'Sexuality, Politics and Protest': The Frieze talk on activism after AIDS

Considering why artistic responses to the AIDS crisis are relevant today


In 1987, the radical New York-based activist collective Act Up was founded. A year later, Gran Fury was launched, initially as an ad hoc committee of Act Up members. Act Up is still operational and defines itself as “a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the Aids crisis”. But throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it was Gran Fury (which disbanded in 1995) that inserted itself most visibly into New York’s cityscape as the group’s members, including Mark Simpson, Donald Moffett and Marlene McCarty, “purposefully intervened in public and advertising spaces to disrupt the flow of normal thoughts with their own agenda”, according to documentation from the New York Public Library, where the Gran Fury archive is housed. Fliers, posters and billboards were public canvases for Gran Fury, used to counter the myths and stereotypes being promulgated by the general media as the Aids crisis developed.

A Frieze London talk tomorrow, “Sexuality, Politics and Protest”, will draw on the legacy of these radical New York collectives—which seem more pertinent than ever in light of the growing outrage against Russia’s anti-gay laws, not to mention restrictions on and persecution of homosexuals from Africa to the Middle East. Speakers including the artist Marlene McCarty and the Johannesburg-based photographer Zanele Muholi will discuss the role of art today in the advancement of the gay cause, asking whether “queer activism” has “reshaped the power of contemporary art and protest”.

The California-based art historian Robert Atkins explains why artists felt they had to respond to the Aids pandemic sweeping the US in the 1980s. “Until 1985, the media totally monopolised the production of Aids images,” he says, stressing that newspapers and television offered only images of emaciated Aids “victims” and “disease carriers”. “The first wave of Aids art was produced with one propagandistic purpose: to counter the horrific media representations,” Atkins adds.

Gran Fury came into being after the late curator William Olander commissioned Act Up to create a piece called Let the Record Show, which was displayed in late 1987 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, then on lower Broadway. The searing work featured images of six public figures accompanied by concrete plaques inscribed with their anti-Aids rhetoric. A neon “Silence=Death” sign hung overhead, while an LED strip conveyed rolling facts about the Aids crisis.

Atkins makes the case for Gran Fury’s activism as art, emphasising the fact that their strategies helped transform public attitudes to Aids. He believes the group articulated a lucid, digestible response to the crisis by creating art that incorporated the grisly Aids statistics emanating daily from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and New York’s Department of Health. “They wanted to dispense essential information that the government wasn’t [distributing]. They targeted the street rather than the gallery, and they recognised that images are far more empowering when accompanied by words of explanation and elaboration,” Atkins says.

Nelson Santos, the executive director of the New York-based Visual Aids organisation, which supports HIV-positive artists, says that Gran Fury’s sophisticated use of graphics and design on signs and t-shirts still resonates today. “You can see the same fonts and bold graphics on protest signs and posters for all kinds of causes today,” he says. The New York Public Library archives also pinpoint why Gran Fury’s work matters, Santos says. “With controversy, the art work took on another life through the media, thus circulating a message far beyond its initial space.”

The activism came before the art, however, as the members of Gran Fury explained in an interview with Art Forum in 2003. “It always blows my mind because we came together with such a sense of urgency, with goals that had nothing to do with wanting to make art or to change the way people looked at art,” McCarty said.

Michael Elmgreen of the artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset says that Gran Fury and Act Up were important movements that raised awareness of the Aids crisis. “No one seemed to remember how ignorant the authorities were worldwide at that time,” he says. “It was art with a clear political agenda… it was not about good or bad art, but survival.”

Today, in openly exploring gay-related issues, Elmgreen & Dragset are still in a minority. The duo have made pieces that are blatantly pro-gay, such as Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime, unveiled in 2008 in Berlin. But their current exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, “Tomorrow” (until 2 January 2014), is more subtle. The site-specific installation is a “fictional domestic interior that belongs to the architect Norman Swann”. HIV medication in a desk drawer alludes to Swann’s predicament as an elderly gay man who has lived longer than expected after advances in research and treatment. “But [the work] is less about gay issues and more about masculine roles,” Elmgreen says.

Back on the agenda

Gay rights have been brought into sharp focus by the Russian president Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay crackdown (in July, he signed a bill classifying “homosexual propaganda” as pornography). The most radical art has subsequently been seen in street protests; a demonstration in September in Madrid featured posters depicting Putin in make-up and false eyelashes.

In August, the Irish artist and curator Noel Kelly organised a petition demanding that the organisers of the roving biennial Manifesta postpone, cancel or relocate the 2014 exhibition due to take place in St Petersburg. It has since drawn nearly 2,000 signatures, and received the support of Klaus Biesenbach, the director of MoMA PS1 in New York. “What is clear is that progressive, contemporary culture in Russia is contested, and as ideas continue to be exchanged across borders, we believe it is vital to play an active role in this dialogue,” said the organisers of Manifesta 10 in a statement. But Michael Elmgreen says: “I think art events like Manifesta have a moral responsibility to address the problems in Russia in a direct way.”

The power to provoke

Aids is not the only catalyst for artists today, who appear concerned with other gay-related issues and work across different platforms. “Art still has a role to play in advancing LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] and other causes, although right now, it seems that popular culture and social media are where much of the action is,” says Marilee Lindemann, the director of the LGBT Studies programme at the University of Maryland. Nelson Santos argues that art still has the power to “provoke, influence and sway”, saying that his organisation uses art as a starting point to develop dialogues around complex issues such as homophobia. “How to continue to provoke dialogue” is an ongoing challenge, he says.

Only a handful of artists are explicitly addressing issues that affect the LGBT community. Last December, the French street artist Kashink created a large-scale mural in central Paris in support of gay marriage; the piece showed two “husbands” happily poring over their wedding cake. The artist said she wanted to make a stand in support of “equality measures”.

The photographer Zanele Muholi has no qualms about saying she is an activist. “I think to myself: ‘What’s the point of just taking a picture? What happens after that?’” She takes a stand in her work against the stigmatisation of gay individuals who are classed as “un-African”. An exhibition of her striking, sexually charged images in 2010 at Cape Town’s Stevenson gallery explored “being black and queer”.

“To be counted as equal citizens in our country, we black lesbians need to make ourselves visible in whatever way we can. These aren’t just photographs: I am pushing a queer political agenda. Identities will always be political,” she says.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Still here, still queer: Activism after AIDS'