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Ad Mortem: An AIDS Performance Project Johannes Birringer Houston, January 1991 The AIDS crisis has challenged our understanding of death and our ways of living at every level of experience. In the face of confusion over the representation of AIDS in social service, educational and popular discourses, and a government that was/ is slow to act, the energy of confronting the disease has come from the people most directly affected. As AIDS hits hard among the art communities, new work is being created that gives voice to a shared sense of loss and anger. But it is also clear that not everybody in our society shares this sense, and when a widespread lack of compassion coincides with the conservative censorship-backlash against free expression, the stakes are raised and each "giving voice" to the experience of living with AIDS becomes a means of survival—and a political act. What is at stake, in my mind, is the idea of community itself. If the AIDS epidemic has produced a radical challenge to cultural perceptions of sexuality, dying, mourning, and healing, a performance that confronts taboos and political conflicts over the definition of AIDS will have to speak of the creators' knowledge of AIDS and their relationships to the affected communities. Dedicating a work to the struggle against AIDS involves testing one's own personal and political choices and resistances and, perhaps more importantly, examining one's own perception of community. Introduction Ad Mortem, whose Latin title can be translated as "to/toward" or "against death," was originally conceived as a benefit concert and a contribution to the annual "Day Without Art" (December 1), nationally promoted as a day of mourning and action in recognition of the toll AIDS has taken.1 After witnessing the silence and the grieving that attended this day of non-action in Houston in 1989,1 met with lyric mezzo-soprano Isabelle Ganz and composer Paul English to plan a concert-exhibition of music, video, and dance that would address the silence, fear, and paranoia in the social reaction to 135 136 Johannes Birringer AIDS. We also wanted to explore the meanings of the proposition "Silence = Death," a rally cry that had become widely known within and beyond the gay community, both as a challenge to the official discourses of "public health" and to those who bear the burden of the diagnosis. The defense against silence requires public acts of intervention. As a public work of cultural production for the community, we wanted Ad Mortem to celebrate and reinforce the self-empowering practices and spiritual or political activisms of the people most affected by HIV and AIDS. After a twelve-month process of conceptual workshops and of composing the video footage and music score (a process of filming, recording, and postproduction that involved no joint rehearsals), we were eventually joined by two other musicians (Richard Nunemaker on bass clarinet, Brian Green on synthesizer) and dancer Deborah Hay2 for the live performances of Ad Mortem during December 1990. The creative relationships and processes of composition for this collaborative work require some commentary in order to pin-point stumbling blocks we faced. In addressing some of the shortcomings, namely that we could not reconcile the differences in our own production process and failed to build a broader audience community and support, I hope to contribute to an exchange of perspectives that is a vital part of the growing body of alternative media seeking to contest mainstream representations and repressions of the issues (Alexander). Staging Communion? The main purpose of Ad Mortem was to break the silence and widespread indifference surrounding the AIDS crisis in Houston, a city that ranks fourth nationally in reported cases and is estimated to have 35,000 area residents infected with HIV. In drawing attention to the racist and homophobic climate of the city, we knew the work was going to find itself on the margins of an already-fledgling performance art scene that had tried for years to find its audience. The musicians in our group suggested that we address the broadest possible audience by using the spiritual force of music as an appeal to community and compassion. Based on our belief that AIDS...


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pp. 135-148
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