The Language of Protest

The AIDS crisis in the 1980s propelled many to take to the streets in anger and protest to rebel against the Reagan government, demanding rights to healthcare, treatment for AIDS, funding, and information. This movement mobilized communities, and in particular the queer communities who were initially the most effected by AIDS. This became a battle to be heard and healed. Fueled by anger and desire, a kind of queer politics. Judith Butler says, “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire.”

So what did this language of protest look like, how was text and image leveled against injustice, against the system of haves and have nots, good and bad, healthy and sick, dead and alive? In fact, this binary language rests in direct contradiction to the queer methods it sought to enforce. Sarah Ahmed notes that a queer phenomenology would involve an orientation toward queer, a way to inhabit the world that gives support to those whose lives and loves make them appear oblique, strange, and out of place and by their very existence, challenging of the binary. So why was the language of the binary used in so much AIDS activism communication?


ACT UP, Silence=Death/Vote, 1988 (1351.2000)

ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power), was founded in 1987 to fight for AIDS treatment and awareness. From the beginning the organization was extremely adept at using the news media, such as its indelible logo—the words Silence=Death printed below a pink triangle on a black background. Silence=Death was a visual icon created by Gran
Fury, ACT UP’s unofficial art propaganda ministers, who used the language of advertising and media. The overt cause-effect, passive-active binary being employed to rally action, and in this case to vote.


Boy with Arms Akimbo, Safe, 1990-91 (1244.2000)


Boy with Arms Akimbo, Unsafe, 1990-91 (1245.2000)

As we see in Safe/Unsafe posters created by Boy with Arms Akimbo, 1991, the same binary device is used to place a spotlight on Louis Wade Sullivan who refused to oppose a law preventing HIV-positive people from entering the US, his smiling face in stark contrast to the entangled gay bodies labelled SAFE.


Nancy Burson and Kunio Nagahima, Visualize This, 1991 (1273.2000)

In Visualize This (1991), Nancy Burson and Kunio Nagahima juxtaposed images with explanatory text that read, “The image on the right is a normal T cell which defends the immune system from infection. The image on the left is an HIV infected T cell.” Visualize This offered a clinical representation of a reality often associated with false stereotypes and prejudices,effectively utilizing the transformative power of scientific imagery and art to inform the general public about AIDS.


fierce pussy, I Am a Stone Butch, 1991-95 (1154.2000)

It is this language of false stereotyping which which the queer movement and AIDS activism in particular has sought to overthrow. This is seen clearly in in the text image by fierce pussy, which in fact celebrates a multitude of assimilations and identity claims.

Perhaps this appropriation of the language of advertising, a semiotics deeply embedded in the the politics of desire, predicated on the have versus have not, employs the binary for the purposes of protest, whilst all the time encouraging one to “watch the line between two frames” as Yvonne Rainer said of Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls. By employing the overt, the need, the injustice, while simultaneously celebrating the unusual, the irreverent, the queer, the language of protest used to such great effect in the AIDS crisis has in fact paved a way for a more complicated view of human, governmental and economic relationships, what Douglas Crimp would call “a kind of model of polymorphous conspiracy” predicated on the
non-coupling of language and ideas.

Bridget de Gersigny, ICP-Bard 2013

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