Let the Record Show

By Nathaniel Rosenthalis

June 2012

AIDS was first diagnosed in the United States in 1981. By 1986, then-President Ronald Reagan had yet to issue a public statement about a disease that had already become a national crisis affecting tens of thousands of people. In those five years, the US government provided almost no funding for research, treatment, and education while AIDS was portrayed as a "gay" disease through homophobic images in television reports, magazine articles, and newspaper columns. Information about the disease was scattered and, where it did exist, was often distorted by uneasiness regarding sex and sexuality. In response to the federal government's silence on these issues, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) formed in March 1987 in New York City as an advocacy group committed to ending the AIDS crisis through direct action.

 

Among the first members of ACT UP was William Olander, a young curator at the New Museum who had recently been diagnosed with AIDS.[i] In July of 1987, Olander extended an invitation to the group to create an installation for the New Museum's Broadway window.[ii] The result was "Let the Record Show…," a highly visible and polemical intervention into public discourse around the US AIDS epidemic. As curator, Olander played a critical role, articulating links between ACT UP's project and a long and complex historical legacy of political interventions by artists. At the time, most mainstream museums accorded political art—and activist art in particular—an "outsider" status. Following "Let the Record Show…," however, many cultural institutions began to exhibit works responding to the AIDS crisis by activist artists like Gran Fury, the autonomous design collective that was an outgrowth of ACT UP.

 

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Installation view of "Let the Record Show…" (1987). Photo: Fred Scruton.

"Let the Record Show…" was produced by thirty members of ACT UP who convened as an ad hoc committee to develop a site-specific installation in response to Olander's invitation; the piece was on view in the Museum's ground-floor window facing Broadway from November 20, 1987, to January 24, 1988. The multimedia display featured six life-size silhouetted photographs of public figures who, according to ACT UP, were largely responsible for the AIDS crisis: US Senator Jesse Helms, member of Presidential AIDS Commission Cory SerVaas, an anonymous surgeon, televangelist Jerry Falwell, columnist William F. Buckley, Jr., and President Reagan. Each figure was captioned by his/her own violent homophobic statement about AIDS, etched in concrete and lit up in an ordered sequence to show, as critic and ACT UP member Douglas Crimp put it, "the words by which he or she may be judged by history."[iii] Below President Regan's photograph lay a blank slab of concrete.

 

In the upper right corner of the window, an LED board scrolled ten minutes of various data exposing the federal government's inaction on AIDS. The information was transmitted in the form of statements such as "Let the Record Show… The Pentagon spends in one day more than the government spent in the last five years for AIDS research and education" and "Let the Record Show… in June 1986, $47 million was allocated for new drug trials to include 10,000 people with AIDS. One year later only 1,000 people are currently enrolled. In that time, over 9,000 Americans have died of AIDS."[iv] Some statistics conveyed the racial inequality of responses to the epidemic, revealing that "54% of the people with AIDS in New York City are black and Hispanic" and "6% of the US AIDS education budget has been targeted for the minority community."[v] The inclusion of these unreported statistics exposed policies of apathy, suppression of information, and racial inequality enabled by media collusion. ACT UP contested the prevailing media images of AIDS fatalities that stigmatized the wasted body of the hospitalized gay man or IV drug user. Instead, they drew attention to authority figures (concerned with their own ideological agendas and represented by the six cardboard cutouts) and used quantitative analysis to make visible the scale of this national crisis.

The installation juxtaposed these present-day actors and statistics with a photomural composed of archival images of the Nuremberg Trials—where Nazi leaders were tried and convicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the wake of the Second World War— depicting fifteen Nazi military figures in a courtroom awaiting trial. Addressing the AIDS crisis with this visual reference offered a historical precedent, highlighting the present failure of the US government due to its policies born of fear and prejudice that resulted in mass deaths. Even without knowing the specific consequences of the Nuremberg Trials, viewers of "Let the Record Show…" could draw the connection between the Nazi practice of tattooing identification numbers and Buckley's statement etched in concrete: "everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals."[vi] The photomural backdrop also alluded to revelations during the Nuremburg Trials about the transgressions of Nazi medical doctors in an unsettling parallel to the questionable ethics of pharmaceutical companies that were developing and testing drugs to treat HIV/AIDS patients at the time.[vii]

