Living With, Dying From: The Art of Gregg Bordowitz
Activists in the 1980s believed that if AIDS affected the “general public”—read: the straight, white middle class—as much as it did gay men, drug users, and people of color, the government would act against it with swift efficacy. The experience of 2020 proved them wrong. Senators treated early briefings on Covid-19 more like stock tips than action items. Stay-at-home orders were too tardy and uneven to blunt the first wave of infections. States acted without coordination, while the Trump administration blocked shipments of essential medical equipment to states whose governors were insufficiently appreciative of the president. Financial assistance was generous for big companies and meager for individuals. Political denial contributed to half a million deaths. People learned to take measures of harm reduction into their own hands, to build their own networks of mutual aid, as AIDS activists did in the ’80s, and still do now.
How do you overcome indifference to mass death? How do you generate empathy and care? These questions, and the difficulty of answering them, have animated the work of Gregg Bordowitz for more than thirty years. In 1987, he went to the first demonstration of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and became an active member. He cofounded the group’s media collective Testing the Limits, and used the video skills he learned in art school and honed at the Whitney Independent Study Program to produce documentaries about the effort to fight AIDS. In “Picture a Coalition,” an essay that critic and curator Douglas Crimp commissioned for a special 1987 issue of October on AIDS, Bordowitz wrote: “People must be able to see themselves making history. People living with AIDS must be able to see themselves not as victims, but as self-empowered activists.” He coproduced “Living with AIDS,” a talk show for cable access TV that presented stories of empowerment and community work as a counterweight to the mainstream media’s narratives of isolation and victimization.
Committed as he was to AIDS education through media, Bordowitz, who tested positive for HIV in 1988, despaired about the limits of positive representation as a tactic. His film Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993) is an experimental documentary plumbing the complexities of his experience with AIDS, mixing protest footage with staged scenes and confessional interludes where he lies sick in bed and speaks of his hopelessness and isolation. “Fast Trip was about turning myself into a walking id and just saying what I thought,” Bordowitz said in a 2001 interview with Crimp. The work’s title comes from the headline of a 1974 newspaper article about Evel Knievel’s shooting himself from a cannon across Snake River Canyon in southern Idaho. Found footage of Knievel and other daredevil stuntmen crops up throughout Fast Trip: images that convey the urgency and tension of a life lived close to death.
In scenes from a cable access talk show called “Thriving with AIDS”—a parody of “Living with AIDS”— Bordowitz appears as the ornery guest Alter Allesman (Yiddish for “old everyman”), who swats away the hapless host’s prompts to say nice things about how a person with AIDS can do whatever a healthy person can. He turns to the camera and speaks with righteous fury. “People who presume themselves healthy: how are you living with AIDS? Why is it my responsibility to survive and thrive?” His face is a sneer, but his words are seeking and vulnerable. “Some people are living with AIDS,” he says, “and some people are dying from it.” This scene plots the line of indifference that sets the “general public” apart from people with AIDS. Bordowitz, as the old everyman, confronts that boundary with anger and desperation. He can’t get across it. He doubts he ever will.
Fast Trip, Long Drop is included in “I Wanna Be Well,” a retrospective of Bordowitz’s work on view at MoMA PS1 in New York. Under a big yellow banner that declares in red letters “The AIDS Crisis Is Still Beginning,” the first gallery presents the installation Drive (2001), which further probes the imagery of death-defying speed used in Fast Trip. In the center of the room is an antique derby car, its tinny little body mottled with age. The metal twists at the opening where the driver inserts his body to become one with the cigar-shaped vehicle. The sides are spackled with stickers sporting the logos of pharmaceutical companies that produce the antiretroviral drugs that prevent HIV from multiplying. A poster near the gallery’s entrance presents “The Effort to Survive AIDS Considered from the Point of View of a Race Car Driver,” a text Bordowitz wrote to accompany the installation. “Today, a fatal crash is the inevitable end of every driver,” it reads. “Even those of us with access to every privilege a driver can imagine fall to the sport.”
