The AIDS activist revolution—if not always televised—was at least video-recorded. The Guggenheim’s “Fever in the Archive” showcases video work from the last 15 years, ranging from documents of collective political action (1989’s Target City Hall, which captures an ACT UP demo) to the hushed, personal ruminations of those living with AIDS (Stuart Gaffney’s Virus, from 1994). Chronicling not only the output of late-’80s and early-’90s New York-based activist media groups, such as WAVE (Women’s AIDS Video Enterprise) and DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activist Television), but also smaller, more artistic collaborations (Phil Zwickler and David Wojnarowicz’s provocative Fear of Disclosure, from 1989), the series is an invaluable repository of images reflecting the urgency of AIDS activism at its most visible.
Gregg Bordowitz and Jean Carlomusto’s Seize Control of the FDA records both the media savvy and scientific proficiency (“We are the experts when we go there,” one protester declares) of the activists who took possession of the Food and Drug Administration building on October 11, 1988—an ambush that brought attention to the FDA’s unconscionably slow response to the AIDS crisis and to the larger flaws in the U.S. health care system. Learning—and spreading—the facts about AIDS is also integral to Ellen Spiro’s DiAna’s Hair Ego: AIDS Info Up Front (1989), in which the titular owner of a beauty salon in Columbia, South Carolina, serves as an information clearinghouse about the virus and safer-sex practices, either while setting a perm or in outreach efforts at local schools and churches, primarily in African American communities.
One of the most chilling moments in the series (which includes a panel discussion sponsored by NYU’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality on December 6 at 7 p.m. at 100 Washington Square East) occurs during James Wentzy’s The Ashes Action (1995), a record of the ACT UP demonstration in October 1992, in which the ashes of loved ones were tossed onto the George Bush-occupied White House lawn. During a presidential debate three hours after this action, Poppy petulantly dismissed AIDS activism, boasting, “I think we’re showing the proper compassion and concern.” In 1992, “compassionate conservatism” equaled inertia in the midst of a health crisis; one shudders to think how Dubya would have responded on a national level to the epidemic.
Sadly, the last time queers took to the streets of D.C. was this past April for the corporate-sponsored Millennium March, where activist anger and political outrage were supplanted by rainbow flags and a mass wedding. Amateur Hi-8 recording has been superseded by the cameras of VH1, which recently broadcast the Millennium March’s tepid pep rally, Equality Rocks, a concert featuring a roster of homo celebrities. In a time when Melissa Etheridge’s shilling for the Democrats counts as political action, “Fever in the Archive” is a powerful reminder of the possibilities of alternative media and politics—indelibly capturing a moment in which the two went hand in hand.