09. AIDS Activist Video: The UK and Americas (1980s-1990s)

“The point of departure of AIDS activist graphics is neither the studio nor the artist’s private vision, but AIDS activism. Social conditions are viewed from the perspective of the movement working to change them. AIDS activist art is grounded in the accumulated knowledge and political analysis of the AIDS crisis, produced collectively by the entire movement. (Douglas Crimp)

An extension of the identity-based and post-structuralist film movements that proceeded it, and from which many of its artists were drawn due to lived necessity, AIDS activist video was decidedly more utilitarian, and communal, than its precursors because of the nature of the issues and audiences it addressed. A matter of life and death that forced interaction across and inside communities that might not otherwise have needed to communicate, AIDS activist media and theory embraced multiple formal strategies so as to narrowcast to the many audiences who demanded education, self-representation, and mobilization because of AIDS. Highly educated, and bringing significant cultural capital to the movement, this tradition of artist/theorists made work that seems uniquely atheoretical in its commitment to “intentionality,” “effectiveness” and inter-communal dialogue even as it consistently quoted theories and forms from the tradition of media praxis.

Two contradictory polemics express the poles of this debate: ‘AIDS is a war, there’s no time for artsy debates about formal issues. We have to make clear, effective propaganda that reaches as many people as possible!” versus “AIDS is a war, not just of medicine and politics but of representation—we must reject dominant media discourse and forms in favor of a radical new vocabulary that deconstructs their agendas and reconstructs ours.’ (John Greyson)

Certainly, this can be explained by the movement’s interest in creating weapons for a representational war in which people were also, actually, dying, and for which the representation of clear information could be literally lifesaving. But it also seems to be a response to the theory-heavy, deconstructive, degree-zero work that came immediately before it, as if AIDS activism’s theorist/practitioners were deconstructing this earlier tradition, now one established enough to be critiqued and undone.


Making the utmost of the first really ready-access consumer video recording and editing technologies (which would soon be dwarfed by the truly democratizing power of the digital), this was the first activist movement to be fully self-documented, as it was happening. Re-thinking expertise, AIDS activism allowed PWAs and others in the movement the primary power of voice. Thus, for reasons technological, and practical, a theory and practice of access and shared power across difference (particularly in race, class and gender) defines this body of work. Considered to be the first “postmodern” activist movement, AIDS video activism borrowed from mainstream and alternative media practices, educational and theoretical writing, and styles from the marketplace and the marginal communities of outsiders affected by the disease to create a diverse and vast body of work that documents the direct action, analysis, and education of communities in a time of real bodily crisis.

7 comments on “09. AIDS Activist Video: The UK and Americas (1980s-1990s)

  1. Krista Cohen
    Erald Kraja
    Mamadou Diallo
    Chopin Chatiburus

    Post #4 Juanita Mohammed

    Question 1: How is your artist engage in media praxis?

    She puts the lens on herself and the people in her life rather than speaking about homosexuality as if they were trivial stuff.

    Question 2: What the tactic of their media praxis?

    It’s admirable that a child is doing this instead of an adult. This issue is viewed as an adult stuff, and it’s effective for people to see that a child can understand and should understand HIV.

  2. Michael and Julia

    1) Mark King practices alternative media praxis by using humor and unconventional methods in order to spread his message through his vlog. The title, “My Fabulous Disease,” is emblematic of his message that living with HIV is not a death sentence.

    2) His use of humor eases any potential tension and engages his viewers. For instance, when he wore a t-shirt that read “HIV Positive,” he alleviated the seriousness of it by waving around a sign that read “How gay is THIS?” His fake interview was another example of humor that was entertaining and engaging.

  3. Esmeralda Gonzalez
    Viani Edwards

    Carol Leigh “Scarlot Harlot”

    1) She is both open and comfortable talking about safe sex, despite it being a taboo subject of the time. She’s also honest about her occupation as a sex worker and gives it a sense of normalcy, which is also not something often seen in mainstream media.

    2) Her easygoing personality made the subjects she was discussing feel more approachable to a wider audience. And her use of comedy in the music video she made about safe sex was refreshing and different, which reflects the definition of alternative media.

  4. AIDS Media Activism
    Artist- Nelson Sullivan

    1- Nelson Sullivan engages in Media Praxis by documenting his community in a fun and positive light, while also humanizing them. He offers them voice and visibility that they otherwise wouldn’t have.

    2- His use of a fish eye lens offered both literally and figuratively a peek into the window of his social world and positive, healthy relationships within his community, which could even be used to demonstrate healthy relationships outside of his community.
    Caroline Klepper
    Jake Rothpearl

  5. Southern Living AIDS Quilt.

    1) The women in the ‘Southern Living AIDS Quilt” practice alternative media praxis by offering their stories on how they were diagnosed and with HIV and how it has affected their lives. The accounts of these women stories are self reflective, cater to a small group of people in the South, and features oppressed women who are seeking to empower other oppressed women on how to live with HIV.

    2) The theory these women present suggest that AIDS doesn’t have a specific color or gender and they practice support and education in the community, This is effective because their approach is to offer independent, simple and intimate stories about their diagnosis.


  6. Matty, Marco, & Jennifer
    1. By attempting to disrupt the nightly news, James Wentzy was able to express the infrequent idea of HIV/AIDS awareness to a larger audience by using the mainstream media, their technology, and their per-existing audience to promote the cause. In doing so he was put in jail, displaying his ability to put the end goal of the movement before his own well being and personal life.
    2. Through capturing the protests put on by AIDS activists in an informal manner and from the intimate put of view of the protestors, James Wentzy was able to deconstruct the frantic and chaotic nature of the display which emphasized the deep and emotionally charged passion of the people behind the cause. The two examples of his work display the different types of scale he was able to promote his cause through. By making a statement on Dan Rather he is able to reach a larger audience, while his video work during the protests may have only been seen by a smaller audience it effectively displayed the large group of people already passionate about and supporting the movement.

  7. 09. AIDS Activist Video: The UK and Americas (1980s-1990s)”

    I remember seeing this video in the beginning of the semester and the website was not up and running well, so I sent my response via email.

    The video is a compilation of various AIDS activism videos.

    A Child’s Point of View – was an interesting view of homosexuality from a young girl who did documentary of her own and asked people their opinions while giving her own. This video stuck out the most for me because a child was able to do this video without reservations and with the innocence of a child.

    The other video that captured my attention was the man in the Jesus costume protesting the Catholic church and its stance on homosexuality. It takes guts to go out there and do what he did. The church back then was very vocal about homosexuality being a sin etc. I think today the Catholic church is a bit more open minded about it and the relations between the church and the community has gotten better.

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