For my generation of American gay men, the AIDS epidemic was a second Vietnam War. It reached us as a rumor and soon revealed itself as a killing field. Just as the war had divided the country, so did AIDS. From initial public reports in 1981, through the end of the Reagan presidency in 1989, many people at risk saw the threat as threefold: from the disease itself, from rampant homophobia and from a government that simultaneously withheld help and initiated campaigns of fear.
In those years, combating the enemy was a D.I.Y. mix of community organizing, medical volunteerism and direct action. Art was very much in the picture, because artists were hard hit by the epidemic, but also because art is (or can be) strategically useful. It can broadcast or insinuate messages into the larger culture, embody complex truths, absorb fear, preserve memory.