Silence=Death Project, Silence = Death (1986). Poster, offset lithography, 29 x 24 in.
Alex McClelland & Geneviève Trudel in conversation with Avram Finkelstein
This is a FUSE online exclusive article, available full-text on the web for your reading pleasure.
Article title inspired by artist Craig Damraue’s work.
In March 2013, Alex McClelland and Geneviève Trudel held a Montreal–New York Skype session with artist and writer Avram Finkelstein, one of the people behind the iconic Silence=Death poster (1986), a former member of ACT UP New York and Gran Fury, and an important thinker and speaker in his own right.
With a shared critical interest in the current wave of popular historicizations of early AIDS activism and of the culture generated out of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s, we explored the multifaceted aspects of historical knowledge and meaning, intergenerational dialogue, issues of representation, and the end of AIDS as we know it.
McClelland and Trudel have been working on a project that recognizes that AIDS and HIV history is both the site of exchange-based learning and of contestation. They recognize the tremendous value of intergenerational exchange, of asking questions and telling stories. They will be guest editing the Summer 2014 issue of FUSE, which will focus on conversations about HIV globally.
Skype stills of conversation between Avram Finkelstein and Alex McClelland and Geneviève Trudel, March 2013.
Alex McClelland: We’d like to start by talking about your role as both an activist and cultural producer of some of the most iconic images for the AIDS movement. Right now we are at an interesting moment where the “history” of AIDS activism (especially that of ACT UP New York) is being revisited, documented and popularized in cultural works and the mainstream media. What are your thoughts or concerns on this recent historicization of AIDS activism?
Avram Finkelstein: I’m obsessed with these questions and I feel like this is a critical moment. That is why when people like yourselves—people who can tease out complexity—approach me, I am happy to talk. Then I have this hope that history might actually be useful.
During the height of the AIDS crisis, the idea that we were doing cultural production was not how we saw it; it was activism. No question. It just happened to be that we were also getting commissions from art funding organizations. The institutionalized media also took an interest. So we were anointed, in a way, as participating in cultural production. But that isn’t how we actually saw it at the time; we were activists.
I felt that it would be politically retrograde to talk about it in those terms at the time, because people were dying. You have no idea what it was like. Every day someone you knew would die, and that was after weeks of sponge bathing them and visiting them in hospitals, and then fighting with people’s families about whether their boyfriends would be evicted. I mean it was a war.
So I felt like it would be really fucked up to begin the process of historicization, which was even happening back then, shocking as it sounds when I say it out loud. I feel like that is part of the dance with the devil that you do when you are involved in cultural production. By letting the media and the institutionalized art world talk about our work in this way, it set up the idea that something was being done about AIDS.
There is a lie of the cultural mind, which is that if things are being talked about within academic or intellectual circles, it gives the appearance that things are actually happening when they are not. And I could see that that started happening immediately in the AIDS crisis. People get to say that something is being done to solve the problem, and people who are witnessing it from the outside get to feel as though something is being done. And everyone begins to put their guard down a little bit. At the time, I felt like I didn’t want to participate in that. Lives were at stake.
But now I feel the opposite. I feel like my generation isn’t going to be around forever, and someone is going to be writing these stories. I feel obliged to help historicize it.
Geneviève Trudel: So where do we start? What is historicizing as a process? In studying art history for instance, we are trained to usually start by looking at the art object, but I am wondering if you have a different slant on that?
AF: Good question. I am not an archivist per say, so I would take a political view of the question of historiography. There is no way out of the fact that history is capital. So people own it, there are fiefdoms, and the people who write history get to become the experts in their field.
Like everything else that is informed by my politic, I am very aware that we have to constantly be monitoring what people say and what the responses are to what people say. You know, I’m a Jew and we know that anything that is given can be taken away, including history, and we have witnessed the way history is mutable. This is also a feminist perspective, a queer perspective, the perspective of anyone outside of institutional power structures: you learn that that you have to watch history very closely. That is the price of admission. That is also the point of engagement. My fear is that once the canon crystallizes it really it is almost irrelative, this process, this ongoing evaluation of history.
GT: In terms of my own practice of art history, I try to look at the ways that history has been misused or abused, and how to counter that. I do think it is possible to do that with integrity. I don’t know what happens once things become canonized, but people are constantly deconstructing the canon and that is a crucial process. For myself, what has been most interesting is actually what we are doing right now: talking to people and having conversations. So when I’m looking at art objects or historical objects, my process for writing history differently is finding the conversations that people can have around those.
