Avram Finkelstein looks back on Gran Fury’s contribution to the 1990 Venice Biennale, The Pope and the Penis, and considers how the immediacy of social media might have impacted the AIDS activist collective
In the 1980s, I frequently spent months in London, and I couldn’t understand why everyone I knew either had or wanted a cell phone. My colleagues seemed fascinated by the prospect of constant accessibility – an idea that hadn’t hit America yet.
Since then, the lowly mobile phone has transmogrified into a pocket computer, and I can’t imagine life now without its constant slipstream of information. This leads me to wonder: if Gran Fury – the AIDS activist art collective from New York to which I belong – had access to the immediacy of social media, rather than having to rely on the arduous production process of the street poster, would our work have been as effective? Could we have fabricated commensurate social turf on the current communications landscape? Would we have been clickbait?
Since my Instagram traffic is anaemic compared to sites that feature male bodies in some form of undress, perhaps not. Social media delivers all kinds of data, but the content that grabs us by our scruff is still as primordial as desire, as ancient as the campfire. What triggers human response has more to do with Carl Jung than with Apple, so it follows that archetypes and codes would be internet gold. The algorithms edging us toward social ruin provide hefty proof of that. So, here it’s worth considering Gran Fury’s one notable analogue to this 21st-century image dilemma: The Pope and the Penis (1990).
As collective processes go, Gran Fury’s was, well, furious. In my experience, conflict was an essential component of our collaborative voice. As frequently as we agreed on something, me and my ten co-members – Richard Elovich, Amy Heard, Tom Kalin, John Lindell, Loring McAlpin, Marlene McCarty, Donald Moffett, Michael Nesline, Mark Simpson and Robert Vazquez-Pacheco – fought about it, often for weeks on end. In fact, not only did I strenuously object to participating in the XLIV Venice Biennale, I refused to travel to Italy to work on this piece. Our practice was devoted to public projects and we only showed in galleries if the work was mounted in public-facing windows or if it included a public component. Since the biennial offered no such assurances, I opposed our presence there. But I’m happy to have been proven wrong by the unexpected impact of The Pope and the Penis, and proud of the year of work on which the installation was based.
‘Why Make AIDS Worse Than It Is?’ was the question The New York Times felt compelled to ask in its editorial on 29 June 1989. Heterosexual transmission, they claimed, was only possible if women chose sex partners who were bisexual or injected drugs. Backed by a series of myopic statistics, they argued for calm in a way that leap-frogged over projections by the General Accounting Office and clinical data indicating that, by 1987, AIDS was the number one killer of women between the ages of 24 and 29 in New York. Their reasoning was so packed with racist and misogynistic tropes that the essay would likely never have been printed had it not come directly from the editorial board itself.
As it happened, our freshly formed Gran Fury collective had already weighed in on heterosexual transmission the year before, with a poster announcing a demonstration addressing women and AIDS. ‘SEXISM REARS ITS UNPROTECTED HEAD,’ the 1988 poster screamed in giant letters; in smaller capitals was flatly stated the predicament that ACT UP Women’s Caucus was focused on with gnawing precision: ‘AIDS KILLS WOMEN.’ It also included a snotty rejoinder that typified our voice: ‘MEN: Use Condoms or Beat It.’ Oh, and a large, erect penis pierced the entire text.
To say this work didn’t get the exposure it deserved when it was wheat-pasted around the streets of Manhattan in 1988 is an understatement. Alongside several pals from the Women’s Caucus, I was in one of the crews tasked with mounting this poster. When we went back to survey our assigned turf, the posters had vanished without a trace. No torn remnants were visible, implying they’d been peeled off the walls while they were still wet. Someone, it seemed, had followed in our wake, removing them as we put them up. The posters barely saw the light of day.
A distinctive yet overlooked feature of Gran Fury’s output is how heavily recycling factored into our practice. With some exceptions, we insistently hammered away at phrases, images or subjects we perceived as having had insufficient airing. In fact, much of our output spun off projects imagined within our first year – in particular, the suite of posters advertising nine days of ACT UP actions responsible for the genesis of Sexism Rears Its Unprotected Head (1988). Gran Fury had a very deep affection for this particular work, thinking it simultaneously hilarious and truthful. So, when we were given the opportunity to participate in the Biennale, we couldn’t resist reinventing it – this time in lurid colour – as a companion to an inflammatory indictment of the Catholic Church’s opposition to condom use.
As threatening as the saga of the Venice Biennale was to the collective in real time, it also had a slapstick aspect to it. The details are chronicled through the collective’s recollections in the 80WSE exhibition catalogue, Read My Lips (2011). These included: seizure of the work by Italian customs; a visit by the United States Information Agency; threats of arrest; a boycott of its censorship by other artists; our hiding the work near the garbage containers of a pizzeria; a visit by magistrates; proposed legal action by the Italian Parliament; and national tabloid coverage of the work that far exceeded its exposure in art-media outlets.
