I regret not knowing about David Wojnarowicz earlier in my life. For those times when nothing else seemed to work, I could have turned to his words and let them talk for me. Like I do now. Little do we have in common in terms of, among others, background and lifestyle, and so I might fail to understand him thoroughly, and yet his words speak to me like no others I have ever heard. When I read his memoir, Close to the Knives, at the beginning of this year, I was utterly shocked by both his experience and expression. The least I can do now is write about it.
David was on a quest for the truth, interested to go to the structure of things and see life for what it really was. At the same time when David emerged as an artist, he realized he was dying of AIDS. Everybody around him – lovers, friends, fellow artists – were dying of AIDS, too. This was happening in New York City in the 1980s. It was the AIDS epidemic.
Not much is known about this dark time in America’s history. It is not comfortable for a society, even more so for a self-proclaimed progressive and human-centered one like the American society, to admit and take ownership for such catastrophe. To admit letting a whole generation of people, most of them artists, in their 30s, die just because their sexual orientation was considered to be wrong. And so, instead of bringing salvation or any comfort at all, society passively assisted to the tragedy, convinced that these people deserved to die.
What happened was that these people, who a decade earlier had populated the deserted buildings of the Lower East Side and started to make art there, now terribly sick and abandoned by both government and family, took over the streets to stand for themselves. They created ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, asking no more than to be treated like citizens. If things are different now it is thanks to them. Unfortunately, they are no longer here to enjoy.
While this might sound inconceivable today, at least in the Western world, it was painfully real back then. And back then is just four decades earlier. In New York City. How come we don’t see any movies about this? How come there isn’t one movie inspired by the life and art of David Wojnarowicz?
For anybody walking today in the East Village, this story is long gone behind boutique shops and trendy cafes attended by a clientele that has nothing to do with this area’s former inhabitants. To see how gentrification leaves its mark on cities and how it affects the way we think, I recommend Sarah Schulman’s insightful book, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination.
No matter how far the replacement went in New York City and how much was lost in the process, not all traces could be erased. The art remained and so did the books. Among all voices from that time, David’s is perhaps the most prominent. And yet, to most of us, he remains largely unknown. His book, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, is full of such reminders. David wrote it in what seems to be a breath, with little interest for structure or punctuation. It is a book written with the suffocating feeling of urgency, of letting it all out – rage, sorrow – before it is too late. It is a book that gives you the shivers. I haven’t read anything remotely similar. At times, you need to put it down and go out for a walk before it becomes too much. But too much was real. That is why you need to come back and read further. Then read it again and tell others about it, too.
Even before reading his books, I fell in love with his first major photography project, Rimbaud in New York. David asked friends or lovers to wear a life-size face mask of the French poet, who had lived a century before, while he took their photo. The locations for these photographs were chosen carefully. They went to parts of New York David had come to know intimately in his hustling days, as a child and teenager, the dangerous streets where he had found refuge when staying home was even more dangerous.
Not much of that scene is left in today’s New York and some argue the change has been for the best. And yet, behind the so-called Disneyfication of Times Square and the fully gentrified East Village, I am hoping to find David there, walking down those streets, weary, a thousand thoughts in his mind. David Wojnarowicz is the reason I want to go to New York.
His writing, however, is what really made a difference for me. His writing and his biography, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, written with such dedication by David’s friend, Cynthia Carr. It is not only the contents and the style that keep me coming back, by means of thought or action, it is the reality of those words and David’s rawness of feeling I find fascinating.
My hope now is that this clumsy introduction and the fragments from Close to the Knives that come next give you a glimpse into the irrepetible soul that goes by the name of David Wojnarowicz.
On AIDS, DEATH, RAGE:
“All behind me are the friends that have died. I’m breathing this air that they can’t breathe; I’m seeing this ratty monkey in a cheap Mexican circus wearing a red-and-blue-embroidered jacket and it’s collecting coins and I can reach out and touch it like they can’t. Time is now compressed. I joke and say that I feel I’ve taken out another six-month lease on this body of mine, on this vehicle of sound and motion, and every painting or photograph or film I make, I make it with the sense that it may be the last thing I do and so I try and pull everything in to the surface of that action. I work quickly now and I feel there is no time for bullshit. Cut straight to the heart of the senses and map it out as clearly as tools and growth allow. In better moments I can see my friends (…) making me more aware of myself, seeing myself from a distance, seeing myself see others. I can almost see my own breath, see my internal organs functioning pump pumping. These days I see the edge of mortality.”
