Interview: Dan Fishback with Jessica Santone
“AIDS, CULTURAL MEMORY, AND PERFORMING WITH ARCHIVES:
AN INTERVIEW WITH DAN FISHBACK”
Performance artist Dan Fishback’s 2011 solo show thirtynothing aimed to create a dialogue between his coming-of-age narrative and the history of the AIDS epidemic. Both born in 1981, Fishback and AIDS share a great deal: anxiety, melancholy, loss, and humor. As the performance unfolds, Fishback takes his audience into and through several layers of archives – an art history slideshow, excerpts from published memoirs, his parents’ home videos, and found documentary footage – to project an imagined intergenerational dialogue between emerging queer artists like himself and the queer artists, writers, and performers working in the 1980s and 1990s who died of AIDS. Viewing the performance, one is propelled into a search for lost friends. In Fishback’s animated and stimulating conversations with these documents, one feels included as well in the work of building a larger network. A push-and-pull between loss and desire motivates the work, and the artist’s process. In this interview, we discuss the process of assembling research for the production, as well as the exploration of cultural memory that plays out in the performance.
Since 2003, Dan Fishback has been writing and performing in New York. His work has dealt with questions of queer, Jewish, and radical identities – usually through the lens of navigating cultural memory and reanimating historical narratives. In thirtynothing, Fishback addressed the legacy of AIDS as part of the cultural history of the gay community, and as formational for queer identities in the twenty-first century. I had the privilege of seeing a workshop of the performance live while Fishback was an artist-in-residence at Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX) in January 2011. I watched other versions of the show, including the month-long run at Dixon Place in New York City on DVDs lent by the artist, which seems fitting given the sense of mediated remove that the artist engages with during the performance. Throughout the piece, the audience is introduced to a variety of materials – books, paintings, home movies, interviews, music, toys, television, and photographs – that ricochet between the personal and the cultural, and between the past and the present. With these materials, Fishback adroitly conveys the creativity of youth, the melodrama and pretensions of adolescence, and the sense of community that one approaches or seeks in maturity.
As Ann Cvetkovich has observed, the AIDS epidemic “has had an indelible impact on the urgency and passion with which gay and lesbian publics have raced against death to preserve a record of lives and publics.” Fishback’s performance echoes that archival impulse, but the motivations are slightly different. While both have aimed to recuperate the place of mourning in the cultural history of queer lives, Cvetkovich situates the history of activism in the archive and Fishback manipulates these archives to create the seeds of activism. In the archival aspects of his performance, the artist teaches the audience how to desire these aspects of a cultural past – and how to pursue it. Playing with archives enables Fishback to make visible important gaps in knowledge. Dan Fishback and I reflected on his performance in the spring of 2012, and talked about the development of the project in its various parts.
Jessica Santone: One of the most compelling aspects of thirtynothing is the way that you interweave multiple stories. You also foreground the role of storytelling in your various anecdotes, including a bit that you do at the beginning about superheroes where you describe for the audience your childhood enjoyment of superhero action figures, an enjoyment which you say was about having the “editorial control” to make up different stories with the various characters. There seems to be a parallel between the superheroes of He-Man’s universe and those who fought in the real life battle against HIV-AIDS in the 1980s. How was your search for heroes and their stories at the heart of this project?
Dan Fishback: The point of the He-Man bit is that all you ever see with He-Man [the show] is He-Man, but there are dozens of other way more interesting people in his world who were the only ones I ever cared about. All you see in gay culture is He-Man, and you never see the other folks. My whole adult life has been about trying to magnify the experiences of the non-He-Mans of the queer universe. Coming into my sexuality in the mid-late nineties and being a young adult in the early aughts was a really alienating experience, and I didn’t know why. I just thought gay culture sucked, and gay people sucked, and that gay life was just big, waxy muscle bodies in boring dance clubs, buying clothes, and not caring about the rest of the world. I thought those things because this army of queer culture had been decimated by AIDS, and the only thing left was commerce – the gay culture that could be sold to me. My whole adult life, I’ve been making art about the experiences of non-normative queer people. At some point, I started to realize how that story of non-normative queer people was completely defined by AIDS, and how my lack of access to their stories was completely defined by AIDS. AIDS was the thing that was standing between me and a broad and diverse articulation of queer experience.
