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AIDS Activism in the Arts  
 
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Similar to many of Gran Fury's works, the SILENCE=DEATH Project attempted to locate the root cause of the AIDS crisis not in HIV infection but in larger social forces--the government, the corporate culture, the mainstream public--that ignored, remained silent about, or profited from the crisis.

The Red Ribbon Project

Another artists' collective, the Visual AIDS Artists' Caucus founded in 1989, created the Red Ribbon Project. Intended to be anonymous, the Red Ribbon--originally a loop of red silk ribbon fastened on a lapel or pinned to a shirt--was designed as a symbol of commitment to people with AIDS and to the AIDS-struggle. Sponsored by the group Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the Red Ribbon debuted at the televised 1991 Tony Awards.

Sponsor Message.

Since then, the Red Ribbon has become a widespread symbol throughout the world and has appeared in many different forms and versions. In 1993, for instance, the U.S. Postal Service released a Red Ribbon stamp with the caption "AIDS Awareness." The Red Ribbon Project has also provided the impetus for other groups to designate variously colored ribbons for their own causes, such as the pink ribbon worn for breast cancer awareness.

Over time, a small backlash against the use of the Red Ribbon developed, with some AIDS activists deriding the symbol as more of a politically correct fashion accessory than a meaningful social or political statement. Despite some commercialization, however, the Red Ribbon continues to raise consciousness about the epidemic and demonstrate support for, and solidarity with, those living with HIV and AIDS.

NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt

Activist Cleve Jones conceived the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1985 as a community artwork to commemorate the lives of those who had died of AIDS. Typically known simply as the AIDS Quilt, as of 2003 it was composed of over 44,000 three-by-six-foot, quilted, appliquéd, and collaged panels of fabric, representing 83,000 names (19% of all AIDS deaths in the United States at that time). Since its inception, participants have created these quilt components for friends, lovers, family members, and public figures.

The ever-expanding AIDS Quilt--currently measuring approximately 792,000 square feet, or roughly the size of 16 football fields--is now too large to be exhibited in its entirety. Its national debut took place on the National Mall in Washington, D. C. during the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987. At that time it covered a space a little larger than a football field and included 1,920 panels. A year later the Quilt returned to Washington, D. C., this time comprised of over 8,000 panels.

Celebrities, politicians, family members, lovers, and friends read aloud the names of the people represented by the quilt panels; this reading of names is now a tradition followed at nearly every Quilt display.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt is the largest public art project in the world. Nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the Quilt has also been the subject of many books, films, scholarly papers, articles, and theatrical performances. Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt won the Academy Award for best feature-length documentary film in 1989.

Day Without Art

Another broad-based initiative was Day Without Art, an annual "international day of mourning and action in response to the AIDS crisis," which was launched in 1989. Day Without Art was conceived as an effort to force the art world to confront the effects of the epidemic within its own institutions.

In 1999, marking the tenth anniversary of Day Without Art, an art archive was created. A project of the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, the Virtual Collection is an expanding database of 3,000 digitized images of artworks created by artists who either have died of AIDS or are living with HIV. The Virtual Collection has been shaped into a scholarly and curatorial resource that is housed in various museums and universities throughout the country.

Performance Artists

AIDS activism also emerged as a potent subject among performance artists. Examples range from the post-modern, drag extravaganzas of Lypsinka, to the overtly political parody of the Pomo Afro Homos, to Tim Miller's nude monologue performances. In fact, Miller became the center of national attention in the late-1980s as a preeminent AIDS firebrand and political radical, one of four artists whose National Endowment for the Arts funding was cut off in a censorship campaign spearheaded by Senator Jesse Helms.

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