In 1981, there was a tempest on the horizon, and anyone with eyes could see it coming. In spite of its fiercely swirling vortex, the outlines of the cultural meanings of HIV/AIDS were immediately discernible, playing out as they did in the public sphere. So, our assumptions about HIV/AIDS formed quickly in our shared spaces, from policy to pop culture, and almost as quickly they began to crystallize into a canon, one that has enveloped us ever since.
Now, after decades of shell-shocked reflection, those who survived this moment appear ready to speak about it again, and new canons are springing up, canons that have become the subject of contemplation for a new generation of historians, archivists, artists, and activists, who were born in the midst of HIV/AIDS and are struggling to make sense of the worlds they both inherited and missed. A growing number of narrative films, documentaries, archival projects, theater revivals, books, and gallery exhibitions have already been devoted to the topic, and these were just the first to the gate. There are many more major undertakings in the pipeline. We are in a second vortex, something I call AIDS 2.0, and it is only just beginning.
For decades, academic consideration of our early responses to HIV/AIDS has been stacking into a very high wall, deepening our understanding of the cultural meanings of AIDS. On the other side of this wall, however, history is a process of generalization, and our new media landscape privileges the stories that are easier to tell. Within our public spaces, complexities are slipped beneath the shadows of our zeitgeists, and well-worn media tropes supplant more disorderly truths. As a consequence, AIDS 2.0 is not really the story of HIV/AIDS. It is its storytelling. Any scholarly understanding has been outpaced by how we talk about it in our cultural wilds.
In an effort to isolate certain aspects of the phenomenological penumbra of AIDS 2.0 in my book, After Silence: A History of AIDS Through Its Images, I focused my investigation on a small sampling of the images we commonly use to represent it, the AIDS agitprop by two collectives I was a founding member of, the Silence=Death collective, and the art collective, Gran Fury. The output of these collectives is well-surveyed within curatorial circles, and as a result, inadvertently serves as a stand-in for the political engagement of that moment. But its meaning as cultural production is frequently detached from its function as activist work-product, hobbling the concomitant significance it might still have within grassroots organizing circles in the process.
In narrowing my attention to the Silence=Death and Gran Fury collectives, I chose not to explore another poster I had a hand in, Enjoy AZT. It is the subject of this essay because I believe its unorthodox point of entry into curatorial canons is particularly germane to this issue of On Curating. As a wonky critique of the drug AZT (azidothymidine), the only pharmaceutical therapy approved at the time for People With AIDS (PWAs), this work was an unlikely candidate for the longevity it came to experience, and might have disappeared altogether if it hadn’t been buoyed by an art practice beyond the collaborations it was born of and represented, the practice of an art collective entirely outside of the AIDS activist community, Bullet Space, whose anti-gentrification work captured the interest of curators and archivists. As a consequence Enjoy AZT “meandered” into international archives, and so, I believe this piece of AIDS agitprop remained closer to its activist roots—or at least, it did so for a longer period of time—and its journey may have distinct things to say about the machineries of meaning applied to our consideration of political art practices, as well as the intrinsic relationship between HIV/AIDS and gentrification, and about colonization and displacement more generally.
