Beyond Quilts, Ribbons, And Angels: Gran Fury, Act Up, And The Aids Design Culture

June 20, 2018 Philosophy

The advent of AIDS and its fatal effects on numerous lives have forever changed the landscape of sexuality and lifestyle preference—and prompted millions of people to take a firm stand against it.  Many organizations, ranging from charities and educational committees to strong-voiced political groups, have expressed, in varying degrees, the desire to counter the still irreversible products of AIDS.  This is most particular in the cases of gays, or homosexual men, who arguable constitute the biggest percentage of individuals afflicted with the disease.

Among the loudest voices that had resounded through the history of AIDS activism was the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power or ACT UP, as it is more popularly known.  Classifying itself as a diverse, non-partisan organization, ACT UP traces its roots to the rousing speech made by gay rights activist Larry Kramer in 1987, prompting the audience to form a new group whose goal was political action.  Two days later, ACT UP was formally organized.[1]

The dissatisfaction toward existing government healthcare provisions for AIDS treatment and education ignited the fire within the ACT UP ranks, and was kept burning as members continuously conceptualized various ways to put their message across—to educate a still relatively ignorant and narrow-minded public regarding the true nature of AIDS, its permanent mark on lives, and its prevention and available treatment.

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One of the avenues they chose to explore was visual media and design, which took on real form when a museum curator attended an ACT UP meeting and suggested they come up with a visual presentation for the museum’s Broadway window.  The members who had shown interest in the task became the founding members of Gran Fury, the ACT UP design collective that successfully mounted Let The Record Show, an AIDS-centric visual installation in one of the New Museum’s windows.[2]

II.Poster Sniping and Xeroxed Flyers

The Gran Fury design foundation, owing to the organization’s activist nature and generally limited funds, was composed of poster production and the necessary means of illegally wheat-pasting the posters onto vacant signage, and photocopied flyers.[3]  But the overwhelming support the crude media efforts received prompted Gran Fury to consider areas and spaces beyond the stereotype limitations of political propaganda.

Much was to be achieved by finalizing the aesthetic standards of the group in relation to its ideological standpoint, and by identifying the locales where this apparently new brand of art and advertising could occupy its own specific place. The group decided to keep outside the confines of the standard museum, as a rule, and explore other areas that would greatly validate their art and cause’s activist and non-conformist essence.

Gran Fury and the design culture it sought to establish became visible and accepted easily, since the taboo associated with the AIDS discussion was not observed at all in the art world.  Museums from all over the country supported Gran Fury’s visual and political irreverence, which resulted in tangible and measurable achievements in terms of awareness, art, and advertising.[4]

III.      The Gran Fury Design Philosophy

Design, in its most successful and accessible sense, has at the very least an efficient use of symbols and patterns that appear to be fully understandable by the audience it seeks.  An individual’s learned ability to interpret and use symbols allows for the manipulation of objects within a two-dimensional space, or to actually come up with imagined experiences that have not taken place in real life.  All the things that people envision and create, which, in essence, composes the nature of people, comes from the innate ability to symbolize.[5]

Whether consciously or not, this seemed to be the guiding principle behind the art created by Gran Fury.  What had started as mere political materials that espoused the stand of ACT UP and the rallying cry for attention on the AIDS crisis, had become a new movement in art and advertising.

The most famous Gran Fury piece was of the SILENCE=DEATH symbol, which successfully conveyed the activist stance of the group in two succinct words that eventually created a new symbol in itself to represent the general sentiments and goals of organizations involved in the eradication, education, prevention, and treatment of AIDS.  The symbol, executed in the poster environment, showed a fuchsia-colored triangle centered in a black square, which held the infamous equation in Gill Sans Bold Extra Condensed font and tight kerning.[6]  Individually, the elements each had their own meanings and effects on any individual; some would probably connect the use of the pink triangle in its inverted mode as that which marked gay victims during the Nazi era, and some may feel a sense of urgency and heaviness in seeing the letters designed too close for comfort.

All the perceived meanings of the symbols used create a new one, which is relied on to elicit emotions to drive people to become proactive.  The SILENCE=DEATH concept was meant to move and to disturb, and to mark in the minds of people as symbols akin to traffic signs, eventually to produce the kind of action and support that ACT UP and Gran Fury had been after from the very start.

The Gran Fury success was primarily dealt by the group’s decision to employ street art to visualize the collective experience of American gays and lesbians, as well as people living with AIDS, to create a new set of symbols that could be conveniently understood by the public.  They did this by dong away with typical propaganda messaging style, which meant using long lines and words, and condensing the contexts into a spare use of text and visuals; the group believed in the immediate effects of aggression that would be produced by the posters, which was achieved by identifying the opposition; and finally, Gran Fury managed to create a new identity and movement that ultimately affected public opinion.[7]

Gran Fury, like most of other artists involved in the fight against AIDS, maximized the benefits found within the capacity of art—in this case, the group’s success in communication and awareness lay in the underlying tone of drama, in the ominous tone, in the visual and textual constraint that warned of time limitations.  Clearly, the group’s original condition of staying away from any association with museum-style art was carried out effectively, since  the Gran Fury art was exclusively identified with the streets; connoting truth, practicality, and reality.

IV.The Legacy Lives On

Sadly, Gran Fury ceased to exist after the death of member Mark Simpson in 1994.  Also, around this time, the group started to undergo a re-focusing of their art and philosophy; the product was a style far from the original laden with shock value, because it had now made use of text as a main element and simplicity had to take a backseat.  Perhaps it was because of the steadily-growing issues about AIDS and the exceeding complex messages that accompanied them that made Gran Fury stray from what had made it known in the art world.

But what cannot be forgotten is the group’s phenomenal vision and thrust for innovation, both in the aesthetic and political spaces.  No other single piece of art can be credited with bringing together gays and lesbians as a community and producing images and messages so pronounced that they found their place in public opinion, than the SILENCE=DEATH poster that started it all.

However, it was expected for traditionalist groups to disapprove of Gran Fury’s irreverent work—such as the Catholic Church.  With much reason, though, since the group created a poster that referred tot he Pope, with the line “SEXISM REARS ITS UNPROTECTED HEAD”,[8] that had caused a major uproar among the conservative religious group and its supporters.  Then again, this was the exact style and bravado that had set Gran Fury, within its main ACT UP alliance, separate from the rest of the activist world—for it promoted a sense of passion in its ideology, a commitment to explore and make a mark in design culture, and impart a genuine objective to keep from the mediocrity afforded by staying within one’s comfort zone.  One should stand up and take action—for silence, as they say, is equal to death.


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