By Tony Phillips
'It's a fragment of a fragment,' Sur Rodney Sur says. 'The whole thing is much longer, but it's a silent film.' Sur, Wojnarowicz's Gracie Mansion gallerist, says entropy is an element of mythology around the artist, most of it self-cultivated. Performance artist Holly Hughes calls Wojnarowicz 'a perfect artist' but details a 'Dickensian life of bouncing around to foster homes, being abused and on the streets.' Sur counters, 'He was from a very bourgie family. He had certain aspirations. He ran away and lived on the streets, but when you're that young, it's easier.'
Easy enough to support a rock 'n' roll lifestyle? Wojnarowicz's band, 3 Teens Kill 4, folded when his art career turned a corner in 1988. His bandmate and fuck-buddy Brian Butterick recently reformed their band, but a MySpace page mysteriously appeared years earlier. 'None of us put it up,' Butterick recalls, 'but someone digitized all our music.' Butterick eventually solved the case. 'It was this 20-year-old kid outside Atlanta,' he says. 'People who want to find the outsider art will find it anywhere.'
Especially online, where Wojnarowicz's fragment continues to morph. The four-minute clip on YouTube now begins with the crucifix imagery the religious right objected to so strenuously. The ACT UP soundtrack is replaced by a song from avant-garde composer Diamanda Gal's's 1986 AIDS requiem Plague Mass. Her unearthly, near-four-octave growl is spooky enough but downright menacing wrapped around lyrics like 'he that be spat on by him unclean becomes unclean,' especially with her diaphragm rumbling like an idling tractor trailer on the word 'unclean.'
It's likely it was this version of A Fire in My Belly the Catholic League found objectionable, evoking nostalgia for the days when the religious right broke into the NEA to rifle through artists' files for some muck to rake. Today, they're content to lazily troll YouTube before pulling down a major museum show. Ironically, the film they are protesting did not appear in the National Portrait Gallery, and the lyrics classified as hate speech come chapter and verse from the book of Leviticus.
'It's very confusing indeed,' Gal's says. 'I had no idea who, when, or how the video was put together. I saw it and thought, This is odd. I didn't know that David knew my work this well. We never met because we were both very shy, but we lived right next to each other in the East Village.'
Ultimately, Gal's is OK with the mash-up, whoever orchestrated it. The six degrees of appropriation is as old as the culture wars themselves, stretching from Wojnarowicz to U2 to Adam Lambert to herself. 'I don't have much to do with lawyers,' she says, 'because I can't afford them and they like money.'But when I was asked, as the surviving artist of this collaboration, to write a statement for the two of us because David is dead, I said 'Of course.''The lawyer watched it on YouTube, and there are 90,000 people who have seen it now, but who put it together?'
We may never know, but perhaps that makes artists of us all. Cynthia Carr, a journalist who has been working on a biography of Wojnarowicz for three years, recalls his successful trial against Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association.'What sparked that legal action, she says, 'was the AFA got hold of his catalog for 'Tongues of Flame' and went through and cut out all the penises. They pasted them onto sheets of paper and sent them around the country, saying, 'This is what your tax dollars are supporting.' ' Wojnarowicz was awarded $1 in damages, but his real victory was making the AFA over in his own image: artists feverishly working in the mixed media of penis and paste.
Gal's has no such interest in legal recourse, but she's still curious. 'I've heard David had a copy of Plague Mass in his studio as an inspiration,' she says. 'I don't know if that's true.'I don't know anything.'And the bottom line is, I don't give a fuck. I'm still alive, but one day our time is up.'Somehow, when I look at this video -- I know this is delusional because I don't believe in an afterlife -- I think maybe we'll have an espresso somewhere after it's over because someone put us together on this earth, yet we were never able to meet.'
To learn more about Diamanda Gal's (including her thoughts on Elton John, Britney Spears, and HIV), read our interview with her.