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Writings by Robert Atkins

SCENE & HEARD: Day Without Art
Village Voice, December, 1989

What may prove to be the most significant event of A Day Without Art -- the December 1 day of public actions by 700 art institutes in response to the AIDS crisis -- took place in private. National Endowment for the Arts chairman John Frohnmayer met with a 16-member, multi-cultural delegation organized by Visual AIDS, the organization (of which I am a member) that sponsored A Day Without Art. The ad hoc group was a rainbow coalition of artists, arts administrators, curators, AIDS activists, and people with AIDS.

After rejecting a broadly conceived, multipage position paper with questions addressed to him, Frohnmayer -- in a handwritten, faxed memo -- insisted that discussion be limited to "the AIDS crisis and how we can better inform the public of this disease ... and how I and the [NEA's] AIDS working group can be more effective in addressing the crisis." Video artist Branda Miller, who had documented the Artists Space brouhaha as part of her engaged art, was told that she could not videotape the meeting. Press was barred.

In conversation with a dozen note-taking participants, including NEA staffers, a virtual transcript was pieced together. The 90-minute meeting began with a presentation by the NEA's AIDS working group -- the symbolically important, but largely ineffectual, committee organized in 1988. But dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones blew away the chitchat with a bombshell: his company had decided to reschedule its sold-out 7:30 performance at the Kennedy Center in observance of A Day Without Art. "This day should be to us like Memorial Day," he said. "What [AIDS] means is that the light is no longer there; the stage is dark." We'd like to do the performance at 12:01." If this were done, however, the company would not only lose thousands of dollars but would also be in breach of numerous contracts with the Kennedy Center and labor unions, and Jones wanted the NEA's support that day in negotiating the potentially treacherous legal thicket.

By all accounts, Jones's stirring announcement helped to set the tone for a frank and forthright meeting. Creative Time executive director Cee Brown moderated what LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) executive director Joy Silverman characterized as "an informational exchange, an education for Frohnmayer about AIDS, contemporary art, and their relationship." Among the points made crystal clear by the delegation were: the ubiquity of AIDS in the art world and the inevitability of sexually charged AIDS imagery in contemporary art; the reality of the double-marginalization of gay or lesbian artists and artists of color dealing with AIDS; the uniquely American nature of the NEA's peer-panel process and the necessity of maintaining its integrity; the history of legislative repression of safe-sex information by Jesse Helms and company; and the model role the NEA might play in such areas as health insurance for artists.

Although Frohnmayer primarily listened, most observers found his responses thoughtful and sensitive -- in vivid contrast to his handling of the Artists Space affair. "I see no evidence that things will quiet down," he was reported to have said. "This is an intolerant society ... and the NEA position is untenable ... The stakes aren't just the NEA ... [The real question is] will this be a repressive society or will it be one of a confrontation of ideas?" He made it clear that he favors the latter.

Only a few specific suggestions were made on December 1: that the NEA draft a stronger message to all grant applicants about AIDS than the one currently received only by grant recipients; endorse the 1990 Day Without Art; include community arts-AIDS specialists in the NEA's AIDS working group; and respond to Bill T. Jones. Toward the end of the meeting, Frohnmayer was said to have observed that "major policy statements and speeches will be coming in mid-January. I hope we would start implementing some of these ideas in a very short time and that we would be a major supporter of this activity [A Day Without Art] next year." Was the meeting worthwhile? As Downtown Art Co. partner Cliff Scott noted, "It was successful from several points of view, but the true test lies in the future. If Frohnmayer acts on what we suggested, then it will have been a success."

Within the NEA, one staffer characterized December 1 as the "most encouraging day since he [Frohnmayer] began as chairman." Its newly energized AIDS working group met three times between December 1 and 6 and has divided into issue-specific subcommittees including health insurance coverage. Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and Company hit the Kennedy Center stage at 12:01 am, December 2, with much of the NEA's program staff in attendance. (They had provided moral support, but not "active intervention," during the preceding day's negotiations, according to a dance program staffer and Sheldon Schwartz, the Kennedy Center's administrator for artistic projects. Jones/Zane company manager Johari Briggs reports that the company stands to lose up to $15,000 for the December 1 postponement. The NEA chairman could provide the money though a "chairman's action" grant.) Whatever the ultimate results of the meeting, Frohnmayer's final reported comment couldn't have been more apt: "We've all got our work cut out for us."

