Remember to Be Infinite
|David Wojnarowicz, untitled (Face in Dirt)|
Each painting, film, sculpture or page of writing I make represents to me a particular moment in the history of my body on this planet, in america. Therefore each photograph, film, sculpture and page of writing I make has built into it a particular frame of mind that only I can be sure of knowing, given that I have always felt alienated in this country, and thus have lived with the sensation of being an observer of my own life as it occurs.
--David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives
Reading the early chapters of Cynthia Carr's biography of David Wojnarowicz, Fire in the Belly, provides an experience I can't recall in any other biography: the utter uncertainty of witness. Again and again, Carr presents an event as one person remembered it, then follows with other participants' very different recollections. Works of biography and history regularly present varying versions of events, but will usually take sides, proclaiming what was most likely, holding back what the writer considers least likely. Carr's approach is more objective, a necessary choice because so much of Wojnarowicz's early life exists only in memory, with little documentary evidence to support one account or another. What's striking is how different those accounts can be. But this should not be surprising to us, especially considering how traumatic the family's life was — trauma doesn't just chop memories away, the brain doing its best to preserve sanity through forgetfulness; trauma warps memories like a blacksmith twists hot iron.
One early passage in Carr's biography presents different accounts, and I find it achingly sad both because of the terror of the events but also, most poignantly, because the conflicting memories testify to the pain. In only a few paragraphs, Carr chronicles how the abusive, alcoholic Ed Wojnarowicz and his second wife, Marion, sent the children away to live with their (unprepared) mother in a small apartment in New York:
Marion said she packed the children’s things and then Ed drove them to Dolores’s apartment.
David remembered the handoff happening at a restaurant near Port Authority and that they sat there while Ed told Dolores what little shits these kids were, what a waste of money. It was Horn and Hardart’s, Steven clarified, inside Port Authority. He remembered sitting at a table for more than an hour while their parents talked and he ate a piece of spice cake. Pat had no memory of being in or near Port Authority at all. She was certain their father dropped them directly at Dolores’s door. She could picture it.
No one could tell me when this happened. Not the year, much less the month. Not whether it was hot out or cold. Not even Marion. Here the timeline just disintegrates.
One of the comforts of conventional narrative, fiction or nonfiction, is that it asserts historical truth. Narrative says: this is what happened. More honest would be to say: the timeline just disintegrates.
|David Wojnarowicz, Tongues of Flame exhibition poster|
None of us would have thought so at the time, but those were innocent days -- before gentrification flattened our options, and AIDS changed the world for the worse, and congressional leaders started weighing in on artists who filmed ants. We had no way to know how much was ending.
--Cynthia Carr, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz
Where did I first notice David Wojnarowicz's name? I feel like I was aware of him by the time I got to New York in the fall of 1994, by which time he had been dead for two years, because I feel like I remember an announcement of his death, I feel like I remember caring about that announcement, that I felt a loss then. Certainly, I was aware of the NEA controversies of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Wojnarowicz was involved in some of that, including suing the American Family Association and Donald Wildmon for their (mis)use of his art. Did that make it onto the evening news, 60 Minutes, or CBS Sunday Morning? If so, I could have heard of him there. Though I tried to pretend not to, I paid extremely close attention when anything came on TV about AIDS, queer activism, and controversial art. My adolescent rebellion did not consist of driving recklessly or drinking beer or getting a tattoo, but of reading books published by Grove Press, City Lights, and High Risk, all of which I discovered at Tower Records in Boston on occasional trips into the city to escape from home. (And, honestly, my rebellion was more dangerous for a queer kid in rural America in the late '80s/early '90s. Adults would have been more forgiving of tattoos, drinking, and reckless driving than of the kinds of books I kept under my bed.) I'm sure I would have seen Wojnarowicz's Close to the Knives at Tower, but I doubt I would have paid a whole lot of attention to it.
But his is not a name you easily forget once you've seen it — I certainly remember wondering how to pronounce it, and settled for many years on something like wodge-narowitz. Even now, unless I take a moment to think about it, I have trouble pronouncing his name accurately as voy-na-RO-vitch. I know how to pronounce it, and have for quite some time, but formative years of hearing it in my head differently make the inaccurate pronunciation what my brain always goes back to.
