Sarah Schulman: And no one ever sat down and said, we must have radical democracy. And that means that we don't have consensus, never theorized because act up to not theorize itself.
It just emerged because the organization was trying to serve the needs of people who were dying and who were. Racing against the clock and therefore they needed to be as effective as possible. And that just kind of organically meant no theory, debates, right. And no bureaucracy and people, I just went for what they needed.And so that's what really drove it. It wasn't ideological.
Nora Daniels: Welcome to Articulated. I'm Nora Daniels, Advancement Associate at the Archives of American Art.
Thomas Edwards: And I’m Thomas Edwards, Assistant to the Director and Deputy Director. Support for this podcast comes from the Alice L. Walton Foundation.
In this episode and the next we'll be talking about queer activist art in collectives formed in response to the AIDS crisis in the United States, from the 1980s to today.
Nora Daniels: Since 1958, The archives of American art has been amassing the largest collection of oral histories related to the visual arts in the world. These long form interviews give witness to history as it unfolded through the voices of the figures who lived it. On Articulated, we put these firsthand accounts into dialogue with today's scholars and artists.
Thomas Edwards: From 2016–2018, the Archives collaborated with the Keith Haring Foundation to collect 40 oral histories from artists and art world figures who had been directly affected by the AIDS crisis, culminating in the Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic Oral History Project and Symposium. In these episodes, we will retrace the history of the crisis and its impact in the arts.
Nora Daniels: In the early 1980s, the first cases of what would come to be known as HIV aids or human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome were reported by the CDC. The early victims of the disease were distinguished by so-called opportunistic infections that revealed that their immune systems were not functioning properly.
Widespread media coverage uncovered other gay men who were suffering from strange ailments including clusters in New York and California afflicted by Kaposi's Sarcoma, an aggressive and rare cancer. The disease was termed "Gay-Related Immune Deficiency" or GRID, often shortened to "gay cancer," a new shorthand for what would become one of the most fearsome health crises in US history.
Thomas Edwards: While the association with gay men in metropolitan centers marked the outset of the AIDS crisis, the disease did not discriminate. People of color and women were particularly vulnerable, but it wasn’t until 1985 that HIV/AIDS was classified as a bloodborne illness that could infect anyone. In a climate of fear, some medical professionals sought to abdicate care for HIV/AIDS patients or anyone they thought might have the infection, which led to special AIDS units in hospitals and dental clinics.
Nora Daniels: The epidemic struck at the core of vibrant art scenes in the US, wiping out a generation of innovation while demoralizing and dehumanizing groups that had long been targets of sociopolitical vitriol. Though we live in a time with effective treatments and prevention strategies, the horrors of the disease and shock at displays of venom towards victims left indelible scars on survivors and witnesses.
Julie Ault, a New York-based artist known for collaborations and synthetic approach to art and knowledge production, weighed those legacies in her 2017 interview:
Julie Ault: I just feel like I'm composed of everything that's happened. But the period of the first-wave AIDS crisis and its effect on me and circles of closeness and communities...I mean, that's one of the most major things in life. So it's not that I want to put it away; it's not that it goes away. But it's not with me every minute either. Or let's say it's not with me in the same way, obviously. It's something that shifts and recedes and comes to the foreground. Sometimes I want to forget, sometimes I want to address it more. And sometimes if I try to forget it, it comes back, you know, or comes forward of its own, so to speak. So I'm open to all of it.
Thomas Edwards: Sur Rodney, a multimedia artist, activist, and writer in the East Village described the nature of what was lost in his 2017 interview:
Sur Rodney: I think that AIDS created a certain fracture within the generational divide,
because all the young kids that were kids didn't have this community of people out there that were freaks everyone knew about that we're looking at. There was this whole community that was happening out there that people wanted to divorce themselves from, didn't want to hear about, didn't want to talk about. It was too sad. It was too ugly. No, we didn't want to talk about your uncle. Yes, he was sorta...but we don't want to talk about that, because it's too sad. So they carried all this stuff because of the stigma around AIDS and the shame and all that sort of stuff that if AIDS wouldn't have happened, maybe there might have still been the shame with the homosexuality part of it, but the rest of it would have been still passed on in kind of a way.
Thomas Edwards: We spoke with Pamela Sneed, a poet and artist who lived through the AIDS crisis in New York, about what it was like to live her formative years during the epidemic:
Pamela Sneed: Well, it was rather devastating. I have to say because I was a very young person and, and I was, sort of like a burgeoning poet. I worked at Hetrick Martin Institute. I ran the drop-in center, so I was kind of like front and center, you know, like within a queer movement but also kind of like finding myself and basically everyone just dying all at once, you know, or within the span of a few months, a few years. Not to mention all the like women poets that were dying from cancer. So you had Audre Lorde and like Pat Parker and June Jordan, and you know what I'm saying?