 

Above this montage hung a large neon sign of an inverted pink triangle and text that read "SILENCE=DEATH." The inverted pink triangle was first used by the Nazis to identify homosexuals during the 1930s and '40s. The American gay liberation movement had appropriated the symbol in the 1960s to signal a new public identity for gay men and women. Appropriating the image once again in the era of AIDS, a group of six gay men, who called themselves the Silence=Death Project, created a graphic emblem of the pink triangle on a black background with the lettering SILENCE=DEATH in white Gill San Serif type and postered the image along lower Broadway in the winter of 1986.[viii] ACT UP grew out of the Silence=Death Project, whose iconic design they borrowed in order to extend its message. In the context of this installation, the analogy between the Regan administration and the Third Reich was an attempt to call upon history in order to mobilize a sense of community among gay populations. In one of the first theoretical treatments of ACT UP's visual tactics, Crimp acknowledged the problems in the analogy between AIDS and the death camps but argued that, to its credit, the analogy was "deeply resonant for gay men and women" because it declared that "silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival."[ix]

 

The components of "Let the Record Show…" presented the immediate crisis of AIDS in the context of a historical catastrophe precipitated by state policies that turned social differences into forms of violence. In this way, the exhibition was a strategic intervention into public discourse on AIDS in the mainstream media and political rhetoric that still categorized it as a "gay" disease. At the same time, because of the labeling of AIDS in terms of homosexuality, "Let the Record Show…" stood the risk of being categorized exclusively as "gay art," if it was recognized as art at all.

 

Olander anticipated such a superficial misreading. In an accompanying brochure, he argued that the installation's sensitivity to the history of persecution through inaction had a particular power and relevance in the current crisis.

The intention [of the installation] is to make the viewer realize the depth of the problem and understand that history will judge our society by how we responded to this calamity, potentially the worst medical disaster of the century. …[T]he installation is more pointedly directed at those national figures who have used the AIDS epidemic to promote their own political or religious agendas. It is intended to serve as a reminder that their actions or inactions will soon be a matter of historical record.[x]

 

"Let the Record Show…" addressed its audience not only with the deafening silence of government and media forces, but also with a reminder that such tactics would be remembered by history through a purposeful and striking arrangement of images and text. Olander understood the implication of contemporary politicians in a future historicization of the AIDS crisis as part of the work's efficacy as art.[xi]

 

In order to defend work produced within and about the AIDS crisis against the charge that it was not art, Olander situated "Let the Record Show…" within a long history of politically engaged images stretching from the late eighteenth century through the twentieth. He returned to concerns he first articulated in his dissertation, "Pour transmettre à la postérité: French Painting and Revolution, 1774-1795," a study of painting's role in the French Revolution. For Olander, the French Revolution represented a moment of modernity in which art, specifically painting, had palpable political traction. Writing about "Let the Record Show…," Olander cited the canonical political work of the French painter Jacques-Louis David, specifically his The Death of Marat (1793), to argue that modern art has long had extra-artistic functions. Olander noted that The Death of Marat intended to "serve as a rallying point for the popular and middle classes sympathetic to the radical vision of revolution promoted by Jean-Paul Marat."[xii]Likewise, "Let the Record Show…" was assembled in a time of social crisis in order to marshal public opinion as a means to change governmental policy. David's painting and "Let the Record Show…" shared more than an activist focus. Through Olander's comparison, both works might be seen as examples of how politics can be used as occasion, material, and subject for art.[xiii]

 

Alongside David, Olander cited Constructivist experiments by the Soviet avant-garde and Hans Haacke's US Isolation Box, Granada, 1983 (1984), among other works, to demonstrate the historical recurrence of instances in which art and politics were not mutually exclusive. As he wrote, "Not all works of art are as 'disinterested' as others, and some of the greatest have been created in the midst, or as a result, of a crisis."[xiv] Olander implied that if not all works of art are disinterested, then neither are all artists.[xv] By arguing that the categories of art and artist can and do overlap with activism and activist, Olander put forth a radically open definition of artists as producers of objects with aesthetic as well as social value. In other words, both the object and its maker have the potential to be meaningful outside the scope of the strictly artistic.[xvi]

