UCSC Part 1: Picturing AIDS

Act-Up Boy video still by Rudy Lemcke

In 2007, I was invited to exhibit a survey of 10 years of my art about AIDS at the LGBT Community Center in S.F. It was called Picturing AIDS. As part of the exhibition I made a new video piece called Where the Buffalo Roam.

The video juxtaposes a Native American myth about the disappearance of the buffalo with video footage that I took in 1992 of an Act-Up demonstration.

Where the Buffalo Roam video projected on LGBT Community Center in San Francisco

When I was putting the show together, sorting through 10 years of art, I realized that my relationship to the work had shifted. Some of the work that I was passionately involved in was now becoming historical information. Things like personal memories, associations, social and political geographies were beginning to drop out or flatten. I wanted to explore this temporal and emotional shift somehow in the new piece. Working on this video was the moment when I really started to think about History with a capital H and how our personal histories with a small h fit into this picture. And how our stories, either by inclusion or exclusion construct this picture.

The video was projected on the face of the Center on the opening night. It was both an introduction to the exhibition and a postscript to my work about AIDS.

Second Floor

Third Floor

Fourth Floor

This is one of the documents represented in the exhibition. Titled Immemorial, it was a performance installation that I was invited to create at the DeYoung Museum in 1992.


The philosopher Lyotard wrote, “What really preoccupies us, whether historians or non-historians, is this ‘past’ which is not over, which doesn’t haunt the present in the sense that it is lacking, missing.

It neither occupies the present as a solid reality nor haunts the present in the sense that it might indicate itself even as an absence, a specter.

This ‘past’ … not an object of memory in the sense of something that may have been forgotten … is still there.”

As soon as the performance was completed the piece was, ironically, cordoned off from the public. The institution had immediately objectified this participatory intervention and made it an object to view and distance oneself from.

Fin Again(s) Wake book art project

In one of the interior spaces of the Center I exhibited a series of drawing called Fin Again(s) Wake.

The words in the drawings were borrowed from James Joyce’s novel. They were positioned to construct a series of mesostic poems using the names of AIDS drugs as a central axis.

To construct a mesostic poem you write a word vertically on the page and then construct the lines of the poem horizontally using a letter of the vertically written word in each horizontal line.

This poem is titled Foscarnet. It uses this AIDS drug as the vertical word and is the basis of the poem. The vertically written word is both the sub-text, the buried text of the poem, and at the same time the meta-text, the unifying theme of the poem that stands outside of the inscription. The cure is inscribed in the disease and vice versa. As identity is inscribed in language.

This piece is called Pentamidine, a drug used to treat a type of HIV related pneumonia.

Pentamidine Drawing from Fin Again(s) Wake Series

The idea for the piece came from a project by John Cage called “The First Meeting of the Eric Satie Society,” where random poems of Joyce’s text were generated using a computer program modeled after the Chinese fortune telling book, the “I Ching.”

This piece is called Morphine

I believe that this series most clearly reflects my move from a previous generation of queer artists like Cage, Rauchenberg and Johns and fully embraces the autobiographical, personal and political implications of my Pictures.

These queer artists were part of a movement in art and a philosophy that was questioning the foundation of representation. How can we know anything? What is the basis of truth? Is it linked to a fixed and knowable objective reality? These artists experimented with the idea that reality was a play of signification, of naming. They questioned and distanced themselves from overt autobiography, and the politics of identity.

Learning from them and others and building on this, queer artists like myself embraced the idea of the personal and political in a new light.

Buffalo Vitrine image used by Rudy Lemcke in Where the Buffalo Roam video

When putting the show together and thinking about how I was going to communicate these ideas in an exhibition I kept asking myself: What happens when events in our lives become objects of history, become the past for a younger generation, become mythologized, romanticized, even made cinematic.

What is lost? What remains?

I was looking at these shifting fields of reference, these messages that lose and gain meaning over time. When does the me drop out and become the him? When does “the we” drop out and become they?

How was my work the same — and different than this?

buffalo hides image used in Where the Buffalo Roam video
How was my video the same — different than this old cowboy movie?

still from High Noon used by Rudy Lemcke in Where the Buffalo Roam Video
I’m going to play the introduction to the video and part 4.

