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AIDS Chic?
March 14, 2011 3:07 PM   Subscribe

"Anyone who was around New York City in the late 1980s and early '90s couldn't have missed the work of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, better known as ACT UP. Its group's activism reached a fever pitch during the early '90s, when the iconic black 'Silence=Death' posters and t-shirts seemed ubiquitous downtown and served as somewhat more defiant symbols for the Gay community than the rainbow flags that took over to serve that role slightly later. ... So what were we to think as we wandered through Barneys Co-op in Chelsea yesterday when we spied a whole shelf full of T-shirts featuring ACT UP's famous imagery [priced each at $50 ... 'a portion of that price tag will go to the activist group'] as if they were magically transported there from 20 years ago?"
... "Has the angry life-or-death struggle against AIDS from years past finally been co-opted into a blithe fashion statement, or will the images succeed once again as a potent reminder that AIDS is still with us and remains a threat to everyone's health?" [via]
posted by ericb (48 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
Compelling graphic design was key in early AIDS activism and continues to be so today.
posted by ericb at 3:10 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Um. Aren't those images copyrighted or something?
posted by magstheaxe at 3:11 PM on March 14, 2011


I have never paid $50 for a T-shirt in my life. I don't plan to start now.
posted by cjorgensen at 3:12 PM on March 14, 2011


New York City? Try "Anyone who was around the United States." I was a kid in the suburbs of Washington DC in the late 1980s and "SILENCE = DEATH" was everywhere.
posted by escabeche at 3:13 PM on March 14, 2011 [13 favorites]


Pretty sure the Pink Triangle is firmly in the Public Domain by pretty much any country's laws. Not sure about the legality of copyrighting slogans.

Crass consumerism and capitalism with a tiny nod towards strategic altruism. I wonder what percentage of the sales go toward "the activist group"?
posted by cjorgensen at 3:16 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


"In 1987, six gay activists in New York formed the SILENCE = DEATH Project and began plastering posters around the city featuring a pink triangle on a black background stating simply ‘SILENCE = DEATH.’ In its manifesto, the SILENCE = DEATH Project drew parallels between the Nazi period and the AIDS crisis, declaring that ‘silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.’ The slogan thus protested both taboos around discussion of safer sex and the unwillingness of some to resist societal injustice and governmental indifference. The six men who created the project later joined the protest group ACT UP and offered the logo to the group, with which it remains closely identified.

Since its introduction, the ‘SILENCE = DEATH’ logo has appeared in a variety of manifestations, including in neon as part of an art display and on a widely worn button. It was also the forerunner of a range of parallel slogans such as ‘ACTION = LIFE’ and ‘IGNORANCE = FEAR’ and an entire genre of protest graphics, most notably including a bloodstained hand on a poster proclaiming that ‘the government has blood on its hands.’ Owing in part to its increasing identification with AIDS, the pink triangle was supplanted in the early 1990s by the rainbow as the dominant image of ‘gay pride.’ By force of analogy, however, the rainbow itself has, in some countries, become an image associated with AIDS.

The SILENCE=DEATH Project was a group of six men who had started meeting a year and half before the formation of ACT UP, made up by Avram Finklestein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Soccaras. They were men who needed to talk to each other and others about what the fuck were they going to do, being gay men in the age of AIDS?! Several of them were designers of various sorts--graphic designers--and they ended up deciding that they had to start doing wheat-pasting on the streets, to get the message out to people: 'Why aren't you doing something?' So they created the SILENCE=DEATH poster which at the bottom said: 'Why is Reagan silent about AIDS? What is really going on at the Center for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Vatican? Gays and lesbians are not expendable...Use your power...Vote...Boycott...Defend yourselves...Turn anger, fear, grief into action.' A short time later, several of them were at the evening event when Larry Kramer spoke, which motivated the community of people to found ACT UP." *
posted by ericb at 3:20 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


We've come a long way, gayby.


Also, assholes.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 3:30 PM on March 14, 2011


Archive of ACT-UP t-shirts.
posted by ericb at 3:33 PM on March 14, 2011


The city has a short memory. I moved to NYC in the early '00s, lived downtown since then, and have never heard of this group or seen their imagery.
posted by 2bucksplus at 3:34 PM on March 14, 2011


Um. Aren't those images copyrighted or something?

