Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds /Milk Tea Alliance

ACT UP: Seven Lessons in Art and Activism

Text by Miss Rosen Posted
Illustration © Avram Finkelstein originally published at HUCK magazine

Legendary ACT UP founding member Avram Finkelstein combined art and activism to combat the AIDS crisis. Here, he shares the invaluable lessons he’s learned.

During the early years of the AIDS crisis, when an HIV positive diagnosis meant certain and gruesome death, Avram Finkelstein became a pivotal figure in ACT UP, the direct action advocacy group that worked tirelessly to combat U.S. government silence around the disease.

“Power structures count on our silence, but that doesn’t mean we’re obliged to give it to them,” Finkelstein remembers. “Raising your voice is a tremendous threat, and it’s the only threat you ever have to make.”

As co-founder of the collective Silence = Death and member of the art group Gran Fury, Finkelstein worked tirelessly to raise awareness and fight the power through a powerful combination of art and activism. “When words and images are combined, their power increases exponentially,” Finkelstein explains. “We thought: Why not just sell political agency the same way everything else is sold to us?”

During his years in the trenches, Finkelstein kept a journal documenting his work, which became the basis for After Silence: A History of AIDS Through Its Images (University of California Press). “I wrote After Silence so activists in the middle of the 21st century might be able to reinvigorate the political lessons these images contain, and see them as acts of strategic resistance that relate to struggles we have yet to imagine,” Finkelstein reveals.

Here, Finkelstein shares tips for artist-activists working today to fight the power.

AIDSGATE,  The Silence = Death Project, 1987, poster, offset lithography



“Effective communication means understanding your audience. In mixed-use public spaces, pay attention to regional vernaculars. Humour is the fastest way to draw an audience in. Avoid political jargon, unless academia is your target audience. We live in an image culture, so you already know how they work. Pay close attention as you scroll through that state-of-the-art computer in your pocket, your smartphone.”


“You’re an activist, not Apple. Big audiences and dramatic gestures are one way to move the boulder up the hill. But don’t discount actions that inspire activism in someone else. They might be the individual the pushes the boulder over the top.”

Read My Lips (men’s version)s, Gran Fury, 1988, poster, photocopy on paper, ACT UP, Spring AIDS Action 1988.



“If you’re posting agitprop in public spaces, travel in packs. Each social space has different rules of engagement and research will help you determine the level of risk. If it’s illegal to wheat paste posters, plan on two people to post it (one to brush, the other to place the poster and smooth it), plus one to look-out for the authorities, and one to observe from across the street and call a lawyer or track you through the system if anyone is picked up.”


“The political agency is yours. Seize it. If you ask for permission for a political act, the answer will always be no.”


“Collectivity is everything. There is no idea that can’t be improved by multiple brains.”

Silence = Death,  The Silence = Death Project, 1987, poster, offset lithography.

The Government Has Blood On Its Hands, Gran Fury, 1988, poster, offset lithography, ACT UP, FDA Action.

Read My Lips (women’s version), Gran Fury, 1988, poster, photocopy on paper, ACT UP, Spring AIDS Action 1988.

Women Don’t Get AIDS, They Just Die From It, Gran Fury, 1991, bus-stop shelter sign. Public Art Fund, New York. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Courtesy of  the New York Public Library.

Sexism Rears Its Unprotected Head, Gran Fury, 1988, poster, photocopy on paper, ACT UP, Spring AIDS Action 1988. Courtesy Fales Library, New York University.

The Four Questions, Gran Fury, 1993, poster, offset lithography.

Art Is Not Enough, Gran Fury, 1988, poster, offset lithography, For the Kitchen, New York.

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This entry was posted on 2017/12/14 by .


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