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In October 2020, Conal McStravick interviewed Bob Huff on The Asshole is A Tense Hole (1985), the context of his solo and collaborative AIDS activist video works, treatment and street activism with ACT UP and what it means to re-visit the LGBTQ+ and AIDS healthcare archives during the global coronavirus pandemic.

Conal: So how has lockdown been for you in San Diego, Southern California, Bob?

Bob: Better for me than most, I think. It was almost like a fantasy I had as a kid where I imagined locking myself in the bathroom and living on toothpaste and everyone would leave me alone. I have a reclusive character so I’m perfectly happy being here at home and not seeing people. It’s not too different from the way I was living before the lockdown. I rarely eat out here in San Diego; I always cook for myself. The only thing that’s really different now is that I can’t go shopping so I order online. They shop for me then put my groceries in the back of my car. It’s all touchless. I am getting restless, though. Ordinarily I would have gone traveling by now as I enjoy seeing friends who live in other parts of the country. I love road trips. So that extra isolation is not so good.

Conal: My version I would hide behind the raspberry bushes in the rain. Do you think as a child, you anticipated how atomized life might be in the 21st century?

Bob: I think we may have talked about this… What would it have been like if this pandemic had happened in the 1980s? When we didn’t have the same communications or technology? We had a much less medical and scientific understanding of how viruses work. But as for our atomised life, I think things have always felt that way to me.

Conal: It would definitely have been harder in some respects, but in other respects the disease may not have travelled as quickly. This epidemic seems such a historically inevitable globalized situation, albeit it a devastating one… I suppose what also wasn’t entirely foreseen is the complexity of the positive and negative consequences of digital and internet-based technology in amongst shifts in the balance of wealth and political power, post-Cold War, post- 9/11, notwithstanding ongoing eco and financial crises, nor pandemics in a globalized world.

So, it’s a very peculiar mix at the moment, because I think the theatricalization of life and political life in particular through the development of media, from radio to television, to cable, to satellite television, digital communications to internet communications to smartphones and apps, has really changed the theatres of political representation, but also public life and the discourses of public life; and yet, artists have often foreseen these issues. I’m particularly interested in how artists have intervened in these representations. I think as you have suggested with regard to The Asshole Is A Tense Hole there’s definitely something in the mediated news experience about how the news media manufactures narratives in a way that makes the majority audience feel safe at the same time that it’s presenting catastrophic events or taboo subject matter, which exceeds its own constraints.

In a short essay titled The Image of Authority by Stuart Marshall (whose AIDS documentaries opened the Picturing a Pandemic series) Marshall describes the ideological and dramatic construction of the UK news, influenced by the sociological and critical studies of television by Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, the Glasgow Media Group and others in the 1970s. A critique that alongside video artists’ interventions in these representations in the 1970s and 1980s, forged a persuasive critique of the media prior to AIDS. Within this schema, the social construction of the persona of the newsreader as an image of authority, that is to say in the search for the desired ‘voice,’ the technique, the presentation methods and the gravitas of the barrister became the role model for the newsreader because it had a certain perceived impartiality and an ability to present the facts without bias; a means to present evidence, which the imagined viewer could scrutinize and evaluate to establish certain truths. I wonder what kind of relevance this has in an age of digital communications, the alt-right media and ‘post-truth’ narratives?

Bob: Yes, here in the US, the presentation by American news readers — the style, the cadence of speaking, the tonality, the intonation, the careful articulation of words– it’s all very exaggerated. If you haven’t heard it before, you might wonder why they’re declaiming each word in such a strident fashion. Then there’s the language that’s peculiar to news; like when Trump went to the hospital, he was ‘transported’ to the hospital, as you don’t simply ‘fly’ there, you must be transported. And once he was there, he was ‘battling’ COVID-19. Yeah. Why did they choose those words?

Conal: I think Susan Sontag had a lot to say about this in Illness and It’s Metaphors and of course this has come up again with regard to the language around ‘fighting coronavirus.’ Following from media critique and feminist interventions of the 1970s during the 1980s, AIDS activists tackled many representational fronts, in terms of why the language of war and religion is invoked by conservative societies most often through the media. Or furthermore, to expose the anxieties that underpin moral discourses around sickness and disease.

Bob: One of the first challenges of the AIDS crisis was confronting language employed by the dominant culture, for example by campaigning against widespread media use of the term ‘AIDS victim.’

Conal: Yes, indeed… And I‘d like to talk specifically about your stake in media representations through video activist work during your time with ACT UP between 1987 and 1996. Everything from the appropriation tactics of The Asshole Is A Tense Hole (1985); the agit-prop theatre-influenced Rockville is Burning (1988); the documentation of ACT UP demos or ‘zaps’; and the Safer Sex Shorts commissioned by GMHC in 1989; or the editing work you did for Robert Hilferty’s AIDS activist documentaries Stop the Church (1990) and TAG Helms (1991). And I’d like to do this by way of talking about the video and street activism, and then by extension, the treatment activism you were involved with during your time with ACT UP. I think it’s important to understand this parallel activity, when more recent images of ACT UP and the primacy of video activism during that time provide this very charismatic image of ACT UP’s activisms, which undoubtedly they were, in order to acknowledge that there was actually a lot of other activity going on in parallel.

