Not art: creativity, chaos and activism

Not art: creativity, chaos and activism

HIV Australia | Vol. 12 No. 3 | December 2014

By Abigail Groves

The International AIDS Conference in Melbourne earlier this year featured a strong artistic component, with the National Gallery of Victoria hosting a retrospective of work by gay artist David McDiarmid attracting thousands of visitors.

The International AIDS Conference in Melbourne earlier this year featured a strong artistic component, with the National Gallery of Victoria hosting a retrospective of work by gay artist David McDiarmid attracting thousands of visitors.

While the exhibition, entitled When This You See Remember Me, was shown at the Ian Potter Centre in the city’s Federation Square, across town at the University of Melbourne’s Student Union Building, there was another exhibition.

TRANSMISSIONS: Archiving HIV/AIDS, Melbourne 1979–2014chronicled the city’s response to HIV/ AIDS from 1979, when the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in Victoria began in earnest.

Jeffrey Grad’s “Dance Proud,
Fuck Safe” advertisement
for an ACT UP Benefit

TRANSMISSIONS featured art works and archival material, exhibited, as co-curator Russell Walsh described, ‘as if they were washed up on the shore from the past’.

As Walsh explained to Melbourne radio station Joy FM, by the late 1980s, ‘there was an impulse for artists – visual artists – to start getting active.’

There were a number of exhibitions featuring AIDS themes, culminating in the hugely successful Don’t leave me this way: Art in the age of AIDS at the National Gallery in 1994.

Yet, as Russell Walsh points out, designers were also crucial to the artistic response to the epidemic.

Many viewers may not draw a distinction between ‘art’ and ‘design’, and Walsh implied that it is one of identity.

‘Designers were working at a very early stage,’ he said.

‘But people who saw themselves as visual artists, as distinct from designers, came in from the end of the 80s.’

TRANSMISSIONS featured numerous posters and pamphlets, many of them of unidentified origin.

The exhibition brought back memories for Melbourne advertising executive Jeffrey Grad, who was involved in many of the campaigns produced in Melbourne in the 1980s and 90s.

‘It certainly jogged my memory, mostly about people who are gone,’ says Grad.

‘But I was also surprised at how much of my work was in the exhibition.’

Grad was a young drama student when AIDS first arrived in Australia, but with an uncertain career ahead as an actor, Grad drifted into design.

He had what was, at the time, a big asset: a Mac computer.

‘I bought a Mac and started doing design work,’ Grad recalls.

‘It was easy to get work at that time, if you had a Mac and knew how to use it. These machines were expensive and very few people had one, so I did a lot of freelance work.’

Grad’s Mac was also in demand within his own community.

‘I did work for the ALSO Foundation and Midsumma (Melbourne’s annual queer arts and cultural festival), but I was also going to community meetings.

‘I was in my late teens or early 20s when AIDS was hitting, and I came out into that environment.’

Grad describes himself as not very political. ‘I never had much time for class warfare dummy-spitting,’ he explains.

The arrival of ACT UP in the late 1980s, however, was different. With its issue-focused approach, ACT UP appealed to him.

‘I embrace activism that has concrete aims. ACT UP was very campaign-based and we were clear about what we were trying to achieve.’

‘I produced materials: banners, posters, placards, press releases,’ Grad recalls.

‘I was involved in organising things too, but most of my work was in the back room. These were group processes, of course, but I did most of the design work.’

It is difficult now to grasp the impact that the use of computers had on design and artwork.

‘Having a Mac, and the skill to get the most out of it was very potent, because almost nobody had them then. It meant that we could produce materials that looked slick and professional.

‘Suddenly it was easy to do that. And we could do it very quickly – overnight. The Government couldn’t do that – they had all the resources but they couldn’t do anything quickly.’

This combination of speed and impact was perfect for ACT UP. Time, observed Russell Walsh, was of the essence for ACT UP.

‘People were aware that yes, there were community organisations active, but they wanted things to speed up. ACT UP was about time, about speeding up the process.’

ACT UP’s Floral Clock
D-day installation, 6 June 1991.
Image courtesy Brother Sister.

This climaxed in the defacing of the famous floral clock in Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Gardens during ACT UP’s D-day campaign.

‘Our designs were very simple and bold. The messages were very direct and threatening,’ says Grad, though he qualifies this judgement.

‘At least, they were considered threatening at that time. In those days, it was much easier to shock people. I remember doing an ad for an ACT UP Benefit and we had a picture of a woman’s breast and the slogan “Dance Proud, Fuck Safe”.

‘That was very deliberate. And it created a huge stir, just having the word “fuck” in there. And nudity – oh my God!’ Grad, who now works in advertising, is emphatic that his design work is not to be considered “art”.

‘I never thought of it as art,’ he insists.

‘I thought of it as work – doing design work for campaigns. Crafting communication to get your message across, the same as in advertising. It was just like the design work we do for other campaigns. You have a brief and you come up with a look and a message.’

The distinction between ‘art’ and ‘activism’ seems to be about identity rather than the nature of the images produced.

‘I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about AIDS art, and artists doing things for their careers. It wasn’t a time for art,’ says Grad.

‘Yes, there were artists involved in ACT UP, but they were involved as activists rather than artists. They were holding placards, going to demonstrations. Art necessarily involves a level of reflection and introspection. That comes later.

‘Art is all very well, but sometimes you need someone to hold a placard.’

Grad’s involvement with ACT UP ended in the early 90s, as the sense of excitement and danger disappeared from AIDS activism.

‘By the mid-90s, a lot of the easy targets – in terms of campaigns – had been done. We flew too close to the sun. We were worn out.

‘ACT UP became very polite and regularised, with meetings and minutes and all the rest of it,’ he recalls.

‘At its height, ACT UP was quite chaotic and edgy.’

This process of combining creativity and chaos with something important to say sounds remarkably similar to descriptions of what is best in art.

Images courtesy of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives,

Abigail Groves is a freelance writer and a former Policy Analyst at AFAO.