From the Streets to the Gallery: Exhibiting the Visual Ephemera of AIDS Cultural Activism

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Recent curatorial attention to AIDS cultural activism and its attendant queer and feminist public art practices has highlighted issues surrounding the display of visual ephemera generating questions such as how can materials made for the street be displayed in a gallery setting? What, if any, contextualization is required? How are activist practices transformed when they become materials in an archive? Different curatorial strategies have included the presentation of original posters from the personal archives of activists (ACT UP New York: Activism, Art and the AIDS Crisis 1987–1993, 2009 and 2010) to the reprinting and enlargement of graphic designs originally utilized as posters, billboards and demonstration placards (Gran Fury: Read My Lips, 2012). Each of these exhibitions relied upon an archival aesthetic, but towards different ends: ACT UP New York organized its archive in affective terms, while Gran Fury: Read My Lips created a sociocultural presentation. This article compares these two exhibitions, and the curatorial strategies each devised in order to represent and animate the ephemera of AIDS cultural activism.

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... The example also illustrates a wider interest and expertise in early queer AIDS activism to adopt a considered media strategy using video and other techniques, thus shaping the aesthetics of queer activism to follow. There is a further body of writing on LGBTQ+ visual responses to the everyday trauma of HIV/AIDS (Burk, 2013;Cvetkovich, 2001;Gott, 1994), including the AIDS memorial quilt project (Capozzola, 2002;Fountain, 2021) that we suggest also should be included in the remit of feminist/queer visual activism. ...
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Queer and feminist visual activism has various origins across the globe and has emerged in a fluid cultural field of visual arts, popular culture, and protest aesthetics. Given the current context of gender backlash, these forms of activism have become urgent, and so too has scholarship that engages with global queer and feminist visual activism. In this special issue, we engage with the richness of activist aesthetics at the intersections of popular culture, subculture, art and activism, and other forms of visual political communication, not by attempting to contain these manifestations, but by offering a set of navigational tools. We conceive of three primary forms of queer and feminist visual practice – protest, process and product – each with its own histories and epistemologies. Each of these forms offers the capacity for resistance and collaboration. By opening up cross- and inter-disciplinary perspectives, and conversations across diverse global contexts, struggles and possibilities, we aim to expand on existing scholarship both geographically and conceptually. A central motivation for this work has been to think beyond the image; to be able to capture and engage with the activist communities (and the activism) behind and alongside the image and produced through the image. Taking the notion of social practice as an integral part of the ‘process’ of visual activism, we identify three emerging themes across the articles in this special issue: refusal, care, and thriving.
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