PRINT Summer 1995


In early 1989, I attended a conference on the subject of art and AIDS at Ohio State University. A number of compelling figures were present in that Columbus auditorium that gray February weekend, but one made a particular impression on me: Gregg Bordowitz. From the moment he began to discuss strategies of contemporary cultural activism, which he outlined with a kind of breathtaking clarity, I knew I was in the presence of a serious thinker—an impression that has only increased over the years.

From the beginning, Bordowitz’s work has been characterized by an extraordinary adaptability and purposefulness. As a member of the video collective Testing the Limits during the early years of ACT UP, he produced tapes that recorded the movement’s demonstrations and analyzed representations of the epidemic in the media. He also joined Gay Men’s Health Crisis, where, with the artist Jean Carlomusto, he developed an array of AIDS-educational work: tapes aimed at empowering HIV-positive viewers, “safer sex shorts,” multilingual video. More recently he produced a series of short tapes, “Portraits of People with AIDS,” which I was pleased to include, along with a selection of the educational work, in “What Happened to the Institutional Critique?,” a show I organized at American Fine Arts, New York, in 1993.

Bordowitz’s first feature film, Fast Trip, Long Drop, was recently screened at the Sundance Independent Film Festival, at the New York and San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festivals, and in commercial release at Cinema Village, New York. It was also included in this year’s Whitney Biennial. With Fast Trip, Long Drop, Bordowitz joins a number of filmmakers whose exploration of AIDS content has necessitated the problematic gesture of turning the camera upon themselves, recording their own experiences and narratives—a transition Bordowitz sees not as a rejection of his activist project but as its most recent fulfillment. In the representation of the self, he argues, the HIV-positive artist turns from the task of demanding new treatments to the even greater challenge of “living, simply living” with the virus itself.

James Meyer

JAMES MEYER: Fast Trip, Long Drop, a feature-length work being shown at film festivals and museums, bespeaks an important transition in your activity. How do you see the shift from community organization and media critique to “art film”?

GREGG BORDOWITZ: As a continuity. Fast Trip . . . satisfies the criteria I established for my activist work, in that it still has the same conception of a three-tiered audience. The first tier is those who appear in the film; the second, those who know and identify with the people in the film; the third is anyone else who wants to come along for the ride. I still see Fast Trip . . . as an organizing tape in that it attempts to voice the concerns of a constituency and to formulate these concerns in ways that are productive for that constituency; it recognizes people with AIDS as part of the work’s audience.

JM: But it’s a personal narrative.

GB: It does take on more personal issues, but I don’t see this as its primary distinction from the earlier work. The main distinction is that in Fast Trip . . . I no longer impose fetters on the work for the sake of what I envisioned to be the good of the community it was intended for. Rather, I’ve tried to overturn any limits placed on the work for particular uses.

The earlier work I did—the “Safer Sex Shorts,” for example—was created within a context of extreme repression, in which lifesaving information for the communities hardest hit by AIDS was unavailable. Given our lack of resources (compared to better-equipped institutions that refused to take on this issue because of homophobia), we produced educational materials in ways we felt would be most accessible to these communities. In doing so, we bracketed off certain concerns—such as the complexity of sexual identity and practices. In producing Fast Trip . . . , I came to feel that the discussions we had had within that context of oppression had become limiting: we could no longer produce work that was satisfying and relevant to our situation as people with AIDS without overturning the limits we had established earlier on. The film became a vehicle to take on issues around AIDS as they affect me now, a means to explore and explode my own sense of complexity and uncertainty at this moment in the epidemic.

JM: When you pursue this kind of complexity and locate your reflection in personal experience, I wonder what happens to praxis? How does the film relate to organization—or do you feel praxis isn’t a primary concern for AIDS work now?

GB: The film looks to the everyday for loss and despair. In that way its aims are practical.

JM: The practice of living with AIDS—

GB: And burdening that representation: using it as a means to explore the forces that come to bear on a person living with AIDS at this moment in this society. Yvonne Rainer, who has been enormously influential for me, has said that in her films she explores the personal only insofar as it exemplifies social relations. This has been the model for much of my work.

JM: This is the “personal is political” model articulated by the women’s movement in the ’70s. Still, it does seem worth noting that your new work does not facilitate direct action.

GB: There are other connections to the earlier work, though. In Testing the Limits we tried to bring together disparate voices within the same field of representation, the same frame. In Fast Trip . . . too I’ve tried to bring various identities into debate and conflict, creating a number of subject positions from which audiences could view the work. It’s the same strategy we used before, except the identities are now embodied in a single character.