The only Wojnarowicz book I bought when it was new was the comic Seven Miles a Second in its 1996 Vertigo edition, which I got because I remember being curious to read more by and about Wojnarowicz and the book was inexpensive. I don't remember where I got it, but probably St. Marks Books or Tower Records in Manhattan. By that time, I knew more about him, particularly his activism with ACT UP. I was terribly disappointed that Seven Miles a Second wasn't more about that activism.
I didn't really learn to appreciate Seven Miles a Second until ten years later when my friend David Beronä told me it was a comic he particularly valued. I went back to it — it's sort of miraculous that I hadn't discarded it through various moves over the years — and found it to be quite affecting. I wish David were still around so that I could talk with him about it, now that I've grown into the book's poetry, rage, beauty, pain. But he's been gone for almost six years now. The experience of reading Seven Miles a Second for me now links one David, Wojnarowicz, to another, Beronä — it is a book of many losses.
After my father's death, my mother and I would sometimes compare notes about what we remembered of our twenty years together as a family, before it all finally collapsed. Though at first it was fun to compare discrepancies and sometimes wildly different memories of things, I began to avoid these discussions, because enough of the differences in what we remembered were so large, the gaps so unbridgeable, that I began to distrust even my memories of yesterday.
After my mother's death, I mourned the loss of my partner in remembering — not simply the loss of someone who remembered things I remembered, but the loss of the person best positioned to help me guess the differences between reality and dream.
I watched the new documentary Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker (at this writing, available via Kino Marquee in support of various independent cinemas). It successfully balances biography, historical chronicle, and tone poem. It's more traditionally narrative than such a film would have been if Wojnarowicz himself had made it, but nonetheless its patterns, juxtapositions, imagery, and suggestions of dream all evoke his aesthetic values. It doesn't go into biographical nitty-gritty, so will be disappointing to anyone seeking a clear timeline of his life or explanations of why he did what he did, but I did not feel this disappointment (perhaps because I had read Carr's book and Wojnarowicz's own writings). After watching it, what I felt was an obsessive, overwhelming need to return to Wojnarowicz's writings and art, more obsessive and overwhelming than I had felt before, although ever since returning to Seven Miles a Second I had been fairly regularly keeping up with his work and with what was being written about him, especially in the wake of Cynthia Carr's biography and then the important 2018 retrospective of his work at the Whitney.
It is not surprising that a passion for Wojnarowicz should renew now, after a year of a global pandemic has reshaped life, and after four years of a blustering, vulgar, cruel administration in Washington, D.C. exposed the hollowness of American democratic norms. For me, too, there is the sense of reckoning that middle age tempts us to indulge. The era of Wojnarowicz's last years was the era of my entrance to adulthood, the era when many of my most persistent tastes and prejudices first found form. Returning in memory to that time allows me to return to a memory of possibility, a memory not of hope or happiness, exactly, but of futurity — unlike now, my days then were spent preparing for a life to come.
|David Wojnarowicz, untitled (Genet)|
I've been trying to find a couple of lines written by David Wojnarowicz, lines I came across while researching my biography of him, Fire in the Belly (2012). I remember them being scrawled in one of his small notebooks, yet somehow they aren’t in my “Notebooks” file -- or in “Journals.” But the gist is burned into my brain. What he described more poetically than I’m able to was the sight of a homeless man lying in a refrigerator box. Only the man’s feet and lower legs were visible. David photographed the scene, and, as I recall it, he wrote in the elusive notebook: “That was once someone’s tiny little baby.”
--Cynthia Carr, Artforum, Summer 2018
In the catalog for the Whitney Museum's Wojnarowicz retrospective, Hanya Yanagihara considers the nostalgia that has long existed but seems to be growing for a 1970s and 1980s New York City:
It's ... easy to fathom what might have inspired this renewal of fascination for New York during its most inequitable, most desperate, most death-filled years in modern times: what we crave is that sense of collective movement, of collective uncertainty, that sense that nothing, not gender or sexuality or money, could insulate you from something large and immediate and terrifying that could yet shrink itself into something so tiny that it could wringgle in through the walls of your building, past your sheets, and into your blood; that sensation that life was quavering and temporal, that you had to be vigilant, even when completing the most mundane tasks of life. Now, that seems exotic and bracing. ... For years, AIDS stratified the city; it drained it of compassion. Like all plagues, it segregated and categorized. But if you lived in the city, you had no choice but to contend with its existence. If you arranged your life just so, you might be able to avoid thinking about it, but you weren't able to deny it.