“So now it’s day three or four or five, I can’t remember, and his parents and two sisters are visiting the empire state building; me and philip and betty, one of his other sisters, are standing in the room. The doctor comes in and removes him from the pumps and hisses of hoses and he leaves the room immediately afterward. There’s this cloudy kind of sunlight moving about the room. The guy on the bed takes two breaths and arches his back almost imperceptibly, his lips slightly parted. I have hold of one leg and his sister one hand philip another hand or part of his arm and we’re sobbing and I’m totally amazed at how quietly he dies how beautiful everything is with us holding him down on the bed on the floor fourteen stories above the earth and the light and wind scattering outside the windows and his folks at this moment standing somewhere on the observation deck of the empire state building hundreds of stories up in the clouds and light and how perfect that is to me how the whole world is still turning and somewhere it’s raining and somewhere it’s snowing and somewhere forest fire rage and somewhere else something moves beneath dark waters (…) and somehow all the mysteries of this world as I know it offer me comfort and I don’t know beans about heaven and hell and somehow all that stuff is no longer an issue and at the moment I’m a sixteen-foot-tall five-hundred-and-forty-eight-pound man inside this six-foot body and all I can feel is the pressure all I can feel is the pressure and the need for release.”
“Now he’s dead and I feel more vulnerable, like I’m standing on a conveyor belt leading into an enormous killing machine.”
“A boxed cassette of someone’s interview with me in which I talk about diagnosis and how it simply underlined what I knew existed anyway. Not just the disease, but the sense of death in the American landscape. How when I was out west this summer standing in the mountains of a small city in New Mexico I got a sudden and intense feeling of rage looking at those postcard-perfect slopes and clouds. For all I knew I was the only person for miles and all alone and I didn’t trust that fucking mountain’s serenity. I mean it was just bullshit. I couldn’t buy the con of nature’s beauty; all I could see was death. And the rest of my life is being unwound and seen through a frame of death. And my anger is more about this culture’s refusal to deal with mortality. My rage is really about the fact that when I was told that I’d contracted this virus it didn’t take me long to realize that I’d contracted a diseased society as well.”
“What I feel is the momentary shock of realizing that most of the wood, metal and plastic fixtures, the sinks, lampshades, the shower stall, and even the drinking cups will all outlive me if my body follows the progression that this tiny, invisible-to-the-eye virus has initiated.”
“I tend to dismantle and discard any and all kinds of spiritual and psychic and physical words or concepts designed to make sense of the external world or designed to give momentary comfort. It’s like stripping the body of flesh in order to see the skeleton, the structure. (…) I suddenly resist comfort, from myself and especially from others. There is something I want to see clearly, something I want to witness in its raw state. And this need comes from my sense of mortality. There is a relief in having this sense of mortality. At least I won’t arrive one day at my eightieth birthday and at the eve of my possible death and only then realize my whole life was supposed to be somewhat a preparation for the event of death and suddenly fill up with rage because instead of preparation all I had was a lifetime of adaptation to the preinvented world – do you understand what I’m saying here? (…) I’m hungry and the preinvented world won’t satisfy my hunger. I’m a prisoner of language that doesn’t have a letter or a sign or gesture that approximates what I’m sensing. Rage may be one of the few things that binds or connects me to you, to our preinvented world.”
“There is a tendency for people affected by this epidemic to police each other or prescribe what the most important gestures would be for dealing with this experience of loss. I resent that. At the same time, I worry that friends will slowly become professional pallbearers, waiting for each death, of their lovers, friends and neighbors, and polishing their funeral speeches; perfecting their rituals of death rather than a relatively simple ritual of life such as screaming in the streets.”
On SOCIETY, ALIENATION, LONELINESS:
“The pressure that gravity sustains on our bodies keeps us crawling around in this preinvented existence. (…) The pressure for escape has led us from our tadpole ancestors through time till now to develop an appetite for speed. Speed of consumption, speed of physical movement, speed of transmitting and receiving information. Since speed is a luxury for those who have power and money, many of us have traded physical speed for fantasy like this mental projection: surround ourselves with enough material goods and maybe we won’t see the stinking mess outside the windows, if we are lucky enough to have windows.”
“In the skid-row section of town, the only movement in the streets was the automobiles cruising along the curbside and river parking lot. In the dark sky they were like aquariums on wheels: amphibious stares of strangers pressed behind glass. Tall granite buildings with tiny windows speckled with fluorescent lights; gray vague shapes in the dripping alleyways and shit and garbage rattling in the wind along the flooded gutters, splashes of red and green neon sliding across the wet pavements. A skinny bum with red bare feet – once somebody’s little baby – crawled into a box that once contained a refrigerator nestled in the weeds of an empty parking lot. A small black dog hurtles through the wet evening air amid a squeal of tires and thumping of glass and all civilization is at the wheel.”
