Visual Campaigns against AIDS, Then and Now

Visual Campaigns against AIDS, Then and Now

Once upon a time, AIDS was a focal point for artists in the United States.

My design students and I recently read Maud Lavin’s Clean New World: Culture, Politics, and Graphic Design, in which she discusses the rise of political art and design in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan.1 The Eighties — the decade when the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and social services were cut dramatically. Lavin asserts that, because the liberal mainstream seemed to disappear almost completely during the years of Reagan popularity, a variety of artist collectives took on the mantle of politics, social action, and public health.

The Eighties was also the decade when we learned about AIDS. For much of the American public, the first tangible association with AIDS was actor Rock Hudson’s acknowledgment of his illness in 1984, followed by his death in 1985. In some areas of the United States, though, the knowledge of the disease occurred much earlier. The first American AIDS clinic opened in San Francisco in January 1982; in September, the CDC officially used the acronym “AIDS” (for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) for the first time.

Gran Fury, AIDSgate, 1987, Silence = Death Project.
Gran Fury, AIDSgate, 1987, Silence = Death Project.

Already by the end of 1983, however, complaints of inaction surrounded the AIDS crisis. In December of that year, a congressional subcommittee issued a report stating that the U.S. government had failed to provide much-needed funding to research the disease and possible cures. President Reagan himself did not publicly mention the AIDS epidemic until 1985, shortly before Hudson’s death. Although he then proclaimed AIDS research a “top priority,” he did not publicly return to the topic until two years later.2

In response to this perceived insufficiency of attention, a variety of political collectives organized around AIDS. An artist group affiliated with ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) called themselves Gran Fury. Their name reflected the group’s anger surrounding AIDS, the lack of attention given to it, and the public misperceptions that only certain undesirable populations were contracting the disease. Beginning in 1987, Gran Fury embarked on a visual campaign of posters and billboards, not only targeting stereotypes and misconceptions about who contracts AIDS and how the disease is spread, but also pointedly critiquing larger political and religious institutions for their harmful silence. In a set of controversial billboards for the 1990 Venice Biennale, Gran Fury implicated the Pope in the AIDS crisis, arguing that the Catholic stance against condoms (and other forms of birth control) exhibited a clear “preference for living saints and dead sinners.”

Like many of their art peers of the time, Gran Fury specifically chose media — posters and billboards placed in public spaces — that connected with advertising and design formats, and thereby reached a wider public. For Gran Fury, this move was specifically calculated to spur their audience to political action:

Gran Fury, "Kissing Doesn't Kill" bus poster, c. 1989.
Gran Fury, “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” bus poster, c. 1989.

[gblockquote]We want the art world to recognize that collective direct action will bring an end to the AIDS crisis…. Whenever we can, we steer the art world projects into public spaces so that we can address audiences other than museum-going audiences or the readership of art magazines.3[/gblockquote]

Another artist collective, Group Material, took on the AIDS crisis as subject matter during the same period. Group Material created the AIDS Timeline, first installed in Berkeley in 1989, an historical record that not only included medical history but also documented activist projects, cultural responses, and political failings surrounding the disease.

Like Gran Fury, Group Material took their projects to the streets. A 1990 poster campaign installed on buses in Hartford, Connecticut, featured a large photograph of President Bush with a quote seemingly sympathetic to the crisis. Given the continued lack of funding and attention given to AIDS under his administration, however, the public is left to question the sincerity of his heartfelt response.

Group Material AIDS bus poster, 1990.
Group Material AIDS bus poster, 1990.

Fast-forward 20+ years and it becomes clear that groups like Gran Fury and Group Material were on the cutting edge, melding art activism, politics, and healthcare in a radically new way. (Not to shortchange their peers of the time: many individual artists in the 1980s, like Nan Goldin, Keith Haring, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, among others, were also working with the repercussions of AIDS in their communities — perhaps a post for a later date.)

While we no longer see AIDS at the forefront of the U.S. art world, I was reminded particularly of Gran Fury’s work last summer, after seeing the mach’s mit German poster series targeting AIDS awareness and sexual health. The models in the posters are each paired with a provocative bit of text that describes how they “want it” — soft, wild, classic, honestly, seriously, etc. This is no line of supermodels, though. Although plenty of the posters feature young hipsters, pierced and tattooed, the campaign highlights a range of ages, openly acknowledging the culturally taboo sexuality of older adults. The mildly racy tagline is “Do it! But do it with” [“mach’s! aber mach’s mit”], meaning that by “doing it with” both knowledge and condoms, you the viewer can protect yourself from HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The very nature of the mach’s mit campaign symbolizes, I think, the very different cultural climate in which it operates. HIV and AIDS have now been openly acknowledged for over 25 years. There is a much greater cultural awareness that all populations are affected by the disease, which explains the campaign’s outreach to a wide audience. Millions of research dollars have been spent for the cause around the world: in a study published last month, scientists argue that a natural protein present in breastmilk actually fights HIV and helps explain the low incidence of HIV transmission from mothers to children through breastmilk.4

Poster from the German mach’s mit campaign encouraging condom use.
Poster from the German mach’s mit campaign encouraging condom use.

With the passage of time, the increase of public knowledge, and the now widespread, if belated, official responses to the AIDS epidemic, visual campaigns like mach’s mit can be addressed to the individual. The campaign treats its audience as adults: implying that abstinence campaigns are ineffective in the face of sexually transmitted diseases, their sex-positive message sets forth common-sense expectations for adult behavior. A related mach’s mit campaign features prophylactics applied to fresh fruits and vegetables, attempting to combat “the personal and cultural indignation among potential users towards the use of condoms.” By speaking directly to the viewer, through both image and text, these contemporary AIDS awareness posters underscore that we now have the information we need to keep ourselves safe, and it is up to us to use it.


  1. Maud Lavin, Clean New World: Culture, Politics, and Graphic Design (Boston: The MIT Press, 2002). Return to text.
  2. Philip M. Boffey, “Reagan Urges Wide AIDS Testing But Does Not Call for Compulsion,” New York Times, June 1, 1987, accessed 13 November 2013. Return to text.
  3. Robert Gober, “Gran Fury,” BOMB Magazine (Winter 1991). Return to text.

Joseph Stromberg, “Discovered: A Natural Protein in Breast Milk That Fights HIV,”, October 21, 2013. Return to text.

 Featured image caption: Keith Haring, “Ignorance = Fear” 1989. Flickr