Berlin subway passengers viewing Gran Fury’s “When a Government Turns Its Back on Its People, Is It Civil War?” (1988). (all photos courtesy NYPL unless otherwise noted)

At some point, nearly two hours in, Marlene McCarty, one of the members of the AIDS activist group Gran Fury, an affinity group that was part of ACT-UP, reminded those gathered: “We were not making art.” The event was a panel discussion that took place at Columbia University on November 15, organized by Columbia’s School of the Arts, and was intended to draw on some of the themes present in the exhibition that just opened at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston, This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s. The panel was comprised of ICA Boston curator Helen Molesworth and four members of the eleven-member collective that was Gran Fury: Avram Finkelstein, Tom Kalin, Marlene McCarty, and Robert Vazquez-Pacheco.

The question that prompted McCarty’s response was one of a handful that arose during the Q&A that followed the presentations by the panel. There was a similar tone to many of the questions that came up, the majority of which were something along the lines of: “How can we do what you did?” In addition to reminding those present that Gran Fury’s intention was never to make art, per se, McCarty added, “We were very brash about the fact that we were making propaganda.”

Gran Fury collective member Mark Simpson (now deceased) wheatpasting the group’s final poster “The Four Questions” (1994) on the streets of New York City.

McCarty’s point brought up a tension that lay beneath a good portion of what was said by the panel. What does it mean to isolate the work of activists in an art environment and to evaluate it primarily for its aesthetic qualities? Earlier in the evening McCarty also raised the point that none of the work that Gran Fury made was ever copyrighted — they consciously invited people to make use of the work, to remix, reproduce, and distribute it. Though she added that the New York Public Library (NYPL), which holds Gran Fury’s collection has recently attempted to stop some uses of the group’s work. She didn’t elaborate on any specific instances of such action by the NYPL, but in the context of a panel discussion that ultimately was asking what meaning Gran Fury’s work has roughly two decades after much of it was produced, it was interesting to see where clashes between the group’s intentions and contemporary interest in their work.

In the past year there has been a tremendous amount of work published and produced on the topic of ACT UP, its many members and affinity groups. For those unfamiliar with the group, ACT UP stands for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. It was a collective organization, formed in 1987, whose primary aim was to take direct political action to get those with HIV/AIDS access to medical treatment, to increase research into and education about the disease, and, ultimately, to stop its spread. The organization was built on an anarchic model with no single leader, in which committees and affinity groups could plan and execute their own actions and/or coordinate with the larger group at weekly meetings that took place at what was then the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, now the LGBT Community Center in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Gran Fury was one of many affinity groups tied to ACT UP, and its particular focus was on spreading ACT UP’s agenda and affecting change through the use of both traditional art forms, as well as advertising techniques. They are most widely known for their stickers and posters, which they often wheatpasted onto the walls of New York.

Among the recent films depicting ACT UP history are, United in Anger: A History of ACT-UP, co-produced by Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman. United in Anger builds on the ACT UP Oral History Project, which was spearheaded by Schulman and Hubbard and has since provided firsthand accounts for many ACT UP-related projects. In addition both David France’s documentary How to Survive a Plague and HBO’s Vito were released this year, though both are focused on primarily on individuals and/or specific affinity groups within ACT UP and therefore have received some criticism for depicting a version of history that is largely white and male, which is not true of ACT UP. And last year the film We Were Here was released, which looks at AIDS activism in San Francisco, including ACT UP.

One of many bloody handprints on public property in New York during the 1980s, which invoked the Gran Fury pieces “The Government Has Blood on Its Hands and You’ve Got Blood on Your Hands, Ed Koch.”

Additionally, there have been a handful of recent art exhibits that bring forward ACT UP history. The show mentioned earlier at Boston’s ICA, curated by Molesworth, builds on her 2009 exhibit at the Harvard Art Museum, ACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987–1993. And Gran Fury curated a show of their own work at NYU earlier this year—Gran Fury: Read My Lips.

All of which is to say, this history and the work of ACT UP is very present in the air today. It is likely not a coincidence that ACT UP’s history is coming to the fore in a time when Occupy Wall Street has captured the imagination of many, if it remains a relatively diffuse movement. Like ACT UP, Occupy uses an anarchic structure to organize itself and was also centered in New York City, before quickly spreading out to other cities and countries. But unlike ACT UP, which had a very specific set of goals, Occupy has struggled and/or consciously refused to define a fixed set of goals or core beliefs, though their website currently gives the following as a statement of their commitments: “making technologies, knowledge, and culture open to all to freely access, create, modify, and distribute.” Just in the past few weeks, however, the group’s relief work following Hurricane Sandy and their Rolling Jubilee project are offering new glimpses of ways they might move forward.

In looking back at the legacy of Gran Fury and ACT UP more broadly, it’s clear that many people look to them as having been highly successful in their work to bring attention to the AIDS crisis and to make concrete gains for the health and wellness of those affected by the disease. Another positive by-product of that struggle is that it also went a long way toward increasing the visibility and representation of LGBT individuals both in the US and abroad, though in the shorter-term that visibility led to a public backlash against the LGBT community here and abroad (something that is still occurring in some countries). In looking specifically at the work of Gran Fury, questions are being asked not only about how they used the platforms they were given (such as the sides of buses and subway platforms around the country, and the 1990 Venice Biennale) to help their cause, but also what might be considered the aesthetic value of the work.

