|Tainted Love is a group exhibition that considers love as an activist tactic within artistic production. Featuring works made between 1987 and 2009, the show takes its inspiration from cultural/political activity within the moment of AIDS activism, from both its promises and its contradictions, though the projects included do not all strictly address AIDS. We present work that mobilizes love as a political tactic, with an understanding of love as collective and communal rather than romantic and individual. Love is often a tainted effect, and art a tainted cultural practice, within activism.|
Steven Lam and Virginia Solomon
Tainted Love is a group exhibition that considers love as an activist tactic within artistic production. Featuring works made between 1987 and 2009, the show takes its inspiration from cultural/political activity within the moment of AIDS activism, from both its promises and its contradictions, though the projects included do not all strictly address AIDS. We present work that mobilizes love as a political tactic, with an understanding of love as collective and communal rather than romantic and individual. Love is often a tainted effect, and art a tainted cultural practice, within activism. Tainted Love embraces this condition, and features projects that trouble the easy divide between the aesthetic and the political. The dominant narrative of AIDS-activist art, which corresponds with how we conceive of activist art more generally, takes up the model exemplified by activist art collective Gran Fury (1988-1995). This model embraced Postmodernism’s appropriation strategies while targeting a particular set of policy-related issues and goals. Gran Fury’s aim was, of course, to enrage, inform, and mobilize people to take direct action to end the AIDS crisis.
Gran Fury’s RIOT (1988), included in Tainted Love, demonstrates the possibilities as well as the limitations of direct action. The work was produced in response to General Idea’s AIDS logo, first shown in 1987, and included here with the Imagevirus series. General Idea based its image on Robert Indiana’s famous pop work LOVE (1966), which Gran Fury then reappropriated. Gran Fury objected to General Idea’s work and through RIOT expressed the basis of that objection, namely the work’s apparent disinterest in direct action. But by rejecting the AIDS logo, Gran Fury rejected cultural politics of misrecognition and destabilization, of other kinds of “common” senses and different forms of meaning-making. This kind of politics echoes in other works included in this exhibition: a politics we term “love.” The understanding of love that informs the show draws upon Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Per Barthes, we disidentify with love as a sentiment that affirms the autonomy of the individual within hegemonic Western notions of subject formation and rearticulation: I am not my most unique and actualized self once I find a you to love. To the contrary, within the work included here, love is that which exceeds the subject, that which refuses meaning and narrative in the interest of a different model of knowledge and understanding. This love ultimately demands a different mode of being itself, constructing an alternative model of subjectivity through which to live politically.
Tainted Love explores love as an activist tactic within artistic practices during and since the height of AIDS activist art, not to negate the model proposed by Gran Fury, Douglas Crimp, and the group of which both were a part, ACT UP, but to expand it. We take Crimp up on his call in his landmark essay AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural
Activism, to take “a vastly expanded view of culture in relation to crisis,” and consider the ways in which practices that don’t take up specific electoral or policy-based issues, operate politically. By doing so we take love seriously.
Canadian conceptual and performance art group General Idea—AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal—began working together in 1969, and created performances, videos, installations, objects, and ephemera until Partz’s and Zontal’s untimely AIDS-related deaths in 1994. The first work that the group completed after relocating to New York in 1986 was its AIDS project, which appropriated not only the structure of Robert Indiana’s LOVE—its grid-like arrangement of letters and its use of bright primary and secondary colors—but also its queer associations and its viral distribution. General Idea created Imagevirus from documents of this distribution, representing the image wheat-pasted on various surfaces, on numerous forms of public transportation, on Times Square’s LED screen, and as public sculpture. The work reads “AIDS,” but it refuses to signify as anything other than a viral operation, offering a specific critique of the corporate greed and government indifference that fueled the epidemic, but also interrogating the underlying systems of narrative, logic, and autonomy that structure both capitalism and neoliberal democracy.
New York-based activist art collective Gran Fury formed within AIDS activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in 1988. Although its membership fluctuated over the duration of its production—roughly 1988-1995—the group consistently produced works intended to inform, mobilize, and enrage people to take direct action to end the AIDS epidemic. Gran Fury produced RIOT (1988) as a response to General Idea, with whom it showed in an exhibition at the Neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst. The painting critiques the political operation and efficacy of the AIDS project, attacking what Gran Fury interpreted as General Idea’s attribution of AIDS to the sexual revolution, as well as its detachment from direct action. RIOT speaks to grassroots organization and street demonstration, reinforced by the image’s use in the group’s activity surrounding the 1989 gay pride parade, the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which typically are taken to be the point of origin for the contemporary gay rights movement.
An AIDS activism that privileged the bodies, experiences, and concerns of gay men dominated queer visual culture of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Public art collective Fierce Pussy, many of whose members were also active within ACT UP, created projects between 1991 and 1994 that assert lesbian sexuality as a site through which to critique not only dominant culture’s homophobia and sexism, among other injustices, but also gay male hegemony within queer culture. Its text- and image-based production—wheat-pasted posters, buttons, stickers, and other ephemeral practices—asserts a lesbian history while simultaneously insisting upon an understanding of identity as mutable and relational. By claiming auspiciously contradictory identities within one poster, simultaneously declaring “I am”: mannish and femme, a bulldagger and an amazon, Fierce Pussy reclaimed the streets of New York as a space of the politics of the everyday, with identity itself as the locus of intervention. Additionally, Tainted Love features a new, ongoing Fierce Pussy project, Gutter, that redacts pages from lesbian pulp novels to complicate the relationship between language and desire.