The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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SEPT 2023 Issue
Art Books

Oliver Husain and Kerstin Schroedinger’s DNCB–A History of Irritation

Oliver Husain and Kerstin Schroedinger
DNCB–A History of Irritation
(Archive Books, 2023)

“An indistinct room in an apartment. On the table to the left, a fruit bowl with apples and oranges and a pack of cigarettes. Above the table, a window to the sky—daylight.” The first few printed lines of Oliver Husain and Kerstin Schroedinger’s DNCB – A History of Irritation describe a 1987 archival photograph as if from a sideways glance, peripheral details coming into focus before its core subject can be fully taken in. The paragraph goes on to articulate the scene in full: two white men are seated in a San Francisco apartment. One is shirtless, with his back facing the camera; the second is applying yellow ointment to a series of red marks across the first man’s back. Taken by photojournalist Chuck Nacke, the image is one of a rare few depicting the use of DNCB (Dinitrochlorobenzene), a toxic chemical compound used in color photography processing, as an underground medical treatment for Kaposi’s sarcoma, skin lesions typically associated with HIV/AIDS.

Nacke’s photograph never appears in full clarity throughout the artists’ book. Instead, black-and-white fragments of the image splice the pages of Husain and Schroedinger’s writing. They are magnified beyond all recognition, the grain of 1980s-era analog photography dissolving into pure texture, framed by the occasional curve of an elbow or slope of a back. Writing of the photograph, Husain and Schroedinger identify that its detached, straightforward quality feels “irritating” to witness, especially with present-day knowledge of how the AIDS crisis would continue—the massive, generational queer loss produced in its wake. Irritating, here, implies something uncomfortable and irresolvable, something that scratches at the edges of one’s awareness, something too proximate to the permeable (and vulnerable) barrier of the skin. For Husain and Schroedinger, two artists with independent practices exploring the histories of film and moving image culture, this itch emerges from the strange convergence between queer activism and photographic technology that DNCB, as a substance, represents. Accompanying a multi-channel film installation produced in 2021, the publication DNCB charts these overlapping narratives, featuring a longform essay by the artists that integrates excerpts of conversations with academics, photochemists, and, crucially, AIDS activists in San Francisco and Toronto, particularly those with living memory of trying DNCB on themselves and their loved ones.

Producing a stark contrast to the grainy monochromatic fragments of Nacke’s photograph, the rest of Husain and Schroedinger’s publication unfolds with glossy images in dazzling, saturated color: these stills sourced from their film installation depict fingers with neon manicures applying bandages and ointments, mixing compounds in glass vials. They press and squeeze against skin, which transforms the surface of DNCB’s pages with the textured specificity of pores, wrinkles, hairs, moles, and portions of tattoos awash in exaggerated, almost hallucinogenic, fields of color. Emphasizing the very sensation of color in these images—as something excessively artificial, yet seemingly inextricable from the bodies on each page, Husain and Schroedinger also recall DNCB’s mainstream use in photochemical production, however obliquely. As their research explains, the compound was distributed by Kodak and functioned as a chemical intermediary, binding together layers of color emulsion on a strip of film. Guerilla clinics would order DNCB in bulk throughout the eighties and early nineties, in an experimental effort to boost the immune function in the skin of AIDS patients, at a time when mainstream medicine was largely ignorant of their symptoms, their needs, their humanity.

In spending time with the textures, voices, and saturations of DNCB, the compound’s role as an intermediary begins to echo across the project at large. Not only does the substance bind divergent histories together, but Husain and Schroedinger’s publication does the same: bringing activist and photochemical languages in tandem, allowing archival veracity and queer fantasy to become proximate, perhaps to permeate each other’s porous barriers. Yet the artists are careful not to resolve these differences too cleanly. DNCB was never the perfect fit—it wasn’t some utopian solution to the AIDS crisis—just another desperate attempt, amongst many, to support those whose bodies had been visibly marked by a stigmatizing and debilitating epidemic. Working as a chemical intermediary, DNCB could never fully bridge the gap between community urgency and institutional indifference. On a material level, DNCB seems to reflect these fundamental tensions. The publication’s pages are unbound, collected loosely with elastic, and the artists used different page sizes and print qualities to distinguish the project’s oral and archival histories from its glossy, technicolor fabulations. The resulting bookwork feels both seductive and sensorially rich, while exposing the fragile, mutable ways its narratives are held together. Across its (differing) pages, DNCB refuses to smooth over uncomfortable contradictions in favor of a coherent, resolved history of the AIDS crisis. For both Husain and Schroedinger, that itchy feeling lingers.


Daniella Sanader

Daniella Sanader is a writer and reader who lives in Toronto.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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