[a #tbt article originally published in A&U Magazine]
Activist and Artist Avram Finkelstein Discusses Silence = Death, ACT UP, and Flash Collectives
[Text and Photos] by Alina Oswald
“Hi, I’m Avram,” the gentleman introduced himself, as I reached the meeting point, inside the New York Public Library building. It was the spring of 2014, and I was to meet a few creatives, and together to work on—and ultimately form—what it’s now known as the Undetectable Flash Collective, under the guidance of no other than Avram…Finkelstein, that is, the ACT UP activist, founding member of Silence = Death and Gran Fury collectives, and also mentor for many of today’s artists and activists.
It is truly fascinating watching Finkelstein in action. Whether moderating flash collectives, speaking to rooms full of people, or asking strangers on the streets of New York “What is undetectable?” and helping them write their answers on bright red balloons, as part of last summer’s Ideas City event, Finkelstein always amazes and intrigues, inspires in the most fascinating ways. There’s a kind of engaging energy and passion around him that spells out a certain call to action that many might have been waiting for. Responding to that call might change the trajectories of many people’s lives, in a very unusual, and uplifting way.
So, I have to wonder what came first—the artist or the activist—and what would be the one word to describe Avram Finkelstein. “I think one word is ‘politics,’” he tells me over the phone. “I was born into a very political, leftist family, so I’ve spent a lot of time on the Left, in a cultural context. I was born with a sense of social self [that] I think most people don’t develop until later in life. So, it was very easy for me to segue from that orientation into my personal orientation in art, and what the meaning of that was. I guess the first response is politics, and the second is art, and the two are connected.”
And Finkelstein got to discover just how closely connected politics and art could become years later, when the AIDS epidemic took away “the love of [his] life.”
“Don started showing signs of immune suppression in 1981,” the activist says, “so, I lived with the terror of a world that wouldn’t even say the word AIDS out loud. And he died in 1984. When the media outcry and the public interest in Rock Hudson started, it really sent me into a tantrum, into a personal crisis that was full of rage.… All of these thousands of people, including Don, had died a year before, and because [Rock Hudson] was famous, people wouldn’t stop talking about him.”
From that rage came the Silence = Death collective, in 1985, followed, a year later, by the poster with the same name. Then Finkelstein heard that Larry Kramer was going to talk to the community, and suggested to the collective to go and hear what he had to say. That was the night that ACT UP was born.
“I didn’t know Larry. I didn’t travel in his circles. So [when] I walked into that room it seemed to me that the room was incredibly activated, during Larry’s talk,” he recalls. “It seemed so familiar to me, having been involved with the antiwar movement and other resistance movements since I was a teenager. There was no question in terms of whether it was important, useful or engaging to me. That’s why I went back.”
ACT UP formed in 1987, at a moment when there was a communal outcry about the AIDS epidemic. By then, the AIDS crisis had been raging for years, and there had been many kinds of responses, such as GMHC. What was building, though, was the realization, among many people, that their personal stories of suffering and loss were now part of a more complex story of a larger community. And the more clear that became, the more angry people became, as a community.
While Silence = Death precedes ACT UP, over the years it has become a symbol for ACT UP. Dark, mysterious, and haunting, the iconic poster is mesmerizing and yet intimidating, threatening to some extent, daring us to face not only the epidemic, but also our own mortality, as connected (or not) to the epidemic.
“We worked on the poster for about nine months,” Finkelstein says. “And during these nine months we were not aware that there was a community of people feeling the same way that we felt. So, we were only speaking for ourselves, but we were hoping to stimulate a community response. What we didn’t realize until the poster was up in ACT UP, was that the community was forming anyway. We were not alone. So, looking back on it, it’s one thing to imagine that we created this monolithic thing that created the communal response, but in fact we were a part of the communal response that was already happening.”
I feel that there’s a tremendous amount of rage [today] in the HIV/AIDS communities. It’s just not as reported, because there are many things that people consider to be advances in terms of HIV and AIDS. So, there’s a lot less of a communal support for being angry about the problems that still exist. And I have to say for the record, I’m serious about it, I’m just as angry now as I was in 1981. I feel that the price of admission for being politically engaged is that you are always engaged. There’s no end result when it comes to fighting institutional power, because institutional power structures will always exist. The minute you disengage, something you’ve been given could easily be taken away.
