In Pictures: Meet the People Who Fought the AIDS Stigma in the ’80s

1988, seven years after the first reported outbreak of HIV/AIDS, sees a group of artists congregate and turn art into action to tackle the stigma behind the virus killing thousands upon thousands.

Self-titled as ‘Gran Fury’, the group was an artistic collective active in New York City between 1988 to 1995 that operated in tandem with ACT UP, the AIDS advocacy group founded in the city in a year before Gran Fury. The groups’ graphic material, in particular its iconic SILENCE=DEATH design, eventually disseminated beyond the city and beyond activist circles into national discourse and popular culture.

Named for a line of Plymouth cars used by the police department, Gran Fury’s tactics embraced advertising techniques – bold aesthetics and graphic design, the exploitation of public spaces, emphasis on wide distribution. At the same time, its members remained wary of the branding of its art as trendy “convenient product” and consistently emphasized the limitations of art and importance of direct action, exemplified by the recurring slogan “Art is not enough”. Indeed, art was not enough, but Gran Fury’s politically loud messages ripped across NYC and signposted the dissemination of HIV/AIDS stigma that we still have to this very day.

In an archived interview with BEAT Gran Fury explain:

“Our first projects were poster sniping (illegal wheat-pasting of posters on vacant signage), and Xeroxed flyers, a working method which grew out of an ACT UP aesthetic and our limited funds. After about a year, our tactics changed as we questioned whether postering was the most effective means of reaching a large general audience.

As Gran Fury received increasing art world support, we did so with the condition that we receive the greatest possible public access to our work, in most cases exhibiting outside the art space itself. We decided not to produce work for the gallery market. Art institutions provided us with access to public spaces a group such as ours would otherwise never have had the resources to acquire; they profited through supporting AIDS work by an activist group which met their aesthetic standards and which was willing to observe certain boundaries of wheat was and was not allowable-explicit obscenity or critique of their sponsors.

…At the same time, our work began to feel like a signature style, a convenient product for the art world to use to fulfill its’ desire to “do something” about the AIDS crisis.”

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Visit the New York Public Library for a portfolio of over 150 documented acknowledgements to the art here.