In the extended metaphor of this installation, the body is a race car and the person with AIDS is the driver working against gravity and time to stay on track. The companies whose logos emblazon the chassis are the sponsors providing the driver the fuel he needs to keep going. A red racing stripe painted low around the gallery walls suggests insistent forward momentum. Bordowitz’s racetrack conveys a feeling of chronic illness’s duration as a constant effort to stay on course, the taut sense that a mistake could have fatal consequences. HIV doesn’t figure as invasive a force in this scenario as it does in the most pernicious and pervasive metaphors of AIDS, the ones that imagine it as God’s retribution against the sinful, or a filth polluting the fringes of society. In Drive, illness is the atmosphere, the situation itself—an experience of time that the driver is living and dying with.
“I Wanna Be Well” is the first museum survey for an artist with a scant exhibition history. Bordowitz usually produces writings, lectures, and videos, rather than artworks for gallery shows. MoMA PS1 is the third stop of a tour that began in 2019 at the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery at Reed College in Portland, Oregon—a small venue where sightlines collapsed decades. The spacious suite of galleries at PS1 offers an opportunity for more deliberate organization. But the arrangement is not chronological, prompting more careful consideration of duration and how Bordowitz has worked with it.
Each room groups two or three works, disparate in date and medium. Bordowitz’s library is shelved on two adjoining walls, the books shielded behind plexiglass like essential workers. The library becomes legible as a portrait of the artist thanks to two photos of him on the other walls—one Bordowitz took himself in a Paris train station’s photo booth in 1984, the other, shot by fellow artist-activist Lee Schy, shows Bordowitz looking militant in the kind of bomber jacket favored by members of ACT UP. The next gallery has a vitrine of ephemera: flyers advertising demonstrations, a photo of Crimp in a leather jacket over an ACT UP T-shirt, an issue of the bisexual newsletter BiNet, books by Bordowitz on Glenn Ligon and the collective General Idea. These items share a room with Schy’s Selections from the Extended Family Vacation (1984), black-and-white Xeroxes of photos of gays and lesbians smiling and hugging and enjoying each other’s company, arrayed on the wall with handwritten captions. An ephemera vitrine can be the driest part of a retrospective, but Schy’s chosen family album nudges the viewer toward seeing the curated archive as a map of kinship and care.
The exhibition’s elegant play with memories, archives, and other ways of keeping time treats duration as a formal problem, even as works like Drive and Fast Trip, Long Drop relate time to a personal experience of sickness. The practical work of talking about AIDS erases the opposition of the formal and the political that so many critics and historians of art rely on; ACT UP always sought impactful ways to get its message across. Bordowitz has a long-standing fascination with the early Soviet avant-garde, which investigated the connections between the shock of formal innovation and the impulse for political action. He acknowledges the influence on his work of feminist video artists like Martha Rosler, Joan Jonas, and Sherry Milner, who applied structuralist experiments to documentary methods in their effort to make the personal political.
Bordowitz has said that his videos are essays, that he thinks of himself as a writer first. In 2014 he wrote a suite of poems called Debris Fields, the term for sites of plane crashes. Each has thirty-two lines of ten syllables, comprising words that are all nouns—things to sort through and make sense of. PETALS SHED FLOWERS BLOSSOMS MORTAL FALL / GRAVITY EFFECTS PHYSICS PARTICLES: an observation of the seen drifts into a meditation on the invisible. BREAD MOLD ALGAE BLOOMS ASSOCIATIONS / NATURE ANALOGY EXCESS POEM: a path of accumulating metaphor takes a reflexive turn toward the writing process. These are free associations within constraints; Bordowitz listed things he saw around him and complemented physical adjacencies with conceptual, etymological, and phonetic ones, as well as personal memories and the feelings attached to them: CANDY AROMA POPPERS KITCHEN TABLE / RETURN CONFLICT MEMORY PAIN WINCE QUINCE.
