“The AIDS Crisis is Still Beginning”
In Gregg Bordowitz’s decades of aesthetic experimentation, ritualized attention to the present is a route to the past and the future.
When he first appears on-screen, three-and-a-half minutes into his autobiographical collage film Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993), Gregg Bordowitz is lying in bed in his underwear, a thermometer in his mouth. His dark hair is closely cropped, and he wears a T-shirt bearing the now-familiar pink triangle logo and its accompanying slogan, “SILENCE=DEATH.” Bordowitz, who was diagnosed with HIV five years prior, at the age of 23, is home sick with a fever of 102, he tells us, and he’s been feeling lethargic, plagued with night sweats. His doctor has tested for Lyme disease, hepatitis, mononucleosis. Bordowitz hopes it’s the flu, but he can’t be sure. The film suddenly flashes to found footage of a burning man leaping from a tall ladder onto a wooden structure engulfed in flames, then cuts to the studio set of a fake talk show, Thriving With AIDS, where Bordowitz appears again, this time in the guise of Alter Allesman, a brash, outspoken alter ego who unrepentantly publicizes his day-to-day experiences living with AIDS. “I identify as my illness,” Bordowitz-as-Allesman states. “The knowledge of my infection coupled with the careful monitoring of the state of my immune system forces me to face a simple fact: I will die.”
Fast Trip, Long Drop appears in Bordowitz’s retrospective exhibition, Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well, which opened in May at New York City’s MoMA PS1. The first floor of the museum is filled with nearly 40 years of the artist’s personal collection of activist ephemera, pieces made by his artist and activist friends, and Bordowitz’s own work: drawings, sculptures, and poetry, as well as the incisive, often polemical video performances for which he is perhaps best known. Together, these ranging aesthetic experiments produce an idiosyncratic portrait of a figure—an artist, writer, activist, and educator—that coheres through the clarity and strength of each of its many facets. “I don’t really believe in the notion of a whole or fully integrated self,” Bordowitz told me when I met him at PS1 shortly after the exhibition opened. “I accept that we each contain the multiple in a singular self.” The retrospective, he said, has allowed him to understand the iterative nature of his own artistic output: how revisiting certain aesthetic forms—the essay film, the documentary, the collage—facilitates his continual interrogation of his own political and religious convictions.
Since the early 1980s, Bordowitz has cast a penetrating eye on the sociopolitical dimensions of queerness, the AIDS crisis, and Judaism through a transdisciplinary practice of admirable scope and rigor. He was born in 1964 in Brooklyn to a Jewish family with a history of socialist political engagement: Bordowitz’s maternal great-grandfather was a member of the American Communist Party, and a working-class analysis informed his early years, spent mostly in Queens. By the time he was a teenager, he identified as a socialist, and began to absorb the intellectual legacies of Marxism and postmodernism. In 1987, at age 23, he helped to start the famed political action group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). That same year, in a landmark issue of the art journal October titled “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” Bordowitz published “Picture a Coalition,” a searing invective that called on video activists to “work by any means necessary” to produce and distribute information useful to people living with AIDS. Soon after, he was among the founders of ACT UP’s affinity video production cadre, DIVA (Damned Interfering Video Activists).
Throughout the rest of the decade and into the 1990s, Bordowitz and his comrades deployed guerilla media intervention tactics and initiated public awareness campaigns to bring a militant, materialist discourse of queer and AIDS activism to the wider public. The urgency of their mission can be seen in a set of black-and-white photographs mounted in one of the exhibition’s galleries. The images, taken in 1988 by ACT UP member and photographer Tom McKitterick and sourced from Bordowitz’s personal collection, depict demonstrators tracing chalk outlines of their bodies on the streets of New York—a macabre gesture of the kind the group often employed to direct the attention of an inattentive and unmoved public toward the epidemic.
