As a community, we have been fundamentally altered by the AIDS pandemic. Those who lived through the crisis still bear the scars, and those who came of age in the decades since have never known a life free from its caustic shadow. Ten years ago, Larry Kramer delivered a speech titled "The Tragedy of Today’s Gays" to a packed audience at Cooper Union Hall. On the heels of George W. Bush’s re-election, the larger-than-life activist concluded that “we [had] lost the war on AIDS” and called upon the gay and lesbian community to unite in action, safety and speech.
It was a biting analysis of the state of gay rights and culture, and one that still resonates today. While the advent of drugs such as Truvada continue to ostensibly change the landscape, HIV/AIDS continues to spread in disproportionately high numbers among gay youth, especially those of color.
Language has long served as the core for artist Mark Addison Smith’s work, so when he came across the text from Kramer’s speech, he immediately saw the potential. Using extracts from it, Smith began work on an illustrated abecedary. The aim was to offer a reflection on the AIDS crisis from 2004 to 2014 — a decade marked by research and progress, stagnation and death. The collection, completed days before the 10th anniversary on November 7, 2014, comprises 24 illustrations. Each piece is dedicated to a letter, and made up of three words that appear in the original text.
“The rules of each drawing exist within a conflicting binary," Smith explains. "The larger, foreground word is in disagreement against the smaller, background words, while the middle, fill-in words serve as mediator. By reading the statements back to front or front to back, the viewer, hopefully, will consider then versus now and the grayscale complexities of this ongoing pandemic."
Mark Addison Smith with "R—Research Requires Response" (Photo: Erik Gernand)
Smith spoke with the organization Visual AIDS about the project. Below are a few excerpts from the thoughtful interview.
On whether removing the literal voice of Kramer from his words alters the meaning of the text:
This series, to me, is an analysis of Larry Kramer's words and an exercise in obsessive repetition. The process of writing and rewriting and rewriting a single word hundreds of times, as I did in each drawing, reminded me of the metaphor of 'beating someone over the head' with information until they absorb it. A shock strategy, or the verbal behavior of someone who is dying to be heard and won't stop talking until change happens. I see this as a testimony to Kramer's tireless advocacy: When will we listen? I hope there's an obsession and a tension and a weariness—and a resulting, heightened importance—with this viewed repetition.
On the ways in which we’ve heeded Kramer’s call to action, and what still needs to be done:
Our visibility has become stronger over the past decade. The Obama Administration has been a strong advocate for the LGBTQ community, which wasn't the case under the Republican regime of 2004. I am reminded of President Obama's historic mention of gay equality in his 2013 inaugural address.
"The Tragedy of Today's Gays" was presented five days following the reelection of former president George W. Bush. The speech was an attack on him and the Republican administration as much as it was an attack against the gay community for not banding together as a visible, viable force. The speech was made in an effort to simultaneously unify and alarm the gay community into taking action against an unsupportive leader…the 'us' versus 'them' that I mentioned earlier.
Longevity, too, is on our side, both as a positive and as a negative. Strides in research and medical care expand health longevity. But, a younger generation now exists that doesn't know a life outside of the AIDS crisis. The distance of time, since the early eighties and even over the past decade, has allowed this global pandemic to become a status quo. So, in a way, an urgency for action has dissipated, or deflated. We are experiencing a familiar revival of a different fear right now amidst the ebola crisis. Steven Petrow wrote a poignant Washington Post article on October 15, entitled: Why 'Fearbola' reminds me of the early AIDS panic. I look at some of my Larry Kramer abecedary drawings and can't help but map this contemporary crisis onto his prescient language.
On his favorite part of Kramer’s speech:
Throughout the speech, Larry Kramer uses a refrain four times in which he proclaims his love for being gay and matter-of-factly states that gay people are better than anyone else. It's his 'iron fist in a velvet glove' approach, amidst a speech that acknowledges our losses, to remind the gay community that yes, we still are everything.
His words: I love being gay. And I love gay people. I think we’re better than other people. I really do. I think we’re smarter and more talented and more aware and I do, I do, I totally do. And I think we’re more tuned in to what’s happening, tuned into the moment, tuned into our emotions, and other people’s emotions, and we’re better friends. I really do think all of these things. And I try not to forget them.
On his favorite piece in the series:
My favorite text is probably 'Y—Years Yet Yesterday,' because it encapsulates this ten year anniversary in the blink of an eye while also acknowledging the vast amount of work that still remains. And, I'm struck by both the phrase and the corresponding drawing for 'H—Horror Highest Hope'. The words are almost indistinguishable from one another: horror blends with hope, hope blend with horror. It's a conceptual and visual embodiment of the method in which I approached the series, with two binary sides of an issue defining all of these messy shades of gray.
Slideshow | Mark Addison Smith: Years Yet Yesterday
Smith is currently looking for a venue to showcase the series in its entirety.