Recombinant Wojnarowicz

By Beth Capper

David Wojnarowicz, Fire, 1987. Synthetic polymer paint and pasted paper on plywood, two panels, 6 x 8 feet (182.9 x 243.8 cm). Gift of Agnes Gund and Barbara Jakobson Fund. © 2011 Estate of David Wojnarowicz. Courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The practice of artist David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992) was one of endless recombination, in which he moved images from one work into another, granting them new meanings depending on how and when he recombined them. Lucy Lippard notes as much in "Out of the Safety Zone," an essay she wrote for Art in America in 1990. She describes how the paintings from Wojnarowicz's 1987 Four Elements exhibition at Gracie Mansion featured all the components of his own personal iconography, elements that are "repeated erratically throughout his work, giving birth to new meanings each time they are freshly juxtaposed."[1] This process had the effect of illuminating, in the words of Wojnarowicz's friend James Romberger, "how our relationships with each other and the planet fit within the continually shifting narrative of history."[2] Wojnarowicz's works are themselves shifting narratives that are always being reordered, changing in response to their surroundings and paradigm shifts. As such, rather than plotting iconographic tableaux waiting to be decoded by an astute viewer, Wojnarowicz created open works that aspired to a cosmology outside of history, revealing that meaning is always performative and contingent.

What would Wojnarowicz have made of the political tug-of-war inflamed by the censorship of his Super-8-millimeter film, A Fire in My Belly (1987), a controversy that well illustrates the power of recombined meanings? The work was removed in November 2010 from the exhibition, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery because of an eleven-second scene that depicted a plastic figurine of Jesus on a crucifix, lying in the dirt and covered in ants. The scene was condemned as "hate speech" by Bill Donohue from the Catholic League, and Republican senator John Boehner (now Speaker of the House) threatened to cut the Smithsonian's federal funding.

A Fire in My Belly remains an enigma at the center of a political debate. Public uproar accompanied the removal of Wojnarowicz's work from the National Portrait Gallery, and with good reason. Its initial censorship ostensibly had nothing to do with art and everything to do with both homophobia and the attempts of right-wing groups to incite fear among their constituents about the erosion of "traditional" Christian values by deliberately distorting Wojnarowicz's work. However, journalists rallying against the censorship of A Fire in My Belly have also been guilty of proliferating the spread of disinformation. In the weeks and months that followed the work's removal, impassioned defenses of Wojnarowicz have centered on reading the work as a categorical response to the 1980s AIDS crisis. More recently, in an attempt to set the record straight, some commentators have pointed out that A Fire in My Belly was made before the artist was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1987 (according to Romberger, the imagery for Fire was shot in 1986), before he learned of his friend Peter Hujar's diagnosis, and before he became an active participant in the AIDS-rights movement. His work was also separate from his activism, and none of his work can be understood as strictly activist art. Writing in The New Republic, Jed Perl chastises "liberals" for being "a little too willing to turn works of art into debating points," just as he condemns "the disgusting tactical hijinks of Catholic conservatives and Republican members of Congress."[3] Amidst Perl's bluster, he surely has a point. After all, even though the controversy was never really about the artwork, A Fire in My Belly has endured as an emblem for either side of the debate.

David Wojnarowicz, A Fire In My Belly, 1986–87/2010. Edited by Jonathan D. Katz and Bart Everly. With additional audio added from ACT UP demonstration June 1989 with David Wojnarowicz event. TRT: 00:03:59. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York and The Fales Library and Special Collections/ New York University.

The interpretative confusion surrounding the work is understandable. A Fire in My Belly currently exists in multiple versions, none of which can definitively claim to be the work Wojnarowicz intended to make. Such confusions demonstrate how archives are often sites of fluid meaning and arbitrary classifications. The Fales Library, housing Wojnarowicz's papers and films, has two versions of A Fire in My Belly in its collection: the so-called "original" thirteen-minute (and silent) version of the work, which Wojnarowicz considered a work-in-progress, and a seven-minute reel (also silent) discovered in Wojnarowicz's archives after his death (you can watch both on the P.P.O.W. Vimeo channel.) For the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Hide/Seek curator Jonathan Katz edited together a four-minute "cut," which borrows scenes from both of the versions in the Fales Library and is additionally scored with the audio recording of an ACT UP protest (also discovered in Wojnarowicz's papers after his death). Finally, a fourth version, also four minutes long, and scored with avant-garde songstress Diamanda Galás's "This Is the Law of the Plague" (without Galás's permission) has circulated widely on the Internet since Wojnarowicz's work was removed from the Smithsonian. This version comes from a sequence Wojnarowicz made for Rosa von Praunheim's film, Silence=Death (1989), and illustrates how the artist would reuse and recombine images for entirely apposite effects.

