By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Patrick Moore, head of the archival service Estate Project for Artists With AIDS (artistswithaids.org), can't forget a show he saw seven years ago at the Drawing Center: raw, bleak sketches by prisoners stationed at the Terezín concentration camp during World War II. The drawings functioned equally as art and artifacts, says Moore, transcending any easy critical analysis. "Whether or not any of those people were deemed to be 'artists'... for the first time, I was able to personalize the tragedy."
Moore hopes to push art beyond abstraction and aesthetics and toward a kind of visceral history. His Virtual Collection, demoed last week at the Thundergulch art series, has assembled the work of some 75 HIV-positive artists, including Keith Haring and David Wojnarowicz along withmany unknown living artists, into what will become an enormous public archive online. Another extraordinary project unveiled last week proves Moore is not alone in his desire to document the devastation of AIDS digitally: a CD-ROM titled A Bronx Family Album: the Impact of AIDS (bronx-family.com), by photographer Steve Hart, is a stunning, seven-year portrait of a ravaged Puerto Rican household in the South Bronx. Though dramatically different in their ambitions, both projects are experiments in bearing witness, exploring methods to help secure and shape the history of the disease.
The Virtual Collection won't go live on the Net until September, but the preview Tuesday night revealed its two biggest assets--exhaustiveness and sophistication. Created in tandem by the Estate Project (which helps HIV-positive artists protect their work in the event of their death) and Visual AIDS (which photographs and archives the art on slides), the Collection has accumulated over 1500 images in its database, with plans to scale up to 3000 by the fall. The number is so high because the creators don't make "arbitrary aesthetic decisions" about what gets in and what doesn't, says Moore. "This digital technology makes it cheap enough to document them all and then let history figure it out later on."
With such a monumental archive of work, the biggest obstacle becomes how to move through it. (Anyone who has tried to "wander" through an online museum knows it's like tapping sap from a tree--the crawling pace of loading images makes it nearly impossible to sit through.) The Virtual Collection wisely utilizes software from an L.A. company called Luna Imaging that compresses the images at a rate five times faster than the common Web standard (30 to 1, compared to 6 to 1), which makes the exhibition more flexible, says Moore.
The Collection is intended to manufacture an extremely public and open canon of AIDS-related art. "There is a cohesiveness to all the work of artists who have AIDS [because it] deals with longing and loss," says multimedia artist Steed Taylor, who introduced samples from his oeuvre at the Collection's Tuesday night session. The same emotional potency is at the heart of A Bronx Family Album,which offers a uniquely prismatic lens on the impact of AIDS. Hart has been photographing the lives of Ralph and Sensa, an HIV-positive Puerto Rican couple with four children, since 1990, and the disc is a harrowing trip into their home, their despair, and their resilience. The centerpiece is a slide show of Hart's stark black-and-white images, accompanied by his spoken narration that contextualizes the photos with invaluable insights (about Sensa's addiction to crack and Ralph's physical abuse). But this visual tapestry is just the beginning--the disc also features a time line and family tree, and interviews with the family members, health professionals, and Hart himself. The CD-ROM is unprecedented for its publisher, Scalo, a photographic art-book house (which publishes Nan Goldin, among others). But the project is more about self-sacrifice than self-promotion. All of Hart's profit from the $34.95 disc will go to a fund he created for The Family Center to assist children affected by AIDS.
For Hart, the work has a large "missionary aspect." "A big part about the CD-ROM for me is making it an educational tool" by including interviews with health care professionals and a resource database of AIDS services, organized by cityand state. Hart has already donated the disc to schools and health care services, and conducted the first public slide show on the project last Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. (The photographs and CD-ROM also will be on exhibition at the International Center of Photography from June 12 to November 15.) Given this educational impetus, Hart selected the CD-ROM format because of its ability to broaden the exhibition's audience. "Of course I love sharing a beautiful photographic print [in a gallery], but how many people can that reach?" he asks.
Online efforts have ventured into similar documentary territory, including Loel Poor's portraits of HIV-positive people at the phenomenal AIDS resource site thebody.com. But Hart's work creates a far more intimate environment through the accompanying narration. At one point, Hart tells us how Sensa once asked him for money to support her crack habit. At another, Hart must break traumatic news to Sensa's daughter. It's moments like these that provide a glimpse of the potential uses of the CD-ROM format as a documentary device. Hart concedes that digitizing the shots can reduce their quality, but it was crucial at least to try it. "Unfortunately, it's a little cart-before-the-horse, but you've got to at least have a cart out there," he says. "The tech is out there, so there's no excuse."