So there was like decimation, I think, on all fronts and lik very hard to process, so yeah, I think it was like a scary time. and then it was also just the scene, the poetry scene or the art scene in the late eighties, early nineties, it was pretty brilliant.
Like you had performance art and you had queer stories being told and you had people of color speaking and then you had all these poets coming to voice. And so it was an incredibly exciting time. And then at the same time, like met with this like devastation,
Thomas Edwards: For AA Bronson, an artist and former director of Printed Matter, the epidemic resounded through his familial memory. Here’s how he described his mother’s arrival in New York City during the crisis in his 2017 oral history:
AA Bronson: I'm AA Bronson. I was born Michael Tims in 1946 in Vancouver. My mother was English. She was a war bride from London. She arrived in Vancouver while the war was still going on. And my father was a pilot with the Canadian Air Force who had been stationed in London and was bombing over... basically bombing Cologne every day for five years or something.
So they came from a very traumatic situation. And, and so I was born into this post-war period, which is, I think, very different than the post-war period in the US because the US only came into the war at the very end, so I think the effect onto the populace was different. And especially in my case, an English mother who had lived through both wars, and who had, you know, a lot of experience with death and so on. And I remember my mother coming to visit me in New York, around '80, '80 what? Maybe as, maybe as late as 1990, actually. And seeing a homeless person on the street who had a sign, which said, you know, I have aids, please help. And she said, "Oh, it's just like the war."
I still remember that.
Nora Daniels: Tens of thousands of Americans died from AIDS-related illnesses during the 1980s, each leaving a mark. These personal ties propelled a huge wave of activism. Listen to Julie Tolentino, a multidisciplinary artist, dancer, and choreographer, talk about the death of her uncle, Curtis, the brother of her stepfather Michael. Curtis was less than a decade older than Julie, and his loss left a profound impression:
Julie Tolentino: And his other younger brother was a very, very tall, beautiful, very spirited young man called Curtis He was similarly developmentally disabled like my sister, but he had a little more capacity for living on his own. He would live on his own, but then sometimes he would become a little homeless "by accident," or he would find himself, like, in a squatter community or something. But he was gay, and he was just delightful and wonderful, and we just hoped we could catch him wherever he was living.
And he, in 1982, died of what was called GRID at that time, and he was living at home.
What was detrimental to his situation, besides the fact that nobody knew what was wrong with him, and he didn't know–we didn't really know exactly what was going on with him, and he also didn't know what was going on with his body. But he was nearly six foot tall, and by the time he died and when I saw him last, he weighed exactly the weight of me. So he was, like, 80 pounds or something.
And that was absolutely devastating. Because he went from being someone who was tall and skinny to begin with, to being tall, skinny, and not very well, and then to this emaciated...within weeks. So that was this kind of incredible impact, and that happened when I was still in high school. I mean, I can tell that I have just absorbed that so much. I don't even talk about it as, like, this event that I remember until I think about what I was able to do with what I was learning. You know what I mean?
Because we didn't know anything, and because his family, Michael's father, was a veteran, they were only seeking veteran hospitals. And the veteran hospitals were either kicking him out, or they were barely treating him and just sort of expecting him to go home to die. And that happened multiple times where they would kick him out of the hospital. So when I came to New York, and I started meeting different people, I started realizing I had this huge experience that I needed to deal with and had no language for.
Thomas Edwards: Activism in response to the AIDS crisis came at the confluence of preexisting activist networks, namely feminist and queer activist groups. The National Organization for Women, Reproductive Rights National Network, Lesbian Action Committee and Gay Liberation Front were all active by the early 1980s, and the devastation of AIDS in communities quickly led to the formation of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982, meeting in Greenwich Village in New York City.
The GMHC provided help for those living with AIDS, and one of its co-founders, Larry Kramer, saw the need to adopt the strategies of other activist groups. Kramer was a novelist, known for his fiction and screenplays, who founded ACT UP, or the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, in 1987, a group that took direct action to encourage research, disrupt discriminatory public health policies, and combat social stigmas facing people affected by HIV/AIDS.
The group was formed at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York, where they met for years. The group embraced radical democracy, having no hierarchy other than two main committees: Issues and Actions. Rather than codifying the group’s structure, ACT UP mobilized “affinity” groups, which allowed members with particular interests or ideas to focus on discrete tasks. There were also caucuses, such as the Women’s Caucus and the Latino/Latina Caucus.
Meetings opened with a powerful motto: “The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power is a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals, united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.”
Nora Daniels: We spoke with Sarah Schulman, who was a member of ACT UP and co-founder of the ACT UP Oral History Project. She’s currently a distinguished professor at CUNY College of Staten Island, and her new book, Let the Record Show: a political history of ACT UP New York 1987–1993 just came out. Here’s how she described ACT UP meetings:
Sarah Schulman: Well, you know those meetings changed over time and they had different feelings about them. So, you know, there's the meetings that were packed with people standing in the back and people rushing early to get seats and everybody buzzing and the facilitators being cute. People yelling at each other.
