Read Their Lips
April 8, 2022
IT WAS VULGAR AND IT WAS BEAUTIFUL: HOW AIDS ACTIVISTS USED ART TO FIGHT A PANDEMIC. BY JACK LOWERY. Bold Type Books, 2022. 432 pages.
THE PAST DECADE has seen an outpouring of what writer and organizer Theodore Kerr calls AIDS Crisis Revisitation, a genre defined by its nostalgia for the pre-1996 years of HIV/AIDS activism, particularly ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). A major contribution to this literature, Jack Lowery’s intricately researched history of Gran Fury trains its spotlight on the artists and designers who collaboratively authored much of ACT UP’s iconic propaganda. Repackaging the collective’s travails for a mass-market audience, Lowery deftly untangles the lives and contributions of Gran Fury’s eleven core members—Richard Elovich, Avram Finkelstein, Amy Heard, Tom Kalin, John Lindell, Loring McAlpin, Marlene McCarty, Donald Moffett, Michael Nesline, Mark Simpson, and Robert Vazquez-Pacheco—while cementing the group’s importance within the larger saga of ACT UP. Yet he stops short of making heroes of these protagonists, who emerge in his telling less as geniuses of postmodern image war—“actually, much of their work isn’t very good,” he readily concedes—than as all-too-human comrades and lovers.
True to its genre, It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful: How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic offers a celebratory view of this history, albeit one that omits most other cultural activism around AIDS. Complicating his narrative, however, Lowery treats Gran Fury’s failures with as much seriousness as their successes, airing copious dirty laundry along the way. This ambivalence is implied by the book’s title, which conjoins vulgarity—the provocative, the potty-mouthed, and the oversexed—with the beauty of urgent, yet clearly articulated, expression. For Lowery, Gran Fury’s activism embodies a form of “civic rhetoric,” a term borrowed from philosopher Jason Stanley, who defends the necessity of “a species of propaganda” calculated to “force a dominant majority to expand the domain of respect and empathy to include a persecuted and ignored minority.” At their best, Lowery argues, Gran Fury contributed to altering the terms of debate on a range of issues, from the homophobia of the Catholic church to the profiteering of Big Pharma. But they were not always at their best, and many of the book’s most evocative (and politically salient) episodes concern the breakdown of communication along lines of gender, race, and class, both within Gran Fury and in its efforts to propagandize on behalf of people with AIDS. “This is also a story of civic rhetoric’s limitations,” Lowery insists. “Gran Fury embodies that too.”
Consider AIDS: 1 in 61. Produced in the first weeks of 1988 as an accompaniment to ACT UP’s protest of Cosmopolitan magazine, which had recently published an article downplaying the risk of heterosexual HIV transmission, AIDS: 1 in 61 was a test run for the group. In their rejoinder to Cosmo, they paired an image of a discarded doll (perhaps symbolizing maternal distress) with the statistic that one in sixty-one infants born in New York City were found to have HIV antibodies, confirming the reality of heterosexual transmission as well as the racialization of the disease, which disproportionately afflicted Black and Latinx New Yorkers. Glutted with fine-print information and combining English- and Spanish-language text on a single sheet, AIDS: 1 in 61 “failed in every imaginable way,” Lowery claims, noting that the poster may not have been completed on deadline, as it was not deployed at the Cosmo protest. Nevertheless, the work occasioned Gran Fury’s first affirmation of collective purpose, identifying the group as “a band of individuals united in anger and committed to exploiting the power of art to end the AIDS crisis.”
Gran Fury’s members began to hit their stride around “Nine Days of Rage,” a national mobilization of ACT UP chapters in the spring of 1988. Operating as an open committee, with different members pitching in on an ad hoc basis, they contributed several posters to the Rage protests, each corresponding to a different day’s demonstration. Echoing George H. W. Bush’s campaign catchphrase, two versions of the poster Read My Lips—one depicting smooching sailors, the other a pair of 1920s-era vamps—advertised a kiss-in in the West Village. For a day of action addressing the impact of AIDS on women, Gran Fury targeted its message at heterosexual men, juxtaposing an image of an unsheathed erection with the slogans “SEXISM REARS ITS UNPROTECTED HEAD,” “MEN: USE CONDOMS OR BEAT IT,” and “AIDS KILLS WOMEN.” Another contribution paired the declaration “ALL PEOPLE WITH AIDS ARE INNOCENT” with a simple graphic of the caduceus, the official symbol of American medical practice.
