Following his recent retrospective at the Whitney Museum, History Keeps Me Awake at Night, David Wojnarowicz has been the subject of renewed attention over the past few months. Some critics claimed that the retrospective failed to connect the AIDS crisis with the practice of contemporary activists, anchoring AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s rather than recognizing it as a highly dangerous current threat — over 36 million people worldwide live with the disease today. While the museum staff welcomed the protestors’ comments, especially those of ACT UP NY members, issues of historicity and activism do raise intergenerational questions around the AIDS crisis, connecting a previous generation determined and eliminated by the virus, and a new one that continues to reflect on it.
In addition to producing painting, collage, and film, Wojnarowicz recorded himself in the privacy of his home and car for many years, producing what we now know as his audio tape journals. Although he never intended to publish them, the journals were integral to his artistic practice. These recordings, housed in New York University’s Fales Collection, follow him from 1981 to 1989. Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz, edited by Lisa Darms and David O’Neill, (MIT Press, 2018), offers readers a unique perspective on the artist’s inner life; it also sheds light on the daily life of individuals living with the threat of a deadly disease. In his incisive introduction, Artforum Editor-in-Chief David Velasco considers the effect of looking at Wojnarowicz’s work from a historical and temporal remove, acknowledging him as a figure of the past who continues to haunt the present. The more you read, the more similarities you’ll find with life in 2018.
David Wojnarowicz was a ghost haunting my every move for years, before I first saw his work in 2017. VOICE = SURVIVAL, a group exhibition curated by Claudia Maria Carrera and Adrian Geraldo Saldaña for Visual AIDS, featured two desks on opposite ends of the gallery, where visitors could sit down and listen to the journals. I sat there for multiple hours, transfixed by the voice of a man who had suffered through one of the most horrific times in modern memory, a voice weighed down by the pain of imminent death and effervescing with ideas about the impact of art on our daily lives.
Wojnarowicz’s journals have a way of moving voice to page, and their incantatory qualities resonate with the force of traditional oral storytelling. Velasco writes “the final image of these tapes is of a single car stopped for a red light, like it’s a fucking F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Just because he’s talking doesn’t mean it’s not literature.” The transcription can be divided into two parts: pre-diagnosis and post-diagnosis, with a significant break from his recordings between 1982 and 1988, presumably while he struggled to cope with the death of his lover, Peter Hujar, and his own infection with the disease. The moments that are recorded, however, give us a glimpse into his unique state of mind; he touches on topics including the changing art market and art world, and his relationship to the inadequacy of language in the face of death, artistic creation, and sexuality.
Wojnarowicz starts off his recordings looking out the window, describing what he sees. He quickly moves into the personal, discussing a man he’s just met and his typical approach to sexual or romantic encounters: it’s a one-time affair. “I never see myself getting back together with them unless there’s some sort of offer made on their part,” he confesses. Emphasis on communication — physical and spoken, interpersonal and sexual — is at the heart of these journals. He says: “There can be no direct communication where I can feel totally free in expressing myself, my ideas, my desires, and my experiences.” This is the freedom that comes with stripping away of social structures, such as language, professional expectations, and governmental policies. We are born into these — the artist calls this “the pre-invented world” — and they challenge and limit his freedom to manifest his queer identity and spirituality. By speaking freely about which his sexual inclinations in the journals, he establishes an immediate sense of intimacy with the listener, a relationship that unfolds at the border of the “pre-invented world” he so desperately wants to escape. But how reliable is he?
What it comes down to is the whole idea of taking the work of a person to be that person. In a sense it is, but in a greater sense it isn’t. It could just be something that they’re introduced to in the world, or by chance, that they’ve put together an approach that’s very different for other people and for themselves.
The performativity of his speech raises question for the reader. For instance, who is he talking to or for? And what levels of artifice are present in the stories he recounts? We’re eavesdropping on a conversation that was never meant to be heard, and, as a result, we enter a triangulated relationship that veers on the erotic, between Wojnarowicz, his amorous and analytical mind, and the silent listener.
But Wojnarowicz’s task of recording himself is a serious matter — one of life and death. In The Weight of the Earth, it comes across as a way for him to feel himself through language, to broaden the scope of his experience, and to allow himself unrestrained ruminations. “It was this sensation of being inside my own body, sitting at a table, going through motions that were almost not believable to me. It was like I felt every … I did everything that I felt,” he says. His conception of his body as political and producing meaning is fundamental to the development of his corporeal artistic practice. But he’s also speaking with a smirk in the corner of his mouth: “I don’t think I could ever really say or write anything of worth. How I feel is self-conscious about anything I say,” he confesses right before launching into a graphic description of “a sensation” he frequently had right as he fell asleep, “like somebody had reached from behind me and was playing with my cock.” Wojnarowicz regularly alternates between professing a supposed shyness in the face of personal expression and being completely uninhibited. Everything changes when he picks up his recorder in 1988, after being diagnosed as HIV positive:
I believe in what I do so much that it can’t be wrong, and it can’t be work that’s unnecessary, and it can’t be things that are unnecessary or just clog up the surface of the world. They’re meaningful things and they’re meaningful to me, and I know that they have to have a life beyond me.
