‘Politics of Desire’ film series spark dynamic conversations

The Miscellany News.

Professor of English Hiram Perez recently ran a three-part film series entitled “The Politics of Desire: AIDS Activism & New Queer Cinema,” followed by a final roundtable discussion between Perez, video activist and educator Katherine “Kat” Cheairs and Distinguished Professor of Film at Brooklyn College CUNY Alexandra Juhasz (both panelists do so much incredible work, more than I can list here). The film series is an extension of the exhibit Perez co-curated with Elizabeth Nogrady, the Loeb’s Curator of Academic Programs until 2023, called “Apocalypse Sky: Art, AIDS, and Activism in New York City, 1982-1992,” which is still on display through the summer. The exhibition is wonderful—it boasts both an impressive selection of individual artworks and ephemera as well as a harmonic energy born through consistent themes woven throughout. I covered the exhibition in more detail when it opened in February. But Perez felt that some voices had been left out, and despite the vastness of the Loeb’s archives that he had access to for the curation, there were far fewer archives relating to the stories of queer people of color. Thus, Perez migrated to video art to highlight the legacies of feminist and queer of color film makers in relation to AIDS activism. 

Prior to the roundtable discussion, I got to interview Juhasz about her work as well as the intersections of video-making and activism. Juhasz and Cheairs recently co-curated an online exhibition entitled “Metanoia”—an archival examination of community-based responses to the AIDS crisis. An entire virtual section of the exhibit is entitled “Archive Activism,” a phrase that captured my attention. “Archive activism is a reanimation and purposeful reuse or new-use of things people have made before and have had the privilege to save,” Juhasz began. “Making, saving and reactivation are all both forms of activism so long as our understanding of activism is based on goal oriented activity—the work to change things in lived reality,” she continued. Many of the chosen ephemera for the exhibit seemed especially ripe for reactivation—specifically, the various maps of marches and lists of chants that helped animate the energy of activists working in the ’80s and ’90s. I could imagine their movements and voices. I could experience a kind of echo set off by the encounter with actually spoken chants and once-marched streets. 

This recapitulation of energy and voice via the archives and deliberate preservation drew our conversation into the now—“AIDS is not simply a thing of the past…people have HIV/AIDS, communities are still affected by HIV/AIDS, people in prison have HIV/AIDS,” Juhasz emphasized. Sure, the contours of the crisis have shifted, perhaps away from the public eye which might look to AIDS and AIDS activism as something of the past, but this makes a reactivation of such archive material even more important. “Metanoia” allows archival material to leap from stasis and refuse to be taken as mute historical relic.

This discussion of reactivating archives bloomed in the roundtable discussion held at Vassar on Friday, April 14. The screening of these films was discussed as a sort of fight for cultural capital, and the panelists, with help from an audience that was well woven into the conversation, tracked the successes of films like “Watermelon Woman” that have recently begun to breathe out into mainstream consciousness and affect public awareness of AIDS-related stories told by women and queer people of color. Conclusively, building queer media into the cannon is tough and has taken real persistence of archivists, activists and scholars. Such media must be constantly “reactivated” and, in the case of film, habitually rescreened for communities. 

The roundtable discussion opened with the premier screening of a short film by Junita Mohammad Szczepanski entitled “I Want to Leave a Legacy.” Szcsepanski passed away in Nov. 2022, and the panel was devoted to her name. Szcsepanski requested that she be given the opportunity to speak to a camera before she passed in order to leave a legacy through the oral retelling of her life’s work. This profound articulation of one’s own life and memory while on their deathbed was deeply moving, and seemed to extend the presence of Szcsepanski beyond the end-all binary of life and death. “Voices Beyond the Gate,” the second film shown at the roundtable discussion, also extended Black life and voice beyond boundaries—in this case beyond the walls of a prison. The camera weaves through scenes of the bucolic landscape while archival and contemporary audio recordings of poems, essays and interviews produced by women of color are superimposed atop the visuals. Cheairs, who produced and directed the film, described it as an investigation into the practice of liberating Black women’s bodies from spaces of enclosure, which include spaces like prisons as well as spaces like one’s own body (when it is limited and made a mere object of knowledge or desire). Cheairs explained her choice to not film human figures via a discussion of radical ecology which allowed for the polyphonic voices present in the film to permeate into the landscape, extending beyond the forces that enclose Black women’s bodies. “Landscape gives these stories (voices) a kind of transcendental power.” Cheairs said. “Many voices ring through the landscape, we hear about life and blooming, as well as death and passing.” 

After the discussion, I asked Cheairs about her choice to use the term “community-artist” when describing herself. “My work is always for community, and aims to be ingrained in community space. Community space is intergenerational, and community art should be beyond one person, the maker.” Communities activate art, give it social purpose and ensure that art and archives are not lost to history, but habitually revisited. Not for the purpose of building a single voice in a propagandistic manner, nor for the reductive leveling of different forms of activism by simple analogy, but for something akin to Donna Harraway’s dream of an infidel heteroglossia.

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