Michael Espinoza is a non-binary, multi-racial, multi-disciplinary artist whose work embodies and embraces the undone artistic practices of Queer Ancestors lost to persecution, disease, fatal sadness, and closets. I visited Michael at their studio in Northwest Portland to discuss their practice, the ongoing legacy of HIV/AIDS, and how HIV/AIDS informs their work and ideas about queer ancestry and futurity.
Michael’s work is showing through July 22nd at The Reser in Beaverton, Oregon, as part of the show Friends of Dorothy, and through July 7th at The Image Flow Photography Center in San Anselmo, California, as part of the show Queer Conscience. In August, their work will show at the co-op gallery Carnation Contemporary in Portland, Oregon, of which they are a member.
Adie B. Steckel: I want to start with your work’s relationship with HIV/AIDS, in part because the Cascade AIDS Project Art Auction is how I first encountered your art. How do you see that relationship and how did it come to be?
Michael Espinoza: So, I am HIV-negative, and I think that’s one of the most important things about my relationship to HIV advocacy. I was taught through my whole sexual life by elders, and people who know better, and sluttier people, and people who have more contact and are more in the know about sex and sexuality than I was when I was young—they all taught me what they learned from doing what they could to survive AIDS and HIV, having lived through the 1980s and early ’90s.
AS: When were you born?
ME: I was born in ’84. When I came out in ’97 or ’98 there was already sort of this breath of relief.
AS: HAART (Highly active antiretroviral therapy) had just come on the scene.
ME: Yeah. So I became sexual in an environment where condoms had become kind of mandatory community-wide and the fear of dying from AIDS was no longer ever-present because of medications and the ongoing fight to survive.
I had my first sexual contact with a person who was HIV-positive in college. That person taught me a lot, they were maybe 20 years older than me, and really made it very clear what risks we were taking, what we could do to mitigate those risks, and how serious/not serious and totally normal it was to be living with HIV. That was an extremely important gift.
When I came out to my mom, she started crying and said: “I just don’t want you to die from AIDS.” Very common experience. I’m sure a lot of queer people relate to that. So the first thing that I knew about my sexuality basically was that it was a death sentence or potentially a death sentence or that I was risking death by being gay.
Growing up Catholic I sort of carried this guilt anyway—about everything I ever did or thought—so that really stuck with me. Subverting all of those narratives—about death and fear and the ways in which my sexual development was kind of stunted by being afraid of something I couldn’t see and people were afraid to discuss—made it really important for me as part of my healing as an artist to say things like: “the AIDS crisis is ongoing,” that “I survived AIDS in a lot of ways,” and “the people I learned from to make art and that I learned from to have sex and to build community are people who were all affected in various ways from the grief of watching people die from AIDS.”
I get this kind of weird sense that the next generation is actually really interested in the project of remembering the AIDS crisis. I used to have this pessimism, like, if I don’t learn my queer history and my AIDS history that all of this stuff is going to be forgotten, but I actually don’t feel that way anymore. Maybe it feels more encouraging to me than it used to because I’m learning about the artists who are doing the work around it currently and people my age are digging through archives and talking to elders.
AS: Yeah, because you’re in it.
AS: I relate to that, 100%.
I listened to a recent interview of you with Brian Madigan and in it you said “energetically one of the most important groups of people that inform my practice today are the people who died from AIDS or who participated and witnessed.” Why do you think that is? What do you think it is about AIDS in particular that stokes that energy?
ME: I attribute that to my acceptance—my spiritual acceptance—of participating in a legacy of queer makers and doers and culture generators who are mostly dead or who don’t exist yet. But you’re asking specifically, what is it about AIDS.
We as queer people exist in normative bodies to the extent that anyone exists in a normative body, by which I mean that if I am stripped of all the context that I surround myself with—my clothes, my jewelry—I have a body that is a human body.
