Fever in the Archive: AIDS Activist Videotapes from the Royal S. Marks Collection



Guggenheim Museum, New York – December 1 - 9, 2000

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.  The result of the widespread availability of high-quality, relatively inexpensive consumer video and a desperate need to convey life-saving information, these tapes – made as a timely response to the crisis and, in many cases, expected to have no further life – retain an extraordinary vitality. The videomakers clearly positioned themselves in opposition to an unresponsive and often antagonistic 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 tapes, made from inside the crisis by passionate participants, convey to a remarkable extent what it was like to be caught up in the epidemic.

The tapes in this series were drawn from the Royal S. Marks Collection of AIDS Activist Videotapes of the New York Public Library. This collection resulted from an effort by the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, a project of the Alliance for the Arts, to preserve the grassroots response of artists and activists to the AIDS crisis.  Made possible by major support from the New York Community Trust – Royal S. Marks Foundation Fund with additional support from the Snowdon Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts, the collection consists of over 2,000 hours of masters of finished work and original camera tapes. One thousand hours of these tapes will be remastered for archival and research purposes.

Guest-curated by Jim Hubbard, Project Director for the Estate Project’s AIDS Activist Video Preservation Program, filmmaker, and co-founder of MIX: the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival.


All works are video, color and sound except where noted.


December 1 @ 7 PM

Collective Action

Testing the Limits (1987), Testing the Limits, 28 min.

All People With AIDS Are Innocent (c.1990), GANG, 10 sec.

We Care:  A Video for Care Providers of People Affected by AIDS (1990), WAVE (Women’s AIDS Video Enterprise), 30 min.

Kissing Doesn’t Kill (1990), GranFury, 2 min.

Target City Hall (1989), DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activist Television), 28 min.


Collectives formed the vanguard of the AIDS Activist video movement.  The impulse for videotaping derived from a political movement and numerous tapes featured demonstrations.  Having many people with cameras facilitates the documentation of multi-faceted events. Conversely, collective editing is very inefficient.  The consequent tension contributed to the evolving structure of Testing the Limits and the dissolution of DIVA-TV.  Testing the Limits is arguably the first true AIDS Activist videotape and, in many ways, provided a model for others with its lack of voiceover and quick editing, often to the beat of disco and rap music.  All People With AIDS Are Innocent was a basic tenet of the movement.  We Care, made by women of color and intended for a more specific audience than the other tapes in this show, concentrates on care-giving and the effect of AIDS on people’s lives.  GranFury is more widely known for its graphics and, indeed, a still version of Kissing Doesn’t Kill adorned city buses in New York.  Target City Hall, DIVA’s first tape, contrasts the democratic process of ACT UP’s affinity groups with the illegal, degrading strip searches of women arrested at the demonstration.


December 2 @ 3 PM

Speak for Yourself

GMHC Oral History Project (excerpts) (c.1988 - c.1993), GMHC Audio-Visual Department, 52 min.

Interview with Paul Monette (c. 1993), Phil Tarley, 7 min.

ACT UP excerpts from Voices from the Front (1992), Testing the Limits, 4 min.

ACT UP Ten Year Anniversary Storytellings (excerpts) (1997), James Wentzy, 20 min.


The GMHC Oral History Project represents a remarkable attempt to preserve the early history of the organization and the first response to the AIDS crisis.  These interviews of the founders and shapers of the organization impart not only details, but also the flavor of the period.  No holds barred.  More than 60 tapes with over 30 subjects survive.  The excerpts to be shown include interviews with Larry Kramer, Rodger McFarlane, Jay Lipner, Mel Rosen, Richard Dunne, Tim Sweeney and Luis Palacios. In his interview with Paul Monette, Phil Tarley baldly asks the activist, poet and novelist about his health and how he feels about death.  The ACT UP sections from Voices from the Front provide a glimpse of an ACT UP/NY Monday night meeting.  Storytellings records people who were deeply involved with ACT UP reminiscing and analyzing their own accomplishments in a tender and revealing manner.


