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by Adam Barbu and John Paul Ricco

Inheriting AIDS: A Conversation

Adam Barbu: Art AIDS America and One day this kid will get larger, two recent group exhibitions that focus on intersections between contemporary art and the politics of HIV/AIDS, seem to employ a similar methodological approach. With Art AIDS America, curators Jonathan Katz and Rock Hushka establish a narrative of American art that is “expansive and revisionist” while questioning the ways in which AIDS led artists “to think about representational practices first and foremost strategically.”[1] Danny Orendorff, curator of One day this kid will get larger, considers “what it means to have been brought up in the shadow of the AIDS crisis, as young queer people, and how artists today are revisiting their feelings and experiences.”[2] Ultimately, both projects are interested in bringing to light issues that are overlooked and artists that are underrecognized within the existing art history canon. Perhaps we can begin by thinking through the different ways this formula of inclusion can be problematized.

John Paul Ricco: Being familiar with the work of Jonathan Katz, one of the curators of Art AIDS America, it seems to me that the exhibition is firmly situated as an art historical project, one that attempts to develop a certain kind of counter-canon. Art AIDS America and his earlier exhibition Hide/Seek share an art historical agenda that has to do with intervening in venerable, long-standing, and authoritative institutions. Both assert the claim that one should find a place at the table, the table of the major and the hegemonic, and further, that this table is a rightful place for gay and lesbian and/or HIV positive artists and art historians. One day this kid will get larger seems to have been presented in response to Art AIDS America by focusing on non-white and alternative queer perspectives. What strikes me as curious are the conceptual and categorical rubrics that the two exhibitions utilize. They employ two sets of very different categories that nonetheless speak to a common political and aesthetic agenda.

AB: A certain visibility/invisibility binary comes into play.

JPR: This is what they share. The same claims that I am attributing to Katz regarding an art historical agenda about inclusion are evident in One day this kid will get larger. The difference is that the latter tries to expand on the idea of who exactly gets to be included. Now, of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be included. But it is important to understand how this is a logic that operates through an identitarian premise of visibility, representation, and recognition.

AB: A logic that seeks to visualize AIDS and put a face to cultural identities that supposedly belong to AIDS.

JPR: Yes, by operating within the realms of identity and subjectivity, these exhibitions ask the question: What does AIDS look like, and who does AIDS look like? In this regard, they seem to already know their subject, and now it is simply a matter of manifesting or materializing an already given sociological category or cultural entity. Here, I find myself necessarily wading into the critique of representation and representational politics. I understand that their agenda is to question stereotypes and complicate or reveal new facets of identity. Nonetheless, I maintain the belief that art’s potential is impoverished and reduced when it is claimed that one of the most important things that art does is provide us with images of social identity.

AB: Perhaps we can turn to our own projects and think through this idea of curating AIDS beyond inclusion, beyond representational logics, beyond the visibility/invisibility binary. Could you speak about the genesis of your 1996 exhibition disappeared?

JPR: With disappeared, I wasn’t interested in envisioning an art historical moment, nor was the exhibition framed as an art historical project. It was a theoretical philosophical project about aesthetics and politics in which I made claims that developed into the notion of a “disappeared aesthetics.”[3] Bringing Tom Burr’s sex club furniture installation Approximation of a Chicago Style Blue Movie House (Bijou) into conjunction with Derek Jarman’s Blue was important because it staged the meeting of what I saw as the coincidence between the problem of representation and the fact of erotic sociality. The works share a tremendous amount having to do with withdrawal, retreat, and disappearance—what I call the logic of the lure. On opening night, Tom joked and said that someone might walk in and assume that they were looking at a show on minimalism. This point is key.


Installation view of disappeared, Randolph Street Gallery, Chicago, featuring Tom Burr’s Approximation of a Chicago Style Blue Movie House (Bijou), 1996, and DerekJarman’s Blue, 1993. Courtesy of John Paul Ricco.

Installation view of disappeared, Randolph Street Gallery, Chicago, featuring Tom Burr’s Approximation of a Chicago Style Blue Movie House (Bijou), 1996, and DerekJarman’s Blue, 1993. Courtesy of John Paul Ricco.


In creating disappeared, I was influenced by several other projects. In 1993, two films came out that completely shifted my thinking about queer artistic practice, about AIDS, and about representation: Derek Jarman’s Blue and John Greyson’s Zero Patience. In terms of genre and form, these are very different films, yet they share an aesthetics and a claim about disappearance. Then, of course, there were so many other young queer artists working at the time who were drawing from abstraction and minimalism—many of which I included in disappeared. Although his work wasn’t included in the program, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ argument about pedagogy, audience, and legibility was central to my thinking. Finally, two books came out in 1996 that were highly influential to me: William Haver’s The Body of This Death: Historicity and Sociality in the Time of AIDS and Alexander Garcia Düttmann's At Odds With AIDS: Thinking and Talking About a Virus. In terms of a philosophically informed approach to theorizing the problem of AIDS, these two books did something that no book had ever done before, and I would say, hasn’t been done since. Haver’s work in particular became seared into my DNA, and I am still trying to figure out where his thinking ends and mine begins.

