Global Fictions, Local Struggles (or the distribution of three documents from an AIDS counter-archive in progress)

This text1 looks at some of the aesthetic practices, representations, collective experiences and performative tactics that emerged in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis in various contexts in the so-called 'South', in order to critically revise the widely accepted notion that the 1980s introduced a new global order, one that was stripped of borders and accessible to all. As Chilean writer Lina Meruane wrote in her recent survey of AIDS-related literature in Latin America –the 2012 book Viral Voyages– this fiction of increasing freedom "gradually proved to be an affliction."

In Viral Voyages, Meruane connects two previously unrelated spheres: Latin American literature and the disciplinary discourse of illness. Based on literary narratives of AIDS, the book traces the representations and the demand for signification that the pandemic unleashed from the 1980s onwards. Drawing on the work of early cultural critics of AIDS such as Susan Sontag, John O'Neill, Cindy Patton and Paula Treichler, as well as theorists like Richard Sennett who analyse financial or globalised capitalism, Meruane devotes the first part of the book to examining the cultural, social and political context that is inseparable from the discursive production around the pandemic. The second part of the book uses literary texts as evidence, based on works of fiction by authors such as Reinaldo Arenas, Severo Sarduy, Mario Bellatin and Pedro Lemebel, and taking them as a means to reflect on themes such as journeys, political repression and exile that recur in the representation of AIDS in Latin America.

John O'Neill (1990) and Cindy Patton (1990; 2002) are key references when it comes to rethinking the links between AIDS and globalisation processes. Patton's strategy of mixing local knowledge and global perspectives with scientific research and personal stories in Globalizing AIDS, for example, has influenced our own interdisciplinary approach to visual and performative production around AIDS in different contexts in the 'global South'2, while Paula Treichler's (Treichler 1999) famous claim that the AIDS epidemic is, above all, an 'epidemic of signification' underlies the centrality of representation and language in the case studies that we present in this text.

While Meruane does not develop the topic of visual and activist production in her book, the work of authors such as Douglas Crimp (Crimp 1988) and his now-classic linking of 'cultural analysis' to 'cultural activism' in the English-speaking world, and Ricardo Llamas with his diverse theoretical-activist work in Spain –both of which are mentioned by Meruane in her bibliography– are key precedents for the type of connection between visual and archival production on one hand, and activist and academic know-how on the other, that we seek to generate through our work. The activist and theoretical work of Sejo Carrascosa, Ricardo Llamas, Javier Sáez, Paco Vidarte and Fefa Vila –members of the activist groups Radical Gai and LSD that operated from the neighbourhood of Lavapiés in Madrid in the 1990s– is essential for understanding the conditions in which the early queer movement in Spain emerged, and its involvement in the fight against AIDS and other social struggles 3. As part of the 2013–2014 Research Residencies at the Museo Reina Sofía, former members of Radical Gai and LSD are currently participating in a project that aims to recover and re-examine the most significant issues that the two groups focused on, formulated from the space of the archive. For this reason, we chose not to explore their work further in this text and to concentrate on case studies that have been barely considered or ignored before now.

Adhering to Meruane's reasoning, we propose to consider AIDS as both a co-narrative and a counter to globalisation. On one hand, we acknowledge AIDS as the subject that best connotes the new globalised reality that appeared in the 1980s. The geographical scope of the virus, its synchronous emergence around the world, and the rhetoric of flows and communication typical of the period, reinforced the idea of the world as a network of interconnected short distances. On the other hand, we also propose to think of AIDS as the great fault in the globalisation paradigm: the fault that can point out the promises of democratic equality that the global world-system failed to live up to.

The text is based on an archival logic; by means of description and commentary, it seeks to distribute and provide access to three 'AIDS documents' drawn from an archive under construction. These documents are part of the Equipo re4 AIDS Anarchive, an ongoing research project and programme of activities that revolve around the process of producing a 'counter-archive' or 'anarchive' of AIDS politics that, for the first time, take into account practices that played out outside of the English-speaking and Northern European contexts, and that have so far focused on cases from Chile and Spain. Closer to what Alexandra Juhasz has called 'queer archive activism' (Juhasz 2006), or dissident archive production, than to academic work, the project, which formally began as part of the 2012–2013 Research Residencies at the Museo Reina Sofía, is not driven by a historiographical urge but by the need to identify and move beyond the limits of the experience in the present.

