The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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JUL-AUG 2020 Issue
Art In Conversation

GREGG BORDOWITZ with Yasi Alipour

“The various terms of my identity are conjugated in relationship to a national/nationalist identity that I refuse. I disidentify.”

Portrait of Gregg Bordowitz, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Portrait of Gregg Bordowitz, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.

The interview was to be on the occasion of a long-overdue retrospective, MoMA PS1’s Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well (the project originated at Reed College, where it was organized by curator Stephanie Snyder, and is organized at MoMA PS1 by Peter Eleey, Chief Curator, with Josephine Graf, Curatorial Assistant). But then the past months occurred. The museum closed its doors, and the exhibition entered an indefinite state of “dates to be announced.”I met Gregg Bordowitz over Zoom. We each sat, sheltered in place, in our apartments in Crown Heights. Connecting us were streets filled with people, daring and persistent, protesting, calling for justice for George Floyd and for an end to centuries of police brutality and systemic racism.

I had to ask myself, which Gregg Bordowitz was I to call forth? There was urgency. Was he to be the video artist and writer admired for his vigilant criticality, the iconic ACT UP activist that witnessed and shaped that significant history; or the educator, the intellectual, and the political activist equipped with knowledge and strategies needed for the politically urgent questions of our time? My guide became his recent lecture-performances where he plays with multiplicity—he may be a professor, a poet, a comedian, a philosopher, or a rabbi. In what follows, I aimed to hail this many-faceted self.

Installation view: <em>Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well</em>, Art Institute of Chicago, 2019. Courtesy the artist.
Installation view: Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well, Art Institute of Chicago, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

Yasi Alipour (Rail): I would like to begin with the foundation of your socio-political and artistic practice and ask you about a term you often use to explain what came before moving to the ’80s downtown New York, “bridge and tunnel.” Does that refer to class?

Gregg Bordowitz: It’s definitely related to class, that’s why I talk about it. To be bridge and tunnel was to be from the boroughs. Manhattan was as far away and glamorous as Hollywood. The reason to travel to Manhattan was often cultural. I grew up in Queens when public schools had much more funding in art education. Every year they bussed us to the Museum of Natural History, MoMA, or the Whitney Museum. Stuart Hall calls this the civilizing effects of art upon the working class. And that is exactly what the intention was. It didn’t work the same for everybody, but it worked on me. I totally went queer for art.

Rail: If only all civilizing was more queering and less colonization. Growing up during the Cold War, how did your understanding of class and relationship to the Left begin?

Bordowitz: Well, I am third generation in a family of Jewish immigrants who fled pogroms and anti-Semitism in the early 20th century. My mother was very committed to and very knowledgeable about the Civil Rights movement. That was very important to her in her youth. My maternal grandmother's father was part of the American Communist party. My grandmother told me this when I was very young and said I shouldn't tell anyone. The family was phobic about Red Scare Anti-Semitism. But I had hippie teachers in public school. A lot of them were close to the anti-war movement, interested in Civil Rights, and many feminists. And there was a working-class analysis in my household, whether it was Marxist or not, whether it was derived from books or not. I started identifying as a socialist when I was 15 or 16. My grandfather said, “That’s good. Because if you’re not a socialist by the time you’re 16, you have no heart. If you’re still a socialist by the time you’re 25 you have no brains.” That was the attitude. [Laughter]

Installation view: <em>Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well</em>, Art Institute of Chicago, 2019. Courtesy the artist.
Installation view: Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well, Art Institute of Chicago, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

Rail: Can you tell us about your early years at SVA and in downtown New York? I returned to your “Picture A Coalition” (1987) essay the other day and noticed you used the term “subaltern.” It came as a shock to me, but you told me that you had read Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1983) in Craig Owens’s class. Owens was so young—you all were—and Spivak’s text must have just come out.

Bordowitz: When I came to downtown New York, artists came for reasons of sexuality, lifestyle, drug use, bohemian romanticism. It had to do with not only class, but region. No matter where you were from, you engaged in a kind of self-mythologizing. You pretended that you were full grown out of the head of Zeus somewhere below 14th Street. I was running with a queer crowd, and an artistic crowd. We were living poor, but many of us were part of a long established counter culture that was also a slow moving gentrifying force in the predominantly Puerto Rican and Dominican neighborhood. Actually, the Lower East Side is where my relatives first landed. All of my grandparents were all the youngest children born on the Lower East Side living in immigrant Yiddish speaking households.