AB: A few years ago, we met at a small Toronto café, and I vividly remember you recommending that I find The Body of This Death. After reading the text, along with your book The Logic of the Lure, I quickly realized that nothing could be the same. Faced with these difficult questions on the limits of identity and visibility, my own curatorial practice had to change. In other words, I developed an approach to curating based on works that I was not able to forget—works that I continue to return to today.

JPR: We need to underline this fact. As a philosophical project, there is no one part of The Body of This Death that is explicitly about curating. Yet it is part of our history and part of a form of curatorial practice we—you and I—share. This text has forced us to question what it is about something like AIDS that renders representation impossible. Operating within this register, the task of curating is to embrace that impossibility as the condition and ground upon which to begin one’s work. In short, AIDS betrays representation, and we should not betray that betrayal. We should be truthful and respect this traitorous quality that is so confounding. One of the common criticisms of this kind of work is that it is too abstract, too conceptual. In fact, this difficulty and lack of presupposition or categorization is utterly tangible and material. It is that movie screen, those movie seats, etc. With disappeared, I was responding to very real things, particular films, particular works of art, and particular texts, all of which represent different forms of material practice.

AB: Another text by Haver that I return to often is Of Mad Men Who Practice Invention to the Brink of Intelligibility, where he traces a reading of pedagogy that embraces queer sociality as “the thought of an originary erotic contamination conjugated with a proliferation of languages.”[4] Two of my previous exhibitions, A minimal doubt and The Queer Feeling of Tomorrow, extend from this place. The projects were not simply about identifying trends in art practice or making historical arguments about the visibility of certain artists over others, but the pedagogy and ethics of curating itself. I wanted to explore a sense of skepticism regarding instrumentalized political curating—specifically, the idea of representing queer politics in art exhibitions. I addressed this skepticism by posing the impossible question: Who or what is or is not considered to be a political subject of AIDS? With A minimal doubt, I approached this problem with an attention to art historical discourse. By contrast, with The Queer Feeling of Tomorrow, I focused on staging scenes of everyday experience.


Installation view of The Queer Feeling of Tomorrow, Art Gallery of Guelph, Guelph, featuring Sunil Gupta’s SunCity, 2010,  John Hanning’s I Survived AIDS, 2015, and Shan Kelley’s Mostly Blanks, 2012. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Guelph.

Installation view of The Queer Feeling of Tomorrow, Art Gallery of Guelph, Guelph, featuring Sunil Gupta’s SunCity, 2010, John Hanning’s I Survived AIDS, 2015, and Shan Kelley’s Mostly Blanks, 2012. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Guelph.


Overall, it seems as though Haver’s work has guided us to think through forms of praxis that exist outside of traditional institutional demands of visibility.

JPR: It should also be noted that Haver’s arguments regarding what remains unsayable and unseeable about AIDS were at stake in Foucault’s reading of Las Meninas in the opening chapter of The Order of Things. The discussion centers on the infinite task of understanding the extent to which we do not see what we say, or say what we see. This infinite task is founded on a fundamental split between the sayable and the seeable.

The kind of curatorial practice that we are describing is not interested in what has been said and what remains unsaid, which is a form of art historical and archival inquiry. Art AIDS America and One day this kid will get larger uphold an agenda to make the unsaid said and the invisible visible—an intellectual position that can be defended (and probably should be defended). By contrast, our task has been to question what is sayable and what is unsayable, which is an ethical question related to witness and testimony. This is an engagement with potentiality not actuality—the potential that something is sayable or the impotential of the sayable, in other words, of that which is unsayable—and may remain so, indefinitely.

AB: We might figure this embrace of the unsayable and unseeable aspects of AIDS as a pursuit of the curatorial impossible.

JPR: Yes, and it offers us the chance to think the thought of a de-instrumentalized, inoperative curatorial praxis, one that is unmotivated by theoretical arguments and philosophical claims about visibility and inclusion.

AB: I thought we could further explore the historical distance between our curatorial projects, particularly as it relates to this reading of curatorial ethics.

JPR: My shift in thinking about art and AIDS took place during the early nineties, a time filled with great public anxiety about pharmacological advances and the future of the illness. Then, in July of 1996 at the 11th International AIDS Conference in Vancouver, an announcement was made regarding the emergence of the protease inhibitor, the so-called “cocktail,” that was to change AIDS treatment forever. Several months later, Andrew Sullivan’s infamous New York Times Magazine article, “When Plagues End,” was published. These discussions were taking place just before disappeared was set to be presented. I find the coincidence of the timing fascinating.