Looking back from the 21st century, this work has an art-historical frame that scaffolds many mythologies about art as social justice. In real time, however, the tale was delivered to Italian doorsteps through one of the most unsophisticated forms of storytelling: tabloid journalism, which is arguably the precursor to our current, conspiracy-laden, social-media zeitgeist. This juxtaposition of high and low cultural storytelling poses questions that land us on contemporary turf. Would this work have garnered attention without the firestorm caused by its unsheathed sexuality, its questioning of the Vatican’s mystical beliefs in its home country, or its go-fuck-yourself feminist and queer defiance? The art press covered the controversy, but how extensive would that have been if it hadn’t been fanned into a blaze by the tabloids?
This work landed smack in the middle of its cultural landscape, but it also offered a view from the margins, a distinguishing characteristic of queer questioning during the moment of its making. It landed in the middle because Gran Fury relied heavily on the centrality of advertising vernaculars, the folk language of capitalism. Although détournement was not original to us – nor were we the only artists exploring it – we squatted in advertising’s matter-of-factness, its insistence and its omnipresence, which we bent into a battle cry. I say our work is a view from the periphery because our strategic thinking was grounded on novel interpretations of queer activism, queer expression and queer rage stewing in lower Manhattan in the midst of a mass-death experience. Our collective was thrown together as a result of a nascent queer perspective that insisted the AIDS crisis was historically distinctive, and the attendant differentiations were a form of power.
So, would Gran Fury have thrived if the internet were the dominant media landscape? Possibly, since social media is simply our current form of content delivery – just as television, film, newspapers or broadsheets were before it. It might offer reinvented content formats – such as the meme – but the proliferation of communication platforms has bloated an image commons reliant on content into one that is unsustainable without it. Content, more than ever, is the coin of the realm.
Moreover, through years of mentoring young queer artists, I’ve observed that the successors of Gran Fury not only have a new relationship to public messaging, they have more of a relationship to it than previous generations. An international survey show of queer artists that I assembled for the Leslie-Lohman Museum in New York last year, ‘OMNISCIENT: Queer Documentation in an Image Culture’, probed generations of queer artists, who vividly map our image commons along the continuum Gran Fury utilized, and who see our digital landscape as an intricate ecosystem of power narratives representing fantasias of egalitarianism bridging the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, and who articulate the tensions between access and limitation, literacy and legibility, marking and erasure, identity and colonization, agency and refusal.
Machine-learning may have morphed the image culture Gran Fury relied on into ever-expanding information conduits of Möbius non-orientability, but our image culture has not gone away. If anything, it has only grown in relative proportion; it has become incessant and is now as imperative as a volcano. And, while the internet poses as a universally accessible tool, it is actually a bottomless sea. Trying to get noticed online is like slipping a note into a bottle. Still, publics are more likely to see agitprop on their phones than they were on a Manhattan side street, or as B-roll on broadcast news.
So, if you’re perplexed about how to carve out a space for political art online, The Pope and the Penis is a useful case study. Or you could always just attach a naked torso to your messaging on Instagram.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 226 with the headline ‘The Pope, the Penis and the Phone’. For additional coverage of the 59th Venice Biennale, see here.
Main image: Gran Fury, Kissing Doesn’t Kill, 1990, ink on vinyl, 76 × 300 cm. Courtesy: Gran Fury and Avram Finkelstein
Avram Finkelstein is an artist, writer, curator and founding member of the Silence=Death and Gran Fury collectives. He is featured in the Smithsonian Institution’s Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project (2016–18)
Rem Koolhaas: ‘The strategies and mechanisms that later shape Manhattan are tested in the laboratory of Coney Island’
In his book Delirious New York: A Retrospective Manifesto for Manhattan (1978), Rem Koolhaas develops his astonishing analysis of the ‘technology of the fantastic’. This fantastical and by no means merely practical doctrine underlies, he writes, New York’s methods of construction. Koolhaas calls this ‘Manhattanism’. He is concerned with the ‘exploitation of congestion’, that is, the wistful (‘delirious’) movement of masses in the direction of the former entertainment centre of Coney Island, a movement which tolerates no hindrance whatsoever and with all its buzz remains serviceable as an attraction beyond Coney Island. This includes the employment of used projection equipment from the amusement park for secondary use in Manhattan.
Walter Benjamin’s favourite film
The American feature film Lonesome (1928) by Pál Fejös schematically presents one man, one woman and the crowd. And indeed, the wave of humanity, brought in on specially chartered buses, accompanied by brass bands that set the mood, surges toward the ocean and the amusements of Coney Island.
The dock says it is afternoon. Bathing on the beach. One-piece bathing costumes. The eye is drawn to parts of the arms, the throat, the upper thighs. Lonesome shows sand churned up by feet. Thousands of feet have moved to the water and out of the water. To this place the worker and the switchboard girl have come. They do not know that they live next door to each other. But by chance, on the trip here, they have recognized each other. He has followed her. The dialogue in the film establishes the process of mutual disarmament. This process is necessary if the improbable achievement of an established intimacy (Niklas Luhmann) is to be effected. This is at the core of novels and plays. At first, both of them make a show of their background and their own worth. ‘I’m meeting someone at five at the Ritz,’ says Jim, the worker. There is little that Mary, the switchboard girl, can say in reply to that.