AIDS was co-opted and used against us to mark our bodies as wrong, disordered, dangerous, volatile, amoral, promiscuous.
AIDS isn’t a gay disease and never was, and the way that it was leveraged was a cultural choice. I’m interested in the different ways that our bodies as queer people are marked and I’m always trying to explore this idea of queer embodiment and what it means to embody queerness. I think there is this invisible thing that marks bodies that has shaped the culture and history of queer identity that’s just really important and that’s why I refer to it.
I also think that HIV is a kind of intersector. It creates these interesting intersection between people who do sex work and people from marginalized backgrounds and intravenous drug users. There’s this current that cuts across differences. I always wish to see myself as a queer person or as a person of color in solidarity with other marginalized people, and I think discussing HIV and AIDS is a really interesting premise with which to do so.
AS: What are some examples of how body marking shows up in your work?
ME: I think that the project that discusses that best is my cruising work that I am in the midst of right now. It is a series of pictures of my own body and pictures of empty places that either are or have been sites for cruising. What I’m interested in is the way the presence of queer bodies over time transforms or interacts with urban spaces. This idea of marking as this kind of way in which intrepid sexual bodies bore holes through walls to create glory holes—how they come and go from places and those places become places that people don’t go.
As part of this project, I’m also collecting narratives about cruising from anyone who will talk to me about cruising. There’s this theme that keeps coming up about the reputation of places and how queer people come and go, and how the shamefulness of their sex creates this kind of dark boundary where these cruising places exist. This work is especially interesting on a conceptual level as it is in cooperation with the environment to kind of deteriorate, erode, change spaces.
AS: I was thinking about the way that you’ve talked about borrowing strategies to inform your own work. Like how maybe embroidery isn’t yours, or photography isn’t yours—they’re things that you borrow. So I want to borrow some strategies from this book, We Are Having this Conversation Now by Ted Kerr and Alexandra Juhasz. Specifically, I want to borrow their framework of “The Times of AIDS.”
Kerr and Juhasz break “The Times of AIDS” down into a few major periods. First, there’s “AIDS Before AIDS,” which reminds us that AIDS circulated among humans long before the early eighties. Second, between 1981 and 1987, there’s what they call “The First Silence,” when an emerging public health crisis was ignored by those with the power to curb it. Between 1987 and 1996, what they call “AIDS Crisis Culture” emerges, during which there’s an explosion of cultural production related to AIDS. This is followed by “The Second Silence,” starting in 1996 with the introduction of HAART and the ability for those with access to live long lives with AIDS. With this, AIDS is once more pushed to the margins of the public imagination. Then we have these two partially overlapping periods: the “AIDS Crisis Revisitation” begins in 2008, breaking the silence and lasting into the present; and, starting in 2016, and also lasting into the present, is the period of “AIDS (Crisis) Normalization,” when HIV discourse becomes commonplace.
I’m interested in the idea of your art as part of the phase of “revisitation.” We’re kind of collectively in this space of revisiting the ongoing presence of AIDS in all of our lives, and you talked about how you’ve seen that transition too—that maybe young people are more interested, or that maybe you have less fear that another silence will happen. Does that resonate? Do you see your art as part of a revisitation? And if so, how do you also engage with the risks of normalization that have followed revisitation?
As cultural production explodes, how do we avoid complacency?
ME: I think the most important parallel is the Holocaust. I think about the waves that we’ve experienced of Holocaust denialism in our lifetime and the rise of global fascism. You would think that we would just close that chapter of humanity and we wouldn’t revisit any of the ideas that led to the Holocaust. You would think. And we’re living in a time that’s proven wrong.
There’s this really interesting intersection between global fascism and the persecution of sexual minorities that just crops up again and again. I am acutely aware that it’s my duty to remind people that our safety, our viability as a culture, our communities are not safe in perpetuity. Marriage equality did not end our persecution and did not save our lives. That’s the long view that I take.
