VIdéoH / HIVideo : (other) Cultural Responses
VIdéoH / HIVideo (Other) cultural responses culturelles : VHI/AIDS and video in Montreal (1984-1990)
The essays in this dossier are expanded versions of talks given by Conal McStravick and Vincent Bonin at a panel discussion and a screening at the Cinémathèque Québécoise on 1 August 2022. McStravick responded to Journal of the Plague Year (After Daniel Defoe) (1984) by British artist and theorist Stuart Marshall (1949-1993) and Bonin to Le récit d'A (1990) by Quebec filmmaker Esther Valiquette (1962-1994). The discussion amongst the speakers and with the audience was moderated by scholar Maria Nengeh Mensah from the Université du Québec.
Unfortunately, we cannot go into the full richness of the exchange that took place here. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Nengeh Mensah for her exceptional contribution to this project. We wish to thank Karine Boulanger, former curator of the Videographe collection, who invited us, and Sarah Boucher, who acted as interim curator during the course of finalizing the event’s organization, and the preparation of the dossier.
McStravick has researched and written about Marshall's practice for several plus years. The work he addresses here, Journal of the Plague Year, brings back-to-back two moments, one contemporary in 1984 and the other historical. Through video vignettes, the viewer hovers between the rise of homophobia in tabloid newspapers at the start of the HIV/AIDS crisis in London in the early 1980s, and the emergence of sexology as a discipline at the turn of the 20th century in Germany, which was halted by homosexual persecution during the Third Reich. McStravick chose to focus on this installation for the panel and dossier because its inaugural presentation happened in the framework of Vidéo 84, a significant international video art event held in Montreal. He situates this work within Marshall's corpus and emphasizes the artist's Canadian trajectory, from Montreal to Vancouver, via Toronto. He also highlights how Marshall helped shape a critical discourse on HIV/AIDS whose complexity still resonates with us today.
Bonin was commissioned by Videographe to write an essay on Esther Valiquette’s Le récit d’A. This experimental documentary stemmed from the video maker editing various filmic and photographic images taken during a sojourn to California with an audio recording of the words of Andrew Small, a gay man from San Francisco who was outspokenly HIV positive. The polysemy of the two intricated testimonies has, later on, provided the opportunity for curators and critics to situate Valiquette’s video within many instantiations of the video program genre most often bound by the limits of the thematic cluster. Bonin offers an analysis of the reception of the work by focusing on the history of early HIV/AIDS exhibitions in Montreal since the early 1990s in which it was shown. He also uses the extensive chronology of Le récit d’A’s screenings between 1994 (the year of Valiquette’s passing) and 2022 to address the concept of posthumous authorship, and the contemporary circulation of statements made in the 1990s by persons with AIDS (pwas).
Although Marshal and Valiquette seemed to have little in common at first, apart from living with HIV/AIDS, we noticed some overlaps between their practices. For example, the dates of the inaugural showings of the works, separated by 6 years, place them in a narrative timeline – which remains to be written – of art and activism against HIV/AIDS in Montreal. The 1980s were a particularly dark time of abandonment for pwas. In 1984, when Journal of the Plague Year was conceived, activism was still scarce. Marshall's installation could therefore be described as the inaugural themed HIV/AIDS work presented at a major contemporary art event in Montreal. Le récit d’A is one of the first “coming out,” as Thomas Waugh has stated, made by a positive woman in Quebec using the medium of video. As they complement each other, our texts have also bridged two decades of the crisis which were separated by the epistemic break of the fifth AIDS conference in 1989 held in Montreal. This gathering of mostly medical professionals behind closed doors became a rallying point for activists in North America. It gave rise to an uprising led by ACT-UP (New York), AIDS ACTION NOW (Toronto) and RÉACTION SIDA (Montreal) denouncing lingering political apathy and asking for patients to play a new reformatory role in research protocols. The conference program also had a cultural component, SIDART, organized by Ken Morrison, which, among other “responses,” included a selection of video works. The activism of the early 1990s in the aftermath of the 89 conference, enabled artists like Valiquette and Marshall to gain visibility, and, in addition, chapters of ACT-UP, like the Montreal group, to find traction. Morrison and Allan Klusaček’s post-SIDART 1992 anthology of essays A Leap in the Dark offers another view of this period in Montreal. The book, which was recently reedited, refers to Marshall but occludes Valiquette, who indirectly responded to but was not present within SIDART, yet whose own trajectory overlaps with Marshall’s and whose work resonated for many during the subsequent three decades. Le récit d’A as well as Valiquette’s whole corpus, has often been entrenched in the poetic, in contrast to Marshall's analytical method and the prosaic form of other video practices emerging from the United States, United Kingdom and English Canada during the same period.
The convergence and divergence of positions within a discourse around HIV/AIDS are also reflected in the history of the collections of the distributors of these works. These are LUX, in London, and Vidéographe, in Montreal. Their catalogues each include a very different constellation of examples of HIV/AIDS video activism stemming from distinct cultural contexts, francophone and anglophone, which nevertheless resonate with the experiences and struggles shared by many positive people. When these localized speech acts are brought together, as was the case during the panel and now in this dossier, they draw the outlines of a wider archive.
The title of the panel and dossier, VIdéoH / HIVideo : (other) cultural responses. HIV/AIDS and video in Montreal (1984-1990), offered a situation where one might encounter Marshall’s Journal of the Plague Year, first exhibited in 1984, and Valiquette’s Le Récit d’A,first screened in 1990, together for the first time. It explored these ‘debuts,’ and the timelines of these AIDS-related works through many contexts, not least, our own critical and queer cultural present. While an unforeseen capacity for a shared analysis is acknowledged here, Marshall and Valiquette’s works must nevertheless be considered as both historically and critically distinct objects. However, one other discursive site that made this comparative method possible was captured in the utterance ‘(Other) cultural responses,’ itself a placeholder title for ‘other cultural responses,’ the title of the programming of AIDS activist video, performance and ‘other’ more intermedia-type iterations within Ken Morrison’s SIDART (where one of Marshall’s works, Bright Eyes (1984), was screened). At the end of the eighties, this placeholding act had already found a new nomenclature in what Douglas Crimp and his allies defined as ‘AIDS cultural activism’ during the forgoing period.
In 1983, Marshall traveled to the US and Canada to research an activist documentary for the UK’s Channel 4 on the homophobic and pathologizing representation of AIDS as the ‘gay plague.’ Through this trajectory, whose outcome became the work Bright Eyes, he first encountered the neo-gay lib AIDS activist ideas of Michael Lynch in Toronto and the safe sex evangelism of Michael Callen, Richard Berkowitz and Joseph Sonnabend in New York. One segment of Bright Eyes is an adaptation, in a drama-documentary “reenactment” style, of the news story of a San Francisco gay man who was denied an audio mic to speak on live TV as pwas. In 1989, recovering from an AIDS-related illness, Esther Valiquette sought out communitarian voices in San Francisco to understand her own experience as a positive woman. After interviewing many gay positive men, she singled out Andrew Small a legal secretary, who shared with his friend Paul Castro, the man portrayed in Bright Eyes, a similar experience of being ostracized on his job, in court. The jurors refused to be in the same room, with him. In the meantime, Small had become a media-ready AIDS activist in San Francisco. His ‘story’ then formed the basis for Le Récit d’A.
Vincent Bonin and Conal McStravick
You can find here a video program on works around HIV/AIDS in the collection of Vidéographe, which was assembled by Conal McStravick and Vincent Bonin : https://vitheque.com/en/programmations/videoh-hivideo