Like a game of Chinese whispers, journalists have parroted seemingly authoritative sources on the work, distorting it a little more with each mention. Many of these originated with the Smithsonian's official statements. In a Q&A published on the Smithsonian website shortly after A Fire in My Belly was removed, the work was described as "a surrealistic video collage filmed in Mexico expressing the suffering, marginalization, and physical decay of those who were afflicted with AIDS."[4] The museum's official press release in response to complaints from the public was even more definitive, stating: "In fact, the artist's intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim."[5] This statement is troubling not only for its certainty about Wojnarowicz's intentions (as if intentions are clear in any postmodern artwork) but also for rendering people with AIDS powerless by referring to them as "victims."

A sample of the ensuing media defenses of A Fire in My Belly suggests journalists did not go far beyond this reading of the work circulated by the Smithsonian. Bill Lasarow writes in Artscene that A Fire in My Belly "is an intensely expressionistic manifestation of personal sadness and rage over the death of the artist's mentor and lover Peter Hujar [who died of AIDS-related illness]."[6] Brian Logan reports in The Guardian that Wojnarowicz's depiction of the ant-covered cross symbolized "the suffering of people with AIDS."[7] In the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Knight writes, "A Fire in My Belly by David Wojnarowicz is in part a terrifying shriek against the shocking social indifference to the AIDS crisis then engulfing the United States."[8] And Blake Gopnik, who thoroughly covered the controversy for the Washington Post, contends that the work was "made in honor of Peter Hujar, an artist-colleague and lover of Wojnarowicz who had died of AIDS complications in 1987."[9] By giving an eye for an eye—that is, one interpretation ("anti-Catholic") for another ("AIDS activism")—both sides are guilty of distorting Wojnarowicz's work for political gain. While such positions might simply illuminate a crisis in journalism, they are perhaps more fundamentally indicative of a crisis in political debate that lies at the core of contemporary American society.

David Wojnarowicz, A Fire In My Belly (film in progress), 1986–87. Super 8 film, black-and-white and color. Silent. TRT: 00:13:06. Courtesy P.P.O.W.

Those in glass houses, however, should probably not throw stones. Upon hearing of the censorship of Wojnarowicz's work, I, too, organized a number of screenings in Chicago. My actions were motivated not by a long-cultivated passion for Wojnarowicz (I knew and liked some of his work, but was by no means an expert) but by my own feelings that, as an LGBTIQ ally, I should actively protest homophobic censorship. In the screening protests I organized, like others across the country, audiences would be able to view all three officially sanctioned versions of the film in chronological order, ending with Katz's edit. Interviewed about my activism for the Huffington Post Chicago in December, I told the writer that if people all over the United States and elsewhere organized these screenings, "It would really be wild—it would mean that Wojnarowicz couldn't be silenced no matter what."[10] Today, I think these screenings, which still continue across the world even as I write this, are important for other reasons. Shown side by side, these three versions complicate one another, demystifying the ways in which political fervor has served to pin down Wojnarowicz's work. They point out that making meaning is often an interpretive game and that artworks (good ones, at least) are like unsolvable Rubik's Cubes. In the end, they remind us above all else that being perplexed is just as rewarding and pleasurable as gaining clarity.

David Wojnarowicz, A Fire in My Belly, 1987. Music: Diamanda Galas. Made for Rosa von Praunheim's Silence=Death (1990).

Analysis from both sides of the debate leads back to the two versions of A Fire in My Belly: the version with the Diamanda Galás score that can be found on YouTube, and the four-minute version that was exhibited and then subsequently removed from the National Portrait Gallery. Both versions feature scores that significantly alter the work's meaning. The YouTube version with the Galás soundtrack is taken from her album Plague Mass, which was recorded in New York's Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in 1991, amidst much controversy. Galás's vitriolic composition takes passages from the book of Leviticus that address the proscribed treatment for those deemed unclean by the Church. At the time, she staged her album as a critique of the Catholic Church's treatment of people with AIDS, indicating the role that abstinence-only sex education policies played in the spread of AIDS both in the United States and throughout the world. The use of this score, set against some of the more direct scenes from A Fire in My Belly that depict religious imagery (recurring scenes featuring blood and the image of Wojnarowicz sewing his mouth shut, invoking the AIDS-rights slogan, "Silence=Death"), lends itself to a reading of the work that focuses both on AIDS and religion as dominant themes.