Obviously, that activity, particularly treatment activism and community activity, was putting pressure on government and pharmaceutical companies and also creating a necessary dialogue between AIDS communities and medics, bioscientists and funders, etc., etc. But maybe something that doesn’t get thought about so often is what these videos are or what they were fighting for in terms of how they relate to other collectivized activist activity. This can also be extended into other activity like buyer’s clubs, or as in your case the collectivization of care for the support of the sick and dying as well. So, you know, it’s a huge area of discussion, but I appreciate that you are someone that was involved in all of these things. So, I’d just like to have an opportunity to talk through what’s behind the activity that was going on in this work, not just what we see happening on screen but behind it.

First and foremost, I’m interested in in your work, because I think The Asshole Is A Tense Hole very much foregrounds the contradictions inherent in images of political leaders in the news media; and what this says about public health and sexual health and by contrast the health of those who are so often marginalized by dominant social and political narratives including the aged, the disabled and the stateless; and, of course, the broader cultural and political repression of representations around the body in the context of AIDS, and now the coronavirus pandemic, which at the same time allows for the continuities and discontinuities between these histories. Can you speak to how you made The Asshole and to the context of its making?

Bob: You know, when it was breaking on TV news that the President was in the hospital in July of 1985 —which is interesting because of its parallel with what just happened with Trump being in hospital— we got a lot of information about Reagan’s bowel resection and the various medical procedures he went through. They showed animations of it on television, and they showed examples of the camera point-of-view from a colonoscopy… Not, Reagan’s actual colon of course, but even so, it was my fantasy that they would actually show live pictures from the colonoscopy camera. And furthermore, that they could be broadcast to massive crowds on huge television screens at the Live Aid concert that was happening the same day. Gigantic assholes displayed to the cheering masses seemed a perfect metaphor.

Conal: Not so much ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ as ‘The Society of the Anal Speculum’!?

Bob: The idea of that made me giddy… So in this news report you have a very uncomfortable anchorman, Peter Jennings, using the word ‘but‘ kind-of obsessively, finally saying ‘…and there have been a lot of ‘buts’ today,’ while he is nervously grinning; as if he just realized what he said… It was very funny…And as raw material this information that streamed into our homes largely uninvited was always fascinating to me, especially once I had the means to capture it and manipulate it. It just seemed like free, raw material that was begging for manipulation. To me, the natural impulse was, ‘…Well, this is what you’re telling me; but this is what I’m seeing…’ And I expressed this by cutting it up

Conal: Can I read you a few passages from Guy Hocquenghem’s 1972 book Homosexual Desire, which I know you encountered not long after it was re-published in English in 1978?

Bob: Yeah.

Conal: it says: ‘Whereas the phallus is essentially social, the anus is essentially private. If phallic transcendence and the organization of society around the great signifier are to be possible, the anus must be privatized and individualized and Oedipalized persons. And then there’s an embedded quote from Deleuze and Guattari,’… the first organ to be privatized, to be excluded from the social field was the anus. It gave privatization its model, just as money was expressing the new abstract status of the fluxes.’ The anus has no social possession, except sublimation, the functions of this organ are truly private, they are the site of the formation of the person. The anus expresses privatization itself.’

Bob: I picked that up in ‘79 and it was a big influence. I have to say, it’s not easy remembering now what was actually significant to me 40 years ago. I could be reinventing all of this. Incidentally, as a biological side note, the anus is the first feature to form on the blastula, which is the very early collection of dividing cells that eventually becomes a human being. And on this featureless ball of dividing cells, the anus forms from a little dimple that eventually becomes a tube that ultimately extends all the way through as the alimentary canal, and the body develops from there.

Conal: So to paraphrase J.G Ballard’s 1968 text Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, which I know you were also influenced by and to combine this with Hocquenghem, it’s not just Ronald Reagan who is marked by his ‘anality,’ nor the private sphere of capitalism, but the entire human species!?

Bob: There you go…!

Conal: We start as a dot and turn into a tube! How televisual! The body-television, even!?

Bob: Which is how The Asshole video ends, by closing down to a view from the inside the rectum looking out.

Conal:  Yes, I love the visual pun at the end…I also love your Live Aid presidential colonoscopy as mass spectacle idea… The clip of anal penetration you use enhances this moment of representational excess where you see the ‘privatized space’, the insides or guts of the so-called ‘Leader of the Free World.’ This makes public the naturalized authority of private space and turns inside out the colonial capitalist spectacle and Live Aid’s echoes of colonial imperial Christian charity. So, in terms of then using found pornography to intervene in the already excessive space of the representation of news footage; could you say a little about that?

Bob: That’s just a little clip from a porn film by the French photographer and porn filmmaker Jean-Daniel Cadinot of inserting an anal speculum, or an anoscope. It fitted the image flow perfectly; it’s so brief, it’s almost invisible… After that it cuts to the view of the colonoscopy camera from the news footage.

Conal: It could pass as a legitimate medical video…

That certainly would have been a milestone in news footage- showing an anoscope!

Conal: It’s not uncommon to see medical procedures on television, or for instance, giving birth. For a brief moment, to my mind, whilst a little numbed by queer film content, gay porn and gay dating apps admittedly, I thought these were rather frank, re-edited alternative news sources.

