Over the month of July Ryan Conrad (RC) from AAHP’s research team conducted an interview with Concordia MA student Mark Andrew Hamilton (MAH) about his work doing public history focused on the activism and aesthetics of ACT UP Montreal. In this short interview you’ll learn more about the work he’s been doing over the last three years researching, curating, exhibiting, and putting memory into action. The exhibition Mark co-curated with René Leboeuf entitled ‘The Aesthetic Activism of ACT UP Montréal: a history in photos and posters’ is on view at the Archives gaies du Quebec through August 13, 2023
RC: You’ve been working on historicizing ACT UP MTL through various projects over the last few years. Can you briefly describe these three projects?
MAH: I guess there’s actually four in total, and the primary driver behind it all has been an MA thesis at Concordia University in the history department that blends elements of oral history interviews with surviving members coupled with an aesthetic analysis of the group’s protest ephemera—posters, photographs, T-shirts, stickers, leaflets, etc.
But alongside that, there’s also been three additional projects which have been incredibly fulfilling to be a part of. The first was a vogue ball I co-produced with Elle Barbara, Mother of the House of Barbara in a park in Montréal’s gay village that at the time of the HIV/AIDS crisis and before was commonly used for cruising. All of the categories were drawn from elements of my research, including asking walkers to dress as 1989 AIDS Conference protestors—who infamously stormed past security and took the stage before the opening of the conference. More than one carried a sign reading “MULRONEY, YOU’VE GOT BLOOD ON YOUR HANDS.” We also managed to get the ball listed as part of the official Global Village events of the 2022 International AIDS Conference, although they initially refused to let us have the ball in the Palais des congrès de Montréal itself so it required a venue move outdoors. While it would have been amazing to host a ball referencing 1989 in the very same space as those original events, the outdoor space was actually an incredible location for it, and packed to the fences. We also paid tribute to some of the queens and houses who were active in Montréal in the early 1990s and Jacques Besner and Kiet Ha, both members of the House of Pride, made an incredibly moving speech paying tribute to the friends they’d lost since then.
Secondly, the day afterwards, the Parc de l’Espoir was re-dedicated by some luminaries from the Conference. Simone Beaudry-Pilotte of the Archives gaies du Québec and I made a short film about the Parc, which was seized by ACT UP Montréal in 1991 and still stands today, including a monument designed by Marc Pageau and an information plaque about ACT UP MTL. I also worked with designer Asad Pervaiz on 10 new ACT UP MTL flyer designs as a sort of final follow-up or sequel to the materials created in 1990-1993, paying direct design tribute to their earlier work. The organizers of the Parc’s re-dedication printed 10,000 copies, which we distributed throughout the Village as well as at the AIDS Conference. Finally, during the lead-up on the night of the re-dedication, Michael Hendricks and René LeBoeuf each took a stack and handed them out to the passer-by traffic on rue Sainte-Catherine in the village. I took a great photograph of Michael thrusting a flyer at the camera, using his “activist face.” René mentioned that they’d been handing out flyers together for 50 years! Some members of ACT UP Paris were also in attendance, and watching them interacting was quite a moment too. The Parc de l’Espoir remains such an important gathering place for Montréal’s LGBTQ+ communities, and it was a thrill to have ACT UP Montréal momentarily active again in a way, if only momentarily.
Finally, this June I also co-curated a show with René LeBoeuf of photos, posters, stamps, T-shirts, stickers and flyers at the Archives gaies du Québec entitled ‘The Aesthetic Activism of ACT UP Montréal: a history in photos and posters’ which runs until August 13, 2023. As ACT UP MTL’s official photographer, René took some incredible pictures that are truly moving and quite indelible. The show also features posters by Marc Pageau, Richard DeMusca and Pierre-Marc Pelletier, a T-shirt designed by graffiti artist Zilon, a massive banner by Luc Desaulniers, some drawings by illustrator Pierre Durand and some other items. This past week the exhibition was also named as part of the National Trust for Canada’s Historic Days which runs from July 8-23, 2023. To be honest, there’s already been considerably more visitors than I was expecting—and our very first visitors were alumni of ACT UP Austin who were visiting Montréal and saw an article about the show, which felt like a perfect kick-off to the show. Also, I’d been searching for Luc Desaulniers, a primary founder of ACT UP MTL, for a number of months without any luck locating a way to contact him. The day before the vernissage, he walked right in through the front door and just yesterday we had a first interview. Talking with these original members has been one of the best parts of the exhibition experience—receiving both their positive and constructive comments.
