Curatorial Practice

A Different Kind of Intimacy: Radical Performance at the Walker, 1990-1995

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Installation image from A Different Kind of Intimacy, featuring the costume and select props from Ron Vawter’s 1992 solo performance, Roy Cohn/Jack Smith.

By the fall of 1995, over half a million people had been diagnosed with AIDS in the United States, a diagnosis, which, at that time, was most often a death sentence. While HIV/AIDS deeply affected certain marganilized communities within the US, particularly gay men, it was also part of a larger socio-political landscape in which minoritarian perspectives, acts of protest, and aesthetic rejoiners were castigated and litigated as obscene or profane. Work by visual artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano and performance-based artists Tim Miller, Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and, later, Ron Athey, which addressed queer intimacy and politics, AIDS, and radical feminism, and featured nudity and scatological humor, proved too much for the neoconservative movement then blossoming.

 

The country was locked in a seemingly intractable cultural war, the material consequences of which ranged in severity from public outrage against “obscene” artists, to increasing and ever-more visible homophobia, to the finality of an HIV diagnosis. A Different Kind of Intimacy: Radical Performance at the Walker, 1990-1995, a research exhibit presented in the Walker’s Best Buy Aperture, takes up this moment, contextualizing the performance-based artists programed at the Walker Art Center through the nation’s broader sociopolitical climate.

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The title of the show, borrowed from a collection of Karen Finley’s writings published in 2000, gestures at the aesthetic and political stakes of live performance. Such performances proclaimed the embodied importance of being in communal and collective co-presence. The intimacy of liveness was, for artists of this era, a means of asserting the potency of community, made up of fellow artists, collaborators, allies, curators, and audience members in the face of HIV/AIDS and the culture wars. To be in embodied co-presence was never only about the particular definitional valence of “performance”; rather, it asserted the political imperative of proclaiming one’s life—one’s liveness—as valid in the face of political inaction, homophobia, and national vitriol.

 

A Different Kind of Intimacy displayed archival and collection materials from the time period to narrate a story of performance, activism, and memorialization. The exhibit included three presentations, one of which highlighted festivals the Walker hosted, demonstrating the art center’s commitment to radical and queer performers. The programs and festivals presented include Cultural Infidels, Dyke Night, and Out There, and include work by artists like Finley, Guillermo Goméz-Peña, Patrick Scully, Keith Hennessey, and Ishmael Houston-Jones. The other two cases offered a deeper investigation into two different artists’ works: Ron Vawter’s Roy Cohn/Jack Smith (1992), commissioned and presented by the Walker, and Ron Athey’s 1994 evening-length performance curated by the Walker and presented at Patrick’s Cabaret, a queer performance and community venue founded by Patrick Scully.

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