Robert Atkins

Eye/I Witness: AIDS and Digital Art Activism

Date 3/3/03

Affiliation Writer, New York


As the global, anti-war demonstrations of mid-February remind us, progressive political impulses are sometimes most effectively expressed by taking to the streets. This, of course, taps into a central, electronic-era issue; that is, the efficacy and desirability of embodied versus remote action. When it comes to political activism, where do artists fit in? New forms of electronic activism from pioneering groups including RTMark and Electronic Disturbance Theatres have proved both inspiring and problematic--and rarely contextualized within the overlapping realms of mass media, art and activism.

This lecture will analyze the remarkably effective role artists played in ameliorating the AIDS crisis in the US, while advancing innovative forms of art and strategies for distribution that included culture jamming, agitprop and institutional infiltration. The author asserts that a rare confluence of historical factors resulted in the production of the most influential body of public and "private" art in American history. What lessons might be learned from artists'practices of just 10-15 years ago that might be applied today? Or has the Internet so profoundly altered the nature of mass media that they are already irrelevant? The author intends to raise crucial cultural and artistic questions that have been ignored in the rift between discourses separating electronic and non-electronic art, and in the cultural responses to 9/11 at a moment when dissent has been demonized and civil liberties threatened.


Robert Atkins is a bi-coastal art historian, activist and writer. The initiator of 911--The September 11 Project: Cultural Intervention in Civic Society, he is also a co-founder of Visual AIDS, the creators of Day Without Art and the RedRibbon. He has taught at numerous universities and art schools; most recently at the Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Michigan. The award-winning author of books including ArtSpeak: AGuide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements and Buzzwords and From Media to Metaphor: Art About AIDS, he is a former columnist for the Village Voice, who has written for more than 100 publications throughout the world. An anthology of his work, Eye/I Witness: Art Writing as Activism, Criticism & Reportage, is forthcoming.

Atkins is a Fellow at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University, media-arts editor for The Media Channel <>, and editor/producer of Artery: The AIDS-ArtsForum <>. His interests in hybrid art, technology and mass media long predate the web and resulted in exhibitions at far-flung venues including Between Science and Fiction, which he organized for the Sao Paulo Biennial.

-- As of 3/3/03

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