It probably goes without saying that I’m somewhat behind on the actual thesis itself, but these diversions were all very worth it.
RC: Your work over the last few years is such a rich and interdisciplinary engagement with late twentieth century Canadian history. Can you tell me more about what motivates you to do public history work in general, and these various modes in particular?
MAH: I’ll preface this response with an admission that it’s probably going to come off as a bit rambling, but in other interviews related to the exhibition I came to the realization that this kind of work is somehow rooted in some sense of searching for a connection with queer elders or of the generation of men who came before me who I didn’t have the opportunity to know because of the HIV/AIDS crisis. I’m 44 years old, so at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis—at least in the media that was accessible to me in Calgary, Alberta—I was 12-14 years old, and my sexual awakening as a queer man was particularly impacted by those things. I thought gay sex was an automatic death sentence. I still remember seeing advertisements on MuchMusic or performances by groups like TLC or Madonna where HIV was often a talking point. I was mostly an alternative music kid, quite into bands like Smashing Pumpkins and R.E.M. in particular around that time, and I was also a pretty emphatic reader of music magazines. For some reason my junior high and high schools both held collections of Rolling Stone and SPIN magazine that went back a number of years, and I remember some discourse about Michael Stipe’s health status around the time of Automatic for the People, which I was obsessed with, and the Pumpkins’ putting a song called ‘Glynis’ on a Red Hot + Blue compilation called No Alternative that was about a friend of theirs who’d died. I also scoured these magazines for anything remotely gay, and SPIN in particular had the regular column “Words From the Front” which was a monthly update on the latest developments in the crisis, with quite a lot of space given to activist groups including ACT UP. I remember quite vividly reading about political funerals and the dumping of ashes on the White House lawns, and even SILENCE=DEATH had made itself known. I was in my tweens and I knew who ACT UP NY were. I knew what AZT was. I spent a lot of misguided time wishing I wasn’t gay, and that kept me in a self-imposed and self-enforced denial for some time. My first sexual experiences were also around the age of 13, but after the person who I was experimenting with moved away, I was too scared to try anything again for almost a decade.
So, to perhaps get awkwardly back to your question, I know now that the research I’m doing in particular through the Archives gaies du Québec is a method to bridge the gap. A lot of people were lost, but there’s still so many who are around, and this experience has been invaluable to me in engaging with folks like Michael Hendricks, René LeBoeuf, Marc Pageau, Luc Desaulniers, Blane Charles, Pierre Durand and even others like Peter Staley. There’s a bridge built now that is helping to make up the difference, really. Indeed, I truly regret that the only way I’ll have any sort of acquaintance with folks like Douglas Buckley Couvrette or David Shannon is through their archival materials, but it also helps with a form of knowledge transfer that’s extremely rare between the generations.
I know a part of that answer sounds like it’s all about me, but I’ve also been so inspired and reinvigorated by this research that I knew quite early on that this history deserved public-facing commemoration and celebration above and beyond an academic thesis that would be read by who knows how few people in the end. I don’t want this work to go unknown. More than a scholarly article or magazine profile, it makes sense to take inspiration from the theatrics and performance-based elements ACT UP Montréal utilized in their protests and bring it back onto the streets in a way. An exhibition where the concrete pillars of the Archives’ offices are covered from floor to ceiling in flyer reproductions, or a vogue ball in which the walkers are asked to learn about and refer to some of this history—of which they did some research and came back with specific references, which was truly amazing—seem like a much more suitable way of commemorating what they achieved together. I know in books like Avram Finkelstein’s After Silence, there’s some negative sentiment towards what happens when you frame up some of this stuff and put it on a gallery wall. I don’t entirely agree with that—although I do think a working archive like the Archives gaies du Québec is a better location for this kind of exhibition than a stuffy modern art gallery, even if it does still also have a place in those environments—but I do agree that it’s at its most alive when it’s out in the world and moving and engaging with the public. So, these projects seem to me to be the most explicit way to properly give props where props are due.