* * *

"Friday was a Day Without Art," announced auctioneer Ernest Quick. "Tonight [Sunday] we're going to sell art to support activism." ACT UP's "Auction for Action" proved a phenomenal success for the hell raising AIDS activists. Sean Strub, who co-organized the December 3 event with Steve Petoniak, reports a net of around $310,000 to $315,000 on a $325,000 gross. "It was such an emotional evening," he beamed. "When Keith Haring's Totem went for $70,000 [against estimates of $25,000 to $35,000], the audience broke into cheers of 'Act Up, fight back.'" An autographed copy of Jesse Helms's book (!) When Free Men Shall Stand was bought by discoteur Chip Duckett, who, according to Strub, promptly took it to Mars (the club, not the planet) and placed it in a urinal ... Art Positive, the art collective affiliated with ACT UP, has released its $13 "Militant Eroticism Calendar."

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A Day Without Art
ARTS magazine, May 1990, p 62

A Day Without Art -- the national day of action and mourning in response to the AIDS crisis -- proved to be anything but a day without art. From Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, at least 700 arts organizations participated in the December 1st event by offering a stunning variety of exhibitions, programs, and actions. Sponsored by Visual AIDS, the New York-based organization of art professionals, this observance of the World Health Organization's AIDS Awareness Day was intended to focus attention on the art community's losses and stimulate discussion about the role artists and art institutions might play in the AIDS crisis. NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer's November 8th announcement that he was rescinding a grant to Artists Space for Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing -- the Manhattan non-profit organization's exhibition-contribution to A Day Without Art -- inadvertently kicked off events several weeks early. At that point, Visual AIDS realized that it was also organizing a national network to help combat AIDS-related homophobia, racism, and calls for censorship.

Dubbed "the biggest AIDS event ever," A Day Without Art was an unexpectedly visible success: national television network and cable coverage was generous -- and vastly exceeded by the hundreds of newspaper articles devoted to the day. Positive attention was focused on persons with AIDS (PWAs) and their supporters at a time when media interest in the syndrome has declined alarmingly. Journalists in Sarasota and Los Angeles who wondered why more local art organizations were not participating initiated sometimes acrimonious public debate. It's difficult to imagine another situation in which middle-class arts professionals might be forced to defend their decision to remain uninvolved in the struggle against AIDS.

But as I meditate on the events of last December 1st, I'm struck most forcefully by the intensity of people's desire to join in. Dozens of organizations became involved at the last minute in a Thanksgiving-week frenzy of activity. Irate members of the theater and dance worlds called to complain that their communities had been excluded from participating. Their more resourceful counterparts acted on their own initiatives; many Broadway theaters went dark for a moment of silence on December 1st and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and Company canceled its sold-out, Kennedy Center dance-performance just hours before curtain time.

How to account for the interest and intensity? A Day Without Art offered a rare opportunity to do something meaningful within the art world that involved more than fund-raising. Levels of AIDS-induced grief, frustration, and anger have mounted, and A Day Without Art was both a reminder of the Himalayan heights to which these emotions have risen and an outlet for their release. Some producers of December 1st programs confided that they hoped that their audiences had found as much satisfaction in the events they had presented as they'd found in planning them. Or as tireless Visual AIDS member Philip Yenawine explained when asked why he'd devoted so much of his time to organizing A Day Without Art: "The meaning was in the doing."

Happily, those widespread feelings of rage and sorrow got translated into frequently moving and effective programs. The beauty of A Day Without Art was that its open structure encouraged mass participation. What follows are snapshot-vignettes that make up a loose and overlapping typology into which many of the activities fall. Although a call for documentation went out, Visual AIDS remains unaware of dozens (hundreds?) of events, especially rituals and performances enacted outside of institutional arenas.

