The AIDS Memorial Quilt: Mourning an Ongoing War
As Susan Sontag pointed out, the American AIDs epidemic is characterised by powerful, apocalyptic metaphors. And, whether one is talking in terms of the syndrome itself; in relation to government inaction, or of the militant activism that sprung up across America’s gay urban centres, these are invariably metaphors of warfare. Further, in discussing how we remember and memorialise AIDS, many scholars have drawn comparisons with the way we remember and mourn war, arguing that the AIDS Memorial Quilt owes much of its conceptual framework to the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. Meanwhile, the Quilt’s custodians, the NAMES Project, view themselves as closely aligned with efforts to memorialise the Holocaust, citing Yad Vashem as an exemplar memorial. Similarly, Gert McMullin, long-time Handmaiden of the Quilt, calls the panels her soldiers: ‘these are the old soldiers,’ she said, gesturing at the warehouse that houses the Quilt, ‘and we keep getting new troops in.’ Thus, we can see AIDS as part of an ideological war, affecting conceptions of masculinity, the body, and linguistics, whilst also prompting new modes of relating to, remembering, and memorialising trauma.
With the AIDS Memorial Quilt in the contemporary period as a case study, I take a design-historical and theoretical approach to assess how we use unique material processes to remember and memorialise during prolonged periods of trauma. I argue for the Quilt as a postmodern text that, rather than embodying a single cohesive collective memory, provides a collection of memories; a diverse assemblage of ways to remember the crisis, and those lost to it.