 

While many members of the group that made "Let the Record Show…" were artists, a significant number of those who produced posters and other graphic ephemera within the group did not identify as such.[xvii] For these AIDS art activists, what counted was the effectiveness of the work, not the artistic training, credentials, or status. Activist works qualified as art to the extent that they used aesthetic strategies. "Stealing the procedures of other artists is part of the plan—if it works, we use it," declared Crimp in his 1990 handbook for AIDS activists, AIDS Demo Graphics.[xviii] The collaborative group that would come to be known as Gran Fury turned to appropriation strategies and word-image procedures used by artists like Hans Haacke, Jenny Holzer, and Barbara Kruger.

 

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L.E.D. sign from "Let the Record Show…" on display in the New Museum's Broadway Window for "Day without Art" (1995). Photo: Fred Scruton.

Despite the arguments of Olander and others about the aesthetic value of work produced by AIDS art activists like Gran Fury, major museums and many art critics continued to insist on the categorical distinction between art (disinterested) and politics (interested). In 1988, this traditional art world rejected the works of AIDS-related initiatives, citing in part their immediate activist context. That year, the exhibition "Committed to Print: Social and Political Themes in Recent American Printed Art" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York did not include any work relating to the gay liberation movement or the AIDS epidemic.[xix] When a critic from the Village Voice asked the exhibition's chief curator Deborah Wye about this exclusion, Wye responded that she had no knowledge of any AIDS-related work that had artistic merit.[xx] In response to MoMA's blatant omission, members of ACT UP protested by standing outside the museum and distributing fliers proclaiming, "By ignoring the epidemic, MoMA panders to the ignorance and indifference that prolong the suffering [of AIDS patients] needlessly."[xxi]

 

The resistance of the art world to explicitly political art was exemplified by National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) chairman John Frohnmayer's withdrawal of funding for "Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing," an exhibition about AIDS and survival curated by the photographer Nan Goldin at Artists Space, a nonprofit gallery in Lower Manhattan, in the fall of 1989.[xxii] It was supported, or so Goldin and Artists Space thought, by an NEA grant of $10,000. Two weeks before the show opened, Frohnmayer demanded the grant back because, as he told the Los Angeles Times, "the show had become so politicized that it no longer met artistic criteria."[xxiii] The NEA chairman found it unacceptable to give federal dollars to a show that, in his own words, "essentially takes on the church," as well as "a number of elected officials and expresses a great deal of anger over the AIDS situation."[xxiv] Frohnmayer's analysis, as well as Goldin's concept for the show, extended the incriminating arguments of "Let the Record Show…."

 

The following year, in May 1989, Gran Fury's poster Kissing Doesn't Kill, Greed and Indifference Do (1989) was included in "On the Road," a national public-art project developed by the campaign Art against AIDS, initiated by the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR). Funded by local corporate sponsors, "On the Road" placed visual works addressing AIDS on billboards, buses, and other public spaces in various cities across the US. Bringing together local artists with prominent figures like Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman, "On the Road" increased the visibility of AIDS art activists, chief among them Gran Fury, whose piece caused a stir as it rode around town on the sides of public buses. Set against a white monochrome background, three couples—two of them same-sex and all three of them interracial—kiss in profile. Below the image reads one of Gran Fury's characteristic slogans: "Corporate Greed, Government Inaction, And Public Indifference Make AIDS A Political Crisis."

 

By the end of 1989, more curators had begun to include AIDS activist art in exhibitions, including at major museums. Notably, the Whitney Museum invited Gran Fury to participate in "Image World: Art and Media Culture," an exploration of how artists responded to and used mass media as a cultural force.[xxv] The exhibition grouped paintings by Ed Ruscha, Mark Tansey, and Robert Rauschenberg with photographic works by Barbara Kruger, Robert Longo, and Cindy Sherman. The wall facing the front window of the museum prominently displayed Gran Fury's Kissing Doesn't Kill, Greed and Indifference Do.[xxvi] With support from the Polaroid Corporation, the Whitney also rented two billboards in two different locations in New York City for another Gran Fury work.[xxvii] In the span of two years, visual artifacts of AIDS activism had attained the status of artworks within an institutional frame. The progression from gallery and public art project to the museum reveals AIDS art activism's gradual incorporation into the art world, one of the many audiences it sought to address.[xxviii]

