Selections from Close to the Knives
A Memoir of Disintegration

David Wojnarowicz (1980s/1991)

 David Wojnarowicz (September 14, 1954 — July 22, 1992) was a painted, photographer, writer, filmmaker, performance artist, and activist who was prominent in the New York City art world of the 1980s.
 Wojnarowicz was born in Red Bank, New Jersey in 1954. The product of an extremely difficult childhood brought on by an abusive family life and an emerging sense of his own homosexuality, Wojnarowicz dropped out of high school and was living on the streets by the age of sixteen. He turned to hustling in Times Square. After hitchhiking many times across the U.S. and living for several months in San Francisco and Paris, he settled in New York's East Village in 1978.
 Many of Wojnarowicz' works incorporate outsider experiences drawn from his personal history and from stories he heard from the people he met in bus stations and truck stops while hitchhiking. By the late 1970s he had, in his own words, "started developing ideas of making and preserving an authentic version of history in the form of images/writings/objects that would contest state-supported forms of 'history.'" In such diverse works as Sounds in the Distance (1982), a collection of monologues from "people who lived and worked in the streets" and The Weight of the Earth, Part I & II (1988), an arrangement of black-and-white photographs taken during his travels and life in New York, Wojnarowicz continually returned to the personal voices of individuals stigmatized by society.
 In the late 1980s, after he was diagnosed with AIDS, Wojnarowicz' art took on a sharply political edge, and soon he was entangled in highly public debates about medical research and funding, morality and censorship in the arts, and the legal rights of artists. Wojnarowicz challenged the nature of pubic arts funding at the National Endowment for the Arts, and initiated litigation against the American Family Association of Tupelo, Mississippi, an anti-pornography political action group that Wojnarowicz accused of misrepresenting his art and damaging his reputation. He won the lawsuit.
 Wojnarowicz died of AIDS-related illness in New York City in 1992, at the age of 37. He is the author of five books. His artwork is in numerous private and public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
 David Wojnarowicz is one our favorite writers (we also host his "The Seven Deadly Sins Fact Sheet" and the rest of Close to the Knives is strongly recommended.

A Note about Censorship: The website History Is A Weapon is used in many public schools. Some schools utilize censorship software, which can block an entire website as "harmful to minors" and, for that reason, we preemptively censor swear words. We apologize to David Wojnarowicz for this.

From IN THE SHADOW OF THE AMERICAN DREAM Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins:
 We are born into a preinvented existence within a tribal nation of zombies and in that illusion of a one-tribe nation there are real tribes. Some of the tribes are in the business of sucker-punching peoples psyches in the form of maintaining the day-to-day job of government—they sell the masses a pile of green-tainted meat; i.e., a corrupted and false history as well as a corrupted and false future, and although that meat stinks of rot and pus and blood, this particular tribe extols these foul emissions as if they were virtues made of glorious sensitivities: "Raise Ole Glory while we do it to them again ... "
  Then there are other tribes which work hand in hand with the government, offering slices of meat in the form of doubletalk; or hope—hope as a chain of submission. Then there are the tribes that suckle at the breast of telecommunications every evening after work and are fatally lulled into society's deep sleep. Day after day they experience waking nightmares but they've either bought the con of language from the tribe that offers hope, or they're too f---ing exhausted or fearful to break through the illusion and examine the structures of their world.
  There are other tribes that experience the X ray of Civilization every time they leave the house or turn on the tv or radio or pick up a newspaper or when they suddenly realize their legs have automatically come to a halt before a changing traffic light. A civil war and a national trial for the "leaders" of this country, as well as certain individuals in organized religions, is the soundtrack that plays and replays in the heads of members of that tribe. Some members of the tribe understand the meaning of language. They also understand what freedom truly is and if the other tribes want to hand them the illusion of hope in the form of the leash—in the form of language—like all stray dogs with intelligence from experience, they know how to turn the leash into a rope to exit the jail windows or how to turn the leash into a noose to hang the jailers. But when the volume of that war reaches epic dimensions, and when the person hearing it fails to connect with another member of the same tribe who can acknowledge the sound, that person can one day find themselves at the top of a water tower in suburbia armed with a high-powered rifle firing indiscriminately at the ants crawling around below. That person can one day find himself running amok in the streets with a handgun; that person can one day find himself lobbing a grenade at the forty-car motorcade of the president; or that person can end up on a street corner, homeless hungry and wild-eyed, punching himself in the face or sticking wires through the flesh of his arms or chest.