No, it wasn’t permissible, in fact it would still prevent me putting it on YouTube, so I’ve never put it up there.

Conal: So, it’s still a prohibited kind of representation on current media platforms…
I had a wonderful conversation with your former collaborator Gregg Bordowitz several years ago. Gregg described growing up with television and then through the emergence of 24-hour cable TV in the 1980s to a cable television culture where one had the TV constantly on as a part of daily life. A post- Warholian, post-conceptual culture, where with consumer video technology as a tool, artists keenly responded to and intervened in the omnipresence of televisual mass media. Your generation was very much reacting to this saturation TV culture. It’s clear that you were both interested in the news media agenda in particular.

Bob: I never had cable, so I didn’t live with that 24/seven television news experience… However, the covert political and social control messaging embedded in the news was evident. And this was well before FOX News, when the messaging went above ground and became overt. Speaking of the 24/seven media saturation, I noticed recently that if you watch any kind of cute cat video or cute animal video on YouTube there’s almost always a TV playing in the background.

Conal: Precisely, what did the world do without television and cat memes!?…I recently read your ACT UP Oral History interview, in which you describe how you made some money programming software and you decided to buy your own video editing equipment and then you started to make video from your own personal archive of recorded news stories. I suppose this is a sort of ‘chicken and an egg’ question… Were you acquiring the equipment in order to self-consciously make commentary on political messaging and dominant media representations? Or did you just buy the equipment and then start recording and editing the stuff that you were most interested, that as it happened was news messaging?

Bob: I got the equipment, because I was curious. Video was becoming such an important part of our world and I wanted to know how it worked. I wanted to own the means of production, you know…? I wanted to get my hands on those tools. There was so much discomfort in the telling of news about homosexuality and about sexually transmitted disease in 1985 and I was fascinated by that. Terrorism was another fascinating topic because it exploded beyond the bounds of ‘the normal’ storytelling mode in TV news. But not nearly as much as sex…. It was so hard for them to find the right graphics or find the right words. I thought that was just so interesting… We’d rarely get to see news anchors fumble for words because it was always so nicely packaged; it was delightful to see them fumble and expose their discomfort. The terrorism content might have been interesting because of the DIY element. People with limited means waging asymmetrical war on these superpowers. There was a naive notion of becoming a ’video terrorist’ using cheap VHS gear to fight the media giants.

Conal: Can you maybe put that into context by talking a little bit about your social and political context? Like where you’d grown up and perhaps where you were in 1985. I’m assuming this was in the Lower East Side of Manhattan? And how your life maybe contrasted with these kinds of conservative representations?

Bob: Yeah, I’d been living in the East Village of New York City since 1979, so conservative representation was not a big part of my immediate, day-to-day life.

I mean, this was a fantastic time to be in New York. I had wonderful friends, and there was always interesting stuff going on. I was out dancing, there was abundant fun, there were clubs! There was the Pyramid Club, which was just down the block from me. And Rock’n’roll Fag Bar was a huge old theatre turned into an occasional dance club. We had a really exuberant night life. This was probably amplified by the as-yet-unknown horror of the Reagan years, with the impending doom of AIDS. Initially my group of friends were relatively untouched by HIV, at least all through the 1980s. That wave didn’t really crash into my world until the late 1980s and 1990s. Mostly in the 1990s actually. But in a way, we were in an East Village bubble. And the music was an important part of it. I played guitar in a band with friends and was involved with a lot of musicians who also happened to be smart and politically aware in an intuitive way The music in New York at the time was very closely allied with the East Village art explosion which was happening in storefronts and was part of the fabric of everyday life. Basquiat and Keith Haring were causing drawings to appear in the streets. One day in 1980 I peeled a Xerox poster off a lamp post. It was made from cut up New York Post headlines to say, “Reagan Slain by Hero Cop.” I thought it was perfect. I found out years later that Keith Haring made it. There was so much cultural cross-pollination, ‘The Bar’ on Second Avenue and Fourth Street was like ‘our living room’ where we’d go to talk to friends and meet new people. It was fantastic. There was a lot of binge drinking and intense conversations with all kinds of people. Musicians, artists and intellectuals, playwrights and actors. An incredible time. I mean that book should be written, and that story told… It’s hard to imagine now, that period from 1980 through 1988….

But before that, I grew up in California during the Vietnam War, with multiple threats of doom hanging over our heads. I was draftable at one point. Atomic annihilation loomed. I studied history as an undergrad in Los Angeles and focused on the preconditions of fascism in modern Europe, which can make one a little paranoid. Lately it’s come in handy for recognizing the very present reality in which we’re now living. I was sort of set up to recognize and be critical of how corporate communications and the media were shaping our thoughts and fears and desires. So, I was just applying that awareness to what I was seeing on television, you know, these ideas and images that flooded in whenever I turned on my TV.

Haring Reagan 1980

Bob Huff at the second ACT UP Wall St. demo on March 24th 1988, Collection of Bob Huff

Conal: In terms of culture and artists, you’ve mentioned Antoni Muntadas as an early influence. There was a significant development of counter-cultural, queer and feminist media critique through the art and academic practices of the 1970s and into the 1980s, which maybe anticipates some of the work you were making… Were you aware of any of these at the time?

