Monday, April 22, 2013

Interview with Robert Vazquez Pacheco

19 JANUARY 2013

Joe and I got the opportunity to sit down with Robert Vazquez Pacheco, a member of Gran Fury who had the unique distinction of not being an active artist in the collective; however, his influence is greatly apparent in the work - he's even featured in Kissing Doesn't Kill! Robert shared with us his experiences at the time and how his professional work and heritage aided Gran Fury in disseminating information.

Could you tell me first about your training?

I actually have no artistic training. One of the interesting things about Gran Fury is that not all of us are artists.  One was actually a nurse – a registered nurse.

Really, who was that?

Michael Nesline, and Richard Elovich was a writer. The artists were Marlene, Donald, Avram, Mark and Tom, who is a filmmaker. Michael and I were the non-artistic ones.

Can you talk a little bit about your role in the collective and how you got started?

Well, a friend of mine whose name was Deb Levine was working at Creative Time here in New York – I think this was in 1988 - and Creative Time had given them money to do an installation. So, Deb asked me if I would be willing to help come up with an installation concept and help to install it.
ACT UP was approached to do it by the museum, El Museo del Barrio and we were given a corridor. So, given that I was probably one of three Latinos in ACT UP, it fell to me.  So we did condom instructions – how to put on a condom. We blew them up into very large size wall posters and plastered the entire corridor with them.  Then, there was something like a 16th century Spanish baptismal font that was sitting in the middle of the space that we would fill with condoms that the museum would empty regularly.  Then we would come back in time and fill it up again. (Laughs)

Oh, that’s great!

So after that, we were invited to talk in Columbus, Ohio.  I was invited to talk, along with Gran Fury, at a show about AIDS.  Tom and I were on the same panel, and at one point I said something along the lines of, “Well you know, I’m not sure who all the members of Gran Fury are, but I have no doubt in my mind there are probably no people of color in the collective.” When we came back to New York that Monday after the meeting, Tom called me and said, “Do you want to be a member of Gran Fury?”  So that’s how I became involved - I opened my mouth, and this is what I got.

(laughs) Are you happy you did?

I am, actually. Michael and I are actually the only folks that were actually working in AIDS at that time.  So we were, for example, supplying a lot of AIDS information.  At that time, I was the Director of Education at the Minority Task Force on AIDS - so we were able to sort of bring information in and give context to it.

Absolutely – you were the information resource.

Yes, for the group.  That’s the way that we worked, everyone had a certain set of skills. For example, Marlene McCarty and Don Moffett were graphic artists, and they had their own design studio called Bureau. So they would do the mock-ups for all the pieces - I don’t know if you know about the old school stuff. They did the electro-set letters and all of that because they were the ones that were trained to do so.  The rest of us did research, and then we would sit down and discuss whatever the concept was, whatever the piece was that we wanted to do. We would thrash it out. 
Avram said we always had a lot of arguments, but I don’t remember a lot of arguments, actually.  I think for such a group of strong-willed people who are very opinionated, we actually could get work done without coming to blows, which is amazing.

For me, part of my role was to bring in perspective when we were talking about representation, especially when talking about communities of color. I remember a conversation we had about one of our posters, Women Don’t Get AIDS. It’s all white beauty queens, and when I looked at it, I said, “You know, I hate to tell you this, but I don’t think an African American Woman or Latina looking at this is immediately going to identify with a white beauty queen.”  You know? I mean, they will read the text, but the image will not resonate for them. 

So I did things like that with the group, and we had conversions.  Not so anymore, but we were very reclusive. We had decided that what was most important was the work. We didn’t want to do anything publicly to be recognized. There were two things we didn’t want to happen that usually occurs in the traditional art world:  One, we did not want to create art objects, so all of our stuff was ephemeral.  They were posters, billboards – once they were up, they got torn down and thrown away. That was purposeful on our part because we never wanted to see a Gran Fury piece at auction 25 years later at Sotheby’s. 
We also decided that it wasn’t about individual members and our identities.  So when we did interviews, the very few that we did, we never allowed photographs and would speak as a single voice. No one would be identified.  It wasn’t about us.  The most important part was the work, for all of us.


One of the funniest things that happened though, in talking about personality issues, was a meeting we had with the collective, The Gorilla Girls. We were talking about collaborating. I forgot where we were meeting, but three Gorilla Girl members came wearing the gorilla masks to sit down with us.   And we were like, really?  Nobody knows us and now you have seen our faces and you can identify us.  What the hell, you know?! (laughs) Finally, they took off their masks because it was too hot to sit in that room and try to communicate wearing a gorilla mask. It was really funny.