 

At the same time, however, the art world was not unified in how it acknowledged the presence of AIDS and its politics. Goldin's "Witnesses" focused on the self-representation of those who were living with the disease and mourning those who succumbed to it. "On the Road" failed to synthesize any one perspective, instead representing a jumble of artist's viewpoints around the subject.[xxix] The Whitney's "Image World" included activist art that advocated for research for and understanding of those with AIDS. While slow to respond, the art world eventually did gain momentum in acknowledging and responding to the crisis.

 

In addition to these exhibitions, the legacy of "Let the Record Show…" includes an extensive body of criticism and scholarship. Through these texts, the exhibition becomes legible as the product of a specific set of conditions that mediated the intersection of American politics and culture in the 1980s. Already in 1988, critic Maurice Berger cited "Let the Record Show…" as an innovative collaboration between "the voices of dissent and the museum," a significant example of a curatorial strategy for addressing the sociocultural dramas induced by Reaganism and Thatcherism.[xxx] Berger emphasized how the installation "shifted [the New Museum's] institutional frame" by giving the work "constant exposure to street traffic."[xxxi] This productive physical placement between the museum and the street epitomized Olander's curatorial approach which consisted of a keen eye for issues of display and the potential for collaboration. Indeed, Berger distinguished "Let the Record Show…" as "an informed cooperation between activists and the museum of a kind that is exceedingly rare…. [It is] a protest exhibition…that communicates its message directly to some of the people most affected."[xxxii] At the same time, the piece was also successful in communicating its message to those who did not see themselves at all affected by AIDS: their silence also needed to be broken.

 

In contrast to Berger's attention to the curatorial strategy at work in "Let the Record Show…," Crimp explored the piece within the theoretical and practical context of the AIDS crisis. In his 1987 essay "AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism," Crimp argued that AIDS does not exist outside of its representations in the media, on the street, and in cultural spaces like the museum. Thus "Let the Record Show…" was a form of cultural activism that was a necessary part of the response to the epidemic, as important as fundraising, research, and personal memorial.[xxxiii] Gran Fury, as well as the Silence=Death Project and the video collective Testing the Limits, produced an engaged form of art via active collaborations between artists and non-artists, between collectives and non-artistic institutions. Moreover, their work mobilized life-saving information and points-of-view.[xxxiv]

 

These two critics typify two positions that characterize much of the critical attention paid to "Let the Record Show…" in numerous art magazines, including Artforum and Art & Text, academic journals like October, and more widely circulated publications like the Village Voice. The mainstream (non-art) media mostly neglected the project at the time of its exhibition. In a matter of months, however, newspapers and television news would increasingly cover ACT UP and its spectacular demonstrations. Gran Fury's visuals played a key role in these actions and their visibility. Spreading its urgent message outside the art world, the group often produced images for t-shirts, city streets, and protest signs as well as circulated their work not only in New York City but also in other major American cities.

 

"Let the Record Show…" also functioned as a manifestation of Olander's belief in art as a form of social practice. In articles for Art in America and lectures on institutional critique in years immediately preceding his work with ACT UP, Olander examined, among others, the work of artists like Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Hans Haacke. These artists, in particular, advanced critiques of how race, gender, and class determine access to and the structures of galleries and museums. In a lecture entitled "The Post-modern Critique of 'Exhibition,'" delivered at the fourth conference of the National Association of Artists' Organization in 1986, Olander demanded that museums focus on the "representation of minorities, including, in that group, women, gays and lesbians, the elderly and the handicapped." He also called for "an emphasis on non-commercial art practices—performance, video, photography, installations, public works, site-specific sculpture—all pieces that were often spontaneous, improvisational, open-ended and collaborative."[xxxv] More often than not, Olander's own curatorial projects functioned as attempts to realize these demands. At the New Museum, he eschewed the monographic presentation of a single artist in favor of thematic group exhibitions. He also organized programs that featured collectives like Group Material, described by Olander as "a New York-based organization of artists dedicated to the creation, exhibition, and distribution of art that increases social awareness."[xxxvi] Another strategy Olander favored was organizing "quirky exhibitions in which artists like Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, René Santos, Sherrie Levine, David Salle, and Mark Innerst shared space with others whom he knew were destined for neglect," as David Deitcher noted in his obituary for Olander in the Village Voice.[xxxvii]

