"I Is an Other": Writing Wojnarowicz, AIDS and the East Village

With about a week left to apply for an Arts Writers Grant, we’d like to share an example of a recently completed Arts Writers project. Cynthia Carr’s Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, awarded a book grant in 2008, is a biography of the controversial painter, photographer and writer, as well as a history of the East Village art scene, the AIDS crisis, and the “culture wars” of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I recently spoke to Carr about the cultural histories she weaves together in this remarkable book, which will be published by Bloomsbury on July 17.
Kareem Estefan: When the experimental writer Kathy Acker performed alongside Wojnarowicz for an ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) benefit at the Drawing Center in 1991, she called him a “saint.” Yet one of the things I appreciate most about your book is that, far from a hagiography, it is a very critical biography. You show Wojnarowicz to have been irascible and selfish as often as he was gentle and generous, and so a very complex picture emerges.
Cynthia Carr: I had to show all the sides of him in order to create a true picture. It wouldn’t be a real biography otherwise. He was definitely not a saint. He was an angry person, and yes—complicated. He also created a myth around himself, as a kind of cloak, trying to hide himself. When he was first interviewed in 1984, he was already doing it: “I was a hustler, my father beat me…” and everything else is erased, because he didn’t want to talk about his mother or siblings. The father’s dead, so he can say what he wants about him, and he can go right to the hustling, “and then I met Peter Hujar [his long-time partner],” just to make it simple.
By the time I interviewed him in 1990, he told me that he regretted doing that. I mean, those things are true. He was a hustler; he just erased a lot. And one thing you have to do in a biography is break through that: what really happened?
Kareem: He definitely constructs a mythology for himself. Rimbaud was very important to him, and he made a famous photo-series called Rimbaud in New York, placing the poet in his own favorite haunts. You note the many similarities between their lives: born almost exactly a century apart, they left home as adolescents, and grew up impoverished, rebellious, and queer. They would die at the same age, 37. Reading your book, I kept thinking of Rimbaud’s famous quote: “I is an other.” There was no singular “I” for Wojnarowicz; he was always fragmented. He shared different parts of himself with different friends, and many of his close friends were later shocked at what your research revealed about him. At one point in his journal, he even separates an “I” from a “David”: I sometimes feel bad for that David and can’t believe he is dying. Can you talk about why he always felt so split?
Cynthia: I’m sure it had to do with his childhood, with finding a way to feel safe. He always felt that something was wrong with him—that he was an alien, and that if people really knew who he was, they would not like him. If he knew that two friends talked to each other about him, it would drive him crazy. He didn’t want what he had told one person to be transmitted to the other, even something good; he really needed to compartmentalize.

David Wojnarowicz,
 Arthur Rimbaud in New York (on subway), 1978-79, silver print, 8 x 10 inches. Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York.
Kareem: How did he first respond to finding out that he was HIV-positive? As someone who was surrounded by poverty, violence and death much of his life, what did the awareness of his own impending death mean?
Cynthia: He got very depressed, which is not surprising. That’s when he got involved with ACT UP and started going to demonstrations. And he began to work with great urgency on his next show, In the Shadow of Forward Motion (ITSOFOMO), which was the biggest show he ever did. He made that work thinking that it might be the last he’d ever do.
But for a while, he was asymptomatic. The doctor told me that David had full-blown AIDS from the time he was tested. His T-cell count was already low, below 200, but he didn’t have any opportunistic infections.
Kareem: It’s haunting how AIDS creeps into this chronological narrative, spreading from a strange, rumored disease—a New York Times article from 1981 reports on so-called “gay” cancer, and then Larry Kramer’s 1983 article warns about a crisis, which wasn’t yet recognized as a crisis—to an epidemic that devastated a whole community, until, as you note, every day began with a look at the obituaries.
Cynthia: Until I started putting all this together in this book, I didn’t quite take it in myself—how much the AIDS epidemic was like the shadow behind the East Village scene the entire time. Even in the late ‘70s, the virus was already here and spreading, but no one knew about it. A few people died, but it was just a medical mystery for the doctors.
And then you’d start to hear about people you knew who were sick. I think even people who lived through those times try to forget it, because it was so traumatic. There were memorial services to go to constantly. An entire circle of friends could be wiped out. Young people were dying ugly, horrible deaths. And there was absolutely nothing you could do for them. It was like living through a war where hardly anyone comes back. It was an age of grief.
Kareem: The East Village art scene died out before most of its artists were dying of AIDS. Talk about this rapid rise and fall, from roughly 1980 to 1985.
Cynthia: When it started with FUN Gallery and Gracie Mansion, I was living in the East Village because it was a cheap place. The main thing going on was drugs. It was frightening to even walk down certain streets. I was covering performances in the clubs. I remember leaving my house for shows late at night, and I would sometimes walk down the middle of the street because every building I passed was abandoned.
Then the galleries came in. It was so exciting for a while: all these crummy little storefronts full of paintings. The spaces were so tiny. Like Civilian Warfare. It was about the width of an airplane; it was almost comical that it would become an art gallery. It was like a cartoon version of the art world. The landlords were overjoyed: “You want to have a gallery in this bodega?” They could see the gentrification process beginning.
One night I went to [performance space] 8BC and David Lee Roth, the lead singer for Van Halen, was there. I thought, “What the hell are you doing here?” In this crummy little club that had a dirt floor when it opened. And I realized, “Oh my god, it’s over.”
Kareem: You suggest that the whole idea of being “marginal” or “underground” evaporated with the passing of the East Village scene…
Cynthia: There was a cultural change. I wrote a piece once called “The Bohemian Diaspora,” about this idea that there wasn’t a physical location for bohemia anymore. No room for an “autonomous zone.” During David’s lifetime, there were definitely many such zones, even in Manhattan. Not just the empty buildings in the East Village but the piers along the Hudson. Now every inch of ground has been colonized. And there’s so much media looking for the Next Big Thing. As soon as anything “underground” attracts the spotlight, it disappears. Or it gets expensive and the “marginal” have to go.
Kareem: Talk about Wojnarowicz’s relationship to the established art world. I’m thinking of the time he threw bloody cow bones onto the steps outside Leo Castelli Gallery. Or let his “cock-a-bunnies”—cockroaches he gave rabbit ears—loose in a PS1 group exhibition from which he felt excluded.
Cynthia: He had an adversarial relationship with the art world right from the start, and that’s why he liked being in the East Village, at Civilian Warfare, where he felt like the dealers were just like him. They had an adversarial relationship, too.
Kareem: Wojnarowicz had a striking phrase for all he rebelled against: “the pre-invented world.” What did this mean to him?
Cynthia: It’s everything that is imposed on you when you’re born—the official reality. He talked about the “regulated world, the fenced-in world.” He thought it should all be questioned. He writes about it more beautifully than I ever could, in a passage from his memoir Close to the Knives, which I include in the book:

The world of the stoplight, the no-smoking signs, the rental world, the split-rail fencing shielding hundreds of miles of barren wilderness from the human step. A place where by virtue of having been born centuries late one is denied access to earth or space, choice or movement. The bought-up world; the owned world. The world of coded sounds: the world of language, the world of lies. The packaged world; the world of speed in metallic motion. The Other World where I’ve always felt like an alien.

Pre-order Cynthia Carr’s Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (Bloomsbury, July 2012) here.
Read the Arts Writers Grant Program guidelines and apply for an Arts Writers Grant here. The final deadline is Wednesday, June 6.

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