The New York Times
December 1, 2000
When and How AIDS Activism Finally Found Its
Voice and Power
by STEPHEN HOLDEN
It is a common assumption in these comfortable times that the primary role played by politically activist art in the United States tends to be neurotic, self-dramatizing personal venting. According to this smug, rose-colored view, such art may rarely accomplish anything concrete, but at least it releases the rage of malcontents who make it while validating everyone's personal freedom of expression. In other words, it's a necessary irritant.
But a close look at the videotapes in the Guggenheim Museum's vast and impressive new program, "Fever in the Archive: AIDS Activist Videotapes From the Royal S. Collection," which begins today, suggests otherwise. Most of the work in the show, which is thematically divided into nine afternoon and evening programs through Dec. 9, dates from the late 1980's and early 90's, when AIDS activism was at its furious peak.
It offers a potent reminder of how effective the tactics of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (Act Up) and related organizations were in speeding up the development, testing and manufacture of life-saving drugs and in pushing the government to spend more money on research. These successes came despite the mainstream media's looking askance at AIDS activism and its equivocating way of demonizing people with AIDS in deference to right-wing religious ideologues.
To many, Act Up and its radical, anything-for-attention street actions were simply a nuisance. But as this exhibition demonstrates, Act Up's media-savvy forays into the public arena prodded and shamed the government and drug companies alike into addressing the crisis.
A number of these videos are very specific about the direct effect of a particular action. Eric Slade and Mic Sweeney's 1992 video, "Acting Up for Prisoners," for instance, shows how effective Act Up was in publicizing the shameful health conditions in the California Institute for Women and forcing the state prison system to provide better care for prisoners (many with AIDS).
A guiding principle of Act Up was to engage the media by any means necessary, and one of its slogans (heard in a number of videos) was to announce, "The whole world is watching." Yet seeing the videos of demonstrations at City Hall in New York, at St. Patrick's Cathedral and in front of the White House, one is amazed at how infrequently this material was shown on mainstream television. Act Up was clearly correct in assuming that extreme provocation and street theater were the surest way to glean media coverage - it was too exciting to resist - even if it was scanty and often condescending.
"Doctors, Liars and Women: AIDS Activists Say No to Cosmo" recorded angry protest demonstrations against the Hearst Corporation in 1988 after Cosmopolitan published an article assuring readers that unprotected sex was safe for women. When some of those demonstrators appeared on television later, they were treated with contempt and skepticism. But by keeping their co