 

Thus "Let the Record Show…" embodied Olander's main curatorial concerns: to present work that is "meaningful now," and that offers "new strategies that will somehow initiate some kind of response from people who are frustrated, dissatisfied, repressed, oppressed."[xxxviii] The observations of reviewer Christian Leigh about "Let the Record Show…" in the pages of Artforum confirm the effectiveness of the project in Olander's terms. According to Leigh, "At all hours of the day and night, spectators were seen gathered in front of the window, in small groups and alone. Their reactions and facial expressions were assorted: shock, rage disappointment [sic], shame, curiosity, frustration, misunderstanding, anger, disgust, and hope." Leigh's description of the work's affective power fits with his conclusion that "to be thought-provoking and timely" is the "very reason that the not-for-profit world exists."[xxxix]

 

Olander succumbed to complications from AIDS in 1989. Shortly after his death, the New Museum established the William Olander Memorial Fund. The intention of this fund was "to extend into the future [Bill's] curatorial vision and commitments," as then-assistant curator Laura Trippi wrote to a potential donor.[xl] Museum Members and friends donated to the fund, which was designed to support various projects in the fields of photography, video, performance, installation, and cultural activism.[xli] As its inaugural dispensation, the New Museum contributed in Olander's name to ACT UP. It also purchased the neon "SILENCE=DEATH" sign that appeared in "Let the Record Show…," and which remains in the New Museum's collection. In honor of Olander as well as all those who suffered from AIDS, the sign was installed in the lobby of the New Museum for several months after its acquisition, visible from the street through the Broadway lobby window. The LED sign also sat on the admissions desk, displaying its scrolling data, along with two framed photographs of the original installation.[xlii]

 

Twenty years after "Let the Record Show…," the New Museum opened its first dedicated building at 235 Bowery on December 1, 2007, World AIDS Day, which was acknowledged by the installation of "SILENCE=DEATH" in the stairway between the Lobby and the Cellar. [xliii] In 2012, the New Museum reinstalled this piece of "Let the Record Show…" in its Lobby window on the Bowery to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of ACT UP. The wall label explained that this reinstallation of the sign "reaffirms the New Museum's past, current, and future commitment to community action towards ending the AIDS pandemic." The New Museum's dedication indicates a continued sociopolitical engagement with AIDS, which is precisely what the disease continues to demand, even as the perceptions and realities of AIDS have changed. With the advent of antiretroviral drugs in the 1990s and 2000s, it has become possible to live with HIV for those who can afford these treatments. Today, the AIDS crisis is declared over by some.[xliv] But a recent resurgence of HIV-infection rates, among gay men in particular, along with the continuing lack of affordable and accessible testing and treatment in many countries, including the US, mean that the AIDS crisis continues without adequate intervention.

 

At the New Museum in 1987, Olander's curatorial and historical interests aligned with a crisis both personal and public. "Let the Record Show…" initiated a unique cooperative effort between activists and the institution. Olander's initiative affirmed the New Museum's position: young, dedicated to emerging artists, and committed to the political and theoretical dimensions of contemporary art practices. As Olander phrased it in an interview with Flash Art, the New Museum was an institution uniquely situated "to deal with theoretical issues and those that are more clearly identified as political."[xlv]

 

In the past twenty-five years, the social, political, and economic conditions that shaped the discourse around AIDS and sexuality in the 1980s have undergone dramatic transformation. The acceleration of communication technologies, greater public discourse on (homo)sexuality, and the increasing privatization of medical research, among other pressures, present new challenges and possibilities for AIDS activism.[xlvi] On the occasion of its twenty-fifth anniversary, ACT UP was revived in many cities by the Occupy movement, signaling crucial connections between the HIV/AIDS epidemic, healthcare access more broadly, and criticism of corporate greed and failed economic policy in the United States.[xlvii] Let the record show that there remains more work to do.

