The Resistant Corpus:
Queer Experimental Film and Video and the AIDS Pandemic

Roger Hallas

Printed in MFJ No. 41 (Fall 2003) Lesbian and Gay Experimental Cinema/Stan Brakhage Remembrances

The body of queer experimental films and videos that have addressed the AIDS pandemic over its two decade history resists any desire we may have for delineating well-defined aesthetic categories or clearcut historical trajectories. In fact, this body of work is suffused with resistance on thematic, aesthetic, and political levels. Most significantly, queer experimental films and videos resist and contest the ideology of dominant media representation of the pandemic, which has consistently pathologized queer bodies, stigmatized their pleasures and marginalized the identities that coalesce around them. This overwhelming political imperative for queer experimental media pushed its practitioners to reject the notion of an avant-garde autonomous from both the popular and the political—the dominant paradigm for experimental filmmaking during the 1970s. While queer experimental AIDS media certainly borrowed many aesthetic techniques from that period—including structuralist repetition, an increased use of text, and a self-reflexive concern with the apparatus—many of its makers drew more practical inspiration from the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s. They participated in the larger practices of “alternative AIDS media,” described by Alexandra Juhasz as “the use of video production to form a local response to AIDS, to articulate a rebuttal to or a revision of the mainstream media’s definitions and representations of AIDS, and to form community around a new identity forced into existence by the fact of AIDS.”1

Due to the proliferation of high-quality, low-cost video technology, video became the dominant medium for alternative AIDS media, yet many makers moved back and forth between film and video. The aesthetic, theoretical, and institutional barriers maintaining the divide between experimental film and video were already beginning to break down in the early 1980s. Questions over medium specificity simply seemed less important than the urgent and specific issues over representation raised by the AIDS crisis. Similarly, distinguishing a discrete body of “experimental” work within alternative AIDS media poses its own problems. The post-structuralist critique of representation that theoretically informed much alternative AIDS media encouraged the widespread use of formal experimentation to deconstruct and transform documentary conventions, such as the talking head and authoritative voice-over commentary. Thus the generic distinction between experimental and documentary works often becomes blurred in the context of alternative AIDS media.

Alternative AIDS media also challenged the idea of experimental film and video as primarily personal and artisanal forms of expression created in complete opposition to mass produced popular culture. The generation of film and videomakers producing alternative AIDS media were as much influenced by the pop aesthetics of the American Underground and by the music video as they were by structuralist film and conceptual video. Such heterogeneity exists not only on the level of aesthetic influence but also in terms of the diverse uses made of experimental form by alternative AIDS media. It can be seen in works dedicated to community organizing and safer sex education as well as in works more conventionally identified as “experimental.” Furthermore, alternative AIDS media demonstrated a promiscuous attitude toward distribution and exhibition, challenging the longstanding identification of specific generic forms with particular institutional contexts.

In analyzing queer experimental film and video practices, I will trace three crucial aspects of AIDS representation with which they have consistently engaged throughout the history of the pandemic: discourse, voice, and the body. AIDS, as Paula Treichler has indicated, “is simultaneously an epidemic of a transmissible lethal disease and an epidemic of meanings or signification.”2 The experimental film and video techniques of dense visual montage, verbal repetition, and sound/image disjuncture have proved particularly apt for interrogating the powerful cacophony of scientific, political, and religious discourses which structure the cultural representation of the disease. Responding to the disempowerment of already marginalized individuals and communities performed by this representation, AIDS activism organized around the ethos of speaking out captured in the ACT UP slogan “Silence=Death.” The manipulation of sound through non-synchrony, dialogism, and text/voice combination has allowed experimental works to articulate the complexity and heterogeneity involved in “giving voice” to the identities and communities that have been most affected by AIDS and yet most marginalized by dominant media. No discussion of AIDS representation can neglect the question of the body for it is in the body that the syndrome carries out its physical devastation and it is through the body, as Michel Foucault reminds us, that modern disciplinary power is enacted.3 Simon Watney has argued that the discursive regime governing cultural representation of the pandemic, which he calls “the spectacle of AIDS,” visualizes the body with AIDS through two complementary gazes: the technological gaze of contemporary medical science, in which HIV is figured as a huge Technicolor asteroid or alien, and the documentary gaze, in which the stigmatized body of the “AIDS victim” is put on display.4 Queer film and videomakers have turned to the materiality of the image, the systematic repetition of images, and the arrangement of multiple images within the frame, among other techniques, in order to represent the corporeal magnitude of AIDS.


