An interview with Tom Kalin (MFA 1987)
Tom Kalin earned his MFA at SAIC in 1987 and became an award-winning artist and activist. He is widely known for his feature films Swoon (1992), I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), and Savage Grace (2007). In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, he was a member of Gran Fury, an artist collective that helped shape the national conversation on HIV and AIDS. He returns to SAIC this spring as the Visiting Artists Program Distinguished Alumni Lecturer on February 10.
How did SAIC and working for the Visiting Artists Program prepare you to enter the New York art scene upon graduation?
SAIC was important because it solidified my interest in what was emerging in the mid 80s, which was different than the so-called "Chicago school." It was conceptual-based art practice. It was more theoretically engaged. It was more in line with what was happening in the New York or international art world.
The Visiting Artists Program exposed me to a lot of artists working in a really wide range…people I later went on to know.
What was it like to be an artist at the height of the Culture Wars?
Reagan was a very palpable antagonist in those mid 1980s years. Then I moved to New York, and it just ratcheted up…. The first person I knew who died of AIDS was my Wicker Park neighbor, Leslie Harvell. I was shell-shocked by that experience. So I weirdly fled the margins of the AIDS crisis to go the epicenter, to find comfort or something. So that moment was very charged on lots of fronts.
How are your art practice and your political activism connected?
In the early ‘90s, when I made Swoon and was a member of Gran Fury, I thought of Swoon and Gran Fury as very different art practices. Gran Fury was a collective. It had a practical goal in mind: to destigmatize HIV and AIDS, to speed drugs into bodies, to challenge complacency of what was then called the general public, and to hold our political leaders, like Ronald Reagan, responsible for their silence or inaction.
Whereas Swoon—though it engages with political representation about body, sexuality, or history—was a much more ambivalent movie…. I think that the smallest or largest things we do, the intimate rituals of daily life and then the big social rituals that bind us all together, are in essence political.