AIDS TV: Identity, Community, and Alternative Video / Edition 1

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Overview


Camcorder AIDS activism is a prime example of a new form of political expression—an outburst of committed, low-budget, community-produced, political video work made possible by new accessible technologies. As Alexandra Juhasz looks at this phenomenon—why and how video has become the medium for so much AIDS activism—she also tries to make sense of the bigger picture: How is this work different from mainstream television? How does it alter what we think of the media’s form and function? The result is an eloquent and vital assessment of the role media activism plays in the development of community identity and self-empowerment.
An AIDS videomaker herself, Juhasz writes from the standpoint of an AIDS activist and blends feminist film critique with her own experience. She offers a detailed description of alternative AIDS video, including her own work on the Women’s AIDS Video Enterprise (WAVE). Along with WAVE, Juhasz discusses amateur video tapes of ACT UP demonstrations, safer sex videos produced by Gay Men’s Health Crisis, public access programming, and PBS documentaries, as well as network television productions.
From its close-up look at camcorder AIDS activism to its critical account of mainstream representations, AIDS TV offers a better understanding of the media, politics, identity, and community in the face of AIDS. It will challenge and encourage those who hope to change the course of this crisis both in the ‘real world’ and in the world of representation.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Juhasz’s perspective as an academic, activist, and videomaker produces an analysis that combines broad social analysis and a culturally informed feminist politics with the work of producing AIDS video. AIDS TV challenges the standard disciplinary compartmentalizing of AIDS scholarship and service work and brings a welcome critical focus on a body of work often treated as purely educational, but not as art."—Paula Treichler, University of Illinois College of Medicine at Urbana-Champaign
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822316954
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 11/28/1995
  • Series: Console-ing Passions Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 9.13 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

Alexandra Juhasz is Assistant Professor of Film/Video at Pitzer College.

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Read an Excerpt

Aids TV

Identity, Community, and Alternative Video


By Alexandra Juhasz

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9607-9



CHAPTER 1

INTRODUCTION TO AIDS TV


AIDS TV: A History and Theory of the Alternative AIDS Media

AIDS TV is dedicated to the recognition, definition, history, and theory of the alternative AIDS media. In this book I focus on the innumerable Videos and television productions about AIDS made outside commercial broadcast television, paying particular attention to my own video project, the Women's AIDS Video Enterprise (WAVE). I consider why so much video has been made, how these many tapes function and for whom, how they challenge traditional understandings of the media, and why so much of my life, as is true of many others, has been devoted to the production, viewing, and analysis of AIDS TV. As I attempt to understand how individuals and communities work to change the lived and discursive meanings of AIDS by making video, I am also concerned with the significance of low-end video itself: what is the "alternative" media?

This question is perhaps most fruitfully answered by considering what the alternative media does. The production and reception of alternative AIDS TV are forms of direct, immediate, product-oriented activism which brings together committed individuals who insist upon being industrious. No wonder so many alternative AIDS Videos have been produced. In the few years since AIDS has known a name, hundreds if not thousands of media productions about the crisis have appeared, created by videomakers who work outside commercial (broadcast) television. Since the mid-1980s these projects have challenged and politicized the meanings of both AIDS and video. It is the fact of alternative AIDS video which is initially so compelling. Try as I may, I can think of no other social issue which, in such a brief time, has received this magnitude of attention using the form of video production.

Thus, my first task in this study must be to attempt to understand why. Why have thousands of AIDS Videos produced by artists, community centers, public access stations, ACT UP affinity groups, and high school students come into being? These Videos document AIDS demonstrations, illustrate how to clean intravenous drugworks, interview longtime survivors, depict Cunnilingus through a Dental dam. Why this form of response instead of or in addition to marching, lobbying, or leafleting? What does the fact of the vast alternative AIDS media tell us about AIDS, video, and politics? And, for those of us who are part of the large and diverse community of makers and viewers, why do we make them? Why do we watch them? Is there a value to all of this video?

