More Life: A Conversation with Artist and Activist Avram Finkelstein About a New Series @ David Zwirner
Avram Finkelstein got together with Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chirs Leone and Jorge Socarras to share a shrouded, griping grief about friends and partners lost to AIDS. As the months passed, they decided to “Turn anger, fear and grief into action” in the form of a powerful poster that thundered, “Silence=Death.”
On the 40th anniversary of the CDC’s public acknowledgement of the HIV/AIDS crisis, David Zwirner presents More Life, starting June 24th, with work from the Silence=Death Collective, as well as two films, Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied and Derek Jarman’s Blue, accompanied by several of his paintings, at the 19th Street location. In addition, the East 69th venue will present Mark Morrisroe’s photographs organized by photographer, Ryan McGinley. And, across the pond, actor and writer Russell Tovey has curated works by Hugh Steers at the London Gallery.
The AIDS crisis was and is a universal crisis. There were 28,813 new infections in the US in 2019, and the memory of lost lives can’t be quantified. I think of “Who lives, who dies, who will tell my story” the song at the end of Hamilton. A universal crisis, but so many personal stories. “I was on the wait list for Cooper Union," artist and activist Avram Finkelstein said to me. "It was free, so there was no question I would go there— until I realized there were so many people ahead of me. My mother and I went to visit the Museum School. It was open 24 hours a day. What I saw were people churning out posters for all the university demonstrations against the Vietnam War. I saw people sleeping in the hallways, every studio alive with squeegees in action and posters drying on the floor. I said, ‘This is where I’m going.”
I had the pleasure of talking with Finkelstein about art, activism and his story.
Gwynned Vitello: I’m thinking of 1980, and at the time I was working in the Mayor’s Office in San Francisco when Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated. In the years that followed, under Dianne Feinstein, we were immersed in the Aids crisis. I didn’t realize that it took so long for New York to get activated.
Avram Finkelstein: That gives me insight into how you are approaching this conversation.
Let’s start with your situation at the time and how it galvanized you.
If you live your life wide open, you follow your nose, it generally leads you somewhere. Don, the man I was building my life around started showing signs of immunosuppression in 1980-81. It was a different environment that you describe in SF where people were dealing with it. New York was quietly suffering, and everyone was suffering.. It wasn’t until the middle of the decade that people started coming out about it, which is shocking when you think about it. In hindsight, you think about Act Up and Aids activism, you might think it all exploded, but that isn’t what happened. It was a slow motion train wreck
Jorge Socarras was an old friend of mine who wrote and made music. He, in fact, created work covered by Aretha Franklin, for example. I introduced him to Don, who was on that career path and very interested in new music. I thought he and Jorge should meet. This reminds me of an interview I recently heard with Cher, where she talked about the difficulty of going back to touring in terms of getting working and insuring an audience. Don had sworn me to secrecy about his condition, mortified that he would never be able to sing or go back to work if anyone knew. After Don died, Jorge and I made a plan to have dinner together, and that’s when he confided how his collaborator, who lived in San Francisco and was Sylvester’s music director, had died a few years before. We were at the beginning and people just didn’t know what to say or how to say it.
Yes, there was so much fear and so many deaths were attributed to pneumonia.
At dinner he brought a friend of his, who incidentally, was the opposite of Jorge. Oliver Johnston was a Southern dude, wore a bow-tie and statement socks and to me seemed very conventional. The three of us started talkinig and we realized we needed to find ourselves a Queer space where we could explore the reality of living in the age of Aids. Because I came from a political background I suggested we do something based on the very successful feminine consciousness raising model. We would each invite one person that the others didn’t know in order to create some political tension so each of us would grow from it. That’s how this unnamed collective that went on to produce the Silence= Death poster was formed.
Based on your family background, your political background, you were very organized. It’s important that there was so much thoughtfulness and organization, in addition to your background in graphic design, but I’m thinking that, at this point, the impetus was initially your need to have community.
