LET’S NOT BE AFRAID OF EACH OTHER

JULY 7, 2020 | IN DISPATCHES | BY UMI HSU and THEODORE (ted) KERR

LET’S NOT BE AFRAID OF EACH OTHER

JULY 7, 2020 | IN DISPATCHES | BY UMI HSU and THEODORE (ted) KERR

On January 17, 2020, METANOIA: Transformation through AIDS Archives and Activism opened at ONE GALLERY in West Hollywood in Los Angeles County. The exhibition is an archival examination of community-based responses to the ongoing AIDS crisis in the United States curated from holdings in the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives (ONE Archives) at the USC Libraries, as well as, The Center Archive in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Center in New York City.

Curated by members of What Would an HIV Doula Do? (WWHIVDD?), at the invitation of ONE Archives Foundation (a nonprofit community partner to the ONE Archives at USC Libraries), Metanoia primarily centers on the contributions and experiences of Black cis and trans women and cis and trans women of color who have always been at the forefront of the movement, but often found at the margins of AIDS archives, art exhibition, and histories. Metanoia was first exhibited at the Center in New York City in 2019 before a three-month run in Los Angeles where the exhibition (with the original closing date of April 5, 2020) came to an abrupt end. As of the writing of this text Metanoia is still up, but not on view. 

In late February 2020, the news of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) started to circulate and it became clear that life was about to change. Since then, there have been over 525,470 deaths worldwide due to COVID-19, with over a quarter occurring in the United States. On March 12, 2020, ONE Archives Foundation, following city rules, closed the gallery to the public and awaited approval to re-open. Before the doors closed, the WWHIVDD? curators (Katherine Cheairs, Alexandra Juhasz, Theodore (ted) Kerr and Jawanza Williams) and ONE Archives Foundation were working to create an exhibition-related zine to debut at the LA Art Book Fair. After the LA Art Book Fair was cancelled, Umi Hsu, Director of Content Strategy at ONE Archives Foundation, suggested the curators still create a zine, but make it about COVID-19. The curatorial team agreed. 

Within days, amid social distancing protocols, emails went out to members of What Would an HIV Doula Do? inviting them to submit words and images that respond to a prompt that had been brewing in the recent days: What Does a COVID-19 Doula Do? The responses that came back illustrated a community already engaging with the COVID-19 crisis, with people who were committed to justice and care, drawing upon their skills as people involved within the ongoing HIV response. What emerged was a stand alone project that captured the urgency of the moment, while reflecting the larger themes of Metanoia. The exhibition’s title is of Greek origin and expresses the possibility of change through transformation. As Metanoia demonstrates, HIV/AIDS is a powerful agent of change and transformation that happens through community, activism, words, sex, care, and the materials that document these human efforts. The What Does a Covid-19 Doula Do? zine does much of the same work, updated for the times in which we live. 

In the following conversation, Umi Hsu and Theodore (ted) Kerr share their thoughts about the zine within the larger context of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and resurgence of powerful Black Lives Matter activism sweeping the world. The frame for this discussion is four questions that Kerr crafted early in quarantine as prompts to urge people and groups to archive history as it is happening.

On January 17, 2020, METANOIA: Transformation through AIDS Archives and Activism opened at ONE GALLERY in West Hollywood in Los Angeles County. The exhibition is an archival examination of community-based responses to the ongoing AIDS crisis in the United States curated from holdings in the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives (ONE Archives) at the USC Libraries, as well as, The Center Archive in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Center in New York City.

Curated by members of What Would an HIV Doula Do? (WWHIVDD?), at the invitation of ONE Archives Foundation (a nonprofit community partner to the ONE Archives at USC Libraries), Metanoia primarily centers on the contributions and experiences of Black cis and trans women and cis and trans women of color who have always been at the forefront of the movement, but often found at the margins of AIDS archives, art exhibition, and histories. Metanoia was first exhibited at the Center in New York City in 2019 before a three-month run in Los Angeles where the exhibition (with the original closing date of April 5, 2020) came to an abrupt end. As of the writing of this text Metanoia is still up, but not on view. 

