Practicing Utopia: Recent Retrospectives on the Work of David Wojnarowicz
By Jonathan AlexanderJanuary 2, 2019
Banner Image: David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992), Arthur Rimbaud in New York, 1978–79 (printed 1990)
THIS PAST SUMMER saw three major retrospective exhibitions in New York on the work of David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992: the Whitney’s incredible showing of the breadth of his output, from photography to collage, to painting, to film, to oral performance; NYU’s Fales Library’s presentation of archival materials from their extensive holdings of the artist’s papers and effects; and the P·P·O·W Gallery’s recreation of some of Wojnarowicz’s complex installations. NYU also launched its David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base, an extensive and ever-developing wiki that explores the artist’s legacies through interviews, interpretations, and other documentation.
The significance of these exhibitions lies largely in their expanding our sense of Wojnarowicz as an artist, who has, since his death, gained increasing renown primarily for his hallucinatory writings. Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (1991) tracks his steady deterioration from AIDS, which he equates with the demise of a larger American culture that is failing to ensure the survival of some of its most at-risk, vulnerable, and maligned citizens. Wojnarowicz’s dystopic vision of the United States, born out of his encounters during the 1980s with hostility and inaction in the face of the AIDS crisis, is well documented in his writings and art. His legacy offers a powerful example of someone who generated a great deal of art and activism out of two interrelated issues: a culture that denied the humanity of queer subjects and the corrosive effects of greed and inattentive consumerism on all aspects of civil society.
Wojnarowicz’s aesthetic, variously collaged, juxtaposed, and DIY, re-visions a (white, straight, middle-class) monocultural United States of America in order to make room for plurality and dissent. One of the most striking features of the Whitney exhibit was the overwhelming sense it imparted of the artist’s fecundity, his ability to work within and across multiple modes and media — graffiti; masks; sculptured heads; collaged globes; complex paintings filled with mixtures of images, symbols, and words; film; spoken word; and photography. Creating with whatever was at hand in the largely abandoned piers on the Lower East Side, which he shared with other artists and the homeless (of whom he was, at times, one), Wojnarowicz even painted garbage-pail covers, tape-recorded monologues from the itinerant, and was a member of an early punk band, 3 Teens Kill 4 (3TK4).
Moving from room to room in the Whitney exhibit, visitors encountered the overflow of media and voices that characterize Wojnarowicz’s art. The music from 3TK4 followed you as you entered the Hujar room, which documented Wojnarowicz’s long-term friendship with his mentor (and former lover), photographer Peter Hujar (also lost to AIDS). And as you moved through rooms full of his paintings and a large area featuring samplings from his silent film projects, you could hear his sometimes strident voice, ranting and raging against America, volubly declaring, “There’s something in my blood and it’s trying to fucking kill me!”
The value of this exhibit, and the complementary ones at P·P·O·W and NYU, lies not just in their retrospective honoring of Wojnarowicz’s AIDS activism and art, though that work is powerful. Instead, their importance stems from their larger reframing of Wojnarowicz’s legacy, particularly the artist’s concerns with a capitalist and consumer accumulation that ravages bodies, culture, the natural environment, and our very sense of what it means to be human. Wojnarowicz’s aesthetic and political ambitions can be summarized in his assertion that “with enough gestures we can deafen the satellites and lift the curtains surrounding the control room.” I love the metaphors in this statement, the sense of discovering the invisible wizards controlling the levers of culture.
But these are also not just metaphors: they are material realities. Wojnarowicz was deeply concerned with the production, dissemination, and circulation of a mass culture that offered what he called a “pre-invented world” for consumption, one that frequently elided lives, lifestyles, subjectivities, and ways of being that lay outside the ideology of “middle America.” Wojnarowicz worked his whole life to create the DIY gestures that would “deafen” or interrupt these satellite transmissions, creating alternative circuits of meaning. He would have agreed with critic John Rieder that “mass culture relentlessly insists on telling us who we are, and who we ought to want to be”; ultimately, following this logic, “[i]t is a short step from professionalized market research and the construction of advertising campaigns to the techniques of political propaganda.”