Collectivity, Bullet Space, and Enjoy AZT
The early sense of isolation AIDS created for individuals in Lower Manhattan was, at least in part, a catalyst for the vivid articulations of communal response that followed, and perhaps as a direct result, much of the cultural production associated with this political moment in New York involved collective output. So, it is important to note that when we privilege the cultural production of Silence=Death and Gran Fury to tell the story of how communities constituted themselves in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, it throws a cloak over the many other collectives working in ACT UP at the time, and the permeability of the borders between them: Zoe Leonard was in fierce pussy and Gang; Loring McAlpin was in Gang and Gran Fury; Carrie Moyer produced work for Queer Nation, Dyke Action Machine, and The Lesbian Avengers; Marlene McCarty from Gran Fury designed the WAC Is Watching poster for the Women’s Action Coalition; Vincent Gagliostro produced work for ACT UP, Anonymous Queers, and Gran Fury. Focusing on Silence=Death and Gran Fury also overlooks the agitprop generated within ACT UP committees that were not centered on art practices, such as Majority Action, Wave Three, The Marys, the Women’s Committee, the Housing Committee, the Treatment and Data Committee, and the Healthcare Committee; the local zines that spun off the sense of community ACT UP generated, like My Comrade and Gay Action Heroes; and the work coming out of other cities that experienced high pass-along within Lower Manhattan, like On Our Backs, Diseased Pariah News, and the work of the San Francisco collective, Boy With Arms Akimbo/Girl With Arms Akimbo. Focusing on Silence=Death and Gran Fury bypasses a generation of performance, theater, and musical output, and the work of other activist movements, such as anti-gentrification activists, who, like AIDS activists, placed their bodies on the line in conflicts that frequently escalated into urban warfare: it was not uncommon for police to use helicopters, armored vehicles and riot gear to battle squatters.
One significant example of cultural production generated by anti-gentrification activism was the multi-year street art and publishing project, Your House Is Mine, which came out of the anti-gentrification work of the Bullet Space squat, originally founded in 1985 as the Six O’Clock Squat, and changed to Bullet Space in 1987, after the street name for the heroin local to the block on which the squat was founded. When Andrew Castrucci from Bullet Space saw the Enjoy AZT poster on the streets of New York, he asked if they could adapt it as part of Your House Is Mine, and through the self-generated archival practice of this urban artist collaborative, Bullet Space was responsible for reproducing this poster in various forms, posting it throughout the Lower East Side, and placing it within the curatorial circles responsible for sustaining it.
I originally proposed Enjoy AZT to Gran Fury during the early months of our formation in 1988, but it was rejected by the collective because they felt uncomfortable critiquing the only pharmaceutical intervention available to People Living With HIV/AIDS at the time. Instead, I used part of the poster’s tagline, “Healthcare or Wealthcare?,” for the article I contributed to the 1989 Gran Fury New York Crimes collaboration, and decided to further develop Enjoy AZT in its poster form over that summer with another collaborator, Vincent Gagliostro.
Enjoy AZT was intended as a street poster, and at the time of its making, direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising in America had yet to be deregulated and was an unfamiliar form. After a century of branding work by Coca-Cola, squatting on this easily recognizable American commercial symbol represented a surgical visual code to explain how similar the mechanisms of delivering a drug to the marketplace were to those of any other consumer product, and it hinted at the processes through which pharmaceutical research can segue into commercial monopolies, a core activist critique of the drug approval process. The Coke logo did much of the heavy lifting in this complicated story, freeing us to focus on the didactic text to explain the underlying policy critiques of ACT UP’s May 21, 1990 demonstration, Storm the NIH (National Institutes of Health), which Enjoy AZT helped announce. We produced this image as a 13½ x 11¼ inch newsprint demonstration poster, and wheat-pasted it around the city. Much of its data was drawn from ACT UP fact sheets.
AZT had been a target of ACT UP from the start: for its singularity, questionable efficacy and staggering price—it was the most expensive prescription drug in history at the time. This fact was made all the more galling by its long history of subsidization within the American government research establishment. When it was approved as the first AIDS therapy in 1987, the research and development costs of AZT had already been shouldered by a National Cancer Institute (NCI) grant to the laboratory that developed it in 1964. In 1984, the NCI helped dust off the failed cancer drug for the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome, who by then owned its UK patent, and went so far as to offer incentives that included a defraying of further testing costs and access to a key ingredient for the initial production, a synthesized form of thymidine that was produced by Pfizer. Drugs for the opportunistic infections associated with AIDS had been approved after AZT, and still others were available through Investigational New Drug (IND) protocols, but AZT had a healthy four-year run as the only HIV treatment before a competing drug, ddI, caused the domestic market for AZT to dip.
