Fast Trip, Long View: Talking to Gregg Bordowitz
"As a twenty-three-year old faggot, I get no affirmation from my culture. I see
issues that affect my life--the issues raised by AIDS-being considered in
ways that will probably end my life."
These blunt and riveting
lines opened Gregg Bordowitz's essay, "Picture a Coalition," which was
published in the "AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism" issue of "October" (#43, 1987.) They say
plenty about Bordowitz's powers of analysis and his outspokenness, but
nothing at all about his capabilities as an organizer and film/videomaker.
These are some of the subjects we cover in the interview below.
Outspoken and obviously
HIV-positive, Bordowitz's name is nearly synonymous with AIDS activist
video in the US. His work spans the entire gamut from documentaries and
educational films, to the first regular cable-television show about AIDS,
and imaginative films and videotapes widely screened at museums, movie
theaters, film festivals, and on public television. He has been honored
with fellowships by the Guggenheim
and Rockefeller Foundations, among many others. He
currently teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and writes
a column called "New York Was Yesterday," for the journal "Documents."
Bordowitz is the first
subject to be interviewed for Artery's "Artist In the Archives" series. The Estate Project--the parent
organization of the Virtual Collection, "Artery" and the
artistswithaids.org website--has initiated a program to preserve and
archive AIDS-activist videotapes. A thousand hours of fragile tapes by such
groups as DIVA
TV (Bordowitz was one of its founders) as well as Bordowitz's personal
output are already being preserved, thanks to funding from the Royal S.
Marks Foundation Fund and the New York State Council on the Arts. This
collection will be housed at the New
York Public Library and named in honor of Royal Marks.
Click for information on supporting the Estate Project.
Editor/Producer of "Artery"
Q & A
Artery: In "Fast Trip, Long Drop"
you said that accepting your own mortality is the hardest thing. Do you still feel that way? How
is your health?
Bordowitz: Yes, I still wrestle with issues of
mortality. I am fairly healthy now. There was a period when things looked
bleak. My numbers were down and I had a few opportunistic infections.
Fortunately, there were treatments for the infections and I was able to
maintain my health until the protease inhibitors came out. I went on a
cocktail and my health improved. I'm doing well on the new drugs, and now
I have to face the fact that I may live for a long time.
But underneath all this
optimism is the lingering fear that I'm fooling myself. That the drugs
will stop working and I'll become resistant to all available treatments. A
likely outcome. So my health, my life, my plans continue to be
It's difficult for me to talk about my anxieties about longevity. First, because I lost many
friends and I feel that I owe it to them not to complain about living.
After all, living longer, surviving, does not fall into the category of
oppression. I'm lucky, right? However, I tested positive when I was 23. I
didn't think I was going to be living in two years. Forget living to see
thirty. I spent my entire 20s thinking I was going to die. I didn't
prepare for a long life. I gave no thought to money or a career. I didn't
think about what I wanted to do with my life, or rather I did--I decided
that I would do only what was meaningful to me in the short time that I
thought I had.
Now I find myself facing the more abstract questions of existence, like what
do I want to do for the rest of my life. I feel like a kid.
Artery: Let's look back by talking about your background.
You went to art school?
Bordowitz: Yes, I first attended the School of Visual Arts.
Then the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program.
In my academic career, I was last seen in
the Anthropology Department of NYU
studying ethnographic film. Then I went missing from academia, only to return as a full time teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
some ten years later. Currently, I'm also on the faculty of the Whitney Museum Independent Study
I dropped out of school to make guerrilla TV for the AIDS movement and I became a
full time activist with ACT UP.
Artery: You helped found two important, activist video collectives,
DIVA TV [Damned
Interfering Video Activists] and Testing the Limits in the late-80s. Can you talk about them? Why two
different collectives? What was different about their work or modus
Bordowitz: Testing the Limits was formed by five
people, lesbian, gay, and straight--David Meieran, Hilery Joy Kipnis.
Sandra Elgear, Robyn Hutt and myself---to document emerging AIDS activism,
in 1986-87. (Jean Carlomusto became a full member of the collective a
little later.) The collective was governed by the principle of consensus.
All 250-something edits of our first piece, "Testing the Limits," were
made by the collective.
Artery: That sounds excruciating!
Bordowitz: It was an excruciating but ultimately very
successful process. I don't believe the work would have been as strong
as it was without the endless arguments we had as a group and the
burden of consensus. Our differing points of view and nascent
understandings of the crisis were fired slowly in a crucible that produced
a rigorous and comprehensive examination of the crisis. We borrowed
Simon Watney's assertion
(from his book "Policing Desire") that the AIDS crisis must be examined from
three perspectives: civil rights, AIDS education and treatment activism. We used
the framework of those categories to document the various efforts then
beginning in New York. We wanted to show that a diverse number of people
were fighting AIDS on a number of fronts. And we wanted to show them as an
emerging coalition--that is, the AIDS community. "Testing the Limits" was
an organizing tape and a teaching tool.
