In its first incarnation, at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University, “ACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993” served to educate a new generation of students who these days tend to regard AIDS as a manageable disease mainly afflicting Africa. Those of us who came of age in the ’80s might remember the movement ACT UP—AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. In response to what in its early days was dubbed the “gay plague,” that articulate, media-savvy, largely queer community mobilized to raise public consciousness about and to end the horrific disease that would go on to kill millions.
Recently on view in New York, the exhibition—organized by Helen Molesworth, former contemporary curator at the Harvard Art Museum (now chief curator of the Boston ICA) and Harvard curatorial intern Claire Grace—included ACT UP artifacts along with recently produced documentation, and served as a tribute to the fierce group whose grief and rage have yet to evaporate, and whose accomplishments endure. As author and ACT UP founder Larry Kramer asserts in video footage included in the ongoing ACT UP Oral History Project (begun in 2001), “I have no doubt in my mind, those fucking drugs are out there because of ACT UP. And that’s our greatest, greatest achievement.”
The Oral History Project, developed and produced by novelist and playwright Sarah Schulman and documentarian Jim Hubbard, was presented in the exhibition on 13 television monitors outfitted with earphones. With a running time of almost 200 hours, it would be a feat for anyone to view the entire, historically invaluable archive in the context of this show. (Transcripts are available online at actuporalhistory.org.) Also on view was Hubbard’s poignant United in Anger: A History of ACT UP (2008), which presents a more digestible hour of unvarnished but well-edited footage of ACT UP members organizing, commiserating, joking around, demonstrating and getting hauled away by police from countless public protests—all the while making good use of signs, flyers, stickers, buttons and T-shirts collaboratively produced by ACT UP participants in a presciently open-source manner.
Artist Donald Moffett, one of a small number of individuals with work on view here, made a striking poster (1987) juxtaposing an orange-and-black target with a black-and-white photo of a smirking Ronald Reagan emblazoned with the words “HE KILLS ME.” In 1987, after years of silence, the then-president finally uttered the word “AIDS” in public. Now in the permanent collection of MoMA, Moffett’s offset lithograph was carried by ACT UP in marches. And, like much of ACT UP’s work, it has a strong, efficient visual impact that came to emblematize the movement. Predating the Yes Men’s satirical New York Times (2008) announcing the end of the American war in Iraq, the collective Gran Fury in 1989 produced the mock newspaper New York Crimes. With still-pertinent stories like “AIDS and Money: Healthcare or Wealthcare?” and “What about People of Color? Race Effects Survival,” it slammed the paper of record, which in real life did not deign to print the word “AIDS” on its front page until May 25, 1983, almost two years and 1,500 diagnosed cases into the epidemic.
Rather than opting for pristine examples of ACT UP’s graphically seductive output, Molesworth and Grace included well-worn, stained and altered T-shirts, many from the collection of graphic artist and Gran Fury member Avram Finkelstein, who coined ACT UP’s ubiquitous slogan, often paired with a pink triangle against a black background: “Silence = Death.” The curators also selected working versions of epoch-defining visuals, created before the advent of desktop publishing, to say nothing of the Internet. These included an “FPO” (for placement only) Gran Fury photograph of two girls with Mohawks kissing that eventually appeared on posters and T-shirts with the infamous words “READ MY LIPS,” uttered by the newly elected president, George H.W. Bush, in 1988, and a mockup for a poster with a picture of an erect penis and text tersely refuting a prevailing misapprehension of the sexually transmitted disease: “AIDS KILLS WOMEN.” With the curators’ decision to foreground evidence of physical wear and tear in our era of information overload and solitary “social networking” via electronic media, “ACT UP New York” highlighted another of the group’s feats: bringing angry, bereft, living, breathing people together, and harnessing their enormous energy.
Photos: (left) Donald Moffett: He Kills Me, 1987, poster. Right, Gran Fury photograph on T-shirt. Both in “ACT UP New York” at White Columns.