He wrote these poems after his mother’s death, reflecting on the experience of sorting through the belongings of a lost loved one—something he had done for so many who died of AIDS. In “I Wanna Be Well” the poems from Debris Fields appear as vinyl text on the gallery walls. They are printed in all capital letters, in a font that looks chiseled, like one used on headstones. They appear above the red racing stripe that extends from Drive through the rest of the exhibition. There are twenty-four poems in the cycle. They evoke not just a graveyard but a clock. They mark both the loss and the continuation of life.
How does art speak of a pandemic? In spring 2020, critics looked to cultural production during the 1918–19 influenza pandemic for precedents. The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl found none, and remarked on how odd it seems that a disease that killed fifty million people “left so little cultural trace.” Michael Lobel, writing in Artforum, found the influenza’s impact in “analogies, transpositions, and displacements.” He offers a reading of John Singer Sargent’s Gassed (1918–19)—a monumental tableau of biological warfare in World War I, the living soldiers wearing bandages to protect their eyes walking through a field of the dead—as a pandemic painting.
Seeking a pandemic’s residue in the art of a century ago means looking for either representation or allegory. But the art that came out of AIDS activism offers another model. Bordowitz, like others of his generation, developed new forms for depicting art about sickness, ones where straightforward representations mingle with displacements and metaphors. And representation often meant an account of the conditions of everyday life with sickness, rather than depictions of bodies transformed by symptoms that during the early years of the AIDS crisis were associated with gawking sensationalism. Fast Trip, Long Drop, released the same year as Philadelphia, has nothing close to that movie’s scene where Andy Beckett, played by Tom Hanks, opens his shirt on the witness stand so the whole courtroom can squirm at the sight of his lesions. Bordowitz’s work speaks to the sick person’s experience of sickness rather than the healthy person’s pity and disgust. Some of the most affecting artworks made in response to Covid in the last year are similar to Bordowitz’s in their plainspoken expression, their incisive and inventive use of metaphor, and their appeals to the desire for togetherness.
In spring 2020, Jill Magid acquired $1,200 worth of pennies, equivalent to the amount of the first stimulus check, and laser-engraved a phrase around the edge of each coin: the body was already so fragile. She distributed these pennies to bodegas around New York, essential businesses that kept their doors open when others closed. Magid’s intervention was almost as invisible as a virus, a subtle but permanent change inflicted on the body of the coin. You could get one of her pennies by going out shopping, but it was unlikely. Tender Balance (2021), her video about the project, intersperses images of pennies changing hands with footage of the refrigerated trucks outside morgues that kept the corpses of the Covid dead from decomposing. The camera’s movement, like the movement of hands touching pennies, is slow and deliberate, stretching out the anticipation and worry. The pennies are the vehicle for a number of metaphors at once: they are the virus and the population it infects, the state and its subjects, networks of circulation and what circulates through them.
Like Magid, Lauren Lee McCarthy works by inserting herself into systems of power, often staging one-on-one encounters with her audience in intimate, interactive projects. In March 2020 she issued an open call to sign up on her website for a chat and make plans to meet when it’s safe. “I think one day we will be able to go outside again,” her invitation read. “Honestly, I am fantasizing about this day. Seeing you. Reaching out and touching. Breathing, talking, anything really.” The resulting conversations are published on the project site as Later Date, reflections on anticipation as hope and uncertainty, promises for an undefined future. As anxieties and uncertainties intensified that summer, McCarthy visited the homes of volunteer audiences in Los Angeles, and stood outside, six feet away or more, to deliver her performance I heard TALKING IS DANGEROUS. She held her smartphone up beside her masked face, and words flashed across the screen as a computerized voice read them out. “They recommend we stop talking to each other,” goes the script. “So I made this alternative, to try to navigate this together.” The text-to-speech program pauses after each phrase, and McCarthy reaches to tap the screen to play the next segment. These brief touches emphasize her positioning of the phone as social prosthesis, an obligatory conduit for contact with others, as well as a constant source of information and rumor. Magid’s and McCarthy’s projects traced out the things that connect and divide people in a time of social uncertainty. They conjoined personal experiences of the pandemic with its objective conditions. They gave form to what life is like when everyone, ill or well, becomes a citizen in the kingdom of the sick.