I met Mark Dion from the SVA dorms and eventually, he became my best friend. We connected around art, being working class, and a love of the same music. Andrea Fraser and I were very close—we were actually partners as teenagers. The Craig Owens class was amazing. There was Andrea, Mark, me, Tom Burr, Collier Schorr, Marina Zurkow, a lot of young artists. We were lucky because a lot of our teachers were still PhD students, so they couldn't yet get jobs at places like Princeton. That’s why they were teaching in art schools. We had teachers like Benjamin Buchloh, Craig Owens, Thomas Lawson, Jack Goldstein. They were important. And for me personally, there were important artist teachers, May Stevens, William Anastasi, Anton Van Dalen, Liza Béar, Joseph Kosuth. It was a prelude to the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program (ISP), where Craig also played a very significant role. Those days, we lived, slept, and drank art. Constantly.

I identified as a Marxist. Mark did too. Even though we didn't quite know what that meant. The Punk scene and the music we listened to was anti-capitalist. We cared about the anti-nuclear movement. We used to go to Rock Against Racism concerts. Mark and I joined the Lower East Side Sister City Project which sent medical supplies to Sandinista hospitals in Nicaragua. That was my first activism. I learned how to paint helicopters on banners really well.

We watched movies like Apocalypse Now. Mark and I both got Mao’s Little Red Book together. At the Whitney program, a few of us with Craig Owens read Marx’s Capital—at least the first hundred pages. That’s what “everyone” read. I eventually read all three volumes.

At the Whitney Program my circle grew to include, among many others, one of my closest friends and cherished interlocutors, Jason Simon. He met Mark and Andrea at the ISP. I didn’t become a student at the ISP until a year later. Jason and I made some collaborative work together—a sculpture based on Soviet Constructivist Gustav Klucis’s design for radio and cinema propaganda stands, models of which were on display at MoMA. We built a Klucis inspired cinema stand and projected a loop of an Edison film showing workers tearing down a wall. The film loop made the fallen wall reappear and the workers efforts start over again. This is 1984 or ’85, well before the fall of the Berlin wall.

Rail: There’s something unique about your relationship to Marxism. I found this short speech you gave for Whitney ISP’s 50th anniversary that for me was illuminating. You told the story of an encounter you had in a Marxist conference. Someone responded to your AIDS activism by arguing that the funds for HIV research should be cut. You explained that this person was simply wrong. The little funds that existed at the time were actually going to the military’s punitive testing program. But in retelling this story, you emphasized that it was your own body and that of your community that was on the line. In contrast, you talked about your experience at ISP. It was emotional. That was the space that allowed for conversation, where your AIDS activist video Some Aspects of a Shared Lifestyle (1986) could happen.

Gregg Bordowitz addressing a crowd in front of the Food and Drug Administration, October, 1988.
Gregg Bordowitz addressing a crowd in front of the Food and Drug Administration, October, 1988.

Bordowitz: There were two junctures in those years ’83 to ’87. My late teens and early 20s were very much centered in the art world and my young colleagues. I was the assistant for Joseph Kosuth. I wanted to work for unions. We learned about Productivism and how artists could align themselves with workers—as they did during the Soviet revolution. Then, Andrea and Mark got into the ISP and I was in Europe with Kosuth. I’m jealous. I’m not having a good time. I’m having too much of a good time, and also a pretty horrible time, because my drinking and my drug use got out of control, and I was growing tired of being groomed by Kosuth to be a conceptual artist in his vein. I was highly oedipalized and very anti-authoritarian. I came to a crisis and I left.

And then there was my queer crowd. My first AIDS activist video work advocated for nonviolent direct action. Some Aspect of a Shared Lifestyle was an art world tape, a single channel work very much indebted to my studying with Martha Rosler and Yvonne Rainer. I looked to feminism in my turn to video.

It was very important that Craig was gay, and out. As someone who’s bisexual, my life crossed over to the gay-world, and Craig was very supportive. At that time, I was beyond identity. I was an anarcho-syndicalist, no labels! [Laughter] For Some Aspects of a Shared Lifestyle, Craig was very much present and an important figure. He was guiding me through all these ideas, which included an emerging revitalized lesbian and gay liberation impulse—brought on by the homophobia and intense reaction against the emerging AIDS crisis and the people most visibly affected by it. I dropped out of school to become a full-time activist.

