Patrick O'Connell paints a picture of two worlds: His art and his AIDS
Seated in a trendy Manhattan cafe, Patrick O'Connell is chain-smoking and waxing rhapsodic about a recent road trip with New York City performance artist Penny Arcade. As he spins his verbal Rolodex of art-world impresarios, it becomes clear that O'Connell's rapid-fire name-dropping is not pretension-it's the way he speaks of a world he helped create.
In 1988, O'Connell cofounded Visual AIDS, a New York City-based organization of artists and art professionals dedicated to heightening public awareness of AIDS. Visual AIDS spearheaded programs such as the Red Ribbon Project, which brought the little scarlet symbol to the masses, and is currently coordinating The Archive Project, which documents and exhibits the work of artists with AIDS, and provides them with grants and case-management services.
O'Connell speaks in a language of hybrids: Protease and NEA funding, performance art and PCP. As he eats, he gradually releases the hard facts: He is taking an antiretroviral combination of 3TC and d4T, along with a slew of other meds, including fluconazole (Diflucan) to treat thrush, acyclovir (Zovirax) to prevent shingles, aerosol pentamidine to prevent Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), pilocarpine hydrochlorine (Salagen) to treat dryness of the mouth, prednisone to counteract allergic drug reations and potassium supplements to boost levels lowered by PCP.
You've said that your treatment may be changing soon. Why is that?
I'm allergic to a lot of meds, so I've purposely lagged behind in drug treatment. I think with medication everyone's just practicing voodoo anyway. My doctor says it might be time for me to take protease, because although my T-cell count has increased [from 69 in 1995 to 431 in 1997], my viral load has also increased [from 1,000 up to 15,000]. He's afraid that the d4T isn't packing the punch it should.
Have you had any other health problems that may have influenced this decision?
When you start an AIDS arts organization, you spend seven days a week, 13 hours a day in the office. And it's fabulous. But in January of 1995 I ended up at St. Vincent's Hospital. I got PCP-I wasn't on any prophylaxes [Bactrium or liquid pentamidine] because I'm allergic to them. I was so sick that no one thought I'd ever leave the hospital. It took me a year to get back on my feet. After I got out, my boyfriend and I rented a house on the beach. I think it was the beach that helped me get better.
O'Connell intersperses lists of drugs and therapies with stories of successful openings, actions and adventures. Although ready and willing to talk about meds, what seems to drive O'Connell's thinking is the idea of a "psychology" of illness-how to keep his psyche, as well as his system, healthy.
How did your bout with PCP affect your thinking about treatment?
I got very depressed after I got out of the hospital, so depressed that I hated my doctors for saving my life. I still have a very hard time keeping focused. So what takes precadence is making sure the illness doesn't get the best of me. I see a private therapist and I have a support group, which is very important-there's no reason to do anything alone.
I'm an alcoholic, and I think the key to my AIDS is that I have viewed alcoholism as my primary illness, not AIDS. Because I concentrate on my alcoholism, I'm capable of doing the footwork for everything else.
O'Connell jumps ahead to describe his new vision-a program to teach poor teenagers how to produce their own peer-education videos. The project is being coordinated with art galleries and community service organizations in Chicago, San Francisco and Birmingham, Alabama.
Seventeen-year-old kids are getting infected, and that means we've failed. So if our methods of education aren't working, why don't we put the means into the kids' hands, and let them educate themselves? We want kids to be able to talk about their AIDS, their experiences, their fears.
I have an incredible sadness, a heart that's been broken and cannot be mended. AIDS has been a war-bombs have been dropping and people have been fighting. And the system, our society, is in some parallel universe-they think we're lying abou this epidemic! So I'm out here doing thinks to prove them wrong.
Having exhausted (for the moment) his supply of stories, O'Connell leaves his salad half-eaten and charges up 8th Avenue to "go have an AIDS day at the doctor's."