A History of Silence

The story behind the AIDS crisis’ most iconic poster

By Avram Finkelstein|November 27, 2019 12:00 AM


The last fight I ever had with my father, was [after] a friend of mine had just taken his life in the early days of the AIDS crisis. And I was out at the beach staying with a friend. My dad lived on the North Shore (Long Island, New York) and he came down to console me. And we were talking about ACT UP and the work I was doing. And he gave me this, like, old lefty thing—he was a Bolshevik—and he said, “You know, I really love what you’re doing, Av, but there will never be a revolution in America so long as there’s television.”

I said, Listen, this is the last time we’re having this conversation. I have two choices: I can do nothing—and I know what happens if I do nothing. People continue to die. Or I can try something. Maybe it will work, and maybe it won’t. And if it doesn’t work, I’ll try something else. And maybe less people will die. So, we’re never having this conversation again. It doesn’t matter whether there will be a revolution. People are dying. There really isn’t a choice. If you look at it that way, there is no choice.

The thing that really kick-started our thinking about the content for the Silence=Death poster was William F. Buckley Jr.’s op-ed [1]piece calling for the tattooing of the HIV-positive people. Half of our collective was Jewish, and we were horrified by that. So [that] was going to be the first subject of the poster. But, as we began to explore what the image would be, we realized, Okay, so what gender is the body that tattoo is on? What race? We knew that questions of race and gender were very much a part of where we were heading, although no one was really talking about it yet. So we decided to choose a pictographic image to avoid the questions of representation. And that’s how we ended up with the pink triangle.

Avram Finkelstein (From ‘ACTIVIST’ © KK Ottesen)

There was something extremely performative about this poster. This kind of trickster, Yippie idea of forcing people to confront political questions without their maybe even realizing that that’s what’s happening. The design problem posed to the collective was, I felt it needed to function on two different levels. One was to imply to everyone outside of the communities who needed to organize that we already were completely organized and well-funded. And to everyone within the communities, we needed to create some Socratic space for people to begin to think politically about the issue—not just in terms of caregiving.

So the slogan Silence=Death was in very big font. And we chose that font—Gill Sans Serif Extra Condensed—because it could be read from a car or a cab or a bus for people who were passing through New York, as a way to imply there were more of us and we were better-organized than we were. And all of the questions we were trying to get people within the gay community, and in particular in lower Manhattan, to think about were in a much smaller point size. So, you’re forced to step up to it. This is what I mean by performative. In the choice of the point size, we are already making you, making the audience, create a physical gesture: Move their body toward the [posters]. But it’s the first action that you’re taking. You didn’t know it. We made you do it. But you’re here, reading a political poster now.

The poster was meant to be the first in a series of three, that would eventually call for riots. But ACT UP happened within weeks of the poster going up in New York. The only person in New York talking about the politics of AIDS was Larry Kramer; he was the catalyst. And we had begun to articulate something that people were thinking. Social movements are delivered on our doorstep, they’re described to us, and then they become a part of our history. It seems like a flash fire. But it wasn’t. It was a slow-motion train wreck. So Silence=Death didn’t make ACT UP. ACT UP didn’t make Silence=Death. AIDS activism wasn’t made by Larry Kramer. It was made by five years of endless suffering. I think it’s really important to remember that because, if you look at this moment, and you think, “Why aren’t people in the streets?” Well, you don’t know what’s happening tomorrow.

We were invited into the art world. And I didn’t want to participate. I was sort of hellish about it in the context of the collective, and tormented them and was very doctrinaire about it. But I felt it would be politically retrograde to discuss my own relationship to the AIDS crisis and my own relationship to loss when people were fighting for their lives. Why would I talk about people I had already lost? Even though it was completely motivated by personal loss. I fell in love with somebody who was diagnosed very early and started showing signs of immunosuppression. We had been together about six years when he died. And I was so distraught by that loss that I formed the collective. We met every week, and did, like, a lesbian potluck dinner, and talked and cried and fought and argued; talking about politics, putting one foot in front of the other.

But I felt that if people were talking too much about us as a collective and our political motivations for making our work, rather than what we were saying, that people would do that thing, like, “Oh, thank God somebody’s doing something about that. They’ve got that covered.” And maybe put their feet up a little. So I never went on any installations. I never accepted any of the awards that we were given. I never did any overseas travel. I knew that them flying one more person over, that money wasn’t going to go into AIDS research. But, I didn’t feel ethically that I wanted to participate in it while people were literally dying in hospital corridors and being thrown out of their houses and being put in body bags because their parents wouldn’t take their remains. It just—it was a terrible moment. And I didn’t want to participate in anything that would begin that part of the story arc: Something’s being done about it. I was just thinking about the next poster.

I think we make this mistake about political agency and efficacy. We’re so trained to think that if it’s not a million-person march, you feel like you’re a failure. There’s something very male about that set of constructions. But what about the invisible thing that may impact one person? That, without your even knowing it, fifty years from now, will do something that changes the world, right? Why isn’t that enough?

Excerpted from Activist: Portraits of Courage [3]by KK Ottesen, published by Chronicle Books, 2019

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