ACT UP: Opening night at the Carpenter Center

by Nayeli Rodriguez

I went to the opening lecture for the new ACT UP show at the Carpenter Center last night and the exhibition definitely lived up to its lively name. Several original members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power were there, along with activist art collectives Gran Fury and Fierce Pussy.

After an introduction by curators Helen Molesworth and Claire Grace, ACT UP members and co-directors of the Oral History Project Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard gave remarks. Schulman focused on the relationship between death and displacement, commenting on how the initial AIDS crisis precipitated the gentrification of New York City. Hubbard spoke more about the project he and Schulman have been working on for the past seven years: a series of video interviews with original members of ACT UP about their experiences in the group, which is now on display in the Carpenter Center show.

Next, Robert Vazquez and Avram Finkelstein, both members of Gran Fury spoke. Gran Fury was responsible for the iconic AIDS activism poster that featured the unforgettable slogan "Silence=Death" (also currently on display).

Finkelstein spoke more about the poster's origins (its creators wanted it to be seen from moving vehicles while still engaging with sidewalk passersby) and Vazquez offered a critique of the contemporary response to AIDS as a public concern:

AIDS has been handled, it has been checked off the list of social ills. In many ways, AIDS has been handled the way racism has been handled in the United States: It's gotten better, right?

Needless to say, these spirited remarks and the heated debate over activism, art, and the academy that followed during the Q&A led to an electrified opening for the show. Downstairs, the Oral History Project videos, playing on scattered television screens gave visitors a sense of being in the midst of an ACT UP meeting. Upstairs, vintage posters, t-shirts, and videos by ACT UP and Gran Fury were on display. And a site-specific wall installation designed by Fierce Pussy had been installed by undergraduates in the women's restroom, giving visitors a sense of the guerrilla nature of vintage AIDS awareness campaigns.

"ACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993," which includes all the works mentioned above and more, is up at the Carpenter Center until December. 23. The next event in the ACT UP public programs series is a screening of Leo Bersani's film, "Illegitimacy," at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum from 5-6:30 pm. For a complete listing of events related to the ACT UP exhibit go here.