Magazine article Artforum International

Lest We Forget

Magazine article Artforum International

Lest We Forget

Article excerpt

ACT UP DID POLITICS with an urgent Pop splash. Comic-book chromatics and rage tweaked Reagan's eyes pink and his face bright green; AZT, the first effective (and massively overpriced) AIDS drug to land on the market got a Coca-Cola treatment in a red poster that urged us cheerily to ENJOY it. In the recent exhibition "ACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993" at Harvard's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, one's eyes grazed over an entire wall of posters--most in bold caps--full of information and accusations directed both to the half-awake people in the street and at a rogue's gallery of powerful men whose crimes of omission caused ACT UP to declare them "Deadlier than the Virus." Ed Koch, mayor of New York; Mario Cuomo, governor; Stephen Joseph, NYC Commissioner of Health; Cardinal O'Connor, one of ACT UP's prime targets: All fell down on the job during a health crisis, and ACT UP held them accountable.

In addition to the multitude of posters, this emotional feast of a show comprised video projections, handbills, stickers, T-shirts, buttons--all the paraphernalia of a daily, lived political movement filled the upper floor of the Carpenter Center, chronicling six years of adamant activity. Installed on the lower level was what Helen Molesworth (who curated the show with Claire Grace) called a "spatialized" oral history--a room full of video monitors showing interviews, produced by Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman, with more than one hundred of ACT UP's living members. Together, all these materials documented to great effect the huge accomplishment of ACT UP during the peak years of the AIDS crisis.

Molesworth's rationale for doing the show had everything to do with a sense that the legacy of ACT UP had not survived its own moment. "When I got to Harvard"--in 2007, as curator of the university's art museum--"I discovered that none of the undergraduates had even heard of ACT UP," she told me in a phone conversation. "The most important political movement of my generation hadn't made it into the curriculum. There was no antiwar movement to speak of at Harvard. It began to seem that the one great accomplishment of the Giuliani and Bush regimes was an image lockdown sanitizing the urban space of any hint of rebellion." The triumph, then, of the show mounted here is that the success of ACT UP--in terms of political organization, powerful design, and long-term impact on safe-sex education, health care, and the FDA protocols for releasing new drugs--is fully visible for the first time.

When the story is told it begins like this: ACT UP grew out of a question posed by playwright Larry Kramer to a crowded room at New York's Gay and Lesbian Community Center one night in 1987. "Do we want to start a new organization devoted to political action?" The answer was "a resounding yes," according to Douglas Crimp, and so ACT UP began. A crowd of artists, activists, and people with aids began meeting each week at the Center. Smaller affinity groups developed out of the mass in order to organize specific actions: The art collectives among these included the Silence=Death Project, Gran Fury, Gang, and Fierce Pussy, who all took it upon themselves to become the propaganda machine of ACT UP. The fact that the individuals who formed these groups were already artists and designers in New York, that they were trained to create and manipulate messages for the media, meant that their political interventions would practically be intravenous.

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Of course, ACT UP was part of a long line of artist-activist groups. The stage had been richly set in the same dirty New York streets by the Guerrilla Girls, for instance, whose wheat-pasted graphics melded hard fact and design to critique the sexism of the art world. Barbara Kruger's ad art and Jenny Holzer's truisms were also strong influences on the work on view in the exhibition. So this new coalition stood firmly on a lot of public and social art history when it began to push its message forward. …

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