After Silence, a Ringing Reminder
This is the story of the group of six people who originally produced the iconic Si lence = Death, pink-triangle-on-a-black-background logo and continued to produce impactful AIDS-awareness posters into the mid-nineties. It is perhaps surprising that Avram Finkelstein’s narrowly focused lens should produce such a completely human and fully personal telling of the early impact of AIDS and the response of New York graphic designers and artists to the crisis. The fear and despair, the slow deaths and sudden suicides, the camaraderie and the conflicts are all given an emotional vividness that lends urgency to the descriptions of design decisions and conflicts over content that might otherwise feel technical or remote to those of us without a background in graphic arts.
Early in the book, Finkelstein recounts the loss of his lover to the virus. The physical decline, the emotional coming-to-terms with the inevitable and the attempts to capture moments of life are told beautifully and we feel the validity of the love between these two men. But what happened next proved all too common. “Following the funeral, Don’s family swept through our apartment and removed every trace of him. They took his music cassettes and his demo tapes, every picture of him and all his clothes. They took things I had made for him, things he had given to me and clothes that were mine but he loved to wear. They removed all evidence of him, without asking what was his or mine, without offering to leave a single keepsake of our lives together.” And it was this common experience that bound so many men and women together and drove them to found alternative families, families of choice working together to provide the solace, support and structure that was being denied by birth families, by government departments, by media, by healthcare inst itut ions and by churches. The Silence = Death and Gran Fury collectives richly illustrate how alternative families come into being and nurture people through times of deep crisis. And from such families can come powerful, enduring statements that resonate long after the crisis has peaked.
Finkelstein also paints a colorful picture of the early ACT UP meetings in New York. These meetings were loosely structured, electric, dynamic, self-organizing, collective, dangerous, organic, anarchistic and joyous. It was the very absence of institutional support that created the space for something so new and untried to emerge. It sounds like a mystical ecstasy or a manifestation of the divine. ACT UP’s magic and power lay in performance that was transgressive, collective and empowering. The posters it made became a part of that performance: images repeated, carried aloft and beaten like drums sending dark waves of sound through New York’s skyscrapered avenues. How staid, timid and silent the church aisles must have seemed in comparison—silent when silence equaled death.
He tells how growth and success brought a new set of challenges to the Gran Fury collective. Some members wanted to focus primarily on political impact, while others wanted to collaborate with institutions in the art world and produce gallery-based works. Differences emerged over the group’s independence from ACT UP and how the group was to be funded. In the broadest sense the professionalization of the community’s response to AIDS was fully reflected in the evolution of Gran Fury. The early high-energy volunteerism was gradually replaced by funded, professionally staffed organizations, and even
tually Gran Fury stopped working together. He describes later attempts to rekindle the spirit of the art collective with groups of younger artists but fails to address how the internet and social media have reshaped the fundamentals of political messaging and grassroots organizing. How do posters, no matter how well conceived, work in a world of hashtags and fake news?
In one notable collaboration with the mainstream art world, Gran Fury were invited to exhibit at the Venice Biennale in 1990. They mounted a pair of large billboards, one showing an erect penis and drawing attention to the fact that women are affected by AIDS and the other showing Pope John-Paul II and countering the Vatican’s rejection of condoms as a means of containing the spread of the AIDS virus. The text-heavy poster quoted John Cardinal O’Connor, who had pronounced that the “truth is not in condoms or clean needles. These are lies … good morality is good medicine.” Gran Fury countered, “AIDS is caused by a virus and a virus has no morals.” The work, entitled The Pope and The Penis, was confiscated by Italian customs and was never displayed. Gran Fury circulated the story widely to the media, prompting other artists to withdraw their work and generating a firestorm of publicity. Finkelstein remarked that the occasion transformed a work that might otherwise have been “shrouded by the insularity of an international art event into arguably one of [Gran Fury’s] most public projects.”
Moving past the almost farcical attempts by the Vatican to suppress an art installation that criticized its stance on AIDS prevention, the Venice episode serves as a sharp reminder of how wrong that stance in fact was (and still is). Should there ever be a time of broad truth and reconciliation when the church hierarchy admits to its sins and seeks the forgiveness of those it has sinned against, we will surely see AIDS awareness at the fore. Condoms do stop AIDS. To say otherwise is a lie. In the name of preserving family moral standards, church dogma caused families to hate their children and reject their children’s loved ones; church fathers coldly lied about how the disease is spread, and now we have an estimated thirty million dead worldwide. After Silence is a ringing reminder of the voices that opposed this cruelty.