Life at the end of every century is typified by fear and anxiety. Apocalypse theories abound: nationalism and xenophobia encourage isolation. Urban violence, economic decline and AIDS have contributed to a reactionary environment where progressive thought is anathema.
The circumstances surrounding AIDS activism have radically changed since its beginning in 1986. Both the Executive Branch and the Congress have changed hands. America is in "decline". Communism is "dead". Internationally, politics have moved further to the right, and the citizenry of the United States has become more insular.
The lesbian and gay community has also changed. Embattled, fragmented and burned out, gay activists have adapted to the apparent permanence of the AIDS crisis. The notion that AIDS is here to stay threatens to overpower the idea that it should be fought. This shift away from seeing AIDS as a political crisis gained momentum once it became obvious there would be no quick solution for it. Our horizons thus re-drawn, we are shunning the political questions and searching for new methods of coping: practical ones, personal ones.
Our culture is run on carefully crafted words and images. They are given tremendous authority, and have the power to shape society's responses. It is worth noting that the images which have endured through the AIDS crisis are not ones of activism. Rather, they are symbols of remembrance and reprieve: quilts, ribbons and angels. The symbols and symptoms of our acceptance of AIDS, our acceptance of death. Acceptance may be an appropriate response to the tragedy of AIDS. It is not a political response.
What does it mean when personal responses are confused with civic ones? In the case of AIDS, we are left without solutions for a constellation of woes far beyond the tragedy of human loss - such as the economics of health care, society's marginalization of individuals in need, the skewing of scientific research along lines of class, gender, and race, and the depletion of entire communities.
Our culture's acceptance of these images denotes a complicity between individual citizens, AIDS organizations and our government, where the responsibility for AIDS is consistently transferred elsewhere. Our government wants the responsibilities privatized. When these images are backed by philanthropic organizations, it enables the government to steer responsibility from governments to Gods.
Since the beginning of the AIDS crisis, we've been reminded by historians and spiritual leaders that death by plague is the way of nature. But AIDS is not simply an act of nature, a fact of life. It is also the business of government, the media world of infotainment, the propaganda of religion and the industry of science.
In America, science and rationalism are paramount. When privileged AIDS activists were introduced to scientists on the battlefield of AIDS, they discovered a fellowship. By including activists in the inner circles of the research establishment, the system which activist set out to change neutralized their dissent. Now, when scientists suggest there is no relief in sight (an assertion based on limited scientific criteria) activists working within the system concur.
Meanwhile, the media presents the picture that our society has matured with respect to AIDS. Both film and television have taken on the subject, although their analyses generally ignore the political implications. Their spin is reductive, almost irrelevant: that the human capacity to deal with loss is ennobling. The cultural prognosis for AIDS is dismal. The drama of AIDS has been replaced by its normalization. In terms of elections and economics, the true determinants of our nation's soul, AIDS is a very low priority. If we ever cared about it, we appear to have given up on it. In inside circles, talk of a cure is rare.
If the original strategies of AIDS activism are in fact outmoded, this is as much a by-product of the social context as it is of the varied personal responses which have overtaken the impulse which led to activism in the first place: the impulse to stop the disease cold. What is not outmoded is the need for action: action of all sorts and on all levels.
Let The Record Show 2
In the fall of 1987 Bill Olander offered the window of The New Museum For Contemporary Art to ACT UP to use as a space for agit-prop. Individuals from within the group accepted his offer and met to develop the installation "Let The Record Show". Afterwards, many of us continued to meet; the project's enthusiastic reception confirmed our feelings that more work needed to be done exploring the political and social dimensions of the AIDS crisis. Furthermore, the meetings allowed us to utilize skills developed outside of ACT UP in a smaller group which streamlined the process of working in the large weekly meetings.
As a collective producing agit-prop around issues in the AIDS crisis, we chose the name 'Gran Fury' after the brand of Plymouth automobile used as a squad car by the New York City police department. Gran Fury began in early 1988 and worked continuously until 1994 in various permutations with different members of a core group of about ten. Originally we kept the group open to anyone from ACT UP but after awhile, integrating new members proved to be too time consuming. Group members could participate or not depending on their availability and interest in specific issues. This stable group was an economical way for us to work. We understood each other's point of view and were comfortable tossing ideas around.