* * *

Many spaces closed for the day; some carried on business as usual behind closed doors, while at others staff members were urged to volunteer at AIDS service organizations. The closures doubtless derived from the fact that Visual AIDS originally conceived of A Day Without Art as a moratorium modeled on the Art Workers' Coalition's 1969 moratorium protesting the Vietnam War. Resistance to such an approach came from two directions: mainstream institutions could not envision their boards of directors going along with the shutdown and organizations of all kinds urged that the day focus on art and education -- and not just symbolism. The name was retained as a metaphor for the chilling possibility of a future day without art or artists.

Hundreds of organizations and galleries (especially commercial galleries) dimmed lights, shrouded -- or removed -- an artwork, or displayed the event's poster alongside a wilting vase of flowers. Although it's easy to criticize the dimming of lights as an insignificant response to a crisis of this magnitude, actions frequently reverberate, inspiring further action.

And taken to dramatic extremes, removals and shroudings proved extremely compelling. The Cleveland and Metropolitan Museums replaced major Picasso paintings (La Vie and the Gertrude Stein portrait, respectively) with AIDS information. Crown Point Press removed all the etchings from the walls of its Manhattan gallery, leaving only a single, framed work on the floor that bore the inscription "Witnesses to our losses." Students from the University of California at San Diego gathered at dawn to shroud Niki de Saint Phalle's 29-foot-high Sun God sculpture in black fabric and augmented this action with an educational ad and poster campaign.

Many universities and art schools made brilliant use of the day to educate students about AIDS, racism, and homophobia. The Iowa Arts Council sponsored an AIDS Awareness poster competition for secondary school students and exhibited the winners in the state capitol. Children's museums in Boston, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Pittsburgh provided programming for children, usually in the form of plays, videos, poster-making and discussions.

The Children's Museum of Manhattan presented the performance What's So Big About AIDS? to an audience of educators on November 30th, and then to its usual kids-constituency on December 1st. One fifth-grade class responded with serious letters to the museum that belied the "kids say the darnedest things" sentimentality in which adults tend to traffick. "I used to think that there were more ways of catching the AIDS virus. Now I know that there are only three," wrote one student. Or -- sadly -- "Thanks to you I know how one of mom's good friends died."

With less than six-months notice, at least forty-five exhibitions devoted exclusively to art about AIDS were mounted. Solo and duo shows seemed to spring up like mushrooms. Brian Weil's evocative photo-portraits of drug users and mothers and children with AIDS were seen at the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The Clocktower in New York presented large-scale exhibitions of work by two artists who had recently died of AIDS: Rod Rhodes' miniature Tableaux and Paul Thek's Technological reliquaries. Other artists who were showcased in one-person exhibitions include Luis Cruz Azaceta, Howard Ehrenfeld, Michael Freed, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Keith Haring, Dan Havel, Louise Lawler, Hillary Leone, Paul Ludick, architect Richard Meier, Ann Meredith, Sam Messer, performance artist Tim Miller, filmmaker Rosa van Praunheim, Judite dos Santos, Nicholas Wilder, and Krzysztof Wodiczko.

Major group shows included the Freedman Gallery's (at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania) Art About AIDS, Artists Space's Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, and the Henry Street Settlement's Images and Words: Artists Respond to AIDS. This New York City show confirmed (for the second time in one month) the likelihood of controversy arising over AIDS-related art. The ostensible issue -- the location of Gran Fury's outdoor banner-installation proclaiming "All people with AIDS are innocent" -- was resolved in time for the show to open on December 1st, although the banner was not yet hanging.

Female Artists Against AIDS presented an evening of dance, music, and art by women at the Hub Club in Boston to benefit a local community health center and to focus attention on the growing number of women with AIDS. In a gutsy curatorial move, First Bank Systems' (now former) arts division director devoted FBS's galleries in Minneapolis, Edina, and Milwaukee to exhibitions inspired by ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) Minnesota. In collaboration with the hell-raising political action group, FBS created installations that both disseminated AIDS information and pleaded for activism.