No, they're not. Look at the image information from any result for ACT UP's materials in the New York Public Library and you will find this:
With regard to any items in which ACT UP held copyrights, ACT UP has decreed those materials to be held in public domain.
They're also working on giving the NYPL all their videos.
posted by heatherann at 3:35 PM on March 14, 2011


We've come a long way, gayby.

Gayby, what's a gayby?
posted by Horace Rumpole at 3:47 PM on March 14, 2011


The city has a short memory. I moved to NYC in the early '00s, lived downtown since then, and have never heard of this group or seen their imagery.

Christ, I feel old.

The reason you may not have heard of ACT UP (I don't know how old you are, or what kind of social/political circles you move in) is that its peak was fairly short-lived - it was/is a direct action group whose focus was to bring attention to the AIDS crisis, which at that point was being ignored by the POTUS and pretty much anyone who wasn't gay or had gay friends, and force attention and research money to find treatments for it.

The epidemic is in a different stage of things, and so is the activism around it.
posted by rtha at 4:13 PM on March 14, 2011 [13 favorites]


Not necessary defending this (there's obviously some protest nostalgia chic involved), but Opening Ceremony, who are producing these t-shirts, are not merely appropriating the design as a fashion item -- they're pretty aware of the history.
posted by neroli at 4:29 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


The city has a short memory.

Perhaps, but its residents don't. I definitely remember seeing ACT UP's stickers everywhere downtown when I was a kid, as do most people I know. Even when I was too young to know what AIDS was, I had a vague understanding that there was some kind of disease out there, and people were dying, and that the stickers' ubiquity was a little creepy and end-world-y. (That said, the Missing Foundation logo, which was spraypainted all over, also freaked me out.)

Anyhow, ACT UP is pretty famous in the queer community, among activists, among medical ethicists, and beyond.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 4:34 PM on March 14, 2011


Oh, for christ's sake. Is there nothing that can't be co-opted?
posted by sea change at 4:34 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Christ, I feel old.

That makes two of us, and I'm a straight guy, but then again 'downtown' ain't what it used to be.
posted by jonmc at 4:35 PM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


I was going through an old box of cruft recently and found some old ACT UP style stickers from the early 1990's. ("GAY GIRLS MAKE ME WET")
posted by rmd1023 at 4:40 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Maybe I just knew these guys because my mom was an art student in the '80s, but I thought that they were pretty iconic.

I do remember hearing that the original group had kind of broken up due to internal fights and maybe some HIV denialism. That was just something that I was told while I was canvassing, so if anyone can shed more light on their later years, I'd appreciate it.
posted by klangklangston at 4:41 PM on March 14, 2011


The epidemic is in a different stage of things, and so is the activism around it.

In some ways, yes. In Canada, we're starting to see more old-school activism as non-disclosure is becoming increasingly prosecuted.

AIDS ACTION NOW! started up again last fall with their HARPER IS CREATING AN AIDS CRISIS IN CANADA campaign.
posted by heatherann at 4:45 PM on March 14, 2011


Um, Opening Ceremony seems to have had a pretty sustained relationship with ACT UP/NY. I'm not seeing any indication that the reproductions have been produced against the wishes of the organization itself, which notes on its own website—which you link to—that it lacks the resources to produce the t-shirts themselves.

Also, you can pay way more than fifty bucks for a t-shirt if you care to. I think the OC campaign is great.
posted by wreckingball at 4:48 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Heh. Barney's Co-Opt. Lots of big money there for young designers.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 4:50 PM on March 14, 2011


Yeah, the tag on the shirt appears to be "Act Up," so I'm guessing the organization is behind this, and I see no reason why they shouldn't be.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:08 PM on March 14, 2011



I do remember hearing that the original group had kind of broken up due to internal fights and maybe some HIV denialism.


I don't recall the exact details of the HIV denialism, but I remember the Chicago chapter was pretty contentious. I only heard second and third hand accounts, for the most part, as I was only in attendance for a few of the meetings, marches, and gatherings, but there seemed to be a lot of infighting within the leadership there, some of it quite nasty.

I guess that was to be expected, considering we are talking about people who were angry because they were dying and in pain, it seemed like nobody gave a shit, and they wanted to know why.
posted by louche mustachio at 5:39 PM on March 14, 2011



Christ, I feel old.


