An Imagined Genealogy of Michel Foucault

Leticia Ferreira and Alyssa Yates with LabSynthE

An Imagined Genealogy of Michel Foucault is a 12 by 12 foot participatory quilt block created for the AIDS Memorial Quilt in memory of Foucault and his legacy on artistic practices. More than sixty people collaborated on this block. During its development, we realized the NAMES database, like all archives, is not objective. This made us wonder about archives, about who is missing, which stories are not present and will never be told. We invite participants to reflect on themes of absence and visibility as they visit with this quilt block.


This project started in the summer of 2019. We sent a call for participation to people in our networks and on social media, and by fall had received 48 (one by one foot) squares that we used to create a border around the quilt we finished in early fall 2021.


The AIDS Memorial Quilt is the largest ongoing community art project in the world. It has been displayed on the Washington DC Mall six times with immeasurable aesthetic and political impact. During the peak of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, San Francisco activists started making panels with names of loved ones who had passed away of HIV/AIDS. In 1986, they created the NAMES Foundation, to serve as the stewards of the Quilt.


The foundation and its chapters would receive two by three foot panels and sew them together in blocks of eight, measuring 12 by 12 feet, as well as promote sewing workshops and panel-making events. The foundation began a national campaign for panels, and the Quilt grew exponentially during the 1990s. Across the changing landscape of the past decades, the Quilt has been and continues to be an important aesthetic tool of political action, raising awareness and pressuring government and other stakeholders to look for solutions to the AIDS epidemic.


The philosopher who inspires this project—and many creative works of scholarship—is Michel Foucault, who died of HIV/AIDS. Currently there are four panels registered to the memory of Michel Foucault, though only two are visible in the NAMES database. As a creative lab housed in the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication at UT Dallas, where pieces of the AIDS Quilt are on view during AIDS week each year, we produced a complete 12 by 12 foot block to honor Foucault’s wide-ranging scholarship.


We planned our quilt layout and started sewing in the lab, starting with the 48 squares we received, in the winter of 2020. In March we went on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we did not return to the lab, or the quilt, until the summer of 2021.


In this time we have thought deeply about the NAMES database: who is listed, who is represented, who is included but still remains invisible? We considered the many people who died of HIV/AIDS and who were and are invisible.


These absences made us consider the (mis)representation and subjectivity of archives, and to consider how we could represent or invoke those absences poetically. Furthermore, we compared that situation to the great visibility of Foucault through his publications, and discussed if we wanted to continue on a project that perpetuated the visibility of someone who is already remarkably visible. These discussions led us to restructure some aspects of the project, as our practice is designed around the inevitable changes of a living, collaborative work of art. The centerpiece of the Quilt is dedicated to another participating public, who we invite to give voice to the invisible and absent. For our exhibition of the quilt at NYU Mamdouha Bobst Library in fall 2021, participants will record their voices on sound playback devices that we will cross-stitch to the centerpiece.


We encourage participants to consider archives and personal memory, and to think about what is absent—what is missing. We invite visitors to voice the names of people loved and lost as a result of HIV/AIDS who are not memorialized in the AIDS Quilt. We also invite participation from people familiar with Foucault’s research, voicing his words in conversation with this project is another way to participate.


link to video View a video recap of the quilt at NYU



This project was led by Leticia Ferreira and Alyssa Yates with LabSynthE. It involves more than sixty participants, and more as people visit the quilt and participate in a recorded reading of names.

An Imagined Genealogy of Michel Foucaultwas first exhibited in burrough and Starnaman's Ceremonial Techne at NYU, October 19, 2021-May 31, 2022. Contact xtine for more information: xtineburrough [at] gmail [dot] com