* * *

A Day Without Art program organizers frequently made connections with activist groups like ACT UP or with AIDS service agencies. A number of benefits for local organizations were staged, including Artists Television Access's Silent Knights, an evening of nearly two dozen silent performances to benefit ACT UP San Francisco. The Howard Yezerski Gallery in Boston presented an exhibition called Paper Prayers, based on the Japanese tradition of offering painted strips of paper as prayers to heal the sick, at which visitors exchanged papers for money that was donated to the Boston Pediatric AIDS Project. Larry Kramer, the driving force behind both ACT UP and New York's Gay Men's Health Crisis (the world's largest AIDS social services agency), read his play, The Normal Heart, at the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

The Kohler Co. had also helped to support the first museum exhibition to document The NAMES Project Quilt, which opened at the Madison Art Center in the spring of 1989. Panels from the quilt -- and other already existing resources such as Video Data Bank's superb, six-hour anthology of Video Against AIDS -- were heavily utilized by numerous art organizations and museums across the country on December 1st. Common Threads, the HBO-produced film based on the Quilt, was screened at the Boston Center for the Arts and the Museum of Modern Art, where it was introduced by AIDS fundraiser extraordinaire, Elizabeth Taylor. At Michigan State University's Museum of Cultural and Natural History, two quilting bees generated twelve NAMES Project quilt panels, which were included within an exhibition devoted to the history of needlework produced as vehicles of social change.

The NAMES Project Quilt had been criticized by some activists as an inappropriate concession to grief and a paralyzing inhibition against political action. Such simplistic thinking persists, although it no longer seems de rigeur. At a time when loved ones and care givers are inhumanely deprived of the opportunity to publicly grieve for those who have died of AIDS, the twin impulses to act and to mourn must be honored. On November 30th and December 1st, memorial observances were held throughout the country, ranging from candle-lit vigils to a short program at the Museum of Modern Art highlighted by the premiere of an original composition performed by Leonard Bernstein. Among those specifically memorialized in exhibitions and installations were Philip Dimitri Galas, Peter Hujar, Richard Irwin, Nathan Kolodner, Cookie Mueller, John McCarron, Bill Olander, Andreas Senser, Sam Wagstaff, and Nicholas Wilder.

In connection with many events planned for A Day Without Art, the mourning-versus-action debate seemed invalidated by the nature of the events themselves. A procession organized by artists in San Francisco combined the imagery of death (a casket, candles) with evocatively abstract placards intended to stimulate interest in the bilingual educational materials the marchers distributed. The Witness Project, "a census of AIDS in the arts" conducted in conjunction with Visual AIDS, is aptly described by its co-chairperson Simon Watson as "a subtle form of activism." Witnesses fill out a simple form testifying to the often invisible deaths of PWAs; the resulting census information will be available to art historians and curators. Bearing witness is the task of survivors and the responsibility of community citizens. (The Witness Project can be contacted at 241 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10012, 212-925-1955.)

Unfortunately, there will be A Day Without Art II on December 1, 1990. Visual AIDS intends to act as an umbrella to publicize AIDS-related activities coordinated by the dance, music, theater, and literary communities. We strongly encourage organizations to work with PWAs and AIDS service providers. The disturbing implications of AIDS cannot be ignored; the attendant homophobia, racism, inequitable health care, and assaults on civil rights must be acknowledged and resisted.

The alternative to such resistance was eloquently characterized by dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones at a December 1st meeting Visual AIDS organized with NEA chairman John Frohnmayer and the agency's AIDS working group. "What [AIDS] means is that the light is no longer there, the stage is dark," Jones said. "This day should be to us like Memorial Day."

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How to Have Art (Events) in an Epidemic: A History of Visual AIDS from Day Without Art to the Red Ribbon
An address delivered at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on December 1, 1992 and adapted for the book Disrupted Borders, edited by Sunil Gupta, River Orams Press, London, 1993

When you reach the answering machine at Visual AIDS's tiny New York office the current message solemnly intones: "This is Visual AIDS -- the creators of Day Without Art, Night Without Art, and the Ribbon Project." During the month preceding Day Without Art, this self-promoting little spiel is partly intended to inform journalists of a few simple -- and apparently easy-confused -- facts: that Visual AIDS is an organization, that Day Without Art is an event, that International AIDS Awareness Day is the World Health Organization's baby, etc.