And I just realized one of the reasons I don't recall exact details is that I am trying to remember something from twenty one years ago.
posted by louche mustachio at 5:43 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't recall the exact details of the HIV denialism,

San Francisco, 1990. See my comment in this thread.
posted by rtha at 5:55 PM on March 14, 2011


Jesus. I was in ACT UP Milwaukee around 1992-1994. I was in my teens then; I'm now older than everyone I knew who died.
posted by desjardins at 6:21 PM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Oh, for christ's sake. Is there nothing that can't be co-opted?
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:58 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Capitalism is like is like Gozer the Destructor from the end of the first ghostbusters movie. Anything you can think of, it can assume that form and use it to destroy you.
posted by Jon_Evil at 7:26 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:32 PM on March 14, 2011


I was in junior high in suburban Seattle when these people were doing their thing, and I never heard of them. I don't know if I was an exceptionally sheltered kid or what (I probably was).

But I learn something new everyday. This is really interesting. Thanks, Metafilter! (I'm being sincere, not snarky!)
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 7:37 PM on March 14, 2011


They were active in Boston, too. As a reporter covering health care at the time, I got to cover their protests at the suburban headquarters of a Swedish drug company (whose president went down in flames because of a sex-harassment scandal).

The best was when they painted what seemed like thousands of ping-pong balls to look like bloodshot eyes (the company made some drug to treat an eye condition that affected people with AIDS), then just started flinging them at this giant glass pyramid that fronted the building. I had some of those eyeballs rolling around in the back of my car for years.
posted by adamg at 7:47 PM on March 14, 2011



The city has a short memory. I moved to NYC in the early '00s, lived downtown since then, and have never heard of this group or seen their imagery.


Holy shit! Well, whether you know it or not, you've been affected by their actions.

They

1) changed the FDA—sped up drug approvals from taking something like 15 years per drug down to 3 (check the numbers, but it was large whatever the exact facts are) for drugs for deadly illnesses,

2) created "compassionate access" (where people who can't get into clinical trials or afford expensive meds can get some access to potentially lifesaving drugs),

3) hectored the drug companies and the government to create HIV meds (and seriously helped with some of the science and making sure it was funded),

4) got needle exchange programs which saved hundreds of thousands of lives off the ground in NY,

5) were in large part responsible for getting people to realize that AIDS meds for Africa was actually feasible, not just an idealistic dream (Tina Rosenberg's NYT Mag piece gets some credit here too) and were, together with GMHC, basically the most effective activist movement in the U.S. post the 1960's.

6) seriously helped to destigmatize HIV and, with GMHC, eroticize safer sex..

Can you name another group that achieved even one such impressive outcome? The reason you haven't heard of them is that, rarely for an activist group, they actually achieved a lot of what they set out to do.

And I'm sure I've left out some critical achievements, too.
posted by Maias at 7:49 PM on March 14, 2011 [19 favorites]


Oh, for christ's sake. Is there nothing that can't be co-opted?

Obligatory mention of the fact that they are branded as a cooperative, presumably for the chic countercultural value, event though they aren't one, in violation of state law that prohibits misuse of the term.
posted by ioesf at 9:20 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

I do have a whole box of authentic vintage ACT UP t-shirts around here somewhere. They're not for sale, though, and a few may have, um, a bit of spray paint on them.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:39 PM on March 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


I had the olde "Silence = Death" shirt.

I think I might have taken it off and impetuously given it to someone back in the day.
posted by louche mustachio at 11:39 PM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm sort of conflicted about this whole situation. There is definitely a very real....lessening of awareness? concern? ... of HIV and AIDS in the gay community. Anything that brings a spotlight to the fact that this virus is still a huge problem isn't completely evil. It's tough to swallow that it's a $50 t-shirt sold at a Barney's, but hopefully it will get people who can afford to shop there thinking about things. Now if we can get these into cheaper stores, we'll be moving in the right direction.

Also, is there any indication of how much of that money actually goes to the group?

I'm probably a bit too close to all this right now, since one of my closest friends just went into the hospital yesterday with (likely AIDS-related) pneumonia after being healthy for the past two years since his diagnosis.
posted by This Guy at 5:16 AM on March 15, 2011


Can you name another group that achieved even one such impressive outcome?
The group ACT UP (it isn’t hyphenated) was modelled on: ADAPT.
posted by joeclark at 8:39 AM on March 15, 2011


Make no mistake. This isn't about "awareness" or anything to do with the original spirit of the aids activists who risked their lives to give voice to the concerns of a group of people that the Reagan government, the giant pharmaceutical companies, the religious right, and society at large were willing to condemn and leave to suffer the ravages of the range of illnesses brought on by compromised immune systems.

