Multiple LED signs on the NYC AIDS Memorial that read: Love is the message, Don't make me over, why?, and all around the world
Courtesy the Artist

Songs of Activism and Solidarity Adorn New York City’s AIDS Memorial

Artist Steven Evans’s LED installation sings out titles of anthems that defined queer liberation before and following the AIDS epidemic.

One critical goal of public art is to engage with every passerby in order to foster a dialogue within communities. For multimedia artist, Steven Evans, music is just one way of achieving this. After coming of age during the height of the United States’ AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, Evans has drawn inspiration from his youth’s pop songs for his latest temporary installation at New York City’s AIDS Memorial. The result memorializes and celebrates the queer struggle—then and now.

For the Houston-based artist, Songs for A Memorial is a testimony to the undeniable power that all forms of celebration plays in activism. “Each community has its own soundtrack; the songs act as cultural touchstones conveying shared experiences, dreams, struggles, disappointments, inspiration, and victories,” he says. “For the LGBTQ+ movement, music has been an integral component of building community.”

For the LGBTQ+ movement, music has been an integral component of building community.

Steven Evans, Artist
The NYC Aids memorial with multiple multicolored neon signs on it that read: You make me feel (mighty real) and I will survive.

Now in Manhattan’s West Village, Twelve LED texts adorn the memorial’s Studio a+i–designed 18-foot steel canopy, each reading the title of a hit song that came out between 1976 and 1996. Struggle for human rights, a systemically ignored epidemic, and activism towards civic and social recognition defined the  period, but the project’s goal is to underline the importance of the camaraderie formed within the community through collective celebration.

Evans challenges the notion against an artwork dedicated to the legacy of AIDS activism must be solemn. “This work has made a space for memories of good times, joyful moments, love, and community, as well as loss,” he says. Expressions such as “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and “Never Can Say Goodbye” dot a site across from where a generation of youth passed due to AIDS-related complications at the bygone St. Vincent Hospital.

The song’s semiotic potential has long intrigued the memorial’s executive director Dave Harper. When he approached Evans, the artist had been working with the multitude of meaning in text since his MFA thesis work in 1989 at Nova Scotia College of Art. Text-based art’s role, as Harper notes, was significant in disseminating information and breaking the stigma during a time of immense ignorance and prejudice about AIDS. From the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power’s (ACT UP) “Silence Equals Death” posters to banners and guidelines created by artists, words changed the course of research and discourse around the epidemic. “The installation is reflective of a very complex era when there was so much anger but also art and music were being made,” he says.

An interior shot of the NYC AIDS memorial with an LED sign that reads: Do you wanna funk?

Evans who is also the executive director at Houston’s photography biennial FotoFest envisioned the installation of lyrics such as “Love Is The Message,” “Got To Be Real,” or “I Will Survive,” as friezes crowing various parts of the triangular structure. Following sunset, the words start beaming in neon shades of purple, red, or blue.

The radiance within a nocturnal setting of course also celebrates the legacy of nightlife and calls the attention of passersby, whether they are familiar with the era’s tunes or “someone from Gen-Z who may be familiar with ‘It’s Raining Men,’ but not know it’s a Weather Girls song,” says Harper. The community will unite regardless of age or taste in music on June 29th when New York’s iconic drag queen Lady Bunny and DJ Lina Bradford host a silent disco celebration under the installation of anthems that has defined solidarity. “Soundtrack of my life,” Evans calls these tunes echoing the memorial, “and this body of work is about collective and individual memory, history, and identity.”

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