THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Paul Moreno
In the last four years of the ’80s, which I spent as a high school student in Reno, Nevada, my aesthetic sensibility was being shaped in part by the work of fashion photographer Oliviero Toscani, who shot images that filled Elle magazine, Esprit catalogues, and perhaps most notably, the advertising photos for Benetton. The clean, crisp world of ‘United Colors’ that he created for Benetton depicted a bright and well-knit world in which a quirky brown kid like me, with a love of layered shirts and slouchy cardigans, could be as happy as the white folks around him.
In 1990, I moved to San Francisco to attend college. It was there that I saw what I would much later learn was the Kissing Doesn't Kill project by Gran Fury. This long, narrow ad that was designed for the sides of buses depicts a Black man kissing a red-haired white woman; what I will call a vaguely non-white man kissing an Asian man; and two women of color kissing each other. Shot in the style of Toscani, brightly lit, sharply graphic, model-as-still life, the poster was the manifestation of the eroticism my teenage mind had found in those Benetton ads. The text of the poster—which had become a matter of some controversy and was not always included in its entirety—read
KISSING DOESN’T KILL: GREED AND INDIFFERENCE DO.
I knew what this meant. I was eighteen years old. I was terrified of sex despite being as horny as an eighteen-year old. Meanwhile, my brother, who also lived in the Bay Area, who is just nine years older than I, and who is also gay, was seeing his friends die of AIDS.
Gran Fury, Kissing Doesn’t Kill (ver.1), 1989-90. Four color bus poster, 3 panels 30 x 140 in., “Art Against AIDS on the Road.”
Gran Fury was an artist collective that flowered out of the grassroots AIDS activism organization ACT UP. It is perhaps most commonly associated with the Silence=Death Project. Technically, Silence=Death was an independent project that predated both ACT UP and Gran Fury. It is important to look at Silence=Death, however, because it is linked to Gran Fury through a common founding member, Avram Finkelstein, and because Silence=Death was the seed of the urgent, icon-making, and no bullshit aesthetic that Gran Fury would cultivate. The Silence=Death project appeared as offset lithograph posters wheatpasted to walls throughout New York and other cities. The black field is all-encompassing, inclusive of all genders, sexualities, and races. The simple message
appears in a bold white typeface, easy to read from any distance, heftily fills the bottom of the black field. When you get close enough to read the fine print, the poster indicts the government and the church and begs the reader to help save the lives of the queer community. The pink triangle—a technological design advancement on the triangle used to brand homosexuals during the Holocaust—is an elegant and angry retort to the idea, proposed controversially by William F. Buckley, Jr. in the New York Times, that people with HIV/AIDS should be tattooed on their arms and ass to warn others and help stop the spread of the virus. The visual skill of the design of the poster was evidenced in how its symbols permeated queer culture. Even if you missed the posters around New York in the late ’80s, you saw or heard LGBTQ people marching in the street while carrying signs based on this poster, you saw a button with the pink triangle and knew that it was a symbol of queer power even without the words SILENCE=DEATH.
The strength of the design became stronger each time someone wrote, saw, or heard the words SILENCE=DEATH.
This, however, raises a question: what happens if no one writes, sees, hears, or repeats these words? When I started work on this article and started chatting with folks about it, I was not necessarily surprised at how many did not know Gran Fury; but I was shocked by how many were not familiar with Silence=Death. Unless someone was roughly my age or older, or was deeply knowledgeable about queer history, they simply did not know. But a funny thing happened: if I shared with them an image of Gran Fury’s 1988 Wall Street Money, the viewer found it poignant and prescient. In this piece, slips of green paper were printed so that one side resembled the obverse of $10, $50, and $100 bills. The other side, in a bold oblique type, had one of three messages:
FUCK YOUR PROFITEERING. People are dying while you play business.
WHY ARE WE HERE? Because your malignant neglect KILLS.
White Heterosexual Men Can’t Get AIDS… DON’T BANK ON IT.
These bills were dropped on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange at the opening bell as well as dispersed on the street around the Stock Exchange.
As our present-day government fumbles the response to the COVID-19 virus while Wall Street simultaneously rakes in profits, the urgency of our current moment re-ignites the fuse of Wall Street Money.
Taking the poster-design technique practiced in Silence=Death—making a poster that provides different readings from different distances—and appropriating the advertising and art vernacular of the late ’80s and early ’90s, Gran Fury honed a messaging style that was visually seductive and brutally frank. They appropriated the type style of Barbara Kruger—who herself had appropriated it from Madison Avenue. They made factual statements in a journalistic tone and then politely asked the pointed questions that any thoughtful editorial in any respected newspaper should have been asking. They sounded a call to arms. Lastly, they branded themselves. “Gran Fury” was printed at the bottom of each poster, in modestly sized, elegant script, not calling too much attention to itself. This signature implied that there were those already in the know but that this poster exists for those who did not seem to get it yet, or worse, those who did not care, or cared too quietly. This whispered name broke the governmental silence that surrounded AIDS.
