PRINT March 2003


FILMMAKER AND ACTIVIST Gregg Bordowitz’s passage through the 1980s mirrors the course of AIDS activism in that decade. From the very first ACT UP demonstration in New York to the triumphal storming of the FDA headquarters outside Washington, DC, he deployed his art in the battle against AIDS. Bordowitz leads off this two-issue series of personal chronicles of the decade, recounting his experiences as an activist and guerrilla filmmaker at the forefront of the fight.
Art does have the power to save lives, and it is this very power that must be recognized, fostered, and supported in every way possible.
—Douglas Crimp, introduction to AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism (MIT Press, 1988)

When Ronald Reagan was elected president, I was sixteen years old, living in Coram, Long Island. A smart faggy teen, I spent every possible minute drawing and painting in the art rooms of Longwood High School. I loved Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. I listened to an eclectic mix of music, including Miles Davis, James Brown, and the Ramones. It was my girlfriend Michelle who introduced me to punk culture. She taught me everything I needed to know—where to get the music, where to shop for jewelry (any pet store), and how to cut my own hair without a mirror. Well, almost everything. My crush on one of Longwood’s art teachers led to the other defining friendship of my high school years. Mr. ——— instructed me in the ways of the gay world, even taking me into the city and showing me the leather shops and bookstores of the West Village. I always knew that the minute I turned eighteen I would move to Manhattan, which seemed as far away and glamorous as Hollywood. After graduating, I followed Michelle to the School of Visual Arts.

On arrival in Manhattan, I made friends with others new to the city. During the day we studied art and visited museums. At night we explored bars. I recall one late night at the Pyramid Club on Avenue A in the East Village. The house was packed, and there was a long list of entertainers. A tall slender blond boy dressed in metallic space gear tapped out a scale repeatedly on a toy electronic organ. In a trancelike state, he chanted, “Take what you can get and call it love.”

I spent the next four years in and out of love with many men and women. I formed important and enduring friendships with artists like Mark Dion, Jason Simon, and Andrea Fraser. In 1986, Andrea and I lived together, on Fourth Street between A and B. The East Village was then host to a hodgepodge of cultures—punk, bohemian, queer, and druggie. No one I knew referred to himself as gay. That identity was reserved for clones—older homosexual men who wore mustaches and dressed alike in tight jeans and nylon bomber jackets, or in leather. I rejected this style as a kind of conformity. I was free of labels.

None of my friends knew much about AIDS in 1986. I was still living in a mostly straight-identified scene, and AIDS was a remote concern. But then the reports about the AIDS crisis that began to dominate the news captured my attention, probably because I realized that I could have become exposed to HIV from sex with any number of men—some friends, some acquaintances, some strangers. Even among my few homosexual friends there was much confusion, misinformation, and denial when it came to safe sex. The public sex culture of gay life that had achieved visibility and legitimacy through the sexual revolution was being driven underground by homophobia. In the mid-’80s, mandatory testing and quarantine were discussed at very high levels of the Reagan administration.

Underlying all this confusion was the fear that one could test positive and die a horrible death very quickly. This fear, magnified by all the attention AIDS was getting in the news, drove me to seek advice and information. The only hospitable place to go was the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center on Thirteenth Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. I became acquainted with the center through my work protesting the 1986 Supreme Court ruling (Bowers v. Hardwick) that upheld state sodomy laws. Hardwick reinvigorated the gay-rights movement, as hundreds of people turned out for marches and demonstrations in New York. I videotaped these protests—my fledgling efforts as an activist documentarian. This activity led me to form more friendships with gay men and lesbians.

The community center was a somewhat run-down old building four or five stories high. In the warm weather, there were always people hanging out outside, smoking and talking. The inside badly needed a paint job. The stained surfaces of the walls were peeling. It was a labyrinth of different-size rooms, rooms within rooms, a couple of staircases. For me, it all added to the allure of the place. Clearly the imperative to provide shelter for gay men and lesbians, to foster an affirming culture, was more important than appearances. A sign on an easel just inside the main entrance listed dozens of meetings, consciousness-raising and discussion groups of all kinds concerning communities within the larger community—leather men, men of all colors together, the Salsa Soul Sisters, AA meetings, activist meetings, poetry readings, and so on.

