An acclaimed David Wojnarowicz retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York was targeted by Act Up (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) protesters on Friday night. The Act Up members objected to the historicisation of the Aids crisis – the retrospective was titled “David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night” – and they held up recent HIV and Aids-related news articles to highlight the issue’s continuing relevance in contemporary culture.
They also handed out fliers at the protest, which read: “Aids is not history. The Aids crisis did not die with David Wojnarowicz. We are here tonight to honour David’s art and activism by explicitly connecting them to the present day.” Wojnarowicz was himself a member of Act Up until his early death in 1992.
One of the protesters at the event was Alan Timothy Lunceford-Stevens, an Act Up member since the organisation’s foundation in 1987, and former acquaintance of Wojnarowicz. He is keen to stress the ongoing relevance of Aids and, in some sense, its increased relevance in minority communities. “We’re in 2018 and Aids is still killing people,” he says, as reported in an article by Artnet. “One Act Up member carried a sign for the transgender woman who was in ICE jail in Texas. They didn’t give her [Aids] meds and she died. And that’s murder!”
During the three to four hour protest, Act Up protesters also held up a Washington Post article about Trump’s firing of the entire Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/Aids in December. This is only one of the current president’s dismissals of the Aids crisis; the Office of National Aids Policy, founded in 1993, was also shut down following his inauguration.
“Trump has no one directing him on Aids policy procedure treatment or care—nor does he want it,” Lunceford-Stevens explains.
In response to the protest, the Whitney expressed clear agreement with the Act Up protesters. A spokesperson’s statement shared with ARTnews reads: “We completely agree that the Aids crisis is not history. Part of our mission in mounting this exhibition is to make sure the history of the Aids crisis figures centrally in American (and international) history so that it might inform present and future action”.
Nevertheless, Act Up are drafting an open letter to the gallery about how it might inform and educate its visitors about Aids more effectively. “I think they could reach out to Act Up, and we could provide information about the current situation and what we are working on to display at the museum,” Lunceford-Stevens says. “The danger is when you look right now at young people, they think Aids is over with. They don’t think anyone is living with HIV. They go to the museum and they see it as art—they don’t see Aids as an urgent problem.”