Bob: If I can recall some of the California artists I was aware of in the 1970s who influenced me in a positive way, I’d mention Chris Burden and Robert Ashley. My roommate studied with Martha Rosler, and I absorbed her influence. Other friends were students of Bruce Conner and his work was influential. Friends in San Francisco were altering billboards with political messages and Ant Farm I was aware of… I’d read about Nam June Paik. Books by Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag were important. You’ve mentioned Hocquenghem. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Manders comes to mind. In New York I was impressed by Merle Laderman Ukeles who proposed an art of ‘maintenance,’ and followed, or worked in dialogue with the New York City sanitation department. Some friends were working with Muntadas analysing political advertisements. I loved the films of Michael Snow. I saw lots of movies. I also went to the Soho galleries and saw the big artists of the moment, but for the most part I didn’t understand what they were doing. That kind of careering seemed quite alien at that time. For the most part, real people – friends – were most influential for me in the 1980s.

Conal: I do recall that in the ACT UP interview you gave, you mentioned seeing Guy Hocquenghem and Lionel Soukaz’s 1979 film Race d’Ep in which there was a staging of the construction of homosexuality within the notion of a ‘homosexual century;’ and therein a critique of the repressive aspects of theories of sex and sexuality as cultural and critical norms, as a kind-of counter-archive to the dominant progressive, post-Stonewall, US Gay Liberation narrative of that time.

Bob: I was attracted to history because it’s often where I’d start if I wanted to know about something; discovering how it came to be the way it is. I was always interested in looking at the history of how something developed. So, in that sense, Hocquenghem and Soukaz’s Race d’Ep as a history of homosexuality- it was wonderful to see that illustrated in that film. And as an illustration of how fabulous was life in New York then, I met Guy through a friend after a screening at Columbia and we all went dancing that night.

Conal: That sounds fantastic! …So, in a sense before ACT UP, there was this counterculture that forged your development as a video maker which was hybrid in a way: post-Gay Liberation, but in dialogue with non-Anglophone, nascently queer and Anglophone feminist culture; part music, part performance, part historical and cultural critique and finally part post-conceptual and left cultural activist-oriented media critique. Could you maybe talk a little bit about radical and experimental theatre; a particular activity you were involved in?

Bob: One theatre piece that really affected me was called And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid… It was by Jeff Weiss and Richard Martinez, who would put on plays in their storefront… Though I don’t remember details, I thought it was just perfect, I loved it. I fell in with a theatre group in 1981 that was putting on performances of William Burroughs’ ‘The Naked Lunch,’ in a loft on 14th Street. I then did my own performances as a homosexual country singer in the late 1980s, starting in ‘87, or ‘88.

Conal: Gacey Felts!

Bob: Gacey Felts, yes.

Conal: Is he named after the serial killer John Wayne Gacy?

Bob: The first name was a play on that, yeah. If there was an embarrassing gay stereotype, Gacey enacted it.

Conal: However, he’s a very endearing, unembarrassed old-fashioned country singer who’s very comfortably ‘gay,’ singing about being in the army and various male homosocial environments where being gay was not only oppressed but criminal. Yet he’s just having the gayest time of his life and he’s not even remotely oppressed!

Bob: No, he wasn’t, but not from choice. He had absolutely no notion. He had a blind spot, completely unaware that his homosexuality was in any way aberrant, different, or disapproved of.

Conal: There’s something quite playfully subversive, about these speculative fictions and alternative histories, that speak to the repressed content of history itself. Especially cultural forms that adhere to or echo images of heterosexist white supremacy and to counter this with repressed, non-heterosexual histories and ideas of how people had always already lived queerly. Did Gacey ever talk about being gay in a direct way? Or was it always just insinuated through his music?

Bob: Indirectly in the patter between the songs, but he wouldn’t have used that word. It was all between the lines.

Conal: …I guess this and your video work lead to appearances with Gregg Bordowitz, Yvonne Rainer, Ligorano and Reese…

Bob: It’s a mystery to me how one thing leads to another.

Conal: So, when did you first get involved with ACT UP?

Bob: I went to my first meeting in, I think it was June of 1987… I had seen this wonderful poster, the ‘Silence= Death’ poster, on Fourth Street. It totally captivated me. I just understood it completely… The sensibility of it, the message of it, it all crystallized. I thought this was completely right on, though I didn’t know that there was a group associated with it until a friend told me about ACT UP and we started going to the meetings.

Conal: And what were your feelings about AIDS at that time?

Bob: I had not been tested, so there was a bit of denial. AIDS was still somewhat alien in that I had known a couple of friends who had died or disappeared, but they weren’t close friends. I got tested in September of 1987 and that was negative, fortunately. I think that opened up some space for me to deal with it all more rationally, without the fear. I started getting involved in one of the offshoot committees, which had to do with the science of searching for a treatment.

Conal: Is that the ACT UP Treatment & Data Committee?

Bob: Yes. so I started going to their meetings probably in October or November of 1987 and I was also going to Monday night mass meetings, plus demonstrations. We put on big demonstrations and we’d get arrested and make the news. We went to Washington for a huge national demonstration that was around the AIDS memorial quilt. That was very moving.