When he accepted the presidential nomination at the 1988 National Republican Convention, Vice President George Bush had spent eight years in the Reagan administration, which barely had the decency to even say the word “AIDS” and was even more reluctant to talk about gays. The Watkins Commission had released its report on the AIDS epidemic, which called for anti-discrimination protection for victims of HIV/AIDS but did not call for protection of LGBTQ people. Azidothymidine (AZT) had become available on the market, but its benefits were limited to dubious. In 1987, the Helms Amendment was overwhelmingly approved by Senate, preventing funding of any AIDS education effort that promoted safe sex between homosexuals. Queers were rightfully angry. How could the government address this disease and not acknowledge the community whom it most decimated and who had been in the streets fighting for action? To combat the inherent homophobia in the government’s latest latent response, and the general homophobia that was felt in America, ACT UP organized a nine-day nationwide series of actions and protests in April of 1988.
One of the actions that was planned was a kiss-in. This almost sounds quaint today, and thankfully so; but in 1988, openly same-sex expressions of affection or sexuality on the street or in media was still incredibly taboo. The flyers Gran Fury designed for the event tell a complex story. The male version reproduces a cropped-for-family-viewing, vintage photo of a male/male couple in sailor outfits embraced in a kiss. The female version had two distributed permutations. The first, used for a flyer, also features a reproduction of a vintage photo: two women in flapper attire, one using her hand to pull the other’s face closer to her own. It is elegant but timid. A later permutation, used for postcards and t-shirts, reproduces Gran Fury’s own image of the female/female kiss from Kissing Doesn’t Kill. In every version, the phrase
READ MY LIPS
demands that the viewer look and see queer people being queer, being intimate, showing, embodying sex.
Gran Fury knew the value of repetition. Paste lots of posters everywhere. Make a poster one year and then make a variation of that poster a year later. The efficacy of this technique is clear in advertising and in politics.
“READ MY LIPS” is taken indirectly from George Bush at the 1988 National Republican Convention. In his infamous speech there, he promised, “Read my lips. No new taxes.” Though that line is now credited to speechwriter Peggy Noonan, Bush uttered these words throughout his stump speeches, trying through repetition to affect a tough-guy demeanor. In the long run, it was the fags and dykes marching in the streets whose lips moved with genuine conviction. There were new taxes—but the queers did not back down
When Gran Fury plucked the phrase “READ MY LIPS” out of the political landscape of 1988, they were in essence cultivating an incident of looking which operated in a style similar to that described in Camera Lucida, the 1980 Roland Barthes book about looking at photography. Barthes describes an image containing both studium —the broadly shared cultural elements of an image—and punctum —a detail of the image that pricks the viewer and evokes poignancy and seduction. In the case of Gran Fury, the sleek and straightforward design of the moment, combined with the governmental and societal head-turning, was the studium in which Gran Fury operated. The punctum is the urgency of a life or death crisis in progress. In Barthes’ description, the punctum is a small visual detail, but Gran Fury twists that and says, “Turn around, the poignant detail is not in the picture. It is all around you.”
In bold sans serif type, a 1988 poster firmly asks
WHEN A GOVERNMENT TURNS ITS BACK ON ITS PEOPLE, IS IT CIVIL WAR?
The query floats above a benign image of two arms in suit sleeves reaching out to shake each other’s hands, an image that could easily be a stock photo. It is of note that, although they are clearly men’s hands, the race of the hands is unclear, but one does wear a wedding band. In smaller type at the bottom of the poster:
The U.S. Government considers the 47,524 dead from AIDS expendable.
Aren’t the “right” people dying? Is this medical apartheid?
The camaraderie and confidence expressed in these two hands reaching out to each other suddenly suggest the collusion between government, church, and corporate America to monetize AIDS and to let the epidemic kill people they view as wretched perverts and addicts. Of course, there is also the possibility that these same hands are those of quasi-straight guys who are both part of the corporate machine and part of closeted liaisons between men who don't use condoms and who don’t think straight men can get AIDS—those whose silence equals death.
It is already apparent that it is impossible to discuss Gran Fury without talking about the world in which it operated. It is challenging to write about Gran Fury as an artistic endeavor without emphasizing their activist goals. Though it is exciting to parse their communicative strategies, their work resists the sort of open interpretations of meaning that less politically direct artwork invites. The posters, though very considered in their design, are not asking you to think about their formal attributes. They are telling you what to think about the world around you.
In 1988, Gran Fury made a poster that read
WITH 42,000 DEAD ART
IS NOT ENOUGH
It is important to note that Gran Fury sprung out of an offer from the New Museum to have ACT UP occupy the windows at their old Broadway location, which perfectly situated the artist-activists who became Gran Fury in a liminal spot between the privileged space of historicization and the dirty streets where queer people were getting sick and getting angry. The New Museum installation was activism, not exhibition. Museums by their very nature work to preserve and contextualize artifacts and moments for later reflection. Gran Fury by their very nature was yelling that the fire was still burning and was not yet able to be looked back at.
