Bound (What If All My Friends Were Dying? What If All My Friends Were Dead?)

  • January 16, 2014
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Dimensions Variable

In Bound, I examine my generation’s current nostalgia for the fashion and visual culture of the 1980s and early 1990s, a time marked by the mass death of a generation to AIDS.  I initially began thinking about this project at the Brooklyn Art Museum’s Keith Haring exhibition; while looking at photos of the artist, I couldn’t help but feel that these images were strikingly similar to the photos I see on my friends’ social media feeds every day.  Though separated by two or three decades, many of the styles were the same, from haircuts and fabric patterns to the coloration and material quality of the images.  In the following months, as I continued to look at images from the AIDS epidemic, I’d often catch myself thinking I recognized friends—that is, until I reminded myself that many of the people in the photos were long gone.

Being almost as old as the plague itself and at an age at which many of my predecessors died, I find myself often thinking about what it would have been like if all of my friends were dying or dead.  And yet, I’m often surprised by how many of my contemporaries know very little about those who came before us. In The Gentrification of the Mind, writer and ACT UP activist Sarah Schulman explores the impact of the loss of a generation in terms of aesthetic changes in cities.  She asks of my cohort, “Do they wonder why there are so few sixty-year-old versions of themselves passing by on the sidewalk?”  I find that question haunting me.

At the same time, academic circles have produced a new body of queer theory questioning normative modes of time and promoting strategies of forgetting, repetition, and rupture. As Jack Halberstam suggests in The Queer Art of Failure, “We may want to forget family and forget lineage and forget tradition in order to start from a new place… unfettered by memory, tradition, and usable pasts.” In the context of AIDS—in which so much work has been done by artists, historians, and public health organizations to ensure that this legacy is remembered—I wonder, what might be the value in forgetting?

With this project, then, I’m trying to bring these two strains of thought together to make sense of what it means for my generation to casually replay moments in history that many of us know little about and certainly don’t fully understand.  Is it a superficial attempt to show our street cred with a Keith Haring iPhone case?  A nostalgic yearning for ACT UP-style mass struggle at a time when many of us feel angry and hopeless in the face of similar neoliberal neglect?  Could this phenomenon itself be a symptom of loss through an awkward, if unintentional, reenactment of a time unknown?  Or perhaps instead an attempt to subconsciously disavow what may be too heavy of a legacy, while still remaining haunted by the past?  I think it may be all of the above.  And it may be these very contradictions—a tension between different times as well as epistemologies—that speak most to a queer articulation of the ongoing AIDS crisis.