  These are strange and dangerous times. Some of us are born with the cross hairs of a rifle scope printed on our backs or skulls. Sometimes it's a matter of thought, sometimes activity, and most times it's color. I don't receive the proper kind of paycheck to take out a seventy-year lease on my life. If I submit my gray cells to certain men and women in this country for a total overhaul and redesign I might have something called peace in my life. But what one sees if they look closely into the pupils of my eyes are a series of activities that are merely things that have occurred to me in the years of my childhood and teens. Others may be genetic, others a conditioning and response, but overall I trust myself in a way no other could. If those cops showed up in that moment I described above, I thoroughly believe that they have no right and that their laws don't reflect me. It is easy for some in this country to be vicious and murderous when they have the support of rich white men and women in power. Those people consistently abstract human life and treat minorities as nothing more than clay pigeons at a skeet-shooting range. They toss up a fake moral screen, nail it to the wall of a tv and newscaster's set and unfurl it like a movie screen. These fake moral backdrops are conceived at will and displayed like artifacts of the human sensibility as built by a caring god through millions of years.
  But the very same man who orders the death of journalists off the coast of costa rica as they are uncovering a story dealing with our government's importation of cocaine and our government's use of drug profits to fund the contras is the very same man who will stand on a studio set, airfield, white house garden or convention podium and talk in the fake moral code about the humane and glorious designs he has planned for the social fabric of america if elected president. And the same man who stands before you at the altar of the church with seven television cameras pointed at his face and talks about the sanctity of the fetus is the same man who kisses the hands of dictators in central america—dictators responsible for the pillaging of an entire country dissolving in poverty, as well as the murder of hundreds of thousands of people he perceives as disagreeing with his power structure. The rich have interchangeable heads and their interpretations of law and religion are just as manufactured, false, interchangeable and disposable as the fake moral screen. They have an entire media system to dispense their manipulations of those scrambling for food shelter and some illusion of security. Our borders are opening and closing to refugees of the countries our government pillages, based solely on whether or not those governments toe our party line. The u.s. uses its economic blockades to starve entire populations and accelerate peoples' deaths from malnutrition or collapsed medical care systems. The bureaucratic distancing technique in washington d.c. creates poverty and mass death in another region of the hemisphere and allows officials here to proclaim that the attacked country's political system is what has made it fail. Because I am born into a created system of corruption does not mean I have to turn the other way when the fake moral screens are unfurled. I am just as capable of creating my own moral contexts. In fact, using our government's techniques, I can reinvent and redefine a screen for my own needs. Since my existence is essentially outlawed before I even come into knowledge of what my desires are or what my sensibility is, then I can only step back from the arms of government and organized religion and use similar techniques to walk from here to there. If the cops roll up in their vehicle with their shotguns cradled and bolted between the front seats, and the design of their genes and gray cells makes it possible for them to put the guns on our bodies, then I can in that moment unfurl a screen that creates a horizon and landscape that is uninfected by the letters and words of "law" and pull out my weapon and defend myself from intrusive and disruptive actions. Of course, those in power count on the fact that we are stuck inside these gravity vehicles called bodies. The pressure that gravity sustains on our bodies keeps us crawling around in this preinvented existence with the neighbors split-rail fencing preventing us from crawling out. 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. It is no accident that every guidebook in every conceivable language contains the translated phrase: DO YOU HAVE A ROOM WITH A BETTER VIEW?

