The primary takeaway of Brand New at the Hirshhorn is its demonstration of how high the stakes of representation became during the 1980s, a decade of proliferating imagery and technology.
Agitprop! ought to be an outstanding exhibition of politically engaged art. A feverish amalgam of historic and contemporary artwork, the exhibition is undermined by an ambitious but poorly executed curatorial strategy.
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.”
The slogan “Silence=Death” remains one of the most recognizable images from the art produced during the AIDS crisis in America. Created by the activist art collective Gran Fury, it complemented a movement of creativity that held social change as its core. Now, over 30 years since the term “AIDS” was first recognized, the collective’s retrospective Gran Fury: Read My Lips at NYU captivates this tumultuous time in American history and shows us that, perhaps, we haven’t progressed much.
Walking through galleries filled with reproductions of posters, flyers, takeaways and other ephemera rather than torn and yellowed scraps of archival materials, I spoke with Gran Fury member and artist Marlene McCarty and 80 Washington Square East Gallery assistant director and curator Michael Cohen, who 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 such as Occupy Wall Street to the importance of archiving the history of AIDS activism and AIDS losses.
Long before Facebook and Twitter made getting a message out to a mass audience as simple as a couple of clicks, the art/activist collective known as Gran Fury used a heady combination of bold graphic design, guerrilla dissemination tactics, and art institutional support to communicate the urgency of the AIDS epidemic in light of disastrous government and political inaction.