Conal: The thing that struck me when I visited the AIDS Activist Videotape Collection at the New York Public Library, I think especially with regard to the 1989 ACT UP and WHAM (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization) planning meetings for the Stop The Church demo at Catholic mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, was how extraordinarily well planned it all was and how vivacious and charismatic the speakers were- so energized.

Bob: They were wonderful. They were superstars.

Conal: Yeah, how did it feel to be a participant in that room?

Bob: I was participating as a very interested, fascinated observer because I was not one to stand in front of the people and be a compelling speaker. I also felt the leadership should go to the people living with HIV. But you know, I thought it was very well run as well… it was really positive, and people seemed smart, it all seemed very important and very necessary and it seemed like the correct response. So I was down with it.

Conal: And you know, given the nature of ACT UP, it was a coalition of people from different backgrounds. So you had women who had come through the women’s movement and the women’s health movement, lesbian activists, people of colour and people from different so-called ‘at-risk groups’…

Bob: …Very early on, I remember people would explain what some of the antecedents were, especially those coming from the women’s movement and the women’s health movement, which I didn’t know as much about. Whereas the anti-war movement, or the anti-imperialist movement I was somewhat familiar with.

Conal: Your memories of the meeting were stimulating this image I suppose I had of the self-understanding of people like Maxine Wolf or Ann Northrop, who were very experienced, seasoned, charismatic activists who were telling people how to get the message over. I think Northrop was already involved in the media and I remember this line that she kept hammering into people, the gist of which was to make sure that during the protest you keep repeating your chosen sound bite, because that’s how we get it on the news. That’s how we get the message across….

Bob: Yeah, the short and punchy sound bite. It was very refreshing largely because so many interesting women were involved who had these experiences, and who were explaining and sharing so patiently. It was not an oppressive environment dominated by a bunch of strident leftist dudes. It was really a mix of young and old and everyone was attractive and charismatic in their own way and so you just felt accepted. I’m trying to remember when I met Gregg Bordowitz? It was at some party. I think I showed him a video He was the first person I talked to in ACT UP who was involved with the media or the arts. And he was very warm and supportive, and he invited me to do something more. I didn’t typically do a lot of video documentation of our street actions though I shot a lot of footage at the ACT UP Seize Control of the FDA demo in October of 1988 (Unfortunately, I loaned it to somebody for an exhibition, and I never got it back). I think the subject of most of my videos was the media coverage, and from my perspective, as a media consumer, I noticed certain communication patterns and I wanted to expose those patterns or express these things in a humorous, entertaining way for the edification of the audience.

There was another dimension to the AIDS videos, that should be mentioned, which is the propaganda aspect. Beside the critical and education functions, there’s an organizing purpose, an intention to show the people involved and celebrate their involvement, to reflect what they’re doing. We wanted to encourage participation, to encourage people to join; to make activism seem fun and to make it seem important and necessary. That was part of my intention for the video work.

Conal: Can you briefly describe each one as you go?

Bob: Well, the earliest videos were very much like The Asshole video. I was capturing television news footage and demonstrations, including of the demonstration I was involved in March of 1988, where we sat down in the street in front of Wall Street. And we were picked up and arrested, put on buses and taken to jail for a few hours. After being released, I ran home and I turned on my VCR to capture all the news coverage that night. And then as soon as I had the footage, I started editing it together and made a couple of videos: one was just a simple music video; the another was a more critical piece analyzing all the language and the shots used in the news reports. So, the turnover was really fast. I got out of jail, I went home and taped it; then I made the video and showed it to people the next day. It was intended to be fast, immediate, and disposable, like TV.

Conal: Maybe we could talk about Rockville Is Burning next?

Bob: Rockville Is Burning had two main levels to it: there was the didactic level about drug approvals and the media critique level. Plus, it expressed the faces and voices of a lot of ACT UP members. And it was funny. One of the ACT UP ‘waves’ or affinity groups was given a slot at LaMaMa Theatre to do a show. The ‘waves’ were people who trained in civil disobedience together and they continued meeting socially and as a group to go and do demonstrations together. At the FDA protest all these affinity groups made their own plans and came up with their own costumes and graphics and went out and did their demonstrations. I had a number of friends in Wave 3. And Richard Elovich asked me if I wanted to take over this project of doing this performance. They had a script written by Jim Eigo that had to do with the ethical protocols and the list of demands that were being made of the FDA around the use of placebos, testing groups, etc. So, I designed a hybrid stage play with five characters, and I mixed it with live video and videotaped performances by other members of Wave 3, who portrayed the different characters.

The premise was: AIDS terrorists hijack the evening news and present their list of demands by telling the real story of AIDS to the American people. So, it was a send up of inconsequential stories that the nightly news would normally tell in that bland style, but then the activists burst on stage and presented their demands. We had monitors on stage that showed pre-taped segments of someone portraying a mother with a baby saying, ‘…And what about my baby with AIDS!?’ This was contrasted with a couple of pharmaceutical executives talking about the opportunity to make big profits on AIDS drugs, and a whole range of people interspersed. I videotaped the live performance and so when it was all done, I cut together all of that and made a video piece out of the performance.