In late February 2020, the news of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) started to circulate and it became clear that life was about to change. Since then, there have been over 525,470 deaths worldwide due to COVID-19, with over a quarter occurring in the United States. On March 12, 2020, ONE Archives Foundation, following city rules, closed the gallery to the public and awaited approval to re-open. Before the doors closed, the WWHIVDD? curators (Katherine Cheairs, Alexandra Juhasz, Theodore (ted) Kerr and Jawanza Williams) and ONE Archives Foundation were working to create an exhibition-related zine to debut at the LA Art Book Fair. After the LA Art Book Fair was cancelled, Umi Hsu, Director of Content Strategy at ONE Archives Foundation, suggested the curators still create a zine, but make it about COVID-19. The curatorial team agreed. 

Within days, amid social distancing protocols, emails went out to members of What Would an HIV Doula Do? inviting them to submit words and images that respond to a prompt that had been brewing in the recent days: What Does a COVID-19 Doula Do? The responses that came back illustrated a community already engaging with the COVID-19 crisis, with people who were committed to justice and care, drawing upon their skills as people involved within the ongoing HIV response. What emerged was a stand alone project that captured the urgency of the moment, while reflecting the larger themes of Metanoia. The exhibition’s title is of Greek origin and expresses the possibility of change through transformation. As Metanoia demonstrates, HIV/AIDS is a powerful agent of change and transformation that happens through community, activism, words, sex, care, and the materials that document these human efforts. The What Does a Covid-19 Doula Do? zine does much of the same work, updated for the times in which we live. 

In the following conversation, Umi Hsu and Theodore (ted) Kerr share their thoughts about the zine within the larger context of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and resurgence of powerful Black Lives Matter activism sweeping the world. The frame for this discussion is four questions that Kerr crafted early in quarantine as prompts to urge people and groups to archive history as it is happening.

1. WHAT DID YOU DO?

TED: I am writing this on June 8, 2020, in an empty house belonging to my friends in Crown Heights where I am house sitting for the month, a big change from the Flatbush apartment I share with 2 roommates. I am drinking coffee in the backyard and the chirping of morning birds are a kind of silence from the sounds of police helicopters and sirens that have been tracking the powerful Black Lives Matter protests over the last 11 days. I share this all with you because my life right now is radically different than 3 months ago when news of COVID-19 began to hit, and we began to discuss the idea of making a zine. 

UMI: Thank you for sharing, ted. I am writing this on June 22, 2020, in my house, where we set up ad hoc workspaces since the Safer At Home orders from the Governor of California. Sounds permeate in this space. Between Zoom conversations from my partner’s desk and my own, I hear birds chirping, sprinkled with explosive sounds from fireworks of unidentifiable sources. It’s unclear whether the fireworks are set off by residents eager for the Fourth of July celebration, or a distractive tactic from the police. Occasionally, I hear LAPD helicopters hovering overhead to threaten the unhoused folks who have reclaimed public domain properties a couple of blocks away. In this soundscape of protests for Black Lives and housing rights, and the police suppressions of the uprising, I can no longer differentiate between celebration and contestation. Can you believe it was only three months since we started about the zine?

TED: It is hard to believe, and that’s why these questions are important to me. They provide an opportunity to parse out what has transpired in a short amount of time. And in that parsing, we can gain some insight into ourselves and the world around us. 

It is also nice to remember the order of things. For example, before we started talking about the COVID-19 zine, I had started working with a new friend and brilliant artist / organizer Ripley Soprano to create something to combat the growing fear people were having of each other in the face of COVID-19 and all the questions we had about how it was transmitted. We started using social media to popularize this phrase we were using between us: LET’S NOT BE AFRAID OF EACH OTHER. The “Let’s” does a lot of the phrase’s heavy lifting. We wanted to project something proactive, collective, and positive. 

Our common friend Virgil B/G Taylor made a graphic of the phrase for us. He paired our phrase with an image from the film SAFE (Todd Haynes, 1995). We used this graphic to promote a Zoom online gathering (originally slated for an in-person event) where folks could share their thoughts, feelings, and plans about the pandemic. Over 1000 people liked the image between Ripley’s social media posts and mine, which is a lot. And over 50 people came to that first Zoom gathering where we broke people up into break out groups so folks could be more intimate with each other. 