The three documents 'distributed' in this text offer a non-linear overview of three decades of AIDS: from the consolidation of the globalisation project in the early 1980s –which coincided with the emergence of AIDS– to today's neoliberal management of life as instituted by the financial crisis around 2008, by way of the emergence of the anti-globalisation or alter-globalisation movement in 1996, which was also when antiretroviral drugs were introduced. Nonetheless, these documents are not presented here as evidence of a historical period, but as small incisions or precise cuts in the 'global' archive of visuality. Our aim is to challenge the stability of the dominant Anglo- and Euro-centric narratives around the historiography and visual culture of HIV/AIDS through the description, commentary and distribution of a limited selection of 'local' responses to AIDS that confront the hegemony of the North.

AIDS As A Global Design

In our approach to AIDS, we freely apply the now-classic model developed by Walter Mignolo to analyse the links between coloniality and globalisation, considering AIDS as a 'global design' that originated from a whole range of 'local histories' (Mignolo 2000). In most of the academic and curatorial work produced between the late 1980s and early 1990s around the aesthetic practices, representations and performative tactics that grew around the pandemic, the analysis of the visual culture of HIV/AIDS has almost exclusively focused on the English-speaking/ Eurocentric world. As a result, a few 'local histories' have become the norm while many others have been pushed into the background.

The expansion of the neoliberal model lies at the heart of the 'global design' of AIDS. The changes resulting from new technological and communications developments led to a transformation of the forms of expansion inherent to financial capitalism, which demanded the liberalisation of the functions of the State for the benefit of private interests. This dismantling of the welfare state took place gradually in the 1970s and 1980s, in collusion with authoritarian regimes (as in the case of Chile, for example, which is now considered the main laboratory for the implementation of neoliberalism), and at the same time as the emergence of the first known cases of AIDS.

The convergence of the expansion of globalised capital, the various democratic transition processes in dictatorial contexts such as Spain and Chile, and the emergence of the AIDS crisis provoked a double dynamic, a simultaneous opening up and restricting of freedoms. As dictatorships waned in favour of a democratic future and new omens raised 'feathers and skirts'5, the arrival of AIDS was a step backwards in the certainty of freedom, setting new limits for an entire sector of the population. As Lina Meruane says, "these changes in the culture of capitalism and its new technologies of communication and travel would allow dissident sexualities to articulate a utopian notion of freedom beyond the borders of the repressive, homophobic nation" (Meruane 2014, p. 3). It was a libertarian fiction or conjecture that thrived in the post-dictatorial contexts of transition in countries such as Chile and Spain, and that, as the Chilean artist and writer Pedro Lemebel said –this time drawing on cinematic fiction– was precisely what was "gone with the wind of AIDS".

Transition As Disruption

We first noticed the precise intersection of the visual and performative production around HIV/AIDS with the policies of the dictatorship in Spain, by way of omission rather than attention. This occurred during the project Social Dangerousness, co-directed by Beatriz Preciado as part of the 2008–2009 edition of the MACBA Independent Studies Programme (PEI)6, which addressed the dissident cultural production of the last stage of Franco's regime and the early years of democracy, coinciding with the first cases of HIV/AIDS in Spain (the first case was diagnosed in Catalonia in 1981 by Doctor Caterina Mieras). Our contribution was a collective research project on a group of activists and cultural producers in Andalusia who had been active in the anti-Francoist struggle and the early gay liberation movement7. The research did not really manage to come to terms with the impact of the emergence of AIDS in post-dictatorial Spain, and in some sense it reproduced a historical inertia: it failed to examine the initial indifference of the traditional left towards the crisis and the early gay movement.

This oversight came to light unexpectedly, and somewhat sadly, during a filmed conversation with three of the subjects of our research: feminist researcher and activist María José Belbel, and activists and cultural producers Joaquín Vázquez and Miguel Benlloch, co-founders of the cultural production company BNV Producciones8. The discussion revolved around how the construction of the official narrative of the transition to democracy had overshadowed other possible narratives, defending civil society's active resistance against the repression of Franco's regime. Suddenly, as they reminisced about the early activities of feminist and gay liberation movements, all three interviewees wistfully acknowledged that they had 'not been equal to the task' (the expression is ours) of responding to the early days of the AIDS crisis.

