Some of the art that grew out of ACT UP-New York in its late-’80s, early-’90s heyday has become so iconic that it stands apart from the transformational AIDS activist movement it was a part of. For instance, the flagship “Silence = Death” poster with the pink triangle, which far more people have probably seen than know what its historical context is.
The joyous, Benetton-ad-like “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” poster that, upon its 1989 debut, was so forward-looking in its racial diversity and also shocking in its same-sex lip-locking.
The steamy, much-reproduced image of the two male sailors making out, with “Read My Lips” superimposed on them in bold, Barbara Kruger typeface. And, perhaps a bit more confined to AIDS inside baseball but no less impactful in its moment, 1991’s “Women Don’t Get AIDS, They Just Die From It,” superimposed atop a vintage image of beauty queens in their bathing suits and sashes.
They were all images that, as with Andy Warhol’s work, borrowed heavily from the bold graphic vernacular of advertising to draw in viewers, then completely upend their expectations of what they were seeing.
Additionally, they were all created (more or less!) by the same 10-member collective within the larger ACT UP that called itself Gran Fury—after the make of late-’80s NYPD cop cars, no less. In many ways, Gran Fury connected the scrappy street-world of ACT UP with the wealthier but still queer-heavy worlds of the New York City media and art scene. Somewhat remarkably, given how many of ACT UP-New York’s alums have since died from either AIDS or something else, all the original Gran Fury members save one (Mark Simpson, who died in 1996) are still alive.
That gave 20-something writer Jack Lowery, both an M.F.A. graduate and a writing teacher at Columbia University, the perfect set-up to pursue It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful: How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic.
The book, out this April, distinguishes itself from many recent books about ACT UP-New York—including those by David France, Sarah Schulman, and Peter Staley, with another forthcoming from Ron Goldberg—by focusing mostly on Gran Fury’s work within the movement, although inevitably it bleeds into the movement’s campaigns themselves.
As much as the book is about how art fits into activism, it’s also about how friendships and love affairs fit into a time of fear, grief, illness, and death amid a very closely knit social circle. It’s a fun, fascinating read that’s also a moving and personal one. TheBody talked recently with Lowery.
Tim Murphy: Hi, Jack! Congrats on your book. So what sparked it?
Jack Lowery: I’m 28, and I first learned about ACT UP in college when the Whitney Museum curator who did the David Wojnarowicz show came to our class on exhibits and curating. I became very invested in David’s work and later on worked with his estate to get some of his unpublished poetry published. But after the 2016 election, I got reinvested in ACT UP, reading and learning about it. It just felt like the right time to be diving into it. Then, I watched Rosa von Praunheim’s 1990 documentary “Silence = Death,” which mentioned Gran Fury. I was like, “What’s that?” I’d never heard of them before.
But it was like, oh, all these works I’ve seen in so many places were made by this one group of people—all but one of whom, it turned out, were still alive and nearly all of them still living in New York City. So I decided to start reaching out to them. And I was at Columbia getting my M.F.A. in nonfiction, and I found out that [Gran Fury member and filmmaker] Tom Kalin was literally on the floor above me as a film professor at Columbia. So I emailed him and asked if I could interview him, and he said yes. And that’s how it started.
Murphy: And how did the book evolve? How did you decide to structure it?
Lowery: The hardest part was figuring out where to begin it, because there’s so much context you need to understand about ACT UP, about what’s happening between 1980 and 1987 [when ACT UP started]. AIDS cases are starting to build and if you’re living in this [queer New York City] world, you can see it happening, but it’s not really being reflected in the media or the presidential debates [of 1984]. I thought at first that Gran Fury’s window they did for the New Museum in 1987-88, entitled, “Let the Record Show … ,” was where it started, but that was eight years into the crisis, so I kept pushing it back. So I started with [Gran Fury member] Avram Finkelstein getting involved in the crisis and producing, with others, the “Silence = Death” poster in 1987.
Murphy: Large parts of the book are really about not just the art side of ACT UP, but big ACT UP campaigns themselves, like Stop the Church and the years-long campaign to make the CDC expand the official, benefits-triggering definition of AIDS to include T cells below 200, so that women, as well as men, would be counted, as well as some symptoms specific to women.
Lowery: I felt like I had to answer the question of why this [art] work was being made at this time, which is something you don’t fully understand when you see the work on a white wall in a museum. I had to bring the context.
Murphy: And that raises the question of, how did you think about distinguishing your book from others that have since come out about ACT UP, like the books I link to above from David France, Sarah Schulman, and Peter Staley? Sarah’s book, in particular, Let the Record Show, which takes its title from Gran Fury’s New Museum window project, really delves into Gran Fury.
Lowery: I started working on my book in 2017, so I was almost done with it by the time Sarah’s came out last year, but I did know about her [and Jim Hubbard’s] ACT UP Oral History Project, and I can’t overstate how foundational it was for my book. It’s amazing that some of those interviews are from 2002, so much closer in time than today to the events of ACT UP.
Murphy: I’m very curious to ask you, being 28 and writing about folks who are now roughly 58 to 68, what did you learn that really surprised you?