Those words were published in 2018. I write now on the other side of a year spent in isolation, a year of contamination and pandemic, a year of sickness and death. I write this days after a mass shooting that targeted Asian and Asian-American women in Atlanta, Georgia and a mass shooting in Boulder, Colorado. I write this after the deadliest year in recorded U.S. history and also the worst year for gun violence in at least two decades. And let us not forget the deaths caused throughout the world by the U.S. military, U.S. foreign policy, and U.S. arms manufacturers and dealers. And then let us not forget the deaths caused by U.S. industries and behaviors that contribute to the global climate crisis. We may say we care — we're good at proclaiming empathy — but our actions as individuals and as a society speak more clearly.
Stratified, drained of compassion —that certainly seems to be our world, and not only because of what we've been living through this past year, but also because of the resurgence of reactionary, right-wing authoritarian sentiment, a resurgence that discards the aw-shucks fascism of Reagan for unabashed cruelty and sadistic, murderous rage-tantrums. We are death drive entrepreneurs. "Americans can't deal with death," Wojnarowicz wrote, "unless they own it."
Compassion is not an American virtue. Individuals may have compassion for people they know or for types of people they care about, but there is nothing in American history or in the structures of American society and government to suggest that this is a land of compassion. Quite the opposite. Our national anthem is a celebration of battle; our most cherished national myths all only venerate community if it can produce violent triumph, and our vaunted individualism is primarily aimed at individual enrichment. (What is "rugged individualism" if not the denial of solidarity, community, and compassion?) My fellow Americans, let's be truthful. Our greatest commitments are to concentrated wealth accumulation, prisons, weapons, and war.
Nonetheless, I can't deny Hanya Yanigahara's accusation of nostalgia for an idea of a dirtier, scarier NYC, nor her insight that at least part of that nostalgia derives from a yearning for the kind of community that arises in and older type of crisis. Personally, though, it's not that sense of community that I yearn for. I do not want a sense of community that has anything to do with the dangers of the city forty years ago, nor the horror of AIDS. (I remember too well when AIDS offered nothing but hopelessness, and coming of age during that crisis was an experience that disfigures me to this day.)
The nostalgia I feel (when, occasionally, I feel it) is a nostalgia for a time when it was possible to be a young person of artistic inclinations living without much income in a place where other people with similar passions also lived. It was a time when experiment was possible, a place with room for uncommercial, imperfect, ragged work. (Hanya Yanagihara: "When you look at Wojnarowicz's work, you are struck by how imperfect it is. We live in an era of technical perfection, of art that is beautifully composed.") My nostalgia is for a bohemia I once glimpsed but never really knew, because I arrived just a few years too late. I saw, felt, heard, tasted, smelled its remnants. (I remember when Giuliani sent tanks to 13th Street to clear out squatters and make way for investment opportunities.) I got to New York in time to not be able to afford tickets to Angels in America — but Alphabet City still felt dangerous at night.
It's all gone now.
|David Wojnarowicz, untitled (Silence = Death)|
Few on the “art” side of the culture war saw what was beginning here, while the far right found a uniquely exploitable world: skilled professionals making highly charged imagery they could take out of context. The right-wing frothers soon learned that, yes, nuance could be crushed, intimidation would work, and facts did not matter. Right-wing media would get the lies out unchallenged. ... Meanwhile, the Frohnmayers and Wyatts of the art world thought they could reason with the right, thought truth would change perceptions. They thought this was an episode, not the beginning of a train wreck. But David, with his rebelliousness and his passion and his hair-trigger temperament and his illness, which had made him even more sensitive to the total blockage in society -- he got it immediately.
--Cynthia Carr, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz
I glance through the table of contents for the first High Risk anthology, edited by Amy Scholder and Ira Silverberg, published by Plume in 1991. Here are the contributors:
William S. Burroughs
Ana Maria Simo
Manuel Ramos Otero
I have trouble believing that this book I hold in my hands exists. I was alive when High Risk was published, I remember seeing it in bookstores, but it is hard now to remember what it was like to take for granted that such books would be published and then stocked by stores. Back then, it seemed perfectly normal to me that these writers would be collected in an anthology published by a major publisher; now, I can't help but look at those names and feel something like awe at the fact that once upon a time they could all be included together in a book of new writing.
