It’s World AIDS Day on December 1, and I continue to think about the fight. In 1987, during the early years of the AIDS crisis, a group of New York artists and activists formed ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) to raise awareness about the growing epidemic.
Many of the ACT UP designs incorporated text and images; the above poster is one of a few that communicated a message using text alone. The poster was made for an auction at the New York Stock Exchange in September 1989 (two and half years after ACT UP’s first protest, which also took place on Wall Street). All of the Wall Street protests (a second took place a year after the first) were concerned with the huge profits that the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome was making from the AIDS drug AZT. The company had received a patent ensuring that no other company could sell the drug for seventeen years. The company argued that it was justified in charging an exorbitant price for the drug considering it had spent a significant sum of money on its development. ACT UP countered that taxpayers had footed the bill through grants and tax credits. In the September 1989 action, activists requested that AZT be provided free of charge to anyone who needed the drug.
Some of the most memorable posters were designed by the Gran Fury collective, but there were many other people creating passionate graphics that were wheat-pasted and stapled on walls throughout New York City. There were new posters and flyers every day ranging from slick printed and silkscreen posters to funky xeroxed collages.
On July 19th, 1988, the New York City Commissioner of Health, Stephen Joseph, suddenly halved the number of estimated AIDS cases in New York City, a move that threatened to drastically reduce funding for AIDS services.
ACT UP NY declared war against him. During a sit-in at Joseph’s office a copy of his itinerary was taken, and it became the basis for a campaign spearheaded by an ACT UP affinity group. Several Gran Fury members were involved in the effort to remove Joseph from office, leading Gran Fury to design a pair of posters featuring bloody handprint images.
That same year, ACT UP decided to target the regulatory agency responsible for the testing of potential AIDS therapies in the USA, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Given the high and rapid mortality rate, it had become clear that any risks the medications carried could not exceed the risks of non-intervention, and that the clinical trials for the safety and efficacy of these drugs were somehow healthcare for individuals confronting the fatal disease.
Gran Fury used the bloody hand specifically for the FDA action the statistic “One AIDS Death Every Half Hour”. The FDA action was the turning point for the AIDS activist movement, leading to the streamlining of the drug approval process, the parallel track drug access and compassionate use protocols, and the inclusion of People Living With HIV/AIDS, people of color, and women on research advisory boards.
The “Stop The Church” demonstration that occasioned this poster by Vincent Gagliostro was one of ACT UP’s most controversial events. As thousands protested outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, a group of activists entered the church to disrupt the mass conducted by Cardinal O’Connor. In an expression of their opposition to the Cardinal’s stance on AIDS and related issues, they shouted at him, threw condoms in the air, and chained themselves to the pews. They objected to statements he had made that abstinence rather than safe sex education should be taught in the schools, that homosexuality is a sin, and that clean needles should not be distributed to drug addicts. In the weeks following the protest, the media focused on the actions inside the church rather than the concerns that had brought thousands of people to the demonstration.
All pictures from NY Public Library Archives