In a 2006 article for GLQ, Marvin Taylor suggests, "The appropriation of Wojnarowicz leads most people to a kind of nostalgia."[11] Katz's edit of A Fire in My Belly is perhaps indicative of this nostalgia. Indeed, in many ways it is even propagandistic. It reveals the curator's desire for (imagined) moments of solidarity that seem far removed from the seeming fragmentation of today's LGBTIQ movement. Of course, our impressions of political history never account for its messy realities. Recontextualizing scenes from both of the earlier (silent) versions from Wojnarowicz's archives with the buoyant sounds of an ACT UP protest—an audio recording also found in the artist's archives but that was not originally part of A Fire in My Belly—serves to associate Wojnarowicz's film with a particular narrative of queer art history and queer arts activism. Though Wojnarowicz's images remain incendiary, the soundtrack has the effect of tying the work together in a metaphorical bow, punctuating the rage inscribed in Wojnarowicz's images (which remain jarring even when the film is completely silent) with the convivial chants of togetherness that dominate the ACT UP recording: "One, two, three, four: civil rights is civil war! Five, six, seven, eight: AIDS does not discriminate!"

To complicate matters further, Wojnarowicz's friend, James Romberger, has pointed to the existence of yet a fifth (!) version that problematizes all of the existing ones, except for the Galás version that is assumed to have sparked calls for censorship in the first place. He recalls seeing the fifth version with Wojnarowicz in 1986:

There was a soundtrack on the film David showed me in 1986; he turned it up loud. The original score was a collection of his tape-recorded incidental noise mixed with snatches of industrial music, which was equally as chaotic as the images. It was not the tape-recorded ACT-UP demo that the National Portrait Gallery's curators added to their edit. The Diamanda Galás score that is attached to the YouTube version is also a later addition, but one which is more in keeping with the feel of the original soundtrack.[12]

For Romberger, then, it is not the silent "originals" nor the banned Smithsonian work that reflect Wojnarowicz's intentions, but the version on YouTube—closest in tone to the version Romberger watched with the artist in 1986—that ostensibly incited cries of "hate speech" in the first place. After A Fire in My Belly was censored, both journalists and activists defending the work made the assumption that Wojnarowicz and Galás were friends. However, a number of people have reported that the two did not know one another, though Wojnarowicz was inspired by her work, and have critiqued the version with Galás's soundtrack, suggesting that it does not represent the artist's intentions. Romberger himself says otherwise: "[A Fire in My Belly] has been defended as being about AIDS and not about his anger towards the Church, but David's later motivations should not be retrospectively applied to a film that he made earlier."[13] Does this most paradoxical turn of events thus suggest that the Catholic League got it right after all?

Well, no, because the film is not exactly hate speech. By definition, hate speech is "a communication that carries no meaning other than the expression of hatred for some group, especially in circumstances in which the communication is likely to provoke violence" [emphasis added].[14] Though Wojnarowicz's work may wish imaginary violence on the Catholic Church (more on this in a moment), it is unclear how it could be understood as an incitement to any kind of real violence. In the United States, free speech has wide parameters, so unless a speech act can be proven to have directly led to real violence, it remains protected speech. And beyond legal questions of hate speech, I wonder whether it makes sense to call something "hate speech" that is understood as directed against a group that, at least in the United States, constitutes a very vocal (and oppressive) majority. I'm inclined to believe that hate speech involves uses of language and representation that oppress others from a position of power. And while Boehner's constituents and Bill Donohue's followers may feel just as powerless as the LGBTIQ groups who rallied around Wojnarowicz's work, the attack did not come from the general public.

Indeed, the exhibition had been on view for a month, and no complaints had been lodged before the media flurry over Wojnarowicz's work in November. The call to censor the work was thus seemingly a media affair only, driven by journalists and taken up by Republican senators to fuel public outrage. It has been traced back to right-wing activist Penny Starr, who wrote an article for CNS News, initially condemning the Hide/Seek exhibition and Wojnarowicz's work in particular. As Kriston Capps reported in Washington City Paper, Starr wrote to both the House and the Senate, asking: "Should this exhibition continue or be cancelled?"[15] Other media outlets, including Fox News, soon followed suit. It was only after this media firestorm that members of the public began to complain.