Our first projects were poster sniping (illegal wheat-pasting of posters on vacant signage), and Xeroxed flyers, a working method which grew out of an ACT UP aesthetic and our limited funds. After about a year, our tactics changed as we questioned whether postering was the most effective means of reaching a large general audience. Also, we decided to become less dependent on ACT UP for funding; loss of editorial control once a project came before the entire floor for approval lead to this move, although many of us continued to attend meetings as individuals. Both these shifts were influenced as well by the realization that art institutions would support our work. With their financial and institutional support, we adapted to strategies of intervention in advertising spaces.
As Gran Fury received increasing art world support, we did so with the condition that we receive the greatest possible public access to our work, in most cases exhibiting outside the art space itself. We decided not to produce work for the gallery market. Art institutions provided us with access to public spaces a group such as ours would otherwise never have had the resources to acquire; they profited through supporting AIDS work by an activist group which met their aesthetic standards and which was willing to observe certain boundaries of wheat was and was not allowable-explicit obscenity or critique of their sponsors.
Gran Fury was aware of the extent to which we were being used, but accepted the trade-off if our conditions were met. To its' credit, the art world was one of the few places outside of activism where such discussion about AIDS was allowed. The bulk of our funding came from art museums and foundations -- The New Museum of Contemporary Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Los Angeles' MOCA and Creative Time to name a few. Additional funding came from lecturing at colleges, from AIDS organizations (though this was minimal) and finally from sales of T-shirts and stickers we had designed and sold through ACT UP, receiving a small portion of the profit. All of this went directly into funding the production of our projects, covering printing and the cost of advertising space; no one in the group received a salary.
Between 1989 and 1991 we were able to see our images circulate in a way we never imagined. Even if they didn't have the power to solve the crisis, they focused attention on it, and acted as a rallying cry, a point of identification for those inside the movement. Our projects developed a second life through the press coverage that accompanied them, so that their influence was greater than the physical space they occupy. "The Kissing Doesn't Kill" project go media coverage across the country through wire services and public radio stations, and even spawned a debate over representation of gays and lesbians on the floor of the Illinois State Senate.
Many of our strategies were incorporated into advertising. An ad campaign, however provocative, still has it's AIDS message subservient to promoting a company name. In that relation, it loses the power of direct demand or exposure of facts. Bennetton went one step further by producing an issue of COLORS magazine to address AIDS. Many of the strategies they used were borrowed from projects we had done; we had been contacted by a researcher from Bennetton who asked for examples of our work, saying they would be considered for inclusion in the magazine; instead, they reworked our strategies, skewing them in a surreal direction with little or no context in which to interpret the images or statistics.
By 1993 the effort involved became too demanding for different members. Most people worked full-time if not more, running their own businesses. More importantly, for all the effort involved, it began to feel routine. We had settled too clearly into one way of working. As the AIDS epidemic had evolved, along with the governmental and institutional responses to it, the early solutions are no longer appropriate. AS AIDS activists joined community based organizations (CBO's) and governmental agencies, many activists moved inside institution they had previously been excluded from. Many of these CBO's and AIDS organizations began to run media campaigns of their own, and even if they were not as politically sharp as Gran Fury's, they nonetheless occupied "public space" that we had formerly filled. Finally, the issues-drug trial design and protocol, financing social services for P.W.A.'s , insurance industry fraud-became less readily communicable in sharp billboard copy. Gran Fury's original strategies were unable to communicate the complexities of AIDS issues in the mid-1990's .
At the same time, our work began to feel like a signature style, a convenient product for the art world to use to fulfill its' desire to "do something" about the AIDS crisis. Gran Fury's status as flavor of the month in the American art world was over; interest in our work had shifted to Europe where we consistently felt handicapped by attempting to understand their specific issues, as well as by our inability to use colloquial slogans. In 1992 we designed a campaign for Montreal which utilized the symbols of Quebecois sovereignty to draw attention to AIDS issues -- specifically a warning to conduct research and design programs that would apply to the Canadian situation. The project backfired because the icon we chose to use was too potent -- some did not recognize it as an AIDS campaign. In general, we found that we could only produce the most general messages, otherwise we ran the risk of misreading a local situation or creating something that would fail in translation.
Bill Clinton, while not providing strong
leadership for the AIDS crisis, is not easily demonized, and does
not make openly hostile or stupidly misinformed remarks about
AIDS. Reagan's blatant ignorance and hostility, and to a lesser
degree Bush's as well, were easy targets for activism. Our early
work was to draw attention to political and social issues of the
AIDS crisis as we saw them. Those administrations initial lack
of involvement made our work simple. Identifying aspects of the
crisis as continued racism, sexism and homophobia was easy. The
proliferation of issues, discourses, and the very expansion of
efforts to end the AIDS crisis has meant that activism has changed.
