Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image

Roger Hallas,
Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image.
Duke University Press, 2009
ISBN 978-0-8223-4601-2
US$24.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Duke University Press)

As HIV/AIDS reaches its third decade, the once-flourishing field of AIDS cultural criticism, an interdisciplinary amalgam of gay and lesbian studies, queer theory, film and media studies, memory and trauma studies – to mention just a few – has noticeably thinned out. This reflects a broader dwindling of conversations about HIV/AIDS in the global North, where access to antiretroviral combination therapies has dramatically reduced the number of deaths, and where a “normalisation” of AIDS has to some degree taken place. As well as grappling with the complexities of this quieter (though by no means silent) cultural landscape, work in this field is increasingly turning back to the rich archive of art, activism, criticism and moving images from an earlier moment of AIDS as material worthy of re-consideration and ongoing reflection, and as a reservoir of cultural knowledge and practice that continues to illuminate the “now” of the global pandemic[1] .

The most recent addition to this field is Roger Hallas’ Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image, which recovers the testimonial and activist legacy of (predominantly North American) queer AIDS media from the 1980s and 90s, but moves beyond it to trace both its legacy and re-invention in more recent, post-millennial visual media production that captures the transformed demographics, politics and cultures of HIV/AIDS, and “the transformed structures of feeling of the twenty-first century pandemic” (p.32). This includes new analyses of much-discussed works like John Greyson’s musicals Zero Patience (UK/Canada 1993) and Fig Trees (Canada 2003), Derek Jarman’s radical, autobiographical Blue (UK 1993) and Gregg Bordowitz’s anti-confessional Fast Trip, Long Drop (USA 1993). But Hallas also includes important and often overlooked films by Jack Lewis and Thulanie Phungula, and Jim Hubbard, for example. Works (like Jarman’s and Greyson’s latter film) that originated or later became installation pieces are analysed in their multiple performative contexts of distribution and reception, and Hallas is closely attuned to the intertextual genealogies of these works, like the extraordinary documentary collaboration between filmmaker Tony Ayres and photographer William Yang in Sadness (Australia 1999) and Edmund Coulthard’s collaboration with Nan Goldin on I’ll be Your Mirror (USA 1996). As he notes, these works “formed part of a larger tendency in the 1980s and 1990s toward adaptation and intertextuality across media in queer cultural production, particularly work concerning AIDS” (pp. 60-1). Though the better part of Hallas’ study comprises film and video produced between the mid-1980s and early 2000s in North America, Europe, Australia and South Africa, the scope of his scholarship extends far beyond the delimited works and is not only retrospective: in the Afterword, Hallas makes a series of brief but cogent observations about what happens to the dynamics of witnessing in the new media ecology of the database and the remix. These pithy concluding analyses of the online archive of the ACT UP Oral History Project and Ultra Red’s SILENT/LISTEN and Untitled (For Six Voices) installation projects makes gestures toward defining the impact of digital video technology, convergence and participatory cultures on our relationship with archives of trauma, as well as what is now a key challenge for queer media producers in the third decade of the pandemic:” how to reframe the archive of AIDS cultural activism in ways that generate new acts of bearing witness to the present moment of AIDS and the ongoing historical trauma and crisis it constitutes” (p. 243).