Since the invention of the motion picture camera, artists, activists, and intellectuals with ideological goals have embraced the technologies which mimetically and aesthetically record movement. From film movements of the 1920s and 1930s in the newly communist USSR, to similar movements some forty years later in the decolonizing Third World, to the movements today of rapidly organizing communities of indigenous peoples around the globe—significant production of political mediamaking occurs when fluctuations in the terrain of Ideology meet with change in the realm of Technology. Film or video movements (like the outpouring of tapes about AIDS) which change the face of film and political history (and, in the process, the lives of the many people who make and view them) occur when rapid changes in politics, theory, and technology align.

The coincidental and not so coincidental lining up of the new video technologies (the Camcorder, satellite, VCR, and relatively low-cost Computer editing) with the AIDS crisis and with theories of postmodern identity politics and multiculturalism is the founding condition upon which the alternative AIDS media is built. The overwhelming needs to counter the (mis)information about AIDS represented on broadcast television, to represent the underrepresented experiences of the crisis, to communicate with others who feel equally unheard, all coincide with the formation of a new condition of media practice, the low- end, low-tech video production made possible by new technologies. The potential of media production for those individuals and communities who never before could afford it or master it occurred just as a social crisis of massive proportions and multiple dimensions begged to be represented in a manner available to the most and the least economically and culturally privileged. The politics of AIDS—the demands for a better quality of life for the people affected by this epidemic— are well matched by the potentials and politics of video.

This said, I must continue to answer the question—"Why the alternative AIDS media?"—by building upon my framework of coinciding conditions, several more conditions specific to the history of AIDS. Because in its earliest and still most well-known manifestation this retro-virus infected the bodies of white gay men in the United States, this community's material, educational, and creative resources serve as a partial inspiration for the astonishing response to AIDS found in video and television. The artists, critics, and "cultural elite"—whose deaths were met with either cultural indifference or blame in a world which had once seemed to be based upon the security of their dominant race, class, and gender—responded in forms with which they were already familiar. Then, too, a body of AIDS theory suggests that this invisible contagion is the logical culmination of the postmodern condition, only manageable in representation, and best managed in postmodernism's definitive discourse—television. AIDS TV abounds because AIDS and television are so similar—discursive, fleeting, all-powerful. Another motivation for this massive media blitz is the lack of a cure for AIDS, making necessary a focus upon preventive education. Since no medium reaches more Americans (literate or not, English-speaking or not) than television, television is the most pervasive and persuasive form for this much- needed AIDS education.

This is what alternative AIDS TV is about: 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. Producing alternative AIDS media is a political act that allows people who need to scream with pain or anger, who want to say, "I'm here, I count," who have internalized sorrow and despair, who have vital Information to share about drug protocols, coping strategies, or government inaction, to make their opinions public and to join with others in this act of resistance. Viewing alternative AIDS television—lying on a couch at home watching a VCR, sitting in church, or among friends and neighbors at a local Screening—is always an invitation to join a politicized community of diverse people who are unified, temporarily and for Strategic purposes, to speak back to AIDS, to speak back to a government and society that has mishandled this crisis, and to speak out to each other.


It's (Not) As Easy As It First Seems: Defining the Alternative AIDS Media

If the fundamental questions organizing this book seem simple and sometimes self-serving—What is the alternative AIDS media? What does it do? Where did it come from? What does my work within it mean?—I believe the answers are harder to come by. First is the issue of terminology. Just what do I mean by a phrase as broad and indecisive as "the alternative AIDS media"? The tapes which come under this moniker are conceived, funded, produced, and distributed in an infinite variety of ways and with diverse formal strategies, from big- budget educational documentaries that mimic the forms of commercial television and are funded by pharmaceutical companies and broadcast to millions of viewers on cable television, to Camcorder recordings of AIDS demonstrations that include a critique (in form and content) of broadcast AIDS representation and are shown to small, committed audiences in art galleries, activist meetings, and AIDS Conferences. In his article "Strategic Compromises: AIDS and Alternative Video Practices," John Greyson explains that alternative AIDS tapes are made for a range of reasons, by a range of producers, for a range of receptions. They are funded in many ways and are formally diverse. He lists at least nine "types" of alternative AIDS practice:

1. Cable access talk shows

2. Documents of Performances and plays addressing AIDS

3. Documentary (memorial) portraits of PLWAs (People Living With AIDS)

4. Experimental works by artists deconstructing mass media hysteria

5. Educational tapes on transmission of and protection against HIV

6. Documentaries portraying the vast range of AIDS Service organizations

7. Safer-sex tapes

8. Activist tapes

9. A growing handful of tapes for PLWAs


These nine distinctions acknowledged, I will continue, like Greyson, to use the one word "alternative" to distinguish independently produced video from the television about AIDS produced and broadcast by the three major networks (and the national cable networks, i.e., HBO, Fox, CNN, or others). This network production I call the "mainstream media," the "broadcast media," or "commercial television." These binary terms attempt to mark a delineation between a system of media production which is standardized, profit-oriented, seemingly authorless and unbiased, and directed toward mass consumption and the many other possible Systems of media production and distribution which are organized through much less regulated and standardized conjunctions of finance, ideology, artisanship, profit, and style.

I am well aware that these binary terms also serve to obscure a great deal of the cross-fertilization, mimicry, and hybridization which defines much current video production, especially because of the rise of cable broadcasting and the explosion of the home video market. Experimental form is used by both media, as is conventional form; conservative ideology can be espoused in either formats; "alternative" videos can have budgets larger than those of the "mainstream," and they can even make their producers a lot more money. When using this rigid binary, there is no way to differentiate between a NOVA program on AIDS, produced and repeatedly aired by PBS, and the one-time, at-first-censored PBS airing of Marlon Riggs's Tongues Untied (1989). There is no distinction between a state-funded, big-budget, moralistic educational video for teenagers preaching at them to abstain from sex and the collectively produced Second Look Community Arts' What's Wrong with This Picture (1991), in which diverse teenagers promote sexual experimentation, liberation, and safety. These binary terms erase the differences between television and video: one made for the purpose of broadcast and the selling of commercials and usually produced with the medium of video, the other also made in video, with the potential of broadcast but the primary intention of a grassroots distribution with minimal financial yield, more like art or educational film.

Yet, it does not take a Ph.D. in cinema studies to locate and articulately differentiate the two Systems of representation. A WAVE Taster (WAVE, 1990) is a video which documents the WAVE project's production process. In a scene from April 14,1990, the group discusses the differences between two videos about AIDS—the 1986 NBC News Special, Life, Death and AIDS, narrated by Tom Brokaw, and my tape, Women and AIDS (with Jean Carlomusto, 1988), which features a number of female AIDS professionals. In the process, the significant distinctions between the mainstream and alternative media are articulated. Our discussion proceeded as follows:

Glenda: The first one was more realistic. The people were real, what they were saying is real.

Alex: How do you transmit that? What about them seems real to you?

Glenda: Because they experienced this. I don't know what Tom's experiences are. He was just doing his job. He got a couple of people together from Atlanta. They seemed so unattached to what was happening. The people in the first video were attached.

Alex: What kind of experts does TV choose? All these white, male scientists. But a lot of people know about AIDS from firsthand experience. TV rarely calls those people experts.

Aida: That's because we don't have a bachelor's degree, or we didn't go to ten years of College. They feel that one isn't educated enough to speak in front of people and tell them, "listen this is what I know about it." The scientists went through College, they have all these big professional degrees. That's why they're put up in front of the media as far as being able to speak, and thinking people will listen to them.

Alex: But what do they know?

Sharon: They know nothing. A piece of paper. A bunch of statistics.