Rail: Maybe this is a good place to turn towards ACT UP. I want to ask you about how ACT UP has been historicized. Looking at the original documents, there’s the constant presence of what you called, in 1987, the subalterns of this city: the queer community in its entirety, the drug addicts, and the Black and Brown communities. There’s the active presence of all kinds of queers and BIPOC activists. You always emphasize on this intersectionality. But today there’s a brutal simplification in the dominant narrative. It feels like an odd censorship occurring in plain sight, by reducing it to a movement solely dedicated to and run by middle/upper class white gay men.

Installation view: <em>Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well</em>, Art Institute of Chicago, 2019. Courtesy the artist.
Installation view: Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well, Art Institute of Chicago, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

Bordowitz: Yeah, that causes me no end of pain.

Rail: When did it happen? Like how the fuck…

Bordowitz: It starts happening in the ’90s, takes its course in the ’00s, and really arrives with films like How to Survive a Plague (2012)—which I think is a racist film. My archival footage is in that film, along with footage shot by many AIDS video activists, now available through the New York Public Library. I was called by the film maker, David France, to look at various sections in the rough cut. I constantly told him that he’s not representing the diversity of the group, and it really bothers me. I, and many of the members of my support group—which he built that film around—gave him numbers, contacts, and people to interview. He said he would, but he didn’t. And the result was a film that conformed to the most conventional ideas of documentary, and the most conservative, racist version of AIDS activism.

But there are good records of the history. There’s Deborah Gould’s book, Moving Politics (2009), focusing on ACT UP Chicago. The body of work that Jean Carlomusto, me, Ellen Spiro, the DIVA collective, Catherine Gund, Ray Navarro, and the AIDS activists associated with ACT UP produced documents true to the diversity of the group. Not only who was in front of the camera, but who was behind the camera. Douglas Crimp—the great AIDS activist, art historian, critic, and one of my closest friends of 30 years, who died last July—also paid a great deal of attention to this. There’s the legendary issue of ACT UP which became an MIT Press Book, AIDS Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism (1988). Contributions in that book recognized how the dominant narrative was compromised by lack of attention to the concerns of people of color, women, drug users. Jim Hubbard’s film United In Anger: A History of ACT UP (2012) is one in a handful of recent exceptions to new histories, and that’s the film I would use now if I teach another course on ACT UP New York and AIDS activist history.

Rail: That makes me think of this story you once told of a conversation that happened around ACT UP. Someone working with mass media asking you, “Hey, you’ve read Gramsci, you’re familiar with the term hegemony, right?”

Bordowitz: And I was! There was a division in activism between those who wanted to get info out through the network news, television, and newspapers like the New York Times. There were others, like myself, who adopted the radical Paper Tiger Television slogan, DON’T WATCH TV, MAKE TV! In the end, I decided that division needed to be undone. As an AIDS activist, by all means possible, we needed to advocate for our own lives and our loved ones. All strategies that served that cause should be embraced.

Rail: I’m interested in the way you all practiced leftist theory those years, even in your approach to editing.

Installation view: <em>Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well</em>, Art Institute of Chicago, 2019. Courtesy the artist.
Installation view: Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well, Art Institute of Chicago, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

Bordowitz: Well, I am a formalist and I brought all that in. Consensus-driven decision making was in the air. I had been trained by civil disobedience trainers from the War Resisters League and the American Friends Service Committee. I became a trainer myself. Consensus was part of the activism and so it was also part of the video-making. Testing the Limits was a kind of Soviet-style collective. There was a chalkboard in the office, and we each had to commit to an equal amount of labor. Every decision, when it came down to editing, had to be made among the six of us as a consensus decision. I think Testing the Limits (1987) is the fine work that it is, because of that. I eventually left. At the time, I was the only person in the group who was HIV-positive. I didn’t feel like I had enough time. I had very little patience, and a lot of rage. I was influenced by Dee Dee Halleck at Paper Tiger Television. I was looking for an anarcho-syndicalist type of organization. So I, Catherine Gund, Ellen Spiro, Jean Carlomusto, Ray Navarro and many, many others formed the DIVA (Damned Interfering Video Activists) Television. We were really the video activist affinity group for ACT UP.

What was refreshing about ACT UP was that it wasn’t strictly Left. You mentioned this story of when I was involved with the DSA, Democratic Socialists of America. One time I was asked to be on a panel when I had to argue with a Marxist economist. He was just not informed the way we were informed. No one was. But the mood at DSA was very fractured, sectarian at that time. The Spartacists would constantly stand up and interrupt. There was a class-essentialism that I referred to above, “In the final instance, it’s about class. Yes, yes. Women, feminism, and we’re anti- racists, but—”

Rail: “But!”