The music for the video is John Cage’s Perilous Night for Prepared Piano. I knew how loaded this piece was emotionally and historically and thought that it would be perfect to build on.

John Cage's Perilous Night Score annotated for Where the Buffalo Roam Video

The score was written in 1957, the year that Cage and his wife were separating and Cage was beginning his relationship with Merce Cunningham. One critic described the piece as being about “the loneliness and terror that comes to one when love becomes unhappy.”

The critic fails to mention that Cage was leaving heterosexuality.

Cage invented a technique for “Preparing the Piano.” He went into the grand piano and altered the strings with things like nuts, bolts and pieces of rubber. He altered the harmonics of the instrument to amplify its more percussive qualities—and more or less re-invented the piano for his music.

John Cage's Perilous Night Score annotated by Rudy Lemcke
15 years later, in 1982 Jasper Johns painted his Perilous Night.

Jasper John's Perilous Night Painting

It is a dense painting full of coded references to the passage of time, transition, loss, and grief.

Cage’s score for his Perilous Night is embedded in the upper right hand corner of the painting. 1957 (the year the Cage piece was written) was also the year that Johns’ father died and was clearly inserted (as far as I am concerned) as identification with his friend’s emotional state. But Johns always shied away from any personal readings like this.

The work of these artists and their conversation (whether or not either artist would accept interpretation on an autobiographical level) is a major part of the history of Queer American Art. It is this foundational work that I chose as the underlying structure of my video about AIDS.

I used the score as the internal structure of the video–embedded it in the video. These are my editing notes.

John Cage's Perilous Night Score annotated

I need to insert a big footnote here:

This is one of my early performance scores.

I started using this idea of drawing performance scores and using them as the basis of installation work in the late 70s. It was in direct response to being exposed to Cage’s work.

Another performance score…

Death Songs performance score

This is a detail of a large score for breathing written in chalk on the floor of a gallery. The inner circle inhales, the middle circle exhales and the outer circle holds. This is 1977.

Image of chalk performance score at Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans late 70s

A detail of another score from 1978.

Peformance score by Rudy Lemcke 1978

The installation of this performance score as sculpture on the rooftop of the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans.

Roof top installation by Rudy Lemcke 1978 CAC New Orleans

This performance/installation was in the basement of the Contemporary Arts Center and blocked off from public access. It could only be viewed on a closed circuit TV monitor in an upstairs gallery. It is also from 1978.

This is Fantastic Garden, Southern Exposure Gallery 1981. My first show in San Francisco.

Fantastic Garden installation 1982 by Rudy Lemcke SoEx San Francscio

And Private Garden, Southern Exposure Gallery 1982

Private Garden installation 1983 by Rudy Lemcke SoEx San Francscio

So Back to Perilous Night.

Perilous Night by John Cage annotated by Rudy Lemcke

This is a page from the fourth section of the piece with my editing notes.

I wanted to show you in that big footnote that my work of foregrounding the placement of the viewer within a system of reference and located in a particular space and time has always been a part of my work.

This is a Screen Shot of the video timeline in After Effects.

after effects score used by Rudy Lemcke

I wanted to show with this slide how my early experimental work with performance notation relates to my recent work and how it evolved into my approach to digital media and video.

This is a screen shot of the first editing pass where I only used colored screens as placeholders for images. I was focusing on the syntactic translation of the time-code first and building the picture from there.

Watch part of the video again with the idea of what is going on beneath the surface.


Still images from Where The Buffalo Roam Pt.4

still images from Where the Buffalo Roam video by Rudy Lemcke

I don’t have time to show the entire video tonight but I hope that you can see from the 2 clips that I played how these questions of memory; time and history are set up.

Where the Buffalo Roam video projection

The site work and spatial translation that I investigated in my early performance scores and installations now includes a more complex relation to the idea of place and history that includes the digital world. Although the exhibition was very specifically created for the space and time at the Center, it is also unrestricted by this because of its a co-presence on the web that would exist beyond the physical exhibition.

IntroductionPart 1 | Part 2 | Part 3