A Different Kind of Intimacy: Performance and Protest in the Era of HIV/AIDS
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A Different Kind of Intimacy: Performance and Protest in the Era of HIV/AIDS

Karen Finley performances "We Keep Our Victims Ready," as part of Cultural Infidels: Film and Performance for Consenting Adults, January 13, 1990. Photo courtesy the Walker Art Center Archives.

“These are strange and dangerous times. Some of us are born with the cross hairs of a rifle scope printed on our backs or skulls. Sometimes it’s a matter of thought, sometimes activity, and most times it’s color.”—David Wojnarowicz, 19911

By fall of 1995, over half a million people had been diagnosed with AIDS in the United States, a diagnosis, which, at that time, was most often a death sentence. Only a few months earlier, the Republican-controlled Congress slashed the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) by 40 percent, the action the culmination of more than five years of attacks from conservatives and the religious right over the role the federal government should play in supporting art, artists, and cultural institutions. While HIV/AIDS deeply affected certain marginalized communities within the US, particularly gay men, it was also part of a larger sociopolitical landscape in which minoritarian perspectives, acts of protest, and aesthetic rejoiners were castigated and litigated as obscene or profane. Work by visual artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano and performance-based artists Tim Miller, Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and, later, Ron Athey—which addressed queer intimacy and politics, AIDS, and radical feminism, and featured nudity and scatological humor—proved too much for the neoconservative movement then blossoming. The country was locked in a seemingly intractable cultural war, the material consequences of which ranged in severity from public outrage against “obscene” artists, to increasing and ever-more visible homophobia, to the finality of an HIV diagnosis.

Text written on the back of a jacket David Wojnarowicz wore to an AIDS demonstration in 1988

A Different Kind of Intimacy: Radical Performance at the Walker, 1990–1995, a research exhibit presented in the Walker’s Best Buy Aperture, takes up this moment, contextualizing the performance-based artists programed at the Walker Art Center through the nation’s broader sociopolitical climate. While the charged atmosphere of the period offers a framework through which to retroactively historicize such works, artists at the time were also actively and consciously addressing HIV/AIDS, homophobia, sexism, racism, and an increasingly polarized country through their performances.

The title of the show, borrowed from a collection of Karen Finley’s writings published in 2000, gestures at the aesthetic and political stakes of live performance.2 Such performances proclaimed the embodied importance of being in communal and collective co-presence. The intimacy of liveness was, for artists of this era, a means of asserting the potency of community, made up of fellow artists, collaborators, allies, curators, and audience members in the face of HIV/AIDS and the culture wars. Confronted with AIDS’ mounting death toll and concerted efforts by many on the right to invisiblize the pandemic and its effects on queer communities, liveness took on newfound urgency and meaning. To be in embodied co-presence was never only about the particular definitional valence of “performance”; rather, it asserted the political imperative of proclaiming one’s life—one’s liveness—as valid in the face of political inaction, homophobia, and national vitriol. To be in embodied co-presence meant having spit hit you in the face as Tim Miller or Karen Finley raged against oppression; it was about seeing the blood of Darryl Carlton (aka Divinity P. Fudge) spilled in front of you, as Ron Athey cut careful patterns into his flesh; it meant witnessing the wracked bodies of artists like Ron Vawter or David Wojnarowicz, who performed up until their deaths from AIDS-related complications.

Intimacy in the title (both the exhibit and Finley’s book), of course, also references the word’s more obvious valences: sex. It is the intimacy of queer and same-sex desires, an intimacy that is, literally and also within the political frameworks that queerness offers, distinct. Such desires stand in material, embodied, and political difference to hegemonic heterosexual and heteronormative iterations of desire and intimacy. Tim Miller, in solo performances like Sex/Love/Stories (1991) and My Queer Body (1992), for instance, discussed his lovers, sex life, desires, as well as violent homophobia and the fear of HIV/AIDS. He was known for solo performances in which he told moving and funny stories about his own experience. One of a larger group of artists using solo, scripted performance as a vehicle for making the personal political, Miller rose to particular acclaim due to his nationally reported fights with Congress regarding his NEA funding. In My Queer Body, for instance, he would enter from the back of the theater space with the opening quip, “I guess you could call this a rear entry.” As Sylvie Drake wrote of him for the Los Angeles Times, “He is that most terrifying of hyphenates: a gay militant activist-artist, whose sexual preference has become what propels his art.”

