Uncertain Times II. Representing the Pandemic

From 26 June to 22 July 2020
Barbara Hammer. Vital Signs. Film, 1991. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York
Barbara Hammer. Vital Signs. Film, 1991. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York

Sessions 1, 2 and 3 online, running for a week from Friday to Thursday. Free access from the Museo Reina Sofía Vimeo channel

Session 4 on-site, in the Sabatini Building’s Auditorium. Free, until full capacity is reached


Chema González

Organised by:

Museo Reina Sofía

Force Line:

Contemporary Disturbances

The Museo’s usual film and video programme was brought to a standstill on 12 March of this year by the COVID-19 health emergency, along with all its other on-site activities. Thus, Uncertain Times is an audiovisual series designed to be viewed on the Museo Reina Sofía website during such an atypical situation. The first part, which ran from 8 May to 4 June under the subheading Cinema During Lockdown, pivoted on the experience of confinement, while this second part explores the representation of the pandemic over three online sessions and a fourth celebrating the reopening of the Sabatini Auditorium. This will be followed, from the end of July to the end of August, by the outdoor summer cinema in the Museo’s rooftop terraces, denoting the final instalment of a series devoted to possible futures in these new times.       

The COVID-19 pandemic that befell the world at the beginning of 2020 has engendered the collapse of the present continuous that defined our contemporary condition. The lack of theoretical approaches to precede and help us understand this situation has been overcompensated by a frenzied deluge of conjectural information, with this absence giving rise to a gaze towards other times and historical periods in the quest for parallels and answers. The fascination with the plague in the Middle Ages in Europe, the Americas and its deadly plagues at the onset of colonialism, or the Western world at the height of the spread of AIDS, have taken root in the collective imagination as a new historicism to find answers on how to live during an epidemic. Given that we are now seeing a progressive return to normality, in whatever form that may be, and with its restorative amnesia, this series seeks to reflect on pandemics and their representations at different times and in different audiovisual languages.       

The first session bears the title AIDS, the Other Pandemic and is framed inside the special programme offered by the Museo during LGTBIQ+ Pride. It explores life and the fear of infection, and the fight against disinformation psychosis promulgated by the mass media. Salient among collectives such as Gran Fury and artists such as Pepe Espaliú are Barbara Hammer, whose work replaces vision with tactile experience in her investigations of lesbian experimental film, and David Wojnarowicz, a gay artist whose work and life were an exercise in against-the-grain survival in Reagan’s America.      

In The Others Are the Disease, film-maker Jean-Daniel Pollet contemplates the new social order caused by a pandemic through one of the last outbreaks of leprosy in Europe, on an island-prison with inmates who live in harmony together and with nature. Living Under the Plague retrieves a beautiful and little-known docudrama by performer Meredith Monk, who, in a cyclical temporality, reconstructs the material and musical culture of the Middle Ages during the Plague. Finally, the last session, Macabre Dances and Other Allegories, reopens the Museo’s Auditorium with the preview in Spain of two films: a short film made by film-maker Yervant Gianikian during lockdown about a prophesy on the origins of the virus found in a colonial film from the early twentieth century, and Danzas macabras, esqueletos y otras fantasias (Macabre Dances, Skeletons and Other Fantasies), a feature-length film by Pierre Léon, Rita Azevedo Gomes and Jean-Louis Schefer. 


Gran Fury. Kissing Doesn’t Kill. Video, 1990. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York
Actividad pasada From 26 June to 2 July 2020
Session 1. AIDS, the Other Pandemic
Total session length: 45’

Gran Fury. Kissing Doesn’t Kill
USA, 1990, colour, sound, video, 2’10’’ (Four 30’ adverts). Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York
Link to Vimeo: Kissing Doesn’t Kill 

Barbara Hammer. Save Sex
USA, 1993, colour, sound, video, 1’. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York
Link to Vimeo:  Save Sex

David Wojnarowicz and Phil Zwickler. Fear of Disclosure
USA, 1989, colour, original version in English with Spanish subtitles, video, 5’
Link to Vimeo : Fear of Disclosure

Barbara Hammer. Vital Signs
USA, 1991, colour and b/w, original version in English with Spanish subtitles, 16mm transferred to video, 10’. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York
Link to Vimeo: Vital Signs                      

Tom Rubnitz. Listen to This
USA, 1992, colour, original version in English with Spanish subtitles, video, 15’
Performer: David Wojnarowicz
Link to Vimeo: Listen to This

Barbara Hammer. Snow Job. The Media Hysteria of AIDS
USA, 1986, colour, original version in English with Spanish subtitles, video, 7’35''. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York
Link to Vimeo: Snow Job. The Media Hysteria of AIDS

Pepe Espaliú. Carrying
Spain, 1993, colour, original version in Spanish, video, 2’15’’ (extract)
Link to Vimeo: Carrying

