It’s hard today to comprehend the atmosphere of uncertainty AIDS caused when it first hit gay communities in the US in the early 1980s. The onslaught was terrifyingly fast, and for the communities affected, information scant. The fact that it seemed to primarily affect gay men and intravenous drug users led to years of complacency on the part of the state; the moral self-righteousness and bigotry of newly elected Reagan administration meant it was five years into the crisis before the US President even mentioned the name of the disease. By that time, almost half a million Americans were living with HIV.
Facing government indifference, it became clear that, if the AIDS crisis was to be tackled, it would have to be through the efforts of those who were affected by it, their friends, and their families. Networks of support were established in order to care for the sick and dying, especially within the gay communities of the United States’ big urban centres. Aside from mutual aid, another response was the formation of HIV/AIDS activist groups who organised to pressurise the government to improve its response, protested state and church misinformation and scaremongering, and pushed for both better access to healthcare and sex education. Grassroots groups like Gay Men’s Health Crisis provided counselling and legal aid, while later groups like ACT-UP and WHAM took to the streets with direct action spectacles to bring the crisis into the headlines, disrupting trading on Wall St. and mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral, while ACT-UP sub-groups such as the Treatment and Data Committee and Housing Committee tackled other problems people with HIV and AIDS faced in their daily lives.
One tool in the armory of the communities and activist groups was visual art. The new challenges they faced required new visual languages, and new attitudes towards culture. Many of those challenges and responses can be seen in the work of the anonymous collective Gran Fury, whose work was exhibited recently in ‘Read My Lips’ at Auto Italia South East, London. Formed in 1988, from the outset their stance was provocative, a challenge to themselves and their own community as much as a call to wider society. “WITH 42,000 DEAD,” an early poster declaimed, “ART IS NOT ENOUGH. TAKE COLLECTIVE DIRECT ACTION TO END THE AIDS CRISIS.” Gran Fury’s bold visual language, taken straight from the contemporary world of advertising, was uncompromising — action was its agenda. Over the next seven years, they produced a series of powerful posters aimed directly at changing institutional and public attitudes.
Among the most well-known works on display at Auto Italia was ‘The Pope and the Penis’, a poster attacking the Catholic Church’s reckless pronouncements on sexual health. It quotes Cardinal John O’Connor, at the time Archbishop of New York, who claimed ‘The truth is not in condoms or clean needles. These are lies… good morality is good medicine.’ O’Connor’s portrait is surrounded on both sides by a text outlining how the Church’s repressive teachings on human sexuality are driven by a desire to control and punish that puts lives at risk. “AIDS is caused by a virus,” it ends, “and a virus has no morals.”
Balancing anger with education was at the heart of Gran Fury’s mission. Their work used clear text and bold colours to ensure their messages were legible to the public; their work appeared on buses and billboards, making the conversation about AIDS part of everyday life rather than the whispered, fearful discussion it was for many in the early 80s. In ‘KISSING DOESN’T KILL’ three kissing couples — straight, gay and lesbian — are depicted to counter prevalent myths about what causes HIV transmission, and who can be affected. Its bold, simple message accompanies another more complex slogan, highlighting that poverty and governmental inaction meant that the medical crisis was also a political crisis.
With dark humour, other posters in the exhibition draw attention to the fact that AIDS research neglected women, a well as demanding heterosexual men acknowledge the extent of the crisis and take responsibility for their own sexual health. “SEXISM REARS ITS UNPROTECTED HEAD,” one reads, “MEN: USE CONDOMS OR BEAT IT.” Gran Fury’s attempt to emphasise that AIDS was not just a gay male issue is still painfully relevant. Despite complacent assumptions that the crisis is over, HIV today still ravages American communities, particularly affecting people of colour and those living in poverty. The work puts paid to the lie that identity politics is either frivolous, or solely about representation. Gran Fury pinned much of the blame for the handling of the crisis at the door of capitalism, but from bitter experience knew only too well how its violence was built on deep, profitable bigotry, and how continuing discrimination meant that access to help and healthcare was unevenly distributed.