Presenting visual media from the AIDS activist movement, “ACT UP New York” hopes to spark dialogue on campus
“SILENCE = DEATH” is the proclamation glowing on the lobby walls of the Carpenter Center these days. That slogan, writ under a pink triangle, was the icon that fueled a revolution in AIDS activism in New York 20 years ago. Now this historically significant image has resurfaced for “ACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993,” encouraging Harvard to speak up about AIDS and explore its relevance to the community. The exhibition marks the 20th anniversary of the formation of ACT UP New York as well as the premiere of the ACT UP Oral History Project, a collection of interviews with artists who were involved in the movement.
The preparation for “ACT UP New York” at Harvard—open from October 15 to December 23—has been fueled by the conviction that some things should be remembered and talked about, that some things shouldn’t remain silenced—the same conviction that began the ACT UP movement. By bringing an important and still pertinent historical moment into focus, “ACT UP” hopes to create a forum on campus wherein a greater dialogue about AIDS can take place.
In the late 1980s, AIDS related death rates skyrocketed, causing a genuine crisis in American health care. Responding to the growing fear among citizens and the rising cases of illness, ACT UP sought to foster open public discussion.
“ACT UP was formed in 1987, and was probably the definitive social movement of my life, and also of my generation,” says Helen Molesworth, a co-curator of the exhibition and the Houghton Curator of Contemporary Art at the Harvard Art Museum. “It was a really important moment of social protest in our lifetime.”
During its first years, ACT UP became a widespread movement largely because its symbols were widely recognizable and eventually iconic. Deeply saturated with artists and the art, it functioned as a sort of visual, social initiative.
“The coalition of ACT UP was populated by artists and that was the case for a variety of things, including the simple fact of New York life in the 1980s,” says Claire Grace, co-curator and PhD student at Harvard’s Department of History of Art and Architecture.
“The art world is filled with gay people,” Molesworth adds. “And gay men were really the first group of people who were hit by the disease.”
Realizing that they had a role to play, artists became more actively engaged in raising awareness about the crisis. “Those people brought all of their creative energy and their intellect to bear on this massive health crisis. They understood that in addition to acts of civil disobedience, they were also going to have to operate on another public sphere, and that was the sphere of images,” Molesworth says. “So they made t-shirts and stickers and posters that got pasted all over New York, and billboards, and bus advertisements and subway ads. There was a moment in New York when you just couldn’t be outside and not be experiencing some of the visual material coming out of ACT UP.”
Yet, even though the movement was so pervasive in its time, its history seems to have fallen out of the public eye. “I found that a lot of younger people did not know what ACT UP was,” says Molesworth, citing one of the reasons why she decided to put on the exhibition. “And I thought it was really curious that the history was so fragile that could be lost in perhaps a 20 year period.”
Despite its present invisibility, ACT UP, or AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, continues its work and remains relevant. The right to health care is one of its legacies, and a project that still resonates strongly today. And more locally, infection rates among men aged 18-35 are on a rise in Boston.
“Many of these images—their vitality and their message are really powerful and relevant to the current AIDS crisis that we face,” Grace says. “But their currency is dialed into a historical moment. You don’t see them on the streets anymore and that might be partly because our culture has changed a lot and it’s no longer as possible to be heard or to have your visual object resonate in this culture that we exist in.”
But “ACT Up New York,” will struggle valiantly against these conditions to create what they hope will be an active discussion on campus.