At dinner in late 1985, Jorge Socarras, Oliver Johnston, and I agreed to form a men’s consciousness-raising group, assembled around feminist organizing principles, to explore our growing rage over AIDS. We each asked one more person the others didn’t know—Chris Lione, Charles Kreloff, and Brian Howard—and started meeting every week for a potluck. It was 1986, and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) was a full year away.
We started each session by talking about what life felt like to each of us in the age of AIDS, but by the end of every meeting we were also talking about the political crisis we saw forming. Some of us were old enough to remember that when young people needed to communicate with one another during the Vietnam War years, we put posters in the streets of New York. So we decided to raise our voices and make a poster about the politics of AIDS, with no idea where it might lead. We knew we couldn’t be the only ones who saw it. We couldn’t be the only ones who were enraged.
What we discovered, of course, is that we weren’t. We were surrounded by a community, a community we didn’t realize existed, a community in search of its voice, one that went on to find that voice through the activation of the social spaces of New York.
Without this community, the Silence=Death poster might have come and gone and you never would have heard of it. We designed Silence=Death, but it was this activist community that created it. This image, as we currently understand it, is a product of collective world-making, the sort of collectivity that moves every one of us, as individuals and as a culture, and can be transformative.
The primary objective of Silence=Death was twofold: to prompt the community to organize politically around AIDS, and to imply to anyone outside the community that we were already organizing. In order to speak simultaneously to multiple audiences, the poster would need to be densely coded. And in order to “sell” activism during an apolitical moment, we decided to draw on the same strategy employed in the selling of everything in America: desire, by eroticizing political agency in an apolitical moment. The poster needed to be cool, and to intone “knowing.” It needed to be both rarified and vernacular at the same time. It needed to give the impression of ubiquity and to create its own literacy. It needed to insinuate itself into being.
It needed to be advertising.
To support the illusion of a well-funded organization, we decided to use the coated paper stock and dimensions of movie and fashion advertising in the streets of New York and hired a professional wheat pasting service to ensure they would be placed alongside those commercial enterprises. We chose this context to signal an “authorized voice,” and to hint at resources and a level of political organizing which were yet to exist.
The font was on trend. The black background carved its own space in the urban clutter of commercial advertising and intentionally drew on an MTV aesthetic —new at the time—squatting on design trends as a way of “influencing influencers,” tapping into the advertising strategy of relying on the primal appeals of “belonging.”
The poster was designed to capture its audience at two distinct points of encounter. For the cross-class audiences from the outer boroughs who might experience Manhattan from a taxi, car, or bus, the tagline was declarative, provocative, and meant to stimulate inquiry. The font was chosen for maximum visibility from a moving vehicle, within the narrow topography of the poster.
For members of Manhattan’s LGBTQ communities, our actual primary target, there were two running lines of modifying text only discernable on an intimate encounter. The poster was about complicity, at all levels, but it also needed to inspire action. So, this part of the text was staged in the interrogative to force the audience into dialogue with it, and we chose to be politically broad in order to empower audiences at varying levels of politicization and of undetermined class, gender, and race.
The opening rhetorical question, “Why is Reagan silent about AIDS?” simultaneously signified the conservative political climate, coupled him to the word “death” in the slogan, and gave the reader temporary distance from their own culpability, allowing the reader to pivot internally in resistance to lethal government silence.
The primary goal was to superimpose a presumption of solidarity and set the stage for a collective response, so the text below was less concerned with the specifics than with priming the pump for activist engagement. It was meant to be the first in a series. It asked the viewer to question the political, social, and economic subtexts relating to drug research and epidemiology, and the influence of religion over public health policy. It then moved toward an activist response, ending with the phrase, “Turn anger, fear, grief into action.”
We realized any single photographic image would be exclusionary in terms of race, gender, and class, and opted instead to activate an LGBT audience through agreed upon queer iconography. So we reviewed the existing symbols. We felt the rainbow flag lacked gravitas. The Labrys might not be discernable to gay men. The Lambda had class connotations. And while we initially rejected the pink triangle because of its links to the Nazi concentration camps, we eventually returned to it, inverting the triangle and changing the pink color to a hotter fuchsia.
It took us 6 months to finalize Silence=Death. We argued about issues, images, and fonts. We pored over press clippings and source material. We studied the work of other collectives like the Guerilla Girls, who managed to compact complex messages into smooth one-liners.
We put the poster to bed in December of 1986. We started wheat-pasting it in February of 1987, just weeks before the formation of the AIDS activist organization, ACT UP. We hoped the poster might stimulate some kind of collective action, but we were unprepared for what was actually coming. In a way, ACT UP was the response we had dreamed about, but it was also more than we had hoped for. So we decided to “open” our consciousness-raising collective to include ACT UP and ultimately folded our ongoing collective work product into the organization.
While entirely unintended, the Silence=Death image casts a very long shadow for activists in search of their own voices. So the point of sharing the backstory of this creation serves as a reminder that this image didn’t create ACT UP: ACT UP created Silence=Death. Political posters do not define the movements they come to represent; they are catalytic components of them, and simply set the stage for political agency to coalesce. It is the political action, the agency, the collective engages men that transforms our social landscape. Focus on that first, and the poster will follow.
Avram Finkelstein is a founding member of the Silence=Death and Gran Fury collectives. He has work in the permanent collections of MoMA, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The New Museum, and The Brooklyn Museum. He is featured in the artist oral history project at the Smithsonian Institute’s Archives of American Art, and his book for UC Press, After Silence: A History of AIDS Through Its Images, is due out in November 2017. He curated the exhibition Found at LLM in spring 2017.