New York

ACT-UP

New Museum

At a time in the post-Modern discourse when the political and the esthetic are all but separate, the window installation Let the Record Show . . . by ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) has been especially welcome. Throughout history, political groups have continually made use of art as a means of disseminating their ideology, for art has never been beyond the reach of a cause, sympathetic or otherwise.

ACT-UP is a radical, grass-roots, positive-action organization dedicated to developing political and medical justice during the AIDS crisis. This nonpartisan New York group meets weekly to plan ways of combatting the “silence” and/or hostility with which the highest representatives of the United States government have addressed the issue. The visually striking multi-media work combined electronic media, photography, sculptural elements, and text in a visually forceful presentation of facts and statistics, a show-and-tell display that targeted the powers-that-be in their desperate struggle to avoid coming to terms with the deadly disease that takes its victims twice—once with stigmatization and then again with death. Let the Record Show . . . worked in the best tradition of art/agitprop in that the requirements of both categories were wholly and intelligently satisfied.

Taking advantage of its 24-hour-a-day accessibility and its prominent location—the window of a cultural institution on one of SoHo’s busiest street’s—its tactic was to draw in and then to educate a broad cross-section of people. Centered in the upper, arched part of the window was a large neon sign consisting of the by now familiar banner headline “SILENCE = DEATH” beneath a pink triangle (the insignia that the Nazis imposed on homosexuals in the death camps), while just below it an electronic LED sign continuously ran AIDS facts and statistics from 1981 to the present. At street level the window was divided into six narrow, open cubicles, each of which featured a cutout of a photosilkscreened head shot and a cast-concrete plaque with a short “engraved” text; behind these was a large-scale photograph of Nazi war criminals on trial at Nuremberg, with the name of that city visible in the lower-right corner. The head shots were of U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, Cory Servass (a member of the Presidential AIDS Commission), an anonymous surgeon, televangelist Jerry Fallwell, columnist William F. Buckley, and a dour-faced President Reagan. They were identified as such on the plaques, which also gave us a short take on the way each of them “addressed” the AIDS situation; individual spotlights illuminated these one at a time in succession.

As the viewer began to read and then to comprehend, an illusory battle between truth and fiction occurred. Is it really possible that supposedly intelligent people in places of authority speak or even think this way? For instance, what is one to make of Servass’ remark “It is patriotic to take the AIDS test and be negative”? More than one of these quotes refer to the controversial issue of AIDS testing; for it is here that many Americans see their refuge—by identifying “the others.”

The strongest invocation of the equation SILENCE = DEATH was in the sixth cubicle, where instead of a quoted statement beneath Reagan’s face and name there was only blank space set off by quotation marks. Let the Record Show . . . recalled the work of Hans Haacke in the way that it let its “guilty” speak for themselves; and in the land of the guilty, it is the silent who are more so. History has proven this, time and time again. Although the work was clearly propagandistic, ACT-UP chose to present certain information and asked us to judge its implications. On the LED sign they stated that there were 25,644 AIDS-related deaths in the United States as of Thanksgiving Day 1987, and projected that “by 1991 more Americans will die from AIDS each year than were lost in the entire Vietnam war.” The social, political, racial, and sociological ramifications of Let the Record Show . . . are absolutely harrowing.

As one spent time in front of the window, it became an alarming testament to our “comfortable” times, as well as a potent criticism of the current art market boom and its collaborative silence. If the task of a work of art is said to be its power to elicit a reaction, then Let the Record Show. . . is a great work. At all hours of the day and night, spectators were seen gathered in front of the window, in small groups and alone. Their reactions and facial expressions were assorted: shock, rage disappointment, shame, curiosity, frustration, misunderstanding, anger, disgust, and hope. It is for this very reason that the not-for-profit world exists—to be thought-provoking and timely, not to mount drawing retrospectives and monumental commodities exhibitions. In the midst of a season belabored with the cries and whispers of plummeting art movements and up-and-coming trends, ACT-UP has helped to put it all in perspective. Let the Record Show . . . proved that it is still possible to be challenging in a visual art context, giving those who mourn the death of art an opportunity to divert their attention elsewhere.

Christian Leigh