Avram Finkelstein talks about HIV, art, activism, and the pandemic

Artist and activist Avram Finkelstein
Artist and activist Avram Finkelstein

Turning points

There is a sense of awe when in the presence of Avram Finkelstein. There’s a reverence for the artist and his work when listening to him talk about art, activism, and the importance of looking through—rather than at—a work of art to understand the story it tells. Especially nowadays, as we experience life, art, and activism through the lens of COVID-19, we discover a renewed connection to his work— its purpose and symbolism.

Avram Finkelstein posing with his art behind him
Avram Finkelstein posing with his art behind him

“I think that HIV/AIDS connected my political self to my queer self,” Finkelstein says when we talked over Zoom. “I was raised as an activist, [but] it wasn’t until my boyfriend started showing signs of immune suppression that I began to connect my queerness to my activism.”

It was during those early moments of the AIDS crisis that the artist started thinking of HIV/AIDS as a political crisis. This led him to form a collective that went on to produce the now iconic Silence = Death poster and to suggest the collective go hear Larry Kramer speak the night ACT UP was born. “That [speech] was the catalyzing force of the formation of AIDS activism as we understood it at the time,” Finkelstein comments. Activism, he adds, “is about finding your individual agency and thinking of it in terms of how it relates to the rest of the world. I think that agency can become politically activated. And being political isn’t a destination. It’s an ongoing series of confrontations with your place in the world and thinking of how the world changes and how it connects to you.”

Avram Finkelstein might be best known as a founding member of Silence = Death and Gran Fury collectives. He’s also the author of After Silence: A History of AIDS Through Its Images, a book nominated for the 30th Annual Lambda Literary Award in LGBT Nonfiction. The book won the International Center of Photography 2018 Infinity Award in Critical Writing and Research. His artwork is featured in the permanent collections of The Whitney Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He often conducts flash collectives, which are “experimental political outlines based on doctrines of working within collectives. If you assemble a group of people and give them an opportunity to speak about a public issue, [these people] would have something to say,” he further explains. “So, the flash collective is like a laboratory, sort of a balancing act between structure and permission, to force people to engage.”

Flash collectives deal with contemporary issues surrounding HIV/AIDS, like HIV criminalization or U = U. During the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, Finkelstein moderated the first-ever remote flash collective. It was part of the 2020 Queer Arts Festival that took place in Vancouver, BC, and included a visual art exhibit featuring his work.

In a recent article for a QAF-related catalog, the artist explores the idea of the passing of time as “a way to connect history to the current moment.” It’s an idea he also visited last year in an art installation commissioned by Tinworks Art in Bozeman, Montana. It captures specific events that defined the 20th century—before 1933, events leading to the beginning of WWII in Europe and the New Deal in America; 1984, personal loss and the HIV/AIDS pandemic; and the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

1933/1984/2020 includes eight art pieces: four computer-generated images capturing a set of political questions and four personal responses to these questions, drawn by hand, by the artist. The computer-generated graphics are solid, opaque, heavy, and mounted on the wall. They ask questions surrounding 1933, a year which marks the burning of the Reichstag as well as America’s New Deal; Robert Indiana’s wildly recognized art piece, LOVE, reinterpreted as HOME; and an advertising slogan, “We’re Here for You,” from the beginning of last year’s lockdown. The hand-drawn images are reproduced digitally on organza fabric, which is lightweight and translucent. As a result, the hand-drawn images would float, interacting with the people walking by them and in dialogue with the wall-mounted images.

There’s also a personal story embedded in the 1933/1984/2020 art installation. A couple of years ago, while in residency at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works, Finkelstein was working on a commission for The Shed, a large Jacquard weaving. While waiting for the weaving test, the artist decided to use the digitally manipulated source material as inspiration for a few drawings.

“They were the first drawings I’ve done since I had a stroke the year before,” the artist comments. “Since the stroke, I hadn’t confronted a thing that I had taken for granted my entire life, which was my ability to draw.” And the artist began to draw again, even if, at first, he had to hold the graphite stick with both hands. It was a “physically painful” process, but also “a process of discovery,” which showed him that he could still draw, just in a different way.

