COMPUSLIVE PRACTICE: Documenting AIDS Activism and Awareness

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Video stills from participating artists, from top left: Luna Luis Ortiz, Juanita Muhammed, Mark S. King, Southern AIDS Living Quilt, Ray Navarro, Nelson Sullivan, James Wentzy, Carol Leigh aka Scarlot Harlot, and Justin B. Terry-Smith. All photos courtesy Visual AIDS. 

By Olivia J. Kiers

December 1st is “Day With(out) Art,” a national day of action in response to the AIDS crisis, begun on December 1, 1989, and continued by Visual AIDS, an arts organization that raises awareness via exhibitions, public forums, publications and other means. Curators Jean Carlomusto, Alexandra Juhasz and Hugh Ryan have produced a documentary film, COMPULSIVE PRACTICE, composed of archival footage from nine video-makers and artists who are living with HIV/AIDS or are activists, or both. Including a range of clips from artist/activists Ray Navarro, Luna Luis Ortiz and Nelson Sullivan (among others) and the project Southern AIDS Living Quilt, the film is a testament to bravery in the face of illness, and strength against prejudice.

COMPULSIVE PRACTICE is also a testament to the dedication of the curator/archivists who gathered and preserved these films—much of them on now obsolete formats like VHS tapes or even Betamax—for decades in a storage unit seen at the very beginning of the film. They refer to this behavior as a compulsion—a compulsive practice. Compulsions are not often portrayed in a positive light, especially in today’s quick-fix era of “letting go.” Yet faced with a crisis like AIDS, this compulsive behavior is what keeps activism alive, providing a much-needed sense of community and normalcy to those who engage in it.

Filmmaker and COMPULSIVE PRACTICE co-curator Jean Carlomusto in her video archives preparing Day With(out) Art 2016. 

While the curators discuss the importance of archiving and the burden of responsibility that the archivist feels, actual curating within the film is left very subtle. COMPULSIVE PRACTICE allows viewers to feel that they are discovering these clips for themselves. Original footage is shown without voiceover commentary and in discreet segments. The video-makers speak for themselves, which ultimately delivers a very strong curatorial message. This is a crisis that has profoundly affected countless lives, yet these filmmakers never lost sight of their own identity and the importance of leading the dialogue on their own terms.

Released to museums and institutions across the United States, COMPULSIVE PRACTICE will be screened at several New England venues on December 1, including:

Bowdoin College Museum of Art at 4 p.m.

Harvard Art Museums at 10 a.m.–5 p.m. (looping gallery presentation)

RISD Museum at 12 p.m.

Please visit the website for details.


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