Though it may seem to many that the activism spawned by ACT UP
had died, it has not. It has shifted focus. We have not ended
the AIDS crisis, but work continues, and there is more to be done.
Future Sex Acts
The moment of early ACT UP has passed, and with it, large scale public demonstrations of outrage and anger. As AIDS awareness has spread into the mainstream, creating its own social sphere of community-based organizations, charitable institutions, even glossy magazines for the HIV and AIDS identified, many have organized to represent their particular interests -- Latino, African-American, hemophiliac, I.V. drug users, children with AIDS, homeless PWA's. ACT UP grew from the gay and lesbian community, and now it may be appropriate to re-examine the particular needs of this community. Not that the larger goals which would affect all should be abandoned -- reform is vitally important in light of the Clinton administration's inability to effect any substantive change in health care delivery. We simply need to recognize that our own community still has to fight for resources, representation, and the right to define strategies for fighting the epidemic.
Within the last two years, studies (conducted largely at the initiative of the gay and lesbian community) have revealed that the current efforts to prevent HIV transmission among self-identified gay men are failing, in spite of significant advances made to promote condom use. In San Francisco and New York, as many as an estimated 30 to 45% of HIV negative men between the ages of 18 and 25 reported engaging in unprotected anal intercourse within the previous six months. Many of these men know that wearing a condom prevents transmission; "wear a condom every time" and "safe sex is hot sex" campaigns fail to address the psychic resistance that leads some gay men to put themselves at risk even though they know better. Identification with HIV infected friends and lovers, the absence of a cure, the never ending toll of illness, the inability to imagine a time when sex will not automatically evoke death -- these are the issues that prevention activists must address if they want to reduce HIV transmission among gay men.
The current sexual climate has never been more firmly aligned against a sex positive approach to HIV prevention. The New York City Office of HIV Prevention has never conducted a study to determine the infection rate of gay men, and has not developed a new prevention campaign for gay men in over two years. More specifically, Mayor Giuliani has targeted gay sex establishments in his effort to improve the "quality of life" in New York. Alliances between local law enforcement and frustrated gay activists who don't trust the gay community to regulate itself have meant that the potential for self-determination on these issues have been taken outside, to be hashed out in dailies like The Post and The Daily News -- a desperate approach not likely to offer any realistic solutions.
Activists groups such as the AIDS Prevention Action League (APAL) and Community AIDS Prevention Activists (CAPA) have formed to readdress prevention needs and strategies from within the gay community. They have organized forums to encourage gay men to talk about when they do and do not practice safer sex; met with bar and club owners to discuss how they can assist prevention efforts, and have petitioned the city to allow the community to regulate itself, not the vice squad.
With discouraging reports of AZT's effectiveness in delaying the onset of AIDS at the 1992 Berlin AIDS conference and few encouraging developments in treatment, prevention has become the focus for many activists. Ten years of fighting AIDS has shown us the HIV education is not a conversion experience. Prevention must become an on-going effort that addressed not simply the mechanic of safe sex, but also our psychological needs. We must organize to develop our self-esteem within the community so that gay men feel that they have some stake in staying alive -- especially for young men who may be in the middle of casting off internalized homophobia absorbed from their families and schools. During first sexual encounters, they must feel able to say "no" to partners who would put them at risk. They must realize their vulnerability to infection in spite of their youth..
Rather than simply printing up a list of "Do's and Don'ts", AIDS organizations need to recognize the importance of individuals weighing the risks of certain sexual acts against their needs for sexual pleasure and emotional intimacy. In spite of the fact that no doctor will guarantee that one cannot acquire HIV through oral sex, many have made their own evaluation from anecdotal evidence, and are willing to take the low risk associated with unprotected oral sex without ejaculation. If AIDS organizations fail to reflect these community norms when they do not pose serious health risks, they will lose credibility. Individuals must be allowed to make choices in those grey areas; AIDS organizations should provide information to facilitate these choices.
Prevention campaigns must recognize the punitive messages which demonize unsafe sex do not effectively reach those who are having it; they may even reinforce it by making men feel guilty. The reality of our sexual lives must be reflected in prevention efforts, even if it does not conform to the desired behavior change. Only by identifying our lapses will we begin changing them.
ARTFORUM interview with Gran Fury April 2003 Download PDF file
Collectifs D'Artistes Face au SIDA
Artist Collectives Against AIDS
New York 1987-1994
Project by Ecole du MAGASIN (2003)
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