AF: I would agree with that. Over the past couple of decades I’ve been asked to speak with great frequency about my past work with the Silence=Death Project and Gran Fury, and it is frequently in a curatorial context where people are trying to explain the potency of these images. But they are small discrete posters that, once dragged into an institutional setting, are completely domesticated.
And they have no actual resonance, so you are being told that they were important, but you have no sense of how they actually might have been important.
So I agree, that this conversation is the adjunct, is the component piece that is necessary in order to have a more full understanding, and this is part of the reason why I am sort of obsessed with talking about this stuff.
Now, I do think it is possible to carve a practice that is fully cognizant of this. In the recent “AIDS 2.0” piece I wrote for ARTWRIT, I elude to the fact that for twenty some odd years I have been explaining to people that Gran Fury did not design Silence=Death, but that it was the Silence=Death Project. To some, it’s a distinction without a difference. But if you are going to deal in history, it might as well be true. And there are some things about that story that are meaningful to know, especially from a political or activist perceptive. It basically comes down to which sources you are citing. So if you’re citing Doug Crimp, he got this particular story right.
AM: We are interested in the current-day context of pop culture historicization, for instance, the numerous films that have come out recently, and both the issues they raise around memorializing and representations of AIDS activism in New York, and what could be in danger of being lost through this process. Specifically with the film How To Survive a Plague (2012), we know people are quite concerned that it only documents a white, gay, able-bodied, male experience. What are your thoughts on all of this?
AF: That is a valid critique, and I agree with it. There are two things going on here: one is actual history and the other is popular history. I think what is interesting is that United in Anger (2012) appears to have more credibility in academic circles, and How To Survive a Plague appears to be, if not commercially viable, then closer to the corridors of power in terms of who has paid attention to it.
One of the most startling things to me about How To Survive a Plague is the fact that its director, David France, was one of the first people to write a critical article about ACT UP. His critique of ACT UP was that it was mostly white and male. All these years later, he made this film that completely painted itself into the exact corner that he had previously critiqued. That is as much a statement about capitalism as it is about anything else.
The thing about this movie, as I understand it, based on the conversations I had with David France before he even made it, was that he actually had a book deal, and the movie came up as a result of the book deal. I was left with the impression that the film was a marketing tool for the book because no one makes money with a documentary film. But if he has a bestseller, he will make money. So woven into this idea of how stories get told is the question of history as capital. And there is this other underlying sadness about the ways in which things become canon, which has to do with the media’s proclivity for storytelling, that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
There is not cultural place for a story that does not resolve. I knew for a fact that the second ACT UP started getting attention it was going to be followed by the story of the dissolution of it.
Because the only thing better than anointing somebody is tearing them down and forgiving them; it’s just part of the pathology of the American mind. And I knew that that was going to be part of it. When you are in conversation with the beast, you are obliged to accept how it tells its stories.
There is also the question of referring to AIDS activists as “heroic” because they expedited pharmaceutical interventions, when of course that is a deeply institutionalized, economic question. Yes it’s true, the pharmaceutical interventions that came out of it have saved countless lives, but it is really reductive to say that was the end game, when the fact is today there are HIV-positive people in America who are in jail because they have had sex, and it’s like nobody seems to bother with the mess of that.
And then there is the whole question of women and AIDS. I worked on the women’s sub-committee of ACT UP to get the Center for Disease Control to redefine AIDS to include the physiological manifestations that were specific to women. Women were literally dying, but they were not getting diagnosed. It took us four years to get the CDC to change the definition of AIDS so that diseases that were specific to women were included. That’s a part of the story that isn’t told in How to Survive a Plague, either. And that is the problem with this privileging of institutionalized responses: that oppression that marks the line between the sick and the well, or between the disenfranchised and the enfranchised, gets totally overlooked. So it obliterates all of these other levels of meaning in the story.
In the same way that I said that it would be politically retrograde to participate in the conversation about the resolution of AIDS when it was not resolved at all, that is in turn exactly what is happening now with How To Survive a Plague. People are currently able to say: “Well this was the story, it was a heroic story, and people carved a place for themselves in the world and saved lives doing it.”
And that is a very comfortable way to resolve this terrible human tragedy, which of course has never been resolved.
