GREENWICH VILLAGE — There was a time when award-winning filmmaker and activist Tom Kalin felt very, very afraid.
It was the height of the AIDS epidemic in New York in the late 1980s. Half a dozen of his friends had died from the disease, more were getting sick, and the FDA was giving double-blind placebo trials as experiments to patients — essentially blocking any chance for people with AIDS to get the treatment they so desperately needed.
Feeling that the government was irresponsibly silent, Kalin helped form ACT Up, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, to change legislation and medical research surrounding FDA policies. Using art as a weapon, Kalin and colleagues created Gran Fury, a propaganda ministry for ACT Up that "advertised" AIDS issues with art and media. The hope was to raise awareness about the epidemic and change the way the government was handling it.
Nearly 25 years later, Kalin and colleagues are commemorating the work they did through Gran Fury and ACT Up with "Gran Fury: Read My Lips," an exhibit at NYU that highlights the media and political art the group created and looks back at how artists helped change policy in the face of death.
"Instead of looking at our work as saving lives, it woke up lives," Kalin, now a professor and figure in New Queer Cinema, said Wednesday while preparing the exhibit. "It educated people as to what was going on. We were explaining something in a very clear way."
The exhibition, set to open on Tuesday, conveys the urgency of ACT Up's message using billboards, postcards, video, posters and painting. Photographs and records from the period show how the AIDS crisis led artists like Kalin into New York City's streets to demand the reforms that ultimately saved lives.
"Part of the reason that Gran Fury started doing their work, is that there was an epidemic," said Marlene McCarty, an artist with Gran Fury. "The government was being unbelievably silent. The people who were supposed to be helping us were doing nothing."
Named after the Plymouth car used by the NYPD, Gran Fury's projects ranged from fliers to video segments. The political art attacked figures like the Pope and Barbara Bush, and was at once seen as scathing, provocative and funny.
The text-laden posters and fliers — described by members of Gran Fury as "Situationist site-specific art strategies" meets "post-modern appropriation" — sparked debate in the Illinois Senate and ultimately provided a window into the art and politics flourishing in downtown New York during the AIDS epidemic.
In the exhibit at NYU, works like "Kissing Doesn't Kill," a public service video series showing gays and lesbians kissing, will be reproduced in large-scale formats along the walls of the gallery.
"What we did is we allowed a compassionate approach," artist John Lindell, 55, said about the series.
"We showed that kissing is OK, that you're not going to get HIV from it. It was a sex-positive message in the middle of an AIDS crisis."
The exhibit will also display sections of "Men Use Condoms," an edition of 3,000 postcards advertising safe-sex relations, and "Women Don't Get AIDS," a sarcastic take on common misconceptions surrounding the disease at the time.
In addition to attacking government programs and figures, the work also inspired people living with HIV/AIDS to use the tools around them in order to be more protected. Blunt messages were interspersed in the text of the graphic work, asking those with the disease to wear condoms and drug users to use clean needles.
Ultimately, the group compares what they did then to what global activists do now — only using tools like billboards and giveaways in lieu of technology and social media.
"A lot of the work was filling the vacuum that was surrounding the epidemic," McCarty said. "We changed the discussion."
"Gran Fury: Read My Lips" will run at 80WSE Galleries at 80 Washington Square East from Jan. 31 to March 17.