Cause this is, you know, pre-gentrification, New York culture, really caring, really arguing, people not feeling well.
People looking quite ill. a lot of moving back and forth going on in the back room, which led out to the garden of the center. So people outside smoking a table filled with. New information that each person would pick up as they walked in. Sometimes the the table was so long, it was the length of the room, and it had new studies on it.
And so there's all of that. And then I think, you know, five years later...we're in Cooper Union, and I'm sitting and that's more like a stadium seating because the room at the time, the center, was a former cafeteria. There were folding chairs and all of that. So we're in Cooper Union in the big hall, grand hall where Emma Goldman spoke and all of that.
And we're all sitting in those seats that are fixed. There's a group of people tearing each other apart and fighting, and the rest of us are sitting there watching it. And it's terrible. You know, so there's the whole gamut over those many years.
Nora Daniels: Douglas Crimp, an art critic and professor of art history at the University of Rochester, was also an early member of ACT UP. Known for managing the journal October and his innovative work on postmodern art, Crimp talks about how word of mouth drew him to meetings in his 2017 oral history:
Douglas Crimp: He told me that I should go to ACT UP, and this was probably June of '87, and ACT UP had been formed in March. I was aware of their existence. And so I took Gregg's advice, and I started going to meetings, and then, you know, the rest is history, so to speak. I mean, I then learned very quickly a lot about AIDS.
There was an incredible amount of information. You know, you would go to ACT UP meetings, and there was a table of flyers, and like, you would go in and take one of everything and, basically, have a week's worth of reading, articles that were reproduced, all kinds of stuff.
Nora Daniels: Crimp goes on to detail how ACT UP encouraged him to be an activist within his own sphere of art history, dedicating a special issue of October, a significant journal for which he was managing editor, to the AIDS crisis in the art world:
Douglas Crimp: And there were people who emerged within all of this as voices of sanity and voices of reason and voices of knowledge and people that you would want to hear speak from the floor, and there were people that you would want not to hear speak from the floor, people who drive you crazy. The meetings were endlessly long. They started, I think, at 7:00. So nobody had dinner beforehand, and so you would be dying of hunger by the time you got out of there at 11:00 or midnight. But they were really electrifying.
I mean the place was cra–people were hanging from the rafters eventually. And it was also, you know, it became, eventually, your world. It became something that, even if it was tedious and difficult and dealing with an issue that was terrifying to everyone, and we were losing friends, and people were getting sick, and so forth. At the same time, it was also a world of extreme conviviality and community and a real sense of rising to an occasion and doing something about this crisis and being effective. There was a sense that we were never accomplishing enough fast enough, but we were actually accomplishing things. So there was this sense of fulfillment in it. But more than anything else, I think there was a sense of–for me at least, I made a whole bunch of friends in ACT UP, and there's–a lot of them are still my friends.
I'd made a decision–I can remember this fairly calculated decision. Most people in ACT UP didn't just go to ACT UP meetings and demonstrations and participate in that way, but also joined one or another of the various committees to work on some specific issue. And I didn't do that, and there–and I–there was a period of time when I felt like I wasn't doing my full part. And maybe during the time I was working on the AIDS issue of October, I felt like I was doing my part because I was so utterly engrossed in it; I couldn't have done anything more. But then after that, I came to the conclusion that what I could do was to bring the knowledge,
expertise that I already had developed as an art critic and as an editor of October; that's what I could do, that I could write.
Thomas Edwards: Kate Eichhorn, Associate Professor of Culture and Media at The New School, elaborated on one of the most efficacious strategies to emerge from the ACT UP meetings:
Kate Eichhorn: One of the things that happened in the AIDS movement is that people reproduce thousands and thousands of pages of medical research papers and redistributed them. Often at the beginning of act up meetings, you walked into the meeting, there'd be a table with all of these materials that you could access.
And so the photocopier also played a kind of critical role in a pre-digital era in disseminating medical information that otherwise people would not have had access to. And when we now take it for granted the fact that we can go online and go to a database like pub med, And access all of that information in 1985 or 1990, or even 1995, that didn't exist yet.
So it was both a really important research tool, and simultaneously the copy machine was a really important tool for activists and artists.
People didn't always know that they had access to a Medicaid override form. And so activists just started to actually make copies and hand them out at act up meetings, hand them out at rallies and even hand them out at other public places, like train stations, bus stations.
So everything from the distribution of vital medical forms, To refereed medical articles to activist posters, like those being produced by the Lesbian Avengers or Fierce Pussy...this is all happening with this curious office technology that dates back to the 1960s that was never intended to be used for any of these purposes.
