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In Conversation

Revisiting A Leap in the Dark After Thirty Years

Ryan Conrad is Adjunct Research Faculty at the Feminist Institute of Social Transformation at Carleton University and the author of the forthcoming monograph Radical VIHsion: Canadian AIDS Film and Video.

Retired and released from some of the tedious obligations inherent in professional practice Allan Klusaček continues his engagement in research and front line work for various HIV and mental health organizations in Toronto.

Ken Morrison, based between Cuernavaca and Saskatchewan, is an independent consultant working as trainer/facilitator/writer on health and social responses to HIV, gender, stigma reduction, diversity and inclusion. He is also currently working on a documentary film about the global AIDS response.

 

This Research was supported by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). 

 

Klusaček, Allan and Morrison, Ken. A Leap in the Dark : Aids, Art and Contemporary Cultures. Montréal, Qc: Vehicule Press; Montréal, Qc: Éditions Artexte, 1992.

To read the digitized version of the anthology A Leap in the Dark

In the months following the Fifth International AIDS Conference, which took place in Montreal in the summer of 1989, activists Allan Klusaček and Ken Morrison were busy piecing together what would become a seminal anthology of HIV/AIDS cultural criticism entitled A Leap In the Dark: AIDS, Art & Contemporary Cultures. The two had travelled in similar social circles for years, but it was at a mutual friend’s funeral in the late eighties where they became closer friends and then collaborators. They both went on to participate in and organize cultural events during the ‘89 Montreal AIDS conference under the banner of sidart. Allan contributed by organizing an international exhibition of photographs created by people living with HIV/AIDS and an exhibition of Montreal-made HIV/AIDS posters in the advertising spaces in the tunnel between Palais des Congrès and the nearby Place-d’Armes metro station [1]. Ken was the overall lead coordinator for the expansive sidart program. As he recalls:

 

I was asked [by the conference organizers] to be the chair of one of the nine tracks in the conference that, at the time they asked me to do it, was called “other.” And I thought, let’s do cultural responses. So, we put out a call for videos from around the world and that led to a whole series of other things [2].

Poster created by Allan Klusaček and Dan Anderson for the AIDS poster exhibition Allan organized for the Fifth International AIDS Conference.

Sidart included lunch and evening lectures, eight art exhibitions, an expansive film and video program at the old National Film Board theatre in the Guy-Favreau Complex, and live performances by Carol Leigh, Michael Callen, Martha Fleming, Lyne Lapointe, and others. It was a first of its kind intervention at the bi-annual international AIDS conference that had for years focused exclusively on biomedical approaches to the epidemic. The ‘89 conference was ground-breaking for both this cultural component, but also the rowdy activist interventions that shut down the opening plenary and further challenged the privileged medical model orthodoxies at the core of the conference [3]. Much of the conference was documented by activists themselves, most notably John Greyson’s documentary short The World Is Sick [sic] that kicked off the Toronto Living with AIDS community cable television series. But just as importantly, people like Allan began transcribing recordings of presentations and lectures given by activists, artists, and scholars who attended the sidart programming at the conference.  These transcripts would go on to form the backbone of A Leap in the Dark.

In describing how the idea for the book came about, Allan notes:

 

All this information was sitting there, and it had been given out to a few people [at the conference], but it was an amazing range of information and it was pre-internet, pre-easy accessibility to a whole range of knowledge. So, I thought, isn’t this a gift? I have an anthology basically sitting there! [4]

 

Ken reiterates:

 

Afterwards, we both felt this was just too good to let go and be over. That somehow we needed to capture this work and the incredible good will of all these intellectuals and artists. And I must say, Allan really did the grunt work around the production of the book. [5]

 

Once the transcripts were done Allan began the process of getting a publisher on board. He recalls the struggle to find a willing press to take on the project, and that in the end it was only through social networks that the book came to be:

 

I put together a package to sell the book and shop it around. Then I cold called publishers and stuff like that. I had no clue what I was doing and an AIDS book at that time was not the most popular thing to print. In the end, I had one bite from Summer Hill Press in Toronto, but it proved to be impossible because the publisher became too ill to produce a book in the end. I was complaining to my friend Martha Fleming and she said why don’t you speak to Lesley Johnstone at Artexte. Lesley got Simon Dardick at Vehicule Press on board, and that’s how it happened. [6]

With a publisher on board and with Ken’s help, Allan would massage the book through the editing process. Themes emerged to organize the contributions and later he would reach out to other cultural critics to fill gaps and add new texts. This collaborative process between Allan, Ken, and the people at Artexte and Vehicule Press would lead to the publication of A Leap in the Dark a little more than two years after the ‘89 Montreal AIDS conference.

Revisiting the book today will mean different things to different people, particularly between those who experienced the eighties and early nineties firsthand, and those who came after. Importantly though, this book is an index of a particular moment in AIDS activism and cultural production in response to the epidemic. And not just of a particular moment in time, but also of a particular place and the relationships built or solidified through the collective experience of the ‘89 Montreal AIDS conference. A Leap in the Dark is both particularly Canadian, but also explicitly international. It also provides a bridge between the intense and rage-filled AIDS activism of the late eighties and the early nineties when many AIDS activist groups began to fall apart under the immense pressure of a mounting death toll, government co-optation, and growing divides between movement activists over strategies and priorities [7].

The Montreal Manifesto is one of many examples of the international collaboration and relationships built around activism at the Fifth International AIDS Conference.

Celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of this publication on World AIDS Day/Day With(out) Art 2022 with the release of a high-quality ebook version of the anthology brings Allan and Ken’s work back into the present. It gives contemporary scholars renewed access to the late twentieth century transnational conversations about HIV/AIDS cultural activism to which this book contributed. As the HIV/AIDS epidemic continues to rage on locally and internationally with still no cure in sight, and with new epidemics here and on the horizon, this book also offers today’s activists and artists just one example of how a diverse community of troublemakers, artists, and thinkers came together to change the social, political, and cultural conditions shaping their lives.

Notes

  • Le sida en affiches – Collection des Archives gaies du Québec

    The Archives gaies du Québec would go on to remount a similar exhibition of HIV/AIDS activist posters at the 24th International AIDS Conference held in Montreal in the Summer of 2022. Materials from sidart were donated to AGQ.

  • Interview

    with Ken Morrison conducted by author in person on 26 July 2022 at Artexte.

  • For more reflections

    on the impact of the activist/artist intervention at the ’89 AIDS Conference see the Montreal transcripts from the AIDS Activist History Project.

  • Interview

    with Allan Klusaček conducted by author on 12 July 2022 via Zoom.

  • Interview

    with Ken Morrison conducted by author in person on 26 July 2022 at Artexte.

  • Interview

    with Allan Klusaček conducted by author on 12 July 2022 via Zoom.

  • Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight against AIDS
    Deborah Gould (2009)
    University of Chicago Press

    For a description of this activist fracturing in the early 1990s

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August 2022
Craig Leonard