December 2 @ 5 PM

First Person Singular 

Danny (1987), Stashu Kybartas, 20 min.

Identities (1991), Nino Rodriguez, 7 min.

They are lost to vision altogether (1989), Tom Kalin, 13 min.

Virus (1994), Stuart Gaffney, 5 min.

Portraits of People Living with HIV (Selections)(1991 - 1994), Gregg Bordowitz, 20 min.

Stolen Shadows (1995), John R. Killacky and Steven Grandell, B&W, 10 min.

Rubber Queen:  an AIDS docu-diary. Episode 3:  Lying in Wait (1992), Adam Gale, Chris Belcher and Franklin Wassmer, 29 min.

By Any Means Necessary (1994), James Wentzy, 6 min.


AIDS activism was not always a group response; there were personal responses as well. Danny is a heartfelt exploration of the psyche of a young man with AIDS, his relationship to his family and to the videomaker.  By using outtakes from an AIDS documentary showing the moments just before an unnamed PWA speaks, Identities movingly portrays the frustration, anger and dignity of living with AIDS.  They are lost to vision altogether, in the words of Tom Kalin, “attempts to reclaim eroticism…in the face of a monolithic and culturally compulsory heterosexuality.”   “It takes all my energy these days just to keep things the way they are…normal, regular,” says the man in Virus.  Gregg Bordowitz, the consummate AIDS Activist videomaker, steps back to take a more personal look at some of his friends in Portraits of People Living with HIV.  The four portraits shown are of Derek Link, David Barr, Mark Simpson and a self-portrait.  The narrator of Stolen Shadows treks from the Upper East Side to the Village mourning his dead angels.


Rubber Queen is a 3 1/2 hour, 6-part series made for cable access that explores Adam Gale’s life as a dancer and performance artist and a person struggling with AIDS.  Adam, awakened by night sweats and a full bladder, talks to the camera.  Later, we follow him in a desperate attempt to find the drug ddc and an equally frustrating attempt to relax at a Chinese restaurant.  “I am someone with AIDS and I want to live by any means necessary,” (from the manifesto by Kiki Mason that provides the spoken text for By Any Means Necessary)


December 2 @ 7 pm

Reclaiming Desire:  How to Have Sex in an Epidemic

Please be advised that this program contains graphic sexual content that may not be suitable for all audiences.

A.I.D.S.C.R.E.A.M. (1988), Jerry Tartaglia, 16 mm, 6 min.

Grey Hideaway (1986), Merrill Aldighieri and Joe Tripician, 5 min.

Safe Sex Slut (1987), Carol Leigh (Scarlot Harlot), 3 min.

GMHC Safe Sex Shorts (1989/90), Gregg Bordowitz, Jean Carlomusto, Charles Brack, Robert Huff, David Bronstein, Richard Fung, 28 min.

Fear of Disclosure (1990), Phil Zwickler and David Wojnarowicz, 5 min.

SaferSister (1992), Maria Perez and Wellington Love, 2 min.

Bareback (1999), Stuart Gaffney, B&W, 4 min.

Laff at the Fags (1985), Scott Heron and Eric Paulo, 29 min.


At bottom, sex is what it’s all about.  The struggle to define safe sexual practices has plagued the epidemic from the beginning.  The immediate response was the erotophobic “just stop having sex.” Yeah, right.  A.I.D.S.C.R.E.A.M. sets the tone immediately as its narrator angrily asserts “I’m a human being, not a viral carrier” and attacks the heart of the problem, “Four out of 5 doctors agree:  No sex for gay men!”  Grey Hideaway, with the legendary porn star Casey Donovan, is a stand-alone music video made from footage shot for Chance of a Lifetime (1986), the earliest attempt to promote hot safe sex.  The GMHC Safe Sex Shorts forthrightly showcase diversity and hot safe sex for both gay men and lesbians.  Fear of Disclosure bemoans the intricacies of serodiscordant dating, while cute boys in gold lamé shorts gyrate.  Four public service announcements in English and Spanish (SaferSister) elegantly advocate safe sex for women.  Bareback explores the complicated feelings behind the recent phenomenon of purposeful anal intercourse without condoms.