Love dreams of absolute power
The riposte comes from the counter-effect of actual circumstances. Night falls. The crowds have quit the beach. The two protagonists, in their one-piece bathing suits, realise that they’re freezing. They admit to their real occupations. Love is not yet part of the exchange; that is a lofty agenda. ‘Let’s have fun,’ says Mary, the keeper of little lambs. She thinks that only the act of sexual intercourse makes it possible to decide what one feels for the other. Perhaps something that could be called love will crystallize. What might this be? Something that can take a knock or two.
The couple move on to the attractions. The pleasure machine of Coney Island is not too precise. Mostly sheer thrust, the machine serves amusement, and considered as machinery Coney Island (‘the amassing of change’) could not be of any conceivable use in a factory; even as a contrivance, it leads to accidents.
The fortune teller as utopian
The voice of the fortune teller: This very day you will meet a brown-haired woman and you will stay together until your life’s fulfilment has been achieved.
The fortune teller, an automaton, is of moulded iron construction. The jaws open and close, yielding up sounds fed in by a phonograph. A gleaming blue eye opens and shuts. White hair, and furrows that mechanically crinkle the brow. An image of wise dependability. The automaton’s utterance seems to fit Mary. The two take each other by the hand.
The roller coaster
On the roller coaster they are assigned places in separate cars. Their partners in these two-seaters are no more a couple than they themselves are. They try to communicate across the distance using signs. The terror of the abyss. Ever since 1902, succeeding generations of engineers have added new effects to this roller coaster every year. This has destabilised what was originally a well-balanced overall design. Today, the stress to which the machinery is exposed has hit its limit. The wheels of one of the cars starts to glow on the steep curves, the machinery catches fire; an accident, but there are no signs of any precautions or of stopping the adventurous pleasure ride. People could die like this.
Director Pál Fejös made only this one feature film, a gem of the modern spirit. Later, in Thailand and Madagascar, he made ethnographic documentaries. The Hungarian’s interest was in people, in sociology. Here, in his masterpiece (Walter Benjamin’s favourite film), he narrates the night-time hours of his two specialists in happiness. The accident on the roller coaster tears them apart; storm clouds roll over the places of pleasure. Soaked by the rain, they return to their respective apartments, their living containers. Although their apartments (as the viewer can see) are so close to each other, they would have remained in their separate existences if it were not for music. The hit song ‘Always I Will Love You’ survives on record. This was the tune the brass bands were playing to accompany the vehicles that brought the two (and the crowds of pleasure seekers) to Coney Island. In each of their apartments there is a record player. Both of them own the record of that song. They find it comforting to listen to the song again. The most valuable characteristic of humankind, writes director Fejös, is longing. If it could be hoarded as in a bank account, the quest for happiness would produce billionaires.
A dream that was thought to be already over / Suitability
Two Robinson Crusoes in New York City. How lucky that I can defend my little place against anyone else in the crowds of millions. Otherwise, I should be unable to say what I want. Now, from the next apartment, Mary hears the song ‘Always’ – that is to say: I am resolute, dependable and at all times, I shall be near you, even when you’re 64, in other words, sturdiness, suitability – she hears the message from the adjoining cell. Taking heart, Mary opens the door to the apartment, which is not locked, and sees Jim, whom she thought she’d already lost.
And so, in the teeth of adversity, despite the objective unsuitability of the amusement machinery, despite the uncertainty of the two protagonists in all matters to do with the happy conduct of their lives (the difficult task of transferring to a love relationship the highly developed skill with which Mary handles telephones and Jim caresses machine tools), concrete fun does occur. It continues until Monday morning. Then the 1928 professional world of work recommences. But the two of them take a sly delight at the prospect of resuming that evening.
At the time of the 1939 World’s Fair the ergonomist D. Knoche, New York, developed the concept of ‘spiritualization’. This could be observed, e.g., at the climax of large sporting events when spectators would be enveloped by a kind of cloud. This creates the phenomenon of the ‘unforgettable’ in people’s heads. This is not to be confused with a cloud of sweat. Occupational scientist Detlevson disagrees with Knoche and calls his vision ‘ghostly’. Indeed, on multiple occasions between 1943 and 1945 several engineers from Speer’s weapons-development staff observed ‘ghostly apparitions’ – the sudden, improbable proliferation of drivers in the work process – which testify to Knoche’s analysis. Thus, April 1945 saw the inexplicable construction of 7,800 fighter jets for which no demand plan, material, or manpower was available at all. Indeed, not even the place of production was subsequently determinable. And yet the aircrafts were there, if useless for want of crew.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 225 with the headline ‘Amusement Machines’