The Community Health Project was on the second floor. Climbing the red metal staircase put me in mind of fire drills at my elementary school. At the CHP, I was given a free examination and much-needed sex education, all dispensed without judgment. The health-care workers on staff didn’t know me, but I could tell they’d helped many people like me. The experience was profound, a revelation: Community is the space claimed and defended by people who need one another. On the steps of the center that day, I decided to become a citizen of the gay community, and I vowed to make a contribution to it.

In 1985, I attended the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program, a university-level program for artists, curators, and critics who draw on critical theory in their work. The curriculum consisted of weekly reading seminars and presentations given by a prestigious list of visiting faculty. The weekly reading group was central to my experience of the ISP. Under the stewardship of the program’s much-loved director, Ron Clark, it was organized in a way that reminded me of Hebrew school, a very pleasant association. Ron always led the group, sitting at the head of the long table. The students sat around it with their texts open, marked with notes. Ron assigned readings by Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Laura Mulvey, Jacques Lacan, and Louis Althusser. Reading Althusser opened our eyes to the notion that ideology is a worldview constructed through language itself, the very medium of social life. We speak language and it speaks us. Ideology works from the core of identity, mediating our relations with others.

Change is not simply a matter of developing better ideas and convincing others of their validity. Radical change is a matter of altering the entire culture’s view of reality. All around me, people were getting sick, living in fear of dying, losing others. The government didn’t care. President Reagan refused to acknowledge the crisis publicly, and televangelist Jerry Falwell seemed almost gleeful in pronouncing AIDS to be an example of God’s wrath against homosexuals. In a period marked by increasing homophobia, racism, xenophobia, poverty, and homelessness—all exacerbated by Republican social policy—a revolutionary change of consciousness was necessary.

Craig Owens (1950–90) taught at the Whitney program. A trained art historian whose work would evolve into deconstructionist criticism and theory, Craig was a gay man who identified as a male feminist. By the mid-’80s, he was struggling to apply feminist theory and psychoanalysis to homosexuality. He hesitated. It was a big decision. Discussing homosexuality entailed coming out publicly in the professional world, and that unavoidably led one into identity politics. There were risks for intellectuals then, as there are now. You risk having all your work reduced and dismissed. More than that, there were strong arguments against coming out. Foucault, for instance, suspected the coming-out narrative as a means of incorporation into a juridical-medical-disciplinary regime. Eventually, though, Foucault came out. And Craig wrote a piece titled “Outlaws: Gay Men in Feminism” (1987).

Craig’s Upper West Side apartment was cluttered with stacks of books because there was no more space on his bookshelves. In this environment, I was first introduced to Schönberg’s opera Moses und Aron. Craig slowly took the LP out of its sleeve, careful not to get any fingerprints on the vinyl. I sat still, keeping my excitement a secret. The needle dropped, and after a few revolutions the strangest sounds emanated from the speakers. I had never heard music like that before.

Schönberg’s libretto retells the Old Testament story of the golden calf as a parable for an aesthetic debate concerning Truth versus Appearance—a debate central to the work of Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School. Suspicions concerning the seductive nature of images, the disproportionate role of the modern media in shaping public opinion, and the exploitation of the power of images by Nazi propagandists all combined to amplify the relevance of the biblical debate, which haunted postwar discussions of art and culture. Abstract Expressionism came to eschew representation altogether in its quest for transcendental Truth, while the Conceptual artists of the ’60s and ’70s shared the Hebraic preference for word over image. In the early ’80s the terms of the debate were turned upside down.

In New York, a group of artists associated with Metro Pictures worked in a Conceptual vein but chose to flaunt the very images that their predecessors had so rigorously rejected. Indeed, they made the Golden Calf (i.e., products of the culture industry) the very subject of their work. But artists like Barbara Kruger, Richard Prince, and Sherrie Levine didn’t produce ostentatious images; in brazen acts of detournement they appropriated them, turning them against the very culture industry that had put them into circulation in the first place. Kruger went so far as to combine word and image, acutely aware that, in this age of advertising, the word is an image (think logo). The appropriationists weren’t preoccupied with specific pictures so much as with critiquing—or deconstructing, as one might have said at the time—an entire regime of image production. These were among the artists Craig Owens championed.