Thomas Edwards: Lia Gangitano, founder of Participant, Inc, a significant non-profit gallery and art space on the Lower East Side, walked through life she and other activist-artists had during the AIDS crisis, both coming from a feminist and queer movement background, and how it shaped every element of her day in her 2017 oral history:
Lia Gangitano: It was definitely just like daily life. There was no separation between like art-life and activist-life. Those are like the same life. So, in that period of time I was spending a lot of time in New York. You know for work, to see shows, to have meetings with people, organize things, and you know, the surface face of New York that I remember was completely, you know, just like a sea of Jenny Holzer, Guerrilla Girls, Barbara Kruger, ACT UP...everywhere. Gran Fury. I mean, you could not avert your gaze from a kind of wheat-pasted conversation about all of these things. So, it was just like a pure visual field of activist messaging. You know, I've been trying to sort of update, or grapple with like my own prior period of–I mean, I tell people I spent my entire 20s thinking that Washington D.C. was all gay people, because we would go to D.C. from Boston all the timen for like gay pride, AIDS demonstrations, and I just had this illusion that Washington D.C. was like millions of queer people.
Like I had no real tangible understanding of it as an actual place like where people lived. I just thought it was this giant mass of demonstrating queers. You know. Like I'm actually like–think about that all the time–like okay what would it be like to go now? I mean, I didn't go to D.C. for the Women's March because I had to work, and be in New York, but it was kind of like weighing on me really heavy. Like do I want to disturb my 20s to 30 year-old vision of what it was like or what it was? Because it's sort of like dear to me, sort of like this misrepresentation, you know. Because that's what we did, like all the time.
Thomas Edwards: In her 2018 oral history, Julie Tolentino, a multidisciplinary artist and choreographer, gave an account of the diversity within ACT UP and how they came to action:
Julie Tolentino: So I think then to walk in the room, and then have that feeling of all the people again–like, I mean, I just–you know what I mean? It was so intense. And, I always say that walking into that situation was like–there was like 15 different ACT UPs in one room and my memories of them. You know, there was the front of the room, and the somewhat noisy middle, and then there was sort of this women's area, and then there was this kind of quiet middle, and then there was this back of the room that the people of color section.
And I remember being really torn about where I thought I was supposed to be in the room. And I sort of knew who I couldn't be in the room, who I could and couldn't identify with, and also who I could trust. You know, there were some very vocal people in ACT UP I felt like I could trust and some that I could just trust to be aggravated. I felt like I could trust the way that they were using their emotion to get people to make, you know, bolder moves.
But I remember also really taking in the kind of grumbling of a more complex situation which was, like, women with AIDS and, you know, folks of color who didn't have the same kind of resources or access, and even situations. Like, you know, you don't just leave work and go to an action. So I felt like I, especially in the beginning, knew that moving around the room was part of learning about ACT UP, and that this idea of a room of affinity groups was going to really teach me a lot. So, when I say 15 different ACT UPs, I think–I mean, ultimately, what was incredible was that everyone wanted to be in the room, so there was one ACT UP, being in the room. And the idea that everyone was very willing to be part of this affinity, this sense of affinity–but also that if you really threw out an idea, and you really had an idea, people would be there for that. And so I feel like that's what I mean, when I say there's a lot of ACT UPs. Like It was like a prism of all of this nuanced knowledge, with everyone looking for information, and not necessarily the cure, but these very, very immediate needs.
So I feel like if you were going to join any of these, or if you were going to put yourself in as a participant, you would maybe be moving from one micro situation to a meta one, and you would have to be able to adjust very quickly. And also, possibly, figure out the interface or the way that some of those concepts could somehow work together. You know, like, if you had been working in the women and AIDS group how could that–if it was a sort of an education moment, if that was the focus, like, what would happen when there was another group that was working with women and AIDS in housing or medical access or something?
So there were just ways that everything–I think that's one of the frustrations about talking about ACT UP, is it sort of sounds like of course everyone was on the same page. And it's true, but it was hard to think about how that was working all the time for immediate needs,
Nora Daniels: Sarah Schulman, former member of ACT UP, founder of the ACT Up Oral History Project, and author of Let the Record Show, described the affinity groups and the power of radical democracy in the meetings:
Sarah Schulman: The thing that I think made ACT UP most effective was something that people were almost unconscious about, which was the radical democracy. And no one ever sat down and said, we must have radical democracy. And that means that we don't have consensus. Like it was never theorized because ACT UP did not theorize itself.
It just emerged because the organization was trying to serve the needs of people who were dying and who were racing against the clock and therefore they needed to be as effective as possible. And that just kind of organically meant no theory debates, right. And no bureaucracy and people, I just went for what they needed.
And so that's what really drove it. It wasn't any ideological, But there was only a one-line statement of unity: “direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” That was it. So if that was what you were doing, You could pretty much do anything. And if you had, let's say, I mean, like, let's go back to your needle exchange,
which was very controversial, the concept of harm reduction, which really pervaded ACT UP as a philosophy, even though it wasn't stated that way, had not become popular yet.
