The First Retrospective of Gran Fury Reminds that Kissing Doesn’t Kill (Greed and Indifference Do)
by Angela Leroux-Lindsey
In November 1989, New York Archbishop John O’Connor opened the first Vatican conference on AIDS by declaring “The truth is not in condoms or clean needles. These are lies…good morality is good medicine.”
An incendiary statement: implicit in O’Connor’s assertion was more than simple ignorance, or willful distortion of the effect of public health; his attack on advances toward safe sex and efforts to provide safe needle exchanges also reiterated the misconception that HIV/AIDS was an indictment of character rather than a pandemic. His implication that “good medicine” could be found by exercising abstinence or denying one’s sexual orientation was more than damaging—it was deadly. In a time when AIDS was misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and rapidly spreading, discouraging condom use essentially ensured a higher rate of transmission. O’Connor’s explicit choice of words—his decision to embed “truth” in a subjective context—was a manipulation not unfamiliar to those working in the field of AIDS activism, but his position of power allowed a wide reach and undoubtedly affected the attitudes of many. O’Connor understood the impact of language, and of its reliable second life via media dissemination, and capitalized on it.
But he wasn’t the only one: Even as O’Connor made a mockery of medical science and social progress, NYC activist art collective Gran Fury was challenging the institutional suggestion that health belonged in the private sector, or that morality transcended sexuality. The members of Gran Fury (named after the car the NYPD used as unmarked vehicles) countered messages like O’Connor’s by creating art posters and billboards displaying positive images and texts of homosexuality and safe sex. By using the streets as a means of communication, and by mimicking the language of advertising, Gran Fury insisted that conversations about AIDS take place in public—both by reclaiming public spaces and by engaging in a dialogue with citizens and the media. Straightforward, evocative statements like “Read My Lips: Kissing Doesn’t Kill (Greed and Indifference Do)” and “Men Use Condoms or Beat It” provided an opportunity for open idea exchange and raised vital questions among the uninformed—many of whom believed that AIDS was contagious and could be caught by a kiss. The Reagan administration made little effort to combat the many rumors that abounded about AIDS in the 1980s, so it was up to activists and volunteer health professionals to set the record straight. Gran Fury was a major part of this public-image transformation.
This month, 80WSE Galleries, in partnership with NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, presents “Gran Fury: Read My Lips,” the first retrospective of the group’s work—in fact, their first-ever gallery exhibition. Remaining adjacent to the art world and a part of a collective public advocacy was paramount for the group for a long time; until recently, their members remained anonymous. The timing of this show—which not only coincided with the similarly grass-roots Occupy Wall Street protests, but also with the thirtieth year of AIDS—speaks to a sense of normalization around the disease, and to a generational amnesia that has set in among those too young to have lived through the early days of the crisis. Scientific advance has provided drugs that alleviate symptoms and prolong life, but has also allowed a forgetfulness about the social causes and ramifications of AIDS and its associated stigmas. Especially among young people, there is a sense that AIDS is a disease of the past, like tuberculosis or cholera. The disquieting fact is that diagnosis rates are rising in the U.S. among certain high-risk groups, and that despite well-funded and celebrity-endorsed education campaigns, large swaths of the public underestimate the risk of transmission. A cultural emphasis on renormalization and acceptance is important, but it glosses over the fact that there is still no cure, and AIDS remains a global pandemic. The Gran Fury exhibit reintroduces an idea of direct response at a time when OWS has fanned the activist spark; the old complaints of government inaction and lack of outreach remain as vital as ever and demand a shift in momentum away from celebrating what has been accomplished to an expressed frustration with what hasn’t.
The show itself is a vibrant mix of reproductions of Gran Fury work and contextual media that put nascent AIDS activism in conversation with the social and political machinations of the 1980s and 1990s (including a massive image of Cardinal O’Connor superimposed with the opening words of this article). Housed in an intimate space at Washington Square Park, the show retains its shock value, despite the passage of two decades. One piece, which depicts four written questions against a white background, has lost none of its emotional punch: Do you resent people with AIDS? Do you trust HIV-negatives? Have you given up hope for a cure? When was the last time you cried? These simple sentences—more impactful as questions than declarations—leave the reader with the responsibility of providing the answers, of filling in the white space.
Rather than beg a direct call for action, the poster engages the reader personally, then expects a consequent connection to a greater social movement. The crafting of the sequence of questions, the reversal of expectation in questioning the culpability of HIV-negatives, and the eloquence with which the suggestion of emotion asks us not only whether we’ve lost someone to AIDS, but also whether we’ve stopped to think about how profoundly this disease has affected—and still affects—the entire world. It’s a dramatic moment that transcends the ideological tools that mask the sort of introspection required for a populace to combat stigma and indifference: in twenty-six words, Gran Fury dissolves the dichotomies (public vs. private, truth vs. deception, positive vs. negative) that stymie efforts toward social progress.
It’s astonishing, though not unbelievable, for those paying attention to the so-called culture wars, that the current Pope continues to promote abstinence, not contraception or education, to combat sexually transmitted disease. Twenty-five years after the members of Gran Fury galvanized a cultural and political attitude toward action and acceptance, the world again needs an infusion of reactive energy. Perhaps more importantly, though, and as the diffuse OWS movement exemplifies, the untapped reserves of action need direction. The importance of this retrospective may lie less in its reintroduction to an art world that has long since accepted its place in a different political economy, and more in its ability to provide an example of how stagnant large-scale citizen response to AIDS has become. Devastating statistics are still released—for example, data presented in March 2012 from a Johns Hopkins University study announced that African-American women in Baltimore, New York, and other cities are infected at a rate five times higher than the national average—to little collective outrage. The potent triad of government, pharmaceutical companies, and cultural affluence is an effective distraction and convincing advertiser of its message. It seems the most ubiquitous line from Gran Fury’s campaign remains its most apt: “Corporate Greed, Government Inaction, and Public Indifference Makes AIDS a Political Crisis.”
For more information about 80wse’s upcoming shows, visit http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/80wse/.
Angela Leroux-Lindsey is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.