In some ways, this nostalgia is misplaced, because half of the writers are still alive and could, in theory at least, be included in a book of new writing. I suppose the nostalgia comes not only from the fact that the other half of that list is a list of the dead, but also from a suspicion that nobody would think to put a collection of those writers together today — and if they did, hardly anyone would buy it.
The closest recent book I know is a historical retrospective, not a collection of new writing: Dale Peck's excellent Soho Press Book of '80s Short Fiction. It doesn't seem to have gotten much notice. It did, though, win an amusing two-star Amazon review: "Beware. Raw, graphic sexual content. I had intended this as a reading group choice."
|David Wojnarowicz at ACT UP protest|
I am shouting my invisible
words. I am getting so weary. I am growing
tired. I am waving to you from here. I
am crawling around looking for the aperture
of complete and final emptiness. I am
vibrating in isolation among you. I am
screaming but it comes out like pieces of
clear ice. I am signaling that the volume of
all this is too high. I am waving. I am
waving my hands. I am disappearing. I am
disappearing but not fast enough
--David Wojnarowicz, "Spiral",
Memories That Smell Like Gasoline
I would love to be able to send a message back in time to David Wojnarowicz and his friends to tell them that in the year 2021 one of the most popular music videos will be Lil Nas X's "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)", in which, among other things, Satan gets destroyed by unabashed Black queerness. The video has already been seen and enjoyed by tens of millions of people, and it is making prudes and puritans scream in fury.
Wojnarowicz and friends might also enjoy the sight of Lil Nas X arguing (on a Sunday!) with the governor of South Dakota, who — in response to Lil Nas X's announcement of limited edition "Satan's Shoes" with 1 drop of human blood in their coloring — tweeted, "Our kids are being told that this kind of product is, not only okay, it's 'exclusive.' But do you know what's more exclusive? Their God-given eternal soul. We are in a fight for the soul of our nation. We need to fight hard. And we need to fight smart. We have to win."
Lil Nas X replied, "ur a whole governor and u on here tweeting about some damn shoes. do ur job!"
The Governor of South Dakota replied, "What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? -Matthew 16:26"
Lil Nas X replied, "'Shoot a child in your mouth while I'm ridin' -Montero 1:08"
As surprised as David Wojnarowicz might be by Lil Nas X and, especially, his popularity, he would not be surprised by the response, because it is the same response (plus racism) Wojnarowicz received with his own work, the same response Andres Serrano received for his Piss Christ painting, the same response Tipper Gore and the PMRC and Donald Wildmon and Jesse Helms gave to so much of high art and popular culture.
As much fun as it would be to let Wojnarowicz and friends know about Black gay pop music in 2021 ... the person in the past whom I would most like to be able to show this future to is my teenage self, who would have laughed and cried and maybe thought something he rarely thought in those days: Yes, okay, I guess living on into tomorrow isn't such a bad idea.
(I've been writing this post for a few weeks now. The world keeps catching up to it. I delete as much as I add. I don't know where to end. I don't know what the shape of all this is. Ragged, imperfect. Seven miles a second in every direction at once.)
A friend who is a parent of a teenager tells me with joy that it seems like all the kids at the local (rural) high school are identifying as queer in some way or another, unless they're going in the opposite direction and identifying as redneck nazis. Queerness is, it seems, for some young people one way to distinguish yourself (proudly!) from redneck nazis.
Some older folks may think this is faddishness or perhaps even a kind of conformity. Some older folks have always thought this, though, even when nobody would have dared declare anything openly for fear of ostracism and murder. Who among us wasn't told by one well-meaning person or another that we were just going through a phase? (Exasperated, I once responded that this is true of everything — life is just a phase between birth and death!) I get nothing but joy from so many young people's embrace of queer identity, from their skepticism of gender essentialism, from their astonishment at our astonishment.
Because, dammit, centuries of people didn't go through absolute hell with the hope that the hell would continue for all future generations.