And let's say you were somebody in ACT UP who didn't want ACT UP to be involved in needle exchange. You would argue, and you would argue fiercely and you would be self-righteous and you would know grandstand and you would do all that stuff. But in the end, if you didn't like it, you just wouldn't do it. And the people who wanted to do it, let them do it. And then you would find other people who wanted to do what you wanted to do. And you would just go do that. And that's kind of how everybody shook out, and what that produced was a wide range of campaigns on all different levels, we’re using all kinds of aesthetics and completely different approaches in very different social strata, all happening at the same time. And that's really what created the paradigm shift. And, you know, it's illuminating because if you look at movements that try to force everybody into one analysis or one strategy, they all fail and I've yet to find an exception to that.
I mean, I was just the same as everybody else. You know, everybody in ACT UP thought that what they and their friends were doing was what ACT UP was doing. And then when I would start interviewing people, I found out about things I had no idea existed. And so did they.
Nora Daniels: One affinity group in ACT Up was Gran Fury, the name for a then-anonymous collective of artists who created the posters and protest signs for the movement. They described themselves as “a band of individuals united in anger and dedicated to the power of art,” and they were known for appropriating commercial visual idioms into their work.
Gran Fury led significant campaigns such as “Silence=Death,” which included the pink triangle that marked gay men incarcerated by the Nazi regime during the Holocaust. “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” was another landmark public art effort, covering buses and subway lines in major cities across the US. While the 11 members of Gran Fury came together out of ACT UP meetings, the group gradually became more distinct from their origins.
Thomas Edwards: Commissioned by many to create posters and other graphic works, Gran Fury worked alongside many New York City organizations. One was The Kitchen, a non-profit in Chelsea that has nurtured cutting-edge performance, film, and installation art since the 1970s, but even there, the group met some controversy.
We spoke with Lumi Tan, senior curator at the Kitchen, about that chapter of institutional history:
Lumi Tan: In 1988, the marketing director at the Kitchen asked Gran Fury to design our monthly programming calendar. So this is something that like we always had...maybe designed it in house or commissioned artists in the season to create for us.
So the Fall 1988 poster was commissioned from Gran Fury, and it said “With 42,000 dead, art is not enough. Take collective direct action to end the AIDS crisis,” which is, you know, a fairly clear, you know, relatively uncontroversial message. And then it had, you know, “It’s at the Kitchen,” the dates of the program, very little description and, you know, you make these assumptions around, you know, this was 1988, this wasn't 1984. This wasn't, you know, extremely early in the AIDS crisis. Gran Fury was really, you know, an established collective at that point. And so you make these assumptions that, you know, like the Kitchen is part of a very specific community that is supportive of AIDS activism has I'm sure it has like many, let's say staff members participating in act up or other forms of AIDS activism, and, you know, the story has unfolded thanks to the artists Tuesday Smiley, who's been doing research on ACT UP. That, you know, this was actually an extremely controversial decision, that, you know, a lot of the artists were on the poster were very upset about being associated, you know, like, or like that they're not associated, but maybe like that their promotion of their program was being like, co-opted by this message.
And the, like the marketing director of the kitchen and actually resigned over this. You know, our big of a controversy of this could have been in such a small institution at the time...but it really just speaks to the assumptions of like, you know, what communities were within an institution like the Kitchen, which you think of as extremely experimental, you know, like a home for queer performance, a home for queer audiences, a place where the AIDS crisis was really living on a day-to-day basis.
Thomas Edwards: While Gran Fury was mostly anonymous, the group largely reflected ACT UP’s population, which is to say white, queer people were the majority. Robert Vasquez-Pacheco is an artist and writer in New York, and he talked about his experience as the only person of color in Gran Fury in his 2017 oral history with Ted Kerr:
Robert Vázquez-Pacheco: I had heard about Gran Fury. And Gran Fury was mysterious, you know, because they were closed. They were the closed affinity group, so nobody knew who was in Gran Fury. People knew that some–it was so funny, everyone had a suspicion: "Oh, so and so is in it," but no one knew, because Gran Fury started and initially, when they did The Window, it was 50 people that pulled it together. But after that, what happened was the collective–in order to do work, you couldn't have 50 people walking in and out of a room, so you had to close it and that's what they had done.
So I was on a panel and Tom Kalin was on the panel, who was a member of Gran Fury. We were talking about art, and I said, "Well, you know, I don't see a lot of work by people of color in general, but certainly not about AIDS." I was talking about, "That's a problem," and then I specifically called out Gran Fury and I said something like, "I'm sure that Gran Fury doesn't have any people of color in it at all." So it ended, the panel ended. I got back to New York. Not too long after we got back, very shortly after we got back, I got a call from Tom: "Do you want to join Gran Fury?" Again, I had that reaction like, "Oh, why did you open your mouth? Why did you open your mouth?" Okay, once again. I said, "Sure, let me join."