Correct. We had weekly meetings that there were potlucks, just like all the feminine collectives I knew. At the beginning of every conversation we talked about our fears, anxieties, hopes ... our despair. But every conversation ended up talking about the politics of Aids, so this was a political collective, not an art collective. I realized that we had something to say and were concerned with the political questions. Because of my history as an activist in NYC in the 60s, because we were concerned that people needed to communicate about things not being discussed in mainstream media outlets, we posted stuff in the streets. I suggested that we do a poster, so that’s how the idea of what became "Silence=Death" poster began. We worked on it for nine months.
Given your background, I’d have guessed it would have more of a Soviet Constructivist style, more pictorial. This is a very stark statement about an emotional subject. How did you arrive at the image?
When I say we worked on it for nine months, you should know that we were talking about other things, it was a part of our conversation. We didn’t spend each meeting working on the poster,but it was a part of every meeting.
Was there political organizing, too?
We were consciousness raising, discussing our own view of the world. And during that process, Oliver Johnson came out as having tested positive. He was the first and only member of the collective to die from Aids. He was going blind and chose to deny medication. Basically, he took his own life because he couldn’t bear the idea, as a graphic designer, of not being able to see.
So the first poster idea came as a response to William F. Buckley’s really chilling op-ed piece in the Times (for readers who don’t know, you can google William F. Buckley editorial in the Times, 1986.) He proposed tattooing people with HIV on their butts if they were Gay and on their arms if they wre IV drug users. We were so appalled, so horrified as we talked about this as a subject. We thought, “If, indeed, we were to photograph such a tattoo, what gender is the body, what color is the body?” We immediately decided we had to do something pictographic in order to include all the questions that were there but not yet being discussed. That’s how we ended up with the pink triangle. We went from every easily understood code for what, at the time, we the called the Lesbian and Gay community, every pictographic symbol that the community would understand as a poster aimed at them. We rejected each image. Although we started with the pink triangle (which the Nazis had used to brand gay me during the Holocaust), we felt like there were intonations of victimhood that we didn’t want. We rejected it and went through the lambda, the labry, the rainbow flag. We became so disgruntled about not liking any of the symbols that we thought of creating a new one, but realized that would take a couple of years. So we went back to the pink triangle - reluctantly. We brightened the color. One of the members, Chris Leone, swore the triangle faced upward. Oliver Johnston, the graphic designer doing the layout, offered to research that. He didn’t, so we ended up printing it that way!
I brought it to queer news outlets in NYC, bars and gay bookstores (there were only 2!) Different Light put it in their window immediately, but the Oscar Wilde bookstore declined, saying “No, it’s ahistoric, the direction of the triangle is incorrect. We will not put it in the window. It’s upside down.” We were then faced with the question, before we wheatpaste it, of whether we should keep it?. We were faced with, okay, do we change it, correct it? Or do we keep it? We were so uncomfortable with it, to begin with. At the time, during the 70’s there was this new age thing about the upward pointing triangle as empowering. We decided to just go with it.I recently found out that Marshall MCluhan’s book was originally supposed to be The Medium is the Message. Massage was an accidental typo but, liking the play on words, decided to keep it when he saw the galley.
In terms of the direction of the triangle, I think your accidental “choice” is more intriguing than an upward pointing pyramid.
It would have been a completely different poster with different meanings. In the past decade, scholars have become more interested in its history, and I have done more interviews on this set of questions. I’m not sure why it’s back on the table. Is it the international rise of white supremacy? I’m not sure why.
And the choice of hot pink is important. I remember how popular it was at the time.
Fuschia and black! They were the colors of the moment, the beginning of MTV, the colors of New York at the time in art, music and fashion circles - hot pink and black. We wanted this sort of stealth idea of wheatpasting the poster in commercial spaces where you would not normally see a political entreaty that was this power packed. We did it to use the power of language against itself, to disarm the viewer, who was used to seeing ads for local shows or fashion brands, to see this punch in the face. To see what was happening in New York, what was happening in secret. If we put it on lampposts and did our own graffiti campaign, it would not have had the same impact. We wanted to appropriate the voice of authority. We used coded stock. It was the same size as advertising posters. There were only two outlets in NYC who did wheatpasting - and you had to pay.
That was astounding to me.
Yeah, it’s astonishing. I’m a copious notetaker and I have notes from my conversation with the wheatpaster. You paid by the neighborhood and the amount of time you wanted it to be up because people wheatpaste over and they wash down. They gave an estimate of how many posters you needed for each neighborhood for coverage and the time. It cost more to wheatpaste each poster than to print them.
