Equality

How Six NYC Activists Changed History With “Silence = Death”

The collective that created the Silence = Death poster is back after thirty years to recall its origins and launch new art

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Research direction of triangle
printing prices (3 estimates)
charles – typefaces
pricing
stock
chris – cut paper + triangle for comps
wheat paste
van rental?
appetizer

This is a to-do list from 1986, written in the journal of Avram Finkelstein, then an art director with Vidal Sassoon. He and five comrades — Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Socarrás — had gathered over several months to provide support for one another in the face of AIDS, and in doing so came up with an idea for a poster to address the epidemic then decimating their world. Their eventual creation — a pink triangle set against a black background, with the words “Silence = Death” below it — would several months later end up wheatpasted on walls throughout the city, and would eventually be used by the then-nascent activist group ACT UP (with permission from the poster’s creators) as its central visual.

Finkelstein, Howard, Kreloff, Lione, and Socarrás tell me the story on a warm day in June. (Johnston died of AIDS-related complications in 1990.) We are sitting around a table in the back office of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, whose new executive director, Gonzalo Casals, recently commissioned the group to create a new work based on their poster. This is the first time the five men have had a chance to be in the same room since 2012, with Howard only recently returning to New York after 25 years of living in Los Angeles. This is also the first time they have ever been interviewed together about the poster, and they’re eager to discuss their memories of three decades ago; they start reminiscing before I even have a chance to hit Record.

The origins of Silence = Death, which stands alongside We Shall Overcome, Sí Se Puede, We Are the 99%, and #blacklivesmatter as a touchstone of social justice movements, can be traced to a New York diner in 1985. Nights earlier, Socarrás recalls, he was “walking down Broadway towards Astor Place and having this irresistible impulse to throw myself on the sidewalk and pound my fists on the ground. I had to stop myself. I wanted to wail to heaven.” Over the previous few years he had lost so many men he loved that he stopped writing down their names after his list reached 100. That night, he remembers, he “watched that potential scenario [play out in my mind] and thought, ‘I can either do that or I can try to do something with this energy.’ ”

He reached out to Finkelstein, whose boyfriend had recently died, in hopes of connecting with someone who could empathize. They made a plan to meet, and Socarrás invited his friend Johnston to tag along. The three bonded over how their straight friends, as caring as some could be, had no comprehension of what gay men were going through during the epidemic. “It felt like we were in a movie,” Finkelstein remembers. “The depth of field shifted and everything went out of focus, because I felt so engaged by being able to talk publicly about something that no one else talked about publicly.”

Inspired, the trio decided to form a consciousness-raising group, a form Finkelstein and Socarrás were familiar with from having grown up in left-leaning political households. Finkelstein suggested they each invite someone the others did not know. Socarrás invited Howard, Johnston invited Kreloff, and Finkelstein invited Lione.

Their first year together was an intimate time. In a photo from this period, Howard, who had set the camera’s timer, is crouched behind the couch, making bunny ears over Finkelstein. The others sit, arms and legs linked. Everyone has a goofy grin, and there is a brotherly familiarity to the scene.

Over food they made for one another — mostly simple pasta dishes — they shared, often for the first time, their heartache over lost friends and partners and their fears of dying, being sick, and never finding love. They would also bring in press clippings and, as the night wore on, work through their frustration with the lack of information about what was happening. That “everyone was so attuned” is what struck Howard at the time. “There was a connectivity to the world that I was seeking. I felt displaced. I saw the pieces of the [HIV] puzzle, but I couldn’t put it all together. With them, everything made sense once we started to gather.”

During these early months, Johnston received a positive diagnosis. He did not tell the group for weeks — something everyone understood was his decision to make. But, together, they had to process feelings of pending loss and confusion — what did it mean that one of them didn’t feel able to disclose even within the consciousness-raising group? “It was one of the saddest nights we ever spent together,” Lione remembers.

Sitting at the head of the table in the back of the museum, Kreloff recalls how, on the first anniversary of their meetings, there was a sense that something had to shift. “Each of us felt very responsible for others in the group and ourselves,” he says. “We had gotten to this point, and there was this feeling, of ‘So what do we do now?’ ” Kreloff remembers Finkelstein saying “something physical has to come from this,” right before he suggested they make a poster.

It was an easy sell to a group that had been discussing the intersection of art and politics all along. Russian Constructivist art posters hung in Finkelstein’s apartment on 42nd Street, where they would sometimes meet; together they had already discussed political art from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the Art Workers Coalition; and, as Finkelstein remembers, Kreloff had brought the group’s attention to the Guerrilla Girls feminist art collective for how “they managed to put very complex ideas into street language.”