One of the earliest experimental works to address the epidemic of signification, André Burke’s unsettling video A (1986, USA) exploits the signifying density derived from the rapid conjunction of voice, music, and image. The video opens on the image of a pink capital letter A while the soundtrack rattles off words beginning with A, suggesting the radical polysemy of the sign, as well as its arbitrary signification. The image track moves swiftly amongst a set of overdetermined and superimposed images: a naked male torso, a young male face in close up, a brain scan, anal sex, red roses tossed onto a body. Snippets of discourse about illness, anxiety, guilt, and fear are spoken by multiple, overlaid voice-overs speaking in the first, second, and third person. The cumulative intensity of sound and image forces us to recognize that in the context of AIDS, we do not speak its discourse: it speaks us.

Rather than reducing the sign to a single letter, Jerry Tartaglia’s film A.I.D.S.C.R.E.A.M. (1988, USA) expands the acronym, simultaneously signaling the film’s seditious attitude and highlighting that AIDS remains a discursive construction. Although the film’s ominous, domineering voice-over is read by a single male voice, its numerously reiterated statements shift between a critical description of how homophobic AIDS discourses function and the blunt citation of them: “A.I.D.S. is the excuse to desexualize gay culture. A.I.D.S. proves that homosexuality is contagious.” The film’s dominant images amplify the sense of psychological pressure that these discourses exert on gay men: scratched old porn footage has been reprocessed as a negative image and tinted. Reduced to a series of abstracted systematic movements, the once liberating rhythms of gay sex now resonate with the indoctrinating rhythm of erotophobic AIDS propaganda.

Whereas Burke’s video and Tartaglia’s film use the dense conjunction of sound and image to express the psychological effects of internalizing the epidemic of signification, Barbara Hammer’s video Snow Job: The Media Hysteria of AIDS (1986, USA) employs a similar structure to examine the discursive struggle over AIDS within the public sphere. Hammer superimposes sensationalist AIDS headlines over footage of a snowstorm accompanied by audio samples of diverse AIDS discourses from television and radio, implying that popular media representation of AIDS constitutes a kind of “snow job” that distorts and obfuscates its complexity. The video figures the amplification, multiplication, and dissemination of this misrepresentation through particular video special effects, including pixilation, strobe effects, and the geometric multiplication of the image.

The overwhelming complexity of the global AIDS pandemic affords the focus for two recent video works by Yann Beauvais. The ironically titled video Still Life (1997, France) provides no images; lines of critical discourse on the social, political, and epidemiological aspects of the global pandemic are propelled across the screen at varying speeds and rhythms. We struggle to keep up with this incessant, rapid flow of information, sensing the continued urgency of these issues, the swift global spread of AIDS and also our inability to fully grasp the magnitude of the pandemic in its entirety. Colored strobe and flicker effects jolt us out of any distracted viewing. Still Life investigates the relationship between the individual and collective experience of the pandemic by explicitly bifurcating them as spoken voice on the soundtrack and written text on the screen. Personal experiences taken from texts by Derek Jarman, David Wojnarowicz, and Ben Nell are heard on the soundtrack, but remain autonomous from the social and political texts on the screen. Keeping us alert for points of possible intersection, this autonomy of voice and text forces us to contemplate this relation between the individual and collective aspects of AIDS. Beauvais’s recent video installation, Tu, Sempre (2001, France), elaborates upon the notion of an epidemic of signification by spatializing it. The installation involves similar streams of discourse to the ones in Still Life, yet now they are projected onto a screen that rotates in a gallery space. Since one side of this rotating screen is a mirror, these streams are diffracted around the space of the gallery. We are caught within the apparatus, not only surrounded by the incessant flow of AIDS discourse, but also subject to its very projection upon our bodies.


