Ever since hearing about David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Up At Night — which ends September 30th at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York City — I’ve been tearing through long boxes to find a copy of the memoir he wrote that became a comic shortly before he died of HIV-related causes in 1992.
I was a junior in college when I read the comic version of 7 Miles a Second and it’s haunted me ever since.
The cover of 1996's 7 Miles A Second from DC Comics
Wojnarowicz was a preternaturally gifted artist who’s indelible contribution to HIV activism is part political action and part art. The graphic novel depicts Wojnarowicz's childhood of sex work and drugs on the streets of Manhattan, through his adulthood living with HIV, and his anger at the indifference of government and health agencies. His friend James Romberger visuals give stunning life to Wojnarowicz's words, blending the gritty naturalism of Lower East Side street life with a hallucinatory, psychedelic imagination that takes perfect advantage of the comics medium.
Three decades later Times Square is cleaned up and the HIV crisis in America is back in headlines allowing Wojnarowicz’s defiant cri de coeur to retain its strident potency.
In 2013, Jillian Steinhauer said: "7 Miles a Second, originally put out by DC Comics in 1996 and recently republished by Fantagraphics Books, is a memoir comprised of personal stories mixed with dreams, hallucinatory images, and social commentary. Nearly all of those center on Wojnarowicz’s incredibly weighty relationship with his own body — a body that he sold for money so he could survive; a body that was abused by those to whom he rented it; a body that was infected with HIV, that dragged him down with its virus. 'I can’t abstract my own dying any longer,' he writes on the second-to-last page. That must be among the most poignant expressions of the reality of illness ever written."
Brian Nicholson of Bookslut said, “[7 Miles a Second] is punk as f**k, colored in the tones of every kind of acid, and filled with rage, against the indifference of people in general and the naked disgust those in power had for homosexuals dying of AIDS in the early 1990s, when to be diagnosed was to be given a death sentence. It is an immediate work, an attempt to communicate before death that did not win its race against time.”
I spoke to Hugh Ryan — who’s written a lot about the Magic Box and A Fire In My Belly, and was also one of the folks who worked on the David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base at New York University. Ryan thinks the Whitney show is very powerful and had never seen many of the those works in person before, "and in reproduction, you can't really see the layered nature of much of his work."
At heart, Ryan thinks “Wojnarowicz was a collage artist and symbol maker, and “it's only in person that you can really parse all the pieces that he's putting together to make his work.”
Ryan says because the retrospective charts his work over his entire life, you can see how he creates and evolves his symbols (the burning house, the falling man, the toad, the alien head, etc.). “Wojnarowicz is definitely one of those artists where the harder you look, the more you see, and I think you need to become fluent in the language of his symbols to really understand his work. I also love that they included some of his written work, and particularly, his own voice reading his work. You really feel his rhetorical power when you sit in that room, and I think it calls up his anger and his eloquence in a really visceral way that's made all the more powerful by the empty white room his voice is piped into.”
Ryan notes it's somewhat jarring to see an artist like Wojnarowicz — who railed so eloquently in his practice against abuse of power and the gentrification of the city —enshrined in a major art institution like the Whitney. “On the one hand, I think he deserves to be recognized as a major artistic talent, whose work should be collected an exhibited equally on par with other great artists. On the other hand, I think "equality" is always a limited frame, as it simply asks to be allowed into an institution on an equal basis, and doesn't critique the fundamental existence or practices of that institution — whether that institution is a museum or marriage.”
Ryan suggests Wojnarowicz's critiques of our system went far beyond demanding equal access, and were meant to challenge us to think about justice, and "who is still being left out." He thinks that "it's amazing and important that we are having this retrospective moment about the first wave of the AIDS crisis", during which Wojnarowicz made his name. “But ‘retrospective’ implies something that is over and in the past, while we know today that, for instance, queer Black men have a 1 in 2 chance of becoming HIV-positive in their life-times. I worry that the cumulative effect of all of these retrospective looks at the first wave of the AIDS crisis and the artists who emerged during it obscures the reality of the AIDS crisis we are living through now.”
Ryan believes Wojnarowicz wanted recognition as an artist. Craved it at times. But more than that, Ryan thinks he was interested in fundamentally changing society — and not just for queer people and people who were HIV positive. Ryan thinks the following quote captures just how all-encompassing his social critique really was:
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.
Ryan loved the show. “But I also love the ACT UP activists who protested it. And the queer, critical, genre-defying, un- and under-recognized political artists who are continuing Wojnarowicz's legacy.”
Hugh Ryan is the author the upcoming When Brooklyn Was Queer, a groundbreaking exploration of the LGBT history of Brooklyn, from the early days of Walt Whitman in the 1850s up through the women who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, and beyond. It hits bookstores March 3rd!