What I understood from the panel is that it’s tempting for some to view the work of Gran Fury as art alone and nothing more. During Helen Molesworth’s introduction, she briefly noted that Gran Fury often used the font Futura and linked that to the conceptual artist Barbara Kurger. As she made this point, tens of people in the audience, as if in synch, dutifully jotted this detail down on the journals they had in front of them though they left many other points unnoted. I point this out not to poke fun at those present—Columbia is a school after all, but more to demonstrate the sort of strange ways that political work that is placed in an art context can be myopically examined for its aesthetic minutiae in a way that ignores the fact that the work was being creating as a means to an end, not as an end in itself.

I should add, though, that Molesworth is in no way guilty of separating out the aesthetic value from the history. She has been among a few champions of ACT UP’s history with access to the resources necessary to present that history publicly. It’s just questions from the audience and some of the drawback of placing the work inside of an art context that lead me to point out the tension that arises when politically charged work is denuded of its context within the art world. On the flip side, if it’s in some measure through the arts that this history is preserved while it is denied or neglected elsewhere, then that too is worth paying attention to.

“Art Is Not Enough” (1988), Gran Fury.

At numerous points during the panel presentations, the members of Gran Fury that were present pointed out the painstaking work that they did to marry content and form — trying to make sure that what people remembered when they walked away from a poster, for instance, was the message, not necessarily the medium. And they also spoke of consciously trying to get the attention not only of the government and larger population, but also of other artists. One of the group’s early posters included the slogan, “Art is not enough,” which was repeated in later works and echoed palpably when the group printed a message in the program for the 1988 Bessie Awards, which recognize work within the New York City dance community. The message they printed read simply, “During this program at least 6 people with AIDS will die.”

As collective member Avram Finkelstein pointed out, many at the time found the group to be “annoying” for its determined insistence on focusing attention and energy on the AIDS crisis. But as he pointed out later in the evening, they were operating within the context of what, for them, was a war, and what some perceived as annoying was in fact a matter of survival for thousands.

Given that some of the focus was on how Gran Fury’s work resonates now, a good amount of time during the panel was spent speculating about what the most effective mechanisms for delivering a political message are today. Some  inevitable curmudgeonly whining about social media definitely entered the room from some on the panel and in the audience, though Robert Vazquez-Pacheco suggested that social media memes comprised of images that address political issues could be viewed as a 21st century form of agitprop. But, Finkelstein deflected some of the circular arguments about the value of social media by pointing out: “Everything is a delivery method, it’s the content that’s important. It’s a straw man to get lost in arguments about what is art or not art.”

Finkelstein’s thought and the fraught mix of impulses that seemed to drive Gran Fury’s work reminded me of a point that the scholar Ellen Dissanayake makes over and again in her writing. This quote from her book Homo Aestheticus sums it up well:

“The best and most comprehensive way to regard most experiences is to recognize that they are simultaneously perceptual, cognitive, emotional, and operational.”

Which is to say, it’s not so much that Gran Fury’s work is art or is not art, or is the work of political activists or creative individuals, but instead to point out that it is many things at once and can only be understood by first acknowledging that fact.

Protesters holding posters designed by Gran Fury, 1988.

In terms of the political efficacy of Grany Fury’s work versus contemporary attempts to use visual propoganda to affect change, Molesworth made perhaps the most salient point, noting that the group’s work relied heavily on an ability to shame the individuals and companies that wanted to influence, while in today’s world it is incredibly difficult to shame those in power.

Near the end of the Q&A the audience got a reminder not only of Gran Fury’s insistent voice but also the reality that HIV/AIDS continues to represent a serious health issue around the globe, including within the US. The reminder came after yet another young, earnest questioner asked how he and his peers could help to “carry ACT UP’s mantle forward?” Without pausing for a second Tom Kalin replied, “By not getting AIDS.”

Art and Politics of the 1980’s: Language in the Public Sphere: Gran Fury (Tom Kalin & Members) and Helen Molesworth” took place at Columbia University (Miller Theatre, 2960 Broadway, Morningside Heights, Manhattan) on Thursday, November 15 at 6:30pm.

Alexis Clements

Alexis Clements is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY. She recently started a podcast, The Answer is No, focused on artists sharing stories...

2 replies on “We Were Not Making Art, We Were at War”

  1. Gran Fury inspired and connected and made the invisible not only visible but ultra cool. And you know what? Their use of font DID matter because it was part of an underground movement aesthetic that became an easily identifiable above ground street aesthetic, that signalled it’s solidarity with activist art but rejected the gallery and market system for the urgently needed goals of speaking truth to power, shaming the system that was vilifying its own citizens, and creating real change to help dying people. And their highly visible media war connected a lot of likeminded groups and people, they made our thoughts visible, they inserted real facts into the arguments and made the issues real. They became all the more memorable because of their succinct, pared down visual impact. And it was all the more powerful and all the more awesome that the lines between art and activist politics-with-heart blurred in the process because it was that blurring of the lines that galvanized everyone behind the issues. And they got action happening and changed how we think about the many issues involved and about people who contract AIDS. It was also culture jamming at its highest. It had to come from art, because art is always that free zone from which you can acceptably critique and satirize power and create awareness, but it was art at the service of an indisputable, inarguable, human cause. Art is always a vehicle for something. It is at its best when it risks walking the street creating change, rather than hiding away in white cubes selling itself as an aesthetic object of investment. It’s always been that simple, nothing new there. But Gran Fury created a safe space for straight and gay to come together, to connect across differences, and to create a common (visual and other) language of cooperation, long before there was an internet or digital phones, street by street, to create awareness and pressure for change. Those were inspiring days that you don’t ever forget and that you take with you into other parts of life and living. Occupy is the grandchild of what was learned by this work in the 80s, and artists too learned to unite on issues and create fast networks like never before as well.

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