Preview: Day With(out) Art

An exhibition looks back on the activism of the past three decades on World AIDS Day

“Silence Equals Death.” “Read My Lips.” Both were important catch phrases for a movement that has always sought to bring attention to HIV and AIDS around the world. But more than 25 million people have since died from the disease.

During the 22nd annual Day With(out) Art this year on World AIDS Day (December 1), a national day of action and mourning in response to the AIDS crisis launched by Visual AIDS in 1989, The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at the University of Pennsylvania will showcase Unleashing the Archive. The two-part project uses archival documents as a way of addressing the history of AIDS cultural activism during the past 30 years.

Because of the growing rate of HIV infection each year in Philadelphia alone (approximately 30,000 people are infected, a rate more than 50 percent higher than residents of New York City and five times the national average), ICA is using this nationwide event as an opportunity to increase awareness among at-risk communities and the general public here in Philadelphia. The ICA has even partnered with Philadelphia FIGHT’s AIDS Library.

“Two thousand and twelve marks the 25th anniversary of the AIDS Library of Philadelphia – the only lending library dedicated to HIV in the United States,” says Mark Seaman, director of development and communications at Philadelphia FIGHT. “As such, we wanted to find a creative way to make the public aware of the library’s resources and its roots in activism. When the ICA sought our help in exposing some of the archived images form the early days of the AIDS pandemic on World AIDS Day this year, we realized a partnership was a natural fit. We have been working together to solicit all of Philadelphia’s
print and web media publications to run one of these archived images on
December 1st.”

For the first part of the project, ICA will screen Untitled, an hour-long film by Jim Hodges, Encke King and Carlos Marques da Cruz that features a montage of archival and pop footage recalling the activism sparked by the early years of the AIDS crisis with the artist Cruz as subject. The free screenings will be held from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. every hour on the hour on December 1 at the Tuttleman Auditorium. In Hodges’s words, “In this way, the framing of the artist can become a way to project any number of people, endlessly.”

Inspired by the filmmakers’ use of archival footage to address current issues, for the second part of the project, ICA focuses on iconic images from the early days of the AIDS crisis. These graphics are drawn from the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a national and international non-partisan advocacy group formed in 1987.

“In the pandemic’s 30th year, I think we can look back and say with certainty that those early activists in the 80s and 90s saved hundreds of thousands of lives, improved the quality of life of countless others and prevented millions of HIV infections,” says Seaman. “When HIV emerged in the early 80s, it was little-understood and was dismissed or ignored by governments at every level. There were even those saying that it was God’s punishment for the sin of homosexuality, and making other such hateful accusations about those who acquired the virus.”

He admits that the mainstream media and many in elected office were not always willing to discuss the emerging public health crisis as it was seemingly only affecting gay men, drug users and those on the margins of society.

“ACT UP made a lot of noise and garnered a lot of attention in very unconventional ways because it was the only way anyone would listen,” he says. “As their friends, lovers and family members died and suffered it was often repeated that in the future people would be judged on what they did and didn’t do in this time of crisis – they made a commitment that they would look back in pride of their actions. The stark iconography that was developed by Gran Fury and used by ACT UP turned a lot of heads and was one of the many ways that they convinced people to give HIV a second thought and consider how it could impact everyone.”