Wojnarowicz was active right before the widespread adoption of the internet, so his formulation — to “deafen the satellites” — seems very mid-20th century, a desire to interrupt one-way transmissions. But the recent retrospectives suggest Wojnarowicz’s continued relevance in our digital era, the potential his work holds to critique the ceaseless circulation of “content,” discourses, news (fake and otherwise), ideas, affects. How can we intervene in this circulation? What interruptions are possible? What programming can we challenge, and to what ends and effects?
We might take a clue from the subtitle of the Whitney exhibit, “History Keeps Me Awake at Night,” which is the title of one of Wojnarowicz’s paintings. His work was a pointed recognition that the bigotries and traumas of the past — from systemic racism, sexism, and homophobia to more local and immediate abuses, such as the violence he suffered as a child at the hands of his father — continue to shape our existence. We cannot change that history, but we can alter our relationship to it so as to seed a better future. And in that way, despite — or perhaps because of — his protean and generative rage, I understand Wojnarowicz as essentially a utopianist, one whose aesthetic practice is imbued with what Marxist critic Ernst Bloch called the value of “cultural surplus” — the excess content that cannot be contained by bourgeois ideology and that fuels our sense of the possible, our hopes for the future.
Rimbaud in New York
A prime example, from early in Wojnarowicz’s career, is the series of photographs he took around New York City with various male friends and lovers. The artist positioned his friends against graffiti-covered walls, on the subway, in a diner, even shooting up heroin, all while wearing a mask of the 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, with eyeholes poked out with a lit cigarette. (The Whitney exhibit featured a selection of these photographs, along with the mask with its burnt-out eyes and sweat stains.) Wojnarowicz felt a deep aesthetic and biographical kinship with the French poet, a real “bad boy” who, like him, had been homeless for a while, was also queer, used drugs, and wrote symbol-laden hallucinatory poetry. In her biography of Wojnarowicz, Fire in the Belly (2012), Cynthia Carr reports the artist reflecting on this series:
I felt, at that time, that I wanted it to be the last thing I did before I ended up back on the streets or died or disappeared. Over the years, I’ve periodically found myself in situations that felt desperate and, in those moments, I’d feel that I needed to make certain things. … I had Rimbaud come through a vague biographical outline of what my past had been — the places I had hung out in as a kid, the places I starved in or haunted on some level.
Wojnarowicz’s connection to Rimbaud is more than just a biographical oddity (curiously, both men died at the age of 37). Placing the poet’s mask on his friends offered a way to imagine the poetic and transformative possibilities lurking within the social margins. Rimbaud famously advocated the “reasoned derangement of the senses” — actively attempting to alter one’s perceptions, through drugs, or forbidden sexual practices, or by pushing language to its limits in imaginative play. Rimbaud also declared that “Je est un autre” — “I is an other” — asserting a fundamental alienation from self that opens the possibility of reinvention. The “bad” grammar here suggests a need for fundamental shifts in perception at a structural level, through the very languages we use to interact with and construct the world. As such, Rimbaud’s — and by extension, Wojnarowicz’s — aesthetic is utopian in the broadest sense. Working from the given, including the historically given through the specter and legacy of Rimbaud, Wojnarowicz stakes out future alternatives. More specifically, imagining Rimbaud in New York among and through the bodies of other itinerant artists connects the exploratory and experimental poet of the past to a present that seeks a different future, while at the same time suggesting that this future will come from a revaluation of life at the margins.