“Most people tend to accept, at least outwardly, this system of the moral code and thus feel quite safe from any terrible event or problem such as homelessness or AIDS or nonexistent medical care or rampant crime or hunger or unemployment or racism or sexism simply because they go to sleep every night in a house or apartment or dormitory whose clean rooms or smooth walls or regular structures or repeated daily routines provide them with a feeling of safety that never gets intruded upon by the events outside. There are scores of the population who either feel safe for the same reasons or else are too exhausted from trying to survive in this society by working dehumanizing jobs to keep a roof over their heads. Or else they feel safe because they are part of the structure that keeps the moral code intact.”
Tape recording David-Sylvia
D: Well, what was the attraction to drugs?
S: (…) You can’t stand things because they are so superficial so you take drugs to stop seeing further.
D: Yeah… You have a headache, you take aspirin. You have a normal life, you take drugs. Is that what it boils down to?
S: I took them just to get rid of the mundane aspect of everything I am seeing, but I’ve never seen anything mundane in anything, so I must be taking it to eliminate the depth. You talk about this nation of zombies, what do they do? I know they don’t question things, but how do they do it? I don’t think I’m special –
D: I think we are. We see something about the structure that others take for granted or seem blind to; the structure consumes them and all they know is to get that job, get that food get that comfort and, hopefully, get that retirement.
S: I’ve always envied people like that on some level, people who knew what they wanted to do, what they had to do, didn’t question it. And they don’t want you around; they’ll fuck you so bad if you say, “Excuse me, stop and let’s talk about all this for a minute. Why are you doing this?” They’ll fucking kill you.
D: I’ve been told all my life that I’m “too sensitive,” as if you could just turn the tap off and feel a little less sensitive for the rest of your life and everything will be okay.
S: “Too sensitive’ – oh, definitely. Too smart, too sensitive, intuitive. It is “much sensitive,” not “too sensitive,” as if it were derogatory. Excuse me, this is what I am. I’ll spend my whole life trying to maintain this rather than trying to turn it off. That’s why it is hard. I want to be as smart and as sensitive as I am and see things the way I do. I want to be strong enough to stay that way. I don’t want to dull that. (…) It doesn’t matter what’s happening, it’s how you look at it. I’ll never let anyone take that away from me with, “You’re too sensitive.” Fuck you – you’re lucky there’s people out here thinking about why we’re doing anything.
Tape recording David-Joe
J: Once you recognize the void, how do you fill it? Most people fill it with money, fill it with romance, with thrills – but most people are afraid to carry it out to its logical end, to where they really want to carry them, so as a result we have tv shows that show people getting caught by the cops and doing all these crimes because it’s real people doing real crimes that we wish we could do. (…) Well, I think all people feel this inside, but a lot of them just bury these feelings under a lot of other stuff. (…) There are people who accept the way things are and the way things are gonna be and then there are those who don’t. (…) That’s a real challenge – to keep doing things in spite of the way things are.
“(…) What anger is: the desire to tear through what is outlined for you to follow, and you know it’s not true to you.”
“People with strange ideas? Strange because they didn’t show these ideas on tv or the evening news?”
“Do laws reflect the diversity in our society? Or do they only enforce the “morality” of a select few?”
“My arms sometimes feel twelve feet long and I get consumed by the emptiness and void surrounding and lying beneath each and every action I witness of others and myself. Each little gesture in the movements of the planet in its canyons and arroyos, in its suburbs and cities, in the motions of wind and light, each little action continuing, helping to continue the slow death of ourselves (…). This is the vision I see beneath the tiniest gesture of wiping one’s lips after a meal or observing a traffic light.”
“There’s all this stuff hidden inside of people. I’m attracted to what’s hidden. (…) Things that you don’t see every day. It breaks up the boredom.”
“I’ve had those feelings – why just help maintain the structure you’re surrounded by; why try and struggle and survive in it? Why not just drop everything and go out and do things that are absolutely raw and without boundaries and laws and deal with survival on a real level, not one surrounded by all these fucking illusions? That was my impulse for years.”
“Existence seemed like a bad series of routines that led to nothing I cared about. Ever since I was a kid I couldn’t shake the realization that life was essentially a series of activities designed so that one could pay out money to keep from dying; if one stopped paying, one died; whether from exposure, starvation, lack of medical care or invisibility.”
“I just feel so terrible about living. I feel too self-conscious about living and it’s driving me crazy.”
“I don’t know what is ahead of me in the course of my life and this civilization. I just don’t feel I have reached the necessary things inside my history that would ease the pressure in my skull and in my future and in my present. It is exhausting, living in a population where people don’t speak up if what they witness doesn’t really threaten them.”
“Seeing a few shreds of humanity in a person causes me to immediately love them deeply.”