 I am a bundle of contradictions that shift constantly. This is a comfort to me because to contradict myself dismantles the mental/physical chains of the verbal code. I abstract the disease I have in the same way you abstract death. Sometimes I don't think about this disease for hours. This process lets me get work done, and work gives me life, or at least makes sense of living for short periods of time. Because I abstract this disease, it periodically knocks me on my ass with its relentlessness. With almost any other illness you take for granted that within a week or a month the illness will end and the wonderful part of the human body called the mind will go about its job erasing evidence of the pain and discomfort previously experienced. With AIDS or HIV infections one never gets that luxury and I find myself after a while responding to it for a fractured moment with my pre-AIDS thought processes: "All right this is enough already; it should just go away." But each day's dose of medicine, or the intermittent aerosol pentamidine treatments, or the sexy stranger nodding to you on the street corner or across the room at a party, reminds you in a clearer than clear way that at this point in history the virus' activity is forever. Outside my windows there are thousands of people without homes who are trying to deal with having AIDS. If I think my life at times has a nightmarish quality about it because of the society in which I live and that society's almost total inability to deal with this disease with anything other than a conservative agenda, think for a moment what it would be like to be facing winter winds and s--- menus at the limited shelters, and the rampant T.B., and the rapes, muggings, stabbings in those shelters, and the overwhelmed clinics and sometimes indifferent clinic doctors, and the fact that drug trials are not open to people of color or the poor unless they have a private physician who can monitor the experimental drugs they would need to take, and they don't have those kinds of doctors in clinics because doctors in clinics are constantly rotated and intravenous drug users have to be clean of drugs for seven years before they'll be considered for experimental drug trials, and yet there are nine-month waiting periods just to get assigned to a treatment program. So picture yourself with a couple of the three hundred and fifty opportunistic infections and unable to respond physiologically to the few drugs released by the foot-dragging deal-making FDA and having to maintain a junk habit; or even having to try and kick that habit without any clinical help while keeping yourself alive seven years to get a drug that you need immediately—thank you Ed Koch; thank you Stephen Joseph; thank you Frank Young; thank you AMA.
 I scratch my head at the hysteria surrounding the actions of the repulsive senator from zombieland who has been trying to dismantle the NEA for supporting the work of Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe. Although the anger sparked within the art community is certainly justified and will hopefully grow stronger, the actions by Helms and D'Amato only follow standards that have been formed and implemented by the "arts" community itself. The major museums in New York, not to mention museums around the country, are just as guilty of this kind of selective cultural support and denial. It is a standard practice to make invisible any kind of sexual imaging other than white straight male erotic fantasies. Sex in america long ago slid into a small set of generic symbols; mention the word "sex" and the general public appears to only imagine a couple of heterosexual positions on a bed—there are actual laws in parts of this country forbidding anything else even between consenting adults. So people have found it necessary to define their sexuality in images, in photographs and drawings and movies in order to not disappear. Collectors have for the most part failed to support work that defines a particular person's sexuality, except for a few examples such as Mapplethorpe, and thus have perpetuated the invisibility of the myriad possibilities of sexual activity. The collectors' influence on what the museum shows continues this process secretly with behind-the-scenes manipulations of curators and money. Jesse Helms, at the very least, makes public his attacks on freedom; the collectors and museums responsible for censorship make theirs at elegant private parties or from the confines of their self-created closets.
  It doesn't stop at images—in a recent review of a novel in the new york times book review, a reviewer took outrage at the novelist's descriptions of promiscuity, saying, "In this age of AIDS, the writer should show more restraint ... " Not only do we have to contend with bonehead newscasters and conservative members of the medical profession telling us to "just say no" to sexuality itself rather than talk about safer sex possibilities, but we have people from the thought police spilling out from the ranks with admonitions that we shouldn't think about anything other than monogamous or safer sex. I'm beginning to believe that one of the last frontiers left for radical gesture is the imagination. At least in my ungoverned imagination I can f--- somebody without a rubber, or I can, in the privacy of my own skull, douse Helms with a bucket of gasoline and set his putrid ass on fire or throw congressman William Dannemeyer off the empire state building. These fantasies give me distance from my outrage for a few seconds. They give me momentary comfort. Sexuality defined in images gives me comfort in a hostile world. They give me strength. I have always loved my anonymity and therein lies a contradiction because I also find comfort in seeing representations of my private experiences in the public environment. They need not be representations of my experiences—they can be the experiences of and by others that merely come close to my own or else disrupt the generic representations that have come to be the norm in the various medias outside my door. I find that when I witness diverse representations of "Reality" on a gallery wall or in a book or a movie or in the spoken word or performance, that the larger the range of representations, the more I feel there is room in the environment for my existence, that not the entire environment is hostile.
  To make the private into something public is an action that has terrific repercussions in the preinvented world. The government has the job of maintaining the day-to-day illusion of the ONE-TRIBE NATION. Each public disclosure of a private reality becomes something of a magnet that can attract others with a similar frame of reference; thus each public disclosure of a fragment of private reality serves as a dismantling tool against the illusion of ONE-TRIBE NATION; it lifts the curtains for a brief peek and reveals the probable existence of literally millions of tribes. The term "general public" disintegrates. What happens next is the possibility of an X-ray of Civilization, an examination of its foundations. To turn our private grief for the loss of friends, family, lovers and strangers into something public would serve as another powerful dismantling tool. It would dispel the notion that this virus has a sexual orientation or a moral code. It would nullify the belief that the government and medical community has done very much to ease the spread or advancement of this disease.
  One of the first steps in making the private grief public is the ritual of memorials. I have loved the way memorials take the absence of a human being and make them somehow physical with the use of sound. I have attended a number of memorials in the last five years and at the last one I attended I found myself suddenly experiencing something akin to rage. I realized halfway through the event that I had witnessed a good number of the same people participating in other previous memorials. What made me angry was realizing that the memorial had little reverberation outside the room it was held in. A tv commercial for handiwipes had a higher impact on the society at large. I got up and left because I didn't think I could control my urge to scream.
  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. I worry because of the urgency of the situation, because of seeing death coming in from the edges of abstraction where those with the luxury of time have cast it. I imagine what it would be like if friends had a demonstration each time a lover or a friend or a stranger died of AIDS. I imagine what it would be like if, each time a lover, friend or stranger died of this disease, their friends, lovers or neighbors would take the dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to washington d.c. and blast through the gates of the white house and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps. It would be comforting to see those friends, neighbors, lovers and strangers mark time and place and history in such a public way.
  But, bottom line, this is my own feeling of urgency and need; bottom line, emotionally, even a tiny charcoal scratching done as a gesture to mark a person's response to this epidemic means whole worlds to me if it is hung in public; bottom line, each and every gesture carries a reverberation that is meaningful in its diversity; bottom line, we have to find our own forms of gesture and communication. You can never depend on the mass media to reflect us or our needs or our states of mind; bottom line, with enough gestures we can deafen the satellites and lift the curtains surrounding the control room.

