The legacy of '80s art collective Gran Fury is now part of history, but the work remains as furious as ever

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Gran Fury's "Kissing Doesn't Kill" on a city bus (Creative Time)
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Lecia Bushak

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It’s hard to know what the millennial generation might make of Gran Fury’s art activism.

Myriad old newspaper clippings, photos, magazine covers and posters carefully saved and gathered for Gran Fury: Read My Lips, are on view now at New York University's 80 Washington Square East Gallery. The question is whether what once felt so desperately present and energized can transcend, for a new generation of artists and activists, the status of a document, an anachronism, an alien, historic narrative.

The show seems to be constructed more on the model of a time capsule than an exhibition of "living" art. Billed as “the first comprehensive survey documenting the important AIDS activist art collective’s work from 1987-1995,” its pedagogic value makes a certain kind of sense in this academic stetting. Most of the students who pass through this show will be seeing the work for the first time, and all the context and documentation surrounding the art will be, for them, essential to understanding what is on view.

“The work seemed important to me to exhibit because it opened up a secret history to the ‘80s,” Michael Cohen, 80WSE’s Assistant Director and co-curator of the show, said in an interview with Lookbooks. “We often get presented a version of that decade that was very elite, moneyed and remote from public discourse.… [I]n the '80s, art, theory, and political engagement were an essential part of the mix in the New York art world. It seemed to me important to let more people … know about this alternative art narrative.” 

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As the unofficial “ad agency” for the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), the art of grabbing attention is certainly what Gran Fury was all about. Named for the type of Plymouth model car used by NYPD unmarked police units, Gran Fury sought to make art that was, first and foremost, out on the street. 

In the first room of the exhibition, an enormous billboard poster of a baby spreads across two adjoining walls, emblazoned with the words “Welcome to America: the only industrialized country besides South Africa without national healthcare.” What look like dollar bills lie scattered all over the floor. Entitled Wall Street Money, they are printed with phrases like “White Heterosexual Men Can’t Get AIDS… DON’T BANK ON IT” or “FUCK YOUR PROFITEERING. People are dying while you play business.” In one action, Gran Fury members threw garbage-bag-fuls of the fake bills onto the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Both Wall Street Money (1988) and Welcome to America (1989) are concise examples of Gran Fury’s persuasive way with the methods and materials most capable of reaching out and confronting the public: those of advertising—poster, billboard, and flyer. Sloganeering was the name of the game. The second room of the exhibition features a wall-sized version of perhaps the most well-known Gran Fury poster as well as their most well-known slogan: “Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do” is printed beneath images of heterosexual, gay, and lesbian couples kissing. The work was reproduced on billboards and buses across New York in 1990. On the opposite wall are photos and news clippings that chronicle “Kiss-in” protests in New Orleans (1988) and Paris (2008). One clipping, from the San Francisco Sentinel from 1988, brings home the seriousness of such events: “Kiss-In Turns into Police Brawl.”

Nearby is a giant-size photograph of notoriously conservative John Cardinal O’Connor—Archbishop of New York from 1984 to 2000 (the work is pictured above as part of Gran Fury's installation at the 1990 Venice Biennale). Over his image is printed a quote he gave at the First Vatican Conference on AIDS in 1989: “The truth is not in condoms or clean needles. These are lies… good morality is good medicine.”

In December 1989, ACT UP protested in front of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral against O’Connor’s stance on condoms and abortion—it was the largest protest against the Catholic Church in history. The text that flanks the image of O’Connor, in bold white text on black background, stands as a powerful response to his comments, reading, in part, “Condoms and clean needles save lives as surely as the earth revolves around the sun. AIDS is caused by a virus and a virus has no morals.”

The exhibition ends with a video, in which couples are seen kissing, laughing, and playing with one another's hair. The happy-go-lucky images are paired with often discordant, and disturbing, instrumentals, as though there were something lurking underneath this happiness. It's easy to forget the furor felt throughout this country over who kissed who, yet although the people in the video—and the works in the exhibition—are a part of history now, Gran Fury's imagery and message-making can't help but still feel incendiary.

'Gran Fury: Read My Lips' runs through March 17, 2012. In addition, this project includes a Gran Fury symposium with the members of Gran Fury interviewed by noted cultural theorist Andrew Ross. The event will held at the NYU/Steinhardt Art School's Einstein Auditorium at 34 Stuyvesant Street in the East Village on Tuesday, February 28 at 6 p.m.