Gran Fury was also included in the 1990 Venice Biennale. Gran Fury’s grassroots activism in the context of this most elite art world milieu may be hard to square until you realize that Gran Fury skillfully took the prestige of inclusion in the event, which is used to laud participating artists and nations, and turned into a spotlight on organized religion’s useless notion of concern in the matter of AIDS. Gran Fury’s use of an image of Pope John Paul II caused an uproar which forced Vatican officials to physically come and read Gran Fury’s message that the Church’s condemnation of needle exchange and safe sex practices was an immoral condemnation to death for those whose lives could be saved by these simple acts. (Acts as easy and effective as putting on a mask.)
Gran Fury, The Pope and the Penis, 1990. Two billboards & one text panel. 10 x 25 ft. ea. billboard. “Aperto 90”, XLIV Venice Biennale, Italy.
Gran Fury made this work with money it struggled to find. Despite the New Museum and Biennale installations, Gran Fury existed outside the gallery and museum system that props up the art market, which is inherently tied to the same economy that was booming as gays were dying. They did not have gallery representation, nor did they produce work for sale. They were not a business. They were town criers who called out Barbara Bush for posing with babies and children with AIDS, propping them up as innocent victims while the government ignored the health and needs of the babies’ mothers with AIDS. They called out the systemic sexism in HIV research, where studying the particular effects of HIV on women was not prioritized. They made work about HIV’s particular impact on folks of color.
Gran Fury, Four Questions, 1993. Poster, 24 x 20 in.
Finally, it is important to know HIV/AIDS isn't over. According to UNAIDS, in 2019 [bracketed numbers indicate uncertainty bounds]:
38.0 million [31.6 million–44.5 million] people globally were living with HIV in 2019.
1.7 million [1.2 million–2.2 million] people were newly infected with HIV.
690,000 [500,000–970,000] people died from AIDS-related illnesses worldwide.
Women and girls accounted for about 48% of all new HIV infections in 2019.
Risk of acquiring HIV is 13 times higher for transgender people.
David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, (1987). Three gelatin silver prints. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation and the Photography Committee 2007.122a-c,
© the Estate of David Wojnarowicz & P.P.O.W.-New York.
These numbers are hard to visualize, and the visual landscape of 2020 does not provide immediate images of what it looks like to die of AIDS-related illness—which is why I would like to direct you to two works not by Gran Fury. David Wojnarowicz’s photo triptych, Untitled (Peter Hujar), 1987, portrays Wojnarowicz’s companion and mentor, Peter Hujar, at the moment he succumbed to AIDS. Similarly, AA Bronson’s Felix Partz, June 5, 1994, 1994/1999, is a portrait of artist and Bronson’s collaborative partner, Felix Partz, at the moment of his death from AIDS. These two portraits roughly bookend the period of time that Gran Fury was active. Both these pieces portray the way AIDS whittled away at the bodies of its victims, and when one sees them, one cannot help but mourn the loss of these lives and feel the depth of circumstance in which these deaths occurred.
AA Bronson, Felix Partz, June 5, 1994, 1994/1999. Whitney Museum of American Art. Inkjet print on vinyl. 84 × 168 in. AP | Edition of 3. Gift of Mark J. Krayenhoff van de Leur. © 1999 AA Bronson.
Gran Fury’s work activates a different impulse than these two portraits. Gran Fury took their name from the model of automobile frequently used by undercover police in New York and other cities. Automatically the word “Fury” registers the emotions fueling the fire of this artist/activist collaborative. Simultaneously, the name conjures up the stealthiness of an undercover police vehicle, an apt metaphor for the surprise attack nature of the work Gran Fury was planning as well as the silence Gran Fury was combatting. Although their work portrays, with a gut punch, the feelings of loss associated with the initial wave of HIV/AIDS, it also begs, pleads, demands us to get up and fight to save the lives of the living. Gran Fury inspires us to be our own secret agents and our own private army. There is a time to mourn and there is a time to march. There is the virus you fight and there is the virus you ignore—and by ignore, they mean perpetuate.
Paul Moreno is an artist and designer based in Brooklyn, New York. He is the organizer of the New York Queer Zine Fair. His first solo exhibition, previewed previously in NAE, has been postponed until 2021 due to the Covid 19 pandemic.
For further information about the twin concepts of Studium and Punctum, see Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1980.
For further information about Gran Fury, see Gran Fury: Read My Lips, Gran Fury and Michael Cohen, 2011. See also After Silence—A History of AIDS through Its Images, Avram Finkelstein. 2017.
Avram Finkelstein, Silence=Death
The Silence=Death Project, 1987.
Poster, offset lithography,
33 ½ x 22 in.
Gran Fury, Wall Street Money, 1988. Handbill, photocopy on paper, printed recto-verso (3 versions), 3 ½ x 8 ½ in.
ACT UP; Wall Street Demo.
Gran Fury, Read My Lips (Men’s version), 1988. Poster, photocopy on paper, 16 ¾ x 10 ¾ in. ACT UP, Spring AIDS Action ‘88.
Gran Fury, When A Government Turns Its Back On Its People, 1988. U-bahn poster, offset lithography on paper
90 x 120 in. NGBK, West Berlin, West Germany.
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