Chapters One and Two of Reframing Bodies examine instances where queer AIDS media have re-framed the documentary convention of the talking head, the most rudimentary and most enduring convention in the production of documentary testimony to historical trauma. With its genealogy in the classificatory and confessional photography of anthropological, criminological and medical discourses, the talking head convention “plays a significant role in the power relations constituted by documentary film and television journalism, which are themselves rooted in the disciplinary mechanism of modern portraiture” (p. 40). Also, the talking head of the (white, male) news anchor has been the key mode for the spatialised othering of the bodies of PWAs (“risk groups”/“the general population”; “the West”/“Africa”), and the direct address of the news broadcast was the central medium that shaped the dominant (phobic) public perception of AIDS in the first decade of the pandemic. Queer AIDS media developed a multiplicity of strategies for re-framing or decentring the talking head that includes a foregrounding of practices of spatialisation, proliferating voices, staving off the confessional imperatives of dominant AIDS media via Brechtian distantiation, performative styles of oral culture, explicit theatrical staging, and dramatic re-enactment (p. 37). Readers of earlier work from the archive of AIDS cultural criticism will be familiar with the imperatives of – to take one of Hallas’ examples – direct-action video, which “consistently worked to break down the regulatory binaries governing dominant AIDS representation, such as here/there, honorific/repressive, normal/abnormal, expert/victim, innocence/guilt, and general population/risk groups” (p. 104). However, in Chapter Two, Hallas uses the example of these imperatives to make a particular intervention in trauma studies, developing the argument that he makes throughout Reframing Bodies that, in contrast to the Holocaust, a “different kind of trauma culture emerged from the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, one fundamentally structured around immediacy and exigency rather than latency and belatedness” (p. 5). This chapter is titled “The Embodied Immediacy of Direct Action” and in it Hallas develops his discussion of the queering of the spatial dynamics of television by videos that documented the work of ACT UP/New York. Drawing on Jane Gaines work on the “political mimesis” (1999) of committed documentary, he advances the concept of the “embodied immediacy” of direct-action video, in which the demands of AIDS activism “articulated as a form of historical testimony[,] emanate from bodies that physically put themselves on the line for their own survival” (p. 91). The combined effect of direct-address and hand-held camera work functions to re-distribute the burden of witnessing and testimony across a spectrum of players, from the activist body to the viewer, who becomes implicated and moved to action; the viewer is reminded of “the profoundly somatic dimension to bearing witness in which bodily presence has the capacity to produce the kind of extra-discursive excess that constitutes the affective and ethical dimensions of magnitude” (p. 92). These re-framing practices disrupt the “shadow archive of AIDS”, a phrase that Hallas uses as shorthand for the modern panoptic power relations between the “honorific portrait of the bourgeois subject” (the newsreader) and the “repressive portrait of the pathological subject” (the PWA) sustained by dominant AIDS media.

The modes of intersubjectivity and relationality among the subjects, producers and viewers of these works is extended in Chapter Three’s examination of autobiographical AIDS video and its resistance to confessional narrative. Through detailed, delicate readings of Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman’s Silverlake Life: The View from Here (USA 1993) and Greg Bordowitz’s Fast Trip, Long Drop (USA 1993), Hallas identifies textual strategies that innovate to resist the privatisation of lived experience in the public sphere; that is, the way in which subjective acts of bearing witness are turned into Oprah Winfrey-style sound bites of commodified confessional discourse and used in affirmation of sentimental and kitsch notions of transcendental human consciousness. What impressed me most about the analysis here is Hallas’ capacity to detect and elaborate these textual strategies (autobiographical doubling; auto-ethnography; experiments with self-objectification), while maintaining a profound sensitivity to the ethical and emotional affects with which these works are laden.

Affect is central to the structures of feeling communicated and performed by the musical numbers of John Greyson’s two AIDS musicals, which become the focus of Chapter Four. This chapter, “Queer Anachronism and the Testimonial Space of Song”, is animated by the question of whether song offers a “discrete and privileged mode of enunciation for bearing witness” (p. 152). Greyson’s films are of particular interest to scholars of alternative, activist, queer and arthouse cinema because of their remarkably self-reflexive playfulness, dense layers of historical and cinematic intertextuality, generic multiplicity and paratactics, “erotic impudicity” and “deeply political engagement with representation” (p. 153). The screen adaptation of his Fig Trees video installation only recently premiered in Australia[2] , so I appreciated Hallas’ detailed account of its original gallery presentation, though the analysis of this work’s deployment of queer anachronism as a strategy of interruption to the universalising dynamics of witnessing was, I felt, not quite fully or convincingly evident. What seemed instead to be the most compelling aspect of the Greyson analysis was the contrasts and continuities between these two films – the AIDS musical about Gaetan Dugas (or “Patient Zero”) and the AIDS opera about Zackie Achmat, radical South African AIDS activist – that spoke of the dialogue between two different moments in the history of AIDS (crisis/post-crisis), different locations (the US/South Africa) and different mythic figures of the pandemic.