AZT also had a healthy run within the research protocols of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), even as other therapies languished in the drug approval pipeline. Very soon after the Storm the NIH action, a controversial study began on women with AIDS, the 076 Trial at the AIDS Clinical Trial Group (ACTG), which set out to prove AZT's efficacy in preventing perinatal (mother-to-child) transmission of HIV. It was a large trial, conducted at 59 sites, and included a more representative sampling of women of color, unusual at the time. Unfortunately, the trial was also shot through with ethical sticking points, including the use of a placebo (there would be HIV+ women and infants who would not be receiving a potentially beneficial treatment); the fact that infants who were not HIV+ would be receiving a drug they did not need and which had acknowledged toxicity in adults; that participants were not guaranteed a continuation of treatment once the study concluded; that the trial treated the mothers as procreative vessels and bypassed their own medical needs; that the overall potential toxicities of AZT were still unclear; and finally that the informed consent clauses excluded the risk of vaginal tumors evidenced in animal studies.
Whether by coincidence or design, the 076 study phased in just as the American AZT market was in decline. The 076 study was successful, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published encouraging results ahead of schedule in February 1994, reinforcing the market for it in Africa, where heterosexual transmission remained undisputed, even amongst American policymakers who were loath to find the strong clinical evidence of it compelling domestically.
Reaganomics Was a Riot
This condensed history of this drug explains some of the intricate links between Enjoy AZT and AIDS activism. The reason this poster has entered into museum and academic archives, however, is because of a series of gestures indirectly connected to those critiques: Enjoy AZT also played a part in the anti-gentrification activism linked to the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riot.
On July 19, 1988, the New York City Commissioner of Health, Stephen Joseph, suddenly slashed the number of estimated AIDS cases in Manhattan, threatening to drastically reduce funding for AIDS services. ACT UP NY declared war on him. During a sit-in at Joseph's office, a copy of his itinerary was taken, and was circulated throughout ACT UP. We followed him, day and night, to public and private meetings, forums, lunches, and dinners, and even to his home. The commissioner was so unhappy about the ACT UP scrutiny that it led to a late-night visit to one activist's apartment by a New York Police intelligence case squad ordinarily tasked with police slayings. The Village Voice reported Joseph as having triggered the investigation, and it led several lawyers in ACT UP to conduct a teach-in on the history of the covert FBI surveillance, infiltration, and disruption of political organizations from 1956-1971, COINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgram), an operation aimed at destabilizing the American Communist Party, the civil rights and anti-war movements, and the Black Panthers.
The tense political shoving match between ACT UP and Stephen Joseph was further exacerbated by the Tompkins Square Park riot, which began within days of the harassment of Joseph. The skirmish was referred to in the New York Times as a "war zone," which was not an exaggeration. The standoff, staged around the eviction of the homeless population living in the East Village park, involved mounted officers doing battle with bottle-hurling protesters, and low-flying helicopters combing the rooftops with searchlights. The protest over the gentrification threatening all of lower Manhattan was precipitated by the deregulation triggered by Reaganomics that led to tax incentives for real estate development, which was fanned into a bonfire by increased income inequality shifting middle and lower income properties into the hands of real estate speculators at the luxury end of the market.
It would be a misunderstanding of the activist topography that defined Lower Manhattan in the late 1980s to exclude the connections between the roiling AIDS activism centered in the already expensive West Village and the anti-gentrification struggles playing out across town on the Lower East Side. The energy that fueled ACT UP was due in no small part to an influx of younger queers from the East Village, who brought an enthusiastic, newly found activism with them. So, many ACT UP members lived near the park, and formed an obvious presence in their ACT UP T-shirts during the riots. One Gran Fury member lived a half block away from the park in a gutted squat, and we could see the police silhouetted in their helicopters from his window. If the protest was a spontaneous battle caused by hostile police actions, it had spun out of control within hours, impacting public sentiment, policy, and cultural production for years to come. Direct and indirect allusions to the tensions caused by gentrification in the East Village turned up several years later in the musical, Rent, and more recently in Tim Murphy’s Christodora. It turned up the very next day, however, in a project by the urban artist collaborative, Bullet Space, in the form of their multi-year project, Your House Is Mine.