All of this was in motion, when you emailed with the zine idea, and everything fell into place. I emailed a lot of the Doula community and asked them to respond to the question, “What Does a Covid-19 Doula?,” phrasing it in that specific tense because I knew so many of us were already taking action. Virgil ended up designing the zine, and so many people – including all the curators of the exhibition, plus 30 other people, ended up contributing. I came on as editor, and one of the instinctual choices made in the process was to include work from the Metanoia exhibition, to create a line of activism across time, issue, and people. 

UMI: The moment we had to close the gallery doors, I realized that this was going to be a new era. Art and culture were going to look and feel different. The removal of physical experiences in our life would affect how relationships are forged. I remember leaning into the transformative spirit of Metanoia, both in the word and in the exhibition. I was trying to figure out how we at the ONE Archives Foundation and the ONE Gallery could transform not only the experience of the show, but also the experience of the pandemic. My mind began searching for a form of transformative agency that could create the conditions for community formation during this time of social distancing. 

Zine as short-form publishing has been a tool for cultural and community organizing since the pre-Internet era. An explosive community power is born out of the rapid creation of an object, a container of parts contributed by individuals who may or may not have been connected previously. Through contributing to a collective thing, individuals could be organized into a community. The idea of the zine was already on the table because of our previous commitment to exhibit at Printed Matter’s Los Angeles Art Book Fair. The form and function of zine seemed to make perfect sense, given our interest and necessity to contribute to our current historic moment.

Beyond the making and releasing of the zine, we organized a series of conversations that unwound over social media and synchronous events on Zoom. We hosted four virtual gatherings, each with a focus on a subset of inquiries that emerged from the zine – archiving a pandemic, decolonizing care and insurgent knowledge, how HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 compare, meditative grounding and spreading calm. The making and distribution of the zine was itself a creation of a micro community, a movement of change toward establishing collective care and reflections early during the COVID-19 crisis in the US.

UMI: Thank you for sharing, ted. I am writing this on June 22, 2020, in my house, where we set up ad hoc workspaces since the Safer At Home orders from the Governor of California. Sounds permeate in this space. Between Zoom conversations from my partner’s desk and my own, I hear birds chirping, sprinkled with explosive sounds from fireworks of unidentifiable sources. It’s unclear whether the fireworks are set off by residents eager for the Fourth of July celebration, or a distractive tactic from the police. Occasionally, I hear LAPD helicopters hovering overhead to threaten the unhoused folks who have reclaimed public domain properties a couple of blocks away. In this soundscape of protests for Black Lives and housing rights, and the police suppressions of the uprising, I can no longer differentiate between celebration and contestation. Can you believe it was only three months since we started about the zine?

TED: It is hard to believe, and that’s why these questions are important to me. They provide an opportunity to parse out what has transpired in a short amount of time. And in that parsing, we can gain some insight into ourselves and the world around us. 

It is also nice to remember the order of things. For example, before we started talking about the COVID-19 zine, I had started working with a new friend and brilliant artist / organizer Ripley Soprano to create something to combat the growing fear people were having of each other in the face of COVID-19 and all the questions we had about how it was transmitted. We started using social media to popularize this phrase we were using between us: LET’S NOT BE AFRAID OF EACH OTHER. The “Let’s” does a lot of the phrase’s heavy lifting. We wanted to project something proactive, collective, and positive. 

Our common friend Virgil B/G Taylor made a graphic of the phrase for us. He paired our phrase with an image from the film SAFE (Todd Haynes, 1995). We used this graphic to promote a Zoom online gathering (originally slated for an in-person event) where folks could share their thoughts, feelings, and plans about the pandemic. Over 1000 people liked the image between Ripley’s social media posts and mine, which is a lot. And over 50 people came to that first Zoom gathering where we broke people up into break out groups so folks could be more intimate with each other. 

All of this was in motion, when you emailed with the zine idea, and everything fell into place. I emailed a lot of the Doula community and asked them to respond to the question, “What Does a Covid-19 Doula?,” phrasing it in that specific tense because I knew so many of us were already taking action. Virgil ended up designing the zine, and so many people – including all the curators of the exhibition, plus 30 other people, ended up contributing. I came on as editor, and one of the instinctual choices made in the process was to include work from the Metanoia exhibition, to create a line of activism across time, issue, and people. 

