SPILL STINGS 1: Infect/Intersect

Thu 01 Jan 1970

Infect/Intersect : Part 1 : Image Work by Johanna Linsley Asked to reflect on the SPILL festival before the fact, I am struck how the theme of ‘infection’ has been a fertile, productive or literally life-or-death reality for a variety of artists and cultural activists in a profusion of contexts.  How do artists respond to the biological analysis of infection or the medical experience of it? How does the metaphorical appropriation of its structure and process by cultural workers serve their politics and their poetics? Is infection a good teacher? Is it ever an ally? Perhaps the strongest association I can make with the theme is with some of the heroic work connected to ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.  Formed in 1987, ACT UP has pioneered direct action and organisational techniques to fight the AIDS crisis in the USA.  It particularly targeted the blatantly homophobic, racist and sexist AIDS policies (and lack thereof) of US political administrations, beginning with the violent neglect of marginal peoples by the Ronald Reagan administration. ACT UP has been influential both for the impact of their actions and for initiating a model of grass-roots political organisation.  From their earliest actions, members of ACT UP showed a canny understanding of the symbolic spread of images and information as crucial to successful intervention into policy.  Considering ACT UP, one finds the medical realities of HIV/AIDS interacting with the specific politics surrounding the infection – in other words, the cultural and structural homophobia and racism of the USA – but also the metaphorically infective properties of images: the way they circulate and attack, and the way counter-images might be used to ‘vaccinate’ against insidious hatreds and violence. In this brief post, I want to point to a few resources for information and analysis of ACT UP.  First, art historian and theorist Douglas Crimp’s excellent book AIDS Demo Graphics (1990) provides an account of some of the major actions of the New York chapter of ACT UP from the first few years of its founding. through the lens of an analysis of the graphics and designs produced and disseminated by the organisation.  A member of ACT UP himself, Crimp narrates over a dozen demonstrations, occupations and other direct actions staged by the organization. He is also careful to mention the numerous smaller, ad-hoc actions, or ‘zaps’ organized as quick reactions to opportunities.  The larger actions he describes include: marches on Wall Street and City Hall; targeted campaigns against misinformation that had been spread by Cosmopolitan magazine and the shocking neglect of the issue by the New York Times; an attempt to seize control of the Food and Drug Administration (whose favoring of corporate pharmaceutical interests and foot-dragging around clinical trials of experimental drugs caused countless needless deaths); and protests against conservative Cardinal of the Catholic church John O’Connor. Crimp begins his analysis of the graphic dimension of the organization by narrating the development of the famous Silence=Death logo.  He describes the appropriation by gay rights groups of the pink triangle used by Nazis to identify gay men in concentration camps.  This includes an analysis of the layered semiotic codes that make this logo legible to different groups.  Crimp argues that ACT UP’s ability to use graphics to swiftly and deftly represent its position across affiliation groups was, at its peak, the organisation’s key tactical advantage. Crimp is also keenly aware of the cultural politics of image production.  He describes a number of graphical interventions created by the artist collective Gran Fury, including a multi-signifying graphic text with the word ‘Riot’ at the centre, surrounded by the words ‘Stonewall ‘69’ and ‘AIDS ‘89’.  Crimp goes on to tell how this image resulted as a comment on another artist group’s AIDS-related image, the Canadian group General Idea’s recycling of Robert Indiana’s pop art LOVE graphic.  Where General Idea’s work is commentary, even if oblique, and therefore requires an art context to operate, Gran Fury’s response was re-appropriated again as protest sign.  It is this ability for ACT UP’s graphics to be active across contexts that is their most significant contribution. The title of Crimp’s book – AIDS Demo Graphics – suggests another important factor for all grass-roots organizing.  What, exactly, is the demographic?  Who is speaking for whom, and what is the dynamic?  Crimp describes how AIDS activism was framed from the beginning as a special interest, not affecting the mainstream. This violent rhetorical marginalization allowed (and allows) vulnerable people to disappear both from public discourse and, more importantly, public service. A second important resource which works to name a demographic for AIDS activism is the ACT UP Oral History Project, a collection of more than one hundred interviews by members of ACT UP. Extracts from the videos can be seen online, where they are arranged alphabetically by name, chronologically by date of interview, and labeled with a short title or description. The project has been featured as part of a recent exhibition on ACT UP, initially shown at the Carpenter Center at Harvard University, and later touring to White Columns gallery in New York. Initiated by Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard, the Oral History Project shows how the labour of documentation is crucial for tactical direct action work to sustain.  In her statement about the project, Schulman notes her anger at finding the narrative of AIDS policy in the US starting to read that the mainstream chose to pay attention after a regrettable delay.  She writes:

Actually, what really took place was this: thousands of people, over many years, dedicated their lives to achieving a cultural and scientific transformation. In other words, a nation that had always hated and humiliated and violated gay people, was forced—against their will—to behave differently than they wished to, because activists intervened and took control of a terrible situation, thereby changing it. (http://www.actuporalhistory.org/about/statements.html)

Schulman insists, then, that the cultural work of ‘infecting’ the behaviour of a nation or culture is necessarily a long-term, active and collective labour.