Conal: Which in a way was a development of some of the ideas in The Asshole Is A Tense Hole, because you were writing into the narrative of the television news media text but also staging the kinds of interventions that ACT UP were becoming known for and would continue to become known for… Just to clarify, by this point in time had ACT UP tried to interrupt the news?

Bob: I don’t think so.

Conal: There is a beautiful text your friend Jon Greenberg wrote as an elegy for Mark Lowe Fisher where he talks about the moments before the ACT UP CBS evening news interruption in 1991 in terms of doing, ‘what many had only imagined and fly in the face of convention and what was once considered acceptable social behaviour,’ as a way to, ‘re-affirm some truth, some reality into a media event where truth and reality had ceased to have meaning.’ I think that’s a very eloquent summary of what these media interventions were aiming towards.

Bob: In this work the media criticism and the science part of it came together perfectly in that it was humorous and entertaining and the live audience liked it. It was very quick to throw together, it had that punk, DIY element to it, the performance itself was ephemeral but it ended up being a video work too.

Conal: Yes, it’s a work where much is combined and also clearly much is anticipated. Can you talk about We Are Not Republicans, the 1988 video about the Republican Convention?

Bob: So, We Are Not Republicans was recorded at an ACT UP demo at the Republican Convention in New Orleans in the Summer of 1988. It’s a documentary, mostly notable for the parade of horribles. We truly met the enemy face-to-face.

Conal: This work is just so incredibly terrifying because you see the undiluted rage and antipathy that Republicans had towards not just gays and lesbians, but people with AIDS in particular.

Bob: When they said the word ‘AIDS’ they’d spit it out, as if it was really disgusting…. I mean, they’re just as horrible now.

Conal: Yeah, it’s really, really vile— all kinds of monsters, which again have come back with Trump and the rise of the right…. Never mind, these self-appointed, white collar militia who attack the ACT UP demonstrators, this complete lack of empathy and self-justified rage, ‘manufactured rage’ even, from the audience. The sense in which this relies on ‘the enemy within’ in order to justify and propel their deepest and most morbid fantasies which rely on demonizing and dehumanizing others.

But then, frightening as it is, I think it’s important to be witness to both the active and the ideological violence of the Republicans and what happens when actual people with AIDS and their allies show up in the shape of ACT UP and protest takes a form —namely direct action— that was unexpected. Not least at a completely Republican event. It’s like the return of the repressed, or phobia, made manifest as the right to protest… Which in theory is a first amendment right anyway. Can we discuss ‘Stop the Church’ your 1990 collaboration with the filmmaker and fellow ACT UP activist Robert Hilferty (1959-2009)?

Bob: Robert Hilferty hired me to be the editor on Stop the Church and TAG Helms [TAG Helms is a 1991 documentary video of ACT UP members placing a giant condom on the home of homophobic U.S. Senator, Jesse Helms).

Conal: How did you meet Robert Hilferty, was it at ACT UP meetings?

Bob: Probably. I think he came up to me because he’d seen my videos and he needed a video editor. He paid me for Stop the Church, but he didn’t have any money to pay me for TAG Helms, so we shared authorship. He had ideas of how he wanted things to go together but I’m a pushy editor, so it was fun. I loved his sense of humour.

Conal: I think Stop the Church is one of the finest pieces of AIDS video activism, it’s truly amazing…! The whole ACT UP/ WHAM Stop the Church demo is so extraordinary anyway. I say this having grown up Roman Catholic and recognizing this moribund but a very potent institution, which continued to vampirically drain public health resources and choose not to follow basic public health, or education protocols on sexual health or AIDS, yet continued to act with complete impunity. By contrast, in the video, one sees the Catholic Church getting well and truly zapped on its own turf, during mass, by a coalition of AIDS and women’s health activists who launched their protests from within the congregation and through the very forms of Catholic worship; plus a particularly memorable, highly comedic and might-I-say beautifully edited montage of the Catholic Cardinal’s ceremonies to Tom Lehrer’s ‘Vatican Rag.’

Bob: My favourite shot from that that was how Cardinal O’Connor slumps in his chair and holds his head, like he’s having a headache… But that action meant a lot to people who grew up as Catholic.

Conal: Well, that’s one of the things I really gathered from video documentation of the meeting beforehand was the testimony of people who were raised Catholic, or even those practising Catholics. I think there’s a moment, after the demonstration has taken place where these elderly Catholic women come out and I think one of them is asked a question about AIDS as she’s leaving and she looks surprisedly at the camera with this almost comical blank expression and says, ‘…what’s that got to do with anything?’ You know what I mean? As someone who was educated in a homophobic, misogynistic, anti-abortion Catholic education system, in an exclusively Catholic community, where so much was unspoken, as a viewer I think: ‘I know you! …I know your DNA and how you reward yourself and how you have been rewarded by the church for performing ignorance…’ …Vile, hypocritical, ignorance…

Bob: I’m reminded of something I read about our new Supreme Court nominee, who is part of a Catholic spin-off group that believes women should be subservient to men.

Conal: Which is interesting being a Supreme Court judge nominee … Another hypocrite.