And you had to find the right wheatpaster who knew the neighborhood!
Yeah, I actually followed them around one night to see how they worked before I approached them. They worked from a flatbed truck with stacks of posters and could work above the construction sites easily with the handle and the roller. I wondered if they would reject the project because of the content, but they were fine.
Because it was transactional?
They were either open-minded or it was just a project. Years later, after we had done a billboard for the subways in Berlin, “When a government turns its back on its people, is it civil war?”, we wanted to reproduce it in NYC, but Gannett, who owned the billboards there at the time, rejected it.
How long did it take for the poster to catch fire?
This is the thing I always say about it. There were just six of us and we made this poster which was intended to be the first in a series that would call for increasingly radical responses. Two weeks after it showed up in New York, Act Up formed. So in a way, if Act Up hadn’t formed at that moment, the poster might have come and gone in the night. But since we were meeting every week, when I heard that Larry Kramer was speaking at the community center, I said to the collective, let’s meet there. So we became very integral. I was voted as a representative in the coordinating committee. and we became very involved with them. I suggested making buttons as a fundraiser but the person in charge of fundraising was very reluctant about that. I said I’d pay for them!
Why would anyone be reluctant about buttons?!
Well, there’s this myth about Act Up that it was this media savvy world. There were people in it who were, but it was really people from everywhere. There were very few from advertising, communications or art. So the person who headed fundraising had come straight from the Airforce. I wanted to sell the buttons at the Aids walk so that money could fund fliers for the next demonstration. My objective was to encourage more activists in the City to wear this image and spread the message.
You were organized, but I guess the two groups were more effective, more powerful together.
Most of the people I worked with in Act Up were fellow organizers, people who thought strategically, and most of those came out of the feminist health movement. Most of my friends in Act Up were women, so I saw it as more than a white male movement. There were a lot of white dudes, but women and people of color were invisibilized. It obliterates the fact that everything about its tenets were based on the the feminist health movement. I felt very strategically about every tactic. Even if there were fewer women, they were widely influential. Larry Kramer was indicative of a lot of people who thought that images like that just fell from the sky, not realizing how hard the collective worked on these initiatives.
My perception is that your background in writing, as someone who values the weight of words, contributed to the impact of the messaging. I remember that Hope seemed to resonate more than Progress in the Shepard Fairey poster of Obama.
Words are essential. We live in an image culture. Words and images can work independently, but when they can interlock and when they do, they are golden. On the weekends I watch entertainment, let’s call it, but I watch at least five hours a day of news, and when I do, I’m picking apart every word. And now when I watch broadcasts and everyone Zooms, I look at their bookshelves and I’m wondering, ok, should I be taking this person seriously? Why are there more decorative objects than books? Why is Ashley Parker, who is one of the most incisive and poetic reporters, have her books organized by color?
That’s a strange way to honor words, isn’t it? And distracting! So speaking of text, tell me more about your intention for activation? Were you also trying to reach the decision makers, as well as victims,(or potential victims?
The text is bifurcated intentionally. The big text, Silence=Death is meant to be seen, say, from across the street or a moving vehicle, from the bus if you’re local, or if you’re from the outer burroughs, from a cab (people with money.) This was meant to draw you in and imply that we were completely organized and well funded - even though there were only six of us! But the subtext, meant for the Gay and Lesbian community, which we called it at the time, is in such small letters that you have to step into it. The first line is interrogative and asks a series of questions; the second line was a series of activations. So the very gesture is performative. You are physically involved in what you are reading, stepping into the poster. Without even realizing it, you are automatically activating your agency. So it was both, meant to have two different levels of address.
Later, after Act Up was formed, when we realized we were not going to wheatpaste again,we cropped the text off the bottom. So, the poster has a few different versions. We have done a limited edition for the David Zwirner show based on the original poster, which originally had more square dimensions. Then we elongated it. Later when we did the AIDSGATE posture, we made it the same size so they could be wheatpasted on both sides of a placard. The print is supercool and we’re finishing the final edit this weekend.
How long did your group stay together? Did you work in tandem with Act Up?
