Throwing in With History
In a new book, Avram Finkelstein discusses the history and future of AIDS & AIDS activism
Text & Photos by Alina Oswald
On a cold, sunny afternoon, I find myself at the Whitney Museum in New York City, meeting with none other than Avram Finkelstein—artist, ACT UP activist and founding member of the Silence=Death and Gran Fury collectives—to talk about his new book, After Silence–A History of AIDS Through Its Images. His work is in the permanent collection of the museum, and we walk right by it (and I stop to take a closer look), as we reach a quiet spot out on the balcony.
While After Silence tells A History of AIDS Through Its Images, it also captures a potentially radicalizing moment in time, a “critical junction” of two generations—the individuals who survived the early days of the epidemic and are still around to tell the story, and the younger individuals who are eager to hear, firsthand, that AIDS story. “It’s not just about people of my generation telling younger people what it was like,” the author says, further explaining what he means by “radicalizing moment,” but “if we’re smart, my cohort will be listening very closely to the new questions that are being asked about the meaning of this story, because I personally believe that the history of AIDS is being written right now, because the younger generation is thinking of the AIDS crisis in a different way than we did, being on the frontline.”
The book’s title, After Silence, resonates with many readers, for several reasons. Some might argue that today we find ourselves “in a second silence” partly because in a post-protease inhibitor world, people stopped talking about HIV/AIDS in public spaces. “It also has to do with the shadow that the Silence=Death poster casts over this history,” the author says. In that sense, After Silence offers its readers the opportunity to look not only at the poster, but also through the poster, and rethink its meaning.
“The images included in the book are not the only images that came out of the AIDS crisis,” Finkelstein points out. “These are the images that I had a hand in. I chose these images because they said something about a particular set of questions, a particular struggle that was happening in the communities that I circulated.”
What I found perhaps most impressive is the author’s individual story that surfaces, at times, to reveal the personal side of the activist. “I’m not really a public person,” Finkelstein says. “People laugh when I say that, because I’ve done some really public things, but I’ve only done public things when I thought that I had to.” Commenting on including his personal story, he adds, “Without that personal story, the overall AIDS story would not be complete.”
Then he offers, “It’s the first time I’ve actually told [my lover] Don’s story. I feel that now it’s the time for people to understand that piece of me. Because they understand the public or the political side of me or the side of me that talks about [activism], but I think that it’s important, after [this generation is] gone, for activists in the future to be able to connect the personal to the political [side of the story]. I think it’s easy to forget [the personal side] when it comes to HIV activists.”
Since the very beginning, AIDS has built up a wall, a viral divide between HIV-positive and negative individuals, giving way to a process of displacement that’s not that different from the way we think about any other types of borders. Hence, AIDS has forced individuals to become “AIDS immigrants.” He explains, “I felt like it was a great metaphor for the displacement that my generation of people, who survived, felt. All of a sudden you’re in a new world and you try to figure out how to talk about the old one. I talk about that extensively in the book in relation to Don, my first significant lover, my soulmate, essentially. Then I was sort of catapulted into an activist moment, and it was a real struggle for me to decide whether or not I wanted to bring Don [and his story] with me, [because] in a way, I felt that this wasn’t fair, when other people were struggling for their lives and he was gone.”
Today, there’s a need to be heard and a feeling of being left behind among those from the first generation of AIDS activists. In that sense, After Silence is a compelling read not only about the future and for future activists, but also because it is an attempt to explain what it feels like to have lived through the early days of the epidemic.
After Silence also takes an in-depth look at how the Silence=Death poster came to be. “I think it’s important to understand that there was a six-person collective,” the author comments. “ACT UP was a year away. And the reason why I think that’s an important thing to know is that when you look back at the history, you’d think that it all happened at the same time [or] that we made this poster after ACT UP, but this isn’t true. I feel that in a way [the story behind the poster] might provide more hope to somebody who feels isolated now, to know that we felt isolated then and we had no idea what was going to happen.”
Nowadays everybody seems to be interested in the history of the Silence=Death poster, but to fully understand its impact, one has to understand the circumstances in which it was created and the thousands of people who activated that poster out in the streets. The poster could have come and gone without notice, if not for these certain circumstances. Finkelstein offers, “HIV/AIDS was a slow motion train wreck. It took five to six years before that activist community formed. I think it’s really important to see my Silence = Death poster in that context.”
There is a passage between the first Silence=Death poster (1987) and the last Gran Fury poster, The Four Questions (1993). They are both text—one is black, the other white; one is declarative, the other interrogative. “Between those two posters is my AIDS crisis, the story of my cultural production,” Finkelstein says, “but I also feel that the juxtaposition of the two is essential to understanding the whole story of HIV/AIDS.”
Flash collectives are part of the activist’s more recent work. They help bring individuals together through artistic collaborations. “Most people don’t necessarily think collaboratively,” he comments, “but everything about political and social engagement is a part of a process of collaboration. That’s what communities and community responses are. That’s what activism is. Activism is a community response to something. So, in a way, I feel that the collective, even if it’s a tiny collective, is a bell jar. An experiment in collectivity is an experiment in activism.”
After Silence talks in depth about activism and AIDS activism in particular, as well as about the political meaning of art and how it fits into art history. After all, he writes, “AIDS was, AIDS is, a political crisis. And silence was, silence is, packed with political meaning. Writing the story of AIDS, I believe, is as political as HIV/AIDS itself. So, as we enter the final stretch, I am finally throwing in with history. History, that is, as an act of resistance.”
Especially in the present political moment, After Silence becomes an empowering and inspiring must-read. “The day after Election Day my phone was ringing off the hook, people asking, ‘What do we do now?’” Finkelstein recalls. “I think the impulse to ‘fix it’ misses the point of what actually happened. The decimation of voting rights, of reproductive rights has been going on for decades. The questions that Trump brought to the floor were a long time coming in the part of America that we tend to overlook. And so is the AIDS crisis. The early days of AIDS were a process of discovery of exactly what was happening to certain communities, and brought to the floor.”
A lifelong activist, Finkelstein believes that we’re not done writing the history of AIDS or over the AIDS crisis, not when millions of people are still living with the virus. “But I feel really hopeful,” he adds. “That’s another reason why I keep saying that we’re at a potentially radicalizing moment. It’s not just that there’s another younger generation of activists that are asking the right questions, it’s the younger generation of activists who fully understand the question of intersectionality. I realize I’m saying this from a position of privilege, but in a way, what’s being revealed by Trump might be the dying gasp of the old world at the edge of a new one, in which not everyone is the same. I choose to see it that way.”
Find out more about Avram Finkelstein and his work by visiting him online at: www.avramfinkelstein.com.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.