Fast Trip, Long View: Talking to Gregg Bordowitz
Artery: The AIDS-Arts Forum, 1999, www.artistswithaids.org/artery/
"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.
Editor/Producer of "Artery"
Artery (Robert Atkins): 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 provisional.
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 twenties 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 Program.
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 operandi?
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 come about?
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 conference.
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 many.
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 documentary.
"A Cloud In Trousers" is based on a poem by the Soviet poet Vladimir 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 piece.
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 him.
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.