JS: Given that difficulty which you realized in the process of beginning this work, how did you go about finding the stories and books and artworks?
DF: In the dumbest ways. I got this amazing anthology, Loss within Loss, essays by living artists about their dead artist friends who had died of AIDS. I went through lots of anthologies like that. Loss within Loss was particularly meaningful because the essays were so intense. Once you start reading about artists who died of AIDS, the same names keep popping up. For years, I had been in rooms with Penny Arcade when she would talk about people she had known, so I had a sort of catalogue of names in my head from that, and from other elders in my community. I connected the dots. I breezed over a lot because, if something didn’t really speak to me, I wouldn’t belabor it, or if someone was, I felt, too famous already, I wouldn’t really belabor it. When I first started the project, a lot of people started asking me questions about Keith Haring, but I didn’t really research Keith Haring because he’s already a legend and the work doesn’t really speak to me. I wanted to focus on people who I had never heard of before – with the exception of David Wojnarowicz, who I ended up including because of the scandal with
Hide/Seek [at the National Portrait Gallery in November 2010], and Essex Hemphill, who I had known [of] previously but whose work I find so jarring that I really wanted to include it. With the exception of them, everyone in the show I had never heard of before I started this research project. And there’s a bunch of artists and writers who ended up on the cutting room floor, who I couldn’t really fit in the show. Some of them I liked the best. There’s a writer named Sam D’Allesandro, who I think I read in the version of the show at BAX last April – an amazing short story writer and poet, whose work just knocked my brains out. I discovered him at a reading that Sarah Schulman organized where she assigned literature by people who’d died of AIDS to be read by other writers. That was in conjunction with the opening of the White Columns exhibit for the ACT-UP Oral History Project. Dale Peck read this Sam D’Allesandro story and I was like who the fuck is that?! Pretty much everyone in the show, I had that response to. I read about Mark Morrisroe and I was like who the fuck is that?! I read about David Feinberg and I was like who the fuck is that?! [These were] people where I just wanted to be their best friend, and they seemed familiar, and it seemed like they were articulating things that I understood to be true and unspoken, writing and art that I wished I’d experienced earlier. A lot of the show is about wish fulfillment. My teenage years were defined by art and music by really radical women, which was great, and I’m really thankful that they were there to substitute for people who could more accurately speak to my experience, but I would’ve much rather have had David Wojnarowicz than Ani DiFranco.
JS: That makes sense. It’s a really wonderful thing to approach the archive as something that you’re meandering through in a certain way, but also following the gravitational pulls of certain individuals. I’m really impressed by how one does that, because I think it’s difficult to know how to trust your intuition. You say it would’ve been really great to know David Wojnarowicz’s work in high school, but I wonder if you in high school would’ve known to look at it. Do you know what I mean?
DF: I wish I’d had access to it. With David it’s funny because – this has almost never happened to me – I read that book in college and have no memory of reading it.
JS: This is what I mean. I think the question I want to ask then is, did you need to be thirty or twenty-nine rather to make this project?
DF: I don’t know. One cannot imagine reading Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz and not remembering it. When I read it now, I think, how is it possible? I have things underlined from college. I didn’t read it for class; no one assigned it to me. I found it; I read it; I blocked it out for some reason. To this day, I have no idea [why]. There was some sort of traumatic experience that I had with that book [so that] I was not emotionally capable of retaining it. Did I need to be thirty to make the piece? Probably yes. There was a sort of slingshot aspect to it. I was experiencing the absence of these artists for such a long time. I’m reaching the age [now] when a lot of them died. Mark Morrisroe was thirty when he died. All these artists’ experiences speak to me right now because I’ve lived through those years. But as soon as I pass those years, suddenly I’m older than David Feinberg, I’m older than Essex Hemphill. Then I’m going to need them even more. On the one hand I was anticipating that need; on the other hand I was starting to wonder why there was less and less context for my life. There’s not a lot of documentation for older queer people, and as I get older I’m more and more curious.