 

Nathaniel Rosenthalis is a writer and poet who lives in New York City. He graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. In spring 2012, he was Research Intern for the New Museum Archive.


Notes


[i] Olander arrived at the New Museum in 1985 as an assistant curator. He had completed his PhD at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU in 1983 with a dissertation on the role of painting in the French Revolution. Grounded in this historical research, he was deeply committed to a dynamic role for art and culture in times of social crisis. At the New Museum, he curated numerous exhibitions of art engaged with how art can address contemporary social and political conditions, including “The Art of Memory/The Loss of History” (1985) and “Fake” (1987).

[ii] The Window was an integral part of the New Museum’s program. A street-level display space visible to passersby on Broadway, The Window connected the museological presentation of artworks to the commercial activities and public spaces of the Museum’s downtown neighborhood.

[iii] Douglas Crimp, “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism” in Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 32. As a critic and art historian, Douglas Crimp has been narrating and theorizing AIDS and art/visual practices for twenty-five years. In the winter of 1987 Crimp edited an issue of the journal October, known even before its release as “the AIDS issue,” which was the first substantial collection of intellectual and artistic responses to AIDS. The essay that appeared as that issue’s introduction, “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” (October 43, Winter 1987) exists in several versions. A second version, published under the title “AIDS Demo Graphics” in an anthology called A Leap in the Dark: AIDS, Art & Contemporary Cultures, eds. Allan Klusacek and Ken Morrison (Montreal: Vehicule Press, 1992), begins with a consideration of the Nazi death camps and AIDS analogy, while the version in Crimp’s book, authored with architect Adam Rolston, AIDS Demo Graphics, begins by narrating the birth of ACT UP and analyzing its tactics of appropriation. A fourth version appears in Crimp’s collected essays, Melancholia and Moralism.

[iv] “Let the Record Show…” archival material listing statistics and government information related to the AIDS crisis that was used in the LED signboard, 1987. New Museum Archives.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] William F. Buckley, “Crucial Steps in Combating the Aids Epidemic; Identify All the Carriers,” in the New York Times, March 18, 1986, A27: http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/07/16/specials/buckley-aids.html (Accessed 11 June 2012).

[vii] Crimp, 1992, 38.

[viii] Crimp, 1992, 47.

[ix] Ibid., 47. Indeed, Crimp added that “it should be remembered that forced, punitive quarantine has been both a constant threat, and in some places and for some groups, a reality for people with HIV infection.” As the threat of quarantine as a potential security measure has receded, however, the comparison between the death camps and AIDS has lost much of its effectiveness.

[x] William Olander, “The Window on Broadway by ACT UP,” in On View at the New Museum brochure, Winter 1988, 1. New Museum Digital Archive:  http://archive.newmuseum.org/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/7910

[xi] In contrast to Olander, Crimp commended ACT UP’s command of statistics, its provocative historical comparison, and its appropriation of images. Crimp made a point of defending the specific aesthetic and technical decisions of the piece, while Olander did not (although he did point out the formatting and graphic quality of the initial SILENCE=DEATH poster in the brochure that accompanied the installation). Olander, as we will see, positioned “Let the Record Show…” within an historical trajectory of politically engaged artworks that had already been canonized. Crimp, 1992, 54.

[xii] Olander, 1988, 1.

[xiii] On the historical and aesthetic conditions of David’s painting, see T.J. Clark, “Painting in the Year Two,” in Representations, no. 47 (Summer 1994), 13–63. Clark argues that David painted Marat out of the details of the politics in that specific moment of the French Revolution and, as such, the painting constitutes a notable example of art confronting “the impossibility of transcendence,” of its historical circumstances, among other things. “Let the Record Show…” refuted any transcendence of worldly contexts; it sought, instead, to install the viewer within the historical context of World War II, the American gay liberation movement, and the immediacy of the AIDS crisis.

[xiv] Olander, 1988, 1.

[xv] For the critic David Deitcher, the implication of Olander’s comparison between “Let the Record Show…” and The Death of Marat was that “you do not have to be an artist at all in order to be an accomplished cultural activist.” He made this point in an essay for the catalogue for the New Museum’s exhibition, “The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s.” See David Deitcher, “Art and Activism,” in The Decade Show (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987), 196.