Laff at the Fags was described in the Village Voice as the “world’s first avant-garde, gay punk, safe sex spoof.”  Fifteen years later it remains sui generis.  The tape was made by members of the first generation of gay men who had to confront AIDS as they were coming of age.  It is highly influenced by earlier traditions of experimental film and completely unlike the earnest attempts to make safe sex hot that make up the bulk of this show.  The makers perform the most outrageous acts of (safe) sexual abandon.  Not for the squeamish or those who are not amused by coprophilia, sadomasochism, the sexual exploitation of vegetables and other acts of human depravity.


Panel Discussion

Hosted by The Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University with Jean Carlomusto, Douglas Crimp, Ann Cvetkovich, Gerard Fergerson and Alexandra Juhasz, moderated by Jim Hubbard.

NYU Main Building, Room 300

100 Washington Square East


Jean Carlomusto discusses her experiences and evolving concerns over the past 12 years of producing works related to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Douglas Crimp talks about activist works that use self-reflexive strategies, particularly those that adopt a self-critical or otherwise skeptical view of works from just a few years earlier, interrogating just what we mean when we designate certain types of video work as “AIDS activist.”

Ann Cvetkovich extends her interest in the legacies of AIDS activism to the specific terrain of activist video, how this work continues to matter and the value of having a video archive as a mode of preservation. 

Gerard Fergerson’s special interests include racial disparities, HIV/AIDS and vulnerable populations. He will bring a public health policy perspective to the panel, including the public policy and health care legacies of AIDS activism and video.

Alexandra Juhasz examines the death of AIDS video activism, discussing what it accomplished, asking where it went, why it ended, and whether we still need it.


December 8 @ 7 PM

A Voice in the ’Hood:  Constructing Community in the Age of AIDS

Se Met Ko (1989), Patricia Benoit, 29 min. (in Creole, subtitled in English)

Native Americans, Two Spirits and HIV (1991), American Indian Community House, 12 min.

AIDS in the Barrio:  Eso No Me Pasa a Mí (1989), Peter Biella, David Haas, Alba Martinez and Frances Negrón-Muntaner, 30 min. (In English and Spanish with English subtitles)

Fighting in Southwest Louisiana (1991), Peter Friedman and Jean-François Brunet, 26 min.

DiAna's Hair Ego:  AIDS Info Up Front (1989), Ellen Spiro, 30 min.


If AIDS Activist Video is truly a grassroots endeavor, then it must come out of a community and speak directly to that community in its own language.  Se Met Ko is a perfectly told story that both conveys AIDS information and examines how it is disseminated through the resources and traditions of the Haitian community of Brooklyn.  Native beliefs, traditional medicine and the devastation wrought by white people inform Native Americans: Two Spirits and HIV.   AIDS in the Barrio, in both English and Spanish, examines the intertwined issues of drugs, poverty and the complex construction of sexuality among Latinos in Philadelphia.  As Danny Cooper delivers the mail and chats with his neighbors, he speaks about the response of his tiny hometown to his lover’s death and his struggle with AIDS. Because her hair salon is the nexus of a vulnerable community ignored by the government of South Carolina, the completely fabulous DiAna DiAna distributes condoms and AIDS information while styling hair in DiAna’s Hair Ego


December 9 @ 3 PM

From Witness to Subject: Women in the AIDS Crisis

Doctors, Liars and Women:  AIDS Activists Say No to Cosmo (1988), Jean Carlomusto and Maria Maggenti, 23 min.

My Body’s My Business (1992), Vivian Kleiman, 16 min.

Keep Your Laws Off My Body (1990), Catherine (Saalfield) Gund and Zoe Leonard, B&W, 13 min.