Visual AIDS formally appeared in the fall of 1988. It was preceded by perhaps six month of informal and sporadic discussions among four gay, white men: myself [Robert Atkins], William Olander (the now deceased, New Museum of Contemporary Art curator), Thomas Sokolowski (the director of New York University's Grey Art Gallery) and Garry Garrels (formerly of the DIA Foundation, and now the Walker Art Center). Between us we'd volunteered and buddied at the Gay Men's Health Crisis, ACTed UP, raised funds for Art Against AIDS, and would continue to do these things after the emergence of Visual AIDS. In our roles as curators and critics, we were also tracking a growing body of artwork about AIDS and trying to give it visibility.

On 1 March 1989, Visual AIDS issued its first release, signed by 35 multi-cultural representatives of New York artist organizations, museums, and AIDS-service organizations. Entitled Visual AIDS: The Art World Organises, the initial, stated goals were modest, but they did lay the foundations for the future. "Our purpose," we wrote, "is to support an ongoing effort ... to encourage, facilitate, and highlight AIDS-related exhibitions and programmes in the non-commercial art world ... We hope to increase awareness and encourage discussion of these programmes and the pressing social issues that AIDS raises within American society." As good art workers we created a slide archive and began to network. That press release ends by noting that: "an idea involving a moratorium has been proposed to about thirty organizations. [It is] tentatively called A Day Without Art."

Our fledgling organization was quickly overwhelmed by Day Without Art. The event revealed the flimsy, ad hoc nature of our enterprise. We chose not to fund-raise for ourselves in the face of the dire shortage of money for People With AIDS, so at first we operated from our homes and workplaces. Then, in fall 1989, from office space in the Clocktower, which was generously provided by PS1, and later in space provided by the Art Matters Foundation. Planning for the first Day Without Art proceeded in the most decentralised fashion. We subtitled Day Without Art "a national day of mourning and action in response to the AIDS crisis." We wanted to encourage -- and link -- both responses but hoped that the less threatening "mourning" might allow for the sometimes more controversial "action." Our inability to co-ordinate a widely-dispersed national effort initially seemed a weakness, but proved to be an advantage. Local responses became the heart of a so-called national event.

The decision of whether or not to participate in Day Without Art catalyzed dozens of alternately inspirational, acrimonious, and invariably educational discussions among trustees of universities and museums about the roles their institutions might play in battling the AIDS crisis. An astonishing number of generally conservative institutions did decide to participate, many due to pressure from staff members.

More than 800 US art and AIDS groups participated in the first Day Without Art. Some spaces closed for the day, while at others staffers volunteered at AIDS-service organizations. Other organizations and galleries dimmed lights, shrouded -- or removed -- artwork and replaced it with AIDS-prevention information. Universities and art schools made brilliant use of the day to educate students about AIDS, racism, and homophobia. Children's museums in Boston, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Pittsburgh provided AIDS programming for kids in the form of plays, videos, poster-making, and discussions. The Iowa Art Council sponsored an AIDS-awareness poster competition for secondary-school students and exhibited the winners in the state Capitol.

With less than six-months' notice, at least 45 spaces mounted exhibitions devoted exclusively to art about AIDS. Video Data Bank's excellent six-hour programme, Video Against AIDS, and panels from The NAMES Project Quilt were widely exhibited. Until 1989, the Quilt had never been shown in a museum.

For that first Day Without Art, solo shows were devoted to AIDS works by Luis Cruz Azaceta, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Louise Lawler, Hillary Leone and Jennifer MacDonald, Ann Meredith, Brian Weil, Krysztof Wodiczko, performer Tim Miller, and film-maker Rosa Van Praunheim, to name just a few whose work might be familiar. Keith Haring painted a 24-foot x 10-foot mural depicting "Viral Images" at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena during the course of the day. (Keith asked that his mural hang in its present location until a cure is found.) Memorial exhibitions commemorated the artists Philip Dimitri Galas, Richard Irwin, Peter Hujar, Cookie Mueller, Rod Rhodes, Andreas Senser, and Paul Thek. The curators and administrators Nathan Kolodner, John McCarron, Bill Olander, the collector Sam Wagstaff, and the dealer-painter Nicholas Wilder were also celebrated and mourned via exhibition.

