How AIDS Was Branded: Looking Back at ACT UP Design

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A conversation with a member of Gran Fury, the "propaganda wing" of the early AIDS-awareness movement

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Gran Fury

In a 1987 speech, the public health advocate Larry Kramer urged that HIV-related illness be seen as a new kind of contagion. ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was formed immediately afterward to bring needed awareness to a disease that was ravaging gay men. AIDS soon became politicized and ACT UP used civil disobedience and activism to attack the inertia and downright hostility from the mainstream to homosexuals accused of bringing on their own plague.

ACT UP held weekly "highly charged" meetings at The Center on West 13th Street in New York. It was a time of despair, and the ad-hoc members of ACT UP used every public means to increase understanding and compassion towards the disease's sufferers and ire towards the disease itself. Out of these meetings in 1988 came the graphic design and advertising arm, Gran Fury, a diverse group of designers and artists producing various public expressions using t-shirts, posters, stickers, banners, billboards, and video to get the message through. Pairing the slogan "Silence = Death" and the purple triangle (referencing gays in Nazi concentration camps) created in 1987 by the Silence = Death project, Gran Fury's iconic "Kissing Doesn't Kill: Greed and Indifference Do" poster put AIDS awareness on the map.

On January 31 through March 17 NYU's Steinhardt Department of Art and Arts Professions is hosting Gran Fury: Read My Lips, a retrospective exhibition curated by Gran Fury and Michael Cohen. I spoke to one of the members, Loring McAlpin, who was speaking on behalf of Gran Fury about its collective legacy

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It seems like only yesterday that AIDS hit like a nuclear blast and Gran Fury's advertisements were blasted all over too. What, in fact, triggered the formation of the group?

The response was triggered by an awareness that our lives were in danger, that the political and medical institutions that we assumed would take the necessary steps to stem a nascent epidemic were in fact stalled. Friends and lovers, people we knew, were dying, and even the medical facts of HIV were not adequately understood. It's worth noting that for many of the early organizers of ACT UP, not having full attention of the health and political establishment was something new - an awareness that the gains of gay liberation were limited. The irony is, of course, that nothing did more to bring the lesbian and gay community into the mainstream than the AIDS crisis. But that may be precisely because it demonstrated so clearly that stigma and discrimination served no one's interests, and that gays and lesbians were much more a part of society than had been acknowledged.

On a more literal level, Gran Fury formed after Bill Olander of the New Museum offered their window on Broadway to ACT UP in November 1987 for an installation. An ad hoc group formed to use this opportunity to get a message out. The group that created the installation, called "Let the Record Show" continued meeting to do more public projects, and this group became Gran Fury.

Gran Fury was the model of NYC police cars in the '80s. Where did you get the name?

We thought the name of the NYC squad car described nicely our anger and urgency, with humor, a slightly camp sensibility, and a nod to the ordinary—a mid-range Plymouth.

Gran Fury's method of using conventional advertising approaches was echoed by Guerilla Girls, Barbara Kruger, and others. How was the decision made to go in that direction?

We simply used the tools that were available to us, and of course the languages of advertising and appropriation were two of the first places we looked, even as we sought to insert unexpected messages in those vocabularies. There was not really a self-conscious "conceptual strategy". The press, government and the medical establishment were not delivering information or countering stigma; we wanted our activist voice to fill that void. Therefore, we tried to insert our message seamlessly into those spaces that were normally occupied by authority, and we used whatever we could to grab attention. It didn't matter to us if that was a borrowed strategy or not.

Yours was a collective. How were creative decisions made?

Decisions were made collectively, in weekly meetings. Then production tasks were divided according to the skills and availability of individual members. It wasn't always the most efficient process, but we managed to do a relatively effective boiling down of a message in this way.

You were the "propaganda" arm of ACT-UP and arguably the images you produced, some of which are iconic today, did as much for raising awareness as anything. What were your strategies and principles? Did you have a plan of attack?

At first, when we had limited funds, either our own money or from ACT UP, we sniped small flyers on the streets of lower Manhattan for the cost of offset printing and wheat paste. As the art world looked for ways to support ACT UP and the activist response to the pandemic, we were offered grants and opportunities. Simply, we sought to bring awareness about the pandemic that would lead others to join us in asking for the appropriate steps to be taken, whether that was streamlining the drug approval process, making funds available to allow for treatment and social services for HIV+ individuals, or countering social stigma that prevented those affected from getting appropriate care. Additionally, we recognized that our "propaganda" had a role in the group identity. Having graphics that made our demands not only visible but also to some extent pleasing gave ACT UP a stronger sense of itself. We chose not to sequester ourselves within the art world, removed from a broader public. Therefore we always demanded that our work to be visible in public space, and made that a condition for sponsors. We also decided not to make anything that could be sold, no unique objects that could be marketed, or to participate in the gallery economy. In retrospect, perhaps we could generate funds for bigger projects, but in not having to focus on that aspect, it forced us to concentrate on a message. None of us pursued this work as a full time career, and so there was a need to keep it simple.

What were the roadblocks in getting the ACT UP message out?

The Kissing Doesn't Kill campaign, one of our most widely seen projects, was an example of the extent to which even art world support had limits. The tagline to our image of racially mixed straight and gay couples kissing was "Government Inaction, Corporate Greed and Public Indifference Make AIDS a Political Crisis". The project, Art on the Road, had a funder, AMFAR, that the organizers didn't want to offend. So it ran without the tagline outside of New York City. Our hands were tied in this instance; we did not have the power to insist that the full message be run. We decided that the image itself had some value alone, and agreed to participate in spite of this. That alone proved provocative enough to generate press, which extended the reach of the project.

In general, we tried to remain aware of what was permitted in public space. If our message was too radical, we risked both access as well as a broader public reception.

In the catalog to current Gran Fury exhibition photographs of the famous "Kissing Doesn't Kill: Greed and Indifference Do" with the inter-racial and male to male kissing scratched out (although female to female was not touched), what did this tell you about American tolerance?

Although it would be tempting to conclude that it reveals a greater acceptance of lesbians than gay men, as that defacement occurred in San Francisco, it may simply demonstrate a strain of lesbian separatism more than anything else. The heterosexual interracial couple in the image was erased as well.

So much of Gran Fury's work, which appeared radical then, has been co-opted or adopted by mainstream image-makers. Does this make you proud or not?

At the very least, it suggests that our imagery became part of a vocabulary, so yes, that's nice to know.

How would you describe Gran Fury's legacy?

Perhaps we take our greatest satisfaction in the achievements of the broader movement - the ways in which the drug approval process was accelerated, the inclusion of patient groups in that process, the reduction of pricing for life saving drugs, the broader movement to make health care more affordable and increase access for all Americans. If we had a role in advancing the ways in which political and social dissent harnessed the power of media to communicate a more radical politics, then that also. But perhaps in that sense we were the product of many other broader forces that propelled these things. In many ways, we were just at the right place at the right time to have been allowed to operate as we did.

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Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. More

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. He writes the "Visuals" column for The New York Times Book Review, "Graphic Content" for T-Style's "The Moment" blog, and The Daily Heller for Print magazine. He is the author or editor of over 140 books on design and popular visual culture.
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