  As a kid I thought I would die amidst a tumbling of horse legs in the dust; I wanted to live in 1800s cowboy country and see my end tilting off a cliff with arrows piercing my body, or slow-motion hurling backwards under a fusillade of bullets in some self-styled bank robbery. These were the only possibilities of death and, aside from that, I would only think of death when I reached age eighty or ninety. To be losing one's friends at a relatively young age leaves one with what I imagine a concentration camp survivor might feel—to be the repository of so many voices and memories and gestures of those who haven't made it; those who have died from the way this disease was handled by those in positions of power; the fact that our mental structures are shifting at this early age to reveal our mortality for more than just a few seconds. A friend of mine recently said, "I remember my first feeling of fear—it was around age twenty-five or twenty-six," and that statement approximates something about the odd feelings I have if I substitute the word death for "fear" in that statement.
  I've come down with a case of shingles and it is so scary, I don't even want to write about it. I don't want to always think about death or the virus or illness. I don't want to see in people's eyes that witnessing of my or others', silent decline. I don't want the burden of acceptance of the idea of death, departure, of becoming fly food, as my friend Kiki would say. I don't want to cease to exist. I don't want my mobility to cease to exist. One can't affect things in one's death, other than momentarily. One cannot change one's socks or tuck the sheets or covers around one's own body in death. One cannot be vocal or witness the lies of time. I don't want to witness the silencing of my own body. I don't want to be polite and crawl into the media grave of "AIDS" and disappear quietly. I don't want my death to have the pressured earmarks of courage or strength, which are usually catchphrases for the idea of politeness. I also cannot scream continuously without losing my voice. I wonder if it was the mid-'80s realization of the AIDS epidemic that woke me up and helped me draw back from the self-destruction that these other friends found themselves spinning into uncontrollably. I also marvel at how death can be so relentless and constant and how such enormous sections of the social landscape can be viciously exploded by a handful of rich white people, with an entire population's approval and participation. And I am amazed to discover that I have been building a suit of armor in response to the extensive amount of death overtaking members of my social landscape. That suit of armor consists of making more of an attempt to continue each time I hear of a new death. The grief hardens and is added to the armor. The armor takes the shape of wanting to see an accountability taken by those responsible. I know I'm not going to die merely because I got f---ed in the ass without a condom or because I swallowed a stranger's semen. If I die it is because a handful of people in power, in organized religions and political institutions, believe that I am expendable. And with that knowledge I lie down among the folds of my sheets and dream of the day when I cross an interior line. That line is made of a quota of strength and a limit of pain. I know those institutions are simply made of stones and those people are simply made of blood and muscle and bone, and I know how easily they can go, how easily I can take them with me. My thoughts consist of wondering if the earth will spin a little faster when my thoughts become action.

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