But in terms of whether or not I see myself as participating in a revisitation…I really am opening myself up spiritually to the presence of people who didn’t get to express themselves in their lifetime because of persecution, closets, disease, and fatal sadness. I think that because I’ve chosen to exist in my practice in the presence of ghosts, or ancestors, or whatever you want to call them, nothing that I do is any sort of revisitation. Everything that I do is like an in-group visitation and the idea of healing from grief being what compels us to make art is central.
AS: It’s like you are opening yourself up and bringing the whole past along with you, so it’s not a retrospective.
ME: I’m often talking about queer solidarity. I mean very specifically queer solidarity with queer people who have existed at all times. And I’m also talking about all the queer people who will ever exist in the future. So in that sense, maybe there will never be a revisitation?
I’m really interested right now in making these waves within my own body of work. I’m taking pictures of models touching my artwork, or with my artwork in the background. These pieces create a spiraling self reference that becomes something else. I want to demonstrate how conscious participation in queer culture is a generative act that perpetuates us into the future. We’re not going to center our survival around procreating genetically. And many of us do that, but it’s not the center of how we see ourselves existing and surviving into the future. It is about building robust communities organized around mutual survival and it’s about generating culture so that our existence doesn’t disappear as time goes on.
AS: And that connects directly to your use of digital media. There’s the artifact itself, but then there’s a new artistic piece created through digital interaction with the artifact. And then that enters cyberspace, gets sent off into this whole queer realm that exists there, too.
ME: Yeah. I think that was the first way I created this self-referring spiral. I was taking a digital image, turning it into something that I made by hand, re-engaging it in a digital media, printing it… I’m creating all these spirals where I’m generating culture and then re-interpreting culture, and doing this thing that I want to exist in queer community.
AS: What does futurity mean to you and how does it show up in your work?
ME: Fuck yeah, this is is the best part of the conversation. I love this. I’m heavily influenced by José Esteban Muñoz. Futurity is the not-yet-here, and is the utopian. The future and utopia go together for me because utopia is the no-place, it’s no-where, and I think that existing in an identity—in a queer, multiracial, nonbinary identity—I’m intentionally striving with my existence to to exist in a legibly no-place place. To be utopian in my existence.
When I read Cruising Utopia, it affirmed a lot of the ways in which I view myself and was very influential in terms of what I want to express by making art. Queerness and utopia for me are, I’m not quite sure about synonymous, but I definitely think of queerness as a utopian project. Our existence outside of the legibility of a patriarchal hegemony creates space for more options for the world and is an active world-building exercise encapsulated in bodies.
Everything that we do and say, every way in which we use our bodies in novel ways as queer people is calling forth the future.
I’m trying to generate culture with my art. I think that the fundamental duty of an artist is to participate in culture. I think that any idea that could be expressed has already been expressed and that frees me up to access ideas, to interpret ideas, to underscore and repeat ideas. I have a postmodern understanding of what it means to generate culture. Repetition becomes extremely important. Defining and redefining and participating in what it means to be a community becomes extremely important. Because communities are a unit of culture.
AS: So you have the series “Snapshots for future lovers,” and those are the cruising pieces. What do you mean by “Snapshots for future lovers,” and how does that relate to futurity?
ME: Oh that’s a great question, no one’s ever asked me that question! “Snapshots for future lovers” is a series of photographs that I’ve hand printed using cross-stitch embroidery with the aid of an algorithm. And I’m looking at abandoned cruising spots, or active cruising spots but I’m looking at them during the day when no one’s there. These empty cruising spots are like the empty stages that Muñoz talks about in Cruising Utopia. They’re these potent places where you can imagine anything happening, where nothing is happening. It’s a stage-setting—it’s a blank page in which I wish to see the future.
Queer Conscience 2023
The Image Flow, San Anselmo, CA
May 29 – July 7
Friends of Dorothy
Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, Beaverton, OR
May 17 – July 22