It is difficult to summarize hundreds of often inventive observations of the day. At one end of the spectrum were artist organizations that (anonymously) donated both people power and expertise in areas like graphics to AIDS service organizations. At its other end were glitzy observations like the Museum of Modern Art's; MoMA screened Common Threads -- the HBO-produced film about the NAMES Project Quilt -- and Elizabeth Taylor introduced it. The previous night MoMA had staged a vigil and programme highlighted by the premiere of an original composition composed and performed by Leonard Bernstein.

At Visual AIDS, we had only the vaguest sense of what would transpire on 1 December and how it would be received. Perhaps what was surprising was that the element of spectacle was largely absent from the individual observations. Nor did AIDS-as-spectacle dominate the copious and supportive press coverage of the day at a time when AIDS seemed to be slipping, once again, from the media front burner. Interestingly, we found that cultural reporters were much better targets for the AIDS information and rationales for the day than their science- and news-reporter counterparts. Even more interesting, journalists at the major daily papers in Sarasota and Los Angeles wondered why more local organizations were not participating in Day Without Art, provoking heated local debate. It's difficult to imagine another situation in which middle-class arts professionals might be forced to defend their decision to remain uninvolved in AIDS struggles.

Visual AIDS's propensity to stimulate debate was first clear a month before A Day Without Art. On 8 November 1989, the then-new National Endowment for the Arts Chairman John Frohnmayer inadvertently kicked off Day Without Art when he announced that he was rescinding a grant to Artists Space for Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, the AIDS exhibition organized by photographer Nan Goldin for Day Without Art. Both censorship and AIDS awareness became issues in this tense stand-off between progressive elements of the art communities and Frohnmayer, who was then busily cosying up to reactionary Senator Jesse Helms.

Because the show was conceived for Day Without Art, Visual AIDS found itself well-sited to intervene. After a concerted lobbying effort, Frohnmayer agreed to hold a 1 December meeting organized by Visual AIDS, that would include HIV positive artists. The meeting resulted in the revitalisation of the AIDS Working Group within the federal agency and NEA directives to its organisational mailing lists about compliance with the Disabilities Act and treatment of HIV-positive staff. It also spurred some ultimately fruitless work by the NEA regarding health insurance reform.

Because Visual AIDS straddled both the AIDS and art worlds, we began to function as a forum, a meeting place for emerging art-AIDS coalitions. We participated in the NEA's 1991 forum on AIDS and insisted that artists with AIDS be included in the meeting. We hosted the NEA's 1992 meeting of funders and art professionals that led to the recommendation to implement the second phase of the Estate Project designed to assist artists with AIDS. In 1991, we organized the World AIDS Day Coalition for the World Health Organization and a spectrum of AIDS organizations, although we ultimately felt that the participants saw us only as a vehicle for enhanced media attention. And of course we worked with the Coalition United for AIDS Action, which organized the AIDS demonstration and rally during the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York.

Visual AIDS received the New York Governor's Art Award for the first Day Without Art. At the black-tie award ceremony at the Metropolitan Museum in June 1990, our acceptor, Philip Yenawine, took the opportunity to chide Governor Cuomo for his lackadaisical approach to the AIDS crisis. At that time, we were also feeling organisational growing pains. Our structure had been democratic-anarchic: we had a steering committee and a meeting chairperson but no officers. Nor were we being offered foundation money. The second Day Without Art approached and overwhelmed us as thoroughly as the first had. Our organisational circle had grown so large that producing more than a couple of mailings each year had become prohibitively costly. In 1990, we urged participating organizations to get beyond the "art ghettos" and out into community -- that is, communities. Urging was all we've ever been able to do and it's hard to know what effect that urging had.

Day Without Art 1990 signified a radical shift within the group. Our artist population increased substantially. This made us a livelier, more spirited bunch, but it sometimes gave us less access to useful contacts and our organisation constituents. Ideas remained our currency and in 1990 we began producing them at a rapid clip. The boundaries between programmes and programmatic artwork began to blur. We operated like an art collective, which I found extremely satisfying. A half-dozen new projects sprang up like mushrooms: Positive Actions: the Visual AIDS Competition was a competition for a temporary public artwork about AIDS to be funded by the Public Art Fund. Entrants were asked to consider these questions: Can art and design make a difference as friends and colleagues confront HIV infection? What can we do as artists and citizens in the public arena to inform, move, inspire, and/or provoke audiences? What sort of physical, social, or political sites would be appropriate for a work about AIDS?