Oliver, Chris and I became very absorbed in Act Up. When Oliver began losing his sight, it was about the same time that Bill Olander at the New Museum offered their windows to Act Up and I was the conduit. So I organized the installation Let the Record Show which led to the formation of Gran Fury, which included several of my friends. Grand Fury formed after several members worked on the window. I left the Silence=Death collective to join Grand Fury in early 1998 and Oliver died in 1990.
So much of your fervor must stem from your family.
It’s always been my life. I was brought up as a political activist and was raised to think of the world politically. My parents met at an international workers’ summer camp; the Rosenbergs came to this utopian artists community where we had many friends. I was raised that way, but it wasn’t until Don got sick that I connected my political self to my Gay self. And I think that the connection was combustible. I’m a life long activist, and as a Jew, I always sleep with one eye open. Because I know that as a Jewish, lefty Queer, my people, in one way or another, have been chased all over the globe; I know that that any rights that are given can be taken way. The Jews were practically exterminated, which is why I didn’t get a tattoo until it was decided that you could be buried in a Jewish cemetery with a tattoo because of the camps. I’m an atheist, I was raised as one; but I figured, hey, if I’m the last Jew, damnit, I’m going to be buried in a Jewish cemetery! I think there is a genetic cellular memory of the Holocaust, of strife and marginaliztion that has been a driving force in addition to being raised the way I was.
As I think of the poster as a method of activation, I wonder about how to motivate folks about climate change. It’s a different sort of slow trainwreck, but it’s happening.
I’ve been asked this many times, and I have two things to say: People are waking up, and the reason is that there is clear physical evidence. It’s like police reform and what happened to George Floyd, seeing the video with your own eyes. Rodney King was video from afar, but with Floyd you have close-up video, and it’s very different. Now you have the flooding and the fires, we are past the point of branding in that regard. It can’t be equated to the early days of Aids. A global crisis is very different from a regional one and it’s easier to put language to regionalism because the vernaculars differ. So the images of the glaciers melting and polar bears on spits of land, those are the images. In the same way as BLM, if you look critically as I do about everything, what you see is hand drawn on the lid of a cardboard box, a hand drawn message. It is a movement that is a critique of late capitalism - and it belongs on an Amazon box; it doesn’t need to have a slick poster made to imply power. It needs human life and human agency to activate its power. The Silence= Death collective met at the beginning of BLM because a lot of the signs said white silence equals violence, and we wanted to help. But then, we thought, no, we do not need to colonize the work of activists who are doing a brilliant level of organizing. They do not need us to weigh in.
The way privilege works is a one way mirror; you think everyone has what you have when you’re looking in the mirror., and that’s not the way it works. It’s not a mirror, it’s a one-way glass, and on the other side people are seeing the world differently than people who are privileged do. It’s important not to colonize activism when it’s working. For white people to go in and speak for communities of color is, in a way, an act of colonization.
Yes, that’s really loaded. How much is about ego and how much is about the cause?
I supported the Black Panther Party. I was born into a family with people of color. Back then I realized when and how to listen and when and how to participate. It’s difficult for a lot of people who don’t have that experience.I recently curated a series of public works and the artist Dred Scott, who privileged us by doing a new work for it, a street level billboard that said White People Can’t Be Trusted With Power, so he put it on instagram and instagram censored it. He then approached them and they said it wasn’t us, it was the algorithm. So he put a post saying “instagram's algorithm censored me.” They censored that and he posted that! Then people put Trump posters on the physical piece to obscure it. He posted that and it was taken down. I haven’t posted about Dred’s piece because he’s doing that on his own. I don’t need to own any piece of it. It’s Dred’s piece. Curating that work is one of my proudest moments. The need to be heard is not a frailty of mine. I’m okay with other people steering the car.
I see the horizon, and because of the work of activists of color and the presence of intersectionality in every single discipline, academic and commercial; the presence of intersectionality, feminism and the changing demographics of America have contributed to a light on the horizon I never thought I would see. I know I’m speaking from a position of privilege but I feel like we’re heading toward the world I have been waiting my whole life to live in and I’m perfectly happy not being in the front row.
