Feature image by Catherine McGann / Contributor via Getty Images
When I started volunteering at the Gerber/Hart Library & Archives, which helps preserve Midwestern LGBTQ history and culture, the director immediately put me to work helping to sort through their large ephemera collection. In archival terms, “ephemera” typically refers to documents created for a particular purpose but generally designed to be discarded rather than saved. This could include postcards, ticket stubs, event programs, pamphlets, and flyers — materials that people usually make a lot of copies of, and tend to throw away. On my first days at Gerber/Hart, I found myself examining thousands of pieces of paper: a flyer for a gay radio show in Cincinnati, a pamphlet with information for a community forum about HIV/AIDS and nutrition, an invite to a “Steamy Sundays” party at a long since closed gay bar, a poster detailing the schedule of events for Detroit Pride in 1996, and a flyer for the memorial of local Chicago AIDS activist.
I soon learned that ephemera comprises a large part of many LGBTQ archival collections and is often notoriously tricky to sort and organize. The director devised a system for sorting the material (by region, state, and then organization), but even with the instructional guide, I felt woefully underqualified for the task. How was I supposed to know which categories these materials belonged to? Could an important piece of LGBTQ history be lost if I mis-categorized it?
Marika Cifor’s new book Viral Cultures: Activist Archiving in the Age of AIDS explores how LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS archives shape our understanding of history. Cifor, a feminist scholar of archival studies and digital studies and an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington, became interested in the study of archives as a volunteer herself at the GLBT Historical Society. “Part of what brings queer people together are things that are very difficult to document, right? Bodies, feelings, relationships, sex, things that are just not well captured by paper documents,” she noted in a conversation I had with her via Google Meet in mid-November. “So I think community LGBT and queer archives have always have had a fascinating set of collections.“
Viral Cultures explores how LGBTQ artists and activists have historically determined how and where to preserve and archive their organizing efforts, when so many of these histories are ephemeral. What kinds of libraries and archives should these histories be donated to — volunteer-run LGBTQ community archives, like Gerber/Hart and the Lesbian Herstory Archives, or institutional and academic libraries with more resources but fewer connections to community? Cifor thinks about these questions by visiting the archives themselves. She spent a lot of time with the Gay and Lesbian and AIDS/HIV collection at the New York Public Library, for example, which holds over 100 collections — examining their organization as well as interviewing the archivists who sort the materials.
“AIDS archives occupy a really complex relationship to LGBTQ archives and collections,” Cifor told me. “They’re often grouped together at places like the New York Public Library. They share a curator there. They share a collection resource guide, but they’re not actually one and the same. For me, AIDS archives became a really interesting space to explore tensions there are around what is or is not LGBTQ+ knowledge.” In the book’s second chapter, she examines this relationship by narrating how members of ACT UP debated and decided to donate their archives to the NYPL.
Cifor is also interested in exploring the gaps within these archives: how do LGBTQ collections reflect the ways activist history is gendered and racialized? “In some cases, certain records don’t exist or weren’t saved, or certain people weren’t told their histories were valuable and worth documenting,” she said. Existing AIDS archives tend to focus on the histories of cis white gay men, perhaps because they have historically had greater access to the resources (time, money, social capital) needed to preserve their efforts than multiply marginalized LGBTQ people. “But it’s also about the kinds of narratives that people enter spaces with, right? If you already imagine AIDS activism looks a particular way, if you already come in with these kind of existing narratives that shape how people read and engage with these collections,” Cifor added. In writing about the whiteness of AIDS archives, Cifor critically analyzes how the archived history we have in some ways reflects the historical systems of power and patterns of exclusion within LGBTQ communities and AIDS activists.
Viral Cultures demonstrates how the archives themselves shape the narratives we have about AIDS activism. In critiquing the “silences” of the archive, as Cifor calls them, she looks toward more expansive and nuanced histories of HIV/AIDS. “We do not need a new dominant narrative of the AIDS crisis; we need many narratives,” she writes in the conclusion of her book.
Ultimately, Cifor is interested in how we can remember and repurpose our nostalgia for radical AIDS activism in the contemporary moment. Her book explores how LGBTQ artists and activists activate AIDS archives with what she calls “vital nostalgia.” Nostalgia is often thought of as a conservative longing for a past, particularly a past that might never have existed in the first place — think the right-wing call to “Make America Great Again.” But Cifor explores how LGBTQ artists leverage nostalgia for radical AIDS activism towards urgent issues around health, gender, sexuality, and race.