When news of a 'gay cancer' started reaching Spain in the early 1980s and the first cases began to be diagnosed, the gay movement was going to 'look the other way', fearing further social stigmatisation and the loss of brand new freedoms (Llamas and Vila 1997, p. 215). The participants of our conversation recognised this, and one of them summed it up in a subsequent e-mail as follows: "Politically, one of my greatest regrets is not having fought during the time when the AIDS pandemic began. I think it was because we had already done a lot of fighting and we had built up a lot of grief."9 This reference to the political and emotional fatigue involved in living in a dictatorship as a way of explaining the difficulty of organising early responses to AIDS is not exclusive to Spain, and also came up repeatedly in interviews and conversations we had in Chile. The particular forms that AIDS politics took in post-dictatorial contexts should be understood as disruptions –breaks and interruptions– in the standardised and seemingly irrefutable design of globalisation.

The intersection between post-dictatorial politics and the emergence of AIDS also raises certain questions that have not yet been dealt with in the analysis of the visual culture of HIV/AIDS, and that are key to our research: What specific performative and visual production strategies emerged in post-dictatorial Chile and Spain, to mention two examples, when they collided with AIDS? What forms of somatic resistance emerged from the collision between dictatorship and AIDS politics? How are they linked to notions of trauma, memory and affect? These and other issues run through the three documents that we 'distribute' below.

Document 1: AIDS And Dictatorship, Embodied In The Public Sphere

Guillermo Moscoso, *Geno-Sida*. Camera and photography: Álvaro Pereda. Chile, 2009.

A video that is only partially available online, half a dozen photographs posted on a blog, and a few press clippings, are all the documentation that exists in relation to the work Geno-Sida –the title is a play on the words 'sida', the Spanish term for AIDS, and 'genocide'– by Chilean artist and activist Guillermo Moscoso10. The action took place on 1 April 2009, on the façade of the Cathedral of the Most Holy Conception, Concepción, Chile, in response to declarations made by Pope Benedict XVI condemning the use of condoms, during his first visit to Africa in March that year. In the action, the artist resignified the Catholic liturgical rite by stamping each page of a Bible with the word 'cero-positivo' (a play on the words 'cero' or zero-positive, and 'seropositive'), before the bewildered eyes of onlookers and passers-by. It was both a comment on the global, high-profile dimension of AIDS and a specific reference to the status of the body in post-dictatorial Chile.

We first met Moscoso in 2011, in the course of a programme of activities that we organised in several Chilean cities, including Concepción, around the 'politics of the body'11 during the dictatorship and the early years of the democratic transition in Chile, which Moscoso contributed to in various ways 12. In a text dating from 2009 that he forwarded to us, Moscoso quotes the declarations made by the Pope, provides statistics on the impact of AIDS in the Bío Bío region in Chile since 1984, and criticises "the inadequate promotion of human rights in Chile". This denunciation, as well as the site where the performance took place –Independence Square, opposite the Cathedral of the Most Holy Conception (the site is not specified in the text, but we think it is important to mention it here)– links his experience of living with AIDS to the abuses of the dictatorship.

Twenty-five years before Moscoso's action, on 11 November 1983, Sebastián Acevedo –who had until then been an anonymous Chilean labourer– set fire to himself on that same square, to protest against the disappearance of his two children at the hands of the secret police during Pinochet's dictatorship. Acevedo's death is a symbol of the trauma resulting from the secret detentions and torture of the victims of repression during the 17-year dictatorship in Chile. Its impact was such that the Pinochet regime was forced to recognise the case, and it led to the founding of the Sebastián Acevedo Movement Against Torture (1983–1990), a group that defended the physical integrity of prisoners of the dictatorship. Today, the spot where Acevedo set fire to himself, where Moscoso carried out his action twenty-five years later, is marked by a red cross as a sign of remembrance and sorrow.

Geno-Sida echoes many of the somatic-poetic expressions of resistance carried out by political, sexual and religious dissidents during the military dictatorship in Chile, from performative interventions by Las Yeguas del Apocalípsis to the street protests organised by the Sebastián Acevedo Movement Against Torture; from the performance marathons and poetry readings programmed at Caja Negra (1983–2014) to the clandestine theatrical actions at Garage Internacional Matucana (1985–1989), which was the epicentre of the counterculture in Santiago during the dictatorship. In his action, Moscoso conjured up and updated this memory, projecting it over the backdrop of the neoliberal management of life in the twenty-first century.

Document 2: Other Forms Of The Political

Las Pekinesas (Miguel Benlloch, Tomás Navarro y Rafael Villegas), *SIDA DA*. Texts: Miguel Benlloch. Camera: Francisco Sánchez. Production: Marino Martín. Mounting: José Sánchez Montes. Planta Baja, Granada 1985.

