Unlike any other image, the simple equation SILENCE=DEATH, printed in white Gill Sans capital letters underneath a pink triangle, quickly evolved as ACT UP’s iconic ‘trademark’ and would subsequently become AIDS activism’s visual equivalent – worldwide (fig. 1). Referring to this particular emblem shortly after it suddenly emerged on the streets of Manhattan in February 1987, New Museum-curator Bill Olander states that “it was among the most significant works of art that had yet been inspired and produced within the arms of the crisis.” Besides being popularized through buttons, placards or T-Shirts distributed by the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP), SILENCE=DEATH further gained art-institutional credibility as part of a window-installation at the New Yorker New Museum in the winter of 1987 by a hitherto nameless collective, which would soon thereafter constitute oneself as Gran Fury. SILENCE=DEATH thus not only predates this well-known art-collective but it also precedes the formation of ACT UP by several months.
The emblem initially appeared on posters that were wheat-pasted all over Manhattan by an anonymous collective, which was known under the eponymous name Silence=Death-Project and that had realized the poster’s final design in December 1986. Its six members – Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione and Jorge Soccaras – were themselves present at the formation of ACT UP in March 1987, where they proposed that their design may be used by the organization in its second demonstration at New York City’s main post office on April 15, 1987. Soon thereafter T-Shirts, buttons and stickers with the emblem were produced and their sale was one of ACT UP’s first means of fundraising. As the earliest activist group that programmatically utilized the public realm to influence AIDS coverage by visual means, at the core of Silence=Death-Project’s aesthetic strategy lies a concern that would soon become characteristic for a broad range of different approaches towards representing AIDS by several other artists and collectives, which were (more or less) associated with ACT UP (for instance Little Elvis, Donald Moffett, Ken Woodard, Richard Deagle, Adam Rolston, ACT UP Outreach Committee, Vincent Gagliostro, John Consigli, or – best known – Gran Fury): The question as to how minority subjectivities can claim visibility in a representational regime that appears to define itself through their exclusion, subordination or – so to say – silencing?
Although the Silence=Death-Project realized a second, widely recognized poster in 1987, which holds President Reagan directly liable for the epidemic (fig. 2), in what follows I want to elaborate on the aesthetic capacity of their first work that rendered it so appealing to a movement, which was just about to constitute. Looking again at the initial poster of 1986 one can recognize two smaller, from a distance not legible lines underneath the central motif; the first denounces Reagan, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Vatican’s silence towards the ongoing epidemic (“Why is Reagan silent about AIDS? What is really going on at the Center for Disease Control, the Federal Drug Administration, and the Vatican?”). The axiomatic equation between silence and death can thus be easily understood as a reference to state and clerical ignorance: Because of their denial, AIDS and the affected individuals appear as unintelligible events, deprived of their recognition as something ‘real’. This process of ‘othering’ can, on the opposite, be conceived as the constitution of a humanity that, by articulation, becomes (or already is) lamentable – or at least recognizable. An example for this act of epistemic (or as Judith Butler puts it: “dehumanizing”) violence became manifest in a statement by Reagan’s assistant, Gary Bauer, who in 1985 commented on the president’s ongoing silence towards AIDS by simply noting that “it hasn’t spread to the general population yet.” The poster’s second line, however, calls for self-organized ways of protest (“Gays and lesbians are not expendable… Use your power… Vote… Boycott… Defend yourselves… Turn anger, fear, grief into action”), which leads to yet another interpretation of the equation that becomes even more evident in the context of the poster’s (modified) adaption of the familiar symbol from the Gay Liberation Movement: The pink triangle, which traces back to the sign used by the Nazis to identify homosexuals and that – because of this reference to a common historical victimization – seemed suitable to increase consciousness as well as responsibility for a collective group affiliation during the 1970s. According to the liberationist credo ‘Out of the Closets and onto the Streets’, SILENCE=DEATH serves here as an analogous proclamation in terms of using identitarian visualization as a means to enforce political as well as social equality.
The strength of the motif designed by the Silence=Death-Project lies in its ambiguity: It on the one hand demands awareness for the delegimization of marginalized groups by official institutions while on the other hand accusing the (indifferent) public in order to encourage protests. For that matter the triangle also serves as a reminder that the systematic persecution during the Third Reich was (in part) possible due to the absence of collective resistance. With recourse to the symbol’s meaning during Gay Liberation, SILENCE=DEATH furthermore implies that articulation (or production) of identity constitutes a necessary weapon in the struggle for survival: In order for a group to act politically it has to claim visibility, which, however, also leads to an increased usurpation into normative patterns of identity-construction and parameters of social control and discipline.
|fig. 1: Silence=Death-Project, SILENCE=DEATH, offset lithography, 1986.|
|fig. 2: Silence=Death-Project, AIDSgate, offset lithography 1987.|
- Douglas Crimp, Adam Rolston (ed.): AIDS Demographics, Seattle 1990.
- Lee Edelman: The Plague of Discourse, Politics, Literary Theory, and ‘AIDS’, in: Lee Edelman: Homographesis, Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory, New York; London 1994, pp. 79 – 92.
- Claire, Grace: The AIDS Crisis is not Over, Activism and Collective Art Practice in ACT UP New York, in: Exhibit.-Cat., ACT UP New York, Activism, Art, And the AIDS Crisis, 1987 – 1993, Harvard University, Cambridge, 2009, pp. 1 – 8.
- New York Public Library: http://www.nypl.org/blog/2013/11/22/silence-equals-death- poster (by Avram Finkelstein, Nov 03/2015).
About the Author:
Christian Liclair worked until recently as a research associate at the Collaborative Research Center: Aesthetic Experience and the Dissolution of Limits, Berlin, and is currently a PhD candidate at Freie Universität Berlin and the Harvard University with a dissertation about “Desire as an Emancipatory Practice in US-American Art”.
Reference / Quellennachweis:
Christian Liclair: Silence=Death-Project, in: Aesthetics of Resistance, Pictorial Glossary, The Nomos of Images, ISSN: 2366-9926, 30 December 2015, URL: http://nomoi.hypotheses.org/198.