Remembering ACT UP: ‘80s Hotties Fight AIDS

October 15, 2010



ACT UP formed in New York in 1987 to combat the effects of AIDS in the gay community, its initial goals being to publicize the crisis, get drugs into bodies and to end AIDS. Twenty-three years later, two of the three were accomplished, incredibly. Kids today know AIDS (not GRIDS) as a human disaster talked about largely as a faraway, mostly African problem. They see Magic Johnson is still alive, and may or may not know that many poor women in America who have AIDS struggle to manage their disease as well as he can. That said, I’m not sure what it means that Opening Ceremony is selling ACT UP’s Read My Lips Tee for 50 bucks. I am sure that I don’t have to remind you that gay love remains dishonored, resisted. Last week in the Bronx nine men burned, beat, and tortured two gay teens and one gay man for hours. Tyler Clementi committed suicide after being outed on the internet and gay celebrities responded by participating in Dan Savage’s kind of fucked “It Gets Better” project, which sideways suggests that it’s okay for gay life to be painful when you’re young, especially if you end up in a committed relationship.

You have until October 23rd to go see the ACT UP NEW YORK show at White Columns. Curated by Helen Molesworth and Claire Grace, the exhibition, first shown with extensive symposiums last year at Harvard, has a victory lap feeling. For any student of art, any young person now, the ability to view ACT UP as a past reality and historical precedent is to have the privilege of knowing that collective organizing can interact with visual art in the press, the museum and the streets before really, massively affecting culture.

In their installation, White Columns give separate-but-equal gallery space to ACT UP campaign ephemera, video of demonstrations in New York and San Francisco, a memorializing new work by collective fierce pussy, and interviews with former activists collected by the ACTUP Oral History Project throughout the past decade. The exhibits component projects look like breakout cliques at a too-big meeting where what really needs to get done may not. This could be off-putting but seems appropriate. It helps call visitors attention to the fact that ACT UP was a big group whose trajectory was, at its most active and now, an essentially additive process collaged together by people with varied talents and needs. And all of the stories about it you can find here are rich, but to navigate them you have to get learning-labby: The TVs with headphones and long video reels don’t hide that they require time and attention. At its very best, ACT UP was a place for people to learn together, rely on each other’s expertise, become friends. If you visit the exhibit without a supported sense of purpose, you’ll have trouble taking it all in.

But try! The bang for your buck territory is the slick propaganda tools collected in two side galleries. These posters, stickers, billboards, and T-shirts were born of the convergence of actual money and actual power with intellectual and cultural capital in the group, factors that helped ACT UP simplify things in order to attack them, and succeed in doing so. The stuff of ACT UP’s marketing arms on view here, like a replication of the Silence=Death neon first shown at the New Museum’s window in 1987, drafts of the Kissing Doesn’t Kill bus campaign, designs tests of Sexism Rears Its Unprotected Head posters are funny, smart, and great looking. I spent a whole year of my life freaking out and writing about Sister Corita Kent, a radical silkscreening nun whose DayGlo prints in the ’60s were ads for loving god and living a righteous creative life. Maybe because of that and maybe because of some lizard brain shit, looking at the prints by Gran Fury, the closed subcommittee division of ACT UP responsible for their best-remembered artwork, is affirming. One of the most compelling pieces in the show is one of Gran Fury’s last. The Four Questions, a poster made in 1992, asks, "Do you resent people with AIDS? Do you trust HIV-negatives? Have you given up hope for a cure? When was the last time you cried?” These questions expose the persistent difficulty of believing in something, devoting to a group, making accusations, expressing the complexity of your feelings, your self.

ACT UP was distinctly late ’80s/early ’90s, and as with everything from that Peewee Herman era, the colors pop. But the messages of hope and caution are black and white so, years after ACT UP won the struggle, there’s no question who’s right. Ed Koch was an asshole, everyone with AIDS deserves to live (well!), and no one dies from kissing hot chicks and/or dudes. Being at White Columns, you’re thankful to have lived through it, that these things have become common facts. The feeling of solidarity and belonging conjured from looking at T-shirts I would have worn if I’d been born earlier, even if imagined, is important, nourishing. Since I don’t have friends who were a part of the movement, I fill them in with my favorite characters from She’s Gotta Have It or Party Girl as placeholders. ACT UP models had the same haircuts. Make-believing their story of heroic culture production feels good. But it’s a fleeting pleasure, and this sinks in while watching the demonstration videos and interviews. I wasn’t there! And it’s hard, from here, to feel deeply about specific campaigns and actions that are tied to political figures already booted from office, drugs people don’t use anymore. But it’s too bad that a lot of the folks I’ve told about this show have never heard of ACT UP. They were cocky and courageous! It’s easy to take pride in them and it’s worth it to allow yourself that satisfaction.

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Remembering ACT UP: ‘80s Hotties Fight AIDS