The interdisciplinary artist David Wojnarowicz in his writing from the period likewise illuminates the ways in which queer intimacies necessarily deviated from (hetero)sexual norms. In Postcards from America X Rays from Hell, Wojnarowicz wrote,

It is a standard practice [in this country] to make invisible any kind of sexual imaging other than white straight male erotic fantasies… there are actual laws… forbidding anything else [beyond “a couple of heterosexual positions on a bed,” as Wojnarowicz put it] even between consenting adults. So people have found it necessary to define their sexuality in images, in photographs and drawings and movies in order to not disappear.3

Intimacy in queer art and performance of the time was often, then, about sex and fucking and cruising and club culture and BDSM and glory holes and butch-bottoms and “pushy femmes, radical faeries … masturbators, bulldaggers, divas, Snap! queens,” to quote the influential queer and feminist scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, precisely because such intimacies—and thus the individuals and communities who practiced them—were erased or rendered illegal.4 Art, and performance particularly, were gestures of display that refused to allow such iterations of intimacy to be ignored but also refused a logic of normative assimilation. Queer, performed intimacies are, as Wojnarowicz and more recently performance theorist Amelia Jones contend, threatening to not only conservative social frameworks but to the very structures and systems of the art world (museums certainly included) itself. To create, institutionally support, and witness such performed gestures of aliveness was a continuing practice of intimacy and a political project of proclaiming queerness as still here.

John Kelly performing Born with a Moon in Cancer from Cultural Infidels: Film and Performance for Consenting Adults, January 20, 1990, Ruby’s Cabaret. Photo courtesy the Walker Art Center Archives
“There is more I wanted to do with this dance, but there wasn’t time.”
—Neil Greenberg, Not-About-AIDS-Dance, 19945

A Different Kind of Intimacy is temporally bound by 1990, a year which saw the most forceful efforts by Congress to defund the National Endowment for the Arts,  and 1995, a year that still carries the distinction of having the most AIDS reported deaths in the US. By 1990, the HIV/AIDS pandemic was nearly a decade old, and the year dawned, at the Walker, with the monthlong program Cultural Infidels: Film and Performance for Consenting Adults. Developed by John Killacky, then director of the Performing Arts department, the festival, in part, took aim at debates happening across the country that challenged work by queer and radical artists. For instance, a year earlier, in 1989, Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibition at Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, funded in part through grants from the NEA, was canceled due to charges of obscenity. By June of 1990, Congress passed the so-called decency clause, which stipulated that the NEA needed to consider not simply artistic merit but also the “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs of the American public,” when awarding funding.6

Later that same month, four performing artists whose work had been recommended for individual artist grants by the NEA found their funding revoked based upon this newly created clause; the group came to be known as the NEA Four. One of the artists, Finley, had performed some five months earlier during Cultural Infidels. The new decade, thus, dawned with the conservative mandate of the 1980s still largely intact (George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president, occupied the nation’s highest office) and with debates over the county’s moral and political future increasingly focalized around a relatively small group of radical, queer, feminist performance-based artists. A Different Kind of Intimacy immerses viewers in the political upheavals of the era by focusing on how performing artists addressed and navigated these concurrent socio and biopolitical attacks: the threat of an AIDS diagnosis, on the one hand, and increasing—and successful—efforts to defund the arts, on the other.

While the exhibit is invested in an historical period and in mapping certain aesthetic and political events onto each other, time means far more than a calendrical marking of congressional decisions or muséal programming. This exhibit—and scholarship and journalism more broadly on this moment in the 1980s and 1990s in the US—is marked by the urgency of lost time, of quickly losing time: of mortality. As Minneapolis-based dancer, choreographer, and activist Patrick Scully noted of the period, “When your friends are dying, you damn well better be paying attention,” and, by extension, making work and taking to the streets, with ever-greater urgency. It was a time marked by unknown futures—or the time of no future. Queer and performance studies scholar Sean Metzger describes this sense of impending mortality, “[AIDS] had a tremendous impact on the way one thought of the arts and what the next generation was going to be…You weren’t sure you were going to make it to 40 … under those conditions people produced differently. [It was] a way of creating some kind of sign of life in response to that death.”

Keith Hennessy, Patrick Scully, and Ishmael Houston-Jones (L to R) in Unsafe Unsuited, movement sequence loosely entitled “Flesh in the Game,” PS 122, March 1995. Photo: Dona Ann McAdams

A Different Kind of Intimacy exhibits the Walker’s archival and collection materials from the time period to narrate a story of performance, activism, and memorialization. It includes three presentations, one of which highlights festivals the Walker hosted, demonstrating the art center’s commitment to radical and queer performers by presenting archival ephemera like posters, programs, photographs, and video footage. Such programs and festivals include Cultural Infidels, Dyke Night, and Out There, and include work by artists like Finley, Guillermo Goméz-Peña, Patrick Scully, Keith Hennessey, and Ishmael Houston-Jones. The other two cases offer a deeper investigation into two different artists’ works: Ron Vawter’s Roy Cohn/Jack Smith (1992), commissioned and presented by the Walker, and Ron Athey’s 1994 evening-length performance curated by the Walker and presented at Patrick’s Cabaret, a queer performance and community venue founded by Patrick Scully.