Affect becomes even more central to Chapter Five which turns to gay cinephilia in experimental film as a key dynamic through which AIDS-inflected structures of feeling around loss come to be articulated (an earlier version of this chapter was published in Camera Obscura in 2003[3] ). Hallas extends the by-now well-established theoretical context for gay cinephillia as a cultural practice implicated in identity and community formation, queer reading practices and bearing witness, and which involves the active dis/identification with, appropriation of, and, of course, re-framing of images from the vocabularies of popular culture. The films under investigation here – experimental works by Matthias Müller and Jim Hubbarb – are works constructed from the archive of industrially produced film. For me, this was the most stirring chapter of Reframing Bodies. Hallas draws on Judith Mayne’s work on spectatorship and gay identity (1993) and Brett Farmer’s work on the intersections of identity, desire and fantasy in spectatorship (2000) (among others) to make a powerful and credible claim for the affective address of these examples of AIDS experimentia. This is the first of two investigations into what happens when, as he puts it, ‘the visual inscriptions of the enunciating witness to AIDS is displaced or resisted altogether’ (p. 33); the Müller and Hubbarb films bear witness through an “oblique aesthetic vocabulary” (p. 33) of small gestures, visual fragments and the general debris of the archive of popular culture.

The second case of the disappearance of the body of the witness is Derek Jarman’s seventy-six minute monochrome blue screen autobiographical film Blue, the book’s final case study, and what Patrizio Lombardo has called “the most bodyless film ever produced” (p. 218). Hallas’ claim for the embodied spectatorship engendered by Jarman’s film – a process he calls “corporeal implication” – positions Blue as a kind of paramount exemplar of queer AIDS media because of its utter repudiation of optic visuality, and therefore, of the realist, rational knowledges of the disciplinary and pathologising gaze of AIDS spectacle. For Hallas, Blue’s antispectacular, “radical visual ascesis” (p. 218) becomes the most radical reframing of the relationship between the witness and the spectator: “the body of the witness that has disappeared from the screen returns through the corporeal experience of the spectator”; “the relations between visual and aural perception… implicate the body of [the] spectator in the act of bearing witness to AIDS” (p. 219). The haptic visuality, synesthesia and aural presence of Jarman’s film produces radical new possibilities “for shaping the intersubjective encounter at the heart of the act of bearing witness” (p. 234). Forever mindful of the politics at the heart of these works, Hallas reminds us that Jarman’s total disavowal of the cinematic apparatus is not just an act of artful trickery, a fucking-about with our expectation of figuration, but a deeply political statement:

The profound significance of such corporeal implication cannot be underestimated during a pandemic in which people living with HIV and AIDS have consistently been subject to the spatial techniques of abjection, including pathology, stigmatisation, social isolation, quarantine, and even incarceration. (p. 230)

