Sarah Schulman’s book ‘Let the Record Show’ A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1983, is a stunning history of the New York branch of the legendary campaigning ‘AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power” (ACT UP). Sometimes described as the ‘mother ship’ of global AIDS activism.
ACT UP pioneered uniquely powerful and expressive forms of activism that changed policies and saved lives at the height of the AIDS crisis in New York and in the process forever transformed the art of campaigning.
Schulman’s book succeeds not just in telling the story of the movement but also embodies ACT UP’s experimental urgency, spirit and inventive methods. The book is both an extraordinary stand-alone document and the culmination of a long-term archival project, ‘The ACT UP oral History Project’ which Schulman and Jim Hubbard have been working on since 2001.
There are good practical reasons to take note of the book’s archival dimension, as the printed document is constructed around multiple interviews with key ACTUPers drawn directly from the archive. And rather than quoting the interviews in extenso they are made more readable and by being paraphrased and accompanied with the author’s contextual reflections. However critical readers will wish to go to the source of these interpretations so access to full transcripts of the interviews can be downloaded from www.actuporalhistory.org allowing close readers and researchers to go back and forth between book and the archive. Moreover, the archive also includes five minutes of streaming videos of each of the 188 people profiled. The complete movies can be viewed in person at the New York and San Francisco Public Libraries.
Finally, a vital aspect of the book are the many acts of remembrance that intersperse the interviews with affecting ‘recollections’ of individual ACTUPers who did not survive by those who knew them. The cumulative impact over the 700 pages is one of both apocalyptic loss coupled with an abiding sense of immediacy and relevance to the wider campaigning necessities of today.
My single fast reading scratches the surface but while its fresh in my mind I thought it worth sharing some notes and sharing a number of key points that still resonate. There are many more.
The AIDS crisis is not over- By definition historians attend to the past, but as Schulman sees it the AIDS epidemic is not over. Just from a local perspective of the hundred thousand New Yorkers who have died of AIDS, 1779 died in 2017. We can only wonder how many would have been saved had a fraction of the resources thrown ad Covid would have been directed to HIV AIDS.
Purpose continued relevance- Schulman’s declared purpose “is not to look back with nostalgia, but rather to help contemporary and future activists learn from the past so that they can do more effective organising in the present. We wanted to show, clearly what we had witnessed in ACT UP: that people from all walks of life, working together can change the world.
Disrupting the trajectory of gay male history- “AIDS activism’s most radical and socially revolutionary vision evolved when white men were in the same boat as everybody else who had AIDS: desperate. Because they were desperate, they acted differently. They listened. Anyone with no way out looks for a way out. And it is only in that moment that their prejudices, conventions and egos are up for grabs.
Schulman analyses a previously ignored story of women, race and drugs and housing with regards to the AIDS crisis, and most of all, the power of groups over individuals. Schulman used the ACT UP Oral History Project to unearth real lessons for the future, which is our present. In the process and came to understand that, for one thing, AIDS activist history has been mistakenly placed overwhelmingly in the trajectory of gay male history. Many individual gay men with expertise in business organisation, public relations, advertising, graphic design, and health care often had never thought deeply about how to organise a popular meeting, or how to build an action outside of established institutional frameworks. This combination of shock at how little their lives meant to powerful institutions, and the need to quickly create a functional grassroots movement, meant that lesbians with tested organising experience from the lesbian and feminist movements were- for once – noticed, needed and very welcome.
Art The book’s headline title ‘Let the Record Show’ refers to the name of an installation placed in the street facing window of the New Museum in SoHo, in the form of a visual display/montage with images associating hostile socio/political actors of the time with the war criminals tried at Nuremberg. The installation (or display) was by the artist’s collective that later became Gran Fury and was also the group who designed the famous Silence=Death logo that became the visual calling card for global AIDS activism.
By using an artwork as the title of the book Schulman signals that her ‘political history’ treats ACT UP’s cultural production as indivisible from its other campaigning activities. Indeed, she later contends that “ACT Up was probably the first movement of deeply oppressed people whose lives were at stake to have included such a large group of designers, advertising professionals, studio artists, marketeers, and publicists well versed in the visual language of branding and experienced in selling ideas, fresh out of art school and with relationships to institutions with cultural influence. ACT UP not only adapted the aesthetics of advertising but also benefited from activists who were actually the people who *created* the aesthetics of advertising.”