So I went in to Gran Fury, and that's where the sort of Gran Fury stuff started then. Before that, Gran Fury had done a poster. They had done–the first sort of official Gran Fury piece was the 1 in 61 poster, which talks about Black and Hispanic kids. Every 1-in-61 Black men have AIDS. They had done it, and they had done bilingual editions of it. I went up to El Barrio by myself, to wheat-paste, and I wheat-pasted posters up there by myself, one or two nights. You know, I did it, because it was like, you know what, putting this in Spanish and talking about Latinos, and doing it in the West Village or in the East Village, unless you're going to go to the housing projects all the way at the end, it doesn't mean anything, it's just show.
So I did that, and then after that, I was part of Fury, and started to collaborate with them on the various works that we did. For me, it was a way to be creative in a specific way, in the arts, that was important to me. It was a way to be political. It was a way to have at least some sort of representation of people of color in what I considered a very important, you know–
Ted Kerr: And to be clear, you were the only person of color in Gran Fury.
Robert Vázquez-Pacheco: I was and remain the only person of color.
Ted Kerr: Was there a way in which that was a live dynamic within the room? Like was it–were you often–did you feel like you had to be a spokesperson for people of color?
Robert Vázquez-Pacheco: I always feel as if I have to be the spokesperson for people of color, because I feel a responsibility as a person of color. This is interesting, that white people don't know that people of color–we have, we feel this, we're given this. Although it may not be–you know, it may be subtle. It may not be they tell you this, but sort of that whole "uplift the race" thing, that I think it was W.E.B. Du Bois said. And that is a real thing that happens with people of color in our communities. So I felt like I was a spokesmodel for people of color. I also felt that I was a spokesmodel for poor people, because I grew up working poor, and everyone else in Gran Fury grew up–let us say–middle class, nice middle-class families.
So there was that class stuff and the racial stuff that I felt that I had to talk about, and did. Fortunately, in many discussions at Fury, I didn't have to sort of take them to task for being racially insensitive or anything like that. Marlene was also part of it. Marlene and I would talk, you know, refer to ourselves sort of as–Avram, myself, and Marlene were the emotional minorities.
Ted Kerr: That's beautiful.
Robert Vázquez-Pacheco: Everyone else was a WASP, essentially. And so we were able to–you know, so any issue that talked about race or anything else was–you know. Obviously, one of the things that automatically happened, although it would have happened anyway I think, in Gran Fury, is that of course our work became bilingual, because it had to be.
Nora Daniels: And in the 80s and 90s, being a person of color, especially a queer person of color, came with additional risk with policing and systemic racism.
We spoke with poet-artist Pamela Sneed, author of Funeral Diva, who emphasized how that additional risk
shaped who became prominent media fodder in AIDS activism during the 1990s:
Pamela Sneed: As like a Black lesbian, you know, we also weren't really allowed to like, kind of have a voice, you know what I mean? So in a sense that there wasn't like a lot of literature, there wasn't a public reckoning. There wasn't an acknowledgement of that time, really, you know, until the last couple of years.
So I was always committed to writing about my friends. And then also as a Black lesbian, you know, it was sort of like, you know, history was very fragmented or segregated in terms of gender. So it was like, oh, okay this was only happening to men. And it's like, well, no, that's not exactly how it happened.
You know what I mean? And all of our experiences and lives were intertwined. Do you know what I mean? And so HIV/AIDS, you know, very much impacted me, you know, what was happening to my friends, how I grew as a poet, how I wasn't allowed to grow and then like not to have the acknowledgement, you know?
And then there's the other piece, like, I'm really happy, you know, you were talking about like, you know, people of color and centering. You know, Fred Weston and stuff like that, because then there was this other segregation around race. Right. And so then like ACT UP was only being centered or like white men were only being centered.
And, and you know, part of like, you know, my work now is to ask people not to center like ACT UP. They did really important work, but a lot of us did like really important work. You know what I mean? You know, with regards to people of color, I mean, we couldn't get arrested, you know what I'm saying?
And so you can't be Black and queer, you know what I'm saying? And then have a record. You know, and then, you know, end up with a really posh job. It just doesn't happen like that. Right. So, you know, so in a way it was kind of like, privileging like one history over another history, not really understanding, or even like, just the ferocity of like some individuals and organizations like I was, I was having a talk the other day. And, what was it? we were talking about with some Black queer people about the AIDS era. And, you know, we were talking about like a hundred years before Stonewall, you know, Black queers in Harlem were throwing balls and salons and stuff like that.
Right. So it was like, so there was courage, you know, under fire for a very long time. Or, you know, I'm getting ready to do a piece on Big Mama Thornton. And, and basically, you know, what about all these like Black queer blue singers women who like, you know, who paved the way. I think our history in the way that we tell it has to be much more encompassing, and so I'm really glad that there's an acknowledgement because I'd been grieving for a long time. And I’ve been holding these stories for a long time.