My nagging suspicions about my HIV status proved correct. In 1988, accompanied by my friend Rebecca, I received a positive result through an anonymous testing program at the STD clinic on Ninth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street. Outside the clinic’s entrance was a statue commemorating the naval war dead. A solitary stone figure of a sailor stood erect, stoically looking off into the space above your head. Exiting the clinic, I paused in front of the statue and remembered the first line of Jean Genet’s novel Querelle: “The notion of murder often brings to mind the notion of sea and sailors.”

When I tested HIV positive the gay community had an ethos: Everyone with AIDS was innocent. No blame could be attached to a seropositive status. All infections were assumed to be caused by ignorance. I was first introduced to safer-sex education in 1985, perhaps even earlier, and still I didn’t practice safer sex consistently until I tested positive. The role of the unconscious cannot be underestimated when it comes to the difficulties of practicing safer sex. The idea that you can’t do what you strongly desire, for the rest of your life, is profoundly painful.

Today, responses to recent seroconversions are ambivalent, sometimes even hostile. For those of us who have lost scores of people, the thought of another prolonged illness and death is intolerable. But there’s an objectionable kind of moralism that’s crept in to the gay community. People who seroconvert now are viewed with suspicion. A person can be made to feel that he has perpetrated violence against himself. If we give in to this kind of thinking, we neglect to acknowledge the violence perpetrated against our sexual lives by the epidemic itself, and the difficulties of remaining HIV negative.

I worked at Gay Men’s Health Crisis from 1988 to 1993. At GMHC, my friend Jean Carlomusto and I coproduced a weekly public-access cable show called Living with AIDS. The program was made by and for people with AIDS and those who loved and supported them. Jean and I thought of ourselves as part of a counterculture making work for an audience of people excluded by the television industry, which presumed its audience to be uninfected and unaffected. I remember when a colleague who was suffering tremendously from wasting showed up to work at GMHC wearing brand-new white sweatpants. He had a huge brown diarrhea stain on his ass. He was embarrassed and ashamed that he had lost control of his bowels on the subway. Loss of control is perhaps the most frightening aspect of AIDS—loss of control over your functions, over your weight, over your health in general. Illness was visible everywhere in New York in the ’80s. Tormented by ubiquitous signs of distress, my generation of activist artists worked to affirm life.

I was very busy in the late ’80s. In 1987, a small group of gay men and their concerned friends founded ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, to do what nonprofit service organizations like GMHC could not possibly do: take militant direct action against the government. But even before ACT UP was officially formed, there were signs of an emerging AIDS-activist movement. A provocative poster appeared around town—a pink triangle on a black background bearing the words SILENCE = DEATH. A small group of gay men (who would later form Gran Fury with other activists) designed this poster, and they had copies “sniped” at their own expense. The design was given to ACT UP to use at an early action, and “Silence = Death” was adopted as the organization’s slogan.

At that time, I looked to the city’s walls for direction. I recall exiting the Christopher Street subway station when a small eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch Xeroxed flyer, wheat-pasted to the wall, caught my attention. It advertised an upcoming protest. I knew then and there that I would go. That’s how I attended ACT UP’s first demonstration, on Wall Street on March 24, 1987, protesting the role of corporate interests in guiding the FDA drug-approval process and the greed of the pharmaceutical companies poised to make a killing off the drugs we desperately needed. Accompanied by David Meieran, a fellow Whitney Program alumnus and a creative collaborator, I showed up with a video camera to document the event.

