The banner headline of the Weekly World News issue of June 20, 1989, bore the following shriek: “I’ve got AIDS and I’m glad, says movie bigwig in a shocking interview!” Alongside that ran a head-shot of Derek Jarman, the avant-garde film poet who’d have been amused at seeing himself cast as a “movie bigwig.” The hysteria around AIDS and HIV issues in the 1980s are now a memory for those who lived through that time, and perhaps difficult to comprehend for those too young to remember. Seized upon by craven politicians and commentators as a retribution visited upon gay men, people of color, and drug users (not to mention the collateral stigma attaching itself to uniquely “innocent” children born to any of the above), the AIDS epidemic as a global health crisis became largely defined as a moral-ethical issue within the chronic cultural conversation on issues of tolerance and permissiveness. In that defining came its derailing; and it was that derailing—that persistent, literally life-denying, insistence on regarding a profound health crisis as a moral character test—that gave force to those wanting clarity and social justice in finding ways to address the mayhem AIDS was inflicting upon the social body.
One way cultural institutions took up that challenge was to produce public programs addressing AIDS and HIV issues, and not simply in relation to the disproportionately severe toll visited upon artistic communities. Here at the Wexner Center, an AIDS Update program—featuring an ambitious anthology entitled Video Against AIDS—was held in December 1989, just two weeks after the center opened, and over the next years, that offering was joined by similar efforts within the exhibitions, performing arts, and education departments, sometimes on December 1, designated by the World Health Organization as World AIDS Day, but also dispersed throughout the year. The AIDS Update series continued until 1996, after which AIDS programming became more intermittent, a relaxation paralleled by the widening availability of anti-retroviral drugs in the 1990s dramatically enhancing the quality of life for those with HIV. Access to retroviral drugs remains the ongoing main front of the global battle against AIDS, with millions of people in developing countries still in need of treatment (an estimated two million died in 2007), and in terms of giving credit where it’s due, the Bush administration this past July advanced $50 billion to a global fund to support AIDS treatment.
All of which is to say, as though it needed to be said again, that the AIDS crises are not over; their theater of operation has simply shifted to developing countries (and this despite AIDS and HIV continuing to decimate the economic underclass in the U.S. no less than globally). This year on World AIDS Day, we’re thrilled to be presenting Derek, British filmmaker Isaac Julien’s loving portrait of the artist whose struggle against illness has provided one of the most lyrically victorious battles yet recorded of an artist facing down his own mortality—victorious, that is, on the playing field of lyricism; Jarman died in 1994.
Director, Media Arts