Casting spells

By GREG COOK  |  October 21, 2009

Kramer’s call to speak out was another theme. An icon of the fight is the earliest piece here: Silence = Death Project’s 1986 poster of a pink triangle on a black background above the eponymous slogan “Silence = Death.” There are posters alleging that President Reagan and the first President Bush have blood on their hands for their failure to address AIDS. A 1989 poster by Richard Deagle and Victor Mendolia takes on the Catholic Church’s stand against AIDS education, condom distribution, and abortion. The words “Know your scumbags” are juxtaposed with images of New York’s archbishop, John O’Connor, and a condom. Below the condom you can read, “This one prevents AIDS.”

Most touching is Gran Fury’s 1988 poster All people with AIDS are innocent. The simple text gets to the heart of the problem — the fight against AIDS was long hampered by bigots who believed that homosexuals, drug users, and other AIDS victims deserved what they got.

Raucous videos of AIDS marches and rallies give a sense of the movement’s fervent, righteous fury. A timeline provides context. But the sampling of posters — just 33 — feels small. Is that all there is?

At the other extreme is the ACT Up Oral History Project, a data dump of 98 video interviews with surviving ACT UP members. It’s an amazing resource, but you’d need more than two weeks to watch it all. (Molesworth says that the curators read transcripts but haven’t screened the videos themselves because they weren’t available prior to the show.) The quantity buries the information. Video excerpts can also be viewed at, which is a more manageable, useful presentation.

AIDS activists changed legal policy, medical practice, drug prices, gay rights, and how we care for all our sick. But this show feels like a rough draft of that story. Art this powerful, a subject this important, and activism this successful all deserve a more studied, substantial showcase.

Read Greg Cook’s blog at

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