ACT UP: Twenty-five years of AIDS activism

Tara Hart and Megan Heuer

“Let the record show that there are many in the community of art and artists who chose not to be silent in the 1980s.” —William Olander, 1987


Tomorrow Wednesday April 25 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. The organization formed in March 1987 with the aim of bringing attention to the AIDS crisis and the federal government’s ignorance about the disease through direct political action. That same month, New Museum curator William Olander, himself a participant in ACT UP, invited members of the group to create an installation in the window of the New Museum’s downtown location at 583 Broadway. The result was “Let the Record Show…

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ACT UP (Gran Fury). Installation view: “Let the Record Show…” Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Fred Scruton

As the title suggests, the visual display “provided information about government inaction and repressive intentions in the context of shocking statistics.” These statistics and recent facts about the willful ignorance of the reality of AIDS were presented within an installation that included cardboard cutouts representing public figures whose statements ACT UP identified as part of the “social and political disaster that AIDS had become by 1987.”1 One figure featured conservative writer William F. Buckley, Jr. accompanied by his own words: “Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.”4 On view in the New Museum’s street-level window facing Broadway, the agitprop work was highly visible to anyone who passed by. In the text that accompanied “Let the Record Show…,” Olander wrote, “I first became aware of ACT UP, like many other New Yorkers, when I saw a poster appear on lower Broadway with this equation: SILENCE = DEATH. Accompanying these words on a black background was a pink triangle—the symbol of homosexual persecution during the Nazi period and, since the 1960s, the emblem of gay liberation. For anyone conversant with this iconography, there was no question that this was a poster designed to provoke and heighten awareness of the AIDS crisis. To me, it was more than that: it was among the most significant works of art that had yet been done which was inspired and produced within the arms of the crisis.”3 Together, Olander and Gran Fury recognized the power of visual art and other cultural practices to actively create social change.

Many of the participants who worked on “Let the Record Show…” continued to collaborate as the artist collective Gran Fury. Taking its name from the specific model of Plymouth car then driven by the New York City Police Department, Gran Fury was a self-described “band of individuals united in anger and dedicated to exploiting the power of art to end the AIDS crisis.”4 In 1991, Gran Fury created another installation in the New Museum’s Broadway window, “Love for Sale…Condoms Inside,” which featured slogans such as “Decriminalize Desire” and “Sex is more than just penetration.” Using tactics borrowed from advertising and graphic design, the installation called on viewers to challenge commonly held perceptions regarding sexuality, sex work and the spread of HIV.

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Gran Fury. Installation view: “Love for Sale…Condoms Inside.” Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Fred Scruton

ACT UP’s neon sign from “Let the Record Show…” will be on view in the New Museum’s window, facing the Bowery, beginning Wednesday April 25. To commemorate its twenty-fifth anniversary, ACT UP will hold a demonstration in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street on Wednesday April 25, 2012. For more information, please visit the website for ACT UP New York: actupny.com

For more information on ACT UP’s history at the New Museum, please visit: archive.newmuseum.org/index.php/Detail/Entity/Show/entity_id/3563

 

Notes

1Crimp, Douglas. Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2002.

2Crimp, Douglas. “Mourning and Militancy.” Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures. New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1991.

3Olander, William. “The Window on Broadway by ACT UP.” On View. New York: New Museum, 1987: 1. Archival material.

4Meyer, Richard. Outlaw Representation: Censorship & Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.