JS: Given this relative lack of materials, you end up doing a lot with it in the performance.
DF: I could’ve done a lot more research than I did. At some point, I stopped myself because I wanted to remain in ignorance a little bit. A lot of the impulse for the show came from a riot-grrl zine aesthetic, which has always been really close to me. It feels like a very natural impulse to find things I love and want to share them with people. At the show’s dumbest moments, it’s like a show-and-tell. My director Stephen Brackett and I often in the early stages of the project referred to thirtynothing as a ‘performance zine,’ and we toyed around even with having that be the subtitle of the show. The way that the projections are structured is such that they look like they’re in a notebook; everything looks like it’s part of a journal. We wanted to amplify this idea that it’s a zine, that it’s cobbled together – a fanzine as it were, because I’m a fan of all of these people.
JS: You call them the ‘dumbest’ moments in the show, but for me they’re also the most brilliant moments of the show. The show-and-tell aspect of the performance is really great – for a number of reasons. There is an excellent moment at the beginning, when you first introduce Mark Morrisroe, in which you say that Google won’t tell us much, the public library isn’t that much better, and the private library isn’t any better either, so you had to pay an NYU student to request a book by interlibrary loan. I’m really taken by the way that this is not just a show-and-tell, but also narrates how you got there. I’m wondering if a lot of the research was done precisely in that way, if you had to do a lot of ‘tracking down’?
DF: Some of the [research] experiences weren’t really eventful stories, but lovely moments. Oftentimes, especially with the images, in order to acquire them, I had to talk to people who knew the artists very well. To get the Patrick Angus image, I talked to a man named Douglas Turnbaugh, who was very close with Patrick and edited a book of his [work]. We wanted to include that narration of hunting things down in the show because, like I was saying before, as much as the show is a show-and-tell show, it’s also a show about absence. It’s a show about the presence of absence: how is the absence of these men a presence in my life? By carving out that negative space, we were trying to approach a portrayal or dramatization of that emptiness. Part of that emptiness is a search for the thing, and not necessarily always getting to the thing. For instance, if I really, really wanted to, I’m pretty certain that I could’ve figured out a way to read the full text that Ramsey McPhillips wrote about Mark Morrisroe. [In the show, Fishback tells a story about his failed attempt to acquire an unpublished biography of Morrisroe, written by McPhillips.] In part I didn’t pry because I wanted to honor [Ramsey’s] initial impulse to not send it – and I honestly don’t know if it was an impulse not to send it or just a casual forgetfulness, that he didn’t regard the question that much. But for the purposes of the show, I wanted to stay in that moment of not knowing or of desiring the thing. The desire seemed like something that I wanted to share with people more than the thing that I was desiring. We wanted to leave people with the sense that they’d only just skimmed an enormous realm of facts and people and art, that they’d just gotten a little bit of it. Ideally, everyone walked out of the theatre and Googled some names.
JS: Is that something that you really hoped would happen, that there would be this practical response on the part of the audience?
DF: Yes, that was one of our number one priorities. Through guiding people through my experience of this search, that they would feel the need to do a similar search. By dramatizing the ways in which I was clumsy or stupid in that search, [I hoped] people would feel less scared of failure. I cast myself as a fool in some situations, and tried to be brutally honest about my cowardice, my fear, so that everyone in the audience who was dealing with their cowardice and fear would suddenly feel like fear was less of a big deal; because that guy on stage got through it, and everyone’s applauding him at the end of the show, so maybe my own weaknesses aren’t really such a big deal. More than any project I’ve ever worked on, we were audience-focused in this show. We wanted the audience to have a very specific experience, and we wanted to guide them through it. The first version of the show we put on stage was very abstract. This was November of 2010. We did a three-night run in San Francisco. The reaction was also very positive, but it wasn’t the specific reaction that I wanted. A lot of people were very curious in ways I didn’t want them to be. They weren’t curious about the artists I talked about; they were curious about me. As I started to change it to make it more audience-focused, and as I started including more of my own personal narrative in it, the reaction was becoming more what I’d intended. In the full production in New York, people were coming up to me and saying the things that I hoped they would say: ‘I never realized that I had this history’ ‘I had no idea that. AIDS was so huge on this scale’ ‘I had no idea that there were so many artists who died.’ Sometimes, I’d say that it’s possible to know that AIDS happened and not know the scope of it in the same way that it’s possible to be a boy who’s attracted to other boys and not know you’re gay. I remember being attracted to boys and not being attracted to girls and being like ‘I’m not gay’ even though there’s nothing logical about that. I knew with my brain that a gazillion gay people died of AIDS in the late eighties and early nineties, and that they weren’t dying at that rate anymore, but for some reason, I never sat down and thought, well, what’s the effect of that? It’s weird that that has to be articulated.