Your House Is Mine
During the period when ACT UP had declared war on Stephen Joseph, the FBI did, in fact, keep files on ACT UP. One file was directly related to ACT UP’s pursuit of Joseph, explaining chain of command to Canada’s FBI counterpart if an act of “terrorism” by ACT UP occurred at the Fifth International Conference on AIDS in Montreal, where Joseph was scheduled to speak. The New York FBI Field Office also sent correspondence to domestic terrorism units in DC and elsewhere in the U.S. detailing the Tompkins Square Park riot, claiming the conflict was triggered by an earlier demonstration on July 31, 1988, organized by “ACT UP” and “skinheads,” which was a reference to the anarchist and performance collective, Missing Foundation, which was closely associated with the incident. Missing Foundation was already well-known throughout the city for their ubiquitous, graffitied pictogram, an upside-down martini glass with its contents spilling out, often with the accompanying slogan, “The party’s over,” a thinly veiled threat against the high-end real estate incursions swallowing the East Village. The title of Missing Foundation’s 1988 studio album was 1933 Your House Is Mine. Your House Is Mine perfectly described the political moment, and the topic of gentrification. It became the name of the Bullet Space project, and Missing Foundation contributed work to it.
Gentrification created an unintended social ecology conducive to both street art and political resistance: the very same real estate tax abatements transforming Manhattan into the land grab that sparked the Tompkins Square Park riot ironically provided the Silence=Death collective, Gran Fury, ACT UP, and Queer Nation with the proliferation of boarded-up construction sites that served as potential spaces for postering, and we commandeered them as communication command centers for our resistance work. Anti-gentrification activists, however, went one step further, commandeering the buildings themselves, squatting in them before construction could even begin. Bullet Space had occupied one of those buildings, on 292 East Third Street, as their home and command center, and the day after the Tompkins Square Park riot they began using it as their base of operations for a sprawling street art and publishing project, Your House Is Mine, which they declared to be an “act of resistance.” When this artist collaborative saw the Enjoy AZT poster wheat-pasted in lower Manhattan, they hunted us down for its inclusion in their project. Bullet Space then became responsible for all further shepherding of Enjoy AZT.
As a project with multiple iterations, the organization, fabrication, and dissemination of Your House Is Mine spanned from 1988-1992. It started as 150 23-inch x 20-inch street posters on lightweight paper stock, to be wheat-pasted throughout lower Manhattan. Another 150 posters, in the same dimensions, were produced on Mohawk vellum paper, to be bolt-bound into an artist’s book between wood covers cased in lead. The forty-page volume weighed sixteen pounds, and contained twenty-nine posters by local artists and activists that included David Wojnarowicz, Martin Wong, Seth Tobocman, Anton Von Dalen and Missing Foundation, the group linked to ACT UP in the FBI file. The book version is included in library and academic collections such as The Library of Congress, The Walker Art Center, Yale University, and The Getty Center Library, and is in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum, MoMA, The Victoria and Albert Museum, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Brooklyn Museum, The Cooper-Hewitt, The Fogg Museum, and The Guttenberg Museum. According to Andrew Castrucci, the driving force behind Your House Is Mine, “Print people are the misfits in the museum world,” and as a result of the relatively smaller institutional budgets for printed material, more intrinsically egalitarian. Curator David Kiehl at the Whitney was an early champion of the transformation of Your House is Mine from a street project into a bound book, and Castrucci credits him as having been instrumental in making the book version into a reality.
Apart from the accomplishments attached to this elaborate undertaking, Castrucci has also committed decades to what he considers to be a performative practice, which included the establishment of the squat, and its arduous renovation; the formation of the gallery space and artist collaborative, Bullet Space; the excavation of historical artifacts from the Bullet site; the construction and maintenance of a printing facility within Bullet (where many of the posters were printed); the exacting task of printing hundreds of acceptable copies of each serigraph; submitting grant applications to Art Matters, Artist Space, Northstar Fund, and the Andy Warhol Foundation to fund the project; the design, production, and distribution of 10,000 copies of a companion newsprint broadside; the placement of books within institutions; and, in the spirit of the organizing principles behind Your House is Mine, ongoing requests for museums with copies of the book to provide lifetime memberships for every artist collaborator.
