eric stanley is a brilliant human who often talks about prison abolition, deconstructing binaries, and building alternative futures.
they talked with us about hiv criminalization, concrete steps for poking some kind of hole in the prison industrial complex, humor as a genre (making cops the butt of the joke,) making movements (and films) with no resources, being a director who doesn’t like telling people what to do, the relationship between clothing and gender, and people they know who “have a look”, ie people who disrupt the boringness of the world…read on for ~more~
The Atmosqueer: Are you currently involved in any exciting work that’s challenging the Prison Industrial Complex?
ES: I live and have lived for a long time in the Bay Area, and people oftentimes think, “Oh, there’s such amazing stuff going on there” because of its history and because of the people that live there. But sometimes it seems actually harder to organize there, because there’s the assumption that someone else is doing it. So then it’s like the same five of us in ten different groups, we’re like “Oh, it’s you” [laughs]. But something that I’ve been working on a lot right now that I’m excited about is working in solidarity with Michael Johnson, who is a 24 year old black gay man who was arrested outside of St. Louis under these really horrific HIV exposure laws. And then last year he was found guilty and sentenced to thirty years in prison for allegedly exposing someone to HIV. And we know through science that there’s actually no way to trace an HIV cell line — and, of course, it’s a deeply homophobic and racist justice system that did this to him. So now he’s serving thirty years in a prison for sleeping with someone. I think that HIV criminalization is going to be one of the next pushes of the things that we’re gonna have to be even more vigilant about. It’s one of those lynch pins, right? We have disability justice analysis, we have the foundational anti-blackness of the prison itself, we have homophobia, we have gender nonconformity, we have class — so it’s all right there. And unfortunately it’s really hard to gain traction for the movement to free him because a lot of the nonprofits are too scared, they’re like, he shouldn’t have “done that,” but we don’t know what he “did,” and everyone with HIV is innocent. That’s a banner from ACT UP, from 1989 or something like that. We’ve forgotten that whole history because all the “good,” responsible gays are married and are not “spreading diseases,” so all of a sudden we’re back at this time that seemed even more dangerous than it was in the eighties. And I think that in HIV criminalization, a lot of times we think these are old laws that are just on the books from the olden days, but a lot of them are actually really new. I think it speaks to one of the ways in which the tentacles of the Prison Industrial Complex always find ways — if we push down on one part of it, it’ll pop up in another part. I think that this is one of those moments in which it’s popping up and I think we need to be really careful about pushing back on it.
One of the questions that I’m always thinking about when thinking about abolition is this collective dreaming process, which to me always seems a little awkward or inaccessible. The critique is readily available; we know what’s fucked. But what are some concrete first steps or entry points towards exposing ourselves to dreaming?
ES: I think that unfortunately because of the years of nonprofitization of social movements — which Incite’s book The Revolution Will Not be Funded talks a lot about (and it may have always been like this, but I don’t know because I’m not old enough to know) — but at least right now it seems like people feel like they can’t act unless they’re part of a legitimate nonprofit. And I’m really invested in empowering people to get together with just other people and figuring out how to do something. Even if it’s just a “Free Michael Johnson” letter writing party. Just some thing. It doesn’t have to be a huge campaign that’s going to immediately take down the PIC, but like something. Because I think that that collective dreaming actually happens in those spaces. Like I’ve been organizing with this group called Gay Shame in San Francisco, and we meet in the backroom of a bookstore every Saturday for the last fifteen years. It’s like we make a flyer; we get someone who has a real job to copy it; we go wheatpasting. Is that going to tear things down? Not necessarily. But at least it’s a kind of pinprick in the enormity of the thing.
How do you see the role of art in these movements? Art is often something you don’t really need resources for, but you made a film, which typically requires more resources.
ES: Yeah, so the film was made for probably about…$500 [laughs]. So we borrowed someone’s camera, we shot it, we edited it ourselves; what we tried to do was provide people with lunch. And then sometimes we did get a gig at a school, to get money to pay for the film as a kind of way to take money from an institution and put it back into art-making. We applied for some grants but they just laughed at us. It’s deeply — and I use this word a lot — but it’s deeply community-oriented, like whoever’s on my couch ends up being in the film. So, like you’re saying, working with what resources you have and trying to make something in spite of both the institutions and the material reality that is the world saying that you can’t do that. And that doesn’t mean everyone can do that, because we have certain access to things that people don’t — so there are those material realities. But still, you know, you can kind of work around it. And I think that we, like trans and queer and gender non-conforming people, have a long history of working like that, and I think that something that scares me is when we start collapsing those possibilities. And for me, what’s exciting about history is looking back, not in a nostalgic way, but being like “oh, we have all these different ways that we used to organize our daily lives.” And not that we want to recreate that, but what would be useful to take from that and to put it in our contemporary practice.