On DESIRE, SEXUALITY:
“I read all this in the local paper in the curtained hotel room just before leaving town. Outside the window, three guys were building a new patio for the defunct pool. The pool was slowly filling with red dust carried across the roads by intermittent breezes. At some point I stood up from the table and pulled back the curtain a hair and watched the half-naked bodies of the guys climbing in and out of their truck for tools or to turn the volume of the music up. I watched them leaning for extended moments in various positions creating sexy tableaus like museum paintings, like bleached out Vermeers and Rembrandts in all that hot sunlight and shadow. I felt like a detective with only the window glass and the curtains camouflaging my desire. For a moment I was afraid the intensity of my sexual fantasies would become strangely audible; the energy of the images would become so loud that all three guys would turn simultaneously like witnesses to a nearby car crash.”
“I drive on. (…) For one brief moment in time no one in the world knows where I am. Not family, friends, nor members of government and that causes me to drift, gives me room to experience charges of frustrating sexuality. Turning the radio knob I come across a seductive country song. I close my eyes for periods of time as I drive on up into the mountainside, listening to the sound of the singer’s voice. In fact, I turn up the volume so I can hear the reverberation of sound in the man’s throat – that way I can better imagine him whispering sweet things in my ear (…).”
“I realized then how I always tend to mythologize the people, things, landscapes I love, always wanting them to somehow extend forever through time and motion. It’s a similar sense I have for lovers, wanting somehow to have some degree of permanence in my contact with them, but it never really goes that way. So here I am heading out into the cold winds, walking down and across avenue c toward my home with the smell and taste of him wrapped around my neck and jaw like a scarf. It follows me in and out restaurants and past cops and early morning children and past bakery windows filled with brides and grooms on rows of wedding cakes and across fields of brick and mortar.”
“I could feel his lips against mine from across the room.”
“When I put my hands on your body on your flesh I feel the history of that body. Not just the beginning of its forming in that distant lake but all the way beyond its ending. I feel the warmth and texture and simultaneously I see the flesh unwrap from the layers of fat and disappear. I see the fat disappear from the muscle. I see the muscle disappearing from around the organs and detaching itself from the bones. I see the organs gradually fade into transparency leaving a gleaming skeleton gleaming like ivory that slowly resolves until it becomes dust. I am consumed in the sense of your weight the way your flesh occupies momentary space the fullness of it beneath my palms. I am amazed at how perfectly your body fits to the curves of my hands. If I could attach our blood vessels so we could become each other I would. If I could attach our blood vessels in order to anchor you to the earth to this present time I would. If I could open up your body and slip inside your skin and look out your eyes and forever have my lips fused with yours I would. It makes me weep to feel the history of your flesh beneath my hands in a time of so much loss. It makes me weep to feel the movement of your flesh beneath my palms as you twist and turn over to one side to create a series of gestures to reach up around my neck to draw me nearer. All these memories will be lost in time like tears in the rain.”
“What exactly is frightening about the human body?”
On ART, EXPRESSION:
“I used to wonder where the urge to photograph came from. (…) I try to think of what it meant to be engaged in the art of picture-taking. (…) Or it was possibly an act of validation of our lives, something of value being implied in the preservation of our bodies. (…) As a person who owns a camera I am in direct competition with the owners of television stations and newspapers. I can speak with photographs about many different things that the newspaper owner is afraid to address because of agenda or political pressure, or because the power of advertisers’ dollar. I can make photographs dealing with my sexuality and I do because I know my sexuality purposefully made invisible by the owners of various media. (…) To me, photographs are like words. (…) History is made and preserved by and for particular classes of people. A camera in some hands can preserve an alternate history.”
“Each painting, film, sculpture or page of writing I make represents to me a particular moment in the history of my body on this planet, in america. (…) given that I have always felt alienated in this country, and thus have lived with the sensation of being an observer of my own life as it occurs.”
“As a kid, I loved the places where one could get lost while engaging in the act of creativity, the places inside one’s head. (…) I discovered that making things meant leaving evidence of life behind when I moved on. Making things was like leaving historical records of my existence behind when I left the room, or the building, or neighborhood, the state and possibly the earth… as in mortality, as in death. When I was a kid I discovered that making an object, whether it was a drawing or a story, meant making something that spoke even if I was silent. As an adult, I realize if I make something and leave it in public for any period of time, I can create an environment where that object or writing acts like a magnet and draws others with a similar frame of reference out of silence and invisibility. Or that object or piece of writing can give me comfort as well as others. To place an object or writing that contains what is invisible because of legislation or social taboo into an environment outside myself makes me feel not so alone; it keeps me company by virtue of its existence.”
“I am glad I am alive to witness these things; giving words to this life of sensations is a relief. Smell the flowers while you can.”