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November 2010, ACT UP @ White Columns

ACT UP, installation view, 2010
Courtesy the artists and White Columns

White Columns
320 West 13th Street
New York, NY 10014
September 9, through October 23, 2010

The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, ACT UP, staged their first action on Wall Street in March 1987 to protest the high cost of AZT and the otherwise unavailability of promising drug treatments for the disease. Some protestors linked arms and sat in the middle of the street, while others passed out materials on the AIDS epidemic, highlighting the role of the government and corporations at bringing about the current state of emergency. In the six years that followed, ACT UP continued to advocate for access to medical treatment and to challenge the way in which AIDS was represented in the media – both its mode of transmission and misconceptions about the populations who were affected by it. Groups that formed out of the ACT UP family and its ethos, including DIVA TV, fierce pussy, Queer Nation, Housing Works, and Heath GAP - to name a few – are a reminder of its powerful legacy in the fields of art and activism.

Bringing to life much of this recent history is the exhibition ACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993 at White Columns in New York. The New York version comes one year after its initial installation by curators Helen Molesworth and Claire Grace at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Art and the Harvard Art Museums in the fall of 2009. Added for this new installment is a commissioned work by the collective fierce pussy, and additions to the outstanding installation of the ACT UP Oral History Project, produced by Sarah Shulman and Jim Hubbard, which includes more than 100 filmed interviews with surviving members of ACT UP. One can select from a dozen or so monitors lining the perimeter of the main gallery, which have multiple accounts of the movement from activists living and deceased. There are far too many stories to be heard in one visit, but the experience – like the exhibition as a whole – is deeply affective.


ACT UP, installation view, 2010
Courtesy the artists and White Columns

Two side-rooms of the gallery display posters, t-shirts, stickers, and agitprop that accompanied the group’s demonstrations and various advertising campaigns. The work of Gran Fury, the unofficial “propaganda ministry” of ACT UP – to use the words of Douglas Crimp and Adam Rolston - feature largely within this installation. Borrowing from the personal collection of Donald Moffett, the curators include original paste up boards, design tests, and notations for several posters and ads. This installation, like the many interviews in the central room, makes the public nature of the activist work at once intensely intimate.

For all of its emphasis on personal narratives, the exhibition noticeably does without personal names – and wall text of any kind, for that matter. Video interviews comprising the ACT UP Oral History Project are shown one after another, without introductory graphics providing the identities of any of the speakers. There is no hierarchy of perspective (one cannot easily locate, for example, any of ACT UP’s more prominent members such as Zoe Leonard or Gregg Bordowitz). The entry work by fierce pussy evokes a non-specified person who has died from AIDS: if he were alive today, you’d still be sharing an office, or, if he were alive today, he’d be in this picture. But the absence of didactic material lends itself to an experience that feels entirely personal, and open to any number of responses. This exhibition, and more importantly the tenor of activism it recounts, will not soon be forgotten.


ACT UP, installation view, 2010
Courtesy the artists and White Columns


ACT UP, installation view, 2010
Courtesy the artists and White Columns


Jenny Jaskey

Jenny Jaskey is a curator based in New York.


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