JS: Inasmuch as the show is aiming to produce this effect in the audience of curiosity and discovery of these artists and other artists like them and other writers like them, to what extent were you also interested in community building with the specific audiences that you addressed?
DF: I was very interested in that. Community building is a good way of putting it, or community strengthening. One of the reasons why I wanted to highlight the work of artists who were documenting certain non-normative queer experience is because it’s really easy, if you’re just coming out, to look at the gay world and think it’s stupid, because the stupidest things become most popular generally. It’s only once you get older that it’s possible to find an alternative queer culture and an alternative queer community. By magnifying the names of that community’s heroes or its predecessors or its forebears, it creates a sort of pride and continuity…
JS: Maybe the word you’re looking for is density?
DF: Yeah. I use the word continuity because I’m borrowing it from the Jewish institutional culture world, where there’s a lot of talk about the continuity of Jewish life. There’s a sort of hysterical anxiety in a lot of Jewish institutions about fear that people will stop being Jewish, and that you have to create “continuity” between the generations so that Jewishness continues. I think there are beautiful things about that desire and also really problematic things. But I feel that desire for queer people. So many younger queer people don’t have any connection with their history [or] with the older generations. I live in a community where there’s probably more intergenerational interaction than most queer communities, but there still isn’t enough. In the programming that we did during the production – every Sunday during the production, we would have a different program at Dixon Place – the goal was to get a lot of likeminded queer people in the room who are, on some level, part of the same community but might not necessarily be interacting that much.
JS: Were those the same people who attended the show do you think?
DF: A lot of them attended the show after they came to one of the programs. Each program definitely had its own target audience. Our first program was a panel about intergenerational gay communication – really focusing on a queer male intergenerational interaction – and, if there is a generation gap, why does it exist? There was actually a lot of debate in that session as to whether a generation gap existed. That was definitely the most awkward and stimulating of the programs. We had a panel that was me, Ira Sachs, the filmmaker, the very legendary drag queen Mother Flawless Sabrina, who’s been a drag mentor since the sixties, Michael Tikili from Queerocracy and current ACT-UP, and contemporary artist Carlos Motta, who also does a lot of work with Queerocracy. And we had one much younger person who does HIV outreach amongst queer youth. At one point we realized there was this divide between people who had intergenerational sex and people who did not. Younger people who were attracted to much older people knew more about queer history, and younger people who were not, didn’t. Coming to that realization was very awkward. It took a lot of people hedging their way into revealing things about themselves. It was very, very, very fascinating. Some of the best moments of the thirtynothing month-long project were moments after the shows where older people would hang out in the [lobby] bar and just talk and tell stories, and younger people would listen. Those moments were exactly that I wanted. One of the best nights, Justin Vivian Bond came and sat at the bar and started talking about people who V knew who died in San Francisco. Crazy stories. Inspiring stories. People we would have been friends with. People who we would’ve loved. I’ve been listening to Justin tell stories in bars for years and I’d never heard about these people. It was amazing to see this gaggle of younger queer people hanging on every word. That’s what I wanted more of.
JS: It’s really exciting that your work ends up having this multiple presentation that it appeared as the show, but also was nestled into this series of talks in October 2011, and has this afterlife in the conversation at the bar.