Avram Finkelstein posing with his art
Avram Finkelstein posing with his art

He also realized that, “while The Shed piece is about corporeality and the way we imagine the queer body, since the subject matter was [the hand of] a gender non-conforming friend of mine who transitioned a long time ago. The more recent art installation is about confronting my own body.”

1933/1984/2020 is also about timelines. “One thing that everyone who lived through the early moments of the AIDS crisis is aware of is that what actually happened and the way we talk about it are radically different,” Finkelstein says. “If you think of ACT UP as a political turning point—of course, there were many organizations working on AIDS before ACT UP came along—in the story we tell ourselves about this moment, 1987 was a turning point, but the first Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report from the CDC was in 1981. That’s a six-year slow-motion train wreck that brought us that moment of 1987. It didn’t happen overnight.

“And when we’re talking about the work that I had a hand in, Silence = Death, let’s use that as an example, it took years for me to come to the realization that something needed to be done and to co-found the collective that produced the poster. In hindsight, it happened like that,” he snaps his fingers, “but in reality, it didn’t.”

The same is true for the recent coronavirus pandemic. In hindsight, we’ll also start to think of it as a succinct series of moments, even though, again, the progress that we see today did not happen overnight. The truth is Operation Warp Speed, which sped up the COVID vaccine(s), could not have been possible without the research into RNA vaccines that started during the ‘90s. Yet, it’s possible that 2021 will become yet another turning point, associated with vaccination, as though it were a singular moment in time. Many might forget all the conversations we’re having right now about access and equitable distribution across the country, as well as around the world.

Avram Finkelstein posing with his art
Avram Finkelstein posing with his art

“[COVID] has changed everything, and I think that’s where 1933 [in my 1933/ 1984/ 2020 art installation] comes in,” Finkelstein says, mentioning that we find ourselves in a 1933 moment of this century. “We have to figure out if this is the 1933 of Germany and the burning of the Reichstag or the 1933 of America and the New Deal. It boils down to ‘which 1933 do we want to be in?’; are we on the brink of authoritarianism or on the brink of dealing with egalitarianism?”

We find ourselves in that kind of historical moment right now, a moment defined by the struggles surrounding race and autocracy and by pandemics—including the ongoing HIV/AIDS, as well as the most recent coronavirus pandemics.

AIDS is not over. The narrative is. There are a lot of HIV/AIDS counter-narratives that artists and authors are bringing to light throughout this year.

Avram Finkelstein
Avram Finkelstein

In her latest book, Let The Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP NY, 1987–1993, Sarah Schulman offers a thorough analysis of the AIDS crisis and related activism. Also, together with filmmaker and activist Jim Hubbard, Schulman organized the ACT UP Oral History Project, “a collection of interviews with surviving members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power,” which includes familiar and less familiar stories surrounding HIV and AIDS. Also coming out this summer is Emily Bass’s debut book, To End a Plague: America’s Fight to Defeat AIDS in Africa.

Several art shows are also opening this summer. Finkelstein is working with David Zwirner Gallery in New York City on a series of shows taking on the counter-narratives of HIV and AIDS, as well as about Silence = Death. In addition, the Silence = Death collective is doing a limited edition fine-art print based on the original pre-ACT-UP poster, which will be available through the gallery. Proceeds will benefit Visual AIDS.

“It’s important to understand that this is the 40th anniversary of The New York Times article about AIDS,” Finkelstein emphasizes. “Our understanding of the pandemic precedes the acknowledgment of it. There are still counter-narratives to the stories we tell about it now. If you care to pay attention to it, there’s a tremendous storehouse of historical and archival information about this, and it’s way older than 40 years. I think it’s really important to understand that about this anniversary and I also think it’s important to understand its relationship to COVID-19. We will be talking about COVID for the rest of this century. This moment, right now that we’re talking, we’ll be talking about it until you and I are long gone—and your younger readers have grandchildren. So pay attention to everything that’s happening around you. You are going to need to understand this moment for your entire life.”