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In their first step into an institutional setting, the pivotal AIDS activist art collective Gran Fury’s exhibition Gran Fury: Read My Lips at NYU’s 80WSE Galleries answers the question raised by a reprinted poster of an ad that ran in the Village Voice in 1988: is art enough?
Beginning in tandem with ACT-UP during the mid-1980s, Gran Fury, whose name came from the NYPD’s unmarked Plymouth cars, provided the artistic thrust to the AIDS activist movements during a time when AIDS was barely mentioned by the media or the president. Taking tips from the Situationists, Gran Fury combined the techniques of advertising with information and outrage over the AIDS crisis to educate and motivate the general public with slogans such as “Women Don’t Get AIDS” and “Kissing Doesn’t Kill”.
With galleries filled with reproductions of posters, flyers, takeaways and other ephemera rather than torn and yellowed scraps of archival materials, the Gran Fury exhibition displays an essential and possibly terrifyingly forgotten archive not just for the history of AIDS in America but how art and activism can intersect.
I spoke with Gran Fury member and artist Marlene McCarty and 80 Washington Square East Gallery assistant director and curator Michael Cohen. They both gave me an illuminating walk-through of the exhibition and answered my questions from the history of Gran Fury to its connection with subsequent protest movements, including Occupy Wall Street, to the importance of archiving the history of AIDS activism and AIDS losses.
One of the most striking and perhaps timely pieces in the exhibition appears all over the floor in the first room: Xeroxed dollar bills with powerful and shocking slogans on the back. A part of ACT-UP’s Wall Street protest in 1987, Gran Fury created these fake dollar bills in response to the pharmaceutical companies monopolizing AIDS drugs, making it impossible for a generic version of the drugs. I began by asking Marlene about the Wall Street protests:
Marlene McCarty: All these ACT-UP boys got dressed up in nice suits, nice shoes and fancy leather briefcases. They stuffed the briefcases with the Gran Fury Money. In those days there wasn’t any security so they could go in the Mezzanine. So they went on the Mezzanine and when they clanged the bell, to start trading, they dumped all the briefcases on money on the trading floor. It was kind of fabulous because it stopped trading. The New York Times picked up the story not because of the messages but because it stopped trading. But they had to report on why. Within six to eight weeks, the AZT was lowered the price. It had a real effect on people.
Emily Colucci: How do you see Gran Fury’s work in relation to Occupy Wall Street? When I first walked through the show, I couldn’t help but think about the aesthetics of Occupy Wall Street in relation to Gran Fury, particularly with their Art and Culture Committee.
MM: We organized the show before Occupy Wall Street but as the opening got nearer, we were like this is kind of crazy.
Michael Cohen: We organized this show for two years and in that time all these events were happening: the unrest in Europe and the Arab Spring. All these synchronistic events were happening independently from each other. I think there is a relationship in the emotional tone. Both pretty fed up and angry. I think the difference is the generational relationship to the counter-culture. Gran Fury comes out of the hippie era, revolutionary committee meeting mentality. You also had a different imperative.
EC: Tell me a little about the “Art Is Not Enough” poster, which is positioned hilariously right over the main reception desk in the space.
MM: This was a very small piece that was in the Village Voice. It was one we had done a number of pieces around this time saying “Art is not enough.” We spent years and years saying, “We’ll never exhibit in an art gallery. We aren’t doing that.”
MC: It took quite a bit of convincing to get them in an institutional gallery. They were like we’ve never had our work historicized or institutionalized we don’t want to do it. But I came up with the educational idea. It’s an educational place where there is a continuity between the past and the present. You can make an artwork out of making a historical reuse of your art.
MM: It’s not a commercial gallery and is located within an educational institution was reassuring. Everything is reproduced at billboard size which is the strategy we used in the one institutional thing we did in the Venice Biennale. One of the drives to reproduce rather than display decaying posters under Plexiglas boxes is we wanted the work to still live [and] not be historical artifacts. The work doesn’t have any copyrights on it and in the early days we were like “take it, change the language of it put it into French. We don’t care.”
MC: I think one thing that’s exciting about the project is we’ve got the work 20 years into the future where there are digital permanent versions that won’t crumble under somebody’s bed.
EC: That’s one of the aspects of the exhibition that really excited me. At the opening, I realized that all the pieces were reproduced, which brought the works into the present. Rather than a strictly historical exhibition about a closed period of time, the work still lives on, which is fitting since AIDS is still a problem.
MM: At the opening I was touched and surprised. People would come up to me with tears in their eyes. Students aged 20-21 came up to me weeping and saying, “thank you so much for making this work.”
MC: The exhibition fills an emotional gap and a gap to history.
EC: I see it as a very important archive that has a risk of being lost. I’ve noticed that some people my age in their mid-20s who weren’t personally affected by a loss from AIDS feel as if they grew up in a time after AIDS. There is a real separation between those who have been affected by it and those who haven’t.
MM: I took a course of freshman year students through the exhibition and they had no idea about the AIDS crisis. They didn’t even know what Sarcoma lesions were.
EC: Why did Gran Fury end?
MM: We were acting during a really specific time. We fought for people have to say the words AIDS on television, people have to see a same sex couple kissing. From 1988 to 1994, things changed radically. It became whole different kind of conversation. The demographics of AIDS changed, the pharmaceuticals of AIDS changed. This is not what Gran Fury does. We decided it was time to stop.
MC: I recently taught a course between NYU and the Sorbonne on Situationism. The Situationists believed that the collective should never last longer than the needs of the mission. And should always be interrogating itself whether the mission is accomplished. So it seems antithetical to your mission to last forever.
EC: Is art enough?
MM: Art has again become so mute in a way. It’s so elite and monied and rarified. But it’s really the idea that art practice can have a different kind of vibrancy around it and can speak back. That art can be active rather than passive is really important.
Gran Fury: Read My Lips is on view at the 80WSE (NYU, 80 Washington Square East Galleries, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) until March 17.