Artery: How was that first piece distributed?
Bordowitz: It was eventually broadcast on
selected PBS stations around the country as well as at
museums, the American Film Institute, festivals, schools and, most
importantly, community centers where ACT UP chapters and other groups were
forming. At that point the members of the collective differed on the
direction the group should go.
Artery: What happened?
Bordowitz: I've had some time to think about what
happened. So my answer to that question is now informed by hindsight. Part
of the collective wanted to become a fundable entity. We'd made the first
piece with a few donations and the limited resources we had available to
us. A shoe-string really. After the success of the first piece some of the
group wanted to open an office and produce a proper PBS type documentary.
Others, wanted to continue doing guerrilla video for the AIDS movement. I
wanted to do that.
Testing the Limits opened
up the possibility of an activist AIDS-video practice that could provide
an instantaneous feedback loop to the movement for self-reflection,
self-critique. And there were many other needs for video activism. The
movement needed to be documented by people who were directly affected by
the crisis--people with AIDS and those who supported us. So I was into
producing fast cheap docs with questionable production values to serve
those immediate needs. I left Testing the Limits .
Artery: What year was this?
Bordowitz: I think it was in '88. At the time
leaving the group was perfect for me. I had just tested positive and I was
very interested in what was immediately at hand. I wasn't making long term
plans. And I was very addled around money management in my own life. The
responsibility of carrying my own rent seemed daunting enough without
taking on the fiscal responsibility required of a non-profit organization.
Testing the Limits went on to become a respected and fundable organization
and eventually produced the very fine, significant documentary
"Voices From The Front".
Looking back now both positions--creating a fundable organization and making guerrilla
television--were legitimate and absolutely necessary responses to the
needs of that moment. Neither one was right or wrong.
Artery: What about DIVA
[Damned Interfering Video Activists] TV?
Bordowitz: A large number of
videomakers--including Jean Carlomusto, Catherine Gund, Ellen Spiro, Ray
Navarro, Peter Bowen, Bob Beck , Steven Zabel, Costa Papas, George
Plaggianos, Rob Kurilla and many, many others--formed DIVA in 1989. It was
an affinity group of ACT UP devoted
to documenting ACT UP's efforts. We sometimes had as many as ten of us covering actions. This
did two things: It ensured that activists were producing our own versions
of the events; taking ownership of our own history. Very important. And
video cameras are also very useful deterrents against police violence.
Damned Interfering Video
Activists was organized within a much looser participatory framework than
Testing the Limits. DIVA was an open group, organized along an
anarchistic, almost syndicalist model of operation. People contributed
whatever they could in terms of labor and time. The experienced
videomakers trained the inexperienced members. The group was as large as
40 or 50 people at one time. We received some money from ACT UP--all of it
went into tape stock which was free to any DIVA member to document ACT UP
actions. The availability of cheap consumer video equipment like Hi-8
cameras provided access to the means of production. Enough of us had
cameras to create a pool of equipment. Jean Carlomusto and I were working
together at GMHC where
we had access to editing facilities. A number of others in the group had access to facilities elsewhere.
Artery: How did your
partnership with Jean Carlomusto to produce "Living With AIDS" for GMHC
Bordowitz: I met Jean after the first ACT UP
protest on Wall Street. David Meieran and I had gone to document the
action. We met Jean who was there documenting it for the "Living With
AIDS" cable show, which she'd originated for GMHC. Something went wrong
with our camera so we called Jean to see if we could use some of her
footage. That's how I met Jean. I was hired in 1988 at GMHC and
co-produced the cable show with Jean until 1993.
Artery: What sort of reach did the show have?
Bordowitz: With cable you never have hard numbers
but you can count on an average of 3000 people catching the show as they
surf the dial. There was also a specialty audience of people with AIDS and
those who supported us in New York City, which was the epicenter of the
epidemic in the US. For many of the works, the show wasn't the final
destination. They also circulated through distribution to other AIDS
agencies and through the art world.
Artery: Did this activist work get much respect from the mainstream artworld?
Bordowitz: To some extent. Galleries and museums
showed the work but that wasn't our priority. As an activist one wants
one's work shown everywhere, to as many different audiences as possible.
The tapes served as educational tools. The art world needed to be educated
about AIDS, just like any other audience.
Artery: Have the "Living
With AIDS" tapes been collected by the Museum of the Moving Image or the
Museum of Broadcasting?
Bordowitz: The New York Public Library has the GMHC
collection and the Museum of Modern Art has selected shows.
Artery: Are you involved
with the Estate Project's collaboration with the New York Public Library
to preserve and archive activist AIDS video?
Bordowitz: Yes, I've donated my tapes to the Library.
