ACT UP caught my attention and captured my imagination months before I was introduced to the concept of leadership espoused by Professors Dean Williams and Ron Heifetz of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership. The activities of this New York phenomenon were brought to my world thanks to Helen Molesworth, the then curator of the Houghton Contemporary Gallery of the Harvard Art Museum. As you entered, a large poster displayed red block letters which read “KNOW YOUR SCUMBAGS”.
The tagline under the condom reads “This one prevents AIDS”.
The mirror in the women’s room was framed by lettering which read:
I AM A/ mannish / muffdiver/ amazon / feminist /queer / lesbian / femme AND proud! I AM A / lezzie / butch / pervert / girlfriend / bulldagger / sister / dyke AND PROUD!
I learned during the course of the lecture by the curator that these evocative and provocative exhibits were part of a series of interventions used by a curious movement which was launched in 1987 and lasted for nearly twenty years. I was particularly attracted to this project because of the predominant use of art as the means for intervention. This demonstrates the power of symbols, metaphors and images as an armless weapon to capture attention, raise and lower tension, to reach emotions and change values. It was the work of a group of passionate artists, film and theatre people, and designers who brought their visual talents to bear to produce nationwide social movement and change.
The movement was curious also because it was a stunning example of radical democracy from which no single charismatic voice emerged and with which no particular leader is identified. Names such as fierce pussy or Gran Fury (the Plymouth model of automobile used by the New York City Police Department.) and acronyms like DIVA (Damned Interfering Video Artists) represent the myriads of groups that collaborated under the one umbrella organization called ACT UP.
In 1981, a handful of young gay men in Los Angeles were diagnosed with a rare pneumonia and reported to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Shortly thereafter, a highly unusual skin cancer (Kaposi’s sarcoma) was also detected. Both would later become known as AIDS (Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome). It was referred to as “gay cancer” by the media and healthcare professionals, mistakenly suggesting that there was a link between homosexuality and the syndrome. That year, 182 people died of this unknown condition. By 1983, the virus is became known as HIV and 1,508 deaths were thereto related. By 1985, that number quadrupled, the first major play about the epidemic opened in New York and Rock Hudson became the first celebrity to announce he had AIDS and died later that year. President Reagan mentioned AIDS in a public address for the first time in 1986 and the number of Aids-related deaths had climbed to over 12,000. In 1987, the US Congress adopted by an overwhelming margin an amendment banning the use of federal funds for AIDS education materials that “promote, encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities” and the FDA approved the drug treatment AZT which costs $10,000 for a year’s supply.
That year, playwright and activist Larry Kramer called a meeting of those who were increasingly concerned about the medical community’s and the government’s neglect in responding to the devastation being perpetrated by this unknown disease. Over 300 people showed up to form the Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and the first Silence=Death poster appeared on the streets of New York City. The pink triangle was the inversion of the symbol that had been worn by soldiers in WW I to identify themselves as homosexuals. The image was the product of a sub-group of ACT-UP and became the universal symbol for the movement.
The seemingly insurmountable challenges were courageously addressed by this movement which defined itself as “a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis”. Its members came from all walks of New York life, but unlike many other movements for social justice, ACT UP did this through art. In addition to its commitment to direct action – evidenced by its massive and well-coordinated acts of civil disobedience – the group mounted a vibrant visual campaign of posters, stickers and T-Shirts, and organized media savvy street demonstrations aimed at capturing the attention of the evening news as much as that of every day pedestrians.
From 1988 – 1990, ACT UP organized marches on Washington and Wall Street, attracting between hundreds and 500,000 demonstrators. They organized a Women’s Caucus, WHAM (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization), a Needle Exchange Committee, YELL (Youth Education and Life Line), the national ACT NOW coalition, introduced the revolutionary concept of parallel track drug testing, declared a “Day of Desperation” and delivered coffins to city hall.
In other actions, fierce pussy used stencils and spray paint to rename New York City streets after prominent lesbian heroines, and engaged in an iconoclastic greeting card campaign directed at Cardinal O’Connor and Senator D’Amato. One group took over Grand Central Station in a spectacular and massive act of civil disobedience with a banner announcing “One Aids Death every eight Minutes”. Another conducted a die-in on the road to President Bush’s house with a 50 foot banner outlining a 32 point plan and declaring that with 120,000 Americans dead from AIDS, the President was getting away with murder. Over the course of this time there were hundreds of non-violent arrests. ACT UP’s primary goal was always to make the six-o’clock news.
The extremely clever posters targeted different issues. Some were aimed at the non-gay community to raise awareness and appeal to their broader sense of equality, social justice and human rights, the very foundations of the nation.
Some encouraged gay men to practice safe sex: “Men use condoms or beat it”. Some, such as the poster with the bishop, were intended to shame the religious and political leaders. They were shocking, evocative and provocative. The demonstrations, the visual effects, the arrests, the petitions, the die-ins were creative interventions that were constantly changing, holding attention on the issue and maintaining engagement. The activists relentlessly disturbed and perturbed the equilibrium. The ACT UP leaders also acknowledged that their brand of activism could have originated only in a center like New York with its cosmopolitan, educated, arts savvy citizenry. It had a large enough pool of artists to draw from to sustain the quality and diversity of artistic interventions over a long period of time. It took artists to see the hidden issues, to go beneath the surface, to have the courage to create a new language to communicate these complex problems.
Location was also in their favour as they could from there attack the most influential politicians and church leaders, demonstrate on Washington and Wall Street and have access to the relevant local and national institutions and organizations whose partnerships were required. And they had access to representatives from all of their factions who could be recruited for purposes of outreach, coalition building and critical functions like translation services.
By 1992, AIDS had become the number one cause of death for men aged 25-44. Finally President Bill Clinton agreed to a meeting with UAA (United for Aids Action). One thousand people marched in Manhattan to make AIDS an election issue. Eight thousand people held a political funeral in Washington and broke police barriers to scatter the ashes on the White House Lawn. Bill Clinton was elected on a campaign platform that included HIV and AIDS issues. 41,094 people died of HIV-AIDS related causes that year. In 1993, one million lesbians and gays marched on Washington to demonstrate against the pharmaceutical industry and 45,850 deaths were reported. In 1994 they formed further partnerships and pressured Rudolph Juliani and there were 50,842 deaths. 1995 marked the highest numbers of deaths at 54,670. Finally in 1996, the FDA approved a therapy called HAART which helped reduce new AIDS illnesses, hospitalizations, deaths and improved quality of life and life expectancy. The number of deaths dropped to 38, 296. ACT UP had reached many of its objectives and continued to operate but the larger movement dissolved.