I think of this photographic series as enacting a small version of what Davina Cooper describes, in her 2013 book Everyday Utopias: The Conceptual Life of Promising Spaces, as small, provisional spaces that “work by creating the change they wish to encounter, building and forging new ways of experiencing social and political life.” Cooper offers the example of the Pussy Palace, a site where women can safely explore sexual intimacy with one another, as an “everyday utopia” that, in its local and temporally limited way, performs an “attunement, a way of engaging with spaces, objects, and practices that is oriented to the hope, desire, and belief in the possibility of other, better worlds.” Rimbaud appearing at the margins of New York life collapses the past into the present, evoking the dreams of the poet for a new language, a new set of aesthetic sensibilities coming out of extreme situations. Wojnarowicz having his friends and lovers embody the poet in these down-and-out spaces revalues them, the socially discarded, while also, in Cooper’s words, “exploring the potential that resides within different nows as they gesture toward different futures.”
Practice as Ideology
The artist’s focus on the “everyday” opens up possibilities for experimenting at the level of lived experience, for theorizing through praxis and recursivity, and for recognizing the ideological valences and values of practice itself. Wojnarowicz’s work has drawn critical attention for its provocative mixing and remixing of pop-culture symbology and forms, ranging from alien monsters to Mexican wrestlers to early punk rockers. Wojnarowicz was masterful at using the materials he had at hand and creating art in the venues available, relying for instance on the expressive powers of graffiti, which he (along with others, such as Keith Haring) elevated to an art form during the 1980s. Wojnarowicz seemed to take particular delight in the fleeting nature of graffiti installations in the old Hudson River piers and in abandoned buildings on the Lower East Side that could be demolished at any time.
Much ideological critique is evinced in this practice. Carr reports Wojnarowicz’s description of his approach (and that of other “itinerant” artists) when working at the piers:
Some of us bring in materials to work with. Some work exclusively with found materials. People are affected by light, by wind from the river, by the subtle deterioration of the surroundings, by the movement of strangers through broken doorways, by the shift of sky and water from blues to greys in the evenings, by elements of risk and danger, by suddenly discovered work where hours before there was none.
There’s an everyday utopic sensibility at play here, creating art out of refuse, working with the surroundings, engaging the environment. In some respects, Wojnarowicz’s reliance on accident and found materials parallels the chaos of his early life. As Thomas Lawrence Long put it in a 2012 essay on the artist’s “apocalypticism”: “Wojnarowicz’s chaotic life is reflected in the fragments, collages, and patches of his visual work (including films, photographs, drawings, and paintings) and writing.” But this was also a specifically queer kind of making. As artist Nayland Blake has noted,
From the margins, queers have picked those things that could work for them and recoded them, rewritten their meanings, opening up the possibility of viral reinsertion into the body of general discourse. Denied images of themselves, they have changed the captions on others’ family photos. Left without cultural vehicles, they have hijacked somebody else’s. They have been forced to trespass and poach. To be queer is to cobble together identity, to fashion provisional tactics at will, to pollute and deflate all discourses.
This cobbling together doesn’t just involve speaking back to a homophobic world. It is also a practice of making connections, of being open to the world, even as parts of that world refuse you. Carr quotes Wojnarowicz meditating on the free play of aesthetic creation:
I don’t sit down with an idea formed in my head and then try to put it onto paper. I usually sit down with a mental film running — one composed of visual and emotional images and I will start out with a few unimportant lines and then things connect and I write quickly onto the paper whatever comes through my fingers. … That’s the excitement for me, the discoveries and connections of thought that suddenly appear.
There is a deep provisionality here, a recognition — long before the artist realized he was dying of AIDS — that the world is in a constant flux of change but also, if we are paying attention, composed of interweaving connections. His interests in graffiti and temporary installations, as well as the capturing of monologues by the homeless, hustlers, johns, pickups, hitchhikers — all speak to an obsession with impermanence, not just in the abstract but also as experienced by those thrust to the margins, cast out of the static and straight mono-culture. Of necessity, such folk have often made a virtue of flux and change. And in so many ways, Wojnarowicz’s queerness, periodic homelessness, and his respect and love for others like him fed an aesthetic practice that persistently sought to counter preconceptions of what is valuable, amounting to a lifelong interrogation of the pre-invented world.