Johnston, Kreloff, and Lione were already established in their careers as graphic designers; Howard was fast on his way to becoming an art director, already working for the photographer Kim Steele; Finkelstein had a visual arts practice; and Socarrás had been a full-time touring musician, having formed the influential band Indoor Life and collaborated with Patrick Cowley (who died of AIDS-related causes in 1982).

Early into their commitment to making a poster, Lione remembers, conservative commentator William F. Buckley wrote in the New York Times that anyone living with HIV/AIDS should be “tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.” Lione brought it up at a meeting, with the idea that these body parts could play a part in their design.

He remembers the questions flying: “How do we cover a community of people? Women were coming down with AIDS, black people, black gay people, drug users — it had already crept into so many different areas. What butt would we use? Would it be a male that was curvy? Would we shoot it in black-and-white so the body would not have a race? We talked it to death and we realized it was impossible for us to cover it all in one photograph.”

Eventually, the discussion steered toward iconography, taking into consideration what it meant to feel left for dead and the historical resonances that brought up. The group settled on the pink triangle the Nazis had used to brand gay men during the Holocaust, which had been reclaimed a decade or so earlier as a symbol of gay pride — the members had rejected it at first, but then decided they hated it less than the other options: rainbow flag, labrys, lambda. (They did embolden themselves to update the color from pale pink to fuchsia.) Over a night of working with tissue paper and scissors, the team discussed how they didn’t want to imbue the poster with a sense of victimhood, a feeling they had worked hard as a group to get away from.

What they did not initially notice was that, in addition to changing the color, they had flipped the triangle upside down. As Finkelstein recalls, “When we went into production, Oliver said he would do the research [on the direction of the triangle], but he didn’t. It was one of the many things he said he would do, and didn’t do.” Only after the poster was done, when Finkelstein approached businesses to hang it in their windows, were they told by some, including the Oscar Wilde bookshop, that they wouldn’t participate because of the misdirection of the triangle. Sensing an opportunity, Kreloff suggested that they own the flip and tell people it was a reclamation of symbols of past violence — much like the vogue for the word “queer” that was soon to come.

As for the wording, Socarrás and Finkelstein hammered out the small type at the bottom of the poster — which challenged President Reagan’s silence on AIDS and concluded, “Turn anger, fear, grief into action” — while the creation of the historic tagline was a group effort. Finkelstein brought in a line he’d come across in an unrelated newspaper article, “the silence is deafening,” and suggested to the group, “How about ‘Gay silence is deafening?’” The volley of responses, Finkelstein recalls, took maybe fifteen seconds: Johnston suggested, “It should be ‘Silence is death,’” then another group member proposed “Silence equals death” — and then “someone immediately said, ‘It should be an equals sign.’ ”

With the elements in place, the poster was done. Mechanicals were set, printers were contacted, and professional wheatpasters (then an expensive, Mafia-run racket, as Finkelstein, who did the sourcing, reported back) were told to poster in the East Village, the West Village, Times Square, and Lower Times Square (meaning Chelsea), as well as on the Upper West Side, the goal being to target communities where lesbians and gay men lived and places where members of the media lived and worked. Overnight, months of love and labor blanketed the city.

Thirty years later, the creators of Silence = Death have unveiled another version of the poster, reconfiguring the black, fuchsia, and white elements across twenty windows of Leslie-Lohman on the corner of Grand and Wooster. At the entrance of the museum, the creators have added to the last lines of the original poster: “Be Vigilant. Refuse. Resist.” It’s both a nod to the current era we find ourselves in and a testament to how echoes of the early crisis remain. Three decades after the poster first hit the streets, a positive result no longer means an automatic death sentence, but that does not mean the dark days are over: More than six thousand people a year still die of causes attributed directly to HIV in the U.S., and more than a million worldwide. There are still battles to be fought.

A day before the installation went up, CBS This Morning ran a segment on the history of AIDS that drew criticism for singling out white men as heroes of the epidemic and for blaming the crisis on irresponsible sex. Around the same time, the Times’ Linda Villarosa reported the largely ignored ongoing crisis of high HIV infection rates among black queer men, particularly in the South, while the state of Mississippi announced that it would now be charging $25 for previously free HIV tests. Though there may seem to be less AIDS-related silence, the specter of death still hovers, often over communities that remain unheard.

The installation in Soho will be up for a year, providing tourists and New Yorkers alike ample opportunity to consider the parallels between the poster’s creation and our present moment. Here, too, is a renewed chance to take stock: of our rage, of our communities and our commitment to them, and of what to do when, despite decades of speaking out, death and suffering remain.

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