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Performing Through Crisis: Patrick Scully on Art and AIDS in the 1980s

By Patrick Scully as told to Paul Schmelzer

In 1980, I turned 27, poised to dive into a brave new world. With apprehension and excitement, I left the collective house and dance collective that had been the centers of my life. I was ready to explore what being gay meant to me as an artist. I thought I faced a vast new world of possibilities. Little did I know how much all that was about to change.

A tone of possibility had been set during the Carter administration. Minneapolis Mayor Donald Fraser brought Melisande Charles to the Twin Cities, hiring her to direct the Minneapolis Arts Commission. The Arts Commission successfully applied for federal CETA [Comprehensive Employment Training Act] money. Many arts organizations across town got $10,000 grants, which in those days went a long way. In Contactworks, a dance company I was part of, three people lived off of it for a year. It was an expanding world. That sense of possibility was part of what led me to start Patrick’s Cabaret.

I realized there were lots of places where I could get my work onstage here, but I was tired of having to jump through someone else’s hoops. What if I just created my own stage? I think there was a lot of that in the air at the time, a lot of willingness for people to just take the reins into their own hands.

Patrick’s Cabaret was based on the model that I had known since 1972, of the Choreographers’ Evening series at the Walker. I only changed one thing: “Why have just dance?” I thought, “Let it be anything. Let it be a shared evening and keep it a real strong mix.” From the beginning, it included anybody who had anything that might be presented in a performance. My community at that time was made up of poets and writers, musicians, and other dancers.

From Thriving to Surviving

When the 1980s began, there was all this energy going toward this burgeoning arts community and this sense that art is what we really care about, at least in our subculture. But then when the AIDS epidemic hit, it turned things 180 degrees. We had started the ’80s asking, “How can we really thrive?” Abruptly, it was a question of “Are we going to survive?”

Some of my artist friends from that time are still around. Venus from All the Pretty Horses was around and working at that time. Venus was part of Rifle Sport gallery, which had been down on the corner when I lived near 7th and Hennepin Avenue. Laurie van Wieren was one of the other choreographers involved at Patrick’s Cabaret from the very beginning. Barrie Borich was writing and reading creative nonfiction. And then some are gone: people like David Lindahl, who was also part of Patrick’s Cabaret from the start and who died of AIDS in 1995.

I remember the Reagan administration. I thought he was simply inept when he came into office. I hadn’t anticipated sinisterness. It took so many years for him to even say the word AIDS. In the local arts community, we had a big movement called “Arts Over AIDS” that was a kind of community-wide response to the crisis. We got some money from the St. Paul Foundation. Catherine Jordan and Bob Tracy were involved in helping to coordinate and pull together funding for artistic responses to the AIDS epidemic. Arts Over AIDS’s amazing vision and far-sightedness supported many out-of-the-box artistic responses. As part of an HIV-prevention strategy, they gave me a $10,000 commission to create performance artwork related to being HIV positive.

I was doing both education and performance related to HIV/AIDS. More than once I was invited by the Minnesota Department of Health to work with HIV educators, and so I’d bring my collection of safe sex posters and lay them out on the floor. I’d give everybody a penny and a quarter and ask them to walk around and put the quarter on the poster they liked the most and the penny on the one they liked the least. And then I’d give a performance/deconstruction lecture and have everybody reflect on the general aversion to the sexual images that they saw and why there weren’t many quarters on the pictures that were most sexual. I’d ask, “What does this mean if you can’t openly embrace sexuality and you’re supposed to be dealing with HIV prevention?”

In 1983, I created a piece called Warsaw. That was clearly before we really knew anything about AIDS. It was inspired by seeing documentary footage of Warsaw at the end of World War II. As the Nazis retreated, in Hitler’s revenge, he gave orders for Warsaw to be flattened. That so disturbed me that I created this piece. It was a dance for men, most who were not trained as dancers. As I look back on that piece now, I think that it was a premonition of the AIDS epidemic because the dance looked just like what was about to happen: people falling down and other people lifting them up and helping them, and then somebody else falling down.

When I look back thematically over what was happening in the ’80s and the work that I created then, there are recurring themes moving through it all that were powerful and that I was not always consciously thinking about. Sometimes I was just responding to the times and what was happening. By the end of the decade, with my performance Queer Thinking, the themes were unmistakably clear, and I was consciously working with them.

When I really think about the ’80s (which takes me into the early ’90s), I remember it as a time when so many of my friends died—somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 50 people. I was so unprepared, so young, to deal with that magnitude of death. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve even had the ability to start to process the grief from that era. And so, when I think back to what I remember feeling if I think about that era, images come to mind of 1914 and 1939 in Europe. I sense the vague beginning of some kind of cataclysm about to take place. My friends, gay men, were disappearing.

At this time, it wasn’t unusual that I would get a phone call asking me if I was going to Larry’s memorial service and I didn’t even know that he was sick. We all have friends and acquaintances that we haven’t talked to in, say, the past eight months, but you don’t expect to tomorrow be going to their memorial service. And so, there was that fear for our lives that was collectively motivating us to get our ass in gear and do something, whether it was take care of a friend who was sick or go to a protest or whatever.