In the past, we have occasionally used the phrase 'other forms of the political' to refer to a broad range of critical strategies of visual and performative production that opposed the policies of repression during the dictatorship and transition, both in Chile –as in the example described above– and Spain. These 'other forms of the political' appeared alongside popular culture and the early gay liberation movements. They are expressed through the potentiality of the body, quite often in a playful form13. In the specific case of Spain, these 'other forms of the political' belied the argument of a 'fatigue of the political' following the dictatorship. One wonderful example of 'alternative forms' of doing politics is the work of Miguel Benlloch, an activist, cultural producer, and 'performancero' (as he likes to call himself)14. As it happens, Benlloch is one of the co-protagonists of our second document, which was recently rescued from oblivion, and which we put forward here as the earliest existing video of an HIV/AIDS-related political-aesthetic action in Spain: an action called SIDA DA carried out in November 1984 by Las Pekinesas, a group consisting of Miguel Benlloch, Tomás Navarro and Rafael Villegas.15

The video shows a group of people who have gathered to watch an action in the basement of the bar Planta Baja, co-founded by Benlloch, which was the epicentre of the counterculture in Granada in the early 1980s. On a stage facing the audience, three bodies wearing cardboard carnival masks –Las Pekinesas– pass the microphone from one to the other as they reel-off a series of puns on the word 'sida', the Spanish equivalent of the English word AIDS which had been coined not long before, in spring 1982, by a team of epidemiologists and bureaucrats in an office at the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) in Atlanta, just as Spain was becoming the sixteenth member of the NATO Atlantic Alliance. The underground venue and the masks worn by the protagonists returned the bodies to the clandestinity that Franco's dictatorship had forced them into in the not-so-distant past.

As the historian of medicine Mirko Dražen Grmek explains in History of AIDS, "when the acronym AIDS was invented, nobody paid attention to its phonetic qualities or its linguistic malleability, and, consequently, its adoption by languages other than English caused problems" (Grmek 1989, p. 65). As Grmek points out, the initial diphthong is difficult to pronounce in some languages, and the two final consonants are not euphonic, which explains why the analogous acronym SIDA was created in languages such as French and Spanish. In Spain, it was only gradually incorporated into written language, and the acronym morphed as it moved from medical terminology into everyday language: S.I.D.A., SIDA, Sida, eventually reaching its current form, 'sida', in lower case, as dictated by the Royal Spanish Academy. With the specific emphasis on the phonetic qualities and linguistic malleability of AIDS, Las Pekinesas (driven by intuition rather than intention) seem to be calling attention to the textual and discursive dimension of the pandemic, five years before Susan Sontag –one of the early analysts of AIDS as a global phenomenon– formulated her critique of the use of military metaphors in medicine and declared that "language is a virus" (Sontag 1989).

The performance by Las Pekinesas removed AIDS from the global scientific-military-media language that it came from and inserted it into the lexicon of jokes and nonsense, and into what Mignolo refers to as 'languaging': the non-alienated practice of language that produces awareness of the (colonial, patriarchal) repression and power structures that are inscribed in language.16 At the same time, it undermines Sontag's labelling of the body ('the sick person') that the stigma is attached to, as a position of enunciation that is always weak, "without imagining that he, too, produces language and appropriates metaphors," as Lina Meruane points out. Through their action, Las Pekinesas appropriate the disruptive potential of language and demand the right to participate, through the body and the voice, in the mediated processes of writing and coding of AIDS.

Document 3: AIDS Interrogates The Museum

In terms of biopolitical importance, the year 1996 is as, if not more, significant than 1968 or 1989. It is also a key date in regard to the two tasks that this text seeks to contribute to: the reassessment of globalisation as a failed project, and the production of a more complex cartography of practices of visual and performative production around HIV/AIDS. On one hand, 1996 was the year of the emergence of the so-called 'anti-globalisation' or 'alter-globalisation' movement around the occasion of the first Meeting for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism held in Chiapas, Mexico, the cradle of the Zapatista Movement. And on the other, it was the year of the founding of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (better known as UNAIDS), which introduced antiretroviral triple therapy: the new drug cocktail that replaced the deadly AZT and extended the life expectancy of people living with AIDS. The arrival of antiretrovirals also marked the start of a new stage in AIDS activism, which would henceforth focus on the fight against pharmaceutical corporations and their neoliberal patent policies.

