goes against the standards of that community. In other words, the decision to donate material and the decision to accept material are political decisions. As Derrida asserts, “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory.”[9] Therefore, the ideas precede and determine the contents of the physical archive.

For instance, there has always been gay material in the New York Public Library Division of Archives and Manuscripts, but when was it publicly acknowledged as such?  For a long time, access to this material was often restricted as part of an agreement between the library and the donor and this was usually done out of a sense of shame and a dedication to the institution of the closet.  Now, however, the NYPL will not accept collections with restrictions such as not being made public until 50 years after the death of the donor. Further after the ACT UP and the AIDS Activist Video donations, the library actively sought out AIDS-related and queer material.  There is now an institutional commitment to this material and that is a huge change.

I must admit that I do have trouble separating the notion of a physical archive from that of an archive of ideas.  I’m much more comfortable with the former.  In terms of AIDS Activist Video, there are two issues with this very personal version of mal d’archive.  The first is that the idea of AIDS Activist Video precedes the actual videomaking and, in fact, made the video possible.  By this I mean that the videomakers did not simply go out willy-nilly and make videos about the AIDS crisis.  They had certain notions about the crisis, namely that it wasn’t shameful to have AIDS, that people with AIDS were the true experts in the disease, that a political response to the AIDS crisis was a necessity for ending it, that filming police behavior would moderate their brutality.  All of these ideas preceded the videotaping.  And so, AIDS Activist Video was a community of ideas that grew out of a community of people before it was a collection of plastic videotapes.  They constitute a community understanding of the AIDS crisis, an archive of AIDS.  The videos and the ideas that made them possible stand as a bulwark against the devastation of AIDS.  While they live on, those depicted in them live on.  They stand in for those who died of AIDS.

The second issue intertwines the physical and the philosophical archives.  As a filmmaker, I live in dread of the copy.  This is especially true for me as a filmmaker who processes his own film and plays around with the color.  This unorthodox use of color is extremely difficult to replicate in video.  In fact, before recent digital processes, it was impossible.  As a result, my films always looked awful in video.  I still have no acceptable digital copy of most of my films.

Furthermore, because videotape is inherently fragile, it must be preserved.  The originals of these tapes were analog.  Copying analog tape to analog tape necessarily involves a degradation of the image.  At what point would the image have degraded so much as to make them unintelligible? This process was interrupted by the creation of digital videotape and then digital moving image files.  Copying these digital tapes and files is a process of cloning, that is, they are exact duplicates of each other.  But is this really the case?  How many generations before digital artifacts begin to appear. What sort of differences will newer software introduce?  We like to think that changing codecs or adding new digital wrappers will not alter the video, but will that be the case over generations?

But there is another issue.  These videos are not simply tapes that have been archived, but they are the result of an archive of ideas created by a community in relation to fighting, dealing with, living with, dying from AIDS.  These videos constitute what we want remembered and how we want to remember.

How will people in the future who did not live through the devastation of the AIDS crisis as it unfolded in the U.S. in the late 1980s and early 1990s understand AIDS Activist Video?  These videos came out of a community.  Can they be understood outside the context of that community?  I think they can, but at what point are they so separated from the community that created them that they become meaningless? Only if the intellectual process of the archiving of AIDS continues can these videotapes – the idea of these videotapes – continue to live as comprehensible remnants of the culture. In fact, I have always fervently hoped that AIDS Activism become a part of mainstream U.S. history and culture. In this way, the integration of these tapes and the ideas they represent constitutes their true preservation.

Furthermore, their remembering is constituted in their use so as filmmakers we are constantly renewing the archive by re-using the tapes. We make them available to the next generation in a new way.  But there is something that disturbs me as a filmmaker, that is, the possibility of mis-use of the tapes.  I know as a filmmaker that I can edit footage to mean (almost) whatever I want it to mean and editing these tapes to have meanings contrary to what the videomakers meant, what the community established as the meanings of these tapes, this is what I mean by misuse of the archive.  This has already happened.  And the interaction of these misused images with the community of ideas will change that community understanding.  I worry about this. 

Nevertheless, I have faith in the communal meaning of AIDS Activist Video and the changing community that intersects and interacts to create a new set of meanings.  The valiant community that fought the AIDS crisis lives on in the preserved videotapes, in the re-use of the video and in the minds of not only those who will see themselves as members of the AIDS community and the Queer community, but of those who are inspired by and shape their lives, whether consciously or unconsciously, on the lessons of the AIDS crisis.



[1] The Royal S. Marks AIDS Activist Video Collection was the original name of what is now known simply as the AIDS Activist Video Collection housed in the Division of Manuscripts and Archives of the New York Public Library.  The estate of Royal S. Marks paid for the collection and re-mastering of the videotapes.  Royal Marks neither owned nor donated the tapes, so the NYPL preferred to use a descriptive name for the collection.

[2] For the purposes of this essay, I will only write about U.S.-based work and for the most part concentrate on New York City-created work.

[3] For complete information about We Care and WAVE, see Juhasz, Alexandra.  AIDS TV:  Identity, Community, and Alternative Video.  Durham:  Duke UP. 1995. 179-228.

[4] For more examples see the listings of the series Fever in the Archives shown at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, December 2000, and the screening series accompanying the New York Public Library’s exhibit Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism: and

[5] This was probably not the finished version.

[6] For examples see Fair’s compilation of early press conferences from the Reagan White House),, compilations of early newscasts.

[7] For more information on ACT UP, see  Also, www.actuporalhistory.organd my film, United in Anger:  A History of ACT

[8] see ACT UP/New York’s Timeline at

[9] Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression.  Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago:  U of Chicago P, 1995. 4, fn. 1