The Embodied Voice of David Wojnarowicz: An Essay on Listening
“I think what I really fear about death is the silencing of my voice…”
—David Wojnarowicz, speaking to Cynthia Carr, in Fire in the Belly
In the summer of 1980, five teens coalesced into what would become “the best art rock band in [New York] city.” Among them was David Wojnarowicz. When asked what instrument he played as a member of 3 Teens Kill 4, David’s response was “the tape recorder.” Of his years with 3 Teens Kill 4, David said, “I was in a band. I wasn’t playing traditional music, but using tape recordings of street sounds and conversations and playing them as percussion behind the band.” While David’s tenure with 3 Teens Kill 4 only lasted a couple of years, the work that he started there as a sound artist would inform all phases of his career, wherein tape recorder and voice were medium, sound was form, and speech was theme. Still, even exhaustive descriptions of Wojnarowicz’s career frequently omit his work as a sound artist.
3 Teens Kill Four. Left to right: Doug Bressler, Julie Hair, David Wojnarowicz, Brian Butterick, Jesse Hultberg.
Between 1981 and 1989, David Wojnarowicz sporadically recorded what he called tape journals. Highly anticipated by many, the transcripts of Wojnarowicz’s tape journals, edited by Lisa Darms and David O’Neill, were released in print as Weight of the Earth by Semiotext(e)/Native Agents in 2018. It’s less widely known that a selection of Wojnarowicz’s tape journals from 1989 were also released in 2018 as the triple LP Cross Country by the Brooklyn-based purveyor of audio artifacts, Reading Group.
Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz (Semiotext(e)/Native Agents, 2018).
Cross Country (Reading Group, 2018).
There’s something asynchronous—even downright odd—about releasing tape journals on vinyl. Wojnarowicz was solidly of the era of cassette tapes and Super 8. The portability of the tape recorder is what made these recordings possible: David casually lying in bed, shooting up around his apartment, or driving through the southwestern United States with the recorder resting in his lap, the tape unraveling with the road. Listening on my record player, I feel too tethered to big objects that bear no real relation to what I’m listening to. I want to put David’s tapes in a Walkman or in a car tape deck and drive out of the city (my car, of course, does not have a tape player). Would I be better off cueing up the excerpts of Cross Country that can be found on YouTube and strolling through my neighborhood with AirPods? It seems there’s no way to close the gap between myself and Wojnarowicz, no matter how much these tapes make me feel I’m hearing from an old friend. All that said, the power of watching David’s voice travel from vinyl to needle to receiver to speaker is undeniable. The records demand slowing down, sitting still, paying attention. They demand listening to David’s voice.
In his introduction to Weight of the Earth, David Velasco writes, “Just because he’s talking doesn’t mean it’s not literature.” I think that’s true, and the value of Darms and O’Neill’s transcripts is obvious. Velasco says it best: “The final image of these tapes is of a single car stopping for a red light, like it’s a fucking F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.” Still, literature wasn’t Wojnarowicz’s intent. Wojnarowicz was highly attuned to the archive that he would leave behind, and he left the tapes un-transcribed. Listening to the audio reminds me that these tapes were, at their very core, about embodied speech and the desire to be heard. Cross Country draws necessary attention to David’s voice and makes hearing him—something he wanted desperately—possible.
My copy of Weight of the Earth, annotated while listening to Cross Country.
Despite being a triple-LP, Cross Country only includes tape journals from February through June of 1989. Separating the later tapes out from the 1981-1982 tapes is powerful—in the seven years between these batches of tape journals, Wojnarowicz’s world had collapsed. The scale of loss that Wojnarowicz witnessed in New York City in the mid-1980’s is incalculable. During this period, death, once a distant abstraction, became a concrete reality that weighed heavily on Wojnarowicz. In 1982, the year that the acronym AIDS emerged, David spoke into the recorder: “Whenever I think of death it’s projected way in the future.” By 1989, Wojnarowicz was a year into his own diagnosis, Peter Hujar had died, and there was an immediacy to the question: “Really I just don’t want to fucking die.” Over the course of these years, Wojnarowicz’s relationship to language and speech shifted dramatically. Wojnarowicz transitioned from self-conscious about speaking (“How I feel is self-conscious about anything I say,” 1982) to disillusioned by speech itself:
I hate what words are like. I hate the idea of putting these performed gestures on the tip of my tongue or through my lips or through the inside of my mouth, forming sounds to approximate something that’s like a cyclone, or something that’s like a flood, or something that’s like a weather system that’s out of control, that’s dangerous, that’s alarming. (1989)
In Fire in the Belly, Cynthia Carr says, “David once told me he used to long for acceptance from other people. Then he began to value the way he didn’t fit in. He realized his uneasiness with the world is where his work came from.” David, once preoccupied with social norms, was transformed by witnessing mass death and staring down the prospect of his own. He was newly compelled to speak, but at the same time, his new reality broke down language and rendered it totally inadequate, even violent. Cross Country gives us intimate access to living within this catch-22 and the intensity of David’s struggle with language amidst the turmoil of AIDS in the late 1980’s. In spite of his hatred of language, Wojnarowicz never abandoned his commitment to speech. If anything, he appears to have become more invested in it, the catch-22 providing an essential fuel for all his later work.