Nora Daniels: And Lumi Tan, senior curator at the Kitchen, told us about the visible and invisible aspects of protest then and today:
Lumi Tan: Thinking about what was said in Julie Tolentino's oral history around the importance of being like a present body in the room of those ACT UP meetings or like, Like the kind of choreography of activism. I think there's been such an expansion around like what it means to like, not be a body in those spaces too.
And how that really applies to performance. You know, I think like in one sense, there's like, that's an expanded conversation around like, what happens when, like, are you not an activist? If you can't be on the street, you know, like that doesn't make any sense, right?
Like that's a notion though, that especially, I think during like the Black Lives Matter protest last summer, like, it was really reinforced about like, you know, everyone can participate in these Protests. It doesn't mean, you know, putting your body on the line or exhausting yourself when you can't, you know, when you physically are not able to do that.
Thomas Edwards: While ACT UP had an enormous presence and made substantive changes in public policies around the AIDS crisis, most notably–as Sarah Schulman argues in her book Let the Record Show–changing the CDC’s definition of the infection to include women, they were part of a larger network of activism that had been cultivated across generations and throughout diverse populations.
In addition to ACT UP, groups like Men of Color Coming Together,
Salsa Soul Sisters, Guerilla Girls, Dyke Action Machine, and Camp Sister Spirit enabled queer expression in a time of rampant and codified homophobia.
Here’s how AA Bronson, artist and former director of Printed Matter, described his experience with ACT UP as an older outsider:
AA Bronson: Because we were there really illegally...I mean, we didn't have visas to be there, we were just–we just kind of went–it didn't even occur to us to try and be legal. It's funny. We didn't–like we didn't get involved with ACT UP at all. So ACT UP was a different generation. It was a generation younger than us. We were at that point–I mean, in '86 when we moved to New York, I was 40 years old. So we were actually much older than the whole generation in their 20s, the activist generation. And so we were our own little bubble.
And the other thing was that–in relation to AIDS–and the other thing was that because we had all these international contacts and were constantly doing exhibitions internationally, our work had to be–it had to be possible to show it outside of the U.S., you know. Like we couldn't do the kind of things that ACT UP were doing because those could only be really read in an American context. So the AIDS logo was kind of perfect because the Robert Indiana image had long ago escaped into the mainstream. You know, like, even a teenager in Cologne knew that our AIDS logo should say LOVE, even if they'd never heard of Robert Indiana.
Nora Daniels: And Sarah Schulman, ACT UP member and author of Let the Record Show, told us about how she understood the group’s dynamics at the time:
Sarah Schulman: So ACT UP was a predominantly gay white male organization, but there were those a significant participation by women and by people of color. And I say significant, not numerically necessarily, but because those tended to be the people with more political experience before aids. Well, the older gay men had been in gay liberation, but most many of the younger ones had never been politically active.
So you had women who came from the reproductive rights movement who came from the feminist women's health movement, the peace movement. And they literally brought with them substantive strategies and ways of political thinking that they gave to the organization through the structure called teach-ins.
If you analyze the interviews over and over again, people will say people with AIDS are the experts. Everything was looked at from the point of view of people with AIDS, and that comes from, you know, this feminist movement or someone like Jamie Bauer, who had been part of the women's Pentagon action, the women's peace movement of the late 1970s, and who came in with civil disobedience training, which was like a centerpiece of people's identities.
Nora Daniels: ACT UP was a prominent face among the many groups advocating for those affected by the AIDS crisis, and their ongoing work and legacy interlaces with the groundbreaking activism on behalf of queer people, people of color, Native people, and women from the 1960s to today. Due to this advocacy, innovations in science and healthcare have led to extremely effective treatment and prevention programs for HIV/AIDS, which is no longer a death sentence.
Thomas Edwards: In his 2016 oral history, Avram Finkelstein, one of the members of Gran Fury and a New York City-based artist, writer, and activist, described the dangers of reducing the HIV/AIDS crisis to one variable:
Avram Finkelstein: If you want to think of it in terms of the HIV as a metaphor, these are the reservoirs in the body politic where HIV stigma has been hidden, and if we're spending all this energy trying to eradicate HIV from the body in an effort to end the AIDS crisis, it could end tomorrow and people would still be in jail, and there would still be decades of case law to keep them there.
We have a fantasy about mediating HIV/AIDS only in terms of viral suppression, but the AIDS crisis was not caused by the virus; it was caused by social circumstances. So there's no eradication of HIV/AIDS without eradicating stigma, criminalization, transphobia, racism, and misogyny. There's no way to do it. And if you're content to think that a cure or a curative or a functional cure,
people in the HIVcommunity argue about the exact meaning of those things and which of those things we should be striving for–even if we had all of that tomorrow, you're talking about 36 million people globally who are living with HIV.
So how many people is the medication not going to work on, and how many people aren't going to be able to get it? And what about people who can get it and still be accused of exposing their long-term partners to it? Those things don't go away.
