AIDS activism now and then – 25 years of ACT UP and Gran Fury
September 1989: five men slip onto the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Sweeping in with a swarm of smokers rushing for the start of trading, they chain themselves to a balcony. As the bell goes off, they drown it out with air horns and unfurl a banner. ‘Sell Wellcome!’ Chaos ensues. Trading can’t start – the only time in history it’s interrupted. Dollars rain down on traders. Fake tens, 50s and 100s drift to the floor, emblazoned on the backs: ‘Fuck Your Profiteering. People are dying while you play business,’ and ‘White Heterosexual men can’t get aids … Don’t bank on it.’ Traders are rabid when they realize these are aids protestors. Outside 1,500 people gather, carrying signs of bloody hands and handing out the fake bills. The next day, photos of the scene make the front pages of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and, two days later, Burroughs Wellcome lowers the annual cost of the antiretroviral drug AZT by 20 percent, from US$10,000 (at that time the most expensive drug in history) to US$8,000.
That was the power of ACT UP – creative, angry, funny, clever. Short for the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, the group would go after a goal from countless angles until it got results. ACT UP was started 25 years ago when, in a speech at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in New York, Larry Kramer pointed out that two-thirds of the audience would die from AIDS. Now the group has been captured in David France’s emotional documentary How to Survive a Plague (2012). Using archival footage following key members, the film builds a narrative that moves from the storm-the-Bastille urgency of ACT UP’s inception to achieving real change, and then despair, as a cure seemed ever out of reach. Featuring all the reversals of a Hollywood movie, it ends on hope with the promise of protease inhibitors, a class of drugs that block the retrovirus that causes AIDS.
ACT UP spawned affinity groups for issues from housing and the homeless (Housing Works, now one of New York’s most effective charities) to the Power Tools, who dressed in suits, carried briefcases and used drills and steel plates to barricade themselves in buildings as part of the eight-month assault on Wellcome. One group dealt with the latest research and science protocols, pressuring institutions to do more. Others worked specifically on women’s issues. ACT UP even had its own art and propaganda arm. Those dollars on the floor of the stock exchange bore a small script signature: ‘Gran Fury’. A collective of ten members, it made not just the bills but posters, slogans, ads and art installations. They designed the bloody hands which protesters carried that day on Wall Street and were the subject of a retrospective at New York University’s 80WSE Gallery this past spring.
The 1980s and early ’90s can feel like distant history. Six months was an eon. You could go from diagnosis to death in weeks. Homophobia was rampant. People, gay people to be specific, were deemed expendable. Jesse Helms added amendments to bills in the US Senate making it illegal for people with AIDS to enter the US and outlawed funding for AIDS education that might seem to condone gay sex or IV drug use. Both passed easily. Reagan was into his second term before he even managed to utter the word AIDS. The FBI kept dossiers on ACT UP members, labelling them as terrorists. One out of seven New Yorkers was predicted to get AIDS by 1991, and the disease was the biggest killer of men and women aged between 25 and 44 in the city. Thirty percent of the nation’s cases were in New York and more than 54 percent of them in people of colour. These stark statistics come from flyers pasted to the walls of the 80WSE Gallery. In the face of those figures, ACT UP created a raucous rage, channelling fury into action. One of the five men who took to the trading floor that September morning said recently: ‘In ACT UP I found a creative way, a theatricality, where I could focus my anger.’ The meetings were so crowded one Gran Fury member recalls: ‘Anyone could come; that is if you could get in the door.’
Helms became the centrepiece of work by Gran Fury. The collective used every available visual language and vernacular to make its point. It prodded politicians and the church. Reagan was portrayed in the orange swirls of a target. ‘He kills me,’ the copy said. Others showed doctors and businessmen and talked of ‘medical apartheid’. The Furies even took on The New York Times and its coverage of the disease. Working with other affinity groups to write the articles, Gran Fury created The New York Crimes and snuck copies into news racks. In an age before computer design (and before we got our news online) it’s hard to imagine how much work the paper took to create.
‘Read My Lips’ showed two sailors kissing and ripped off George H.W. Bush’s words (delivered in a presidential debate, the line ended: ‘No new taxes’). It was a provocation and lead to posters of gay, lesbian and straight mixed-race couples kissing with the legend: ‘Kissing doesn’t kill. Greed and indifference do. Corporate greed, government inaction and public indifference make aids a political crisis.’ With the stylish look of a Benetton ad, they appeared across the US – and were defaced in many of the places they hung. Even now some of Gran Fury’s work has the power to shock, like the erect penis imploring men to: ‘Use a condom or beat it.’ Women are so often sexualized that seeing an erect cock is rare, and even in New York those penis posters were torn down as soon as Gran Fury members put them up. A 1990 poster took a photo of a smiling teenage girl in T-shirt saying, ‘Thank God for AIDS.’ At the bottom, the poster said simply: ‘This is to scare you.’
The group got its start when the New Museum offered act up a window on Broadway, and they were included (to much scandal) in the 1990 Venice Biennale. Art, though, was never the point. Action was. Tellingly, the only painting the group made says ‘riot’. With the look of Robert Indiana’s painting Love (1964), it was a response to General Idea’s Imagevirus (1987–94) with the same tilted lettering Indiana had used. One Gran Fury member explains: ‘It was not okay to equate Love and AIDS. AIDS lead us to want to riot.’ Soon after, the group ran ads in the Village Voice saying, ‘Art Is Not Enough.’
It wasn’t. Nothing was. The movie and retrospective both capture that moment of the early ’90s, with the AZT lottery, where you were lucky if it worked for you. Gran Fury member Mark Simpson created the ‘Four Questions’ at that time. They were the group’s most personal and private piece. Its small type required the reader to get close to the poster. ‘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?’ Simpson died shortly after.
Now I can’t help but see the work of Gran Fury and ACT UP not as history but as possibility. In our age of ribbons and wristbands, concern is expressed at best distantly through shopping where profits from Product red go to fight AIDS in the developing world. With the Arab Spring and Occupy, even the police protesting austerity in London, ACT UP looks more and more like a template for the future. Members of ACT UP weren’t content with finger waving and hand signals and consensus building. They unleashed power. In the movie it’s clear just what average people can do if they pick discrete targets and tackle them from every angle. Only now as everything changes, nothing changes.
The floor of the gallery entrance at NYU is littered with copies of those dollar bills that rained down on the Stock Exchange. They still trumpet, ‘Fuck your profiteering!’ Hanging over them is a 1990 Gran Fury poster: ‘Welcome to America, the only industrialized country besides South Africa without national healthcare.’ South Africa, though, where AIDS is a national problem, does have healthcare. And the US? Well ... It makes me think of the Karl Marx quote: ‘First time tragedy and second time farce.’ Only, I’m not laughing.
First published in Issue 149