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How ACT UP Transformed the Landscape of Art and Activism in the Age of AIDS

How ACT UP Transformed the Landscape of Art and Activism in the Age of AIDS

Twenty years in the making, Sarah Schulman’s new book is a masterpiece of activist history and tactics around the AIDS crisis.
Seize Control of the FDA. October 11, 1988 ©  T. L. Litt

In 1987, the American government’s impassivity facing the AIDS pandemic led people to organize themselves in order to act. A broad coalition of activists from all races, genders, sexualities, and backgrounds came together as ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) — and in just six years, they changed the world.

“Five people cannot do a paradigm shift in America — you need coalitions to make change,” says Sarah Schulman, author of the new book Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993, which brings together more than 200 interviews with ACT Up members to create a masterpiece of activist history and tactics.

New York City Gay Pride, 1989. From left to right: Douglas Crimp, Alan Robinson, Rand Snyder © T. L. Litt

Together the members of ACT UP waged a multifaceted attack on the corporations, institutions, governments, and individuals who stood in the way of AIDS treatment for all. They played offense, taking charge in a wide array of actions that included storming the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Washington, DC, and battling The New York Times, the Catholic Church, and the pharmaceutical industry to get results.

Though the public may have forgotten — or never learned — about their success, virtually everyone is familiar with “SILENCE = DEATH,” agit prop created by ACT UP affiliated artist-activist collective Gran Fury for a window installation at New York’s New Museum, which quickly spread to t-shirts, wheatpastes, and other ephemera.

Michelangelo Signorile, the features editor of OutWeek, on his desk the day the magazine shut down in June 1991 © T. L. Litt

History is Rewritten by the Survivors

The genesis of Let the Record Show took root 20 years ago in 2001, when the media began doing stories on what they considered the 20th anniversary of AIDS. “Now we know it’s the 20th anniversary of science recognizing AIDS,” says Sarah Schulman, a journalist and novelist who began writing about AIDS for underground gay and feminist papers because the mainstream media refused to cover it.

ACT UP had come to an end in 1992, after an ideological battle split the group. By the 2001 “anniversary,” most of their materials had not yet been digitized. Schulman saw history being rewritten in real-time to suggest a cultural benevolence that erased the history of violence against AIDS victims and activists.

The Ashes Action, October 11, 1992, in Washington, D.C. From left to right: Unidentified, unidentified nurse with the ashes of her favorite patient, unidentified, David Robinson, unidentified © Donna Binder

“I called Jim Hubbard, my collaborator, and we both shared a feeling of responsibility to our dead friends and realized we had to do something about this,” Schulman says. “We got money from the Ford Foundation and started an active oral history, but I did not have any intention of writing a book. For 18 years, we interviewed 188 people and put the transcripts online for free. We had 14 million hits and thought someone would come along and analyze the transcripts, but that didn’t happen.”

Instead, the media pushed the white savior narrative, suggesting Larry Kramer was the leader of ACT UP, an erroneous supposition as the organization was intentionally designed to be a decentralized web of groups working independently on various issues.

The House of Color video collective. From left to right: Pamela Sneed, Robert Garcia, Julie Tolentino, Jocelyn Taylor, Wellington Love, Idris Mingott, Jeff Nunokawa © T. L. Litt

“ACT UP never theorized or historicized itself, so everyone thought what they and their friends were doing was ACT UP. There was no organizational overview, and when we started interviewing people we realized the actual breadth of ACT UP,” says Schulman, who spent three years with Jim Hubbard analyzing the transcripts, collating the tropes, and presenting untold histories from the era.

“It’s very hard for people to get access to activist history,” says Schulman “We wanted people’s voices to be heard because they accomplished an enormous amount to Karin Timour, the straight woman who completely changed private insurance by making hundreds of thousands of people with HIV eligible. She had never been interviewed before.”

Lei Chou and Cathy Chou at the Stop the Church action, December 10, 1989 © Courtesy of Lei Chou

The Principle of Direct Action

ACT UP maintained one principle from which all things grew: direct action to end the crisis. “As things got dire, more and more people were calling for systematic change. It was a state of emergency where we had to get the information out. There was no such thing as membership at ACT UP. You could just walk into the meeting and vote. It didn’t matter if you had been in the group or not,” Sarah Schulman says.

“At the time, gay people were profoundly oppressed. They were in a state of illegality, they had familial homophobia, there was gay bashing, and they were outside the culture, which gave them a better understanding of how it works. Also, it was in New York, so there were a lot of ambitious and talented people here who were on the cutting edge of a lot of fields.”

Kissing Doesn’t Kill © Courtesy of Gran Fury

Artists played an integral role in shaping the public’s perception of AIDS and activism, using art, photography, graphic design, and performance to reach communities in a wide array of spaces. Schulman dedicated an entire section of the book to the way members of ACT UP harnessed the creative power of art to connect with people in the streets, museums, and nightclubs. From Gran Fury’s famous campaigns including “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” to the lesser-known actions by Church Ladies for Choice, Anonymous Queers, and DIVA TV, the artist-activists inside ACT UP adopted varied strategies to get results.

No Business as Usual

With the understanding that art could be used as both a weapon and a tool, activists took it out of the hermetic, exclusive, and elitist space of the proverbial white cube and adapted it to become accessible, practical, and inclusive. “T-shirts were the main source of income for the organization,” Sarah Schulman says.

“One of the photos in the book is a t-shirt from Gay Pride. Charles, who was running the booth, said he had $30,000 cash in his pocket and had to go home, drop it off, and come back because everyone was buying a t-shirt. Those t-shirts went all over the world, and people who were never in ACT UP took on the look. It changed how people felt about themselves because prior to that, the main images of people with AIDS were helpless people dying in bed.”

Charles Hovland selling T-shirts at Gay Pride 1992 © Courtesy of the Collection of Charles Hovland

In the book, photojournalist Donna Binder recounts her memories of shooting actions, bringing the photos to editors at weekly news magazines, and having the pictures turned down in favor of disease-riddled portraits. It wasn’t until the December 1989 action at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City that the photo editors realized ACT UP’s work was news, and began running photos of people fighting for their lives.

“At the beginning, ACT UP was not well-liked in the gay community. People thought we were causing trouble and the only way to get things was to negotiate, rather than insist — but it worked,” Schulman explains.

“It’s the question of no business as usual. If you accept that you are going to die unless you change something, then you have to give up your ambitions. You become antagonistic. We were taking on science, the government, The New York Times, the art world, Wall Street — every apparatus of power. To do that you have to give up the idea you are going to be in that apparatus, and that was a very hard things for people to lose.”

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including TimeVogueAperture, and Vice, among others.

Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40.00.

Mark Lowe Fisher’s funeral. From left to right: Tim Lunceford, Joy Episalla, BC Craig, Vincent Gagliostro, Scott Morgan, Eric Sawyer (partial) (Photographer unknown)
Tim Bailey’s political funeral, with Joy Episalla in the van, June 30, 1993 © Donna Binder

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