Wojnarowicz’s DIY aesthetic even extended to music-making, with his band 3 Teens Kill 4 playing toy instruments (he wasn’t musically trained at all), tape-recording sound effects, and creating other soundscapes that questioned the consumerist values of suburban America. His music is not just decidedly punk in its questioning of authority and received wisdom; it also expresses a conviction that anyone can create, can make art — and that everyone’s voices, perhaps especially the disenfranchised and those outside the aesthetic mainstream, should be heard.
Sex as Practice
For Wojnarowicz, this democratic impulse extended to his casual sexual encounters, which were often among the homeless, sometimes intergenerational, and occasionally for cash. The Waterfront Journals (1997), a set of tape-recorded monologues combined with some original writing, offers many compelling testaments to these encounters, sometimes in public at the piers, as a form of mutual comfort and connection. The concluding piece, “From the Diaries of a Wolf Boy,” has the eponymous creature assert, ostensibly in Wojnarowicz’s voice, that he’s “attracted to chaos because of all the possibilities.” Part of that chaos stems from desperate circumstances:
I was feeling dislocated, my money was going to run out fairly quick from fast-food meals and occasional beers. The feeling of dislocation was really about dreaming too much in this guy’s movements. There was nothing ahead of me but a return to the streets of New York unless there’s something called love but it probably doesn’t exist except in the mythologies we’re fed in the media or by lying to ourselves over time. It’s not only the urge to climb inside someone’s skin and fuse in the reverse of their blood: it’s wanting to leave the face of the planet, our bodies rolling against each other in the cool spacious sky. But this guy couldn’t verbalize anything that touched his sexuality; he had a look of pain when I strayed near words so I slid back into my solitary drift and waited till his hands began to move towards me.
In typical Wojnarowiczian language, the wolf boy wants something beyond the pre-invented world; he wants to be able to give voice to his encounters, his connections, his creation of everyday utopias out of the refuse and margins of the piers, including the human refuse he finds there and of which he is a part. In his 2009 book The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism, Kevin Floyd, writing about similar scenes in Close to the Knives, describes the utopic queer world-making at play in such “casual” sex: “Wojnarowicz depicts the pursuit of sex as the pursuit of an orgasmic overcoming of the socially engineered privacy that others him, a disintegration of the isolate self that is simultaneous with an integration of bodies.”
If I foreground the lesser-known Wojnarowicz, the pre-AIDS artist and writer, I do so because this early material — the Rimbaud mask photographs, the emphasis on practice, The Waterfront Journals — underscores the extent to which he was always invested in the margins, in refuse and the refused. The aesthetic and political arc of his work shows how the dominant world invites — even demands — that the margins be ignored in order to maintain its sovereignty. For Wojnarowicz, the price of such ignorance was catastrophic, not only for his own life (in his death from AIDS) but also, as we are discovering, for the life of our planet.
Indeed, that ecological concern is manifest in Wojnarowicz's mature art. One of the great advantages of the Whitney exhibit was its powerful sampling of the artist’s paintings, large and complex canvases saturated with symbols and even at times chunks of text. Wojnarowicz’s writing is often hallucinatory, filled with powerful and evocative images, and his paintings practically demand to be “read” like texts, with symbols and words cluttering the visual field. These symbols — ants, maps, monsters — accumulate across multiple paintings, photographs, and installations, creating a symbolic language that can be mixed and matched to create new sentences, to rebuild the world.