[xvi] This concept of the artist’s role in transforming the relations of audiences to artworks can also be traced to a 1934 essay by the German critic Walter Benjamin. In “The Author as Producer,” Benjamin argues that artistic (cultural) productions have the potential not merely to please and delight audiences but also to engage their audiences in order to effect contemporary political situations. Benjamin’s essay was included in the first volume of New Museum publication series “Documentary Sources in Contemporary Art,” entitled Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. See Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” trans. Edmund Jephcott, Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: New Museum, 1984), 296–309.

[xvii] David Deitcher, “Interview with Gran Fury,” in Discourses (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000), 201.

[xviii] AIDS Demo Graphics is presented as a “do-it-yourself manual, showing how to make propaganda work in the fight against AIDS.” A partial history of ACT UP’s civil disobedience, it charts the group’s use of art to effect social change in a crisis. The essays in AIDS Demo Graphics, and in Crimp’s follow-up Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics, have been reprinted widely in anthologies about AIDS, activism, and aesthetics.

[xix] For more information on the complicated relationship between the gay liberation movement and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, see Crimp, 2002, and Paula A. Treichler, How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999).

[xx] Crimp, 2002, 16.

[xxi] Crimp, 1992, 50.

[xxii] Richard Meyer, Outlaw Representation: Censorship & Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 140.

[xxiii] Ibid., 244.

[xxiv] Ibid., 244–7. After significant public pressure from prominent members of the art world, Frohnmeyer restored the show’s funding on the condition that the show’s catalogue would be printed without federal funds. The catalogue featured an essay by the artist David Wojnarowicz, who was then living with AIDS, in which he condemns institutional and federal censorship and the policing of same-sex desire and celebrates the imagination as a way to alleviate the psychic pain of outrage and fury of living in a society as ill as the bodies of those dying of AIDS. A portion of Wojnarowicz’s essay was repeated in press reports about the NEA/Artist Space controversy. By denying funding to the catalogue, the NEA sought to distance itself from this essay and other work that condemned the government and religious institutions.

[xxv] The exhibition was curated by Marvin Heiferman and Lisa Phillips. In 1999, Phillips became the second Director of the New Museum, succeeding Founding Director Marcia Tucker.

[xxvi] Deitcher, 2000, 208.

[xxvii] Michael Kimmelman, “At the Whitney 100 Works from the Last 30 Years,” in the New York Times, November 10, 1989: http://www.nytimes.com/1989/11/10/arts/review-art-at-the-whitney-100-works-from-the-last-30-years.html (Accessed June 12, 2012).

[xxviii] Crimp, 1992, 54.

[xxix] Jan Zita Grover, “Public Art on AIDS,” A Leap in the Dark: AIDS, Art & Contemporary Cultures, eds. Allan Klusacek and Ken Morrison (Montreal: Vehicule Press, 1992), 62–3.

[xxx] Maurice Berger, “Of Cold Wars and Curators,” in Artforum, February 1989, 86–92.

[xxxi] Ibid., 89.

[xxxii] Ibid., 90.

[xxxiii] Crimp devotes significant attention to the role of audiences in “Let the Record Show….” He surmises that the piece “was made for an art-world location, and it appears to have been made largely for an art-world audience,” and asks whether or not the audience “was also presumed to be able to see a connection between ‘Let the Record Show…’ and the procedures and devices of artists such as Hans Haacke, Jenny Holzer, and Barbara Kruger.” See Crimp, 1992, 54, as well as Crimp, 2002, 149. However, Gran Fury member Mark Simpson declared in an interview with David Deitcher, “One of the reasons we accepted The New Museum project was because it made a window on Broadway available and we wanted that opportunity to reach everyone who walked by it; not just people who go to galleries.” Deitcher, 2000, 207.

[xxxiv] Testing the Limits was an AIDS collective formed in New York in 1987 with a mission to record AIDS activism. Works produced include Testing the Limits: NYC (1987) and a feature-length documentary Voices from the Front (1991). The New Museum featured Testing the Limits: NYC inside the museum while “Let the Record Show…” was installed in the window on Broadway.

[xxxv] William Olander, “The Post-modern Critique of ‘Exhibition,’” manuscript of a lecture delivered at the National Association of Artist’s Organizations, 1986. New Museum Archives, William Olander papers.