Bordowitz’s early video works, projected on a loop in the exhibition, showcase his belief in the potential of alternative video practices—which involved conducting renegade street interviews on handheld Portapaks, then using DIY editing and distribution methods to skirt censors and eliminate the need for corporate funding—to challenge the mainstream media’s determined ignorance of AIDS. In some aspect of a shared lifestyle (1986), his first video piece, Bordowitz collages snippets of mainstream reportage on queer issues—such as the Supreme Court’s upholding of “anti-sodomy” laws in Bowers v. Hardwick that same year, a decision motivated partly by concern about the spread of HIV—to highlight the role of homophobic rhetoric in the response to the virus. Fast Trip, Long Drop, too, offers trenchant reflections on politics via archival material, alternating between documentary footage, clips of Bordowitz’s satirical performance as Alter Allesman, and the artist’s candid musings on being gay, Jewish, and seropositive—all set to a soundtrack by the American klezmer band the Klezmatics. Footage of demonstrations against the Reagan and Bush administrations syncopates with public service announcements about safe sex practices, combining to excoriate America’s negligent government and laconic media infrastructure, entities too compromised by corporate interests to adequately respond to a massive public health crisis.
Viewing Bordowitz’s work during the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic—the PS1 retrospective, an expanded version of a show first held at Reed College and the Art Institute of Chicago, was delayed by the coronavirus—the artist’s dystopian vision of the entanglement of capital and healthcare feels startlingly relevant. Since 2001, Bordowitz has made use of an AIDS activist mantra, “The AIDS Crisis is Still Beginning,” which currently appears on a vinyl banner pinned above PS1’s courtyard. The “awkward grammatic location” of the slogan, as Bordowitz puts it, reflects his understanding of history as the product of overlapping crises, a view inherited from the German Marxist philosophers Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch. Their volumes, as well as yellowing tomes by Theodor Adorno, Leon Trotsky, and Hannah Arendt, line the shelves of his personal library, a selection of which appears in the exhibition as a charming, nostalgic shrine to Bordowitz’s intellectual formation.
Bordowitz attributes his lifelong bookishness to his formative years in Queens. His family’s emphasis on education and the homosociality of his Orthodox Hebrew school—where he “liked the smell of male body odor and books”—fueled a love of reading and writing. He sees his entire practice as embodying various kinds of writing. “Everything has a grammar; everything has a syntax,” he says, a claim that suggests the lasting influence deconstructionist thought has had on his own thinking. “If you look at the gallery as a proposition, as an architectural form, it has a grammar and a syntax, so how do you work within those constraints?” Fittingly, working within circumscribed conditions has pushed Bordowitz to try out new genres: During the Covid-19 pandemic, immunocompromised and quarantined in New York, he found reading and writing increasingly difficult. At the suggestion of a friend, the poet and writer Joy Ladin, he began to study and compose haiku, using the brevity and rigor of the form to jolt his creativity. A selection of these writings accompanies the exhibition, verses attuned to a collective sense of isolation and fear: “We’re separated / By vulnerability / Into groups and waves.”
Another haiku captures this feeling of communal separation, as he recounts being in “A group together / Each in their own rectangle / Studying Torah”—a reference to the weekly Torah reading group Bordowitz participates in through Kolot Chayeinu, his progressive, unaffiliated synagogue in Brooklyn. Collective study has always been a part of Bordowitz’s life. In the 1980s and ’90s, one of ACT UP’s core activities was familiarizing themselves with the latest medical developments and health policy. Today, in addition to his Torah group, Bordowitz pores over the work of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza with a fellow Kolot congregant, and reads theory with a group drawn from New York’s punk and art scenes; over the course of the Covid pandemic, the collaborative spirit of textual inquiry has helped to assuage the solitude of lockdown. This, in turn, has generated new art. Last winter, he organized Answers with Questions—a series of lecture performances styled as an episodic advice show, in which he probes the personas of rock star, rabbi, and comedian—and invited friends, such as the artist and musician Morgan Bassichis, to join in his exploration of faith, grief, and humor in the time spent alone.
