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ACT UP Returns to the Whitney Museum’s Wojnarowicz Retrospective, This Time as Guests

HIV/AIDS activists return to the New York museum, while the museum updated their wall placards to reflect the continuing crisis and the recent action.

ACT UP members holding educational wall placards for their section action in collaboration with the Whitney (all images courtesy and by Jason Rosenberg unless otherwise noted)

On Saturday August 4, members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, better known as ACT UP, returned to the Whitney Museum of American Art in collaboration with the museum’s education department, wielding educational materials about the enduring HIV/AIDS epidemic. This demonstration follows an initial action on Friday, July 27 opposing curatorial decisions in the museum’s David Wojnarowicz retrospective, History Keeps Me Awake at Night. In both actions, representatives held mock wall placards displaying editorial blurbs about HIV/AIDS to educate curious gallery patrons about contemporary news regarding the virus.

Initially, ACT UP members worried about the lack of contemporary acknowledgment of the crisis in the Wojnarowicz exhibition. They say this historicizes HIV/AIDS as having ended in the 1980s, discouraging people from getting tested or using HIV-preventative drugs like PrEP and stigmatizing those currently living with HIV or AIDS.

The demonstrations were driven by two members of the organization, Ariel Friedlander and Annie Fureigh. After visiting the exhibition as part of a photography course, Friedlander felt emotionally wrought over the museum’s failure to acknowledge ACT UP and the persisting life of HIV/AIDS in conjunction with the work of Wojnarowicz. Fureigh gathered educational materials that were subsequently turned into mock wall placards and brandished by ACT UP members.

Ariel Friedlander, member of ACT UP and one of the lead organizers of the action

Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1992, was a prominent activist in ACT UP, which was founded in 1987. One of his artworks in the Whitney exhibition is named for the organization. The artist was also known for a jacket that he wore to ACT UP rallies reading “IF I DIE OF AIDS — FORGET BURIAL — JUST DROP MY BODY ON THE STEPS OF THE FDA” imposed over a pink triangle, a symbol used in Nazi German concentration camps to identify gay male prisoners. Friedlander was disconcerted by the exhibition’s lack of information about his membership in the organization or the organization’s goals.

In a conversation at the Hyperallergic office, Friedlander said, “The reality is, 44% of people under the age of 25 [in the United States] who are HIV positive don’t even know … That was [on the placard] in the front. We do believe that youth needs to be the target because they’re the ones who are honestly most at risk and don’t even know it.” She adds, “In the end, that’s who we’re really trying to target.”

ACT UP member holds a sign in the front of the exhibition

ACT UP’s goal is making this sort of information accessible to the entire population. They stress the action as an “educational program” rather than a protest.

Friedlander and Fureigh say they were overwhelmed by the positive response from curious patrons and museum employees. Fureigh says, “We tailored our action, I think, very well to the exhibit. We were intending to be respectful, we were intending to be an educational and outreach endeavor in the first place, and I think that they [the Whitney] could see that, and the patron’s reaction kind of spoke for itself. Everybody was into it … I wasn’t expecting people to read anything, but thousands of people read those articles.”

They call their new relationship with the Whitney education department “cooperative and collaborative.”

Friedlander says, “As a result of our first action, we now have a new wall statement for a piece that was created by Wojnarowicz for an ACT UP fundraiser.”

New wall placard hung at the Whitney following the initial action (image provided by the Whitney Museum of American Art)

Fureigh says, “We had requests from members of the deaf community and HIV positive people request that we do it during their Whitney Signs deaf tour.” She says the Whitney accommodated tickets for the ACT UP participants so they could host this action during this hour.

A representative of the Whitney told Hyperallergic in an email, “ … ACT UP was at the Museum on Saturday afternoon, this time as our guests. They were given free access to the galleries following discussion with the Museum.” The representative added:

We’ve been in dialogue with ACT UP and are grateful to them for bringing their concerns to our attention. We feel deep affinity with those concerns and welcome the opportunity to bring more awareness to the ongoing AIDS pandemic. To make this more evident within our David Wojnarowicz exhibition, we added the new wall text alongside an artwork that Wojnarowicz made in 1990 to benefit ACT UP. In addition to acknowledging ACT UP’s action at the Museum on July 27 and calling attention to Wojnarowicz’s own participation in ACT UP, the label emphasizes the fact that HIV and AIDS continue to affect individuals and communities throughout the world, disproportionately those of color.

We have also updated and expanded the exhibition’s “Perspectives” webpage to include a selection of important news articles that ACT UP referenced in their action. These articles join a number of videos, interviews, resources about HIV and AIDS, and other writings that we had previously posted in our desire to extend the conversation about Wojnarowicz, his work, and the ongoing AIDS crisis. Please find this at: whitney.org/Perspectives.

We hope that all who come to our exhibition will recognize the inextinguishable power of David Wojnarowicz’s art. We see in Wojnarowicz’s work—which we have been presenting at the Whitney for more than 30 years—an artist of profound humanity who fought for change and confronted homophobia, hypocrisy, and social injustice in his life and in his art. We want this exhibition to raise questions and open up an important and constructive dialogue. We hope and believe it can teach us something about the moment we are living in now.

ACT UP members stood throughout the galleries holding abbreviated articles about the modern HIV/AIDS epidemic and its enduring effects on the global population. ACT UP says all of the articles they provided but one are dated within the past four months to make clear the endurance of the crisis. The oldest article advertises a piece of December 2017 news, when health care policy experts serving as volunteers on the Obama-appointed Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS were dismissed by the Trump administration.

In a statement released on July 27, ACT UP said one of their goals was to:

… draw attention to lack of education and funding for the current HIV/AIDS crisis, both in the US and abroad. Just as the AIDS crisis of the 80s was exacerbated by governmental neglect and public ignorance, neglect and ignorance are arguably the biggest obstacles to ending AIDS now that we have the tools to do so.

ACT UP meetings are held on Mondays at 7pm, at 208 W 13th Street, which is the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center.

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