GT: What do you think about how much public and cultural attention is being focused on ACT UP New York, in terms of remembering AIDS activism? In our own research it seems like a lot of the roads lead to ACT UP, and I am questioning that, and I’m wondering if you have any perspective on that, having been very much a part of it?
AF: Well, I can say that there is something peculiar about that, because actually being in New York now, ACT UP NY is relegated to the scrap heap of history. Probably from the outside looking in it would appear that ACT UP NY is getting its due. But the fact is that this is a group of people who never stopped meeting, whom the world has passed by, and who have no voice whatsoever in any of the recent storytelling. The conversation about ACT UP really bypasses the fact of ACT UP today. In a way, they were being functionally written out of history, but referred to. And yes, it is also a very valid criticism to say that ACT UP NY wasn’t the beginning and the end of activism.
GT: There is this funny thing happening, where there is this very concentrated historicizing effort, in the grassroots and in the academy, around some of ACT UP’s activities, and at the same time, tons of young people and young queers don’t know about that history, which could be called their own history. So there’s a tension there, and it is very interesting to watch it play out right now.
AF: I do feel like it’s the privilege of each generation to invent the things they discover. So again this is why I’m enthusiastic about having a conversation like this with you. I think the key is the invisible stories, the things that no one was there to see. Those are the critical ones, the most interesting ones. To pivot back to these two films, the problem with How to Survive a Plague is that it robs the generation who’s encountering this material for the first time of the things they might actually need to make something out of that information.
AM: I want to talk to you about the post-Gran Fury era, and the period after protease inhibitors came out in the late 90s. Gran Fury famously came to an end during this time. And this was also around the time that I tested HIV-positive. In my hometown of Toronto, I expected to find an activist community to engage with, but there were only social service agencies. This was the era of biomedical “wins” against the epidemic—we got meds that work for some people. But after there was this lull in terms of activist actions and reactions. I’m wondering what you think of that period of time and how you understand it, both in terms of your work with Gran Fury and personally?
AF: There is a lot to say about the things you’re bringing up, so let me compartmentalize. In terms of Gran Fury, the story that Gran Fury likes to tell about itself was that the issues became so complex that we lost our voice. It was too complex, describing what was happening with AIDS. And I never agreed with that.
The truth is it was always complex.Gran Fury, Four Questions (1993). Poster, offset lithography, 24″ x 20″.
What happened was that members of the collective discovered the complexity as they were becoming politicized. Not everyone who worked in that collective came from a political background. There’s a big difference between discovering the complexity, and naming that as the reason why you can no longer work. Within Gran Fury there was controversy about whether or not we should dissolve. There were key members of the collective who decided to stop working, but there were people in the collective who refused to do it. Out of that refusal came the Four Questions poster. There was a splinter group in Gran Fury that made that poster. The poster was about the dividing line between the sick and the well. It was spearheaded by one of the members of the collective who was dying and did not want to stop making work, and myself who—while I was not dying—I felt like it was a critical moment. I did not feel that the issues were too complex to stop making work. I still feel this today.
Gran Fury, Welcome to America (1989). Original billboard, 10′ x 23′, Image World: Art and Media Culture, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY. Installation view, Gran Fury: READ MY LIPS, 80 Washington Square East, New York, NY (2012).
I can’t imagine how somebody could say: “I don’t know what I should do, I don’t know what I should say.” I can think of a million things that one could say about AIDS.
When Gran Fury was given the retrospective at 80 Washington Square East last year, one of the things we were discussing as we were talking about whether or not we wanted to do a retrospective was, would any of the work—could any of the work—be mounted and still be relevant? The offering that I made was that the Four Questions poster is still as true today as it was then. Everyone else chose Welcome to America, the only industrialized country besides South Africa without national healthcare—as being the most relevant, except for the fact that South Africa now has healthcare. But I said you didn’t have to change the text at all to the Four Questions poster for it to still be relevant. There was a silence, and the truth is, there were members of the collective who had never even seen that poster.
So I think that what happened with Gran Fury is a complex thing that has to do with people who were put together in a political situation who were at varying stages of political evolution. Not everyone in the world is politicized in the same way, and it is possible to work with people for whom you have a huge amount of respect but where there’s this dividing line over particular issues.
