One night in the mid-80s, my friends and I were walking along Capitol Hill, and there on the lawn of Seattle Community College was a group of men holding a candlelight vigil. There were only four or five of them. We asked them what the vigil was about. One man gave me a pamphlet and said that gay men and junkies were dying of a new disease. He told me that with the way this mysterious illness was spreading, soon everyone would have it. I didn’t believe him. But over the course of the next ten years, what he said turned out to be true, or at least to many of us felt true.
For that long decade, Americans struggled to make sense of HIV-AIDS and what it meant to us, not just as individuals, but also to our communities. We saw conceptual art enter the national consciousness, exemplified through the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who took as his subject matter grief and loss. Cleve Jones’ Names Project, is a robust example of memorial art, that is as powerful today as it was when it was first displayed in 1987. Here at the 30th anniversary of the start of the AIDS crisis, it is not surprising to me that both Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America are experiencing successful revivals. Of course, we are also seeing exhibitions, like the one at the MCA, This Will Have Been: Art, Love, & Politics in the 1980s, that reconsiders the work of artists and activists of the time.
The way I best come to understand a historic period is to look at the cultural production of the time. AIDS Demo Graphics by Douglas Crimp, with Adam Rolston set out to document the graphic protests of the time–mostly through the work of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and Gran Fury. In the introduction, the editors position the book itself as a direct action, which at first seemed to be an overstatement, but as I read, I came to agree with. The book opens with ACT UP’s first direct action, a demonstration on Wall Street. In the photograph a young man, dressed in a suit is being hauled off by the cops. Called “No More Business as Usual,” this action protested the US government’s cozy and deadly relationship with the drug manufacturer Burroughs Welcome. “The target: BUSINESS. BIG BUSINESS. BUSINESS AS USUAL.”
Undoubtedly, ACT UP in particular changed what American protest looks like. While the 60s and 70s offered homemade political signs, ACT UP’s imagery resembled an exhibition poster, or more accurately, a United Colors of Benetton ad. The book is organized chronologically and by the time I reached the middle, Gran Fury (the design arm of ACT UP) is producing compelling posters of protest, that are visually compelling and convey information about the spread of HIV that at the time, the public did not have access to. You can see one of Gran Fury’s famous ads, “Kissing Doesn’t Kill, Greed and Indifference Do,” as part of the This Will Have Been advertisement on the Red Line around the Belmont stop.
Only three years passed between that first action and the publication of AIDS Demo Graphics in 1990. Even without the privilege of hindsight, the book serves as a snapshot of the graphic history of protest around the spread of HIV/AIDS. Each protest and its direct action is detailed, so that by the end of the book you have an understanding of the trajectory of both the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS and US government policy. I highly recommend this book for those who are interested in a succinct history of the AIDS crisis, and also to those who have an interest in the role design plays in social movements.
AIDS Demo Graphics
Douglas Crimp, with Adam Rolston
Bay Press. Seattle. 1990.
Out of print. Widely available on the interwebs for about $5, or from the Chicago Public Library for free.