Look at the "About" page of Opening Ceremony. They are out there to celebrate capitalism and consumerism. By golly, by ripping off and selling at hyper-inflated prices the graphic design of the brilliant minds who stood up to the forces of oppression without a hint of credit or attempt to frame what these designs meant to a generation of activists and people who suffered and died of disease that could likely have been mitigated or ended with the power of governmental intervention, they certainly are celebrating the virtues of rampant consumerism and glorifying all that makes capitalism evil.

Time for an old fashioned die-in, right there in the store, under the banner "Consumerism makes me sick to death!" Ruined t-shirts really don't sell all that well now, do they ...
posted by kuppajava at 9:48 AM on March 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Joe Clark, do you mean the ADAPT that was doing bleach programs for IVDU's before needle exchange? They were great, but they did not do the range of stuff or have the national impact that ACT UP did. If not, which ADAPT do you mean and please list their accomplishments.

Oh yeah, and I left out that Housing Works grew out of ACT UP's housing group, the Lower East Side Needle Exchange grew out of their needle exchange (as did several others), Treatment Action Group grew out of ACT UP's treatment working group. And I'm still sure I'm leaving stuff out.
posted by Maias at 10:33 AM on March 15, 2011


I was just coming back to this to mention Housing Works in NYC, but maias beat me to it.

There were ACT UP groups in many other cities around the world that seeded local work there, too. The Philly and Paris ones are the only ones still doing much these days, as best I know.
posted by gingerbeer at 11:51 AM on March 15, 2011


Chicago had an ACT-UP chapter, which sort of evolved into Queer Nation.

My first demonstration ever was an ACT-UP kiss in.

*beams in soft memory*
posted by RedEmma at 4:33 PM on March 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


The best was when they painted what seemed like thousands of ping-pong balls to look like bloodshot eyes (the company made some drug to treat an eye condition that affected people with AIDS), then just started flinging them at this giant glass pyramid that fronted the building.

Putting a giant condom over Jesse Helms' house is a close second. (Huh. Had no idea David Geffen gave them the money for the inflatable.)
posted by mediareport at 9:07 PM on March 15, 2011


kuppajava: "Make no mistake. This isn't about "awareness" or anything to do with the original spirit of the aids activists who risked their lives to give voice to the concerns of a group of people that the Reagan government, the giant pharmaceutical companies, the religious right, and society at large were willing to condemn and leave to suffer the ravages of the range of illnesses brought on by compromised immune systems.

I'm definitely not saying that their goal is awareness. They want to make money. That's abundantly clear. But if their making money can also help make people more aware then that's not a bad thing. Aligning consumerism and activism would likely help the cause of activism, given the climate in the US currently.

Time for an old fashioned die-in, right there in the store, under the banner "Consumerism makes me sick to death!" Ruined t-shirts really don't sell all that well now, do they ..."

I get that you're angry that their co-opting a pretty meaningful thing here, but I don't see how that would help anybody in any substantive way. It would likely just give Barney's free publicity while you get arrested and have to pay them for those ruined $50 t-shirts.
posted by This Guy at 4:51 AM on March 16, 2011


Wow, Queer Nation! Whatever happened to them?
posted by desjardins at 5:36 AM on March 16, 2011


No, American Disabled for Public Transit. You’d have to read back issues of Disability Rag to learn about them.
posted by joeclark at 1:29 PM on March 16, 2011


American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT). Yeesh.
posted by joeclark at 1:29 PM on March 16, 2011


Well, it's kind of silly to have a contest on this but ACT UP is certainly up there on the list of effective advocacy groups. Larry Kramer founded two AIDS groups that together had more impact than either alone would have done— ACT UP to do most of the yelling and outrageous stuff and GMHC to cooperate with the government and provide services. Of course, ACT UP did a bit of both in the treatment advocacy piece but having separate groups for those functions definitely helped I think.
posted by Maias at 2:41 PM on March 16, 2011


Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop: The Early Days Of AIDS, As I Remember Them [PDF] | March 31, 2011.
posted by ericb at 4:07 PM on March 31, 2011


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