UMI: The moment we had to close the gallery doors, I realized that this was going to be a new era. Art and culture were going to look and feel different. The removal of physical experiences in our life would affect how relationships are forged. I remember leaning into the transformative spirit of Metanoia, both in the word and in the exhibition. I was trying to figure out how we at the ONE Archives Foundation and the ONE Gallery could transform not only the experience of the show, but also the experience of the pandemic. My mind began searching for a form of transformative agency that could create the conditions for community formation during this time of social distancing. 

Zine as short-form publishing has been a tool for cultural and community organizing since the pre-Internet era. An explosive community power is born out of the rapid creation of an object, a container of parts contributed by individuals who may or may not have been connected previously. Through contributing to a collective thing, individuals could be organized into a community. The idea of the zine was already on the table because of our previous commitment to exhibit at Printed Matter’s Los Angeles Art Book Fair. The form and function of zine seemed to make perfect sense, given our interest and necessity to contribute to our current historic moment.

Beyond the making and releasing of the zine, we organized a series of conversations that unwound over social media and synchronous events on Zoom. We hosted four virtual gatherings, each with a focus on a subset of inquiries that emerged from the zine – archiving a pandemic, decolonizing care and insurgent knowledge, how HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 compare, meditative grounding and spreading calm. The making and distribution of the zine was itself a creation of a micro community, a movement of change toward establishing collective care and reflections early during the COVID-19 crisis in the US.

2. WHY DID YOU DO IT?

UMI: In a pandemic, time is a critical axis. Public health officials measure the spread of the virus in terms of time. Mutual aid efforts strive toward immediate impact. I started asking myself: How can a cultural reflection happen at the speed of epidemiology? What are the benefits of thinking collectively while in the midst of a seismic historic shift? 

As an organization that shares LGBTQ history, we center narratives about the LGBTQ struggles for liberation, against social injustices and oppressions. The HIV/AIDS history has taught us that successful movement work requires constant reflection. Art and culture have played a critical role in forwarding the movement, not just in memorializing it. Human reflections and cultural expressions fuel the momentum of change work, and bolster the spirit of the change makers. 

For the COVID Doula zine project, I wanted to create a critical space for the artists, curators, writers, and historians to dialog about social inequity and historical oppressions related to COVID-19. I also wanted to make available a moment of collective expansiveness to reimagine better possibilities in terms of health outcomes and uplift expressions of human dignity and resilience.

TED: I so appreciate what you say about HIV activism being about constant reflection. Informing my actions at this time was the years of HIV community work I had done where stigma is so pervasive. I knew that once we started being scared of each other, and seeing people as vectors, the virus would be the least of our worries: depression, blame, and inequality would all block any meaningful collective responses to the virus. In the Doula work I have learned that collective and individual trauma can block people and communities from the wisdom, resources, and skills that they could have at their disposal. In order to reduce harm in the face of terror, it is good to hold space for each other and remind each other who you are and who you can be. That was the bulk of what I saw as my task on this earth in the early weeks of the pandemic. The zine was a good way to invite people to reflect on what they were doing, and then share with the world, the different ways they could be.

As the zine was circulating on social media I was as excited when strangers liked the project. From the start I saw the zine not only as a source of information, and a model for others to build upon, but also as an archive in real time. In the first three months of COVID-19 I was really obsessed with people documenting themselves. From AIDS work, I know that we lose so much history and that loss hurts us in the present and the future. It is okay to re-learn some lessons over again, but there is a cost to all this re-learning that is paid by the people who lived through something the first time, and whose tactics and ways of being have been erased. 

These 4 questions that we are responding to are my attempt to normalize archival practice, specifically, normalizing being accountable for the good or even banal things we have done. Right now in our culture we speak a lot about people who do bad things being accountable, but why should it be only them? Why can’t we have a record of the ways we did not cause harm? 

UMI: Speaking of accountability, I believe that arts and cultural institutions should have a role in harm reduction and social justice. Programmatic work is not neutral, neither is archival collection. Preserving and telling history comes from a position and a series of decisions made about how history affects the future. The culpability and accountability of archives and museums’ work is unfolding in current conversations now. I’ve been following the work of Museums & Race. I’m hopeful for an institutional transformation.