AIDS activist culture generated a great deal of alternative media production, and necessarily so. These works provided activists with both a political critique of news media’s ideological management of access to the public sphere and a vital means to articulate and disseminate activist voices of protest outside the institutional structures of dominant media. Robert Huff’s video AIDS News: A Demonstration (1998, USA) exemplifies the kind of experimentation undertaken by AIDS activist video. The tape begins with a local news segment about ACT UP’s 1988 Wall Street protest. The report on this direct action protest demanding more AIDS funding demonstrates a familiar media strategy: focus attention not on the protesters’ voices, but on the responses from the “general public” (the protest’s public disturbance is inappropriate) and from the medical establishment (the government is spending more money on AIDS). When the report concludes, the tape is fast-reversed to its beginning, undercutting its reality effect and setting it up for critical appropriation. Huff selectively re-edits the segment, repeatedly replaying particular comments to expose their ideological assumptions and slipping in images of 1960s civil rights protesters to historicize ACT UP’s practices and animated clips of Reaganite “Star Wars” technology to contextualize the government’s claims of adequate AIDS funding. He also replaces antagonistic vox populi comments with sympathetic ones that do not function to subtend the binary of general public/deviant others.

A number of queer videos addressing questions of voice and articulation in the pandemic have interrogated the semiotics of the talking head. Combining testimony, blues, spirituals, and poetry, Marlon Riggs’s video Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regret) (1992, USA) skillfully reworks the conventions of a traditional talking heads portrait in the framework of black oral culture in order to explore the complex discursive dynamics around AIDS within African American communities. Five black gay men passionately and eloquently relate their experiences living with the virus, progressing from discussion of infection through familial and social disclosure, to community building and activism. Yet Riggs frames these interviews in ways that continually undermine the audience’s generic expectation of confessional discourse related to the talking head. Through its use of mattes, non-synchronized sound, inset images, on-screen text, and superimposition, the video disrupts and re-signifies the familiar forms of televisual media, opening up the space to address the very issues which dominant media has disavowed or distorted. Nino Rodriguez’s video Identities (1991, USA) takes an even more radical approach to the talking head by editing together all the pauses, breaks, and sighs in an interview with Thomas Padgett, a person with AIDS. In this explicit interrogation of the slogan “Silence=Death” (to which it adds a supplementary, questioning “=” at the end), Rodriguez distills the nonverbal excess of a PWA’s speech into a powerful but unsettling articulation of those traumatic aspects of living with AIDS that remain stubbornly ineffable.

Using experimental form for a politics of giving voice applies not only to fighting the silencing pressure of the dominant media. Internal tensions and silences within lesbian and gay communities have proved to be equally valid targets for such strategies. Alisa Lebow and Cynthia Madansky’s video Internal Combustion (1995, USA) creates a dialogic space that explores the diverse relations between lesbians and AIDS. By interweaving but never integrating the voice-overs of two friends—an HIV+ Latina lesbian and an HIV- Jewish lesbian—the video allows us to recognize points of intersection in heterogeneous experiences while never reducing them to equivalence or synthesis. Through the video’s overlapping discursive structure, the dynamic but irreconcilable tension between survival and loss comes into view.


While dominant media representation of AIDS has systematically excluded queer voices, queer bodies have consistently been put on display—as pathological specimens, pathetic victims and dangerous criminals. To sustain the ideological fiction of the “general public,” the spectacle of AIDS required the cultural visibility of deviant bodies against which the “moral” health of hetero-normative bodies could be diagnosed. Visualizing the body thus became a fundamental ethical and semiotic problem for alternative AIDS media: how to insist on queer cultural presence but elude the pathologizing imperative regulating the spectacle of AIDS? Experimental mediamakers have often taken radically different paths to address this problem.

Derek Jarman’s final film Blue (1993, UK) undertakes a formal ascesis by removing all images from the frame. Inspired by Yves Klein’s monochrome experiments, Jarman’s film projects Kleinian blue onto the screen for its entire 76-minute duration, while infusing its soundtrack with an elaborate aural montage of voice-over, music, and recorded sounds. In its escape from what Jarman calls “the pandemonium of the image,” Blue generates a liminal space between lived materiality and philosophical abstraction. Sitting before a luminous blue screen, we may begin both to sense the encroaching physical limitations of the disease and to think beyond culture’s vision. Blue thus approaches blindness as a brutal, devastating physical reality, but also a possibly liberating metaphor. Alternating between the painful materiality of everyday life with AIDS and poetic, philosophical reflection on aesthetics, illness, and friendship, the soundtrack challenges us to see differently, beyond the signifying tyranny of the image.

