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AIDS activism art
“The Pope and the Penis”, 1990, the banner recalled the 1988 poster “Sexism Rears Its Unprotected Head”. The Pope and the Penis prompted fierce conflict with the then director of the Biennale threatened to resign if it was included in the exhibitionCourtesy of REBELS REBEL by Tommaso Speretta

‘White Heterosexual Men Can't Get AIDS’

Exploring the art activism that rallied to educate America about one of history’s cruelest killers while its government looked the other way

Robert Rayford, a teenager from Missouri, was the first known US citizen to die of HIV/AIDS – that was in 1969. Crunching the numbers six years later, the disease would claim a further 6,000 lives, all under the nose of then-President Ronald Reagan – an imperative voice in such times – who was yet to publicly acknowledge it. Filling in the gaps, activist art collectives such as Gran Fury and the organisation ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), amongst many more, were tasked with the moral duty of spreading the awareness of a growing epidemic which, last year, AIDS research organisation amfAR reported was contracted by almost 240 people every hour.

As the government refused to comment on the growing crisis, and the number of dead bodies – isolating blame to the dubious and marginal of society; prostitutes, drug addicts and homosexuals – activism took to the streets. Protest rallies were held, but most importantly, the artists found a way to infiltrate everyday society, employing advertising tactics with a darkly sinister spin. Bank notes were stamped with loaded statements reflecting government attitudes of the time; "White Heterosexual Men Can't Get AIDS”, it read, and when flipped over; “DON’T BANK ON IT!”. Elsewhere, bloodied hands were smudged around city hotspots and mock-ups of The New York Times (changed to The New York Crimes) were doled out on bustling streets.

Although it would take the good-half of a decade to have their voices heard, these activists – whether solo or collective – were instrumental in raising awareness, breaking down the social stigma and blame attached to the illness, and ensuring that public funding was allocated towards medical research aimed at finding a treatment, if not, a cure. Tommaso Speretta’s book REBELS REBEL, published by MER Paper Kunsthalle, pays homage to AIDS’ art and activism in New York during these crucial years, with original artworks gained from the creators themselves, who were of course, happy to continue spreading their message. Below, Speretta tells us about the importance of these years, making a scene and fighting the good fight.

Where did this collection come from? How has it been amassed?

Tommaso Speretta: I went through an incredible amount of books, because every single book I was studying or just consulting, led me to another book which led me to another one, and so on. The same happened with the people I got in touch with. They all helped to put together the material I was searching for – like a big collective puzzle. Most of these ephemera did not circulate in public after its initial appearance. Also, for the most part, they’re not part of the museums’ collections in and outside America. It was the artists themselves who gave me original images, material, photos and their personal stories. I am very grateful for their help.

How important and influential was this art in breaking down the stigma attached to AIDS, as well as the notion that it was segregated to just one section of society – the marginal and the dubious; the homosexuals, the prostitutes and the drug addicts?

Tommaso Speretta: I think that the way artists collaborated to shake the Reagan administration and attract the attention of the general public, the media and the medical establishment toward the AIDS crisis, which was first of all a political crisis, together with their attempt to break a silence and resist government inaction, has set the stage for future developments.

At the least, they served as an example of political and cultural resistance that could be adapted to different situations outside of 80s America. In the US AIDS crisis, using personal identity as a form of political resistance and exploiting mainstream advertising and art-world vocabularies to “sell” the demands of those suffering in what the artist David Wojnarowicz once called a “diseased society”, were proven to be successful means for effecting change. This change would never have happened if artists and cultural workers, as well as art and non-art professionals, had not grouped together to make their collective voice heard.

Who were the people creating these? Were they artists or...

Tommaso Speretta: They were artists and non-artists, middle class professionals and intellectuals. Free citizens. Some suffering themselves from the disease, some others with friends or lovers dying of AIDS and AIDS-related causes. All these individuals gathered together around the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power organisation (ACT UP), whose mission was to take direct action and give an end to the AIDS crisis. They put their expertise at its disposal, their knowledge and social status, with the aim to enable the organisation to penetrate the institutional environments to which they had access – as artists, as professionals, as intellectuals.

They made political propaganda, or agitprop, with strategies borrowed from advertising and mass media, also from the art world, too. What is singular and unique is that the engagement of the art community helped make ACT UP one of the most successful protest organisations in America. The history of AIDS activism demonstrates that the practice of art can not only be socially relevant but also mobilize the general public.

Where were the pieces situated? Were they published, handed out, spray-painted?

Tommaso Speretta: At the very beginning they were mostly posters, stickers, leaflets, placards. They were distributed on the streets, or illegally pasted up around the city, or carried by the protesters during public demonstrations.

Every single piece was related to a specific circumstance or a specific topic – being it a New York Times editorial perpetrating the idea that AIDS was confined to restricted social groups – homosexuals, prostitutes and drug addicts – or Senator Jesse Helm’s decision to deny public funding for the creation of AIDS educational materials, on the ground that they might promote sodomy and the homosexual lifestyle.

Out of the collection; which one is your favourite piece? And why?

Tommaso Speretta: I have many. I can mention one from Gran Fury – the “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” project, a big poster, three meters by one, featured in 1989 on the sides of buses in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington DC, depicting three couples (of which two are same-sex) exchanging a kiss on their lips. In its entire length, it carried the slogan “Corporate Greed, Government Inaction, and Public Indifference Make AIDS a Political Crisis”.

It’s a perfect example of how on one side, Gran Fury imitated advertising in order to capture and direct the attention of the viewer toward AIDS and AIDS-related issues, and on the other, the government’s attempt to not take any responsibility in helping to end the epidemic. The poster, in fact, was censored, and Gran Fury’s reference to AIDS as a political crisis had to be removed. In Chicago, local authorities accused the materials of being directed at children for the purpose of recruitment. Besides the political controversies, this image was so powerful that it circulated in art magazines and museums, while a video version of it began to feature in commercial breaks on MTV.

There was a turning point in the 90s when the mainstream – media and institutions – finally began to sit up and pay attention, where did this moment come from?

Tommaso Speretta: This comes from the fact that the activist artists’ demands for broader engagement and concrete action from the government and wider society were starting to invoke a response. In a decade-long period of cultural and political commitment, they had been able to wedge their agenda into the public discourse and illuminate a state of crisis.

They investigated their own personal identities as artists, citizens and individuals, the role of art as society’s tool for criticism and self-reflection, the artist’s capacity to influence publicly the rules and elitist decision-making systems that govern a society, a citizen’s responsibility to re-evaluate conventional cultural hierarchies, and, finally, to reinvent space for collaboration and discussion.

REBELS REBEL is available now from MER Paper Kunsthalle.

For more insight into the AIDS plight and those facing it head on, read Karen Orton's archive interview with AIDS activist Gregg Borodowitz here.