JM: But in the earlier work you created different subject positions for an audience to identify with in the process of formulating its demands; the identifying process had a different goal. While those tapes participated in building a political movement, Fast Trip . . . reflects on that movement’s history. A pair of parallel scenes figures this shift. You first show yourself as a new member of ACT UP in the late ’80s, giving an uplifting speech in which you come out as HIV-positive, and then, later, as the Gregg Bordowitz of 1995, expressing a disbelief in action, in the movement’s ability to end the epidemic soon—a possibility we activists once believed in.

GB: The expectations have shifted among people with AIDS and activists. The earlier work was made when it was still possible for many of us to entertain the fantasy of provoking a response within the medical establishment that would result in a cure during our lifetimes. Many of us now recognize this is not going to be possible. And so the aims of something like Fast Trip . . . are changed. I want to say they’re simpler, or less ambitious, but that’s not the case. The aim is to figure out how to keep on living. By “living” I mean maintaining a quality of life, remaining interested, resisting bitterness, moving on.

JM: Your earlier work was conceived as video, because video seemed a practical and accessible medium for community work. Fast Trip . . . is a video transferred to film, and is being distributed through the networks of independent film. Has your attitude toward video changed?

GB: I studied art in the mid ’80s with people who formulated art as an intervention in mass culture, and I adopted this as my goal. But when I started making video for and with the communities affected by AIDS, I realized that from the position we were operating in, it would be difficult to produce work that would intervene in the commercial media. Even PBS was closed to the kinds of community-organizing work we were producing. I realized that an intervention could mean something else: producing work that addressed issues and gave important information to people who needed that information, and who were getting no recognition from the dominant media. The idea was to set up our own systems of distribution locally to address these needs. And this was possible then, because there was an organized constituency that desired the kinds of work that I and dozens of others were making. At a time when the media was not yet interested in covering demonstrations, ACT UP was interested in watching videos of itself on the floor of ACT UP. Even when demonstrations did begin to appear on the news, there was a need for materials that portrayed our efforts in the ways that we understood them, rather than the ways the dominant media represented them.

That work was great to do, and it served a purpose. But I don’t feel I can do that work now in ways that will serve a purpose, or in ways that are interesting to me. At this point the discussion around AIDS cannot move forward unless we recognize the complexity and uncertainty of the situation we now face. And we need to recognize that the earlier forms of organization are no longer intact. With Fast Trip . . . I’ve gone back to a notion of intervention involving work that tries to find a place among other representations of AIDS in the dominant media. I wanted to broaden the audience, to figure out a way to make work that addressed new constituencies. And independent film has a better distribution system right now than does video. Other videomakers—Marlon Riggs, Mark Rappaport—who have transferred their works to film have achieved a much wider distribution than if they had not done so.

Also, let’s recognize the status of the medium now: in the commercial fields, the distinction between film and video is lessening. Most of the network television you watch is shot on film; most of the Hollywood films you watch are edited on video. The only place where this distinction categorically remains is within “high” art. Fast Trip . . . was excluded from some festivals because it didn’t originate on film.

JM: Whereas the Biennial is presenting it as a video. There was a point when you did privilege television over cinema as a potential organizing tool.

GB: I’m making contradictory claims, which have to do with how you can distribute work. Fast Trip . . . is television. I watch television, I’ve always watched television, I think about the language and idioms of television. There’s nothing cinematic about Fast Trip . . . except that it’s sometimes viewed on a film screen. The visual isn’t necessarily a great concern of mine; I’m only interested in making images that are efficient vehicles for the ideas and the actions that are going on.

JM: You mentioned your creation of a variety of subject positions in Fast Trip . . . , which alternates among representations of “yourself” (“Gregg Bordowitz”), another self (“Alter Allesman”), and several people with AIDS as they’re presented in the media. Your identity and their identities are threaded through one another. However, I could not but see Fast Trip . . . as a personal testimony—as a work that could be characterized as “expressive,” if not “expressionist.” This may seem surprising given that your education was grounded in the post-Modernist critique of expressionism and particularly of neo-Expressionist painting, with its belief in a language that could represent a stable self. Now there has in general been a return of expressionism in the ’90s, putatively allied to a resurgent identity politics. Some of these practices, trading on the representation of an emotive content appealing to an empathic viewer, have resulted in a new kind of art commodity (I’m thinking of Kiki Smith’s feminist work, or Ross Bleckner’s AIDS elegies). I’m not suggesting your film functions in this way. Still, it seems you too are bringing back expression—if a self-critical expression, and one located in public discourse rather than in a private self.

GB: I don’t think I’m bringing back “expression.” I do believe that political work can and must cope with subjectivity, but I feel it can do that without resorting to fantasies of authorship and a centered self. You have only to look at Rainer’s films to see that one can take the assertion that the personal is political very seriously while resisting “authenticity” and the manipulations that stem from it.

JM: But there’s a lot of Gregg Bordowitz in Fast Trip. . . . It dwells a great deal on your history, your relationships with your mother, father, and stepfather; we see your apartment, your books. And I can’t help wondering whether, when you factor in personal content to this degree, there isn’t a return to some kind of expression.