DF: And in the gallery. The way the gallery was structured, I invited certain queer cultural figures to loan an object that was either the work of a gay artist that they had known who had died of AIDS or just reminded them of someone. Those were placed on the wall along with explanations. In some cases, it was an actual object the person made, and in some cases it was just a reminder. Filmmaker Stephen Winter loaned an ACT-UP t-shirt that he had bought with Ortez Alderson, an activist who he wanted people to know about. I had said, “Think about someone who you want younger people to know about who they probably don’t know about.” Performance artist Jennifer Miller lent sheet music from the composer Billy Swindler, who I had never heard about…. People could mill about in the lobby and just read those things and experience those things. It’s much more than a performance, it’s a project, and it’s ongoing now since I’m turning it into a book.
JS: The kinds of materials that you’re talking about are really interesting to me. In the scholarship on queer history, a lot weight is placed on what might have once been considered more peripheral materials to a traditional archive, like gossip and diaries and mix-tapes and a tshirt as a possession that was once held.
DF: We had an insert from a mix-tape on the wall.
JS: Exactly. It’s been suggested that these kinds of things might provide stronger evidence of the affective relationships and desires that structure queer community in a way that reconfigures the archive. Some have gone so far as to suggest that archives themselves are queer in their instability or “eccentricity” of the documents they contain. You obviously found yourself mining these kinds of archival materials in particular as much as the books and the exhibition catalogues. What do you think is the value of amassing this affective archive, or as Ann Cvetkovich puts it, ‘an archive of feelings’? Do you think it was crucial to pull these things together for thirtynothing?
DF: Totally. I think a lot of queer people, especially queer artists, have this formative experience of not seeing their lives as legitimate, and not seeing their lives represented around them – looking at the way human experience is represented around them and feeling totally alienated from it. A lot of us feel this mission to make sure that future queer kids – and really our projection of ourselves as children – to make sure that those phantom children no longer feel this alienation. It creates this drive to document everything, to archive everything, to make sure that everything is in public, everything is visible, everything is accessible, so that any queer kid can find it and be like ‘Oh, okay, I get it. I’m not alone. I’m like that person.’
JS: This reminds me of something that you say in one version of the show that I’ve seen, that being queer and being Jewish are maybe the same thing. In terms of this sense of cultural memory and this impulse to document everything, to archive everything, it seems like there’s an important connection here in terms of the way that these communities are diasporic or hidden.
DF: Yes, except Jews are diasporic from a theoretical place and queer people are diasporic from othing. There needs to be a center; there needs to be an [emotional] homeland. There is, but it just isn’t articulated. There is a queer experience and, by “a” queer experience I mean a matrix of queer experience – it exists and it’s interconnected. When you tap into that, it feels so good. The more I feel tapped into some kind of unified queer experience or queer history, the more relaxed I feel, the more happy I feel, the more dignified I feel. Working on thirtynothing has made my life tangibly better. I feel better. I feel happier. When I tell people I’m working on a project about AIDS, they [say] ‘Aww,’ like I must be so bummed out to be thinking about AIDS all the time. But the truth is that experiencing and hearing about the lives of these people, I feel like I’m gaining a gazillion new best friends. They bring me a lot of solace and I’m really glad that I’m getting to know them.
JS: There is this definition of what being gay means that you give at the end of thirtynothing, where you propose that defining the culture relative to the community of care that met the challenge of dealing with AIDS at the personal level in the 1980s and early 1990s was really significant. How will the legacy of AIDS in the cultural memory of gay lives affect new histories of that community? How do these archives in the show help transform a sense of history more broadly?
DF: I think that AIDS proves something about queer people. It proves that, at some kind of core, queer people have the capacity to be not just moral, but really ferociously moral. There’s something about our disconnection from conventional society and conventional expectation that allows us, at our best, to radically defy social structures to a radically moral end, which is a very different unifying principle than the conventional gay male unifying principle of fucking.
JS: Or promiscuity in general?
DF: Promiscuity is such a loaded word.
JS: “Promiscuity” then – because I think there’s a presumption that that’s a unifying principle.
