On ViewVisual AIDS
from May 11, 2020
A typical art fundraiser follows a rigid pattern: cocktail hour is for attendees to socialize with their table numbers in hand; following is a sit-down dinner in which the main course is chicken, meat, or fish, and presentations traditionally exceed their time limits. Occasionally, a dessert tower awaits during the after party. If not, sweets are served at tables, as guests depart amidst dance tunes. Visual AIDS’s annual fundraiser VAVA VOOM, however, is known for shaking the pattern as more of a let-go than a deck-out for friends and supporters of the 32-year-old organization that merges HIV/AIDS activism and art. Edgy performances, over-the-top fashions, and a casual fête make each year’s iteration a community get-together, while raising funds for programming that includes exhibitions, panels, grants, and community workshops centered around artists living with AIDS or HIV. The highlight of each year’s extravaganza is the presentation of the Visual AIDS Vanguard Award. Artists Zoe Leonard, Eric Rhein, Lyle Ashton Harris, and Tom Bianchi are among those who have graced the VAVA stage to receive their accolades.
Before COVID-19 regulations mandated lockdown and social distancing, Visual AIDS announced that HIV specialist doctor and philanthropist Daniel S. Berger, filmmaker Catherine Gund, and artist Frederick Weston would receive this year’s honors with a gala on May 11. As the virus rapidly escalated to a pandemic, the organization’s gala committee brainstormed over Zoom for an effective yet sensitive way to raise funds. “We wanted to honor the spirit of our past VAVA VOOMs but did not simply expect our supporters to donate the amount of a typical gala ticket,” says Visual AIDS Executive Director, Esther McGowan. The organization unveiled the virtual platform NOT OVER the day when friends of Visual AIDS would have gathered downtown for the festivities. New York-based curatorial initiative Duplex and digital designer Hollie Pollak helped the organization to gather presentations of new or existing artworks from Visual AIDS alumni, such as Carlos Motta, Conrad Ventur, and Pamela Sneed, in addition to fresh faces, including two video artists, Jake Brush and Jaimie Warren.
The platform, which also enables supporters to donate to Visual AIDS’s programming, fittingly kicked off with a hallucinatory video by late maestro of queer film and performance, Jack Smith, on the gnarly paths of American moralism. Smith created No President (originally titled The Kidnapping of Wendell Willkie by the Love Bandit) (1967–70) with footage from Republican Willkie’s presidential campaign against Roosevelt and recordings of the artist’s signature subversive genre-bending ritualistic performances, most of which he shot at his loft. Smith’s pioneering status in 1980s East Village experimentalism taps into the legacy Visual AIDS keeps intact while bringing the conversation to the present. In fact, “Not Over” is an expression that the organization has repeatedly utilized over the years in its exhibition program as well as in its annual “Day With(out) Art” initiative to emphasize an ongoing battle against the health condition and prejudice. Following Smith’s bitterly relevant riff on nationalistic agenda is Singing John Giorno (2020), performance artist Morgan Bassichis’s serenading of a text John Giorno penned for Visual AIDS in 1993. The VAVA VOOM veteran who hosted the gala twice in the past sings late poet’s romantically anarchistic words on physical contact, sex, and solidarity while donning Visual AIDS’s 30th anniversary neon pink tote bag emblazoned with the poem in lieu of a necklace. The image of Bassichis performing to the camera may directly resonate with selfie culture; however, Keith Haring’s Tribute to Gloria Vanderbilt (Take Two) video from exactly 40 years ago proves the multigenerational conversation the exhibition generates. The lens work which Haring created in a genre he’s merely associated with grasps underpinnings of our saturated relationship with the camera, showing the late artist flirting with the one-eyed beast on the backdrop of bizarre New Wave rhythms. He sticks his tongue out, switches between expressions and tries different postures, coming in and out of various selves with equal doses of awareness and aloofness towards the lens gazing at him. Fast-forward to four decades later, in Hairography, “Chimérique,” Candystore similarly flirts with the camera, meditating on their quarantine life through performance of mundane domestic acts, amplified by abrupt hair flips and dramatic expressions that recall Haring’s.