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Davy Knittle, "The Climate of AIDS: Gentrification, Urgency, and Loss at the End of Nature"

On October 13th, 1996 an estimated 300 protestors gathered at the White House to throw the ashes of AIDS victims onto the White House lawn. The action was inspired by queer artist and writer David Wojnarowicz’s essay collection, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, in which Wojnarowicz outlines acts of resistance to protest the U.S. government’s neglect of people with AIDS. Close to the Knives was published in May 1991. By July 1992, Wojnarowicz had died of AIDS. As he grappled with his own impending death and the deaths of friends and lovers, Wojnarowicz looked to early conversations about climate change, and to the rampant gentrification of his neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to teach himself how to conceptualize the ongoing emergency of the AIDS pandemic. Wojnarowicz’s engagement with climate change and gentrification supplements what Douglas Crimp, Dagmawi Woubshet and others argue of early AIDS mourners, who developed what Woubshet describes as a body of mourning with “unique formal and extraformal dimensions” that have “significant implications for the way we theorize loss.”

In this paper, I consider the entanglement of AIDS, gentrification, and climate change in the grieving of early AIDS mourners, and the model they offer to the conceptualization of loss in the context of ongoing climate crisis. I use the nearly carbon-neutral symposium format to show images of early AIDS protests, as well as Wojnarowicz’s artwork, and to consider how queer coalition politics can help map approaches to remote solidarity. Thinking with Wojnarowicz, I contribute to a genealogy of urgency that describes how queer organizing has developed coalitions across dispossessed groups as a response to emergency conditions. I trace how Wojnarowicz witnesses loss and imagines collectivity out of diffusion on scales from the ends of individual lives to the reconfiguration of a recognizable planetary future.

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