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Protesters Stage Intervention at Whitney’s Wojnarowicz Exhibition to Highlight the Enduring HIV/AIDS Crisis

A dozen protesters gathered at the Whitney Museum of Art to condemn the institution’s lack of modern context about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in relation to Wojnarowicz’s artwork.

ACT UP activist in front of a work by Wojnarowicz at the Whiney Museum retrospective (all images by and courtesy Michelle Wild at www.mwildsstudio.com)

This past Friday, July 27, 12 activists from the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, more commonly referred to as ACT UP NY, staged a protest at the Whitney Museum of American Art to highlight the enduring crisis of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The one-night action took place throughout the David Wojnarowicz History Keeps Me Awake at Night and An Incomplete History of Protest exhibitions at the Manhattan museum.

Founded in 1987, ACT UP is dedicated to destigmatizing HIV and AIDS and instituting social and political reform surrounding treatment and education. The 31-year-old organization pioneered AIDS/HIV activism in the 1980s, citing Wojnarowicz as an active member during his lifetime.

The protest was pioneered by two members of the organization, Ariel Friedlander and Annie Fureigh. They, along with other members, found the museum’s Wojnarowicz exhibition lacking important context regarding the artwork’s connection to modern day HIV/AIDS activism and the artist’s membership in ACT UP. This, they say, historicizes the 1980s AIDS crisis without acknowledging the continued crisis surrounding HIV/AIDS globally and its modern woes, contributing to stigma for those currently living with HIV or AIDS. Just this month, an American AIDS researcher and diplomat told the International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam that we are “probably at the highest risk ever of losing control of this epidemic because of demographics and because of countries not paying attention the way they once did.”

The activists began planning just last week in an ACT UP meeting after Friedlander visited the exhibition as part of a photography course, where she says she felt simultaneously moved by the art and unsettled by its presentation. She told Hyperallergic, “Everything I was seeing I could connect to the modern day AIDS crisis, and yet the museum didn’t mention them at all.”

An activist holds up information in front of a work by Wojnarowicz

During the protest, participants held up excerpted articles, stylized as Whitney wall decals, connecting each artwork to a modern-day piece of news related to HIV/AIDS.

In a comprehensive statement posted to their website, ACT UP says:

The first goal of this action was to draw attention to the fact that the Whitney has a featured exhibition by a well-known member of ACT UP — who addresses AIDS in much of his art, who died of AIDS — that does not make explicit connections to the present AIDS crisis within the exhibit. In an otherwise excellent exhibit, this is an oversight that falls into a pattern of arts institutions historicizing the activism of the past even when there are almost identical contemporary struggles. The Whitney acknowledges this phenomenon in its concurrent Incomplete History of Protest exhibit — and then participates in historicization anyway. Historicization reinforces distance, a sense of “This is history; this doesn’t affect me,” and therefore does a disservice to present activism: People who think AIDS is over won’t see any reason to donate money to AIDS-related causes, to take the most obvious example. They also won’t see any reason to tell their friends about PrEP and U=U, to take a less obvious one.

Co-organizer Fureigh, a public educator herself, says facilitating this information is, “especially important when you have an interested audience” that is “disposed to care, disposed to want to be educated.” She cites education surrounding the modern HIV/AIDS epidemic in women and communities of color, and destigmatization surrounding HIV/AIDS treatments and PrEP, as particularly critical. Fureigh suggests cultural institutions addressing sensitive topics in their exhibitions, “ask activists for pamphlets or informational flyers to have available in or near exhibits that people can pick up if they’re interested in helping. Even this very basic gesture would be huge progress, and it wouldn’t pose any significant logistical burden.”

Organizers expressed disappointment that the museum did not reach out to ACT UP while organizing the exhibition. Friedlander says they “hope the Whitney reaches out to us with opportunity on a talk or educational program or donations. Wojnarowicz was a member of ACT UP during his lifetime, yet the Whitney didn’t think to reach out to us at all.”

An activist holds up information in front of a work by Wojnarowicz

The activists say that Whitney employees present took care to read the signs and thank the organizers, telling participants they would incorporate the new information into their tours.

Friedlander says, “It’s important to make these institutions accessible … let people with HIV know that they are accepted and they are represented here.” She adds, “We are not just talking about these paintings, as beautiful as they are. We care because we are talking about human lives. We can’t say this is neutral, that this is nobody’s responsibility, that the museum is neutral … this is contributing to stigma, and stigma kills.”

Museum visitors peering at the material held by an ACT UP at the Whitney Museum

In response to Hyperallergic request, a representative from the Whitney Museum sent the following statement:

We are honored to present the work of David Wojnarowicz in our current retrospective and embrace the opportunity to bring more awareness to the ongoing AIDS pandemic. The more this vital subject can be brought front and center, the better. 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. We have made an effort to frame AIDS as a current and ongoing crisis in a number of programs, including the July 13 symposium (the opening day of our exhibition) entitled “Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic” and in a September 7 reading that is being co-organized with Visual AIDS. Both include HIV+ artists and activists. Our educators and docents speak about the ongoing AIDS pandemic in tours in the galleries. We have a series of scheduled programs on Saturday afternoons throughout the exhibition that address “Queer Art and Activism.” Perhaps our position is expressed most clearly in the following wall text that is part of our exhibition “An Incomplete History of Protest” which is now on the sixth floor and has been on view for the past year: “As we continue to live with such loss, and AIDS still affects individuals and communities in the United States and globally, the rallying cry of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) resounds today: the AIDS crisis is not over.”

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The following articles and resources were excerpted by ACT UP during the protest and their names were provided to Hyperallergic:

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