This session centres on the activism in video and in experimental film that came into existence in conjunction with the AIDS pandemic. The first part deals with the vindication of the visibility of LGTB desire confronted with the public authorities’ criminalisation of homosexuality. In Kissing Doesn’t Kill, the Gran Fury collective appropriate the aesthetics of general-interest advertising to demonstrate how the problem lies not in sexual diversity, but in government inaction and indifference in terms of disinformation. The campaign, which was never broadcast after it was initially commissioned by ABC and then later cancelled by the same network, is a classic of guerrilla communication during the spread of AIDS. In Save Sex and Fear of Disclosure, Barbara Hammer and David Wojnarowicz explore contact after testing HIV positive: Hammer shows the usual ritual of putting on and touching with gloves, and with Wojnarowicz two male go-go dancers dance and frantically touch as a voice, belonging to journalist Phil Zwickler, co-creator of the piece, speaks of the panic of physical contact with the virus. In Vital Signs, Hammer pays homage to three friends and family who passed during the pandemic — John Wilbert Hammer, her father, film-maker Curt McDowell, and Vito Russo, an LGTB activist and film historian — using the theme of macabre dance. The concerns of the other productions rest in media-created paranoia swirling around the disease. In Listen to This, Wojnarowicz plays a news presenter who delivers a tirade against the moralism and hypocrisy of American society. In Snow Job… Hammer shows a collage made with newspaper headlines that incite fear and denote the ignorance of the public perception of AIDS; “just plain wrong attitudes towards this new illness”, writes the artist. The session concludes with an extract from the historic performance Carrying by Pepe Espaliú, an HIV-positive artist who in his final months of life was carried through the air in a human chain from the Congreso de los Diputados (Spain’s Congress of Deputies) to the Museo Reina Sofía. The action was peppered with references: the involvement of the public sphere to fight the pandemic, the artist as an icon with the slogan “the personal is political” and the role of the museum as a political institution and in care, a role we wish to emphasise in this new start.

Jean-Daniel Pollet. L´ordre. Film, 1973
Actividad pasada From 3 to 9 July 2020
Session 2. The Others Are the Disease

Jean-Daniel Pollet. L´ordre (The Order)
France, 1973, colour, original version in Greek and French, digital archive, 40’
Link to Vimeo: L´ordre (The Order)

New film restored. This session features a presentation by Guillermo G. Peydró, a film essay historian and curator of the retrospective devoted to Jean-Daniel Pollet in the Punto de vista festival in 2016.

Pollet, one of the pre-eminent documentary essay makers, was commissioned by a pharmaceutical company to speak about the final days of leprosy in Europe in a film that becomes a profound meditation on the differences between the disease and supposed normality. The camera pans across deserted spaces on the abandoned Greek island of Spinalonga, officially called Kalydon, a leper colony from 1904 to 1956, the year in which an effective treatment put an end to enforced reclusion and patients started to be transferred over to hospitals in Athens. Raimondakis, a leper confined for 36 years and a clairvoyant, is the documentary’s guiding light and explains how the awareness of being ill does not start with physical symptoms, but rather with adherence to a new social order based on the discrimination between good people and bad, between the healthy and outcasts. Raimondakis describes how Spinalonga, paradoxically, used to be a hugely respected society with community support, integrated into nature, life, and the transition to death. “Where is the abnormality, in Spinalonga or on the outside?”, he asks.

Meredith Monk. Book of days. Film, 1988
Actividad pasada From 10 to 16 July 2020
Session 3. Living Under the Plague

Meredith Monk. Book of Days
USA, 1988, b/w, original version in English, digital archive, 74’
Link to Vimeo: Book of days

With an interview with Meredith Monk conducted by John Killacky in 2006.

Book of Days is a film about time which looks to trace a parallel between the Middle Ages — a time of war, plague, fear of the Apocalypse — and modern times of racial and religious conflicts, the AIDS epidemic and the fear of nuclear annihilation. In light of the current 2020 pandemic, the cyclical nature of this phenomenon has completely re-emerged. The film does not offer answers; it is a homage to vision and imagination, a poetic incantation of what connects us,” Meredith Monk wrote recently. With an original score by the artist, film-maker and composer, this film speaks of beauty in times of extinction.  

Pierre Léon, Rita Azevedo Gomes y Jean-Louis Schefer. Danses macabres, squelettes et autres fantaisies [Danzas macabras, esqueletos y otras fantasías]. Película, 2019
Actividad pasada Monday, 20 July 2020 — 7pm / Sabatini Building, Auditorium
Session 4. Macabre Dances and Other Allegories
Second session: Wednesday, 22 July 2020 — 7pm / Sabatini Building, Auditorium

Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci-Lucchi. Ape-bat
Italy, 2020, colour, original version in English with Spanish subtitles, digital archive, 2’

Pierre Léon, Rita Azevedo Gomes and Jean-Louis Schefer. Danses macabres, squelettes et autres fantaisies (Macabre Dances, Skeletons and Other Fantasies)
Spanish preview. France, Portugal, Switzerland, 2019, colour, original version in French with Spanish subtitles, digital archive, 110’

The final session of the second part of the series Uncertain Times reopens the Auditorium after a four-month hiatus. How can an image of the pandemic be put forward that reflects death as much as the resistance to disappearance? With Ape-bat, Yervant Gianikian, a film-maker just shy of 80, composes from his confinement and solitude in Milan another macabre dance that helps him to overcome his fear, in an emblem on the origins of the coronavirus extracted from the film Fragments, made with Angela Ricci-Lucchi in 1987. Further, in Macabre Dances, Skeletons and Other Fantasies, historian Jean-Louis Schefer, with film-makers Pierre Léon and Rita Azevedo, returns to the late-medieval theme of the allegory of death, placing the stress heavily on the successive waves of the Plague in Europe. The skeletons dancing with powerful figures (popes, kings) recall the universality of death, and the necessity to revel in life.