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Reverse the Trend of Obscuring

Jack Waters

"History, as we know it, has always been the sum product of that voice to which is most optimally positioned, and that best reflects the aims of the element which most profitably influences it - the governing class."

Thus begins the opening essay of the CD Rom component of the installation "Short Memory/No History", a living history of AIDS and Queer activism in America that I created with my partner Peter Cramer.

I consider this official tendency to color the recording of past events as much an obscuring of awareness - of being - as much as it tends to be an erasure of fact. This is mainstream culture's strategy in controlling the collective memory of the culture of dissent. I wrote the following notes some 3 years ago on seeing a series of advertisements for the media campaign described as follows:

"Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed the sly appropriation behind MTV's agitprop style campaign seen on buses, subway stations and even promotional postcards? Provocative slogans like, "Can I Get MTV From Kissing ?", and "I'm Itchy. Do I Have MTV?" suggest the product's irresistibility approaching virus-like contagion. These ads are strategically placed in areas frequented by their target market; youth too young to remember Gran Fury, the propaganda wing of ACT-UP who, usurping the strategies of advertising created bold type direct statement posters, billboards and PSA's dispelling myths about HIV Transmission. Particularly, the collective's 1989 "Kissing Doesn't Kill" campaign sponsored by the public Art organization Creative Time

The images featured multicultural groupings of same and alternate sexed partners in the act of smooching, petting and cuddling accompanied by messages dispelling the then common hysteria that HIV could be transmitted by casual contact.

If I remember correctly, this highly successful early safe sex educational endeavor, executed by the appropriation of commercial advertising, actually ran on MTV (who in all fairness I should note was a media forerunner in AIDS public awareness). But still, what does it mean when past context is obscured in order to mine a collective unconscious in service of merely pushing product? While HIV infection rises in the demographic of the market targeted by MTV's new campaign, public memory of Gran Fury and similar groups like Art Positive, Group Materials and the many others that were once so prominent in art and media recede. But everybody knows MTV. Substitute "HIV" for "MTV" and the message reverts back to Gran Fury's original intention.

The media savvy may be aware, even if the general public is not, of the longstanding close relationships between activism and dominant culture. Many of the surviving AIDS activists that converted their mainstream finance, marketing and advertising, legal and political positions to bring this expertise in service of the movement, have returned in some way or another to the status quo. Some of those most vocal against drug company profiteering now sit on the very boards of those companies they once so vehemently criticized. Other offshoots of the AIDS activist movement became willing beneficiaries of corporate interests, acting as advisors, arbiters, and test marketers of such products as Home HIV kits, pharmaceutical products and advertising strategies."

The image here is one of the MTV postcards that I altered. I changed the "M" and the "T" of "MTV" to "H" and "I" in order to redirect the message back to its original intent. With the help of some friends we returned the altered cards to the distribution containers in restaurants and stores where we found them. We did the same to the images we saw on posters on buses and billboards throughout New York City. This was our way of trying to reverse the trend of obscuring.
Starship Nummer 6, Seiten 150ff