Meanwhile, in Spain in 1996, the Partido Popular came to power, ending a fourteen-year socialist mandate. And around the same time, the opening of a number of new major contemporary art centres and museums in Spain culminated the cycle which enabled the country to be 'approved' by the outside world. The start of this process can be traced back to around 1992, and events such as the Seville Expo and the Olympic Games in Barcelona, in which 'democracy' was equated with Europeanisation and with being on a par with foreign models17. This cross between the consolidation of neoliberal policies –also in relation to the management of AIDS– and the political instrumentalisation of culture left their mark on the work of the art collective The Carrying Society (1992–1998).

Founded by some of the participants in a workshop that Pepe Espaliú18 imparted in 1992 at the Arteleku art centre in San Sebastián, The Carrying Society produced several projects about art and the public sphere. Records and memories of these are patchy, and we have set ourselves the task of recovering them. In 1996, the MACBA held one exhibition on Pepe Espaliú (to whom the group owed its existence) and another on the Situationist International (with the dérive and exploratory methodologies that the group had adopted), leading The Carrying Society to set their sights on a project for the 'museum' institution, which they called Prospecciones Periféricas and which was conceived around 1996/1997 and carried out in 1998, before the group definitively disbanded:

"We're quite sceptical about the art world; given the spectacle that it promotes, and the type of marketing that enslaves it. Nonetheless, we have the sense that certain exercises in radical democracy are possible. From this point of view, we see museums as publicly funded shared assets, and as we are part of this public, we feel responsible for their conception19."

Using conversation as the main methodological tool, the project sought to explore "some possible notions of ordinary citizens about the public space occupied by contemporary art centres and museums." It took the form of a series of workshops in eight of the main museums in Spain and Portugal –including the CGAC in Santiago, Galicia, the MAAC in Seville, the MACBA in Barcelona and the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, as well as the Serralves Museum in Porto–, in which the group videotaped conversations based on dérives with people they came across, from museum visitors to staff members. In this and earlier projects, the group approached the boundaries of citizen participation through the framework of the neoliberal configuration of public space that AIDS policies entailed.

We included the practice of The Carrying Society in the seminar/ meeting "Agenciamientos contra-neoliberale" that we organised as part of the arteypensamiento programme 20, at the Universidad Internacional de Andalucía in October 2013, in the form of a video screened in the documentation area. The aim of the seminar was "to rethink the legacy of AIDS activism as a possible strategy for the articulation of a new micro-political front today". Basically, we wanted to see what knowledge we could extract from the critical forms of collective resistance, solidarity actions, and strategic alliances of AIDS activism in order to inject new power into the current struggles against different forms of the neoliberalisation of life. Twenty years on, with a practice like that of The Carrying Society in mind, we can ask ourselves what is, and what should be, the role and the use value of art in constructing this common front. And what, if anything, remains of the idea that a museum can also offer possibilities for "certain exercises in radical democracy."


Crimp D. 1988, AIDS. Cultural Analysis/ Cultural Activism, October Books, MIT Press, Boston.

Grmek, M. D. 1989, Histoire du sida – Début et origine d'une pandémie actuelle, Éditions Payot, Paris. [Grmek, M.D. 1990, History of AIDS: Emergence and Origin of a Modern Pandemic, trans. R. C. Maulitz and J. Duffin, Princeton University Press, Princeton:1990.]

Juhasz, A. 2006, "Nostalgia, Technology, and Queer Archive Activism", GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 319–328.

Llamas, R. and Vila, F. 1997, "Spain: Passion for Life. Una historia del movimiento de lesbianas y gays en el Estado español", in Buxáan, J. (ed.), Conciencia de un singular deseo, Estudios de lesbianas y gays en el Estado español, Laertes, Barcelona.

Meruane, L. 2012, Viajes Virales. La crisis del contagio Global en la escritura del sida, Fondo de Cultura Economica, Santiago, Chile. [Meruane, L. 2014, Viral Voyages. Tracing AIDS in Latin America, transl. A. Rosenberg, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.]

Mignolo, W. D. 2000, Local Histories/ Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

O'Neill, J. 1990, "AIDS as a Globalizing Panic", Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 7, Nottingham, pp. 329–342.

Patton, C. 1990, Inventing AIDS, Routledge, New York and London.

Patton, C. 2002, Globalizing AIDS: Theory Out of Bounds, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Sennett, Richard. The Culture of the New Capitalism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007

Sontag, S. 1978, Illness as Metaphor, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York.

Sontag, S. 1989, AIDS and Its Metaphors, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York.

Sontag, S. 2001, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, Picador, New York.

Treichler, P. 1999, How to have a theory in an epidemic. Cultural chronicles of AIDS, Duke University Press, Durham and London.

Translated by Nuria Rodríguez