Bullet squat is still owned by its original homesteaders, and Bullet Space has functioned as a community gallery since its inception. Unlike the New Museum, which moved from its original location on lower Broadway to the world-class museum space it constructed for itself on the Bowery, or the Whitney, which moved from Eighth Street to Fifty-Fourth Street, to Madison Avenue, and now, to the Meatpacking District, Bullet Space still resides where the Your House Is Mine project originated, the day after the Tompkins Square Park riot made it clear that if the remaining vestiges of the Lower East Side were not documented, no one would remember the New York that existed before it was transformed into a theme park version of itself by gentrification. Bullet Space is social practice, long before we had that name for it. And Your House Is Mine is what archives look like, before they make their way into our temperature-controlled cloisters.
Had Enjoy AZT been a Gran Fury work, as I originally intended, it may have experienced similar institutional placement, but would have been delivered through a different set of trajectories, entering art institutions through the front door. Within the methodologies deployed by Bullet, however, it would be fair to say it came in the back way, using strategies closer to the activism it represents. I do not mean to falsify a dichotomy between Enjoy AZT and the work of Gran Fury, whose ongoing critique of capitalism threaded its way throughout the collective’s entire output. In tone, Enjoy AZT might have been a more bald articulation of these critiques, but the back cover of Gran Fury’s New York Crimes project—produced at the same time, and one might consider a companion piece borne of the same conversations—uses converse logic but applies an equally strident commentary on the profit motives of the pharmaceutical industry, also in the form of a fake ad. Its text is less didactic, yet equally damning by way of personal inflection, coming as it did in the form of a quote: “One million [People With AIDS] isn’t a market that’s exciting. Sure it’s growing, but it’s not asthma—Patrick Gage, Hoffman-La Roche, Inc.”
Still, it cannot be denied that Gran Fury was given access to the institutional art world. We had no need to invade it. We were invited to infiltrate it. True to their practice, Bullet squatted within art institutions, occupying them, decades before the seizure of Zuccotti Park shifted the political meaning of occupation within the lexicon of resistance, and the intra-institutional political work of Occupy Museums and Occupy Wall Street’s Arts & Labor Working Group permanently altered the way cultural producers and curators viewed our institutional dynamics.
Curatorially, there is a particular dilemma caused by exhibitions organized around the premise that the AIDS agitprop of ACT UP New York can be used as a model for how to mobilize communal responses during moments of crisis. It can be, but unlike the film and video from that period, which has context built into it, once these posters are isolated from the environment they were created for, they become oddly mute. When they are stripped of the native meanings that were activated in situ, their social proportion can’t be approximated on a gallery wall with any degree of accuracy. Their “objectness” overtakes them, and no amount of didactic material adequately compensates for this effect. Work that easily sank its teeth into the scruff of your neck in a cluttered cityscape is immediately collared on a blank, white wall. It was never meant to have use in a gallery setting, and as a consequence, it doesn’t.
AIDS 2.0 further complicates this curatorial dilemma, by implying that documenting HIV/AIDS is also somehow historiographical, even though any authentic history would be impossible to write while the ongoing pandemic still affects tens of millions of People Living With HIV/AIDS. Still, are there insights to be gotten here, within this example of the break in the chain of custody between the maker and the archive Enjoy AZT represents?
From first-hand experience, I am extremely aware of the scrupulousness with which archivists, curators, and historians approach the material they encounter, the reverence for the ethics behind the construction of archives, the many conversations about what sorts of curatorial gestures will sharpen archival practices as technology leapfrogs over them, the near-shamanistic challenges of archiving art practices that are fluid, performative, or intended to be ongoing, and I am fully attuned to the fine art of writing a finding aid, which serves as the tissue-thin line between a living archive and its becoming a crypt.