He Left Me His Strength (1989), Merle Jawitz, Sherry Busbee, Joanne Basinger and Sheila Ward 13 min.

I’m You, You’re Me:  Women Surviving Prisons (1992), Debra Levine and Catherine (Saalfield) Gund, 28 min.


Because women have long been ill served by the health care system and because women transmitted their knowledge of activism to the legions of middle class men suddenly moved to political activism by the AIDS crisis, they have served as the backbone of the movement.  Doctors, Liars and Women documents perhaps the earliest example of women’s insistence that issues vital to them had to be an essential part of the movement.  The difficulties of being a prostitute in the midst of the AIDS crisis are detailed in My Body’s My Business.  Keep Your Laws Off My Body juxtaposes footage of a lesbian couple and police activity at AIDS demonstrations to talk about the restrictions to bodily freedom.  The heartwarming tale of Mildred Pearson, who became an AIDS activist after her gay son’s death, is related in He Left Me His Strength.  Formerly imprisoned women speak for themselves in I’m You, You’re Me.


December 9 @ 5 PM

Drugs Into Bodies   

DHPG Mon Amour (1989), Carl Michael George, Super 8 transferred to 16 mm, 12 min.

Needle Nightmare (c.1991), Phil Zwickler, 8 min.

Acting Up for Prisoners (1992), Eric Slade and Mic Sweney, 26 min.

Clean Needles Save Lives (1991), Richard Elovich 27 min.

Undetectable (excerpt) (2000), Jay Corcoran, 15 min.


“Drugs into Bodies” was a simple, catchy slogan, but the reality behind it was much more complex.  The mainstream press has portrayed AIDS drugs from AZT to protease inhibitors as unalloyed miracles.  In order to dispel this myth, Joe Walsh and David Conover invite us into their heroic everyday lives in DHPG Mon Amour, demonstrating the complicated ritual necessary to stave off David’s blindness.  Phil Zwickler meditates on blindness and bucolic peace in the unfinished Needle Nightmare.  In Acting Up for Prisoners, ACT UP invades the office of the Medical Director of the California State Prison System in order to obtain healthcare for women prisoners.  


People take drugs for many reasons, not only to ameliorate the effects of HIV.  They also take drugs for pleasure and because they are addicted.  Clean Needles Save Lives demonstrates how to use intravenous drugs safely.  Finally, consider the problems of the remarkable AIDS activist Matilde Garcia in Undetectable.  She copes not only with her own unsteady health and the difficulties of taking the drug cocktail, but with her 8-year-old HIV-positive son, her positive husband whose immigration problems may send him back to Cuba and her negative daughter.


December 9 @ 7 PM

Desperate Measures   

Seize Control of the FDA (1988), Gregg Bordowitz and Jean Carlomusto, 25 min.

Like A Prayer (1990), DIVA TV, 30 min.

Stop the Church (1990), Robert Hilferty, 28 min.

The Ashes Action (1995), James Wentzy, 30 min.


In the end, the AIDS Activist movement was characterized by bold, dramatic action that, in a highly visible way, brought its message to the media, the people and the government.Those who obstructed progress in finding a cure, those who opposed the dissemination of appropriate and explicit safe sex information and, in general, anyone who hindered progress toward the end of AIDS would not be tolerated. Seize Control of the FDA is one of many tapes that record what was arguably the most successful of ACT UP’s actions. Its complexity derives from the intelligent examination of the thinking of the planners and their astute analysis of the media response. Both Like a Prayer and Stop the Church scrutinize the notorious demonstration at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in December 1989. Stop the Church concentrates on the preparation for the demonstration, Like A Prayer on a critique of the church’s response to AIDS. Employing a remarkable circular structure that heightens the tension and elucidates the action and cinematography that plunges the viewer right into the protest,The Ashes Action conveys both the poignancy of carrying a loved one’s ashes to fling on the White House lawn and the fury that arises from clashing with mounted police.