High highs and low lows defined New York City subculture in the 80s. While part of the decade was defined by the various forms of unchecked debauchery practiced by the scene’s artists, writers, and clubbers, those hard-partying patrons became a contingent of political and health activists once the AIDS crisis hit. That dichotomy is captured in a new exhibit at ClampArt entitled “Screaming in the Streets: AIDS, Art, and Activism” after a quote from the artist David Wojnarowicz.
“There is a tendency for people affected by this epidemic to…prescribe what the most important gestures would be for dealing with this experience of loss,” wrote Wojnarowicz shortly before his death from AIDS in 1992. “I resent that. At the same time, I worry that friends will slowly become professional pallbearers…polishing their funeral speeches [and] perfecting their rituals of death rather than…ritual[s] of life such as screaming in the streets.“
Several works by Wojnarowicz are included in the exhibit, such as Democracy, a black-and-white print from 1990 illustrating a maelstrom of issues, from “AIDS” to “Killer cops” to “No healthcare,” affecting the East Village at the time – issues, says gallerist Brian Paul Clamp, that are equally resonant today. “I think we were able to learn a lot from what happened in the 80s because in large part those people were successful in changing the political landscape with their protest,” says Clamp, who collaborated on the show with a curatorial service called Ward 5B, a reference to the first medical unit that specialized in treating AIDS.
Ironically, it wasn’t until recently that 80s protest art captured the attention of the art world itself. “There’s a big resurgence in interest in this time period in particular,” says Clamp. “Partly because it was overlooked for a long time and because now people are reminded of it and rediscovering it.”
But the exhibit doesn’t merely conjure the political instability of the past. It also pays tribute to the cheeky underground rites practiced by the queer community that helped to subvert it – particularly within erstwhile discotheques like Pyramid Club, Danceteria, Boy Bar, Crisco Disco, and The Club Baths. While these safe spaces may have shuttered long ago, thanks to the subversive artworks of “Screaming in the Streets,” they can live on in your living room.
“Screaming in the Streets: AIDS, Art, and Activism” will be on display at ClampArt in New York City from August 3 – September 23.
Main image credit: © Estate of Peter Hujar, Scrumbly Koldewyn and Tom Nieze, The Cockettes, 1971, Vintage gelatin silver print, Courtesy of ClampArt, New York City