Artery: "Fast Trip, Long
Drop" is a montage of staged and
documentary footage. Your subjectivity is foregrounded and you presented
what is in part a not-very politically correct amalgam of anger, pessimism
and weariness. What was the response like?
Bordowitz: "Fast Trip, Long Drop" was very well
received, which surprised me because it is very dark and pessimistic. It
was made at a very low point. Video activists were rethinking the previous
few years of work. We had exhausted our strategies which had been limited
to showing positive images of people with AIDS "surviving and thriving."
These strategies were legitimate responses to the overwhelmingly
prejudicial representations of people with AIDS generated by the
commercial media. But by the early 90s, People with AIDS and folks in the
communities hardest hit by AIDS needed something else. As a PWA, I needed
something else. I needed to openly confront the despair, the hopelessness
and the burn-out. In '92 I lost someone very dear to me, my friend Ray
Navarro. That affected me more deeply than any other of the many losses I
had experienced thus far.
Artery: That was also the time of the Berlin AIDS
Bordowitz: Yes, around that same time. Doctors
there announced to the world that no cure was on the horizon. (This was
before the new treatments became available. Not that protease inhibitors
are the cure.) I believe very strongly in the legitimating power of
television and media, so it was important to me that a work be produced
that addressed the complexity of the AIDS crisis from the point of view of
a person with AIDS directly addressing people with AIDS.
"Fast Trip, Long Drop"
shows something no other AIDS doc had shown--a group of people talking
amongst themselves about our coming to terms with the possibilities of our
deaths. When I made "Fast Trip, Long Drop" I was tired of pretending for
the sake of others that I would survive. I became preoccupied with the
burdens that sick people bear on behalf of those around them who are well.
I wanted to get a handle on despair and put it out there as a political
problem. To be recognized and discussed. If we couldn't do this, then it
all seemed like bullshit. I wanted an honest media produced in the
interests of people living with AIDS.
Artery: That's your bottom line, isn't it?
Bordowitz: Yes. "Fast Trip, Long Drop" not only
showed people with AIDS coping with the disease, it presumed an audience
of people with AIDS. The overwhelming majority of AIDS media up until that
point presumed a straight audience of HIV negative people who were
threatened by queers and junkies. We were never recognized as members of
the general public. The "general public" is a fiction. It's a group of
people organized as consumers. Today people with AIDS have been welcomed
as consumers by the pharmaceutical industry, which is making huge profits
by selling AIDS care to those who can afford it.
It comes as no surprise
that we, people with AIDS, became legitimate, credit-card-carrying members
of the general public after the appearance of products to sell to us.
People With AIDS were scapegoats, then we became a community and now we're
a marketing demographic.
Artery: Jean Carlomusto has observed that the documentary footage of demos and actions that was
once energizing, is now a source of sadness, a record of images of
once-healthy or living comrades. Do you agree with this appraisal?
Bordowitz: Yes, of course I agree with Jean.
Artery: What are activist arenas today?
Bordowitz: AIDS has become an accepted and
tolerated ill of society, like homelessness, poverty and cancer. The
activist arenas are limited to small group efforts like the
Treatment Action Group that still hold the
government research efforts and pharmaceutical companies accountable to
People with HIV. The AIDS activist movement was a site of conflict, a
struggle for power, but it is no longer a vital movement for social
change. The AIDS activist movement was the catalyst for the national
discussion on health care in the 90s. We were very successful at many
things but we were not able to solve the fundamental problem of American
healthcare: If you can afford medical care and treatment you'll live
longer. If you can't, you'll die. That's the simple truth about AIDS and
it's true in the US for many diseases. It's true about AIDS all over the
world. That's the big picture. People in situations of crushing poverty in
Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe--the world over--have little
or no access to fundamental healthcare. In European countries and
industrialized countries with socialized medicine there are different
issues of access but gross inequities exist everywhere.
Artery: In "Fast Trip,
Long Drop," you revealed an enormous amount about yourself: your drinking,
your father who deserted you, your unsafe sex of the mid-80s, issues about
intimacy and loneliness. What effect did those revelations have on you?
And your quest to be the "protagonist of [your] own story"?
Bordowitz: I'm not a confessional artist. I used
my own life as material to connect with a larger audience of people. I
believed that if those experiences were happening to me, they were
happening to a lot people. I didn't and still don't think the experiences
I talk about in "Fast Trip" are special or unique. Isn't that the point of
coming out? To identify with a common struggle? A common story? So, I
included those bits of personal history as a way to tell a story shared by
Artery: In "Fast Trip,
Long Drop," there are lots of mostly musical references to Judaism. What
role does Judaism play in your life?
Bordowitz: My Jewishness was my first experience
of otherness in the world. That's why it is mostly represented by the
Klezmer music on the soundtrack, brilliantly scored and beautifully played
by the Klezmatics.