David Wojnarowicz, Earth, 1987. Synthetic polymer paint and collage on masonite, 72 x 96 inches (182.9 x 243.8 cm). Gift of Agnes Gund. © 2011 Estate of David Wojnarowicz. Courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In other words, the Wojnarowicz debacle appears to have been generated and exacerbated through a media relay, demonstrating the lack of nuance with which the liberal left and the conservative right frame contentious topics. This lack drove a film to be removed from the Smithsonian and left-wing journalists to advocate for a work that many of them did not fully understand, partly because no concrete version of the artwork exists to be understood, and partly because, even if one did, Wojnarowicz's work was meant to confuse and mystify—to frustrate (square) notions of intelligibility. Taylor asks, "What makes Wojnarowicz a model for activism? His romantic early work, while so elegant and moving, is almost contradicted by his later activism. What parts of Wojnarowicz do you desire? Everyone has made him into something they want: hustler, modern-day Rimbaud, artist who never sold out, ur-AIDS activist."[16] There is something of the "real" Wojnarowicz in all of these, but the parts that we desire in the moment are recombinant, doing whatever performative work we need him to do in today's political climate. Different times, it would seem, call for different Wojnarowiczs.

Still, I wonder whether if, in the rush to defend Wojnarowicz and to deny his work's effect as a violent affront on religion, we (and now I'm really showing my political stripes) have not done ourselves a disservice. In 1993, queer theorist Judith Halberstam discussed the viability of imagined places of rage for a (similarly imagined) emancipatory politics. She writes: "Rage is a political space opened up by the representation in art, in poetry, in narrative, in popular film, of unsanctioned violence committed by subordinate groups upon powerful white men."[17] Attempts to deny the anti-religious sentiment in Wojnarowicz's work have served to temper it, even counteracting Republican homophobia with tales of a dead artist whose work was more about suffering than anger. As such, A Fire in My Belly becomes less about imagined spaces for rage and more about a group of people with whom to empathize rather than fear. While cultivating fear may seem anathema to real political change, it was a strategy that Wojnarowicz himself embraced. As Halberstam points out, "In 'Do Not Doubt the Dangerousness of the 12-Inch Politician,' Wojnarowicz asks, 'Should people pick up guns to stop the casual murder of other people?'"[18] Such a question, while rhetorical, exists to antagonize, and I cannot help but feel that we could stand to embrace some of Wojnarowicz's characteristic antagonism—his imagined spaces of rage—ourselves. Perhaps Wojnarowicz used recombinant strategies in his work because they would allow him to continue fighting back from beyond the grave, fueling a fire in the belly of his opponents for decades to come.

[1] Lucy Lippard, "Out of the Safety Zone," Art in America, December 1, 1990,

[2] James Romberger, "Wojnarowicz's Apostasy," The Hooded Utilitarian, December 21, 2010,

[3] Jed Perl, "The Picture: Mobs—Ant-covered Jesus Versus the Tea Party," The New Republic, December 8, 2010,

[4] "Smithsonian Q&A Regarding the 'Hide/Seek' Exhibition," Newsdesk, Smithsonian Institution, December 7, 2010,

[5] Martin Sullivan, "Statement on 'Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,'" National Portrait Gallery, November 30, 2010, [PDF].

[6] Bill Lasarow, "Censorship and Civic Mindedness: There Can Be a Difference," Huffington Post, December 23, 2010,

[7] Brian Logan, "Hide/Seek: Too Shocking for America," The Guardian, December 5, 2010,

[8] Christopher Knight, "Is the Censored David Wojnarowicz Video Really 'Anti-Christian'?" Los Angeles Times, December 2, 2010,

[9] Blake Gopnik, "Museums Shouldn't Bow to Censorship of Any Kind," Washington Post, December 1, 2010,

[10] Jen Sabella, "Chicago Arts Community Rallies Behind Video Censored by the Smithsonian," Huffington Post, December 15, 2010,

[11] Matt Wolf and Marvin J. Taylor, "On Fandom and Smalltown Boys: A Dialogue," GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 10, no. 4 (2004): 664.

[12] James Romberger, "Wojnarowicz's Apostasy," The Hooded Utilitarian, December 21, 2010,

[13] Ibid.

[14] "Hate Speech Law and Legal Definition,", accessed April 20, 2011.

[15] Kriston Capps, "A Fire in Her Belly: Penny Starr, the Conservative Activist Who Punked the Smithsonian," Washington City Paper, December 8, 2010,

[16] Wolf and Taylor, 664.

[17] Judith Halberstam, "Imagined Violence/Queer Violence: Representation, Rage, and Resistance," Social Text, no. 37 (Winter 1993): 187.

[18] Ibid. See also David Wojnarowicz, "Do Not Doubt the Dangerousness of the 12-Inch Politician," in Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 160.