The "Editors' Project" was a way of coercing the normally not very receptive art magazines to do more about AIDS. Ranging from After Image to Artforum, and from Contemporanea to Shift, eleven of them published different fragments of Group Material's AIDS Timeline in their December issues. "Night Without Light" saw the skylines of New York and San Francisco darkened for fifteen minutes and this symbolic observance was repeated throughout the US in 1991 and 1992.

Another project that debuted on 1 December 1990, was the Electric Blanket, an outdoor slide-projection event. Information and statistics about AIDS and photo-images of PWAs were projected onto the side of the Cooper Union in the East Village while bands played. Most of the pictures had been gathered in the neighborhood, making this a very local tribute. The Electric Blanket has been exhibited inside or outside art spaces from Seattle to Hamburg. It continues to travel and is augmented as often as possible with local images. Perhaps the 1990 project with the most audience-potential was Bravo cable network's Moment Without Television, followed by 48-hours of continuous AIDS programming. Bravo's groundbreaking work continues for its third year and has apparently inspired PBS and MTV to wake up and follow suit. Visual AIDS has initiated other artists' programmes, but I know you get the idea. I want to turn to just one other Visual AIDS-instigated project that's not specifically connected with Day Without Art. I want to discuss it because it's quite misunderstood and it's underestimated. Its slyly subversive character is also emblematic of the way Visual AIDS has operated. That project is The Ribbon Project -- which is the way our trademark reads -- but you know it as The Red Ribbon.

The red ribbon debuted on the televised Tony Award Ceremonies in late Spring 1991, and now you can't turn on the television without seeing them. We knew how subversive the ribbon was, when -- a full fifteen months after its creation -- Republican handlers ripped it off Barbara Bush's chest at the 1992 Republican convention in Houston. The ribbon has enabled writers who do think and talk about AIDS to write about it. New York Newsday ran an article titled "Red Ribbon to AIDS Kindness" on 6 October 1992, about the apparently red ribbon-strewn Miss America pageant. Bear in mind that the ribbon is hardly news any more. In fact, one might assume that the ribbon is simply mandatory accessorising at any television event or one might alternately assume that it continues to symbolize AIDS-concern, or both. Certainly people wear ribbons for the "wrong" reasons, just as some people wore Silence=Death buttons for a variety of reasons (occasionally in order to get laid). All the same, I am absolutely convinced that the red ribbon never deterred anybody from doing something more meaningful to end the AIDS crisis.

In any case, I did learn from "The Red Ribbon to AIDS Kindness" article that the new Miss America volunteers in an AIDS hospice, doesn't believe that the Bush-Quayles have done enough to combat the epidemic, and plans to continue to talk publicly about AIDS during her reign. The author ended his column with a stirring denunciation of AIDS-phobia and homophobia. It's unclear to me whether Miss America's or the writer's comments would have appeared before the advent -- or should I say onslaught? -- of the ribbon.

If I've given you the impression that Visual AIDS is largely a sum of its project parts, that's probably not inaccurate. This organisational umbrella-of-a-structure has made it easier to respond to quickly changing AIDS- and media realities. Certainly the one thing we have learned from AIDS-work is that AIDS crises are dynamic. What was needed or useful yesterday is irrelevant or passe today. The ad hoc nature of the group has also allowed for a membership where satisfaction derives from working on a project, rather than simply belonging to an organisation in which 'membership' is, frankly, a bit of non sequitur. Visual AIDS faces what every AIDS organisation faces: Burn-out and the illness of many of our most active members. We also face changes in the art world -- some of them positive. Over the past few years there's been an attitudinal sea-change in the acceptance of tough, AIDS-related content in exhibited artwork. Such works remind us that art's traditional purpose is to teach. And that the anti-didacticism of so much late modernist art is really an anomaly, an exception in Western art's several thousand-years'-long history. Effective, socially-engaged art practices can help save lives. But only if large and vocal elements within the arts communities help ensure their broadest possible reach.

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Text courtesy of Robert Atkins / Layout by Deborah Chow/Pixelcatland

 


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