Theory/Direct Action – In his review of the book for the London Review of Books, Adam Mars-Jones asserts that for ACT UP “theory was a late arrival at the party, if it turned up at all.” But this is definitely not true or what Schulman is arguing. One of the important lessons that today’s activists can take from the book was that theory was present but (like the art) it was not separate from action. Indeed, the distinctive way in which theory operates in relationship to action is a key part of ACT UP theory. As Maxine Wolfe, one of ACT UP’s most influential leaders put it, “theory emerges” as a concrete result of actual decisions that are being made for real-life application. Instead of the Gramscian concept of “praxis,” which is the application of theory into practice, ACT UP first chose a practice – an action – and then evolved a theory necessary to make it work towards our larger goal of “direct action to end the AIDS crisis”.
In this way campaigns were structured as a series of interconnected actions, designed to produce a larger outcome…. energy was not wasted and events had purpose as part of a larger scheme. Not wasting energy, effort, or goodwill was essential for being effective in a movement of people who literally dis not have time.
Simultaneity Not Consensus Although it was never made explicit at the time ACT UP’s process of dealing with differences [conflict] was to practice a kind of radical democracy. In this way, individuals and cliques had to give up any thought of successful control over the entirety of the organisation.”
The method was to allow many, different expressions of direct action to be carried on simultaneously, none of them requiring full consensus, total participation or universal agreement. The only requirement was that it was direct action, with a goal related to ending the AIDS crisis.”
This freedom of expression within the movement was born not out of theory but of necessity. Many people in ACT Up did not have long to live. They were working against the clock to try to save their own lives. This lack of time made people more efficient, creative and flexible […] ultimately this very wide range of simultaneous responses, in multiple social milieus, with different concrete aims and involving different targets and participants, strengthened ACT UP because it created a large and resonant, cumulative impact that singular activity could never have produced.
Affinity Groups – Gregg Bordowitz remembers at a Monday meeting rising and saying “Look you can just do this. You don’t have to go to the large group and ask for authorisation. In fact its better that the large group is not involved with these kinds of actions because they don’t have to be held accountable. So you can just do stuff. ACT UP is just this place where we all meet on a weekly basis to talk about strategy and prioritise issues”. This happened at the same time that the concept of affinity groups, which are inherently autonomous from the larger body, was gaining more popularity in ACT UP.
The Common Factor Schulman began her analysis of the interviews looking for what it was that connects such a diverse Group. In the end her conclusion is surprisingly individualistic. ‘what ACTUPers had in common” she argues “was not experiential…Rather it was characterological . These were people who were unable to sit out a historical cataclysm.. In the case of emergency they were not bystanders’. She believes that social change is made by coalitions, and the thesis advanced here is that the skills and resources acquired from the struggle for reproductive rights enabled women to play a transformative role in ACT UP. [This conclusion speaks to us directly as a challenge we all face today in responding to the climate emergency ]
No Bystanders Artists (one of a number associated Whitney Museum study program) David Meieran and Gregg Bordowitz showed up at a Monday-night ACT UP meeting with cameras seeing themselves as traditional “documentarians.” They didn’t conceptualise themselves at first as part of the action. So they were upset when people didn’t want to let them film, and when Larry (Kramer) had no interest in being interviewed. It was the learning curve of realising that everyone who was present was expected to be active.
Later with videographers Hilery Kipnis, Robyn Hutt, and Sandra Elgear they formed the Testing the Limits video collective and in the process of filming every action as ACT UP grew, also started to develop a conceptual role for documentary film making that functioned as part of a movement instead of being separate and outside collective. This would come to be known as video activism….” Bordowitz later got together with They activists Charles Stimson and Ortez Alderson and decided to do a kind of activism not authorised be the large group.”.
My interest in this book is partly the result of being part of a group who organised The Sero Positief Bal an HIV AIDS event held in Amsterdam. We invited a number of the individuals featured in the book not only from the New York chapter of ACT UP but from many locations. I later went to New York to assemble ACT UP graphics for a small exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. It was then that I was able to attend a couple of the legendary Monday evening meetings at Cooper Union. Gregg Bordowitz was moderating with Alexis Dansig. I have never before or since encountered anything that matched the energy and dynamism of those meetings.
That said the visit of the ACTUPers to our well meaning but flawed event in Amsterdam was not a happy encounter as we were roundly critiqued by ACT UP for our efforts. But the impact of their work and its implications on a number of us was profound. So much of the above you might recognise in the politics and aesthetics of ‘Tactical Media’. It is no coincidence that the first edition of Next 5 Minutes followed a year later.