99% Invisible: 173- Awareness
July 23, 2015 6:17 AM - Subscribe

By the late 1980s, AIDS had been in the United States for almost a decade. AIDS became the number one killer of young men in New York City, then of young men in the country, then of young men and women in the country. Despite the gravity of the AIDS crisis, in the late 1980s there was little public acknowledgement of AIDS. A group of artists in Manhattan decided to change that.

New York artist Patrick O’Connel would spend days visiting friends in the hospital, going to funerals, and coming home to a panicked answering machine message from friends who just learned they were sick. O’Connel and other artists banded together and started making art in response to AIDS. In 1988 they began calling their collective Visual AIDS.

Photos, more information, and links are available available at 99pi.org.
posted by jazon (6 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I was back in college (2nd try) in the early 90s, right after the ribbons started being distributed beyond a small space. I remember our GLA (sadly, we were slow to embrace the bisexual or transgender or other queer distinctions until after I'd graduated) had heated discussions about them, because back in the 80s, when I was with ACT UP and, later, Queer Nation, we all had a slogan, "Buttons are not enough."

But they were a powerful symbol, due to their ubiquitous presence and ease of wearing. I understand that now.
posted by xingcat at 11:43 AM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

What a great story. I didn't realize that the AIDS Awareness movement was the first to use the ribbon pin as a symbol. I love how subversive they were about sneaking them into the Tonys. The ribbon is so ubiquitous now that it's funny to think that there was a time when people didn't know exactly how to pin them.

I think that the ribbonizing has gotten a bit out of hand, but it's still a good symbol. I didn't know about the Death Cab stunt. That's great.
posted by radioamy at 6:28 PM on July 23, 2015

I didn't realize that the AIDS Awareness movement was the first to use the ribbon pin as a symbol

Wasn't it the yellow ribbon pin, used for the Gulf War and also apparently the 1979 Iran hostages?
posted by andoatnp at 12:49 AM on July 24, 2015

Those were actual ribbons, as I recall, either tied around things or wrapped around an item of clothing. The AIDs pin seems like it was the first to simply this into a self-contained pin.
posted by maxsparber at 8:43 AM on July 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I liked this piece - yay for highlighting this history. Anything related to AIDS activism is such an empowering narrative because activists were so creative and worked so hard and basically are almost exclusively responsible for the massive gains we made toward effective treatment for HIV (never would have happened on the timeline it did, even with the drug company interest, without activist pressures), and also for medical advocacy in general and also for gay rights which were hugely accelerated because of AIDS activism.

I did think it was a little funny to place the red ribbon as the "first" ribbon. They did acknowledge the yellow ribbon, but clearly that was the first! And I remember all the jingoistic yellow ribbon ubiquity of the first gulf war. They didn't dig too much into the interaction between these two symbols. I mean, what year did they say the activists made the first red ribbons? Because yellow gulf war ribbons were prominent starting in '90, right? So choosing to use a ribbon symbol was an intentional confrontation of this yellow ribbon which was positioned as the symbol of wholesome American values.

The other thing that they didn't really get at, was the deliberate provocation of using the color red. Yes, red stood for blood. Why did that matter though? Because the blood of people with HIV was a symbol of their pariah status. Activists would do things like dye fountains red, or splash HIV positive blood on various things to force a confrontation about ideas of "dirtiness", disease, quarantine, and the idea that the straight world was somehow "safe" from queer/diseased/HIV+ influences.
posted by latkes at 8:39 AM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

To further explain maxsparber's point, the yellow ribbons of the Gulf War time were tied around things (per the song and its cultural precedents); the unique design -- looped once, ends pointing down -- of what we now think of as Standard Awareness Ribbon style was what Visual Aids invented.
posted by Etrigan at 10:48 AM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

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