Marlene McCarty has worked across various media since the 1980s. In the late 1980’s McCarty was a member of Gran Fury, the AIDS activist collective and simultaneously created a body of abrasive text paintings, which were exhibited widely in the United States and Europe. 1990 Gran Fury’s installation at the Venice Biennali Aperto caused quite a scandal. She was the co-founder of the trans-disciplinary design studio Bureau along with Donald Moffett.
Spawning from ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in 1988 Gran Fury was an AIDS activist artist collective from New York City consisting of 11 members including: Richard Elovich, Avram Finkelstein, Amy Heard, Tom Kalin, John Lindell, Loring McAlpin, Marlene McCarty, Donald Moffett, Michael Nesline, Mark Simpson and Robert Vazquez. The participation of “visual artists in ACT UP and other collectives was essential to the effectiveness of the campaigns of protest, education and awareness about AIDS.” The collective mutually disbanded in 1995, a year prior to Mark Simpson’s death on November 10, 1996 from AIDS.
Gran Fury organized as an autonomous collective, describing themselves as a “…band of individuals united in anger and dedicated to exploiting the power of art to end the AIDS crisis.” The contribution of recycling historical images of homoerotic pleasure contributed to the pictorial landscape of the AIDS activist movement. By recycling the title of the Plymouth sedan used by New York Police Department, Richard Meyer writes “[i]nscribed within the group’s name…” references “…both a subjective experience (rage) and a tool of State power (police squad cars), to both an internal sensation and an external force.”
Action, not art, was the aim of the collective. Producing posters and agitprop in alliance with ACT UP to accompany the larger group’s demonstration, Adam Rolston and Douglas Crimp articulate how Gran Fury served as ACT UP’s “unofficial propaganda ministry and guerrilla graphic designers.”
Interview with the ACT UP Oral History Project; interview #044. The ACT UP Oral History Project is a collection of interviews with surviving members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, New York. Interview conducted by Sarah Schulman.
The full transcript of the interview (41 pages) can be downloaded via http://actuporalhistory.org/interviews/images/mccarty.pdf.
Here’s a short extract, with Marlene McCarty’s remarks about Gran Fury and Bureau.
SS: Could you just talk for a minute – it’s like, “Marlene McCarty, the only woman in Gran Fury.” You’ve lived with that now for 15 years. How do you understand, or what was it like – all these guys – mostly gay men, I think they were all gay men – having so much consciousness about women, or thinking about women’s issues? What was it in ACT UP that created that? Where did the information come from? Who was pushing those issues?
MM: You know, I don’t know, I don’t know. I have to say, we did a number of pieces that were about women or involved women. And if you looked at faces in the room, you would be like – with the exception of myself – why would they care? I don’t know where that was coming from. Actually I do. I have an opinion that it was a kind of forced – this sounds bad, and I think, actually, good things came from it – but I do truthfully believe the impetus was a bit of forced political correctness of just like, we know we need to deal with these issues. So, they may not have been coming from a truly heart felt place, as much as, well, we should definitely do this. So, you know –
SS: Were any of the women with AIDS in ACT UP involved in any of this?
MM: Not directly, but – for example, on that CDC piece, that information was coming from the Treatment and Data. It was coming from that group. There were a lot of women in that. Or at least, at a certain point in time, there were. So, that’s the specifics of where the information was coming from. But it was kind of like, also – the way the dynamic worked was oftentimes, things would be in discussion in ACT UP, and then that would kind of trickle down and be brought up in discussion in Gran Fury.
SS: So, some people from Gran Fury were going to ACT UP meetings.
MM: Oh yeah, some people were like, really, really, every meeting kind of there. I just wasn’t. So, there was a big link there. And then, what would often happen is, we would come back and like, hack around ideas, and then get to a certain point – like, on the CDC thing – and then, we’d go back to some specific group, to kind of clarify information.
SS: What was the CDC piece, I don’t even remember?
MM: It was – I can’t even remember the tagline, but it was a big, purple, back- lit poster that was at bus stops, and it had an image of women in beauty contest bathing suits, and I can’t remember what the tagline was.
SS: And who paid to get it on bus stops?
MM: That piece was funded by – I can e-mail you that information, but I can’t tell you off the top of my head.
SS: What were the relationships within Gran Fury between people who were artists who had their own bodies of work, and people who were not?
MM: Well, you know, everybody was doing something. Tom was making movies, John was making art, I was making art, Donald was making art – plus, Don and I also formed Bureau, which really grew out of us meeting and working together in Gran Fury. Avram was doing his hair thing.
SS: Right, he was cutting his hair at Vidal Sassoon.
MM: Right. Richard Elovich was doing the performance thing. Loring was doing art then. I’ve left out a huge – Robert Vasquez was also making art, at that point in time.
SS: So, there wasn’t like, a professionals versus the civilians kind of –
MM: No. I didn’t feel that. Other people might answer that question differently, but I didn’t feel that.
SS: Can you tell us what Bureau is?
MM: Bureau was a trans-disciplinary design studio that myself and Donald Moffett formed in 1989. After having worked together for awhile in Gran Fury, we were like, why are we working for other people, doing these jobs that we don’t even really want to do, when we could form our own studio? And in that studio we could continue to produce some of the Gran Fury work, try to produce our own design work, which is politically motivated, or has something to say in the world. And also, because of the kind of art work we were both making at that point in time, we were like, we can also use the studio as a place to produce some of our own artwork. So, that’s how Bureau started.
SS: Does it still exist?
MM: No, we closed it in 1999. We had it for 10 years. We closed it not because we were going out of business, by any means. In fact, it was the opposite – it was chugging away. But Donald and I were both at a point where – we were doing less politically motivated work, and neither of us wanted to do it anymore. We just didn’t want to do it, so we stopped.
SS: So, you remembered the tagline, or James Wentzy remembered it.
MM: “Women Don’t Get AIDS, They Just Die From It,” which was the whole issue.
SS: How do you think ACT UP affected your personal career?
MM: Well, if I hadn’t gotten involved in all that stuff, I probably would havenever had Bureau, and Bureau was – for 10 years, 1) it provided me a decent income, and2) I feel like we did some really good work. It kind of put Donald and myself on the mapin certain design worlds – which, I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but that wouldn’thave existed. My own art career? That’s a little more detached, in a way. Probably in the early ’90s, when I started showing the text pieces. I mean, I probably have to behonest and say that my affiliation with Gran Fury probably helped some of the galleriestake notice of my work or me or whatever they take notice of, but the work wasn’t thesame kind of work. But, I’m sure it did help me get my foot in the door with some ofthose art people.