‘Read My Lips’ is a powerful retrospective of agitprop collective Gran Fury, an autonomous unit stemming from the New York caucus of radical international direct action group ‘AIDs Coalition To Unleash Power’ or ACT UP. Lying at an intersection between aggression and celebration, this exhibition underscores the now universally recognised and relevant statement ‘the personal is political’ originally coined by feminist protest groups in the 1970s. The walls of the gallery serve as a visual dialogue of how crucial yet exhausting it is for groups to not only have full autonomy over their struggle but how that struggle conversely comes to represent their identity politics.
As the ripped up black and white photo-montaging of The Hackney Flashers came to define not just artistic practice but journalistic approaches and aesthetic values of second wave UK Feminism, the striking sloganism of Gran Fury’s work appropriated 1980s advertising rhetoric to ensure a lasting legacy that relinquished the history of AIDs from the depths of unread history books, exposing the cast of characters who shambolically enabled its proliferation.
Choosing to adopt the name of the vehicle of choice for the NYPD - the Plymouth Gran Fury - the collective’s tactics spin on a non-violent yet innately clever approach to a pattern of institutional critique. This technique highlighted the inherent violence of what we now call intersectional oppression by the structures we grow to admire, listen to and rely upon.
In the same way that Keith Haring and Michel Basquiat are instantly recognisable today, Gran Fury’s dramatic slogans, neon colourways and large scale text compositions ensure that the work enters the canon of iconic designs. So, nearly half way through the review I finally get to the work - we’re met first and foremost with a call to arms title on the front of the gallery ‘All people with AIDS are innocent’. The placement of this declaration requests for the visitor to acknowledge this statement before entering the space - a disclaimer that those within are all on common ground. As such if the textual creations of Gran Fury had a hierarchy this could be considered their structural north, their pinnacle demand.
In the first room the large-scale poster and accompanying video ‘Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do’ (1989) could possibly be considered one of the first truly intersectional contemporary works of art. Several different couples kissing, some pecking one another coyly, some provocatively engaging in snogs full of longing, others deep throating - tongues darting and saliva engulfing like it’s their first pash on a sweaty dance floor - a symbolic salute to the emancipation of sexuality that was drastically and violently withdrawn from the gay community upon the outbreak of HIV. It’s a piece full of lusty, flirty necessity underscoring the trauma of HIV in which physical intimacy, an act we hold the dearest to our connection with one another, becomes a political bargaining chip.
The timeline of fly posters in the second room span what seems like a lifetime protesting misinformation. Here we bear witness to a spectrum commencing at fashion magazine ‘Cosmo’ progressing to the Vatican who ‘graciously’ placed the crisis of HIV at the feet of morality all the way up to the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, who famously didn’t address the health crisis of AIDs until 7 years into his presidency. Latter day medical progression enables the discourse to shift from the condom heavy tones of Gran Fury’s initial insistence. PrEP taken before sexual intercourse means that condom free sex can be achieved and enjoyed free from the fear of HIV. Here fear-free sex seems like such a small token to receive when the global damage of misinformation has stigmatised not just the intimate act itself but the entire community it serves.
Trudging back to the entrance my feet push and kick at printed bank notes thrown scattered across the floor - WHY ARE WE HERE? Because your malignant neglect kills! FUCK YOUR PROFITING. People are dying while you play business, emblazoned on the flip side of Ulysses S. Grant.
We witness with Gran Fury a sophistication of understanding enabling a group to create a body of work which, by enacting resistance opens up a beautiful and fascinating aesthetic pedagogy. I wouldn’t say that art saves lives but read my lips when I tell you that Gran Fury don’t purport to be able to un-do the injustice of the past, they just make sure that in attempting not to repeat it we also don’t erase or forget how it happened.