Over 250 people gathered in front of Trinity Church at 7 AM. We tied up traffic for several hours, and seventeen people were arrested for sitting in the middle of the street and refusing to get up. The cops carried them away on stretchers. I recall two protesters connected by a thick chain wrapped around their torsos—a young white man wearing a beret and a gray-haired woman wrapped in a heavy wool overcoat. The morning was cold and gray. Flashes of light from the cameras of many news photographers added to the stormy atmosphere. TV news crews jostled each other to get the better shots. (With a small consumer VHS camera, I had yet to learn how to hold my own among the burly cameramen with bigger rigs.) Most of the protesters were packed together on the sidewalk behind police barricades. The cops were prepared for the event and treated the protesters gently. (If I remember correctly, the terms of the nonviolent protest were negotiated with the police before the event. Experienced activists had been doing that for years. Later, the practice would be challenged by a new generation of organizers.) A tall African-American man with a megaphone—I think his name was Charles—led the crowd in chants: “More AIDS drugs are what we need. All we get is profit and greed.” An effigy of the FDA commissioner, Frank Young, was strung up by its neck from a street lamp. Passersby moved quickly away from the scene. We called after them, “You can get it too.”

As an artist, I felt that I had a unique contribution to make to AIDS activism: I could use my skills as a manipulator of images to document the movement from the point of view of activists. I was biased. I was partisan. And I was not alone. A generation of artists joined the cause and freely gave their time and expertise to produce a vibrant culture in the interests of people with AIDS. The videos I worked on collectively with so many others, too numerous to mention here, were skilled constructions intended to incite people to action.

Looking back now at that intensely prolific period, when I never went anywhere without a camera, I can see myself: panicky, hyper, moody, arrogant, and filled with love for my fellow activists. I was also depressed, weighed down by self-criticism, anxious, and afraid. I rarely, if ever, showed up to work at GMHC on time. I slept little at night in those years. When I did finally fall asleep, very early in the morning, I was often too tired to get to work on time. Too terrified to face the day. It’s a mystery to me how I was eventually able to get out of bed and work tirelessly all day and into the night.

I had wanted to be an artist ever since I was a child. I never wanted to be anything else. Though I feared that the art I was making as an activist strayed from my initial goal, I never let go of my absorption with aesthetic concerns. Yvonne Rainer was my greatest influence. Her kaleidoscopic films like Journeys from Berlin (1971) and The Man Who Envied Women (1985) drew directly from the theoretical debates of the day. Those works showed me how to respond to the historical present. Robert Smithson was important to me too. For Smithson, writing was the model for art production, and he made language itself the ground of his practice (as Craig Owens had argued in his 1979 essay “Earthwords”). From 1983 to 1985, I was Joseph Kosuth’s studio assistant. He taught me that the meaning of a work of art did not emanate from the work itself but rather from the ways it was discussed. There were many other influences: Soviet cinema, the Situationists, Daniel Buren, Dee Dee Halleck, Paper Tiger Television, and Martha Rosler.

My friend Charles Barber, a poet, refused to accept his disease as a terrible death to be suffered in silence. He used wordplay to fiercely reject the destiny and social isolation enforced by the use of the acronym AIDS and the stigma attached to it. At an early ACT UP rally, he stood in the rain, reading to a crowd from a soggy piece of paper. Playing on the acronym’s potential, Charles defined AIDS as Acquired Internal Doubt of Self.

ACT UP’s greatest strength was its primary commitment to the concerns of people with AIDS. People came to ACT UP because they were sick or because their lovers were sick. Their friends had AIDS. Their father or their brother was dying. Few people in the group were activists before AIDS. Everyone involved was willing to use just about any means possible to end AIDS. This commitment superseded traditional left politics and the sectarianism that has so often paralyzed progressive efforts.

ACT UP didn’t have a policy on media. Some people used their connections in show business, advertising, or the art world to publicize our cause. Other activists, like me, labored to establish a vibrant alternative media. In established left politics these two tactics—using the media or creating your own—were considered mutually exclusive. In ACT UP, if we thought something would help people with AIDS, we did it. And no theoretical antinomy between “dominant culture” and “counterculture” would stop us.