Commenting on this rich symbolism, senior curator David Kiehl noted to me the extent to which Wojnarowicz’s concerns were not just sexual but also ecological. One impressive painting, A Worker (1986), depicts a factory worker carrying a deer, Christ-fashion, away from a heavily industrialized area — a rejection of the pre-invented world of corporate, capitalist, industrial production in a painting that mobilizes Christian imagery to make a striking environmentalist message. In a lower panel of the painting, serving as a ground for the reality depicted above, a male figure composed of maps swims through a river, symbolizing a global humanity persisting, continuing on. The utopic impulse here emerges from a dense engagement with harsh realities while refusing to be overwhelmed by chaos or contained by despair.
Without a doubt, Wojnarowicz entertained his fair share — and then some — of human despair. Even the wolf boy, long before the artist contracted HIV, wrote devastatingly about his world and his desire for destruction:
Sometimes I wish I could blow myself up. Wrap a belt of dynamite around my fucking waist and walk into a cathedral or the Oval Office or the home of my mother and father. I’m in the last row of the bus, the seven other passengers are clustered like flies around the driver in the front. I can see his cute fuckable face in the rearview mirror. I lean back and tilt my head so all I see are the clouds in the sky. I’m looking back inside my head with my eyes wide open. I still don’t know where I’m going; I decided I’m not crazy or alien. It’s just that I’m more like one of those kids they find in remote jungles or forests of India. A wolf child. And they’ve dragged me into this fucking schizo-culture, snarling and spitting and walking around on curled knuckles.
What’s striking about this stark imagery is the artist’s holding on tenaciously to what he’s seeing “back inside my head with my eyes wide open.” This approach suggests what Ruth Levitas has called “utopia as method”: a candid encounter with — and critique of — contemporary realities while holding on to visions of something different.
Frogs and the Future
David Kiehl and his co-curator, David Breslin, purposefully ended their exhibition at the Whitney with an untitled photograph from 1990 showing Wojnarowicz holding a tiny frog, with a chunk of text asking, “What is this little guy’s job in the world. [sic] If this little guy dies does the world know? […] Do people speak language a little bit differently?” Perhaps everything we might want to know about Wojnarowicz’s contemporary relevance is contained in this image and its attendant questions. In the picture, nature is telescoped into a tiny frog lying in a human hand, with that human asking about its connection — and, by implication, about all of our connection — to the rest of the universe. Approaching his own death, Wojnarowicz meditates on life’s meaningfulness, but his foregrounding of such a powerful image — the human holding a frog — gestures beyond the immediate politics of AIDS to broader questions of agency, interconnection, and ethical responsibility.
In Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2009), Jane Bennett argues for an enlightened self-interest when reconsidering our relations with the world around us:
The ethical aim becomes to distribute value more generously, to bodies as such. Such a newfound attentiveness to matter and its powers will not solve the problem of human exploitation or oppression, but it can inspire a greater sense of the extent to which all bodies are kin in the sense of inextricably enmeshed in a dense network of relations. And in a knotted world of vibrant matter, to harm one section of the web may very well be to harm oneself. Such an enlightened or expanded notion of self-interest is good for humans.
Such a vibrant materialism demands attention to new and different circuits of connection, power, and action — an attention to the discarded, the marginal, the seemingly insignificant, the refuse and the refused, like the little frog who must have his own job in the world.
Ultimately, histories cannot be forgotten, which is why some histories keep some of us awake at night. The violence of childhood abuse, systemic oppression, class-driven acts of disregard for the planet, the creation of homeless populations through predatory capitalist practices — all suggest that (unexamined) privilege is the ability to keep oneself blind to history and its legacies for the present and the future. Wojnarowicz’s work constitutes a sustained refusal to ignore history, to be free from the pasts that make our nows.
But he is also not a slave to this history. Change, impermanence, chance, and chaos may be violent, but they are also the conditions of any future possibility. If we are paying attention, they are also reminders of our deep interconnectedness, to each other and the planet. They thus become the resources for a practice of everyday utopian thinking, feeling, and being.
Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at UC Irvine. He has authored or edited 15 books, including the critical memoir, Creep: A Life, a Theory, an Apology (2017).
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