Bob: Yeah, not exactly a worthy replacement for Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I’m also reminded of a really perfect example of this from the Republican Convention in We Are Not Republicans. A woman says, ‘Listen, if you follow the rules, you won’t get AIDS. And if I did get it, I’d have my family to take care of me!’ And then a man jumps in and says, ‘Can I explain this for this lady?’ You know: ‘Put her aside so that ‘the man’ can talk…!’

Conal: So much bad behaviour in one room…! Let’s get to the broader context of the videos within wider AIDS activism. I would like to talk about this relationship between the video and cultural activist work you were doing and the treatment activism and community work… Are these things held quite separately for you?

Bob: They were very different practices. The science involved a lot of reading and studying and learning a language that I didn’t know. It eventually led me to a job editing research materials for ‘The AmfAR AIDS Treatment Directory’ which was a capsuled compendium of the evidence about all these different experimental drugs in development. Then I went back to school because I wanted to study science. So, I got a job in a video studio at Columbia University and by virtue of having a job there I got free tuition. I was able to take these very expensive pre-med science classes and be on campus, and also to have access now to bigger video studios. So, I used that for some projects.

Conal: So, on top of studying history, you studied biomedical science, and then finally you went to art school…

Bob: That was a few years later…. I was involved with the Treatment & Data and treatment activist groups. TAG, the Treatment Action Group was a spin-off from the Treatment & Data Committee, and it had the same sort of remit. I was working with Gregg Gonsalves because he was working at Columbia too. So during those years we would have a lot of conversations about science and the future of all this. Mark Harrington and others started doing really in-depth analysis of AIDS research efforts at the National Institutes of Health; writing critiques and reports that had a lot of influence in shaping funding and the priorities of research. Then ACT UP started having what I called ‘The Schism,’ in about 1992.

Conal: Was this ‘schism’ around the big pharma issue and related funding?

Bob: One sore point was being too cosy with the government scientists and meeting with pharmaceutical companies. You know, sitting down with them, rather than being outside yelling at them. There were people who felt that it was inappropriate to talk to them. That if you were talking to them, you were being compromised. And so that was one fissure in the split. There were others having to do with the marginalization of issues brought forward by people of colour and women.

Conal: Was ACT UP losing momentum at that point in time?

Bob: I think fragmentation was inevitable and after a time some of the actions seemed like rehashes. People still came up with good ideas and the committees were still pretty vital; but that type of ‘in-the-street’ response was getting a little bit long in the tooth. It’s not surprising.

Conal: And then in the mid-1990s, antiretroviral medication and combination therapy became available…

Bob: Yeah, in 1996 really. Though if you were savvy you could get it in 1995. But yeah, 1996 is really when it became available. I dropped out of doing that work in 1995 or ’96. I was a little burned out. I stayed out for three years from 1996-1999 while I retreated and did an MFA in painting, of all things. After that I immediately went back to treatment advocacy for another decade.

Conal: And I guess the loss of friends must have been an added factor in all of this.

Of course, it might be painful to recount, but can you say something about the collectivization of care in ACT UP, and why that was necessary? I ask as one of the great challenges of coronavirus in an age of hyper-individualized neoliberal capitalism and a resurgent right has been to re-build positive narratives around collective social and political goals and responsibilities. Particularly in ways that do not lapse into jingoism, or capitalist consumer dogma; that doesn’t seek to simultaneously undermine non-right-wing collectivity by advancing right-wing nationalism or right wing- economic privilege; or to undermine socialised healthcare and community-led care and support structures at the same time that it hands power and financial rewards to corporate interests. All issues that seem to be bound up with the failures of the US response to both coronavirus and AIDS and stand to be recapitulated.

Bob: I mentioned the affinity groups, the ‘waves.’ Aside from the social and creative aspects, these groups too often became ‘family’ when a member had to go into the hospital. They showed up, supported and did whatever was needed to make sure their friend was getting the needed care and attention. Jon Greenberg’s death was a shattering example of this. And they cared for each other in their grieving when a member died. There was no atomization there. I can’t imagine anything more different than what people who are sick with COVID-19 are experiencing.

Conal: Personally, I think the extraordinary thing about ACT UP for me is that so many people with so many diverse sorts of backgrounds and political perspectives and goals, organized around — okay, you could say HIV and AIDS as one big issue — but simultaneously, a lot of different goals and agendas within that, and to demonstrate what we now have the language to describe as the many social and political intersections of AIDS; while sustaining this for the length of time they did. What else do you think was achieved, then, in terms of what you’ve just described?

Bob: ACT UP’s biggest achievements had to do with attracting attention to what was going wrong with the AIDS response, attracting attention to the humanity and the pain of the consequences of what was going wrong. With re-educating, probably in a top down way, getting the ears of people who did have a great deal of influence, and causing them to redirect their efforts and to communicate this change in the weather, so to speak, to the people that in turn they influenced in turn. Whether that was through magazines, or newspapers, or in the scientific community, people like Dr. Anthony Fauci who as a convert was very influential. But there were always battles, because there’s always resistance. It’s always about people. Ultimately, activism is about making people change which can be a long, slow, painful process, and not something I have a lot of patience for. That’s why it needs to be a collective process. For me, ACT UP was also an education about reality, I mean, learning about the connection between housing and health. If you had never been homeless, you wouldn’t have thought about it. The connections between health literacy and wellness; between poverty and health. I mean, at every ACT UP meeting there were so many connections being drawn in so many ways it was often shocking and always eye opening.

