In a by now almost canonical proclamation, the art critic and AIDS activist Douglas Crimp demands the production of art works that have the potential to safe lives instead of purely aestheticizing the epidemic, the suffering and the dying of people with AIDS (PWA): „We don’t need to transcend the epidemic; we need to end it,“ as he famously puts it in October’s special issue AIDS: Cultural Analysis / Cultural Activism, which Crimp edited in 1987. Of all the various collectives that meet his criteria of ‘good’, activist art – and that are featured in his ’guide’-book to AIDS activism called AIDS DEMOgraphics – Gran Fury is by far the best known and – as of today – most institutionalized group that used visual means to fight the epidemic. Defining themselves as a „band of individuals united in anger (…) dedicated to exploiting the power of art to end the AIDS crisis“, Gran Fury was officially established subsequently to a collectively produced art installation in the window of the New Yorker New Museum titled Let the Record Show… (Fig. 1). In order to realize this mixed media piece in 1987, a broad range of artists, designers and other with ACT UP associated individuals worked together as a hitherto nameless collective, which already conveyed those visual strategies that should become crucial to Gran Fury’s activist approach on how to depict AIDS in the midst of an ongoing cultural, medical and political crisis.
For Let the Record Show… the collective recreated the Silence = Death motif (initially created as a poster by the Silence = Death-Project in 1986) with blue and pink neon tubes and placed it inside the window’s lunette. Underneath the illuminated sign the reproduction of a historic photograph depicting the Nuremberg trials occupies almost the entire window. Six photographic portraits of contemporary persons are arranged against this background, all of which are further characterized by an accompanying quote that characterizes those individuals as homophobic and/or recites their proposals to persecute or quarantine People with HIV/AIDS. Following the installation’s dramaturgy every portrait was illuminated separately and thereby related the depicted person visually to the Nazi criminals in the background. An LED display in the upper part of the installation not only gives further information about the epidemic and its political implications but also addresses the audience on the street directly by encouraging them to “Act Up, Fight Back, Fight AIDS.” Consequently, Let the Record Show… neither depicts AIDS as an identifiable other, nor as a visualization of its symptoms, as a diseased patient (like the highly criticized segment of Nicolas Nixon’s MoMA retrospective Portraits of People with AIDS) or as an abstract biochemical mechanism. Instead, the collective uses the window installation to conceptualize the absent, diseased body in its function as a critical site for cultural negotiations of political and social homophobia, which is presented as lethal to individuals with HIV/AIDS. Therefore, the question of accusation and blame shifts – away from the PWA – to a level of institutional (in-)activities; away from the tragic fate of a single individual to a more comprehensive, socio-cultural problem.
After disassembling the installation, the group decided to continue their work and it was in their first meeting after the New Museum-project that they adapted the name Gran Fury, which was the Plymouth model of choice for the New York Police Department. Like Gran Fury’s first project, the poster AIDS: 1 in 61 (Fig. 2), most of its following works are materialized as posters or stickers that were pasted all over Manhattan or used and distributed at ACT UP demonstrations. Although Gran Fury was organized autonomously, the collective cooperated closely with the organization and acted, in Crimp’s words, as their “unofficial propaganda ministry and guerrilla graphic designers.” One of Gran Fury’s earliest graphics The Government has Blood on its Hands (Fig. 3) combines the depiction of a bloody hand print with two statements: The upper register accuses the government of murder and the lower one states that there is one AIDS related death every 30 minutes. The image of the bloody trace is especially striking in the context of AIDS, since blood plays a crucial part in negotiating the disease and thus advanced to a collective symbol of fear: After a virus was detected as the cause for the immunodeficiency syndrome, blood was not only known as one possible medium of contamination but also served as the site for the virus detection – and as a consequence thereof as a marker of an identity as the sero-positive other. In contrast, Gran Fury’s blood trail signifies a murder: The death of the absent individual is thus not articulated as a consequence on behalf of the HIV-positive individual and the infected blood, but as the result of a political system.
Similar to this project, all works by Gran Fury have in common that they combine a deliberate mis-en-scène of provocative images with corresponding textually-mediated, didactic information to confront viewers and passersby. Their posters address different structural marginalizations in the context of the ongoing epidemic, besides homophobia also sexism and racism. Although Gran Fury proclaims that their work opposes “governments and social institutions that make those living with AIDS invisible”, it is significant to stress out that they consequently eschew the depiction of HIV-positive individuals and bodily manifestations. HIV/AIDS is represented as an abstract disease with serious, lethal consequences. Death isn’t the result of a viral process, but instead staged as willful murder on the part of certain politicians or ‘the government’ in general. Thus, Gran Fury’s art works visualize the political dimension of the disease, which isn’t understood as some sort of medical entity, but whose negotiation and treatment is influenced by certain attitudes of morality and political agendas that lead to inadequate education campaigns, a lack of research funds, stigmatization, prejudice and ultimately death.
|fig. 1: Gran Fury, Let the Record Show…, mixed-media installation, 1987.
|fig. 2: Gran Fury, AIDS: 1 in 61, Offset-print, 1988..
|fig. 3: Gran Fury, The Government has Blood on its Hands, Offset-print, 1988.
- Crimp, Douglas, Rolston, Adam (ed.): AIDS Demographics, Seattle 1990.
- Olander, William: The Window on Broadway by ACT UP, in: Wallis, Brian (ed.): Democracy, A Project by Group Material, Seattle 1990, pp. 277 – 279.
- Gran Fury: A Presentation, in: Bradley, Will (ed.): Art and Social Change, A Critical Reader, London 2007, pp. 276 – 282.
- October, Vol. 43: AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism (1987).
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: Gran Fury, in: Aesthetics of Resistance, Pictorial Glossary, The Nomos of Images, ISSN: 2366-9926, 20 October 2016, URL: https://nomoi.hypotheses.org/867