“I began to think about nostalgia as a way to talk about my own relationship [and] different kinds of generational relationships to AIDS. And I think there can be some resistance to that kind of nostalgia when talking about AIDS, right, in its kind of uncritical sense…. I think there’s this nostalgia for this kind of American AIDS activism that happened that’s like very flashy, on the street, and filled with these fascinating, beautiful aesthetics and all of these kinds of like radical communal practices. And it has this queer politics, as it’s all deeply engaged with queer movements that are happening in and outside of the academy in the same period,” Cifor shares.
Cifor is certainly not alone in expressing a nostalgia for radical AIDS activism. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many writers (myself included!) have explored the relationships between HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 in an effort to think through what kinds of organizing efforts we might need to confront this new pandemic. Additionally, scholar-activists like Alex Juhasz and Theodorr Kerr have argued that the last decade has witnessed an “AIDS Crisis Revisitation” that at times reproduces an uncritical nostalgia for AIDS activism, one that romanticizes and often whitewashes its history.
Cifor is interested in complicating this kind of nostalgia. “For me, vital nostalgia is a way to think about where we can use those kinds of nostalgia, that kind of interest in these moments, to do important political work now. And for me in the book, that’s a lot about thinking about, how do we reinvest in HIV/AIDS as both a kind of local and a global crisis with urgency again, which at least in the American context, [was] really lost, and to think about how AIDS intersects with other kinds of structural oppression, with racism and with other kinds of pandemics, COVID, poverty, a lack of access to healthcare and resources?”
Cifor finds vital nostalgia in the work of a number of contemporary LGBTQ and HIV+ artists and activists. These artists take the ephemera of AIDS archives and repurpose them, often circulating them through online platforms like Tumblr and Instagram. Cifor is “interested in how these records have a kind of contemporary life,” she said. “Because what interests me about archives is what they tell us [about] our relationship to the past, tell us about our present and the ways in which they shape feature possibilities. So for me, telling the story of how they circulate on Tumblr in the book is a way of thinking about how these records move and how we engage with them.”
The first chapter of Viral Cultures looks at a poster created by Vincent Chevalier and Ian Bradley-Perrin called “Your Nostalgia is killing me,” itself a response to the idealization of early ‘90s AIDS activism. In later chapters, she looks at the work of Indigenous queer artist Demian DinéYazhi´ who “takes some of the power of these records and uses them to talk about issues that were neglected or overlooked, or that to put them in conversation with contemporary social justice movements, in conversation with Immigrant rights indigenous sovereignty and other kinds of contemporary discourse.” One of DinéYazhi´’s pieces, for example, reimagines a piece of AIDS activist artwork to ground it in critiques of settler colonialism. Cifor wants to show us how “there’s a way in which you can take some of the power of these records and use them to talk about issues that were neglected or overlooked [at the time], or that put them in conversation with contemporary social justice movements.”
Cifor is especially interested in digital projects like the AIDS memorial on Instagram because artists who repurpose and circulate AIDS activist records make these archives available to a wider public. “The digital space is a complex and interesting space to do that kind of mediation…if you’re not a researcher thinking about these topics, it might be how you actually encounter these records for the first time.” This can be a powerful way to encounter AIDS archives, and one that Cifor hopes has the potential to trigger vital nostalgia in viewers.
Toward the end of our conversation, Cifor shared how we can revisit and repurpose vital nostalgia for AIDS activism in the midst of COVID-19. Finishing the book in the fall of 2020 gave her the opportunity to explore “the ways in which these two pandemics are intertwined and the ways in which they are fundamentally distinct,” she said. She wanted to “be really keenly aware of what it’s like to live in two pandemics, and I think in ways that were both flattening and ways that were generative and exciting. COVID offered opportunities to re-engage in a public discourse about AIDS because it’s a pandemic we’ve been living with and thinking with and addressing for much longer.” And while Cifor is not interested in simple equivalencies between HIV/AIDs and COVID-19, her book describes “how pandemics operate along social fault lines. They expose racism and sexism and transphobia and xenophobia and things that already exist in our world, but they really amplify it and draw it out to the surface.”
As we continue to live through these two pandemics, Cifor ultimately wants us to activate our nostalgia for AIDS activism, and sees the archive as one place to begin this process. “Nostalgia Is a way to think about, why do we have those kinds of relationships with the past and how can they be generative in this moment?” she asks.
I think back to my days sorting through ephemera in the volunteer room at Gerber/Hart. As I looked through document after document, I wondered about all of the people who created those events, parties, conferences, and protests advertised on the flyers, pamphlets, and ticket stubs. Coastal cities like New York and San Francisco are over-represented in narratives of LGBTQ history, and local and regional community archives like Gerber/Hart provide us with glimpses of LGBTQ organizing in the past that expand our understanding of queer and trans history. For Cifor, the power of these archives lies in the way they can inspire a vital nostalgia, allowing us to confront urgent crises in our communities in the present.