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In 1987, at the apex of the AIDS epidemic, six gay activists calling themselves ACT UP developed a visual and verbal manifesto: a poster with a black background, a pink triangle, and white letters that read, SILENCE=DEATH. Avram Finkelstein was one of the creators of this iconic protest graphic and 28 years after helping found ACT UP, he continues to push public engagement with HIV/AIDS issues through workshops called Flash Collectives.
After Silence: On Avram Finkelstein, a new film directed by director Vincent Gagliostro, spotlights Finkelstein's latest work in an effort to show how art activists are attempting to reignite a productive discourse on HIV/AIDS for a new generation. The film traces the lasting influence of a perennial pioneer in AIDS activism. Growing up in a left wing family in 1960’s New York, Finkelstein says he was “raised with the idea of political engagement.” When as a young man he found himself surrounded by frustrated friends, coworkers, and partners —some HIV positive, others not —whose voices were being stifled and ignored, ACT UP and the AIDSGATE campaign were born. He went on to co-found Gran Fury between 1987-1995, a spin-off collective from ACT UP that eventually received funding from contemporary art institutions such as The New Museum, The Whitney, MOCA, and Creative Time for its strength in bold graphic design, guerrilla dissemination tactics, and public interventions, to push the urgency of the AIDS epidemic to a wider audience.
Today, Finkelstein's Flash Collectives workshops help individuals and organisations devlop punchy protest images which are then disseminated through posters, stickers, and/or a Tumblr page. So far, the artist has organised over 15 such events, partnering up with the HIV Is Not A Crime Conference, The Helix Queer Performance Network, Visual AIDS, New York University, and others. These workshops take on contemporary issues such as HIV criminalisation, racial and socioeconomic divides in HIV positive communities, pharmaceutical interventions and other social polemics such as reproductive rights.
In observance of World AIDS Day, The Creators Project talked to Finkelstein about his Flash Collective, the film After Silence, and the power of collectivity:
The Creators Project: What part of your story does After Silence tell?
Avram Finkelstein: After Silence is about my workshops on collectivity and content — this is the way I think about the Flash Collective exercise. It’s a way of stimulating collective cultural production around complex political issues. I go in and assemble a workshop to produce a political work in a public space within a limited period of time, usually a day, sometimes under a day.
How did the film get started?
[Vincent Gagliostro] approached me, but he is a long-time collaborator —he was in the Anonymous Queers Collective and he worked within Gran Fury. I had known him before ACT UP, before the AIDS crisis, because he comes from my same circle of friends. Vincent was friends with the first person I lost to AIDS, who was the man I had decided to build my life around. Vincent has known me since the very early days of the AIDS crisis and he was looking to make a film about this current work that isn’t about a AIDS historiography but is rather about what people with HIV/AIDS need now.
What do you think is the most important of these needs?
I refer to them as “the ideas that we left on the battlefield.” Almost everything that has happened with the AIDS activist movement has been focused on viral suppression and pharmaceutical intervention as the primary political objective: how to get drugs that are efficacious and how to allow people to have access to them. The truth is, there could be a cure tomorrow and there will still be millions of HIV positive people or people living with HIV in the world who have to deal with HIV criminalisation, HIV stigma, the "Viral Divide" — all the complex social questions that pharmaceutical interventions have no power over. Those dividing lines are what constitute stigma and stigma will exist after there is a cure. Those are the things that need to be dealt with now.
If you speak to a young HIV positive person who was born after Protease inhibitors and is in a completely different world than the activists that are my cohorts, they talk about the social issues and I feel like that is where the work is.
What about this form of the Flash Collective is most appealing to you?
Looking at the work isn’t as interesting as understanding the work. Flash Collective is an exercise that tries to pass on skills that talk about the resistance strategies that build the work into being in the first place. I think of it as a social practice. It’s also about continuing the work in a vital way that removes it from the institutional den and then reinvigorates or reactivates social spaces..
What is it like to complete these projects in such a short period of time?
The short time frame is a strategy to remove the second guessing that frequently goes on when it comes to communicating in the public sphere. I think social engagement, in the context of the Flash Collective, is really about finding a voice that is in that room at any given moment. So it isn’t necessarily about creating something as iconographic as SILENCE=DEATH.
When people look at the SILENCE=DEATH poster there is such an institutional shadow attached to it, in terms of its efficacy and its use over the decades. It can almost be a little bit terrifying. So, as a person who had a hand in the creation of that I’m liberating this roomful of people at any given moment from having to create SILENCE=DEATH and moving them to the task of seeing what it is that we want to say ourselves in that room at that moment — and having that be enough.
Then it’s about art through immediacy?
The thing about the SILENCE=DEATH poster is that you now look at it and it has a certain set of meanings. But the truth is, it was done by six gay men in 1986 before ACT UP even came along. If we hadn’t raised our voices, we wouldn’t have been able to give voice to other people’s idea of what SILENCE=DEATH meant. We designed SILENCE=DEATH but it’s the activist community that responded to its call that created it.
Your definition of this public sphere seems to include the internet. Why is this important?
The Flash Collective is an exercise in content. The one thing that connects the 19th century broad sheet with the 20th century poster and the 21st century social space of social media is that you have to have something to say. The real point is the content and the work because that is what a movement is based on — it is based on ideas. So I think of social media [and Tumblr] as a delivery system. The other thing is that you can create a Tumblr page in five minutes. You just have to decide on what the name is. And it is also a space that everyone who is working on the collective at that moment can have access to and start adding information to; it’s an expository tool for elaborating on what the project is about whereas a poster or a sticker needs to tell you something in a soundbite.
Why is instruction/education so central to your work?
I do the orientation part of Flash Collective because I’m trying to compact decades worth of experience with collectives into a [fifteen minute lecture] so that the participants can have a sense of certain key things: how to find the audience, how to communicate clearly in public spaces, how to interact with the collective, how to brainstorm, how to prioritise ideas. I’m trying to pass on the essential skills that we will need for the task that day. It’s a method in order to get right to the content.
What do you still want to tackle with Flash Collective?
I’m working on a rather epic one for next year with Mark S. King, who is an HIV/AIDS blogger. He and I are both very interested in what we call the “Viral Divide”: the walls between HIV positive and HIV negative — gay men in particular — and all of the social complexities that are essential part of how this stigma is constructed. I had this idea that Mark and I could coordinate a series of free Flash Collectives – one, with all HIV positive gay men and one, with all HIV negative gay men and then a third, where we combine the two Flash Collectives together and ask them to talk about the "Viral Divide". [I hope] we can come to some really useful way of articulating this very complex, 30-some-odd-year-old divide that nobody really talks about.
I think it would also be super interesting to do one with women with AIDS, anything on gentrification and displacement…the list is endless.
After Silence: On Avram Finkelstein debuted in late October at Queerer Than Fiction at a New York LGBT film festival, NewFest. See more of Avram Finkelstein and Vincent Gagliostro's work on their respective websites here and here.
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