DF: “Promiscuity” – I think promiscuity is great; I think having multiple sexual partners is great. I don’t think that those things in themselves are shameful or stupid. I do think that they are, however, on a practical level, a very poor way to unify a culture or community. I think that different kinds of queer people benefit from each other. I feel an intense kinship with my gender-queer friends, with my dyke friends, with my trans friends. That’s not a community of fucking, that’s not a community of promiscuity, that’s a community of having a shared experience of disconnection, a community that understands how that disconnection can serve you and challenge you to be better, and challenge you to care about people, and to challenge you to not judge people, and to challenge to you to be a more ethical person and part of a more ethical community. AIDS proves that to me. That’s the lesson of AIDS: that gay people saved each other when everyone else wanted us to die. The more people learn that lesson – the more people realize that that is the lesson of the early years of AIDS, the more queer people will feel dignified in their queerness, the more queer people will be more moral in their queerness, the more queer people will be more moral as citizens, as family members, as friends. They’ll be better. Through learning about the early years of AIDS, I became a better person. That’s one of the reasons why Sarah Schulman is such a provocative and important thinker – because her ethical standard is so clear, and the way she articulates that ethical standard to queer history is so bold. It’s sort of impossible to have a conversation with her about these topics without having an existential crisis about whether or not you’re a good person, whether or not you can live up to these standards. The idea [for thirtynothing] was that, by putting my own experience with her on stage, and my own crisis of these questions on stage, other people would have a similar experience. Other young queer people would ask themselves, ‘Would I have, could I have risen to the challenge of my forebears? Could I be this moral? Does my queerness challenge me to be this moral?’ In a way, that’s what I’ve always been trying to approach in my work, and this is the clearest statement of that. There is some kind of – I don’t want to say universal queerness, but there is some kind of centrally accessible queer ethic that is good and moral, and hidden from people, and it’s our responsibility to expose it. So that everyone knows – especially suicidal young queer people. It could literally save their lives.
 Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 269.
 Edmund White, ed., in cooperation with Estate Project for Artists with AIDS and Alliance for the Arts (New York, N.Y.), Loss Within Loss: artists in the age of AIDS (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001).
 White Columns, “ACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987–1993; a multi-faceted exhibition incorporating the ACT UP ORAL HISTORY PROJECT; and a new installation by fierce pussy,” White Columns – Exhibitions, 2010, http://www.whitecolumns.org/view.html?type=exhibitions&id=524, accessed 4 May 2012. Accompanying this exhibition, Sarah Schulman curated a reading series “Writers with HIV/AIDS” from September 20 to October 4, 2010.
 5 David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: a memoir of disintegration (New York: Vintage Books, 1991).
 Patrick Angus, Strip Show: paintings by Patrick Angus (1953-1992), with an introduction by Douglas Blair Turnbaugh (London: ʹEditions Aubrey Walter, 1992).
 Christopher Reed, “Design for (Queer) Living: Sexual Identity, Performance and Decor in British Vogue, 1922- 1926,” GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 12, no. 3 (2006): 377-404; cited in: Julia Bryan-Wilson, “We Have a Future: An Interview with Sharon Hayes,” Grey Room 37 (Fall 2009), 78-93. See also: José Esteban Muñoz, “Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Act,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 8, no. 2 (1996): 5-14.
 Cvetkovich writes, “The archive of feeling is both material and immaterial, at once incorporating objects that might not ordinarily be considered archival, and at the same time, resisting documentation because sex and feelings are too personal or ephemeral.” Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings, 244.
 Here I am referring to Douglas Crimp’s 1987 argument that “it is our promiscuity that will save us” – that is, the invention of ‘safe sex’ as a community-based response to AIDS prevention had a significant impact on the spread of the epidemic because of it showed respect for ‘promiscuity,’ which he defines as “a positive model of how sexual pleasures might be pursued by and granted to everyone if those pleasures were not confined within the narrow limits of institutionalized sexuality.” Douglas Crimp, “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic,” October 43 (Winter 1987): 253. Elsewhere, Crimp discusses morality in the response to AIDS: “AIDS didn’t make gay men grow up and become responsible. AIDS showed anyone willing to pay attention how genuinely ethical the invention of gay life had been.” Douglas Crimp, Melancholia and Moralism: essays on AIDS and queer politics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 15. For Crimp, this ethical stance is based on a radical approach to sexual pleasure that preceded the AIDS epidemic.