Plus, Blane Charles (formerly Mosley) alongside Luc Desaulniers were the originators of the World Ball for Unity series here in Montréal, and really worked hard to bring the NYC ballroom culture to Montréal, so also continuing that tradition made complete sense.
RC: You and I are similar ages and share similar social locations, so it is unsurprising that we share similar sentiments regarding how and why we’ve engaged with these histories. One of the criticisms myself and others have faced when re-engaging HIV/AIDS activist histories/culture of the recent past, particularly the queer aspect of HIV/AIDS histories, is that such work is merely nostalgic and ignores the present of HIV/AIDS. I find such nostalgia framings woefully shortsighted and presumptuous as to the purpose of, or potential uses of, history—as if it’s a luxury and not a roadmap to understanding our present. I’m curious if you’ve faced similar criticism or if the AIDS nostalgia critique has been something you’ve considered while doing the public history work you’ve done over the past few years?
MAH: Well, one of the first people who I told I was considering doing this work is an amazing activist and artist who I look up to a great deal, and who told me that it wasn’t my story and perhaps given my past as an indie musician I should consider writing a thesis on Canadian indie rock instead. After sharing some of my research, however, that person did change their opinion which has honestly meant quite a lot. But there were other scholars like Anthea Black at the California College of the Arts who co-publishes The HIV Howler who not only nudged me to go for it, but propped up my application with extremely helpful edits and suggestions of materials like John Greyson’s film The World is Sick [sic] that I wasn’t previously aware of. We also had a talk about taking on this kind of work as someone not living with HIV and the risk of nostalgic readings of these events, so from the outset I wanted to tread very carefully. It’s actually my work co-organizing vogue balls in Montréal that I think has proved quite helpful in how best to approach entering this arena, because I’m fully conscious that in that particular world of ballroom I’m an invited guest. And that invitation needs to be continually reviewed and renewed, and it’s also something that’s not not really for broadcast—for example, for the AIDS Ball discussed earlier, I had my name taken off of the poster because the ballroom space is a traditionally QTBIPOC space and my role is quite behind the scenes when I’m in those spaces. I won’t deny that doing interview-type pieces like this also cause me a little bit of pause, but up to this point I’ve only accepted interviews alongside René LeBoeuf because they’re his photographs, or in another case with Pierre Pilotte, the director of the Archives gaies du Québec because to me spotlighting the location of these photographs and other items can also create a pull for other researchers to dive into queer archives and see what else turns up. Within the context of the show, I’ve also worked alongside René as co-curator for the express reason of making sure the story he would want to be told is present on those walls.