ACT UP at its height, between 1988 and 1991, was an extraordinarily diverse group. Of course, there were tensions between lesbians and gay men, between people of color and white people, between the HIV positive and the HIV negative, and so on. Nevertheless, my experience with ACT UP was probably the closest I will ever come to working in a true coalition. We embraced our contradictions. We were serious, angry, defiant, and proud. We were silly, theatrical, campy, and irreverent. We were sexy. The regular Monday night general meeting was the hottest place to be in New York. Over five hundred people crammed into the first floor of the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center. You had to touch a hundred bodies to cross the room. It was a great place to cruise.

Early on ACT UP adopted Robert’s Rules of Order for its procedures. Two facilitators elected by the group ran the general Monday night meetings. Issues were discussed within agreed-on time periods. Decisions were voted on and carried by a majority. We were extremely efficient and would complete an enormous amount of business in a single night. Meetings lasted three, sometimes four hours. Much business was conducted on the periphery of the general meeting, at the edges of the crowd, or in side rooms. ACT UP comprised a number of small committees—action, media, treatment and data, and so on—which met at varying times, so there was a different committee meeting every night of the week. There was also a caucus organized by people of color. All these groups reported to the general meeting, and their presentations were at times boring, at others exhilarating. Our camp sensibility made for hilarious moments. And we often cried. The names of the recently deceased were announced at every meeting. After the meetings, we continued our conversations in bars and restaurants all over the Village.

The most significant political action that I helped organize was the nonviolent takeover of the FDA headquarters in Rockville, Maryland, on October 11, 1988. ACT UP groups from around the country converged on the bureaucracy’s headquarters. Around fifteen hundred people participated. Many were organized into smaller cells, called “affinity groups.” The affinity groups functioned autonomously, each determining its own focus, schedule, and approach. One affinity group called itself Surrender Dorothy (after The Wizard of Oz). I recall another group dressed in white lab coats, their outfits and hands smeared with red paint, chanting, “The FDA has blood on its hands, and we’re seeing red.” Some activists scaled the walls, using ladders to climb onto window ledges and paste signs on the windows. Others commandeered the flagpoles outside the building, hoisting huge banners to replace the Stars and Stripes. A couple of windows were broken. A few people wrestled with the cops, unsuccessfully trying to force their way through a side entrance. The police for the most part focused on preventing demonstrators from entering the premises. Surprisingly few arrests were made—176. With separate groups roaming around the headquarters doing their own actions, at times staggered throughout the day, we were able to shut the building down. We chanted, “Seize control,” over and over as we advanced on the building. Our intention was to take over the sluggish agency and run it in the interests of people with AIDS.

Obviously we didn’t permanently take over the FDA, but our actions led to significant reforms. Most important, the number of people with HIV who could get access to experimental drugs was greatly increased through expanded trials. The FDA and other government organizations started to listen to us. Members of ACT UP were consulted and invited to attend meetings. The organizers realized the FDA takeover was a watershed moment when we watched the national news in a motel room immediately following the action. It was covered on virtually every news program. Peter Staley, an HIV-positive ACT UP activist, faced Pat Buchanan on Crossfire. We had successfully wrested the public discussion on AIDS out of the hands of the right wing.

At first, AIDS activism had been a defensive battle. We were trying to keep ourselves from being mandatorily tested, even quarantined. Like warriors in a martial-arts film, we turned the opponent’s weight against him. Faced with discrimination, we organized. In 1988 a decisive turn was made. The action against the FDA was a tour de force of nonviolent civil disobedience. After that, AIDS activism went on the offensive. We demanded that people with AIDS be involved at every level of decision-making concerning all medical research and treatment for our disease. And we changed everything. We changed the way research is conducted. We changed the way patients are viewed. We changed the way drugs are developed, tested, and sold. Our uncompromising demand to give people with AIDS power over decisions affecting their lives is the lasting historical contribution of ACT UP.

AIDS activism can now be viewed historically, but it would be criminal to imply that the crisis is over. According to UNAIDS, forty-two million people are infected with HIV worldwide. Only a small fraction of people with HIV can get access to treatment and care. Without a coordinated, well-financed response, the epidemic will kill unimaginable numbers by the decade’s end. The AIDS crisis is still beginning.

Film and video artist Gregg Bordowitz teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. A collection of his writings is forthcoming from MIT Press.