Thirty years ago, at the height of the AIDS crisis, the anonymous, San Francisco–based cultural activist collective Boy With Arms Akimbo/Girl With Arms Akimbo took a unique approach to AIDS activism. The group carried out street postering campaigns, media appropriation initiatives and other forms of visual intervention to promote queer pro-sex messages and respond to attacks by anti-sex reactionaries. Deploying posters, stickers and protest signs, Akimbo juxtaposed images of safe-sex acts with representations of political, religious and social leaders noted for their homophobia and AIDS-phobia. Isabelle Alfonsi, a French researcher and gallery owner, consulted the Boy With Arms Akimbo/Girl With Arms Akimbo collection housed in the GLBT Historical Society’s archives while researching her recently published book, Pour une esthétique de l’émancipation (“Toward an Empancipatory Aesthetic,” Éditions B42, 2019). The book situates modern art in the context of LGBTQ activism and the formation of a radical feminist and anti-capitalist critique.
Akimbo is an important case study in the fourth chapter, which examines queer artistic representation during the AIDS crisis in 1980s San Francisco. History Happens interviewed Alfonsi to hear about her work with this collection.
How did you select Boy With Arms Akimbo/Girl With Arms Akimbo as one of your case studies?
I had received a grant in 2014 from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to come to Berkeley to do research in preparation for a series of lectures on gender and contemporary art. I came across a reproduction of one of Akimbo’s posters and a few paragraphs about the group in art critic Douglas Crimp’s seminal text Boys in my Bedroom, which discusses issues of appropriation in art and AIDS activism. I was drawn to the visual efficiency of their production and felt a proximity to their sex-positive, emancipatory tone. In 2016 I received a second grant from the French Ministry of Culture to return to the Bay Area and spent a few weeks studying the Akimbo materials at the archives and meeting with former members of the group.
What did you find in the Akimbo collection of the GLBT Historical Society’s archives?
I found out how the Akimbo collective worked: there were sign-up lists of meetings (useful to grasp how many people were actually involved), budgets, drafts of letters to respond to journalists’ inquiries, reports of discussions about the anonymous character of the group, and images and slides documenting the posters in different locations. It gave me a precise idea of their — pretty democratic — functioning, and also how the strategy of anonymity and “copyleft” helped them tailor their messages so effectively. The most emotional materials for me are the original collages from the series SEX IS/JUST SEX and SAFE/UNSAFE, whose materiality are a testament to the pre-digital era. There is a form of fetishism that researchers are looking for when they go to any archives, and I wasn’t disappointed!
How did your work in the archives shape the book? And why are LGBTQ archives, museums and collecting institutions important?
When you have access to an archives such as the society’s, it does not feel like “dead” material. Touching the documents, the objects, made me feel history, almost as if I had lived those events with the collective. I was 10 in 1989, a bit too young for activism… but my generation’s sexuality has been shaped by AIDS; we grew up alongside it and sex always meant danger for us. Spending time with the Akimbo archive gave me a direct understanding of what I had “missed” as a child and helped me “patch the holes” in my experience. Visiting an archive is a unique cultural experience. It is important to keep a record of the voices of those who lived a specific history. You can’t trust the mainstream media to take care of your history. Archives preserve direct testimonies and complex relationships with almost no filter. It is about feeling as much as understanding. Everybody, not only scholars, should have this experience to understand how our families and chosen families, our friends of the past, lived.
Mark Sawchuk is the society’s communications manager.
Isabelle Alfonsi is an art historian, researcher and gallery owner in Paris.