The Silence = Death poster started out as an idea of a poster about a tattoo on an HIV-positive person. But that raised questions about how best to depict an HIV tattoo, and also about the gender, race and class of the person to be photographed wearing the HIV tattoo. So the collectives decided against using a photographic image, and started thinking about iconography, only to realize that, there, too, were problems, “including that pink triangle,” Finkelstein says, “which, in the beginning, we rejected….So we decided to make it over—we changed the direction of it, the color of it. The problem that I presented to the collectives to solve, with this poster, was very simple and very complex. I said, I want to do a poster that will create a space within the communities affected and organized politically around AIDS, and also outside the [AIDS] community. That’s why, when you look at it, all of these layers keep being revealed.”
There were other things to be considered, when designing the Silence = Death poster, like, for example, its intense color. The poster not only evokes a dark mood, but it’s itself dark, and daring. The collectives used black “to carve a meditative space, because [the poster] was supposed to be put alongside commercial posters.”
Finkelstein remembers his mother’s reaction to the poster. “Shortly before she died, she told me that she’d actually seen [the poster] on the streets of New York, and she said, ‘I saw it and I thought, this is the shot round the world.’”
The poster means so many things to so many people. “It can be disempowering, and also accusatory,” the artist says. “Every part of the poster has this dynamic tension, and I think it’s part of the mysticism that you see in it, and it’s deeply intended, and part of the reason it took so long to get to, and part of the reason it still resonates with many people.”
He is currently working on a book about Silence = Death, social engagement and the commons, and the way in which images function. He calls it a workbook for artists and activists, to help them think about the public sphere. “I’m taking some of the most recognizable works from Gran Fury and Silence=Death collectives, and using them as an entry point to talk about all of the political work that brought these works into being, and about what we can do about it now.”
Although Avram Finkelstein might be best known for Silence=Death, he has created many other works, mostly inspired by AIDS activism. He worked on the Enjoy AZT poster in 1987. One year later, when Gran Fury collective was formed, he brought the idea of this poster to the collective. But because, at the time, AZT was the only HIV medication available, some members of the collective did not feel comfortable critiquing it. “Of course, the intentions of the poster turned out to be true,” Finkelstein comments. The poster resonates with a lot of people to this day. It points a finger to “the profit motif that you cannot deny is attached to the pharmaceutical industry. And there are many AIDS activists that are comfortable living with that idea. I believe that you can be comfortable living with an idea, but still be critical about it. And that’s what this poster [tries] to do.”
Finkelstein has always dealt with HIV and AIDS issues. Nowadays, he mentors young activists. “I feel that there’s a tremendous amount of rage [today] in the HIV/AIDS communities,” he says. “It’s just not as reported, because there are many things that people consider to be advances in terms of HIV and AIDS. So, there’s a lot less of a communal support for being angry about the problems that still exist. And I have to say for the record,” he adds, “I’m serious about it, I’m just as angry now as I was in 1981. I feel that the price of admission for being politically engaged is that you are always engaged. There’s no end result when it comes to fighting institutional power, because institutional power structures will always exist. The minute you disengage, something you’ve been given could easily be taken away.”
And so, he continues his engagement in the fight against AIDS through his flash collectives. “A flash collective is an experimental political outline,” he explains, “a pedagogy that I’ve developed, based on doctrines of working within collectives. If you assemble a group of people and give them an opportunity to speak about a public issue, [these people] would have something to say. So, the flash collective is like a laboratory, sort of a balancing act between structure and permission, to force people to engage.”
Flash collectives deal with issues of the modern-day epidemic, issues still left on the battlefield, such as stigma, viral divide, and HIV criminalization. They help people realize that “social engagement isn’t the book, it’s an opening sentence to a book.” Finkelstein adds, “Flash collectives are like organisms, and they need to be listened to, and respected.” He would like to curate a show that draws from each of the flash collectives he’s moderated over the years.
For him, political engagement is a lifelong activity. He recalls one of the last conversations he had with his father. Speaking about his fighting the epidemic, he recalls telling his father, “Look, I have two choices. If I don’t do anything, I know what happens—people will continue to die. If I try something and it doesn’t work out, I’m going to try something else.”
He adds, “In a way, the flash collective is the current iteration of my decades of thinking about how people engage with the question of HIV, and how the public views it.”
Avram Finkelstein remains engaged in the fight against AIDS, and believes that we find ourselves in a potentially radicalizing moment. “We have the few remaining people who were there at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, who are still alive,” he says. “We [also] have a young generation of artists who are really interested to understand the world that they were born into. So, we have this bridge between these two generations that’s only going to last a little while. So, we have to give future generations the responsibility to learn as much as they can, and share as much as we can, because if we don’t do that now, then the story ends, and the future will just make stuff up. That’s why I feel so compelled. That’s what the flash collectives are about. That’s what this talk is about. That’s what, in every waking moment, I think about.”