~Steven Heller, The Daily Heller
The first time I heard of AIDS, I stopped to pay a toll at a booth on the Saw Mill River Parkway in Westchester, NY. It wasn’t actually AIDS that captured my attention, but rather a small round sticker prominently placed in the bucket where I threw my quarter. This sticker—no larger than an old 50-cent piece, was adorned with a pink triangle on a black background and the phrase “Silence=Death” was dropped out in white—gave me pause. As the line of impatient drivers behind me in line began blowing their horns, I made a mental note and resolved to find out the meaning. I stepped on the gas.
When was the last time a piece of graphic ephemera posed a question that demanded similar (or any) attention? I did not need to do much research. Within a few weeks, more stickers and posters cropped up underscoring the “Silence=Death” theme: A new virus that was beginning to impact mostly gay men. The quick increase in infection fatalities began triggering action and awareness among some. Since HIV/AIDS victims were gay, silence was maintained until news outlets, including the New York Times began coverage.
Among other burgeoning activist groups, ACT-UP and its graphic arm, Gran Fury, launched awareness campaigns, including the sticker at the toll booth; and the awareness grew and grew spreading words of caution. AIDS facts, much in the form of posters, triggered an info epidemic of sorts—arguably the most energized campaigns of the latter 20th century.
The disease has not been entirely expunged but the posters are evidence of the global crisis that many victims lived and died through. A new book, Up Against The Wall: Art, Activism and the AIDS Poster(RIT Press), edited by Donald Albrecht and Jessica Laher-Feldman, with William M. Valenti, is a chronicle and catalog of the University of Rochester’s collection of AIDS education posters.
December 1 is the annual World AIDS Day observance. An estimated 78 million people have become infected with HIV, and 35 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses since 1981.
Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism, and the AIDS Poster, documents selected graphic art posters used as preventative advice or protest art through the AIDS pandemic. Donald Albrecht edited the book with Jessica Lacher-Feldman and William M. Valenti M.D., (hardcover, 232 pages, 187 illustrations).
The book has an accompanying online exhibit —with an in-person version in Rochester, New York next year.
Up Against the Wall documents the impact of the pandemic with nearly 200 examples of AIDS educational posters from around the world. It also visualizes the social activism that continues to bring awareness to a disease that is still without a vaccine or cure.
The posters, spanning the years from 1982 to the present, show how social, religious, civic, and public health agencies addressed the controversial, often contested terrain of the HIV/AIDS pandemic within the public realm.
Some of the imagery is familiar to patrons of gay bars, or New York City and San Francisco streets, when ACT UP posters were wheat-pasted all over various neighborhoods.~Jim Provenzano, Bay Area Reporter
Three of the posters included in 'Up Against the Wall'
International posters may seem quaint by comparison, but each caters to cultural variances by using different tactics; some scary and forceful, others whimsical and cartoonish.
Organizations and creators tailored their messages to audiences, both broad and very specific, and used a wide array of strategies, employing emotion, simple scientific explanations (in some, sexual imagery), and many other methods to communicate powerfully and effectively.
Comparisons between pandemic are inevitable. While AIDS prevention posters had to be placed either guerilla-style or with a venue's permission, COVID-19 information and vaccines have become widely available. At its peak, the AIDS pandemic had its tiny cluster of denialists and refuseniks. But that pandemic didn't endure multiple global protests and riots by 'COVID-iots' who refuse to wear a facemask.
The collection of posters in the book are chosen from more than 8,000 held in the collection in the University of Rochester's River Campus Libraries' Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation. The collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world, was donated to the University of Rochester by Dr. Edward Atwater.
While scholarly in its focus, the text is readable to a wider audience, and makes an essential addition to any collector of health-focused and activist art.
- Foreword INDIES
- IPPY AWARD