So, what manner of finding aid might connect the history of HIV/AIDS to the gentrification struggles in Reagan’s America, as exemplified in the mediated journey of Enjoy AZT from the street to the museum wall? How do we link Enjoy AZT, curatorially, to The New York Crimes, or to the history of scientific research in America, in ways that enable a museum-goer to trace the intricacies of research protocols and international health policy as highlighted by the story of the drug AZT, now entering its fifth decade? With all the caution given to preserving intentionality within archival disciplines, how do we assure that archives remain dynamic organisms once the artifacts they contain are disconnected from their layers of hidden meaning, or their makers are gone and can no longer speak on their behalf? How do you cross-reference a history that can’t be written until every last case of ongoing HIV/AIDS is history itself? How do we curate AIDS?
Avram Finkelstein is a founding member of the Silence=Death and Gran Fury collectives. His work has shown at MoMA, The Whitney Museum, The Cooper Hewitt Museum, and Kunsthalle Wien, and is in the permanent collections of MoMA, The Whitney, The New Museum, The Metropolitan Museum, The Victoria and Albert Museum, and The Brooklyn Museum. He is a featured in the artist oral history project at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, and his 2017 book for UC Press, After Silence: A History of AIDS Through its Images is available online and through local booksellers. He has been interviewed by The New York Times, NPR, Slate, Frieze, Artforum, and Interview, and has spoken about art, AIDS activism, LGBT cultural production, and the American Left at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and NYU. Recent writing includes NYU Flash Collective: An Art Intervention in the Public Sphere, with Dipti Desai for ART AS SOCIAL ACTION: An Introduction to the Principles & Practices of Teaching Social Practice Art, Gregory Sholette, Chloë Bass, and Social Practice Queens, in 2018; A Propagandist's Guide to Twenty-first Century Image Literacy, Visual Inquiry: Learning & Teaching Art, Volume 6 No 2, Intellect Journals, 2017; and FOUND: Queer Archaeology; Queer Abstraction, for The Archive, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, Spring 2017.
 The poster text reads, “Enjoy AZT: The U.S. government has spent one billion dollars over the past 10 years to research new AIDS drugs. The result: 1 drug—AZT. It makes half the people who try it sick and for the other half it stops working after a year. Is AZT the last, best hope for people with AIDS, or is it a short-cut to the killing Burroughs Wellcome is making in the AIDS marketplace? Scores of drugs languish in government pipelines, while fortunes are made on this monopoly. IS THIS HEALTH CARE OR WEALTH CARE?”
 Sean G. Kennedy, “Riot Police Remove 31 Squatters from Two East Village Buildings,” New York Times, May 31, 1995, accessed February 13, 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/1995/05/31/nyregion/riot-police-remove-31-squatters-from-two-east-village-buildings.html.
 United States Department of Health and Human Services, ACTG 076 Questions and Answers, accessed January 20, 2018, https://aidsinfo.nih.gov/news/101/actg-076-questions-and-answers
 Robert D. McFadden, “Park Curfew Protest Erupts Into a Battle And 38 Are Injured,” New York Times, August 8, 1988, accessed February 14, 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/1988/08/08/nyregion/park-curfew-protest-erupts-into-a-battle-and-38-are-injured.html?pagewanted=all.
 Finkelstein, After Silence, 145-148.
 The back cover of Gran Fury’s New York Crimes is a fake pharmaceutical ad depicting a full-page close-up of a research scientist, holding a pipette to a petri dish, with the text caption “One million [People With AIDS] isn’t a market that’s exciting. Sure it’s growing, but it’s not asthma. — Patrick Gage, Hoffman-La Roche, Inc,” with the tagline, “THIS IS TO ENRAGE YOU.” The same graphic and quote (reformatted, in color, and with a different tagline) appeared in a four-page Gran Fury intervention in the October 1989 issue of Artforum, titled Control.