David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire In My Belly
As archivists we deal in presenting facts. We try not to personalize or interpret archival material. Instead we offer these primary source artifacts, whether they are paper-based documents or original media, to scholars so that they may study, scrutinize, and ultimately create scholarship.
Recently a short, 4-minute edit of a larger film-work by late artist David Wojnarowicz was removed from the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) after it was deemed objectionable by certain religious groups. An avalanche of inaccuracies sprang forth as mainstream media, bloggers, and other news outlets sent out their reports. Many of these were based on assumption and interpretation, and many (frankly) haven’t a clue what they are talking about.
The film in question is titled A Fire in My Belly, a 13-minute, Super 8mm, silent “film in progress” from 1986-87, which was never completed. The original film material resides with the Fales Library and is a part of the David Wojnarowicz Papers, which comprises over 128 linear feet of archival material, encompassing personal journals, photographs, correspondence, objects, over 200 video tapes, 145 audio tapes, and 80 film elements.
The 4-minute edit for the NPG exhibition was created (with the permission of the artist’s Estate) from a 7-minute segment of A Fire in My Belly found on another film reel in Wojnarowicz’s collection. It is believed Wojnarowicz is to be credited with the editing of this 7-minute segment. The shorter, 4-minute edit shown at the NPG was created by the exhibition curators with an added audio track taken (with the Estate’s permission) from a 1989 ACT-UP demonstration; the audiocassette of this event is from Wojnarowicz’s Papers. In other words, the short edit of A Fire in My Belly was a “re-creation.” What was shown at the NPG was a small portion of a larger film with a soundtrack added by someone other than the original artist.
Confused yet? Wait. Posted on YouTube, on December 12, 2007, was the 4:10-minute segment of A Fire in my Belly with a soundtrack by Diamanda Galas. Publisher Semiotext(e) is listed on YouTube as having posted this “version,” which was also seen in the 1989 Rosa von Praunheim film Silence = Death. This did not come from Fales.
So now we have many “versions” out there – all adding to the confusion. The “version” of A Fire in my Belly that was removed by the NPG was the shorter, 4-minute edit. In this “version” there was one 11-second shot of ants crawling on a crucifix. Those 11-seconds were what caused the controversy and ultimate removal of the film from the NPG exhibition. Many institutions have been screening the “complete” 13-minute version with the additional 7-minute segment (which can be see here). Many have been stating that this is what was censored. It was not. It was a four-minute “re-edit” taken from the 7-minute segment that was censored by the NPG. These are the facts.
– Brent Phillips, Media Specialist and Processing Archivist, Fales Library