In 1989, just two years after the advent of the iconic SILENCE=DEATH campaign, Wojnarowicz first performed ITSOFOMO (In The Shadow of Forward Motion), a genre-defying sound art masterpiece brimming with his voice, at The Kitchen, Chelsea’s multidisciplinary and avant-garde performance art melting pot. By the time Wojnarowicz was working on ITSOFOMO, he was also imagining his corpse laid bare on the steps of Congress. ITSOFOMO, a collaboration with musician and composer Ben Neill, was first recorded in 1991 and released on CD by New Tone in 1992, the year of David’s death. ITSOFOMO is an ambitious experiment in sound collage, pulling together David’s voice (certainly reminiscent of his tape recordings) the otherworldly wailing of Neill’s mutantrumpet, sporadic percussion, and Southern American ethnomusic inspired by Antonin Artaud’s radio adaptation of TO PASS FINAL JUDGEMENT ON GOD (translated from the French), a piece railing against American imperialism.
ITSOFOMO (Jabs Records, 2018).
ITSOFOMO opens with a diaristic account of David in looking out the window of a dying man’s hospital room (presumably Peter Hujar). His words are, in equal measure, interior and cinematic. Various noises—both white and as specifically yellow as piss hitting the pot—form a variously soothing and agitated backdrop to David’s smooth, calculated speech, undeniably sexual, yet modest, and then increasingly urgent, increasingly distraught as he can’t get this man to the bathroom: “I felt my body thrumming with the sounds of vessels of blood and muscles contracting and the sounds of aging and of disintegration. The sound of something made ridiculous with language. The sense of loving and the sense of fear.” This first track, “Living Close to the Knives: Liberty,” is a sonic crescendo to rage: “Rage—a perfect rage I was beginning to understand. Seeing myself hovering in the atmosphere or outside the building’s walls and wanting a shout to come from my throat, a shout that would level all the buildings.” The crescendo mirrors the experience of dissociation—the transition from a deeply embodied “humming and thrumming” to a trauma-induced departure from one’s body. For Wojnarowicz, silence and disembodiment were twinned. Resistance came through the throat.
In many ways, ITSOFOMO sounds like the full realization of Wojnarowicz’s early impulse to render his voice an instrument in a way he never quite could in the context of 3 Teens Kill 4. In conversation with Sylvère Lotringer, former bandmate Julie Hair said of Wojnarowicz, “He had more complex ideas about what he wanted to do artistically that could not be accomplished in a band situation.” Ultimately, with ITSOFOMO, the individualistic impulses that propelled him away from 3 Teens Kill 4 were allowed to flourish; backed by Neill, ITSOFOMO was Wojnarowicz’s vision executed. While the texts David read at the Kitchen in 1989 would ultimately go on to be published in Wojnarowicz’s great Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, it should not be forgotten that they were first spoken aloud—they are performance pieces, meant to be spoken, meant to be listened to.
In 2018 (the same year Reading Group released Cross Country), ITSOFOMO got its first and only vinyl pressing (Jabs Records) in conjunction with a major retrospective on Wojnarowicz’s work at The Whitney, History Keeps Me Awake At Night. The Whitney retrospective was controversial, as any showing of Wojnarowicz’s work by a corporate art institution will be. Evan Moffitt wrote for Frieze:
The glittering new Whitney, capstone on the tourist-clogged High Line – itself a promenade for sexless ‘selfie’ cruising – is in some ways complicit in the neighbourhood’s gentrification, a fact that goes unacknowledged here. It’s not hard to imagine Wojnarowicz’s ire at the institution parked on the ruins of a place he called ‘the real MoMA’, once a site of erotic and creative frisson between the classes, and now a monument to wealth.
In contrast to the Whitney exhibition, which de-historicized Wojnarowicz’s work, failing to even mention ACT UP, a portion of proceeds from ITSOFOMO vinyl sales go to Visual AIDS, which the album’s liner notes remind us, “utilizes art to fight AIDS by provoking dialogue, supporting HIV+ artists, and preserving a legacy, because AIDS is not over.”
These recent engagements have skyrocketed Wojnarowicz into mainstream public consciousness, and today, David’s voice is especially close to the knives of commodification. In 2021, Daniel Levy arrived at the Met Gala clad in a mutilated adaptation of one of Wojnarowicz’s most recognizable paintings. Levy carried a handbag smothered in another iconic Wojnarowicz piece—an untitled black and white portrait of a young David surrounded by text relaying the homophobia this boy will encounter—the physical and political violence that will be enacted on his body. Surely Wojnarowicz, anti-capitalist to the core, would be rolling on the steps of Congress if he saw his work so severed from the reality that some 650,000 people still die of complications from AIDS each year. This severing is also a form of silencing. David’s voice remains under constant threat from forces coming from multiple directions—from censorship on one side (most recently, in 2011, the Smithsonian pulled “A Fire in My Belly” from its exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture), and commodification and appropriation on the other. It comes as no surprise that efforts to silence Wojnarowicz have outlived him.
For Wojnarowicz, silence equaled a swift and permanent death. Speaking, on the other hand, meant a life accounted for, and the possibility of leaving a trace on this heavy earth. Listening to Cross Country and ITSOFOMO, it feels as if David sensed he might somehow speak himself out of oblivion. As Sylvère Lotringer wrote in 1992, “ITSOFOMO’s forward motion becomes a battle to reclaim the organism of life.” Indeed, the life of David’s voice, persists through these records. The sound of his saliva, the weight of his tongue, his lips, his voice, right here, in my ears.
East Village Eye, Dec. 1983.
Since writing this, these videos have been pulled from YouTube.
A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side (Semiotext(e)/Native Agents, 2006).
From the liner notes to the 1992 release of ITSOFOMO (New Tone).
ADIE B. STECKEL lives in Portland, Oregon, where they work for an HIV/AIDS health and social services nonprofit and co-edit the small press and literary record label Fonograf Editions. Their writing appears in Annulet, Dream Pop, Full Stop, and Harbor Review, in addition to Old Pal Magazine, where a sequence of epistolary poems for David Wojnarowicz from a manuscript called DAVID were published earlier this year.