In Close to the Knives, his seminal memoir from 1991, Wojnarowicz writes “words can strip the power from a memory or an event. Words can cut the ropes of an experience. Breaking silence about an experience can break the chains of the code of silence.” Post-diagnosis, he is increasingly invested in manipulating language to tell a story, rather than letting the words assume authority over his chora. Many of the recordings from 1988 to 1989 are retellings and analyses of dreams, and observations regarding the stories people have told themselves about his art. As he struggles in both his intellectual and artistic endeavors to the “pre-invented world,” he increasingly notices the unreliability of language in the face of experience. The recordings suggest an attempt to identify a way in which his words echo exclusively with the hum of his own thoughts, rather than mirror the world outside of his apartment, festering with mass deaths, intolerance, systematic muting of entire communities, and the sociosexual repression pushing men back into their homes. Although he records himself processing his feelings through language, the recordings represent an impasse — language won’t let itself be controlled:
I hate the idea of putting these performed gestures on the tip of my tongue or through my lips or through the inside of my mouth, forming sounds to approximate something that’s like a cyclone, or something that’s like a flood, or something that’s like a weather system that’s out of control … I hate language in this moment because it seems like so much bullshit.
After 1988, his feeling of being stuck in his language intensifies. “All these thoughts are based on feelings that I carry. I’m so sick of the anxiety, and I’m so sick of thinking of certain things. Like, I never let these things get in my way, but it’s like I have to shove all of them away. And I felt like a fucking mess.” His increasing sense of defeat comes hand in hand with the death of his lover and collaborator, Peter Hujar, in 1987. He lives in Hujar’s apartment, struggles against eviction, and occupies the space of death while managing his own imminent death. For an artist so invested in addressing civil issues and sexuality barriers in his work, the perhaps surprising result is a retreat into his dreams. The better part of the second half of the book relay his dreams in detail. They often make no sense and are so detailed that, for a reader, they border on dull and tedious. Yet this retreat was clearly his way of coloring his daily life with the surreal, of allowing himself to exist in a world outside of the pre-invented, or so he hoped. He says “imagination is the key to breaking through pre-invented existence,” but each time he allows himself to enter a thought through his imagination, he hits a roadblock and puts an end to the recording—as if each time he realizes that the imagination is a processing mechanism inextricable from the pre-invented world.
The road to the imagination leads Wojnarowicz to an ineluctable encounter: “All the scientists looking to find the beginning of the universe can never really find it, because it’s like pulling the plug out of the socket. Once you have that cognizance of what you are, your totality, then you cease to exist.” As he accumulated recordings, he realizes that the more he scrutinizes the language through which he experiences both the world and his illness, the more his world changes. And the closer he gets to understanding the root of a thought, the louder his body’s deterioration resounds. Confronting at once with the threat of death and the possibility of total freedom, he seems to cancel himself out:
I’m so far inside myself…that I can’t come out to talk. It’s almost as if I’m in this body vehicle, and I’m lying down, and this vehicle keeps moving.
By the end of his recordings, Wojnarowicz has talked himself into a loop and anchored himself in a tendentious tug-of-war between the pre-invented world he so vehemently combats and the language he hopes will free him from it. This indebtedness to both language and his physical embodiment is what gives the recordings such strength; they’re so piercingly relatable that they almost become the body enfleshed. But the transcription also asks readers: what happens to a text when it was never meant for an audience? While a written transcription of these recordings makes them accessible to wider audiences, we might also wonder if it doesn’t permanently anchor Wojnarowicz in the pre-invented world he thought a recording might shield him from — especially since he intended the tapes to stay private? As readers, we function as voyeurs, witnesses to the deterioration and death of a brilliant mind. We also bring our contemporary social structures — our pre-invented world — into a historical moment that was so rooted in death and destruction, and take pleasure in the artist’s personal revelations. Ultimately, no matter how magnetic the transcription is, there is a chance readers will walk away from the book feeling as if they’ve committed the crimes of intruding in, projecting upon, and appropriating the artist’s most intimate thoughts. Yet this is precisely what the world needs: a self-aware and historically minded reader who both struggles with and revels in Wojnarowicz’s legacy.
Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz (2018) is published by MIT Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.
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