[xxxvi] Press Release for “On View,” April 12–June 12, 1986. New Museum Digital Archive.

[xxxvii] David Deitcher, “William Olander, 1950–89,” in the Village Voice, April 4 1989, 77.

[xxxviii] Interview with Willliam Olander by Lynne Tillman, “What is Political Art,” in the Village Voice, October 15, 1985. Collected in the Lynne Tillman Collection at Fales Archives, NYU, series XIII, subseries A, box 27, folder 43.

[xxxix] Christian Leigh, “Let the Record Show,” in Artforum, January 1987, 138.

[xl] Letter from Laura Trippi, dated March 23, 1989. Lucy Lippard Collection, Fales Archive, NYU, series V, box 6. 

[xli] The fund defrayed the entire cost of “Love for Sale…Free Condoms Inside,” which was Gran Fury’s second project with the New Museum. For this Broadway window installation, Gran Fury collaborated with P.O.N.Y. (Prostitutes of New York), an advocacy group for sex workers. In 1999, the fund also helped support “Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz,” a retrospective at the New Museum devoted to the artist and writer who produced a powerful body of work dealing with themes of queer sexuality before he died of complications from AIDS in 1992.

[xlii] This component of the installation was intended to be updated regularly with new statistics, so that the piece would continue to expose the media and the federal government’s lack of response to the crisis. Conversation with John Hatfield, former Deputy Director of the New Museum, June 13, 2012.

[xliii] The “SILENCE=DEATH” neon sign from “Let the Record Show…” was also included in the 2001 exhibition “A Work in Progress: Selections from the New Museum Collection.”

[xliv] Over the past three decades, commentators within the gay community have adopted a wide range of positions on AIDS. These debates also inflect the meaning of “SILENCE=DEATH” in the present. The most visible articulation of two sides of the debate over the meaning of AIDS for the gay community exists between the writer Andrew Sullivan and Douglas Crimp. In 1996, Sullivan praised the effects of the AIDS crisis in an op-ed essay in the New York Times entitled “When Plagues End.” Nearly ten years after “Let the Record Show…,” Sullivan defended the profit-driven development of drug treatments of HIV and dismissed the concomitant reduction of access to HIV medications for people of lower economic means. He also argued that AIDS made gay men “grow up” from the adolescent world of parties and anonymous sex he describes as typical of the late 1960s to the early 1980s. “[W]ith AIDS,” Sullivan asserted, “responsibility became a central imposing feature of gay life,” in which gay men resumed their “self-respect,” realized that “they actually did care about themselves,” and began—finally—to emulate the models of care embedded in (heterosexual) marriage. In response to Sullivan, Crimp argued that this moralistic narrative diminished the lives and loves of gay people in the pre-AIDS era and epitomized, in the US at least, the “widespread psychosocial response to the ongoing crisis of AIDS.” In other words, Sullivan’s historicization of AIDS in a progressive narrative of “gay responsibility” resulted in a revisionist account of pre-AIDS gay life as well as the silencing of millions of people in the US and around the world for whom the disease is a present reality. See Andrew Sullivan, “When Plagues End: Notes on the Twilight of an Epidemic,” in the New York Times Magazine, November 10, 1996, 52–62, 76–7, 84; and Crimp, 2002, 2–15. 

[xlv] Mary Anne Staniszewski, “William Olander,” in Flash Art, October 1988, np.

[xlvi] In the summer of 2012, the New Museum invited artist Carlos Motta to lead a series of programs and workshops entitled “We Who Feel Differently,” each of which confronts contemporary issues of queer thought, activism, and art practice. One workshop presented by QUEEROCRACY explored contemporary AIDS activism. Along with many other grassroots collectives, QUEEROCRACY protested and marched with ACT UP and OWS on ACT UP’s twenty-fifth anniversary from City Hall to Wall Street.

[xlvii] The poster for this collaboration features the SILENCE=DEATH inverted triangle in an allusion to ACT UP’s historic use of it as well as the slogan “Tax Wall St., End the AIDS crisis,” reminiscent of Gran Fury’s graphic work from the late 1980s and early 1990s.