It sends a shiver down my spine to think that after two decades, going into the third decade of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, that there should still be an imaginary wall between people who are living with HIV and people who are HIV-negative is shocking and disturbing to me.
Thomas Edwards: Kia LaBeija, an artist who uses photography, performance, and film, contrasted the stigma she witnessed growing up with what she's learned in adulthood, and how her experience drives her work today:
Kia LaBeija: I think like in the nineties or the early two thousands, I'll never forget, there was this commercial on MTV: it was like some kind of campaign commercial, and it was these three couples and each of them were in this like really beautiful, loving, sexual, romantic situation. And then at the end of the situation of these three couples, someone pulled out a gun and shot the other person in the head. And then the end of the commercial was like a condom with a bullet in it. And it was like, “Protect yourself from HIV” or something like that. It was like something along those lines. I was mortified, just mortified. So to see commercials now that are like, oh, if you're HIV positive, like keep loving yourself and this, that, and the third...I'm like, wow, like things are shifting. There is change that's happening and that's beautiful.
But then at the same time, I saw a commercial recently, that was for another prep medication. That's not Truvada. And in the commercial, it says very specifically that the medication that was for prep was not for people born female. And I thought that that was so interesting. And it was like this reminder about how, you know, within the HIV/AIDS narrative, still we don't study women enough and that's not just for HIV alone. That's for just kind of in general, you know, And so to see that commercial, like, wow, like, okay, they're still leaving us out. You know, we still don't have a hundred percent access because we're still not in focus, you know?
What I realize is that, I'm only human and we're all different, especially as an artist, you know, we have to go on our own path and make our own way. And if I make work about HIV, because that's what comes out of me, I have to let that happen. And I can't, block that or say, I don't want to do that because I want to be a certain kind of artist that isn't pigeonholed, you know.
You know, I'm making things that are important to me. So I have circled back to it and I've let myself open up my heart even bigger and continue to do my research and know that my journey making work about HIV is not over, because AIDS is not over because there is no cure because this was something that, until there is a cure that I will live with for the rest of my life, and you know, like I've said before, I've been in this since I was a little girl and as life progresses and changes. So will I, and so will my body and, you know, and that will bring opportunity for me to continue to explore what it means for me to live with this virus or for this virus actually to live with me, you know, how do we cope and deal with each other and relate to each other, and how can I express that or work through that in an artistic way?
So now I'm continuing to investigate, what it means now to be a woman, you know, cause I'm, I've been a child and now I am a woman, a grown woman, and what that means and what it means for the greater community of women non-binary folks, living with HIV today. What are the issues that we're looking at.
Thomas Edwards: In his 2017 oral history, multidisciplinary artist Lyle Ashton Harris remarked upon new generations' willingness to engage with civil and social issues head on as a direct legacy of activism that sparked in response to the AIDS crisis:
Lyle Ashton Harris: So I'm super-inspired by your generation, you know, seeing all the questions that are being asked. And I'm seeing it in my students. I'm seeing in regards to, let's say, their ethnicity or whatever; there is an urgency to make up for the generation before, because in a way they haven't–there's been a lack of, let's say, consciousness around ethical responsibility, as far as I'm concerned.
So this has become like a major not only, you know, ethical question, but it's a question of let's say, the violence of the lack of inclusion. Period. And taking it seriously, and by any means necessary .
Thomas Edwards: We caught up with Ted Kerr, one of the Archives' interviewers from the Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic Oral History Project, to hear about how those interviews continue to shape his life and advocacy work.
Ted Kerr: I think people who, who are dealing with HIV or who lead through their queerness, can't help, but always be intersectional in their approach. And I guess for me personally, I would say, I'm part of a collective called What Would an HIV Doula Do? And we're a group of people who understand the doula is someone who holds space during times of transition. And that HIV is a series of transitions that start long before you ever get an HIV test and continue through treatment and lasts long after death. And so the thing that has changed for me over the last few years is, I would say people's people's awareness or people's ability to think about health and illness and disability as at least on a spectrum rather than a diagnosis. And that's something that gives me a little bit of hope in the future, and I think that oral histories play an important part of that because they get down on paper and get in our ears. the lived experiences of people who have had to learn these lessons before and they, they wait for us to read them or listen to them for when we're ready to hear them again.
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Michelle Herman: For show notes, work cited, and additional resources visit aaa.si.edu/articulated.
This podcast is produced by Ben Gillespie and Michelle Herman from the Smithsonian Archives of American art.
Audio engineering is by Hannah Hethmon of Better Lemon Creative Audio.
Our music comes from Sound and Smoke composed by Viet Cuong and performed by the Peabody Wind Ensemble with Harlan Parker conducting.
Special thanks to Nora Daniels and Thomas Edwards for narrating this episode.
The Archives of American art at the Smithsonian Institution is a nonprofit organization that relies on donations from individuals like you to sustain our ongoing operations and special programs like Articulated. To support our work, please visit our website aaa.si.edu/support. Thank you.
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