Act Up Revived at Harvard

Since October 15th, the Carpenter Center has been hosting a highly controversial exhibition about one of the most pivotal social movements in recent US history.

ACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993 features graphics created by various artists, poster, stickers, and a suite of over 100 video interviews with surviving members of ACT UP New York. The exhibition as a whole surveys New York’s AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP)’s accomplishments. It also offers an opportunity to revisit the debates about gay rights movement, 20th-century public art, national healthcare, and the continuing HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Sonia Coman/Independent
ACT UP is an acronym for the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. New York ACT UP was formed in March 1987 when the US AIDS-related deaths had exceeded 5000.

Little was known about the disease and the first therapeutic drug to fight against it was approved only after 6 years since the first cases of AIDS were reported.  Moreover, HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) was primarily associated with gay men and people of color, even years after it extended beyond that population. As a result, ACT UP emerged as a radical democratic organization by the contribution of members from different professional and cultural backgrounds, artists and thinkers who were committed to direct action to end this political crisis.

Sonia Coman/Independent

Curated by Helen Molesworth (Harvard Art Museum’s Maisie K. and James R. Houghton Curator of Contemporary Art) and Claire Grace, the exhibition is on display in two locations in the Carpenter Center: the lobby and the Sert Gallery on the 3rd floor. This is a picture of the Carpenter Center lobby and presents the ACT UP Oral History Project. The project consists of over one hundred interviews with surviving members of New York ACT UP. These interviews are exhibited in an array of 14 video displays which run simultaneously. Each television features 5 to 7 videos continuously. If you go up to the third floor, you can see posters, stickers about specific protests, art installations and historical information about ACT UP.

Sonia Coman/Independent

Run by member artists of ACT UP, the Silence = Death Project was organized as an art collective which contributed significantly to the movement through posters, placards, T-shirts, and other advertising means. The public art campaign of “Silence = Death” is present in the lobby of the Carpenter Center with the fluorescent sign of the association, also featured as a poster on an offset lithography which is on display. “Silence = Death” together with its graphic design became one of the most recognizable slogans of ACT UP. Co-curator Claire Grace explains on page 4 of the exhibition catalogue: “even when trauma suspends our capacity for language, speech remains an essential means of resistance.”

Sonia Coman/Independent

An independent group connected to ACT UP, “fierce pussy” brings together two installations in the women’s restrooms, one on the first floor of the Carpenter Center and the other in the basement of the Sackler Museum, adjacent to the lecture hall. According to the explanatory label of the project, “fierce pussy” acted within the gay rights movement for the nomenclature of “queer” and with an emphasis on visibility. The walls of the restrooms are entirely covered in black-and-white posters which present only text. Postering has been one of the main forms of the group’s engagement with the public sphere.

The public program connected to the exhibition runs through December 3rd and includes gallery talks, workshops, and lectures. Curator Helen Molesworth will deliver a presentation of the exhibition in the Carpenter Center on Thursday, November 12th, at 1 pm. At 8 pm on the same day, the Main Gallery of the Carpenter Center hosts a student performance entitled Who Wants to Live Forever? directed by Trevor Martin ’10. In the spring term, within the Harvard College Art Society, student artists inspired by ACT UP will organize an exhibition under the title Students ACT UP in the Adams House Art Space. The Society accepts submissions for the exhibition until December 3rd.

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