“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.