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From the Archives: We Interrupt this Program

By Samantha Rose Kohl

Oct 26, 2016

“To turn our private grief at the loss of friends, family, lovers and strangers into something public would serve as another powerful dismantling tool. It would dispel the notion that this virus has a sexual orientation or the notion that the government and medical community has done very much to ease the spread or advancement of this disease.” - David Wojnarowicz in October, 1989

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Still from We Interrupt this Program (1991), directed by Charles Atlas and produced by Robin Schanzenbach, Mary Ellen Strom and Barbara Tsumagari in conjunction with The Kitchen and Visual AIDS. Pictured: Lucy Sexton of DANCENOISE.

By 1991, New York was rocked by AIDS. Many artists recall that it seemed one either knew-someone or knew-someone-who-knew-someone who had died of the epidemic. Lucy Sexton of DANCENOISE recalled, “Looking back, it was like the darkest of days with no dawn in sight. 1991 is a really critical year because the numbers all of a sudden skyrocketed—100,000 people had died from AIDS, and a third of them had died in 1991 alone… There was no relief in sight, we didn’t even have the hopes yet of combined therapies and drug therapies, which started having some success in slowing things down.” New York’s art community in particular was reeling, having lost many beloved figures—such as Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Alvin Ailey—to the disease. And while the art world was certainly hurting, the downtown community was just a microcosm of larger society impacted by AIDS.

Ready to take action against the stigmatized yet pervasive epidemic, artists, curators, theorists, and art institutions formed Visual AIDS in 1988. The group, still active today, utilizes art as a means to raise awareness about the disease and contribute to its cure. They planned exhibitions, demonstrations, and projects that sought to educate the public, destigmatize HIV/AIDS, memorialize the dead, and increase government support for those living with AIDS.

Among these programs was “Day Without Art,” a day of mourning and action that coincided with National AIDS Day, which began on December 1, 1989 and has since been held annually. Broadway theaters turned off their marquee lights and New York’s entire skyline went dark for fifteen minutes in a moment of silence and mourning. Beyond Manhattan, local televisions stations around the country aired a black screen for “A Moment Without Television” and a number of art magazines featured the AIDS timeline designed by Group Material.

For its contribution to “Day Without Art” in 1991, The Kitchen facilitated a live television broadcast titled We Interrupt this Program . Directed by Charles Atlas, the hour-long program featured intermittent artistic and educational programming regarding the disease and its impact. The show was filmed on-site at The Kitchen and transmitted to millions of viewers nationwide.

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Still from We Interrupt this Program (1991), directed by Charles Atlas and Produced by Robin Schanzenbach, Mary Ellen Strom and Barbara Tsumagari in conjunction with The Kitchen and Visual AIDS. Pictured: Lavender Light.

The program intended to dismantle misperceptions about the disease and make AIDS education accessible to all through presentations of AIDS research, HIV testing, transmission prevention, existing care opportunities, and statistics related to AIDS and its demographics. Atlas tackled these issues through live performance, found footage (such as commercials and news tapes relating to the illness), and educational programming, all of which incorporated a diversity of social narratives, cultural perspectives, and artistic forms.

When deciding which artists to include in the program, The Kitchen and Visual AIDS consciously selected performers who had demonstrated a commitment to AIDS awareness. We Interrupt this Program also sought to feature voices that had often been marginalized within many discussions of AIDS, in particular people of color and women. Participants included artists Bill T. Jones, Estella Jones, John Kelly, Karen Finley, Robbie McCauley, DANCENOISE (Anne Iobst and Lucy Sexton), Richard Elovich, and Lavender Light (a gay and lesbian gospel choir). The show—a mélange of avant-garde performance, kitschy news or commercial footage, and valuable education—included such works as Richard Elovich and Gregg Bordowitz’s Clean Needles Save Lives, documentary footage of ACT UP’s needle exchange program, and Lavendar Light’s beautiful choral works. Atlas went on to direct We Interrupt this Program for "Day without Art" again in 1992, a project which fell under the auspices of Creative Time. In 1993, the program was sponsored again under the direction of Mary Ellen Strom.