Time is also a measure of financial output and capital investment. I wanted to put our investment into the creation of change that we knew was going to have a meaningful historical impact. Not all of what happens in history is monumental. Micro exchanges of emails, Zoom calls, Instagram stories, graphics and tweets as records of our time and behaviors will eventually effect large-scale change. These micro-level human stories have a resonance now and it will later have a further resonance over time. We’re putting a pin in the now for future resonance to reach across.

This is not typical history programming, and archival missions should not be limited to representing history. Can we start to reimagine history programming so that we can engage in the now, and create conditions toward possible change that is informed by history? I feel like this is a good question for all cultural institutions now.

3. WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?

TED: This is easy. I wish I had cast a wider net in who I asked to respond to the prompt. I got too scared to ask people I felt like I didn’t know well enough out of fear that they would feel imposed upon. What I failed to remember in that moment was often in crisis folks just want to feel useful, to actually be given a task that can help out the collective.

UMI: I wish that we had made a print version of the zine. Physicality is comforting. A physical format can invite multiple reads and further reflections. Conversation pieces, when embodied, can be more powerful. Community work is about repetition with familiar concepts within lived experiences. I want more of that. 

I also would have liked an opportunity to include more voices from non-US communities. The experience of the pandemic differs vastly depending on the location of people’s lived experience. A comparative perspective could help render some of what we see as impossible possible within a different set of institutional and social circumstances. We need a range of possibilities because change requires vastness in terms of creativity, difference, and tension.

4. WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN NOW?

UMI: I would like to see a Part Two of the zine that reflects on the pandemic and protests. I sense a productive tension to couple these two overlapping historic events. A rapid reflection can invite multiple perspectives into this moment of double rupture. I imagine that this volume would look and feel pretty different, with a distinct emotional tenor, but equal relevance from history. The information cycle is moving even faster now than it was three months ago. A zine would seem like a long-form expression now and would ask people to slow down and reflect on their current moment. 

TED: When Shelter in Place orders began, and COVID-19 really kicked in for many of us, I never imagined that the thrust of history would respond in its own powerful way. We can have all sorts of complicated feelings about the pandemic, health and protesting, but the resurgence of Black Lives Matter happening on a global scale feels like exactly what needed to happen after the initial phase of COVID-19 pandemic. Suffering and premature death in the US is not just about anti-Black racism within the justice system and healthcare systems. For the health of our fathers, mothers, parents, lovers, and friends, we need white supremacy to end. 

UMI: I agree with you, ted. I see the transformative spirit embodied by the Black Lives Matter movement that’s calling for a change across all systems and institutions inside and out. In the wake of the recent US Supreme Court ruling that expanded Title VII anti-discrimination employment law to include sexual orientation and gender identity protection, a civil rights movement that began in the mid-20th century, we question how long it takes for a change to happen. In this time of progress and upheaval, the fight for Black liberation and racial justice calls for a reckoning with history. COVID-19 is just the beginning of this reckoning. With more than four hundred years of institutional anti-Black racism behind us, we have a lot of work to do. Every march, conversation, email, Zoom meeting, text message, infographic, and social media post counts toward ending this history of violence and oppression.

TED: YES! And I think the work begins with the self and our communities. By exploring what we have done in the past – as individuals and community members – we can discuss intent vs. impact, and work with ourselves and others to be accountable to what we have done right, and what we will do differently going forward. I encourage everyone to use the 4 questions we’ve answered here as a way to both think about what has already happened, while also working towards progress. I would say take time to answer the questions yourself, but also share the questions over social media and invite others to be part of your elevation. Maybe even organize Zoom chats, or social distance talks in the park.

UMI: Let’s keep it rolling. With these 4 questions, we can be on a journey reflecting on past, present, and future. I’d like to imagine that each instance of doing this, we form a micro conversation universe, some overlapping with one another, and others reaching into places we haven’t been. Every bit of wrestling with history counts. What did you do? Why did you do it? What would you do differently? What needs to happen now?

What did you do? Why did you do it? What would you do differently? What needs to happen now?