How was the process of that working together? What was the collaboration like?
ES: So Chris and I are the directors, which really just means that we tried to wrangle people. And I’m like the worst kind of director, because I don’t really like telling people what to do, and ironically, people want to be told what to do when they’re acting because otherwise it’s really confusing [laughs]. But then it’s like, my exes are my roommates and they won’t wake up, and so they have to get cut from a scene because they won’t get out of bed [everyone laughs]. Literally it’s a lot like the story, we started with a real loose plot map, and the story evolved so much, because someone would walk into the screen and we were like “ok, now we have to write them in.” So that’s actually how it happened. We also have gone back and re-edited it. We’ve been showing it for maybe five years, and almost every time we’ve screened it, it’s been slightly different. So people get added, people get taken away, because, it’s digital so you can move orders of things, you can add in more recent history, and that’s exciting. I mean eventually we’d like to be done with it, just because we’ve been doing it for so long, but it’s an interesting way to think about history not as a marker of time, but as a constant collapsing of people together.
Wow, we’ve never heard of film doing that!! That’s super cool. How did you think about like film as the form, rather than like a weird collaborative website or something like that?
ES: So we made our first film, Homotopia, ten years ago now. […] It was the height of the gay marriage frenzy in San Francisco and Gavin Newsom was doing whatever he was doing and all of a sudden, even people on the left that we would think had this long history of a feminist analysis of the institution of marriage were like “yes! marriage!” and we were like “well, wait a minute…there’s this thing called history.” And so in that moment, all the film festivals were inundated with those horrible documentaries about gay marriage and there were people crying and blah blah blah. And we were like “god, this is so annoying” and so we were like “someone should make something about that” and we were like “ah no one else is going to this so we have to do it,” and for us, humor is really important. Sometimes when you tell people that you made a movie about the critique of gay marriage and one about prisons, and especially the prison one, they always assume that it’s a documentary. But there’s something about the way in which humor can open up a kind of conversation that maybe the kind of seriousness that is assumed to be associated with documentary doesn’t do. I mean, humor is also a pretty dangerous genre, especially with people who survive such intense violence, and we can see through mainstream culture the ways in which people in prison are almost always the end of a joke. So what we do is we always make the state or the cops the end of the joke, but we have to be very careful with the way we construct the narrative. And then we also do this really funny thing where anybody who has crossed us in the making of the film becomes a villain in the film [laughs], so we name them after somebody we didn’t like and so then it becomes maybe just a film for the people in it and Chris and I, and maybe other people will be into it and maybe not.
You just talked about making your movie have like an anti-aesthetic aesthetic, but do you feel like you have an aesthetic?
ES: So I feel deeply tortured by clothing, as most people, I think, actually do — people’s relationship to clothing is about everything except for clothing. And so, I think clothing is one of the points in which I come up against the disciplining of gender in the most intense ways in my everyday life. You know, like that’s one of the questions of “what gender do you identify as?” and I’m like “take away violence and then ask me.” So it becomes this impossible project, and clothes are an extension of that. And I love when people can flip the script, and find a certain avenue to self-determination vis-a-vis clothing — that’s what I aspire to. I don’t think I’m there yet, so I’ve been wearing a lot of black which I think is funny and not historically what I’ve been doing. If you ask any of my friends, my most hated thing would be to go clothes shopping because then you’re just touching people’s misery and then I just get overwhelmed and I’m like “ohmygod, I’m going to go jump in the river.” But then you need something to wear. For a long time, my roommate worked at a vintage resell store, and he would be there all day, so he would just bring shit home and I would dig through it and send it back. So that’s my ideal, but I also love people who “have a look” — because I love the aesthetic dimensions of the everyday and people who disrupt the boringness of the world. And then I’m like “ugh, I need to step up my game.” So, my friends that really turn it out, I’m constantly in awe. I actually would like to be that kind of person in the world but I don’t have the bravery it takes right now. I’ve been that at different points of my life, but right now I’m faced with the limitations of my own life. Seeing them also opens up space, like “oh, if they can do it I can do it.”
Mm totally! Do you have a friend who you’re like “this is my most stylish friend”?
ES: Yeah, I have a couple of different friends, and they all have different styles. Like, do y’all know Wu Tsang — he’s this filmmaker, he made this movie called “Wildness” and he’s a little bit of an art star right now — but he always has an amazing look and you never know what’s going to happen. My friend Mattilda, she always also is wearing some kind of “situation” and it’s like “I need to wear more situations and less clothing!” but then you know, you gotta leave the house.
before you leave the house, make sure to leave us a comment with your thoughts and check out helena’s style post for some of our style situations 😉
e + h