Vawter, one of the founding members of several New York avant-garde performance groups including Performance Group and later the Wooster Group, described his solo piece Roy Cohn/Jack Smith as “a comedy of repression.” The performance, composed of two monologues, explored sexuality by juxtaposing two men’s approach to gay identity. The first half, Roy Cohn, focused on the eponymous attorney, who was then a fixture of the New York and national political landscape and had been since the 1950s when he made his mark as Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel. Later, he was to become an important, if informal, advisor to Presidents Nixon and Reagan and a mentor to a young Donald Trump. Vawter’s monologue, written by playwright Gary Indiana, was a fictionalized version of a speech Cohn delivered to the American Society for the Protection of the Family in 1978 in which he issued a scathing attack on gay rights, despite living much of his adult life in romantic relationships with men. This piece was juxtaposed with Jack Smith, based upon What’s Underground About Marshmallows?, a performance that Smith, a queer artist beloved in the New York underground and close friend of Vawter’s, presented in 1981. Both Cohn and Smith passed away from AIDS-related complications (in 1986 and 1989 respectively); Vawter died from AIDS-related complications in 1994. Footage of Vawter performing the piece at The Kitchen in New York is on display; this was to be his last performance before his passing.

Ron Vawter as Jack Smith in Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, October 31, 1996, The Kitchen, New York. Photo: Paula Court

The second case focuses on Athey’s 1994 performance and its subsequent charged reception, which catapulted the Walker into ongoing national debates that viewed federal arts funding as a mechanism for litigating the morality—or “obscenity”—of certain (most often queer, feminist, or radical) artists. The Los Angeles–based Athey, presented, along with his collaborators Darryl Carlton (aka Divinity Fudge), Julie Tolentino, and Pigpen, an evening of performance excerpts from his longer pieces. Combining Pentecostal ceremony (as a teenager Athey imagined he would become a minister), ritual practices like tattooing and scarification, and queer SM culture, his performances can be difficult to watch. As performance studies scholar André Lepecki writes, describing his experience viewing Athey’s work: “As waves of tremors crisscross his body, Athey lies on his back and continues to manipulate the two panes of glass so that the blood staining them becomes imprinted back onto his skin. He trembles, blood keeps spurting, some in the audience squat down, some avert the gaze, some cannot take in the piece. Dizzy, I lower my head a few times.” As much as Athey consents to spill blood and endure pain during his performances, he also asks of his audience that they bear witness to pain. It is, perhaps, the most challenging and difficult part of his work.

This final case focuses on the artist’s compelling performance practice and on the controversy that erupted following his Minneapolis performance. A series of articles, which first appeared some two weeks after the performance in the Star Tribune, questioned the safety of his performance, casting his aesthetic practice through the lens of larger national—often sensationalized—homophobic conversations that swirled around AIDS and concerns of contagion. The controversy, eventually reaching the Senate floor, proved to be the breaking point for federal funding for the arts and led to the most dramatic cuts to date of the NEA’s budget.

In addition to the material exhibit, A Different Kind of Intimacy includes a series of newly commissioned online interviews and essays. The interviews, with artists, curators, scholars, queer activists, and social workers, help flesh out the era, gesturing towards the important corollaries we might draw between the 1990s and our current moment. Taken together these elements function as so many ephemeral traces of past performances: a memorial of sorts to a generation of now past artists.


1David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (New York: Vintage Books, 1991).

2Karen Finley, A Different Kind of Intimacy: the Collected Writings of Karen Finley (New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 2001).

3David Wojnarowicz’s “Postcards from America” X Rays from Hell” was commissioned by Nan Goldin for her 1989 exhibition Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, organized by Artists Space in New York. His essay, critical of Sen. Jesse Helms, Rep. William Dannemeyer, and Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor, drew the ire of newly elected NEA chairman, John Frohnmayer. Frohnmayer revoked the $100,000 grant, which had funded the show. Then Artists Space director Susan Wyatt protested the NEA’s decision, and was able to advocate for a partial return of the grant monies. The NEA, however, refused to fund the exhibition catalogue.

4Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 8.

5In his essay “‘I don’t know what made this ‘private’ in the first place.’: Neil Greenberg’s Not-About-AIDS Dance,” republished in Lost and Found: Dance, New York, HIV/AIDS, Then and Now, poet and scholar Jamie Shearn Coan offers a close reading of Greenberg’s 1994 dance piece, including quotes of many of the projected lines of text that accompanied Greenberg’s choreographed movement. Shearn Coan, “I don’t know what made this ‘private’ in the first place.” Neil Greenberg’s Not-About-AIDS Dance,” in Lost and Found: Dance, New York, HIV/AIDS, Then and Now (New York: Danspace Project, 2016), 235–247.

6The Williams/Coleman Amendment, or so called “decency clause,” was approved by Congress and added to the guidelines of the NEA in 1989, ensuring that the organization had broad leeway to fund or refuse artists and organizations’ applications based upon subjective perceptions of decency and respect. The clause was wielded as a tool to refuse grants to queer, feminist, and radical artists, institutions, or projects.

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