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The Transformative Nature of David Wojnarowicz's ITSOFOMO

Screenshot from "ITSOFOMO."

David Wojnarowicz's collaboration with the musician Ben Neill. "ITSOFOMO" is arguably the artist's most fully realized work with film -- bringing to the region has been something of a personal mission. Thursday, the Hammer Museum is hosting a screening of "ITSOFOMO: In the Shadow of Forward Motion."

Most people don't know this work. Instead, they know "A Fire in My Belly (A Work in Progress)." A four-minute excerpt of footage archived under this title was exhibited in 2010 at the Smithsonian Museum, as part of "Hide/Seek", an exhibition exploring portraiture in gay and lesbian art history. A fundamentalist Catholic organization complained about an image of a crucifix covered in ants. Smithsonian officials removed it, igniting a storm of protest.

There is an inverse relationship between controversy and understanding. When an artwork becomes an art controversy, you can be sure that the one thing the public won't get is a real conversation about the work's difficulty. Its difficulty will be flattened out be people taking what they feel to be the right position on not the art, but the issue. The conversation becomes about what is right, and not what makes the work challenging, and vulnerable to attack. (This is the subject of my book "Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art.")

When the story of the censorship of "A Fire in My Belly" broke, people at the Fayles Library, which houses Wojnarowicz's papers, and PPOW, which manages his estate, made every version they knew of available. The curators of "Hide/Seek" published a guide to these versions, attempting to correct the strange effect of this censorship on public awareness of Wojnarowicz's work with film and video.

In all of that controversy, I don't recall seeing any meaningful discussion of how we should see "A Fire in My Belly." We learned that it was not finished -- but we never learned why. The "Hide/Seek" guide to versions of the work in fact concludes with the disclaimer, "We do not know why Wojnarowicz never completed 'A Fire in My Belly.'"

David Wojnarowicz
David Wojnarowicz

Just about all of the footage that appears in the various versions of "A Fire in My Belly" appears in "ITSOFOMO." Where "Fire in My Belly" is silent, "ITSOFOMO" is distinguished by a sonic landscape of music, noise and voice. "ITSOFOMO" incorporates a lot of the cinematic material from Wojnarowicz's archive -- including another never-completed film he was making in memory of Peter Hujar. I think "A Fire in My Belly" was never meant to be finished. That at some point, Wojnarowicz wanted his films to be part of something else, something more alive and dynamic than a movie.

In its original incarnation "ITSOFOMO" was a live performance. Wojnarowicz read his work alongside multi-channel projections of his film while Ben Neill performed an original score for his "mutantrumpet," along with live percussion and computer controlled electronics. Their collaboration was a formal, poetic meditation on acceleration. It was a reading of the politics of time inspired Paul Virilio's observations arguments regarding speed, violence, capital and technology in "Pure War."

Wojnarowicz worked on films with other artists -- Richard Kern, most notably. It is actually somewhat atypical that a film of his would be single-authored. "ITSOFOMO" is much more characteristic of his practice in that it is a full-on collaboration with another artist -- a musician. David Wojnarowicz cared a lot about how things sounded. You can hear this in recordings of his readings. They are performances. The power of his writing is focused and amplified by his distinctive voice. His voice is penetrating -- not in the way of a sharp whine, but in the way that water can penetrate a wall by soaking it. His voice is profound and seductive -- it saturates "ITSOFOMO's" viewer.

After Wojnarowicz and Neill toured the performance (they performed "ITSOFOMO" at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1990), Neill worked with his collaborator to fix a record of the event - producing an audio version of the performance. The screening at the Hammer synchronizes that recording to a four-channel projection of the artist's films (consolidated onto a single screen). As far as I know, this synchronization of "ITSOFOMO's" image and sound hasn't been done on the West coast since 1990.

In 2011, I showed a twenty-minute single-channel version of this work to students at UC Riverside. I was a little nervous: there are some glimpses of naked men -- photographs from porn magazines. The things Wojnarowicz describes are difficult. It is confrontational. "ITSOFOMO" is perhaps one of the most intense works of art produced during years that the AIDS crisis cut through the art world. I was asking a lot of my students.

But not one student complained -- not to me, not to the department, or the college. Far from it. Two years later, students still ask me about it. They want to know where they can see it. Something about Wojnarowicz's work translates the hardest parts of yourself into a form you can share, without compromising the difficulty those experiences and feelings. One student wrote "that film we watched in class is probably one of the most powerful things I've ever seen/heard." Another emailed me after she talked about it with her friends and reduced them all to tears. They cried together. She asked me: Could she show it to her family? Another student wrote to me that say that he thought that "art didn't do anything" until he saw "ITSOFOMO."

This is why the controversy about "Fire in My Belly (a Work in Progress)" has always bothered me. "Fire in My Belly" is just a bunch of notes, unfinished thoughts. It is raw material that was actually put to very effective use in other work. Wojnarowicz's impact on people is impossible to measure. His writing turns people out. "ITSOFOMO" drops you into the world of that writing as if it were baptismal water. It is a transformative work. It isn't right that when people think of Wojnarowicz's film, they think of something that really doesn't represent his work in the medium.

"ITSOFOMO" resonated with my students because it binds its audience together in a shared sense of exposure. His work had that capacity then, and it has that capacity now. Weirdly, it feels contemporary each time I see it.

Tonite, I will introduce "ITSOFOMO" with Cynthia Carr, author of "Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz," and Ben Neill. The screening will be followed by an informal reception surfing which Carr, Neill and I will talk with the audience about their experience of the work, and answer any questions that we can.

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