GB: That’s the risk, but one should resist it. I’m deeply ambivalent about the things you mention; I thought I had taken pains to problematize and complicate the idea of the self. I tried to split the subject, to make myself into many subjects, talk from many positions, offer positions that contradict each other. I’m not sure I was successful. To me it doesn’t appear to be Gregg Bordowitz on the screen, but maybe that’s self-protective on my part.

One reason I tried to resist gestures of “authenticity” was that for me, one of the tasks of this piece was to trouble the fantasy that people with AIDS have a greater purchase on “truth.” I know that all I know is my experience, and that that’s the limit of what I know. The ways in which people with AIDS have been portrayed resemble the ways in which people with other diseases have been portrayed throughout history: there’s a kind of romanticization, a belief that people with illness know more, have universal truths to give voice to, because of their closeness to death. To me this is the center of the fantasy of a person with AIDS as Other, and that fantasy is the mechanism that prevents him or her from being recognized as part of the general public. People with AIDS, and other people with diseases, pose the problem of mortality for people who are well. Walter Benjamin defines disgust as “the fear of being thought to be the same as that which you find disgusting,” and since AIDS represents death, it’s understandable that any discussion of it would provoke fear of mortality and disgust within an audience identified as “well.” I wanted to put this on the table, and to recognize that to further the discussion around AIDS, we needed to trouble these fantasies of transcendence and show the mundane aspects of living, simply living, with the disease.

JM: Hence your discomfort with certain films—the final scene in Cyril Collard’s Savage Nights, for example, or moments in Derek Jarman’s Blue, works you otherwise admire—where the person with AIDS is presented as possessing some transcendental meaning.

GB: I don’t understand who these scenes are for. They might be comforting for the person who’s suffering, but sometimes I fear that, more than anything else, they’re there to comfort those who are witnessing the suffering. One of the tasks I set myself in Fast Trip . . . was to rake on the idea that people with AIDS should think about the witness, and take responsibility for the feelings of the witness. It was my wish not to fetter what I think and feel for the sake of a witness. I’m preoccupied with the boundaries and limits of what is said by both the ill and the well in circumstances of illness. You could say I’m preoccupied with an ethics of illness, and would like to foster a situation that is the most open, the most tolerant, on both ends of that equation.

JM: You’ve mentioned how, in conceiving the film, you found certain texts useful resources (or thinking through some of the ethical issues around AIDS.

GB: I hope it doesn’t sound immodest, but what Benjamin did for and to historical materialism in the “Theses on the Philosophy of History” I wanted to do to the body of thought surrounding AIDS-activist politics. I wanted to set limits, fetter expectations; I wanted to bring in the realms of the unknown and of uncertainty within our discussion, to recognize that there are things beyond our control, forces we can’t see, circumstances we can’t comprehend, and that we should reserve the category of the unknown for our thinking. It seemed to me practical to do this at this point, given that our expectations have not been met vis-à-vis finding a cure and moving the establishment to do so.

JM: I assume you mean the way Benjamin was able, in that text, to accept the limits of dialectical materialism’s or any other system’s ability to explain the way the world works. There’s a moving scene in your film where Rainer has a music box that plays the “Internationale.” The anthem of proletarian revolution is reduced to a nostalgic tune.

GB: Benjamin brought a kind of humility to bear on historical materialism, limiting the sense of instrumentality implicit in that model. And he did this in a way I identify with: by reference to the Jewish conception of time and its relationship to the messianic, notions I want to introduce into the discussion around AIDS. At the end of the “Theses,” Benjamin observes that the Jew lives in an anticipatory present. Each moment, he writes, is “the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.” Benjamin was talking about a consciousness of time among a diasporic people that has suffered greatly through history. He said (this is my paraphrase, my understanding), Look at the Jew; the Jew has a different sense of time. Throughout his struggles and wandering, he holds out for the possibility of change, always in the present. And this waiting creates a kind of character, a kind of living, a kind of way of thinking about possibility. Not that redemption will come in the hereafter; redemption may come at any moment, here, now, in the historical present. I think Benjamin was proposing this as one way of thinking about struggle.

Relating this to AIDS activism, I wanted to wrest all conclusions away from the nihilism that could result from the recognition of our “failure.” I’m interested in this notion of failure, because I don’t believe that we failed because of anything we did wrong. Certainly we made a lot of mistakes. But one has to understand the history of struggle against a backdrop of extreme complexity, and to understand failure in terms of circumstances. Struggle is never fully realized in the terms that it articulates for itself as the fantasy of success. Rather, we must look at efforts at struggle as part of a larger historical field, tendencies that are part of history, part of change, part of the way our world moves.

James Meyer teaches contemporary art and criticism at Emory University.