ACT UP 25: Of and on the Political Act in Art

by Anthony Romero

December 2012

For 25 years ACT UP has been working as a direct action advocacy group to improve the lives of those living with AIDS. Like many organizations working against predominant power dynamics and systemic prejudices around what some have perceived to be a minorities’ disease, language that Susan Sontag identified as being premodern, ACT UP has written the arc of its narrative many times over. The organization and its various arms have moved and grown, reshaped themselves and restrategized their efforts. In March of this year ACT UP celebrated the organization’s 25th anniversary with a demonstration and march from New York’s City Hall to Wall Street and with this recent action comes an opportunity to reflect upon the impact of the group’s incorporation into the contemporary art world. As the contemporary art world begins to encircle groups and organizations whose activists’ practices are infused with the strategies and spirits of radical art groups from art worlds past, groups who see themselves not just as counter to predominant ideologies but as wholly other to them—their difference a starting point for conversations ranging from the complexities of personal identification to community resources and education—it is increasingly important to reflect on the effects the institutionalizing of socio-political practices has on artists working in these areas. For ACT UP, to be incorporated into the art world does not diminish their activity but instead offers an opportunity to rethink the political act in relationship to the transformative potential of the art experience. Direct action in this new context, a decidedly more limited one, peels back the meaninglessness that is so often associated with contemporary art to reveal the ethical responsibility behind the artistic act. The art context and its prevailing languages offer an opportunity to theorize the political act.

Harold Rosenberg begins his essay, “The Diminished Act,” with a quotation by Paul Valéry: “An act, originating in the psychic and physiological conditions of some individual, is certainly a series of very complex transformations of which we have as yet no idea, no model.” Rosenberg goes on to write that unlike the shapeless moderns, the ancient Greeks provided their subjects with models within which their acts might be understood. In the Greek tradition, as Rosenberg describes it, the act “occurs in the context of a plot that establishes its beginning, its middle, and its end.” The act of the hero “is set in motion by another act.” It is an act in response to something else, something that came before. It is somewhere between these ideas that we might begin to understand the political activity of ACT UP.

Taken at its root, Rosenberg’s suggestion that what distinguishes these two moments, the ancient from the modern, is a kind of aimlessness, a modeless terrain in which the act is decontextualized, seems to imply the depoliticization of the act and by proxy the actor. No longer attached to its preceding moment, its agitation, the act becomes a kind of meaningless encounter between the subject, or hero, and the landscape of his play, the plot. The act has dissolved into the events that encroach upon it. Having been fully incorporated into the framework, the actor no longer needs to hold himself accountable for his actions, thereby successfully rendering the act politically immobile. But even in the meaningless act there remains a kind of ethical responsibility. Even if the aimless subject were no longer responsible to himself, he would still retain a responsibility to his various communities. It is this individual feeling of responsibility toward one’s “own” that motivates the political act. It is the inherent sociality of the living state that drives the individual towards the other. For artists working to politically mobilize their communities or who are at the very least fighting for some “greater good,” the act enters the terrain of art through its expressive and transformative potential, qualities that also allow it to gain cultural traction. For ACT UP, the moment at which the political act begins to take on the qualities of the artistic coincided with the demonstration at the New York Stock Exchange in 1989, an action that not only brought the stock exchange to a grinding halt but directly led to the lowering of prices on AIDS-related drug treatments.

In September of 1989, seven ACT UP members infiltrated the New York Stock Exchange alongside a group of unsuspecting morning traders. Once inside they chained themselves to the VIP balcony and as the morning bell rang to signal the start of the trading day the members of ACT UP began their demonstration by drowning out the sound with miniature bull horns and unfurling a banner that read, “Sell Welcome!” Fake dollar bills were thrown down on the stunned traders who were quickly angered as the anti-corporate slogans on the bills revealed the group to be AIDS activists. The day of the ACT UP demonstration remains the only time in history that The New York Stock Exchange was not able to open. Four days later, Burroughs Wellcome lowered the price of AZT.

The New York Stock Exchange action is one of those that contemporary art writers and critics cite when describing the genius of ACT UP’s activism. In a recent article for frieze magazine on the 25th Anniversary of ACT UP and their aesthetic arm, Gran Fury, Jennifer Kabat writes, “That was the power of ACT UP—creative, angry, funny, clever. Short for the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, the group would go after a goal from countless angles until it got results.” The protest at the New York Stock Exchange is considered successful as a political action because of its ability to create real stable change. The price of AIDS treatment drugs dropped by twenty percent, that is indisputable. The group wanted to make treatment more available and they were successful in fulfilling that goal. But the action at the New York Stock Exchange also reveals itself as an expressive and transformative encounter between a group championing the rights of an underserved community to confront a more privileged one and for that reason is attractive to the art world. The New York Stock Exchange demonstration is perfectly suited to recent conversations around socio-political practices because as an action it sets in motion what Valéry referred to as a “complex set of transformations.” The New York Stock Exchange action, through the emotional presence of those involved, creates a tear in the social fabric through which art and life are able to slip into the political arena together.

The question surrounding the history of ACT UP and the impact of its incorporation in the contemporary art world is not whether activism is art or if there can be an art to activism but rather what it is about the political act that expresses the feeling of responsibility toward one’s community. Any concern about the loss of political intention or tension as the activist project is submerged in the muddy waters of contemporary art may be quelled if the definition of what constitutes an act or action be considered within the complex set of transformations that are reached not by a single act but by its agitation as well. The triumph of ACT UP is their awareness of the transformative potential in the direct and emotional act, something the art world has seemed to have forgotten.