November 16, 2016
by Alex Fialho
In February 2016, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released its first ever projective study of lifetime risk for contracting HIV among specific populations, including a deeply troubling estimate: the study predicted that one in two black men who have sex with men in the United States will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. 1 in 2.
While overall HIV transmission rates have generally declined across the nation and new preventative treatments have come into relatively widespread use, these developments and measures have had a limited effect on communities of color, specifically African-American men. Decades into our fight against the HIV epidemic, institutionalized racism, stigma, and multiple other contributing factors still allow for an alarmingly disproportionate prevalence of HIV transmission within the black community. The CDC’s medical analysis is of course set against the social backdrop of intense police surveillance, incarceration, and brutality against black bodies, including the double digit murders of black men at the hands of white police officers in recent memory.
Given this context, the commitment of Danspace Project’s Platform 2016: Lost and Found to centering diversity—particularly black masculinity—throughout its programming has felt responsive and significant. The presence of Ishmael Houston-Jones and Will Rawls, an intergenerational pair of black men, as the thoughtful co-curators of the Platform has been one of the most heartening aspects of Lost and Found. Extending out from Rawls and Houston-Jones, Lost and Found has involved an impressive and varied group of black male performers and perspectives, including Bill T. Jones, Archie Burnett, Raja Feather Kelly, Darrell Jones, Jack Waters, Sur Rodney (Sur), Timothy DuWhite, Terence Taylor, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, Hilton Als, Thomas Lax, Jawanza James Williams, Kenyon Farrow, DonChristian Jones, Derek Jackson, and more. Lost and Found has also remembered the legacy of important black male artists including Willi Ninja, Assotto Saint, Donald Woods, and Alvin Ailey, among others. The result has been a Platform that has centered those closely impacted by the ongoing epidemic, through a nuanced and attentive consideration of the intersections of race and HIV/AIDS. 
Many moments during Lost and Found come to mind when thinking of the powerful place given to black men throughout: Bill T. Jones, looking to his left and right to see himself flanked onstage at St. Mark’s Church by Ishmael Houston-Jones and Will Rawls, emphatically stating, “I am not lonely anymore. And I got your back.” Thomas Lax citing Hilton Als’ review of the movie Moonlight while speaking to the importance of black and brown men coming together—their closeness—in his generous introduction of Als at MoMA. Archie Burnett, smiling and stylish in his remembrance of close friend Willi Ninja, declaring that Ninja’s legacy lives on every time someone from the House of Ninja learns Willi’s legendary moves. Jack Waters donning an “HIV POSITIVE” shirt as an outspoken declaration of his HIV serostatus during his and Peter Cramer’s zine presentation at Arts on Site. Timothy DuWhite vulnerably narrating his process of “piecing together my gender” while changing from tight pants into a billowing dress in front of the audience for the event “All Black/An Invitation.” Raja Feather Kelly belting the national anthem in drag inspired by Andy Warhol’s alter ego Drella and Ethyl Eichelberger, as an “honest reaction to an imaginary situation.” Darrell Jones recounting his experience of being moved when he decoded another black man’s complex self-presentation when the man he noticed was dressed in a hoodie, camouflage pants, and Manolo Blahnik high heels. These last three examples in particular point to the ways in which black masculinity itself has been pushed and pulled throughout the Platform; at once made visible in the form of black male bodies on stage, yet stretched through queer performative gestures.
In this vein, while introducing his vision for the Platform at Conversation Without Walls: One of Two, co-curator Will Rawls spoke of Lost and Found as a black radical attempt, grounded in feminism, to decolonize both memory and the present. Rawls’ sentiment was echoed by co-curator Ishmael Houston-Jones when Houston-Jones was prompted to consider HIV/AIDS and the black community, then and now, during his Modern Mondays event at MoMA. Houston-Jones spoke to the Platform as a corrective, highlighting both the longstanding conflation of AIDS with white gay men historically as well as the more recent whitewashing of HIV and its impact on arts communities in exhibitions such as Art AIDS America, in which only five of the over one hundred artists included in the first iteration of the exhibition were black. Considering Lost and Found as a rejoinder to that exhibition and representational stereotypes around HIV/AIDS more broadly, the Platform has dramatically shifted the face of AIDS, at the very least in relationship to cultural programming around art and HIV in New York City. Indeed, with one in two black MSM (men who have sex with men) predicted to contract HIV in their lifetime, at this moment of Black Lives Matter and ongoing police brutality, as we enter the era of a Trump presidency, it feels as if the stakes around representation and race couldn’t be higher; bravo to Danspace for choreographing such a diverse and dynamic cast throughout their Platform as response.
* I dedicate this and all of my responses as writer-in-residence for Danspace’s Platform 2016: Lost and Found to the late Buzz Bense, who passed away on November 19, 2016; coincidentally, the final day of Platform 2016: Lost and Found. Buzz was an ardent activist, seasoned performer and sex-positive force in San Francisco throughout the ongoing AIDS crisis. He has been the single most influential gay mentor in my life, and working closely with Buzz to co-curate the exhibition “SAFE SEX BANG: The Buzz Bense Collection of Safe Sex Posters” with Dorian Katz at the Center for Sex & Culture in 2013 was where I found my voice in relationship to writing about HIV/AIDS. If it weren’t for Buzz, I don’t think that any of my Danspace responses as writer-in-residence, or my work at Visual AIDS for that matter, would have happened. I am deeply grateful for his presence and impact on my life, and I miss him dearly already. [Alex Fialho]
 It’s important to mention that black women and gender non-conforming artists have also played an influential role in the Platform, most notably in programs curated by Pamela Sneed and Eva Yaa Asantewaa.
The title of this piece refers to Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, the groundbreaking 1994 exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art curated by Thelma Golden. You can view the original exhibition pamphlet distributed by The Whitney here. [JSC]
As part of our online Journal, Danspace Project has invited artists, curators, scholars, historians and others in our community to contribute entries as Writers in Residence and guest Respondents. Each contributor has been offered an open invitation to respond to work presented by Danspace Project; writings gathered here do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Danspace Project, its artists, staff, or Board of Directors.