We fought for ourselves, our own dignity and survival, certainly — but we also fought so that someone in the future might not have to. David Wojnarowicz and thousands of other people didn't put their bodies on the line with ACT UP just to fight for hope for themselves. That was part of it, of course. But they also risked so much because they envisioned a world where people like themselves wouldn't have to fight so hard.
There's plenty to fight for, still, plenty of targets at which we must aim righteous rage. The effects of numerous oppressions remain strong and haunt every triumph. But it is worth pausing occasionally to remind ourselves that there are kids across this country — across this world — who feel safe enough to declare, experiment with, inhabit, and celebrate an idea of identity that not long ago was far less visible and far more dangerous. Of course, we like our own experiences to be acknowledged and validated, so we may now and then find it exasperating when young people consider things that nearly killed us to be, for them at least, no big deal. But that's what makes our struggle worth it. My life was forever scarred by things being a big deal that should not have been a big deal. My emotions and behaviors to this day are shaped by torments that for many young people (certainly not all) are as odd and outdated as cassette tapes. I'm not sure I ever believed that would happen. But I take great joy in knowing that it has.
|David Wojnarowicz, untitled (Hujar Dead)|
In his writing, David Wojnarowicz often doesn't capitalize the names of countries and regions. Instead of the United States, it's the united states. Some of his other capitalizations are nonstandard, too, but this tendency is especially consistent. Places, especially the names of nations, don't get to be proper. They are rendered common, ordinary, their power in some ways reduced, but also shown to be sneaking in among the other ordinary things of life. The internet in some ways has sent us back to a pre-19th-century orthography, with a freedom and fluidity of spelling and style that we haven't seen for a long time — punctuation and capitalization have become as much about self-expression as about conforming to a norm. As much as I appreciate the power of standardization to create coherent communication, I also sense the popularization of a freedom that once only belonged to canonized poets, a freedom to use type, spelling, punctuation, and grammar as themselves expressions of art and self.
There is exquisite rage in Wojnarowicz's writing and art, and we need that rage — it filled some yearning in me, which is why I got interested in him many years ago, and why I plunged so deeply into his work recently.
But we also need qualities Wojnarowicz's work hungers for but rarely realizes: tenderness, repair, regeneration. He did not live a life, or live in an era, where such qualities had much hope of surviving. Except, even as I write that, I think it's wrong, or at least incomplete. Yes, the rage is there, unquestionably. Lots of Wojnarowicz's work is in-yer-face, confrontational. But much of his work also asserts the beauty of art and the beauty of life. Even as he condemns the horrors and injustices of this world, he does not identify it as the world — in fact, to him, the world of oppression is the Other World (also the Pre-Invented World), a world to which he is alien, and from which his work expresses alienation. But the world is not that. The world is home, and peace, and joy.
This is clear in the piece that the documentary takes its (censored) name from: 1984's Fuck You Faggot Fucker, a title plenty of people wanted Wojnarowicz to change. He was right to stick to his guns. The imagery defies the insult of the title, and so, with that title, the work becomes a testament to resilience, to bravery, to love. The piece is a magnificent balance of high and low, earthy and celestial, rage and beauty. Surrounded by images of martyrdom, deprivation, and a crude homophobic cartoon found in the street, two men, made from a map of the world, kiss.
Around the same time as I returned to Wojnarowicz, I also began listening to the music of serpentwithfeet, whose song and video "Same Size Shoe" is utterly delightful, a light and uplifting love song that also pays homage to such people as Joseph Beam, Essex Hemphill, and Marlon Riggs — ending with their names and others under the salutation, "Thank you to all the icons who remind me to be infinite."
Serpentwithfeet's new album, Deacon, was released as I was working on writing this post. It's a deliberately gentle album, a bit of a diversion from serpent's earlier work, which tended to be a bit more baroque and melodramatic (which I don't mean as criticism, not in the least — it's wonderful stuff). "I think that that's all I can really wish for," he said in a recent interview, "is that people listen to this work, and maybe it will give them some encouragement to be gentle."
Even when so much is terrible in the world, even when so much rightfully rouses us to rage, I want to remember that encouragement to be gentle. Seek out the icons that remind us to be infinite.
I’m beginning to believe that one of the last frontiers left for radical gesture is the imagination.
--David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives
|David Wojnarowicz, Fuck You Faggot Fucker|