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Still from We Interrupt this Program (1991), directed by Charles Atlas and Produced by Robin Schanzenbach, Mary Ellen Strom and Barbara Tsumagari in conjunction with The Kitchen and Visual AIDS. Pictured: Karen Finley.

As a pioneer in experimental video and performance art, The Kitchen had the history and resources in order to best facilitate this live broadcast and make the show accessible. The Kitchen had previously facilitated works that incorporated satellite broadcasting, perhaps most notably Nam June Paik’s Good Morning Mr. Orwell (1984) among others. Furthermore, The Kitchen also went on to include We Interrupt this Program in its international video distribution program, ensuring that Atlas’s production continued to educate beyond December 1, 1991 and further helping to distribute information about AIDS.

For We Interrupt this Program, The Kitchen partnered with the Deep Dish TV network, which ensured that millions of Americans nation wide could watch the program from their homes, and called upon local PBS stations to air the show. In addition to private viewership of the program, We Interrupt this Program was also aired in public venues thanks to a network of downlink sites around the country that held screenings followed by educational programming specific to their own communities. Sites included the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Electronic Cafe, both in Los Angeles; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Mobius, Boston; the Southwest Area Media Project, the Museum of Fine Arts, Diverse Works and Access Houston, both in Houston; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia; On the Boards, Seattle; the Contemporary Arts Center and the New Orleans Video Access Center, both in New Orleans; the Wexner Center, Columbus; and HALLWALLS, CEPA, Buffalo.

In a time rife with art and activism borne out of the AIDS crisis, Atlas’ program fit into the growing compendium of art made as an effort to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS and the isolation of those living with HIV and AIDS. The Kitchen in particular was a venue that supported works that considered AIDS, even as homophobia was rampant and the promotion of such works risked public defunding. Notably, Senator Jesse Helms proposed an amendment to the 1988 fiscal appropriations bill to the Department of Labor, Health and Human Services that prohibited public funds from providing AIDS education, information, or prevention materials. Although highly criticized, the legislation passed, 98-2 in the Senate and 388-47 in the House, and is indicative of the conservative backlash during the AIDS crisis. As Senator Helms and other members of the religious right continued to promote conservative values throughout the late '80s and early '90s and took particular aim at artworks whose content they found inappropriate—The Kitchen continued to support works that considered AIDS, including Ben Neill and David Wojnarowicz’s In the Shadow of Forward Motion (1989), Ishmael Houston Jones and Dennis Cooper’s The Undead (1991), Karen Finley’s Memento Mori (1992), Diamanda Galas’s Excerpts from the Plague Mass (1991), and Neil Greenberg’s Not-About-AIDS-Dance (1994) among others.

This fall AIDS is being considered through a variety of curatorial initiatives in New York City. Art AIDS America—a touring exhibition examining the impact of AIDS upon American life—was recently at the Bronx Museum while  A Deeper Dive was exhibited at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art that further investigates the artwork and impact of eight artist featured in Art AIDS America. For this year’s installment of its signature Platform series, Danspace Project will present “Platform 2016: Lost and Found,” curated by Ishmael Houston-Jones and Will Rawls and named in homage to a series of dances performed at Danspace in 1981 by John Bernd, who was one of the first choreographers to include themes of homosexuality and AIDS in his performances. Charles Atlas was part of “Lost and Found” and did a screening of Son of Sam and Delilah (1991), Atlas’s vision of a New York in the wake of disease. The film, which was produced in association with The Kitchen, features many of the faces behind We Interrupt this Program, including Lucy Sexton and Anne Iobst of DANCENOISE and John Kelly. AIDS activism continues to be an ongoing and urgent process. 


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Still from We Interrupt this Program (1991), directed by Charles Atlas and Produced by Robin Schanzenbach, Mary Ellen Strom and Barbara Tsumagari in conjunction with The Kitchen and Visual AIDS. Pictured: Documentary news footage.

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