I bet it was a bit distracting.

We thought that we were doing the “Garbo thing,” but they went much further than we were. So as I said, part of my role was to give feedback and look at work.  Also, I was the only member of Gran Fury, really, who didn’t mind speaking in public.  So we would be invited to speak in a variety of settings sometimes, and the rest of collective didn’t want to do it, so it fell to me. We had a slide show of our work that I used when people would ask for presentations. So, in some ways, I was the public face of Gran Fury.  I wanted that because again, I was the only of person of color in Gran Fury, and it was important for the world to know that it wasn’t just all male, white guys doing all the work; and Marlene was invisible sometimes, as well.  It fell to me to sort of let everyone know who was there and who was doing what.

You mentioned that the posters for the collective, as a whole, were ephemeral; they weren't meant to be precious objects.  However, they really came to be seen as the face of ACT UP.  What is your attitude towards that?

I would say that we were the most successful of the groups that were making visual work in ACT UP.  When you went to an ACT UP demonstration, you didn't only see a Gran Fury poster.  ACT UP was very democratic in that way.  There were a lot of different people who would make posters that showed up.  AIDS Demographics by Douglas Crimp is a great resource to show you how many people were doing this.  For us, what we realized was because of our connections, especially in the art world, and because of the particular time, we were able to use the art world.


All of projects were funded by the art world, by museums, foundations, public welfare foundations, Creative Time. We used those connections to be able to do that.  I feel as if we were one of many.  I think that all of us would say that - we were just the ones that became the most famous because of the way we decided to use the art world. We were creating billboards and posters, which was very different from what everyone else was doing. 

The way in which the posters were made originally is very different from how the artworks were created for the NYU show, since a majority of the content had to be digitally recreated. So what is your attitude on that?  Is it the same, since the point was the message?

Yes.  The creation, how it's made, is actually unimportant to us.  All of us, I think, would say that we wish we were Gran Fury functioning now, working digitally.  It's a lot easier now to do the work.  It isn't as labor intensive as it was before, and the work can be diffused a lot faster.  Now that you have Facebook and Flickr, you can post things and get an audience of sometimes millions of people very quickly.

So what role does a poster serve now?

Avram has a lot to say about posters.  I understand what he is talking about, and I agree with him.  A posters is effective - posters for the street.  I don't know how effective they are anymore.  We have had this discussion.  There was a time in the late 80s early 90s when people did not have cell phones.  Everybody walked down the street and was looking around.  Now when people are out, they are lost in looking at their phones, so they are not interacting with the street in the same way.  So the visuals you encounter in the street are not as impactful as they were back then.  I think the poster has a relatively limited use.  I know Avram swears by them - - he says that's the way to go.  I think the reality is to use the media that is relevant, and it's digital.  We can do a piece and put it on Facebook and it could be shared by a thousand people in five minutes. 

One of the things that we want to do, and we have been talking about this, is to put everything on some sort of website, since most of the work was digitized for the show. We could then say to people, “Steal it!  Take it!” The New York Public Library makes it really difficult for people to access this information.  That was not our purpose.  The reason we why we gave it to the library is that we thought people could freely access it, and that’s not what it is turning out to be.  

Do you have any closing thoughts? 

It is interesting. I find that the posters are unfortunately still very, very sort of up-to-date, very present.  I say, unfortunately, because 25 years into the epidemic, we still are seeing some of the problems that were being addressed when Gran Fury was working.  That feels a little frustrating, but hopefully, people will be able to decide how to get it out there so everyone else can use it.  I think the work remains alive, if you will.  It is vital, and that is a good feeling, to know that the work isn't dated and it didn’t end up in the dust of history. 

I think the work is good.  I'm proud of the work we did.  It was really effective.  It gave a face to something that had no face at the time.  It gave a voice to people who were not able to talk about what was happening.  In that respect, it was incredibly effective.  Something we were really proud of. We really were in the right place at the right time, and we were the right group of people to do it.  We're incredibly lucky and very fortunate.

Thanks so much to Robert for his generosity of time and stories!

Pictures of the interview courtesy of Joe Mondello; Women Don't Get AIDS bus stop poster via PublicArtFund.

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