- Video RemainsNostalgia, Technology, and Queer Archive Activism
The 1992 videotape interview of my best friend, actor and East Village personality James Robert Lamb, had become for me a haunted and hated object. We shot it less than a year before he died of AIDS, and it served as an inadequate surrogate. The tape did not represent Jim—a sometimes go-go dancer, several-year member of Charles Ludlam's off-Broadway Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and consummate performer—at his best or in his complexity. A fifty-five-minute interview cannot adequately represent a marvelous, mischievous life. And yet, I did have this video in my archive. Something of him, and that time, remained within its signals. After many years, the plastic cassette lured me back, forcing me to consider what changes and what lasts after death, across time, and because of videotape. I could use this remnant to revisit Jim's life and death, as well as that of AIDS activism and AIDS video activism.
And when, in 2004, I succumbed, my process was more intuitive than for my previous work, which tends toward the analytic or polemic. I followed my dreams (often being visited by Jim at night), pored over old pictures and letters, and allowed myself to be led by freak circumstances. When Silverlake hairstylist Michael Anthony, who had never cut my hair before, initiated a conversation about AIDS in New York in the 1980s only an hour after I had agreed to videotape young gay men in the AIDS Project Los Angeles support group Mpowerment, I knew I must integrate them both into the piece. Using the mirror, I shot Michael cutting my hair while simultaneously performing oft-told tales of his friend and my namesake, Alexandra, a drag queen who died of AIDS in the mid-1980s; I shot hours of support group meetings where the gay boys of color at Mpowerment would [End Page 319] incidentally chance upon AIDS within larger conversations about boyfriends, queer bashing, and familial violence.
The experimental documentary that emerged, Video Remains (55 mins., 2005), plays Jim's ancient interview in sometimes meandering and very real time while these present-day characters (themselves, respectively, the voices of AIDS's past and future) bleed in. While Jim plays out the permanent record of his words caught on tape, the sounds of four lesbian video activists, whom I had interviewed on the phone, also enter his frame. Alisa Lebow, Juanita Mohammed, Sarah Schulman, and Ellen Spiro had all loved and supported gay men as they participated in AIDS activism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In Video Remains, the women's voices most explicitly, and the men more organically, reflect upon AIDS, death, activism, and video. Together we consider whether the massive AIDS deaths and activism of the 1980s affect us today; what remains from that remarkable and gruesome period; whether we can learn from the dead and from the past; and whether video might help. While Jim performs himself, poetry by Emily Dickinson, and a poor imitation of Truman Capote, he also attempts to narrate a meaningful rendition of his life. We watch, knowing he and so many other campy, musical-theater-loving queens died, despite their own, and a movement's, commitment to self-representation (fig. 1).
Video Remains is simple in format, relying solely upon an AIDS video activist staple: the talking-head testimonies of the "real" experts about AIDS, those caught on tape living and analyzing it. We watch and listen to Jim in 1992 mixed with today's characters caught in 2004. The intrusion of present-day AIDS—suffered differently, represented less, lacking a movement, aware of the awful and inspiring legacy of the past—enlivens my old tape and recommits to a contemporary conversation about AIDS, its representations, feelings, activism, and history. I conjured Jim from the AIDS activist video archive, both personal and institutional, private and public, and wondered what others might see in him, and whether we might be ready to revisit this past, not so much to heal as to think again together. Certainly, for those who knew Jim, or men like him, the tape functions as eulogy. But...