By calling his archive of moving images “queer AIDS media”, Hallas acknowledges the self-conscious twinning of art, activism and critique that marks these works and their equally self-conscious suspicion of realist forms. They are, he explains, “documentary, experimental and narrative films and videos by and/or about gay men that, in the face of the ‘crisis of representation’ engendered by AIDS, produced transformative means to bear witness to the historical trauma of the epidemic” (p. 9). And although he does a solicitous and richly nuanced job of situating these works in the ever-shifting cultural dynamics of their production and reception, Reframing Bodies does much more than provide a descriptive and historicist re-appraisal of these video/film texts (although in this enterprise it is both detailed and insightful). Beyond the particularity of Hallas’ interest in AIDS, homosexuality and representation, Reframing Bodies will also be essential reading for scholars and students of both memory/trauma studies and film/media studies more generally. The former will be interested in its (re)framing of questions of historical trauma and bearing witness via the endlessly generative lens of this archive of alternative media; the latter may not yet be familiar with this archive’s persistent “reframing strategies of defamiliarization, interruption, displacement and anachronism” (p. 22). Indeed, when you reach the end of Hallas’ study and consider the sheer volume and range of these disruptive formal techniques – each performing its own complex, mediated acts of bearing witness to AIDS – it is hard not to regard queer AIDS media as one of the key interrogatory, formally radical, politicised art movements of our time. Hallas does not make this claim explicitly, but Reframing Bodies itself can’t help but testify to it. It is thus that the book itself performs an act of witnessing: its intellectual re-framing of this archive of visual works – a small sample of the collection of over 600 tapes held in the New York Public Library (the home of the world’s largest collection of AIDS activist videos) – provides an ongoing critical testimony to their cultural labour in a context where their circulation is increasingly rare, and where the video format in which many of them were produced has become obsolete. An irony of this process is, as he says, that “these urgently produced works of cultural activism created in and for the collective space of a social movement [have] now become archival objects subject to the individualized scrutiny of my scholarly viewing” (p. 2). Isaac Julien says of Derek Jarman’s oeuvre that it is “a fascinating archive that we can put to use to examine our present” (p. 238). This applies equally to the works that Hallas re-frames in Reframing Bodies. In our new digital media ecology, video-streamed virtual archives can facilitate the ongoing distribution of queer AIDS media that aren’t officially distributed through the traditional channels – one hopes that for the archive of videos stored in the New York Library, this will increasingly become the case.

Dion Kagan,
Melbourne University, Australia.


Farmer, Brett. Spectacular Passions: Cinema, Fantasy, Gay Male Spectatorships. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000
Gaines, Jane M. “Political Mimesis.” In Collecting Visible Evidence, ed. Gaines and Michael Renov. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999: 84-102.
Mayne, Judith. Cinema and Spectatorship. London: Routledge, 1993.


[1] Much of this material has appeared in the journal GLQ. See for example: “AIDS Cluster: Twenty-five Years, 1981-2006” (12:2, 2006: 279-328), with pieces by David Román (“Remembering AIDS: A Reconsideration of the Film Longtime Companion”), Lucas Hilderbrand (“Retroactivism”) and Alexandra Juhasz (“Video Remains: Nostalgia, Technology, and Queer Archive Activism”); and more recently “Moving Pictures: AIDS on Film and Video” (16:3, 2010), featuring articles by Paul Sendziuk (“Philadelphia or Death”), Roger Hallas (“Queer AIDS Media and the Question of the Archive”), Jim Hubbard (“Confrontation and Urgency: Differing Strategies of Filmmakers and Video Makers Confronting AIDS”) and Debra Levine (“Demonstrations of Care: The ACT UP Oral Histories on Video”. See also Anne Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, (Duke University Press, 2003).
[2]  Melbourne Queer Film Festival, 17-28 March 2010.
[3] Roger Hallas, ‘AIDS and Gay Cinephilia’, Camera Obscura 52, 18:1 (2003): 85-127.

Created on: Monday, 23 August 2010

About the Author

Dion Kagan

About the Author

Dion Kagan

Dion Kagan works on film, sexuality and popular culture. He recently completed a PhD entitled ‘Positive Images: Gay Men and HIV/AIDS in the Culture of ‘post-crisis’ (c.1996-)’. He lectures and tutors in the screen and cultural studies program at Melbourne University and is currently teaching Contemporary Issues in Sex and Sexuality at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS), La Trobe University.View all posts by Dion Kagan →