Public, Purposeful, Political: Gran Fury.

The iconic image most associated with Gran Fury

Gran Fury is most associated with ACT UP and AIDS activism in the ’80s and ’90s. Their bold and brash artistic style became seen as the ACT UP artistic style. Their most associated design is the iconic pink triangle with the words “Silence = Death” underneath it, which became the ACT UP symbol (pictured left). There are differing opinions as to whether or not Gran Fury created this design (founding members say no, but cursory internet searches say otherwise), but this images still remains in the collective memory as the art that stemmed from the ACT UP movement.

Gran Fury began as an extension of ACT UP, among activists interested in exploring the “political and social dimensions of the AIDS crisis.” Members gathered to put up an installation in the window of the New Museum for Contemporary Art in New York City. This first exhibition was entitled Let the Record Show in which pictures of and quotes from four AIDS criminals, including Jerry Falwell, were featured underneath a neon version of the iconic pink triangle and words “Silence = Death.”

The first installation: Let the Record Show

Activists considered these criminals to be perpetrators or complicit in the AIDS crisis and the dehumanization of people with AIDS. This is emblematic of their mission: to publicly call out and call attention to the issue and those who were not doing anything about it. These shock tactics continued in their later work as well, which contributed to their legacy as their brash political art group.

Close up of one of quotes and photographs in Let the Record Show

After their thunderous exhibition, Gran Fury began to take shape as a closed art collective extension of ACT UP. They began by using typical DIY street art techniques such as “poster sniping” (wheat pasting posters in illegal spaces) and mass printing flyers to distribute. They moved away from this method, but purposefully kept their art in the public, outside of the traditional art galleries, and their art was everywhere from buses to billboards to protest signs to postcards. They were focused on creating an active, purposeful art to shock people into thinking and acting about the AIDS crisis.

Another public, political art piece from Gran Fury closely associated with ACT UP protests

Similar to the art set forth in Let the Record Show, later pieces featured officials who were silent or did not act in regards to the crisis and inscribing words onto their faces. Other notable images include Kissing Doesn’t Kill and Read My Lips which were intended to bring light to the AIDS epidemic in general, and to raise awareness of AIDS.

Gran Fury created posters to force the government to act in the crisis

Kissing Doesn’t Kill works both as activist art, but also as public health educator. As an extension of ACT UP, Gran Fury was also focused on publicizing the AIDS crisis, getting drugs into bodies, and ending the AIDS crisis, which is why their work expands from education to shock tactics to protest materials (Getsy pp. 93–94).

Gran Fury was focused on creating public, easily understood, collaborative, and political art to fight the AIDS crisis. Gran Fury was never restrained or passive. When they dissolved in the mid-1990’s, it was also a purposeful act. Gran Fury remains as an iconic group from the AIDS crisis, and is often more remembered in the art community than the activist community (Getsy pp. 94–95). As a collective, however, they showed how art and activism can go hand in hand, and how art can serve as protest and a call to action in an overwhelming situation.

Pictures from: The Gran Fury Collection at the New York Public Library Digital Collections and the Queer Cultural Center Archive.