Robert Rayford, a teenager from Missouri, was the first known US citizen to die of HIV/AIDS – that was in 1969. Crunching the numbers six years later, the disease would claim a further 6,000 lives, all under the nose of then-President Ronald Reagan – an imperative voice in such times – who was yet to publicly acknowledge it. Filling in the gaps, activist art collectives such as Gran Furyand the organisation ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), amongst many more, were tasked with the moral duty of spreading the awareness of a growing epidemic which, last year, AIDS research organisation amfAR reported was contracted by almost 240 people every hour.
As the government refused to comment on the growing crisis, and the number of dead bodies – isolating blame to the dubious and marginal of society; prostitutes, drug addicts and homosexuals – activism took to the streets. Protest rallies were held, but most importantly, the artists found a way to infiltrate everyday society, employing advertising tactics with a darkly sinister spin. Bank notes were stamped with loaded statements reflecting government attitudes of the time; “White Heterosexual Men Can’t Get AIDS”, it read, and when flipped over; “DON’T BANK ON IT!”. Elsewhere, bloodied hands were smudged around city hotspots and mock-ups of The New York Times (changed to The New York Crimes) were doled out on bustling streets.
Although it would take the good-half of a decade to have their voices heard, these activists – whether solo or collective – were instrumental in raising awareness, breaking down the social stigma and blame attached to the illness, and ensuring that public funding was allocated towards medical research aimed at finding a treatment, if not, a cure. Tommaso Speretta’s book REBELS REBEL, published by MER Paper Kunsthalle, pays homage to AIDS’ art and activism in New York during these crucial years, with original artworks gained from the creators themselves, who were of course, happy to continue spreading their message. Below, Speretta tells us about the importance of these years, making a scene and fighting the good fight.