A new show at the Tramway explores how art became a powerful weapon of protest in the response to New York’s AIDS epidemic. Sue Wilson talks to exhibition organiser Nicola White.

I ‘Ultimately, if you’re not prepared to talk about , .

sex, you’re prepared to let people die.’ Consciously or otherwise , Tramway visual arts officer Nicola White echoes the message of a key exhibit from the show she is currently organising, the grim AIDS graphic, SILENCE = DEATH. The exhibition, Read My Lips: New York AIDS Polemics examines the response by cultural activists and the art world to the AIDS crisis in a




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city where the epidemic has reached catastrophic j' i' ' proportions— nearly 42,000 AIDS cases diagnosed 3 933:1} A by June this year, several hundred thousand more ._ a: ' g '

estimated to be HIV positive; an already

desperate situation exacerbated by the iniquities of the American health-care system. The work in the show arose out of specific circumstances, at a


specific time, but White sees them as possessing an i "

immediate relevance to the situation here. '

‘In New York in 1988 there was a poster saying, “the government has blood on its hands: one AIDS death every half hour’; by 1991 it had to be redone, because it was up to one every ten minutes. Whereas in Scotland it’s still rare knowingly to know someone who’s HIV positive. The statistics suggest that the numbers of people affected here are really quite high, but people are still running around with their eyes and ears shut saying ‘maybe it’ll go away.’

Central to the show is artwork by groups such as ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), and Gran Fury, a closely-associated group of artists and designers. ACT UP’s operations, based on direct action and empowerment, include lobbying for reform of drug-testing procedures, demands that experimental treatments be made available faster, an outreach project for injecting drug-users, research and their notorious ‘zaps’, direct confrontations with offending institutions, from magazines running misleading coverage to companies who sacked HIV positive workers.

Visual style was always a vital element - bold, attention-grabbing images circulated widely on posters, billboards, stickers, placards and T-shirts. . The designs often made subversive use of images from advertising or the press: one Benetton-style poster showed three mixed race couples one heterosexual, one lesbian, one gay —- kissing below | the legend KISSING DOESN’T KILL: GREED

,1 i 3 ANDINDIFFERENCE DO; on another

occasion Gran Fury produced The New York

3 Crimes a facsimile cover-page in which they 1 wrapped 6000 copies of the New York Times. Slick, funny, sexy and angry, work like this ‘spoke

to the beast in its own Ianguage’, as one member of Gran Fury put it, challenging and unravelling the assumptions and prejudice buried in media representations of the epidemic, and captured the public imagination to a remarkable degree.

These developments were reflected in the mainstream art world, as White explains. ‘When I went to New York, I found that people were making work in a gallery context which was specifically about their experiences with AIDS,

which wasn’t about universal truths or

abstractions; it was a space where people placed their personal responses.’ The Tramway show includes a gallery-style space for works such as these, by artists such as Keith Haring, Cindy Sherman and Jenny Holzer. There is also an

I extensive video and seminar programme, and a

section providing health education material and information on the Scottish situation, staffed by volunteers from Scottish AIDS Monitor.

While Read My Lips represents and

commemorates a crucial chapter in one city’s experience ofand response to the AIDS crisis, the


implications of that experience extend even further. ‘I hope the show will get some kind of debate going on questions like the role of artists in any political and social crisis, to what extent art should be transcendent and universal, how far it can be specific, where you draw the line between art and propaganda,’ says White. ‘Essentially, it’s about how art can help to reinvent the language of protest.’

Read My Lips is at the Tram way from 26 Oct-1 Dec. The seminar programme, including Scotland’s first Gay Men’s Health Forum, runs throughout —further details on 041 422 2023. The exhibition ends with a benefit concert for Scottish AIDS Monitor on 1 Dec, World AIDS Day, starring Jimmy Somerville, Banderas and Horse.

The List 23 October— 5 November 1992 51'