Out of Time: Matt Wolf’s Smalltown Boys

April 12, 2013 · Print This Article

It’s April, and if you’re like me, you’ve probably been busy tying up overdue assignments and following instructions on how to properly label your JPEGS for this or that residency or fellowship application. As such, what follows is an excerpt from a much larger essay and curatorial endeavor I’m working on that considers alternative methods for the establishment of intergenerational connectedness – particularly for activist communities. Enjoy!

Matt Wolf, Smalltown Boys, Still, 2003

Matt Wolf, Smalltown Boys, Still, 2003

In 2003, artist and filmmaker Matt Wolf made a short-film called Smalltown Boys that features a fictional narrative about a young girl named Sarah Rosenberg who begins a letter-writing campaign to save the television show My So-Called Life from cancellation with a cohort of other fans organizing themselves online.  Rosenberg, in Wolf’s film, is the biological daughter of HIV/AIDS activist and artist David Wojnarowicz, conceived through artificial insemination.  Rosenberg grows up to be a young, disenfranchised lesbian that feels no connection to the kind of direct street-level activism for which Wojnarowicz is remembered.  Interspersed throughout Wolf’s telling of Rosenberg’s trials to save her beloved television program is archival footage of ACT-UP demonstations and home-video footage of Wojnarowicz on a road-trip with friends, swimming in a pond, and pontificating on the life of a small bug crawling upon his finger.


Matt Wolf, Smalltown Boys, Excerpt

Additionally, Wolf interrupts the flow of his film with self-shot footage of his disembodied arm spray-paint tagging contemporary subway advertisements for MTV sponsored HIV/AIDS benefit concerts with Wojnarowicz’s signature burning-house tag. These moments are coupled with other scenes of Wolf wearing a black-and-white Arthur Rimbaud mask while silently riding the train or attempting to hail a cab (as seen above). Rimbaud was Wojnarowicz’s favorite poet, and the images Wolf produces quote the look of Wojnarowicz’s own collection of Rimbaud mask-wearing self-portraits, entitled Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978-79).

David Wojnarowicz, From the Series: Arthur Rimbaud in New York, 1978-79

David Wojnarowicz, From the Series: Arthur Rimbaud in New York, 1978-79

Wolf (and, indeed, Wojnarowicz before him) can be described as re-performing what theorist Elizabeth Freeman has termed ‘temporal drag’ in his wearing of the Rimbaud mask Wojnarowicz wore.  It is an act staged for the camera on the actual city streets and subways of Manhattan that represent a moment, to borrow another term (this time from Lucas Hildebrand), of ‘retro-activism.’  Wolf’s act represents the theoretical proposition that affective messages from the past can pierce through chronological or normative time into the present, producing profound historical linkages that are, indeed, felt.  Sensual, affective connection with preceding generations becomes not only an archival project, but becomes an embodied activist project.


Matt Wolf, Smalltown Boys, Excerpt

Films and actions like Wolf’s, or the well known out-of-time activist actions of Sharon Hayes, lead me to wonder how re-performance might participate in renewing activist outrage around issues – like HIV/AIDS – too easily and erroneously thought of as being in the past. At play, when actions are performed, just may be the sensual apprehension of our own situated-ness within historical pursuits of justice that stretch, or drag, into the present day.

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