Much of Lowery’s analysis concerns the political usefulness of these designs, some of which are deemed “smash hits,” others relegated to the category of “duds.” “What often made Gran Fury so effective,” he suggests,
Implicit in Lowery’s account of Gran Fury’s success is the desirability (literally: the erotic appeal) of semiotic coherence and, accordingly, the undesirability of a garbled code. With Read My Lips, the T-shirt marks the wearer as a solider (rather, a sailor) for the cause, but also as an individual indistinguishable from the collective—hence the message “READMY LIPS,” not “READ OUR LIPS.” In the case of AIDS: 1 in 61, however, the poster’s illegibility also implies, and thus makes visible, ACT UP’s awkward negotiation of race, gender, class, and multilingualism within the AIDS community as well as its own ranks. Tautologically elided in Read My Lips, these axes of difference were unmediated and undisguised in AIDS: 1 in 61, and in other of Gran Fury’s clunkers as well, placing these projects under the sign of what Jack Halberstam calls “the queer art of failure”—a strategy (it may also be a reflex) of aesthetic subversion that refuses to “acquiesce to dominant logics of power” and that “recognizes that alternatives are already embedded in the dominant and that power is never total or consistent.”
Lowery did not set out to write a history of queer failure, but that is what his book delivers at its most consequential moments. A high point in the book’s narrative—it is also a nadir of sorts—occurs in the winter of 1990, during a protracted campaign to urge the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to include symptoms experienced by women in the medical definition of AIDS. At this point, Gran Fury—now a closed group autonomous from ACT UP—had begun to make good on its promise to “exploit the power of art to end AIDS,” seizing the bully pulpit of the 1990 Venice Biennale, where its agitprop installation, dubbed “The Pope Piece,” attracted censorship threats from curatorial officialdom, the Italian legislature, and even the Vatican. After returning from Europe, Gran Fury began work on a new project, Women Don’t Get AIDS, They Just Die from It, commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in partnership with New York’s Public Art Fund to be installed at hundreds of bus shelters in both cities. As backdrop forthe poster’s paradoxical slogan, Gran Fury was considering a photo of a beauty queen pageant, the idea being to link “the obsoletion of this image [of femininity] with the obsoletion of the CDC’s definition of AIDS,” per McCarty. However, the point was quickly raised that the photo’s three swimsuit-clad contestants were white, whereas the poster’s main audience of working-class Angelenos was likely to be majority brown and Black. When one member insisted that race was irrelevant to the poster’s message, Vazquez-Pacheco—an activist of Puerto Rican descent and Gran Fury’s lone member of color—told the group “I’m done” and quit in frustration.
For Gran Fury, Women Don’t Get AIDS, They Just Die from It marked a low point. It was, in effect, the beginning of the end, aggravating pent-up frustrations that portended the collective’s disintegration in 1995. For ACT UP’s purposes, however, Women Don’t Get AIDS, They Just Die from It proved more helpful than harmful. The poster lent clout to the CDC campaign, marking it as a special priority, and Gran Fury’s words featured centrally in a Women’s Caucus protest at CDC headquarters in December 1990, printed on yellow sashes in a callback to the beauty pageant photo. A video still reproduced in It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful shows a group of Black women at the CDC protest brandishing an array of placards, including one emblazoned with the Gran Fury slogan: an image of propaganda in action. Yet the scene visibly contradicts the ideals of “civic rhetoric” and militaristic message-discipline: Standing at right, a protestor wearing a Gran Fury sash and pink triangle hat offers a slogan of her own, scrawled on a homemade poster: “FUCK THE CDC – WOMEN ARE DYING.” The poster’s design, like its message, is as vulgar as they come—a far cry from Gran Fury’s professional branding. But what it lacks aesthetically, it makes up for in authenticity. This too, I want to say, is what democracy looks like.
In the book’s last pages, Lowery presses his case for Gran Fury’s ongoing salience, revisiting the question of art’s pandemic-fighting powers:
Shifting focus from AIDS to Covid-19, Lowery here calls for something less like civic rhetoric and more like governmental public relations, communicating risks and responsibilities to the unvaccinated. While consistent with liberal discourse, this sentiment is hard to square with Gran Fury’s politics. It misses the point of their tireless haranguing of institutions like the CDC and FDA, as well as the drug manufacturer Burroughs Wellcome, which the collective accused of profiteering and murder—“your malignant neglect KILLS”—in its 1988 Wall Street Money campaign. Covid has made heroes of these villains, but it has hardly diminished the need for protest. In the US, the CDC’s shortening of its recommended period of self-isolation has needlessly endangered workers while benefitting employers; its rush to scrap mask mandates and social distancing risks making casualties of the immunocompromised. Globally, the inequitable distribution of mRNA vaccines has left much of the world’s population exposed to reinfection, all but guaranteeing the emergence of novel virus strains. As Jason Stanley reminds us, effective activist propaganda “share[s] the perspective of a group whose perspective has been made invisible, thereby preventing democracy; civic rhetoric is the tool required in the service of repairing the rupture.” If we learn anything from Gran Fury, it should be to respect this rupture, wherever it appears—and to ask, at every turn, whose health counts as public.
— Daniel Marcus