A Legacy of Activism: The ACT UP London Archives

In honour of the AIDS activists whose lives are dramatised with such candid authenticity in Robin Campillo's 120BPM (Beats Per Minute), we have partnered with ACT UP London to create an exhibition of photography depicting some of the key moments in the organisation's history. 

The photographs are on display now at Curzon Soho, open to the public on the -2 gallery space. But if you can't make it down there, allow us to bring the exhibition to you. 

ACT UP London: A Brief History

ACT UP London formed in the 1980s in the wake of a largely neglected public health crisis. Like other factions of the ACT UP organisation in New York and Paris, their mission was to raise awareness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and to pressure governments into taking action. 

In the late '80s, prisons in the UK became a particular cause for concern among AIDS activists. Inmates were denied condoms and so unprotected sex was rife. Common disdain for the inmates and a government in denial about the realities of the AIDS epidemic meant that prisoners were at great risk of contracting HIV. 

Prison Condom Ban = More AIDS

In February 1989, ACT UP London activists staged a protest outside Pentonville Prison, brandishing placards and flying helium-filled condom balloons. Standing outside Her Majesty's Prison, ACT UP members sent hundreds of condoms sailing over the prison walls to the inmates beyond.

While there is still no legal provision made for condoms in prisons, through the awareness raised by ACT UP and the eventual and sadly inevitable diagnosis of an HIV+ prisoner, doctors can now prescribe contraception as they see fit.

ACT UP - February 1989

One of the most potent methods of protest used by ACT UP groups around the world is the mass 'die-in'. Protestors carry crosses, some that bear the groups call to arms "Silence = Death", lie on the ground in complete stillness as though dead, creating a haunting statement, poignant and suitably dramatic, that never fails to send a chilling message.

In June 1989, ACT UP London staged a die-in, in protest against The Sunday Telegraph's attacks against the LGBTQ+ community and its misrepresentation of AIDS infected people. 

ACT UP - August 1989

Around the world, ACT UP groups staged (and continue to stage today) peaceful protests outside major government landmarks. In December 1989, on World AIDS Day, ACT UP London converged on Westminster where a year earlier Margaret Thatcher's government had passed Section 28, a since repealed law that banned local authorities from promoting homosexuality.

ACT UP - 1989

The first reported case of AIDS was established in Los Angeles, USA in 1981. Ten years later in 1991 there had been little in the way of progress. No effective government policy had emerged and pharmaceutical developments were slow, bringing with them their own risks. AIDS had become the biggest killer of men aged 25 - 44 and so ACT UP marched on Trafalgar Square, tireless in their efforts to raise awareness and incite change.

ACT UP - 1991

By December 1992, Margaret Thatcher's successor John Major had been in office for over two years. Despite his criticism of Thatcher's response to the ever growing HIV/AIDS epidemic, still there was no specific policy to tackle this public health crisis. So, on 1st December, at the 5th World AIDS Day protest, ACT UP London marched on Downing Street.

December 1991

And they continued to march each and every year thereafter. In 1993, the number of AIDS diagnoses in Britain had reached a new high (it would climb higher still in 1995 and 1996). Attitudes in Britain had begun to change, but yet another year had passed and the situation had grown more grave. The awareness campaign was more important than ever. 

December 1993

Members of ACT UP London, along with their American and French counterparts, have dedicated their lives to activism. While positive progress has undoubtedly been made in the years since the events depicted in this exhibition, the gains were hard fought. Long may we remember.