THE BREADTH OF I WANNA BE WELL—in both the range of work made by Bordowitz himself and the many works on view made by friends—highlights how fluidly the artist moves between convivial modes of activism and more meditative, personal pieces that reflect on the spiritual process of becoming an artist and learning to see oneself that way. Two works made by Bordowitz’s friends exemplify the complementarity of these forms. The first is a selection of intimate snapshots by photographer Lee Schy of his queer friends and “extended family,” together with his family of origin, on vacation in 1984, each scrawled with handwritten captions identifying figures, settings, and impressions. The second, mounted in an adjoining gallery, is a preparatory sketch, with its streaks of multicolored pastels spanning horizontally across cream-colored paper, made by the artist Jack Whitten in 1975. Small and unassuming, the force of the work unfolds over time upon closer study, its gradated bands of color cohering into a recognizable rectangular shape as the viewer continues to take in the subtle wisps of line and shade.
That same devotion and consistency of attention has informed much of Bordowitz’s recent art, which has taken on a decidedly spiritual quality. Mounted next to Whitten’s sketch is a new drawing by Bordowitz called Tetragrammaton, named for and depicting the unspeakable four-letter Hebrew name of God. Rendered in marker, ballpoint pen, colored pencil, and ink on paper in a muted palette of yellow, gray, and brown, this repetitive inscription is perhaps the most evocative extension of Bordowitz’s writing practice, a form of contemplation that elevates humble materials to the realm of the sacred. This most recent work speaks to Bordowitz’s abiding interest in showing the gradual procession of a thought as it takes shape, how the accretion of spirituality through repetition transforms a person’s subjectivity. The artist’s attempt to materialize this numinous phenomenon seems to be a natural extension of his predilection for embarking on an intellectual inquiry by breaking it up into discrete, repeated, and sustained actions.
In quarantine, Bordowitz relied more heavily than usual on this ritualistic mode of working. The commitment to a procession of tasks, from taking his medicine to attending Shabbos services, allowed him to sustain his physical health, while also feeding his intellectual and creative drives. During our conversation, Bordowitz spoke of how concepts of duration and return have been integral to his own understanding of the recursive feeling of public health crises—how they seem to eternally return, miring us in a constant present of intersecting emergencies. It is an outlook that accounts for a body of work that consistently speaks to the time of its making, fixated on the potential for opening up new futures, even as it registers the way the present is always undergirded by the accrual of history. It is also a vision in some ways at odds with the format of an artistic retrospective, in which an artist’s oeuvre is often framed as transcending its own era. “I’m not really interested in making timeless works of art,” he says pointedly. “The more I concentrate on what’s in front of me, the more I’m representing a moment that may have value in the future to others.”
Bordowitz’s multivalent sense of temporality is captured perhaps most strikingly in a magisterial sculpture in the round that appears in the final room of I Wanna Be Well. The piece, which draws from his memories of watching neighbors with Covid being taken away in ambulances as well as his experiences protesting the murder of George Floyd, depicts a mass of mangled, faceless, overlapping human and angel figures bearing blank placards and huddled around an arrangement of sandbags as if fortifying a garret. Titled Pestsäule (after Erwin Thorn) and dedicated to the late Austrian sculptor who was also Bordowitz’s friend, the sculpture is based on one of the largest plague monuments in the world, installed in Vienna’s central square in the 1600s. While grand in scale and theatrical in its presentation, the sculpture was made from what Bordowitz could readily source during lockdown, such as Styrofoam, chicken wire, and papier-mâché〞provisional materials for a memorial in medias res. Generated from the collision of paralyzing grief and the vivifying force of protest, the sculpture—with its processual, fragmented assemblage—refracts the sensibility of an artist dedicated to building continuously and beginning, again and again.
Tausif Noor is a critic, curator, and doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studies modern and contemporary art history. His writing appears in Artforum, frieze, The Nation, The New York Times, 4Columns, The White Review, and elsewhere.