How AIDS Was Branded: Looking Back at ACT UP Design

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.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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