Aida: They haven't really come to an experience. The way they speak is just out of knowledge.


In our conversation, we focused upon the different kinds of authority which define mainstream and alternative video: the authority of distance, education, knowledge versus experience, understanding, and attachment (figure 1). Despite the blurring of boundaries in the age of cable, Camcorders, and CNN, some differences remain consistent between alternative and mainstream production. Greyson comes to the determination that despite the diversity within the alternative AIDS media, these productions function differently from the mainstream media, although they do inform and sometimes change the commercial media's representation of AIDS, because of two amorphous but critical qualities: a "confident insider's vernacular" and "effectiveness." His terms, like WAVE's discussion, serve to articulate what the alternative AIDS media is—a use of the media to speak from within and to a politicized community—and what the alternative AIDS media does—to effectively construct and communicate that politicized community first to itself and then perhaps to a broader audience. Jean Carlomusto explains how the Gay Men's Health Crisis' (GMHC) "Living with AIDS" weekly cable show differs from broadcast TV:

In contrast to network television, AIDS activist television explores the possibility of production within the context of an activist movement. Grass root media production is part of the process of constantly defining and presenting our movement.... We have people speaking for themselves about their experiences. They are addressing others like themselves who could benefit from a sharing of knowledge and survival strategies. The program's central philosophy is that we are all living with AIDS.


Carlomusto describes what is a significant defining feature of the alternative AIDS media, the positioning of producer, subject, and audience of a video in a similar place—self-proclaimed difference, marginality, activism, oppression, distinctiveness, and, sometimes, infection. Videomaker Catherine Saalfield calls this "'amongness' between the producers and the audience." The production and viewing of alternative media involve a willing and often sought-out dialogue among producer and audience because the people involved need the dialogue; they need lifesaving Information, need to see their lives and problems represented with dignity, need to hear politically inflected interpretations of the issues which affect them, and need to speak to each other about what they know. People with highly specific demands and opinions use alternative media because it can "narrowcast" crucial Information among a limited audience of like-minded people, this in an accessible form which is quick and inexpensive to make. To do all this work, normally with little or no money involved, the producer working from a self-proclaimed position of marginality must necessarily be passionate—another defining feature of alternative AIDS media. Experience, understanding, attachment, and passion define the form and content of alternative AIDS video because its primary purpose and effect are self- and community expression and communication. This depiction does not mean that the work is touchy-feely, but in fact the exact opposite. Alternative AIDS media is explicitly political, necessarily critical. By claiming a self-identified position of anger or love in Opposition to the "objective" norm, community identification and building begin.

Faye Ginsburg has labeled the distinction between the two media the profit/prophet motive. The prophet motive of alternative media inspires producers to challenge the normative mode of broadcast television production and distribution. The urgency of getting out a certain message overrides the financial motivations of mainstream production (although certainly the mainstream media has a range of motivations which fall second to its profit motive, and alternative mediamakers are always pleased to make money). The creation of media work that comes from within a movement or experience and which has an urgent, explicit, and committed purpose (what Greyson calls effectiveness) is different from work that is produced because a time slot must be filled, a commercial sold, and an audience placated. The viewing inspired by these diverse Systems can be understood in similar terms: watching a video because you struggle, desire, or need to see it is different from watching a television show because it happens to be on when you happen to be in front of the tube. This difference between alternative and Mainstream AIDS media comes from an explicit (or sometimes newly developing) political, educational, or personal commitment to prophesizing about the AIDS crisis.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Aids TV by Alexandra Juhasz. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
1 Introduction to AIDS TV 1
2 A History of the Alternative AIDS Media 31
3 The Politics of Mimesis 75
4 The Pleasure and Power of Seeing Science 113
5 Containing and Unleashing the Threat 139
6 WAVE: A Case Study 179
7 Identity, Community, and Alternative AIDS Video 229
Notes 243
Bibliography 259
Videography 271
Index 301
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