Dorian Katz
Dorian Katz

On November 8, the exhibition SAFE SEX BANG: The Buzz Bense Safe Sex Poster Collection will open at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco. The show runs through January 31, 2014.

The poster collection, donated by Buzz Bense, contains over 150 unique safe sex posters from all over the United States as well as Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, England, Sweden and Australia. Bense is a sex activist and graphic designer who served as artistic director on many safe sex posters made locally in the Bay Area. He collected and produced safe sex posters aimed at members of the LGBTQ community from the mid-1980s to the present.

Circulated at a time when the community was particularly hard-hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, these posters comprise a striking aesthetic collection of graphically innovative design that explicitly visualizes homosexuality, diverse LGBTQ communities and safe sex activism. These materials are of both cultural and artistic significance. They were often created by advertising and illustration professionals who applied their best and most innovative ideas. With the lives and health of their community at stake, and often their own, these artists brought all of their skill to bear on efforts to save lives.

Forecast of Doom
Compass Project and SF AIDS Foundation 
Photo: Stan Musilek; Design: Scott Sidorsky;
Digital Imaging: Texas Unlimited Inc., 1993
The exhibition is located in the Center’s gallery—essentially a fifty-foot long wall in a cozy community space. At the ends of the gallery wall are three bus shelter posters produced the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the STOP AIDS Project. These posters were made in the early ‘90s. Some of their messaging subverts conservative slogans of the time such as “Family Values” and “Right to Life.” One of posters features Bleachman—a character trademarked by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation—to teach intravenous drug users to clean needles with bleach. Older residents of San Francisco will remember seeing an individual donning the Bleachman costume handing out small bottles of bleach and instructional pamphlets on the streets.

Another of the bus shelter posters reminds viewers that “a hot guy can make you forget safe sex,” and lets them know they can get support at a STOP AIDS Project group meeting.  Below the large posters are various smaller posters and two pamphlets made by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a charity, protest, and street performance organization that uses drag and religious imagery to call attention to sexual intolerance and satirize issues of gender and morality.

Also showcased are five painterly posters from ACON, the AIDS Council of New South Wales, from a series by Australian artist David McDiarmid. McDiarmid passed away from AIDS-related complications in Sydney in 1995. These posters are among Bense’s favorites in his collection. They contain colorful and expressionistic male bodies with words written atop the sexy forms that emphasize the message of the poster. There is a message of consistency telling the viewer whether it’s lust or love, whether you have HIV or don’t, whether you inject or don’t for condoms and clean needles, use them “—every time.” The phrase “every time,” a critical educational theme and reminder, is included in many of the posters produced by many organizations.

The middle section of the exhibition is 21 feet of densely packed posters covering the wall from floor to ceiling. We want viewers to be impacted and even overwhelmed by the amount of posters and their variety of messaging strategies. These posters are just a small sampling of what was created during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis.

The Center has been fortunate to secure the loan of a few pieces from another local organization for this show. The GLBT Historical Society provided us with brochures produced by The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, including “Play Fair!” from 1982. That brochure is centered on sexually transmitted diseases and only refers in passing to “a gay cancer” that would become known as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), and then eventually as AIDS. This may be the first ever sex-positive safe sex brochure oriented towards gay men.

I’m personally drawn to the Brothers Network posters—four of which are included in our collection. Their early posters (1985) were a risk-reduction series targeting black gay men and black trans people. The Brothers Network (located in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco) was one of smaller organizations fighting to make a difference when there was no national strategy or program for AIDS education. I hope to find out more about their organization for our archive.

The Brothers Network
Brothers Network produced in partnership with the
Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum and
the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention and the National Association of Black and White Men Together
I want people to have their own experiences of the posters when they visit. I believe that art is most powerful when we have time to see it and reflect on it for ourselves internally. Still, I do hope viewers make connections between the beauty, sexiness, intimacy and at times humor, of the images and the messages in their text. I hope viewers see these posters as examples and inspiration of the impact of activism.

As Bense says, “These posters do more than chart the tragedy of an epidemic, of an outsider community reeling from grief, loss, and the decimation of a blooming culture of sexual liberation. The history of these posters is a story of a fight against stigma, hatred and ignorance; of a community stepping up to take care of its own; of finding a way to extinguish fear and build pride and self-esteem; and of devoted efforts of committed activists to communicate a path to health and survival.

Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, the Center for Sex and Culture is also producing a catalog on the posters that will be published in January. It will include a forward by director Carol Queen, an interview with Bense and an essay written by Alex Fialho, a terrific young writer, curator and art historian based in New York City.

Working on this show and catalog has provided a means for many intergenerational connections, friendships and conversations. The project was a collaborative effort as those involved familiarized themselves with this diverse group of posters and the organizations behind producing them. Many of the larger organizations are still around, but many of the smaller—but no less important—ones are not. The staff at the Center is incredibly proud of this show and encourages people to come learn and remember and share this harrowing part of our history that sparked such a powerful response.

Opening reception, Friday November 8, 7 - 10 pm
World AIDS Day event, Sunday December 1, 1-4 pm
Poster Catalog Release Party, Friday January 10, 7-10 pm

Center for Sex and Culture
1349 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94103
November 8, 2013 - January 31, 2014

Dorian Katz is the curator of the gallery at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco. She shares her thoughts on the upcoming exhibition of posters and accompanying catalog of safe(r) sex posters from the height of the AIDS epidemic:

The mission of the Center for Sex and Culture is to provide a community center for judgment-free education, cultural events, a library/media archive, and other resources to audiences across the sexual and gender spectrum; and to research and disseminate factual information, framing and informing issues of public policy and public health.

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