I worry about what looks like tribalism, but we hve to keep an eye on the prize. I’d like to think we are all becoming more informed.
People are obsessed with the political swing from the Left to the Right, but I think of progress more like a spiral that is drilling through the hegemony. Sure, sometimes it goes left and goes right, but it’s also going forward. There are certain things that happened in the past that can never happen again, there are certain bells that can’t be unrung. I think that political agency and activism is a lifelong pursuit. And to think of it as an objective that has an end, where you take a certain set of steps and things change and then you’re good, is a misapprehension based on capital. It’s a sense of valuation of political agency that is skewed and not useful.
No, that’s not the natural life cycle.
People pick it up and sometimes they do better and sometimes they do worse. One of the things about this set of exhibitions that Zwirner is doing that is bold and comprehensive is opening space for a counternarrative to the dominant narrative by giving voice to artists and helping us see artists who are known for one thing and showing another side, like Marlon Riggs Tongues Untied changed my life when I saw it back during the Aids crisis. The fact that it shouldn’t be part of our understood cultural vernacular is unthinkable. The attempt in this series of shows is to reconsider the dominant narrative that suits power structures, the dominant narrative of Aids being about a beleaguered community that fought for their lives, demanded access to drug treatments, which were developed and lives were saved. That narrative is partly what happened, and it supports the power structures, but ignores the fact that the pharmaceutical companies were thrilled that we were asking for expedited drug approval and the burgeoning marketplace for these drugs. To just look at Aids activism as this heroic story of proof that democracy works misses all the intricate things that are hiding in the shadows.
This show is not a travelling immersive van Gogh where you sit and look up at the ceiling. It requires some introspection.
One of things I’m most excited about this part of the show, which is two galleries, is that there are vitrines of materials which have never been seen and from artists who have never been seen, as well as representations from other collectives; some old work, some new work. It creates a broader context. It’s a little wonky, there will be things on the wall. And yes, it will be pretty.
That reminds me of the Aids Quilt, which is very approachable. You have a square in the quilt.
I was dating Simon Doonen from Barney’s, who was making a quilt square for his boyfriend who had died, and we talked so much about our losses when we met, he encouraged me to make a square. It was typical of the kindness that he has always shown, and he made sure it was included. The funny thing about the quilt is this question of whether that was activism, where Act Up was plainly activist. It’s a question that plagues people, but that’s indicative of the balkanization in an image culture in the way ideas are translated which is lateral. The image landscape is many things; it’s not just text, it’s many gestures and actions, individual and collective. The first time the quilt was fully rolled out on the great lawn in DC was the simultaneous ashes action of Act Up where we threw the ashes of people who had died of Aids over the fence of the White House. We thought there might be tension as we passed the quilt because people were there morning in a different way, that it would be considered a throw down. By the time we got to the White House, it went from 25 people to hundreds of people from the quilt, who joined us. I think it’s a false idea that activism of one kind can’t join another kind of activism.
Like separating so-called peaceful protest from “noisy” protest.
Or my Queer identity from my Jewish identity. It doesn’t function that way. Part of communicating in public spaces is something primeval that isn’t just the appeal of images, it’s the emotional chord you strike in doing so successfully. We designed Silence=Death, but it was created by the people who responded to it. If we hadn’t spent 8 or 9 months packing it with codes, built it and pulled it apart a hundred times and argued about it, there wouldn’t have been such a response. But it was the people who responded to it who created it. It’s the idea of ownership. We didn’t need to own it. We needed people to use it. That’s why it’s in the public domain.
You could have a lot of cooks in the kitchen, planning and making this fabulous recipe, but ...
It’s one thing to cook it; if you don’t have people over, no one’s going to eat and enjoy it.
On the wait list for Cooper Union, it was free, so there was no question I would go there. but so many people were ahead of me. So my mother and I went to the Museum School, it was open 24 hours a day ,and they were turning out posters for all the university demonstrations against the war. I saw people sleeping in the hallway and posters drying on the floor. Every studio had people with squeegees and I said, this is where I’m going. Mom did cancer research in the 60s and her office was stacked with scientific americans, literally like a monument valley that you had to navigate around there was a huge reverence for knowledge, but father tooks us out every Sunday and took us to museums.