“I Wanna Be Well,” Bordowitz said in a conversation published in Frieze, “is an exhibition of thirty years of AIDS art and Covid art.” While he conceived the show before the Covid pandemic, he also created several new projects for the 2021 run at MoMA PS1. He worked with poets to publish an e-book on sickness and justice, and with activists to put together a zine on harm reduction. A chapbook of his Pandemic Haiku uses a familiar form to reflect on a hard year. “Virus variant / Becoming dominant strain / Pasta for dinner,” reads one entry. Another: “Walking, sad, near tears / Can’t fully comprehend this / Accumulation.” As is traditional in haiku, Bordowitz joins disjointed thoughts across enjambments. The smallness of the form magnifies shifts of scale from the personal and domestic to the vastness of social crisis, and vice versa. Like his works about AIDS, Bordowitz’s haiku give a voice to the constant friction of normalcy and crisis.
In the show’s final gallery, the monumental sculpture Pestsäule (2021) commemorates the Black Lives Matter protests that brought people into the streets after months of quarantine and raised awareness about racism’s impact on public health. Pestsäule has the same unsettlingly lumpy forms, evocative of swollen glands or corpses, as its namesake, a seventeenth-century monument commemorating the bubonic plague in Vienna. Bordowitz’s remake replaces the gilded ensemble of triumphant angels at the top with a figure who sits as if weakened by sickness, or exhausted by indifference and hate, while holding a blank protest sign and wearing a mask. This monument is made of poor materials, gypsum bandages and plaster of Paris, spray-painted with blotches of yellow and blue to heighten the crevices otherwise flattened by the plaster’s whiteness. The work refers to the recent past while looking ahead to the future. The disposability of the materials frays any suggestion of monumental permanence.
“I Wanna Be Well” opened at PS1 in early May, a time when the Covid vaccine had been available to all adults in New York State for a month, and half of them had received at least one dose. It was tempting then to announce the plague’s end, as the media did when effective treatments became available for HIV/AIDS in the 1990s, even as the disease continued to spread in the US, and would soon reach devastating heights in India and Africa. It’s also tempting to look at parallels between two pandemics and close a neat loop of history. In both, personal protective equipment— then condoms, now masks—became commonplace. Anthony Fauci, who rose to prominence by bungling the government response to AIDS and then trying to do better, became a household name. Scientists are hopeful that the mRNA technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna Covid vaccines might be used to vaccinate people against HIV. But who would get the shot, and when? A Bordowitz haiku: “COVID pandemic / Repeats AIDS crisis problems / Who owns the patents?”
These parallels don’t just compare the past and present. They coexist now. “The AIDS Crisis Is Still Beginning”: Bordowitz’s phrase is clunkily worded. It means the same thing as “AIDS is not over,” a punchier ACT UP slogan of the late ’90s. But by putting a phenomenon with a history in the present progressive, Bordowitz insists on indeterminacy. In the early days of Covid, many people dreaded contagion from surfaces and wanted to cleanse away the possibility of contamination—recalling fears of getting AIDS from toilet seats or restaurant dishes. If fear is all that has been learned from the AIDS crisis then it is still beginning, because people are still learning to cope with the pandemic’s lessons on a collective level, to reenact feelings of kinship on a greater social scale. We are still learning to endure the uncertainty that comes with living with sickness. We are still learning to see it not as a cause for surrender, but as a reason to seek out connections and care.
This article appears under the title “Living With, Dying From” in the September/October 2021 issue, pp. 70–75.