Lowery: One thing that surprised me was how, at the time, how narrow and centralized news sources were—and if you could get yourself inserted into one of those sources you could really get a lot of attention. Like during the ACT UP “Day of Desperation” in early 1991, three different affinity groups bust onto those national TV news shows at the same time—and each one took only five people to pull off! So 15 ACT UP members, and your message gets out to so much of the country. I don’t think a corollary exists today because how we get information now is so much more decentralized. In some ways, it’s easier to puncture into the public consciousness.
It also blew my mind that you could break into a government office, get arrested, then be released and go out with your friends, all in the same day.
Murphy: Well, you have no idea how lax security was before 9/11, and they also often got off seemingly that easily because they were mostly white. But it’s interesting because they were all roughly your age now when all this was going on.
Lowery: I actually think that helped bridge the generation gap I had with them because they would say, “Oh, you know what it’s like to be 27.”
Murphy: I’m curious, as someone who is 52 myself, did you feel like you were studying—almost like studying creatures from a different era?
Lowery: My parents are the same age as them. I’m very socialized with people of that age. In a way, I would’ve had a harder time interviewing people who are about 40.
Murphy: Did anything about them feel different?
Lowery: Well—one thing a lot of them talked about was this feeling, in 1987 or so, that people like their siblings and the rest of the country had no frame of reference for what they were going through.
Murphy: What was the most emotional part of writing the book for you?
Lowery: A lot of the interviews I did. I probably interviewed about 50 former ACT UP members. And I noticed that after COVID hit, the interviews got a lot more emotional. And I think that had to do with the fact that ACT UP was such a communal experience. What was happening was absolutely terrifying, but unlike with COVID, you could go and be with other people to kind of work through it.
Murphy: So, like, you were catching people at a time of a lot of yearning for community and maybe intensified feelings about the ACT UP years?
Lowery: Yes, people during COVID didn’t have that catharsis of being together. Also, I actually got COVID in October 2021 and developed long COVID after it. I’m much better now than I was a couple months ago, but it’s been my first time dealing with a long-term illness. I was pretty much bedridden the end of last year. So of course that changed the resonance of the book for me even though I wasn’t still working on it. I see the book differently now. The experience of chronic illness when you’re young is particular because you’re forced to confront all of these white middle-class assumptions like, “I’m not supposed to be sick in my 20s. Why do I feel like I’m dying right now?”
Things like that made me realize how much of ACT UP’s rage and power came from the relative youth of the people who were involved in it—and that some of them were both young and sick.
Murphy: That’s a moving and interesting observation. And speaking of interesting, Jack, which Gran Fury piece is most interesting to you, and why?
Lowery: One piece I really admire a lot is “All People With AIDS Are Innocent,” because it so encapsulates how Gran Fury was trying to undo this assumption that some people are more deserving of AIDS than others. I also love “Kissing Doesn’t Kill.”
Murphy: I do too. It’s so joyous and sexy and just fun.
Lowery: It was surprising for me to learn how controversial it was [to the point that it was routinely defaced in Chicago, where it appeared in bus shelters, etc.]. Gran Fury members would say to me, “You literally cannot imagine how shocking it was at the time.” Because it’s not shocking anymore. But, yes, it encapsulates a side of ACT UP that is not often talked about, which is the joyousness and the sexiness.
Murphy: I also really love their final piece, “Four Questions,” from 1994. It is such a profoundly sad piece that registers the despair and exhaustion in ACT UP by that point, just a few years before treatment finally truly became effective.
So one thing I really loved about the book is that it is a very intimate and compelling account of not only the art of Gran Fury but the really intense love affairs and friendships within the group. Particularly the bond between Michael Nesline and Mark Simpson, and how that breaks. That was really devastating and very well told.
Lowery: Friendships were so integral to ACT UP. They were the glue. This is not an original thought.
Murphy: So in the book, you talk a bit about the legacy of ACT UP and of Gran Fury, particularly about what role art and imagery plays in a movement. You bring up a BLM group from Minneapolis.
Lowery: Yes, Black Visions Collective, which during the George Floyd protests were doing a protest with tombstones that all said, “Defund.” That struck me as being very Gran Fury–esque, in the sense that art can amplify an action. How if 10 people can do the right thing with the right imagery, it can capture the attention of thousands.
Murphy: At one point, Mark Simpson, the one Gran Fury member who died of AIDS, said, “Art can only do so much.”
Lowery: You just can’t have the art on its own. You need to have it working in conjunction with a movement. Obviously social media has since come in and changed a lot, but I still think that images in public, especially in a place like Manhattan where they are seen by so many media and cultural influencers, can really resonate. Otherwise, why would Calvin Klein still pay presumably hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single billboard in Soho?
Murphy: What if someone said to you, “I just can’t read one more book about ACT UP-New York?”
Lowery: Former ACT UP members told me that doing this kind of looking-back interviews is draining. So if someone from ACT UP said that, I’d totally get it.
Murphy: But I mean everybody else.
Lowery: I would hope that they would read it and walk away with a greater sense of possibility—of the idea that images do matter, and that how they are made and circulated can have a huge impact on activism. At that time, if you were walking around New York and saw someone with a “Read My Lips” T-shirt, you knew they were one of your own. You could see yourself out in the world because of those images.