Responding to your question on nostalgia, however, I think that’s a very layered area to traverse. There is a huge amount of nostalgia in this show and my thesis, for example, because a huge driving part of it is looking at the aesthetics of the ephemera that remains and what that can tell us about not only the ACT UP MTL experience, but also the development and shift of activist art and the role of design in activist movements. In terms of any particular direct accusations or comments like that, however, I haven’t received any. I think it’s undeniable that ACT UP New York in particular and ACT UP in general is having a moment, thanks to Sarah Schulman, How to Survive a Plague, Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings and other high-profile documents or commentary. I try to acknowledge that such nostalgic responses—in particular something like How to Survive a Plague, which seems to suggest a small group of white men against great adversity pulled it off and everything ends with a standing ovation and survival at the end—require much more nuance than just plopping swelling music over the credits. And I’ve also spent some time with Ian Bradley-Perrin’s Your Nostalgia is Killing Me and the discussion that erupted after its creation. But I personally tend to see things a little bit differently. I think that an exhibition such as the one presently on show is extremely valuable to a younger viewer because it documents a battle that now, at least in the North American and European context, looks quite different but is no less important. Rather than nostalgia, I hope it inspires and reminds that it is possible to rise up and take a stand as part of a large, sprawling network of people demanding change. I hope it can serve as a reminder that keeps the realities of HIV/AIDS in sharper focus. Whether or not the scope of the project can achieve that for everyone is another question, because yes, it is quite focused on an ancillary chapter of ACT UP in the years 1990-1993 and that is a very specific thing tied to a very specific location to be looking at—it would be impossible to avoid some nostalgic sentiment. But, in one of my interviews with Michael Hendricks, he commented that after Schulman and the films and series, we’re now getting to the point of telling ancillary stories such as this one, but that so many of those triumphs and tragedies and experiences were so different, vital and necessary to know to gain a full insight into not only ACT UP as a whole, but the ripples that remain from the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. In an earlier interview transcription, Michael and René also told me their reason for keeping hold of all of these materials—and there is a *lot* of it, and only enough room in the show to expose the tip of the iceberg—was not for nostalgic purposes but so that it could be used again by the next generation of activists, all ready to go. That strikes a particular chord with me and it adds a different dimension of power to seeing their banners and placards up on those walls in 2023.
When everything was hung on the walls I walked through with René. He pointed at every single photo and said once, twice, three, four times: “il est mort, il est mort, il est mort…” Clearly beyond an analytical look at the elements of design and the activist creativity on show, I’d find any accusations of a nostalgic treatment to go right out the window with that in mind.
I may have wandered a bit, but this question is also making me think of a series of SILENCE=MORT posters I saw up in Montréal over the past few months, repurposed to address the climate crisis. I think that in itself could be at least one small sliver of proof that these exercises of looking back are being taken on as worthwhile inspiration by a whole new generation of activists.
RC: Can you speak a little more about your MA thesis and the directions it is taking that are different from these other engagements as a public historian?
Just a couple of days ago, Luc Desaulniers—one of ACT UP MTL’s primary driving forces from the very first meeting—sent me the sad news that Pierre-Marc Pelletier, the designer of several of the graphic objects on show in the exhibition, had passed away following a stroke. I’d tried several ways of reaching out to him in the past couple of years without a response, and his passing is a definite wake up call as to the urgency of doing this work.
In direct response to your question, however, it probably comes as no surprise that I’m extending my enrollment at Concordia University for an additional semester to get it all done. I think I do my best personal learning through taking on these sorts of outside, somewhat more expressive routes of transmitting histories, but they do take an awful lot of time to present to a standard that I’m comfortable with.
An aspect that I’m tripping on a little bit at the moment is witnessing how powerful this exhibition has been for viewers, including a number of friends who’ve experienced visceral emotional responses to it. These artifacts speak so strongly on their own, that the act of composing footnoted commentary in line with history department requirements has only become somewhat more difficult the longer I work on the actual thesis writing. Maybe I’ll be somewhat better suited to answer this question a year from now!
They were instrumental in helping the research I’m presently doing even make it out of the starting gate. Indeed, there are several things here that aren’t even in the Archives’ holdings. As a primary focus of my work is indeed focused on aesthetics, the AAHP has also proven an incredible, easy-to-access resource for quick looks at other ACT UP subsidiary chapters to see how their protest ephemera compares—ACT UP Vancouver, for example, is a story that needs to be told and researched if it hasn’t been up to this point. The AAHP and the Archives gaies du Québec are both priceless resources, and I’m eternally grateful to those who have set both of those sites up.
Post-script: since the ehibition’s opening, graphic designer Pierre-Marc Pelletier and graffiti artist Zilon—both represented in the show with sticker, poster, and t-shirt works—have sadly passed away. Unfortunately, both were unresponsive to requests for interviews in the past two years.