Conal: Can I just asked one final question.

Bob: Yessss!!!

Conal: It might sound a bit random at first, but I just wanted to ask you about dancing.

Bob: I loved dancing!

Conal: Well, dancing and activism… You know, the first artist in this series as mentioned was Stuart Marshall. I did this event where I spoke to Grazyna Monvid and Bruce Bayley, who collaborated with Stuart on a series of works up to and including Bright Eyes, the first work in this series. Grazyna was saying about how they all went out dancing in The Fridge nightclub and how much Stuart loved dancing. For all the valuable discussion about their video work together I thought re-capturing something so ephemeral spoke to then and now. I love dancing or moving together with others because I think It’s another way of living, communicating and remembering that constitutes people’s place in the world, not least communities. So, in that instance being a gay man or a cis-heterosexual woman dancing at a gay night club, at that time, in the 1980s.

Alongside this conversation I’ve had a number of conversations with other contributors that mention dance as a cultural and activist form: Richard Fung, who did the third screening had this lovely memory of men dancing to disco in their towels at a bathhouse, pre-AIDS. Sistren Theatre Collective used dance as a pedagogical tool in their theatre to affirm working-class and Afro-Caribbean culture and to raise women’s consciousness. Also dance and song featured in Andre Reeder’s document of the Surinamese experience of HIV in the previous screening to yours. I just wanted to ask you about how your life has been led by dancing, or how dancing has shaped your life as a creator, as an activist and as a person. I love how in the ACT UP interview you take the trouble to talk about all the different gay bars you went to and how good their jukeboxes or DJs were. How good the dancing was and the opportunity to be able to have sex, dance and see films all at once.

Bob: It was great. I mean, I mentioned I think I mentioned Rock and Roll Fag Bar, that was a good place for dancing. I was more of a jukebox guy than a DJ guy but Michael Connelly was a great DJ at Rock’n’roll Fag Bar. It was a huge space that was open and free. You could be really silly, and it was really great fun.

Conal: Was there ever a combination of video and dancing in your activism? I know Stuart, for instance programmed video in night clubs and I’ve been doing a bit of archival digging around screenings at Heaven, London’s biggest gay night club and The Fridge, which was this club in Brixton that had gay nights and really influential Black British music nights through the 1980s and 1990s. Interestingly The Fridge had the first video wall in a nightclub in London, and they would show artists videos. I like this potential for activist videos showing in nightclubs…I mean, as far as I understand, that was part of the purpose of the GMHC Safer Sex Videos, right? The Safer Sex Shorts were commissioned to work alongside the oppressed or ‘at-risk’ groups in those works: (the BDSM community, gay men, lesbians, people of colour and needle users).

Bob: They were fun! I wasn’t involved in organizing or planning them, I worked as crew on several of them and I directed one, although it was not my community being reflected in that one.

Conal: Is that something you felt conscious of while you were making it?

Bob: Yes and no, I was just trying to make something that would hit the educational points and also be hot and entertaining and have a little political edge to it. Pretty simple criteria.  Another time I did a one-night event as a fundraiser where I took over a club and, and I guess I programmed the entertainment. I showed activist videos and had a computer displaying safe sex information, and I think other people did similar things in other nightclubs. But bringing a bunch of activists together in a place like that, the energy was transforming enough in itself. I mean, you mentioned how charismatic, all these people were, so when you transported them out of that hot room of the ACT UP meeting space and into the night and into the bars on the weekends, you know, into a dance club or something, it was euphoric!

Conal: I had a very memorable conversation with the artist Stephen Andrews and his partner the filmmaker and activist John Greyson the first time we met in Toronto several years ago. Stephen in particular was talking about their friendship with Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Ross Laycock, his partner. How they used to come to Toronto in the Summers, John would try to organize some teaching for Felix and they would often go out dancing. Stephen really emphasized how dancing was such an important activity during the AIDS crisis. The way in which the club scene was a way for people to go out together and dance and feel young and happy and accepted; but also, maybe to work through difficult feelings like loss or grief, or the emotional labour of tending the sick and dying, or living in the shadow of one’s own mortality. You see this community response of collective therapy, care and embodiment in the document of ACT UP Paris that is Robin Campillo’s 2017 feature film 120 BPM. From the meetings, to the actions, the night clubs and later in looking after the sick and dying. Did you see that film?

Bob: Such a good movie, yeah. That did a better job of portraying what ACT UP New York was like than many other films I’ve seen.

Conal: A testament to the collective, embodied, queer temporal, transnational character of queer activism and indeed AIDS activism.

Well, thank you so much, as always Bob… It’s been an enormous privilege to share your work, to talk to you about your video works, your activist and community work and your reflections on these times, these histories, the people involved and these potentials here in 2020. In better times, I do hope we can all go dancing.


Links to featured works:
We Are Not Republicans, 1988 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4osm_SF4ZBM
Stop the Church (trailer), 1990 https://vimeo.com/ondemand/stopthechurch
TAG Helms, 1991 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TS-w4Pqvkuw