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Buzz Bense's safe sex archive documents creative communication that saved lives and fought fear

Safe Sex Bang

“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.”

– Buzz Bense

It’s rare these days to find examples of art with a real sense of urgency. Looking back on propaganda posters about WWII scrap metal drives or Rosie the Riveter, it’s easy to lump them in with cutesy kitsch items, rather than thinking about the circumstances that led to their creation. In reality, we’re not too far removed from an era where posters were a vital, necessary form of communication, a pop art form that harnessed the power of good design with the deliberate goal of inspiring action.

In the wake of the devastation brought about by the AIDS epidemic, materials began to circulate that communicated the nature of the threat, and the most effective methods of prevention. Forward thinking creatives applied their craft with purpose, from art-world luminaries like Keith Haring, to advertising professionals, to everyday educators and community organizers. Over time, Buzz Bense made a habit of collecting and preserving those materials for educational purposes, and today his collection stands as a powerful document of an era, in the gay community and elsewhere, when creativity was applied to save lives.

For the last two years, Buzz’s collection has been housed at the Center for Sex & Culture in San Francisco, and starting this Friday, it’ll be on display both in the CSC gallery, and in their inaugural exhibition catalog.

Buzz Bense

When I spoke to Buzz , he was happy to share with me some memories of how the collection came together. In the ’80s, Buzz split his time between a career in design, and efforts to foster a community of sexual openness at Eros, a safe sex club in the Castro. With the horrific early days of the AIDS epidemic came an increased sense of responsibility on the part of sex educators like Buzz, and as he began to lend his talents to the cause, he amassed plenty of source material for inspiration. Over the course of the next decade, Mr. Bense would play a key role in creating influential, forward-thinking campaigns, including one for National Condom Week, an initiative that took an irreverent approach to spreading the word. Despite the gravity of the message, Bense’s campaign (pieces of which are featured in the exhibition) aimed to catch the attention of young folks with humor, featuring a parade of dancing rainbow condoms.

Buzz Bense

Some pieces from the collection are more somber in their approach: “Outliving forecasts of doom,” reads one poster. But others convey their message in more lighthearted tones, relying on humor and provocation to jumpstart important conversations. Playful, sexually imagery served to open up discussion around taboo subjects, helping to break through some of the painful stigma and silence that accompanied the AIDS epidemic. Though the circumstance was heavy, the designers behind these pieces found an opportunity to spread a hopeful sentiment amid all that despair. They understood that these works could be celebratory, fun and sexy, even as they aimed to educate.

Whether grim or playfully subversive, Buzz explains, each of the era’s most successful campaigns suceeded by provoking a dialogue: “Sometimes images that are uncomfortable, or that push the envelope,” Buzz told me, “are the ones that are going to get people at least acknowledging that the message is out there.”

Buzz Bense

Today, we can celebrate these pieces for the prescient message they delivered so well. But as Buzz points out in his statement about the show, we can also take some time to consider their place in the tradition of design and graphic communication: “As these posters and other materials begin to pass in to something more like history than recent memory, we get to see them again,” says Bense, “Thankfully, we can now see a little more of their artistry rather than only seeing the urgency that created their message.”

Safe Sex Bang

Safe Sex Bang opens this Thursday, November 7th, at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco, and will be on display until January 2014, thanks in large part to Buzz Bense and the efforts of curators Dorian Katz and Alex Fialho. Gallery hours are 11:30-3:30pm Mondays and by appointment at

Look for the exhibition catalog, which goes into production shortly, thanks to a heroic Kickstarter campaign.