More Demonstrations and Less Memorials In ‘Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism’

David Wojnarowicz, "Dreams Drawings and Notes" journal, 1989, from Fales Library and Special Collections (photo by author)

David Wojnarowicz, “Dreams Drawings and Notes” journal, 1989, from Fales Library and Special Collections (photo by author)

Scrawled in black pen in one of his many journals, artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz wrote, “If I die of AIDS, don’t give me a memorial, give me a demonstration.”

On display at the New York Public Library, Wojnarowicz’s journal joins a host of other AIDS activist materials from banners to posters to photographs and video footage of demonstrations in the exhibition Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism. Fighting the silences, omissions and ignorance about the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis, dealing with the enormous losses from AIDS and empowering those who live with HIV/AIDS as well their loved ones and supporters, these AIDS activist materials fill the small but completely packed exhibition space, covered with reproduced posters such as Gran Fury’s giant “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” banner and ACT UP’s iconic “Silence = Death.” Walking through the exhibition chock full of past activist material, I kept thinking to myself that the exhibition could use more demonstration and less memorializing.

ACT UP New York, American Flag

ACT UP New York, American Flag

Adding to the ever-growing list of recent exhibitions delving into the legacy of the AIDS crisis and AIDS activism from the New York Historical Society’s heavily criticized AIDS In New York: The First Five Years and Visual AIDS’s deft and in my eyes, almost perfect Not Over: 25 Years of Visual AIDSWhy We Fight was curated by Jason Baumann and Laura Karas, focusing on (yet again) the early years and the height of the AIDS crisis. Named for Vito Russo’s powerful speech, Why We Fight highlights the essential work of these activists, particularly in getting the disease the recognition and attention it deserved.

If you take the exhibition for just what it is, a detailed and inspiring look back at the AIDS activism of the 1980s and 1990s, the exhibition is a stellar success with significant remnants of these years that continue to scream from the walls. Drawing from the New York Public Library’s vast collection of AIDS activist materials, the show provides a glimpse into the life-or-death struggles that these activists were acting on. From Gran Fury to ACT UP to the PWA Coalition, Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism features materials with some of the most well-known and recognizable imagery, which helped change and shape the landscape for People with AIDS from access to affordable healthcare to information about safe sex to fighting institutional silences to knowledge about breakthroughs in treatment.

Selection of AIDS activist buttons (photo by author)

Selection of AIDS activist buttons (photo by author)

Divided into categories ranging such as public mourning and safe sex and needle exchanges, the exhibition presents both the strength and the wide range of activist materials used to fight the AIDS crisis, varying from poetry to memorial demonstrations to buttons and playing cards. Employing every possible medium available to them, these activists stopped at nothing to get the word out about the AIDS crisis.

Installation of New York Public Library's Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism (photo by author)

Installation of New York Public Library’s Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism (photo by author)

As I have seen many of these works before particularly in Gran Fury’s own fantastic exhibition at 80 Washington Square East Galleries in early 2012, I was most fascinated by the videos of demonstrations, which I had never seen previously. Surrounded by posters and photographs of activists, the videos added a palpable and visceral dimension to the exhibition, as the demonstrators shouts and chants of “We’re fired up. We won’t take no more,” filled the small room at the NYPL.

Perhaps the most moving demonstration for me was the footage of the Day of Desperation: January 23, 1991 in Grand Central Station from DIVA-TV. The Day of Desperation was a citywide protest against the great amount of money spent on the Gulf War compared to the small amount spent on AIDS. In the video, demonstrators flood the grand halls of Grand Central Station as activists unfurl enormous banners, which read “Money for AIDS not War.” As the wall text notes, 263 people were arrested that day.

Even though I was moved by the documentation of the Day of Desperation, I began to notice that I felt that I was watching a long-ago historical event, rather than a demonstration about a crisis that continues to rage on.

Looking through the exhibition again, I couldn’t help but wonder why there wasn’t any material from after around 1997. Since the discovery of the AIDS cocktail, AIDS activism has lost its panicked sense of emergency, however that certainly does not mean that no significant activism has happened after the 1990s.

ACT-UP, One AIDS Death Every 30 Minutes

ACT-UP, One AIDS Death Every 30 Minutes

The only nod to the ongoing AIDS crisis today in the exhibition is a final wall text that discusses statistics of HIV/AIDS today, both in the United States and worldwide. Reading “The AIDS epidemic is far from over,” I’m glad that the curators were able to discuss this and yet, they certainly represent AIDS activism as over. Even the title of the exhibition reveals the problematic nature of the show, why are we “remembering” an activist movement that continues today? Granted, I am not the only one who has noticed this issue since ACT UP New York staged a die-in to protest the exhibitions historicizing of AIDS activism.

With so many recent exhibitions, publications and panel discussions on issues related to HIV/AIDS, I hoped the New York Public Library exhibition would feature AIDS activism occurring in the last 15 years as well as the early stages of the crisis. Considering Baumann was a participant in the Visual AIDS forum (re)Presenting AIDS: Culture and Accountability, I expected more from the exhibition since the curators were clearly aware of the discussion about the necessity to connect AIDS and activism to the present.

While Why We Fight was certainly better in a lot of ways than the New York Historical Society’s exhibition, which lead to Hugh Ryan’s scathing but necessary New York Times editorial How To Whitewash A Plague, both exhibitions suffer from some of the same oversights. Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism does not even have the excuse of a limited date range like AIDS In New York: The First Five Years did.

Like Visual AIDS’s Not Over exhibition, I would love to see a show that engages with the younger generation’s, as well as the older generation’s, continued interest in the legacy and the ongoing nature of HIV/AIDS. I would love to look at photographs of the ACT UP protest with Occupy Wall Street last year or banners that were painted after 2000. Maybe banners featuring George W. Bush rather than his father.

At the crux of it, reviewing these types of exhibitions becomes a task in self-doubt and questioning: Should I just be happy because there is an exhibition on HIV/AIDS and activism at the New York Public Library? Should I be glad that visitors who haven’t been exposed to this material as I have can learn about its legacy and power? Or should I, and others like me, be able to demand more? Is a nod to the ongoing AIDS crisis in the wall-text enough?

In Vito Russo’s speech “Why We Fight,” he exclaims:

“AIDS is really a test of us, as a people. When future generations ask what we did in this crisis, we’re going to have to tell them that we were out here today. And we have to leave the legacy to those generations of people who will come after us. Someday, the AIDS crisis will be over. Remember that. And when that day comes—when that day has come and gone, there’ll be people alive on this earth—gay people and straight people, men and women, black and white, who will hear the story that once there was a terrible disease in this country and all over the world, and that a brave group of people stood up and fought and, in some cases, gave their lives, so that other people might live and be free.”

We, as writers, curators, historians, etc., need to remember that the day Vito Russo speaks of has not yet come. Neither the AIDS crisis or activism is over, let’s treat it that way in our institutions. David Wojnarowicz did not want a memorial and the AIDS crisis and activism shouldn’t have one either.

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