Jewishness was the background against which I came to understand queerness
and otherness in general. The figure of the person with AIDS was
constructed as "other" in the same ways as Jews, people of color, queers,
outcasts, etc. have been historically. Prejudice is a corrupt kind of
logic, a kind of sick machine that enforces normalcy and profits by it at
the expense of diversity and difference. Normalcy is ultimately a fiction
like the general public.
Artery: You've worked in both video and film. Do you prefer one medium over another?
Bordowitz: "Fast Trip, Long Drop" was made
entirely in video with the exception of the appropriated historical
footage, which was originally shot on film. I transferred "Fast Trip, Long
Drop" to 16mm film so it could be distributed to film festivals and film
theaters, which it was. It also showed on television. I don't prefer film
over video, or vice-versa.
I'm not interested in the
question of medium. I'm only interested in the question of distribution.
Neither "cinema" nor "television" have integrity as separate categories
anymore. I don't see why alternative media artists have to pretend that it
matters whether they produce an image on a strip of plastic or magnetic
tape. Given total freedom of choice--which I have never enjoyed nor expect
to have in the near future--I prefer to shoot on film, edit on tape and
have the end product broadcast on TV and distributed in theaters.
Ultimately the most
important issue for any artist is the set of ideas behind the work. I
believe that the ideas behind the work should be much larger than any one
medium can contain.
Artery: Can you talk about your most recent films, "The Suicide" and "A Cloud in Trousers?"
Bordowitz: "The Suicide" and "A Cloud In
Trousers," were attempts to address AIDS using already existing texts.
Addressing issues of survival more obliquely than I did using methods of
"A Cloud In Trousers" is
based on a poem by the Soviet poet Vladimr
Mayakovsky. The poem was written in 1916. It's a simple film, one
actor -- David
Rakoff playing Mayakovsky--shot in a black box, with a few props. It's
a figure study really. It was the first time I worked with a
cinematographer -- Ellen
Kuras. I was also interested
in concentrating on directing an actor and working in a focused way with
one long text that required a sustained level of intensity. The poem is
about the conflict between political commitments and personal commitments,
between contending commitments of the heart.
I identified with that
conflict. During the years of non-stop, full-time AIDS activism and the
media work that resulted from that, I often wondered about the place of my
own subjective concerns within my practice. "Fast Trip" came out of that
conflict. I was interested in exploring it further with the Mayakovsky
Artery: Is resolution possible?
Bordowitz: I don't think there exists a
resolution to the conflict between internal concerns and external
concerns, between subjectivity and objectivity. I think the two remain in
dynamic and productive tension and its more interesting to bring the
inside out and the outside in, as Gertrude Stein suggested.
Artery: What about "The Suicide?"
Bordowitz: "The Suicide" followed "A Cloud In
Trousers." It's a movie based on the play, "The Suicide," written in 1928
by playwright Nicolai Erdman. It holds an infamous place in Soviet theater
history because Stalin
banned it and its rehearsal was the official reason for closing down
Meyerhold's theater. It's a
painfully funny play. It concerns an unemployed man named Semyon who
threatens to kill himself because he has no livelihood. When word gets out
through gossipy neighbors that he's threatened suicide, representatives of
various interests approach him and ask him to kill himself in their name.
An intellectual asks him to kill himself in the name of the Russian
intelligentsia. A romantic asks him to kill himself for love. A butcher
asks him to kill himself over the high price of meat. No one tries to save
Artery: So it's an AIDS allegory?
Bordowitz: For me the play was a good vehicle to
explore issues surrounding the burdens placed on "victims" by society.
People with AIDS were held responsible for burdens on the health care
system. We were blamed for the collapse of the nation's moral order. We
placed burdens on the legal system. We ruined sex. We were a blank wall
upon which many ills could be projected according to the cynical interests
of various parties.
People with AIDS were also
made the subjects of fantasies from within the AIDS movement. We were
turned into angels and heroes.
And so Semyon, the main
character of "The Suicide" who is an unemployed man in a society promising
full employment, a man without a purpose, becomes a martyr to many causes.
In the end he refuses to kill himself and he declares that he wants to
live. In his final monologue at his own funeral, Semyon begs everyone to
allow him to live.
Artery: What a fantastic image!
Bordowitz: The character in the play, Semyon, was
a man who'd seen the revolution and expected to benefit from it. Instead
he finds that he has no place in the future society. I identified with
that. It's willful on my part, but I saw Semyon as a person with AIDS. A
person whose suffering was turned into a political football. And it's a
post-protease inhibitor work. My interest in the play and mining it for
its allegorical content had to do with the possibility of living much
longer than I had expected. I'm still dealing with these issues in my
work. I'm finding it very difficult to relax into the uncertainty of that
situation. There's a level of spirituality, a kind of serenity that
continues to elude me.