Fluid Exchanges:
Artists & Critics in the Age of AIDS

by James Miller,
496 pages,
ISBN: 0802058922

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True Representations
by Dan Gawthrop

BY THE END of the'80s, people living with AIDS (PWAs) faced a much larger problem than access to drug treatments or safe-sex campaigns. There was, according to the British art critic Simon Watney, a "crisis in representation": a struggle to interpret, define, and prescribe action for the disease, and a systematic silencing of those most affected by it, namely PWAs, their families, friends, and lovers.

In Canada, the controversy exploded at the Fifth International AIDS Conference in Montreal in 1989. It was here that the AIDS community became polarized between the corporate world of medical and legal professions, and "the raggedy world of radical activism" with its ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) advocates.

Fluid Exchanges, a collection of 21 essays on the representation of AIDS that was generated by this conference, has been put together by the University of Western Ontario professor James Miller. The book's title - an ambiguous pun originating from stale clinical definitions of "high-risk" behaviour categories - is also a fitting description of the debates within.

In one "exchange" the London Free Press reporter Dahlia Reich defends her human-interest profile of a gay PWA, John Gordon, from the criticisms of a graduate student who likens Gordon to an AIDS version of "Timmy" - the Easter Seal poster-child who suffered identity problems all his life because of being categorized as a "victim."

Bart Beaty, a film student, dismisses Longtime Companion (1990) as a "reactionary film with progressive pretensions," while the celebrated filmmaker/video artist John Greyson offers a hilarious "fake video script" exploring the gay conflict zone of "dandy" aesthetics versus activist culture.

Most of this well- illustrated book is concerned with visual and artistic media such as photography, painting, film/video, and literature. From Monika Gagnon's comparison of 19th-century medical treatment of female "hysteria" with today's AIDS "patients" to Andy Fabo's rejection, from the perspective of a gay painter, of the masterpiece as an impersonal form, there are many compelling arguments here.

The book may seem limited by the predominantly central Canadian, scholarly bias of most of its 19 contributors. But the spirit of the volume is unmistakably inspired by Watney, whose groundbreaking study Policing Desire (1987) spawned a series of symposia on representation, AIDS, and sexual politics. Watney concludes Fluid Exchanges with a raging indictment of gay "assimilationists" such as the Nation contributor Darrell Yates Rist, who, incredibly, rejected AIDS as a major issue in 1989.

Watney's activist influence is especially evident in James Miller's contributions to the book. All three of the editor's chapters are driven by an inspired rage and uplifting zeal that are genuinely refreshing, given the greyness of so many academic theorists.

Indeed, given that the book's publication coincided with his own "coming out," Miller's bold gay polemic - especially his refutation of Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On (he dismisses the book as a homophobic sell-out of gay PWAs, because of its Dickensian moralizing about sex) - is not only unique in academe. It's also astonishingly un-Canadian in its aggressive, in-your-face tone.

And for gay men everywhere indeed, for anyone who has been marginalized by AIDS - it's about bloody time.


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