Interested in how communities respond to death in moments of crisis, we proposed to (re)install SILENCE=DEATH, the neon sign created in 1987 by Gran Fury, as part of our 2015 exhibition at the New Museum, “P.O.L.E. (People Objects Language Exchange).”
First shown at the New Museum by curator William Olander, a member of ACT UP, SILENCE=DEATH is distinctly and instantly recognizable. The politics and activism the sign represents travel at the speed of light to illuminate the present. The sign buzzes in the room and refuses to be silent, its cathode tubes encapsulating the debates, the stakes, and, importantly, the style of a generation formed by the AIDS crisis and the struggle to end it.
In 2015, following the non-indictments of police in the murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, we wondered how the legacy of queer activism may have been transmitted across generations, specifically to the Black Lives Matter movement emerging at that time. For instance, the die-ins staged across the country from fall 2014 into 2015 to protest the decisions not to charge white police officers who killed unarmed black men were direct action tactics and choreographic scores which, though by no means owned by ACT UP, had been among the movement’s most effective strategies. This linkage works against the prevailing logic of cultural production, including the art market, which often works to silence questions of race and class when addressing sexuality and gender, sequestering each to the privation of a single identitarian position. Despite the resurgence of intersectionality in activism and politics, art hangs on that ’90s thing—identity politics—resisting the imbrication of movements, positions, and identifications.
It was against this backdrop that we hung SILENCE=DEATH high up on the wall of the Lobby Gallery, where it could be seen from the Bowery, and could provide the single light source for the performances and works on view in our exhibition.
Three times a day on two dancing-poles, two performers enacted the score Two Brothers. Shifting between scored interactions with one another and with individual spectators, the dancers of Two Brothers reclaimed the bad object of pole-dancing as a virtuosic feat and poetic metaphor. The poles literally floated several questions in the room—can we think about queerness and blackness together? Which kinds of bodies can be seen in a white cube? Whose silence equals whose death now?
Days after the mass murder of forty-nine people—overwhelmingly queer people of color—at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the question pulsates: what might SILENCE=DEATH illuminate now?
In this time, there is the added violence of having no time to mourn and to process the loss of loved ones. Already, within hours the horrific event was seized by the right to shore up the identity of the white, Christian, American oligarch and to animate his enemy, the so-called radical Islamic terrorist. Against this politicization of untimely deaths, mourning is again a kind of resistance. It aligns us with the dead, as Claudia Rankine wrote after the massacre of nine black worshippers in a Charleston church last summer by an avowed white supremacist. Or, as Douglas Crimp wrote in 1989 in the heat of ACT UP, “Militancy, of course, then, but mourning too: mourning and militancy.”
We need what happened in Florida to be called a hate crime. History must mark it as a crime against LGBTQ people and a crime against people of color. Homophobia and racism are the root of this violence, aided and abetted by a failed mental health system, a powerful and despicable gun lobby, a compliant Congress, a troubled and troubling masculinity, and nihilistic fascisms that have emerged globally in many places, including the United States.
And yet, our identities can and will be used against us. As Alain Badiou reminds us in his limpid account of the atrocities in Paris in November 2015, one of the risks of such an event as took place in Orlando is the collapse on the part of the victims, by which we might mean all of us, into a reaction and reaffirmation of identitarian positions. Death, the murder of a family member, can reassemble and reassert the family, the tribe, confirming its contours, expelling that which is external to it. These externalizations can become so engrained as to create division where we need alliance, separation when we need to hold on to one another. Instead, the response must now be dialectical in nature, against both an internet culture of shaming and the tendency of white privilege to co-opt narratives. Against Islamophobia and homophobia. The resistance to war and the resistance to the armament of civilians, entwined. No guns, no drone bombs, uttered in the same breath.
As we mourn in our specific communities, as we justly and beautifully gather and dance in gay bars and queer spaces, we must also attempt to understand the profoundly alienated subjectivity—and not simply the identity—of the murderer, of any of the murderers in this era of mass shootings, and to describe the historical conditions that have given rise to it. We must link our precarity as queer people with the precarity of people of color in America, with the precarity of migrants escaping unlivable conditions in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, with the precarity of civilians in Pakistan, every day at the risk of a drone bomb. This will require the articulation of a relational subjectivity that affirms the shared vulnerability of our bodies and our futures in a world dominated by global capitalism, the unequal distribution of wealth, the forced displacement of populations, and the rise of new fascisms.
So, if we must wave the flag of identity, uttering the unfit statement, “We are gay,” then let’s do so in the most conditional of ways. We do this so as to own our own grief and to protect the grief of others as the war drums beat and we watch this tragedy mutate into sound bites. But we know that these actions are politically exigent and not necessarily true. The legacy of the queer movement, of SILENCE=DEATH, is to insist on alliances beyond identity, perhaps against identity, and to fight oppression wherever it takes root. To fight death and nihilism while mourning the dead. Mourning and militancy to ensure liberation. For us, for all of us.