AB: I find myself returning to the question of what it means to inherit AIDS as an intellectual project, particularly when one is born into a generation removed from the earlier years of the AIDS crisis. With A minimal doubt and The Queer Feeling of Tomorrow, one of my central concerns was to examine the fact that this sense of historical distance could not be repaired or recovered within the space of an art exhibition. This is one of the ways that I have chosen to engage with AIDS as an impossible object of representation. Of course, AIDS is not over, and there is much political work to be done in the here and now. Yet even considering the shifting cultural, political, and medical realities of the HIV virus, this sense of impossibility is something we share across generations.

JPR: It is interesting to think about this language of transmission across immunological and historical lines, partly because it concerns the inheritance of an ethics that is itself impossible to hand down. And this question of inheritance is central to our discussion. To think it further, I am of the generation after Haver, and you are the generation after me. There are three generations at least, if not more.

That being said, I can’t help but think about the longer history and future genealogies of AIDS. For example, one might consider how Jarman’s Blue also appears in Blue Black, a recent exhibition curated by Glenn Ligon for the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis. Using Ellsworth Kelly’s wall sculpture Blue Black as an anchor, the exhibition presents itself as a curatorial response to race relations in America. It is one of the more impactful recent meditations on color, abstraction, and politics. disappeared and Blue Black share a certain kind of aesthetic argument. In this way, the film has a place in both.

AB: The film finds a place in both because, for Jarman, AIDS bears so much more than the scientific term “HIV/AIDS” would seem to suggest. AIDS is a social condition that troubles representational logics and insists we think at the limits of the sensible. It does not belong to any proper body or identity category. Drawing once again from Haver, a claim that you echo in The Logic of the Lure, “In the time of AIDS, we all live and die ‘in AIDS’ (as one is said to live and die ‘in religion’), whether or not we die ‘of AIDS.’”[5]


Adam Barbu is an independent writer and curator based in Ottawa, Canada. His current research focuses on queer theory and the politics of spectatorship. In 2015, he was the recipient of the Middlebook Prize for Young Canadian Curators. His recent exhibitions include: The Queer Feeling of Tomorrow, Art Gallery of Guelph, Guelph (2015-16), A Minimal Doubt, Videofag, Toronto (2015), and Bad Timing, V-Tape, Toronto (2015). His writings have appeared in publications such as Canadian Art, esse, Espace art actuel, Momus, and Journal of Curatorial Studies.

John Paul Ricco is a theorist and writer working at the intersection of contemporary art, queer theory, and continental philosophy. He is the curator of fag-o-sites (Gallery 400, University of Illinois-Chicago, 1993), disappeared (Randolph Street Gallery, Chicago, 1996), Love in a Time of Empty Promises; and Sex Is So Abstract (V-Tape, Toronto, 2007-08) and most recently, 2016,1996 (Visual AIDS, NYC, 2016). Ricco is the author of The Logic of the Lure, and The Decision Between Us: Art and Ethics in the Time of Scenes, and the organizer of Sex, Ethics, and Publics, a collaborative research working group based in Toronto. He is Professor of Art History, Comparative Literature and Visual Culture at the University of Toronto.


[1] Jonathan D. Katz, “How AIDS Changed American Art”, in Jonathan D. Katz and Rock Hushka, eds., Art AIDS America, (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2015).

[2] Danny Orendorff, “Press Release: One day this kid will get larger,” Artsy, 2017, accessed January 11, 2019, https://www.artsy.net/show/depaul-art-museum-one-day-this-kid-will-get-larger.

[3] John Paul Ricco, The Logic of the Lure (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002).

[4] William Haver, “Of Mad Men Who Practice Invention to the Brink of Intelligibility,” in William F. Pinar, ed., Queer Theory in Education, (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998).

[5] William Haver, The Body of This Death: Historicity and Sociality in the Time of AIDS (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).

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Issue 42



by Theodore (ted) Kerr

by Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad and Louie Ortiz-Fonseca

by Sheldon Raymore

by Michael McFadden

by Rahne Alexander

by Adam Barbu and John Paul Ricco

by David Kahn and Brooklyn Historical Society

by Dudu Quintanilha

Artist Kelvin Atmadibrata in Conversation with Oral Historian Benji de la Piedra

by Emily Bass and Yvette Raphael

by the People with AIDS advisory committee

A Conversation Between Szymon Adamczak, Luiza Kempińska, and Hubert Zięba

by Demian DinéYazhi' and R.I.S.E.

An Exchange to Expand on the PrEP Manifesto between Carlos Motta and John Arthur Peetz

A Conversation Between Mavi Veloso and Nicholas D’Avella

A Conversation Between Jean Carlomusto, Alexandra Juhasz, and Hugh Ryan

by Nelson Santos

by Tacoma Action Collective

by Vladimir Čajkovac

Cecilia Chung, Olivia Ford, Deon Haywood, Naina Khanna, Suraj Madoori, Charles Stephens