The Underbelly of the City

In the early ’80s, I lived downtown on what’s now Block E. I lived in a building next door to Shinder’s on 7th Street. I moved there in ’81 and stayed until ’83 in a third floor loft space—totally illegal, but it was a great space to live in. The other major artist activity on the block was Rifle Sport, on the 6th Street corner, toward the end of the decade. Dan Polsfuss, Roy McBride, and I got a grant through the Choreographer’s Alliance to create a project that ended up being called Shinder’s to Shinder’s. We made a 16mm color film, shot on location, using all local artists. It basically was a portrait of the block—not trying to be realistic, but trying to capture the spirit of the neighborhood.

We shot it in the summer of ’82; then in September of ’82, we got permission to use the building kitty-corner from Shinder’s on 7th for projection. We put up a huge scrim over the billboard above Shinder’s and borrowed a projector from the Walker. For three nights in a row, we turned the billboard into a movie screen to show the movie. We had big speaker boxes out on the street. It stopped traffic. That wasn’t supposed to happen, but people were so into it, they just stopped their cars and watched the movie.

There were three major collaborators in the project. I was the choreographer, Dan was the filmmaker, and Roy was the poet and music director. It really captured the gritty essence of Minneapolis’ little strip of Times Square, the honky-tonk that the city worked so hard to get rid of.

Fast forward to the end of the decade: I was no longer living on the block, but heard that they were going to demolish it. I again got permission from the owner of the building kitty-corner from Shinder’s to use his space. I built a time-lapse machine for my Super-8 camera so that it could record the demolition of the block. I wasn’t sure what I was ever going to do with that footage, but then John Killacky [performing arts curator] at the Walker was creating late-night showcases at the Southern Theater as part of the Out There series. I created a piece called Too Soon Lost for it.

In the piece, I talk about each of the buildings on the block and share a personal memory. I projected the film behind me and played Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” in the background, because it was the saddest piece of music I could find. (It was so sad when I first played the film, seeing everything get demolished, that I actually ended up playing the film in reverse, showing the block rise from the rubble.) During the piece, after I finish talking about each building, I talk about somebody I know who’s died in the AIDS epidemic. I go from building to person to building to person and work my way down the block. As I do it, I set up Edina Realty “for sale” signs. Then I lay some flowers at the base of each sign. As the piece evolves, the signs end up feeling like tombstones.

I presented Too Soon Lost at the Southern, and Channel 2 produced a version of it for the Artists Over AIDS series in the early ’90s. They asked me if I’d be willing to redo that piece and they would shoot it for television.

The AIDS Tsunami

The first reports about some weird gay cancer come out in the New York Times. It hits the gay newspapers right away. Everybody was freaked about it. Nobody really even knew at that time how it was transmitted, so what do we do to protect ourselves?

Early on, we weren’t so naive as to think that it was only going to hit in New York and San Francisco. I had moved to Washington, DC, in the summer of ’83, then to dance with Remy Charlip in New York in ’84; by early 1985, I was back in the Twin Cities. As I look on it now, I realize coming back here from New York felt like trying to get far enough away from the shore so that I didn’t get swallowed up by the tsunami. It felt like: OK, it’s going to hit Minneapolis, and Minneapolis is going to get wet, but it’s not going to hit here like it did there.

Since Stonewall, we had been working so hard for gay liberation just to establish our right to be sexual. And then it felt like, “Damn! Is everything that we’ve worked for to be able to be sexual beings, going to be taken away from us by this epidemic?”

In 1985, I found out that I was HIV positive. The first couple years of knowing that I was positive, I was pretty careful about whom I shared that information with. By about ’88, I started to become more public about it. Then, actually, when Too Soon Lost came out on Channel 2, I told them that they could only broadcast it if in the interview they did with me I got to talk about being HIV positive.

I thought, I’m just going to tell everybody to watch this show and then I won’t have to be there with them as they’re processing their grief, a lot of which is about their fears and their own mortality. It isn’t about me at all.

It created an opportunity for me to come out about being HIV positive and not have to be there and help everybody process their fears around it. I feel fortunate to be sitting here in 2012 and still be able to talk about it.

Patrick Scully is a Minneapolis-based performance artist and founder of Patrick’s Cabaret, of which he was artistic director until 2001. He is co-curator of the 40th anniversary edition of Choreographers’ Evening on November 24, 2012.

In conjunction with the exhibition This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, Twin Cities–based artists and writers share their reflections on the decade. Weekly contributors include:

ContactWorks, circa 1980

Terri Kruzan, Wendy Oliver, Jay Smiley, Whitney Ray, Patrick Scully

Poster advertising Survival Symptoms by David Lindahl and Patrick Scully, 1987

St. Stephen’s School, the first home of Patrick’s Cabaret

Photo: Patrick Scully

Patrick Scully, Queer Thinking, 1992

Patrick Scully and Chris Aiken dancing in Patrick’s Cabaret’s 24th Street location

Aerial view of Hennepin Avenue in 1980, with Block E at right

Photo: Design Quarterly, Walker Art Center, 1982

Dancing Upstairs, a performance with Patrick Scully, Wendy Oliver, Wendy Morris, and Terri Kruzan on the roof of Block E, 1983

Patrick Scully, Too Soon Lost, 1990

Keith Hennessy, Patrick Scully, and Ishmael Houston Jones in Unsafe Unsuited, 1995

Photo: Dona Ann McAdams