Then there was this question of burnout; at a certain point you do have to decide when your efficacy has been hobbled by your burnout. There were a lot of people who had that response, and then there were all these other institutional overlays: Clinton got elected, it was this moment when the protease inhibitors seemed as though there might be a pharmaceutical intervention that worked, and people began to put their feet up, and they were also burned out, and people weren’t dying as frequently. So the question then is:
What is your responsibility to the public story? Do you go along with it and say “everything is ok”? And sometimes, you have to. Sometimes it’s more than you can bear to always be aware of how horrible things are.
But personally, as long as one person is suffering, I don’t actually sleep that well at night, and I’m not the only one who’s like that.
AM: What do you think about this all this popular discourse around “the end of AIDS,” as though there’s this linear end point if certain things happen? This language has been widely mobilized by politicians and the United Nations. But I’ve had a hard time reconciling myself with it. I think an HIV cure is not going to get rid of all of the issues around poverty and inequity of access to resources, and I’m always very suspicious of anything when it’s just a biomedical fix, because it means that it’s profit oriented, and situated very heavily in capitalism. What do you think?
AF: I think it’s possible for there to be an end to AIDS. The one that I want to see is a universal cure that everyone has access to. This conversation is layered, and it really means many things: it means pharmaceutical interventions alongside the egalitarian social concerns that are fantastic, access to treatments, and then, you know, the big business pieces of it that have a profit subtext that are fucked up, and in a way you have to be careful what you wish for, pay attention to what you’re asking for. All of that folds into this question about the end of AIDS.Avram Finkelstein and Vincent Gagliostro, Enjoy AZT (1990). Poster, offset lithography on newsprint, 11.25″ x 13.5″.
But I mean, I did this poster a million years ago, back in 1987, and it was a fake Coca-Cola poster and it said Enjoy AZT. It also asks: “is this health care or wealth care?,” and raises questions about AZT. I brought it to Gran Fury to ask if we wanted to take it on as an idea, and there were people who were firmly opposed to that, because AZT at the time was the only medication one could have and they didn’t want to poke holes in it. But AZT was a failed cancer drug that Burroughs Wellcome pulled off the shelves and put back in the pipeline. And they made a killing off of this drug that was mildly efficacious. So on the one hand, you don’t want to be the naysayer on an intervention that might help extend someone’s life even a minute, and I know people who died and who would have given anything for protease inhibitors. But those drugs are also not the greatest solution; they’re not without problems. And that is the sad fact of it. People like the three of us will never have a sound sleep for our entire lives, that’s just not the way we are. Then there are people who are really happy at the idea that the AIDS crisis is over, even if it isn’t.
I mean I also have to say that the question of barebacking is a huge trauma for me. Because you know, I can’t begin to imagine a world in which the crisis had a re-awakening as a result of it. I can’t help but think of all of those people I knew who would have given anything for another day of life. And then people putting themselves at risk for whatever the reason, it’s a hard idea to adjust to.
AM: It’s interesting that you bring that up. With the poster that we did in Toronto for our AIDS ACTION NOW! posterVIRUS project, the I Party. I Bareback. I’m Positive. I’m Responsible. poster, it really was a challenging piece for people who had been in the first wave of the crisis as adults and as activists. It was a very challenging piece for people to deal with, and it still is for some. We somewhat understood that it would be that way.
I’m not going to speak on behalf of the artist, but for myself who curated it in the poster project; I had lots of conversations about the word “barebacking.” The thing about barebacking is that it is such a loaded term and one that heavily pathologizes gay sex and gay men. We wanted to take that back and as HIV-positive people, take ownership over our sexuality to try to assert sexual agency over our lives. It’s not intended to promote barebacking, but more move to de-pathologize these moralistic notions that are intertwined with unprotected sex, drug use and decision-making. Also, we wanted to address the massive failure of HIV prevention campaigns, specifically amongst people in my generation who ended up HIV-positive despite being delivered endless messages about condom use.
But with the poster and people’s reactions, I think it was an interesting moment in terms of having intergenerational discussions with people who had come before us. In some cases there were very, very visceral reactions and the poster was seen as discounting years and years of hard work around condom promotion and HIV prevention. That was really not the intention, it was much more around asserting sexual agency— and, I don’t really like the word “empowerment” very much, but we were trying to promote a renewed form of sexual self-determination—and bypassed medicalized approaches to HIV prevention which prescribe ways of being that are not relevant or realistic for many.