Furnishing an intimate filmed portrait of a gay man dying from an AIDS-related illness, Jerry Tartaglia’s silent film See For Yourself (1996, USA) takes the phobic gaze of the spectacle of AIDS head on. The film begins with the end—with David Kline’s wake—and in doing so, it undercuts our desire to narrativize the events we see. See For Yourself presents a fragmentary, non-linear collection of everyday moments from the last months of Kline’s life—visits from friends, hospital stays, lunch in a winter garden. Like rushes from a film shoot, these raw, silent fragments provide the impression of intimate proximity to Kline but no comforting narrative coherence to alleviate the blunt materiality of his illness and death. The affectionate yet frank vision of Tartaglia’s film offered a requisite antidote to the creeping cultural disavowal about AIDS within gay culture during the mid 1990s.

Several queer filmmakers have experimented with splitting and multiplying the film image itself as a means to articulate the corporeal and psychic trauma of AIDS. In Positiv (1997, Canada), the opening short film in Mike Hoolboom’s six-part compilation Panic Bodies (1998, Canada), the filmmaker places his own wry and poignant talking head testimony about living with AIDS in one channel of a four-channel split screen. The other channels feed pop culture images of disintegrating and morphing bodies that visualize and render into metaphor Hoolboom’s expression of corporeal crisis. The corporeal fragmentation in these images, the sense of a body in parts, is amplified by the film’s formal design; the frame is dissected into smaller frames and the short film itself constitutes one of six almost hallucinatory film Pensão Globo (1997, Germany) follows a young man with AIDS who travels to Lisbon for perhaps his last journey. In each scene, two slightly different shots of the same action or gesture are non-synchronously superimposed. This staggered effect splits the young man’s body into two, creating a doppelgänger. The body’s unity collapses as the film’s fragmented layers hover over one another. This spectral doubling of the image visualizes the sporadic and echoing phrases of the voice-over which themselves imply not only alienation but also haunting: “I can’t go to bed alone. I bring them all with me, the ones who came before.”

In drawing from traditions within personal filmmaking and activist media, queer experimental film and video have frequently sought to interrogate the relationship between individual and collective bodies in the AIDS pandemic. Jim Hubbard’s silent film Elegy in the Streets (1989, USA), for example, interweaves two strands of footage: intimate, candid shots of Roger Jacoby, an experimental filmmaker and former lover of Hubbard’s, and footage of the collective response to the AIDS crisis as it develops from the mourning ritual of the candlelight vigil to the militant direct action of ACT UP. Crosscutting between the two strands—between the individual body and the mobilized bodies of AIDS activism—the film coincidentally problematizes the ideologically maintained distinctions of public and private, individual and collective, and mourning and militancy.

Although a number of queer experimental films and videos continue to be made about the AIDS pandemic, the historical circumstances that generated such a rich, large, and diverse body of work is now clearly over. Activist burnout, the relative efficacy of combination therapies and the deaths of many makers have all played their part. The entry of much of this work into the archive merely confirms this realization. To consider the questions of conservation or institutional preservation would remain a low priority at the time when these works were being produced. The exigency of that time required their urgent distribution and circulation. Now in our different historical moment, what has become urgent is the need to preserve these films and videos, to save them from destruction, deterioration, and oblivion.5



1. Alexandra Juhasz, AIDS TV: Identity, Community, and Alternative Video (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 3.
2. Paula Treichler, “AIDS, Homophobia, and Biomedical Discourse: An Epidemic of Signification,” in AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism, ed. Douglas Crimp (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988), 32.
3. See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979).
4. Simon Watney, “The Spectacle of AIDS,” in AIDS: Cultural Analysis/ Cultural Activism, 78.
5. The Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, a grantfunded nonprofit organization, oversees much of this preservation work. Founded in 1991 to assist visual artists with AIDS organize their estate and the disposition of their work, the Project has since expanded to include all of the visual and performing arts, including film and video. Furthermore, the Project has increasingly become more involved in organizing funding for specific preservation projects. Its major accomplishments with regards to the moving image have been the development of the Royal S. Marks Collection of activist video and the preservation of works by David Wojnarowicz, Jack Smith, Warren Sonbert, and Jack Waters.