AF: The questions about sexual self-determination are not abstractions to people who were there for the earlier rounds of this conversation. We also fought battles about sex positivity and self-determination. But what if—for those who are unacquainted with the feminist critiques of personhood—the existence of PrEP/PEP/HAART [Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis/Post-Exposure Prophylaxis/ Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Treatment] supports the idea that AIDS is a thing of the past? These same pharmaceutical interventions have changed our thinking about what new prevention models should be, so how do we feel about avoiding medicalization in prevention if it pushes individuals into medicalized solutions for their survival? And if new infections are rising 22% a year for young gay men in the US where you can be imprisoned for non-disclosure—even if you have no viral load and there is no HIV transmission—what about people who decide unprotected sex is their own choice but are unaware of the extracorporeal issues that might also impact their personhood?
AM: This is the terrifying thing for all of us living with HIV. We have very much the same situation occurring in Canada in regards to the criminalization of HIV non-disclosure. But I don’t think as AIDS activists we were ever in a place to give into state oppression and marginalization at the expense of our own freedom of expression and sexual self-determination. But we have a lot of work to do. We are in difficult times.
GT: Our last question comes out of thinking about the untold stories, stories that come up in history that have a strong affective power. Emotions are such an important part of all these histories. I don’t know if the word “healing” is the right one to use because I’ve heard people actively reject that, and say they’re not interested in “being healed,” that they want to stay angry. I think it’s hard to talk about these words when they mean so many different things to so many different people. But when I think of New York and your community and yourself and your friends, I’m just wondering: how are you doing? And what do you need, or what would you like to see happen?
AF: Well that’s a very sensitive and interesting question and I think I’ve become more and more aware in intergenerational contexts that there is certainly an undiagnosed PTSD in my generation. It’s just sort of been glossed over. Most of the people I know never recovered from it. There are many people who are functional but others who lost their jobs, have lived in the same apartment for $130 a month on the Lower East Side for their entire lives, and who have sort of been drained out by this experience. I do feel that the most personal answer to that question is: I cry at the drop of a hat. All the time, and I have for years, and I can never escape the implications of what has happened.
The thing about my generation, and I’m not just talking about gay men, I’m talking about all of the dykes and the straight women and the straight men I knew who fought alongside of me;
there’s this complete lack of a place for us to be.
And I think that the thing that typifies people of my generation who did go through this is a need to be heard. It seems to be a common theme, and that’s really what storytelling is about and that’s part of the problem I have with reductive versions of it. I feel like there is a generational responsibility for all of us to share everything we know before we’re gone, I don’t know why; maybe it won’t lead anywhere, but maybe it will. And what’s the alternative?
So on the one hand I feel like the ongoing conversations about a permanent AIDS memorial are essential and I’ve been thinking a lot about them. Like for anyone who fought in the war, in the commons there were memorials, there are places to acknowledge that that war has been fought. And as long as there’s no such thing in our commons, whether it’s virtual or actual, it will always mean a sort of placelessness. It’s really essential, in terms of healing, to have a communal space for meditation, sharing, and learning.
But I think there is a generational responsibility for you as well. There is so much hand-wringing about younger people on this topic when it comes to people my age, you know, “they’re not involved, they don’t really understand it, it’s not a political moment, everyone thinks the AIDS crisis is over.” But I actually see something very different: I see probative, enquiring, thoughtful conversations from younger people about the meaning of this material to them, trying to rediscover themselves through this story. What could be better than that? What could be more engaged than that? I feel in a way that maybe you actually have a better chance of getting it right, if you ask the right questions, and I can tell you have asked all the right questions, you’re sensitive to the intricacy of it, and that is the point of it, is how intricate it was.
Avram Finkelstein is an activist, artist and writer living in New York. He is a founding member of the collective responsible for Silence=Death, the image most closely associated with AIDS activism in America, and the AIDSGATE poster, recently included in Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years at The Metropolitan Museum in New York. As a founding member of the art collective Gran Fury, Finkelstein has collaborated on numerous public art projects for international institutions including The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Venice Biennale, ArtForum, MOCA LA, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, Creative Time, and The Public Art Fund. The collective had its first retrospective at 80 WSE in 2012, and has work in the permanent collections of The Whitney, MoMA, The New Museum and The New York Public Library.
Geneviève Trudel is a master’s student at Concordia University’s Art History Department. Her research and writing look at HIV in the archive, historiographies, and expressions of intimacy.
Alex McClelland is a doctoral student at Concordia University’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies on Society and Culture. His work looks at the intersections of criminal law and health, with a focus on how the HIV criminalization impacts the lives of people with the virus.