Bordowitz: At that time, for many Marxists it all came down to class. The queer stuff, especially, was ignored. They were classically historical materialists. I was looking for something else. I remember going to a local healthcare union, walking in with my shaved head and army surplus clothes, just saying, “I’m an artist.” I wanted to know about my place in the union. I asked, “Do you have a place for artists?” and they just showed me the door. [Laughter] I wanted to align myself with an organization and make a significant contribution as an artist. It was through being an artist in ACT UP that I became an organizer. I decided that very proudly I would be a documentarian, a Productivist; I would make art engaged in politics, but never propaganda. The directly engaged work I made would interrogate itself as art, because form is political. I was coming out of the institutional critique. And then I met Douglas Crimp. He played an enormous role in my life. He’d heard through a mutual friend of ours that I was making AIDS activist work. He called me out of the blue in 1986 and said, “Hi, I’m Douglas Crimp. I’m an art critic and an art historian.” I was looking at my issues of October on the bookshelf and I said, “Yes, I know who you are. I know your Pictures show.” “Great, great, great. Why don’t you come over to dinner?”

Rail: Wow.

Bordowitz: So, I went over to dinner at Douglas’s and it was very casual. I felt very supported. He was 20 years older, very left-identified, and very strongly identified with gay liberation. And he wanted to do this issue of October devoted entirely to AIDS activism. It caused some controversy.

Rail: Oh, I didn’t know about the controversy.

Bordowitz: Yeah! To have people like me, who’d never written before, submitting an essay with the first line, “As a 23-year-old faggot I get no affirmation for my culture.” Next to veteran theorists like Leo Bersani, the language was blunt and not theoretically sophisticated. To have sex workers, people with AIDS, non-theoreticians, non-artworld people, together with authorized, credentialed academics, that was unheard of! It was breaking all the rules. It also challenged October on its politics. We thought if you were a serious enough artist, you read October. In fact October was very distant from the street. It was theoretical Marxism and theoretical Feminism. Douglas was bringing October in direct connection to the street. He was the managing editor at the time. The controversy unfolded with the following issue that Douglas proposed to October based on the papers given at a conference titled “How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video,” organized by an affinity group of people called Bad Object-Choices. That group was devoted to queer liberation politics and intersectionality. The proposal was rejected from October. And that lead to Douglas’s resigning or dismissal—depending on how you read or who you talk to. Douglas was pushed out of October because of homophobia. That’s for sure. I want that on record. But Douglas joined ACT UP. He jumped in. And the AIDS issue is still the best-selling issue of October ever.

Rail: Right! Looking at the AIDS issue, it’s easy to assume that October was always fully on board, not knowing what it cost people like Douglas to make it happen. For the following question, I want to hear your thoughts on three terms: intersectionality, identity, and activism. In each there is a kind of complexity that feels both important to your work, and our time.

Installation view: <em>Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well</em>, Art Institute of Chicago, 2019. Courtesy the artist.
Installation view: Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well, Art Institute of Chicago, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

All this was initiated because of one of your lecture-performances, where you historicized the term “intersectionality” as being rooted in a legal question. “Intersectionality” is a term that simultaneously seduces and repels me—as someone who stands at its many crossings. Your take helped me understand its paradoxical space in our globalized, neoliberal world.

Bordowitz: Intersectionality was in the air, but it was formalized by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw who is a legal scholar. In 1989, she wrote an article about how Black women were viewed in the judicial system as either Black people or women, but not Black women. In ACT UP, we realized that our identities were conjugated. We were inspired by Black artists such as Marlon Riggs, whose Tongues Untied (1989) testified to the awful experiences of people both Black and queer who were treated as traitors because of homophobia in the Black activist community and subject to racism in predominantly white activist groups.

We were thinking of intersectionality—even if we didn't have the term yet—and how everyone is made of these multiple identities. We knew this because we hated the way that AIDS statistics were broken down. X number of gays. X number of people from African American communities. X number of women. You can be all three of those things. Queer, Black, and many different genders.

But we were already sensitive to that fact in ACT UP in the ’80s. The liberation politics of the ’70s had become very sectarian. ACT UP was historically important for the fact that lesbians and gay men were working together. That was unusual. It was mostly a white appearing group, but there was a large number of people of color. There was a people of color caucus called the Majority Action Committee. There was a women's caucus. It really probably was the first and only time I'll ever be truly involved with a genuine coalition of people who had the consciousness to recognize that we are multiple, that each one is many selves. That’s what we used to say, that we contain multitudes.

Rail: That’s beautiful.

Bordowitz: And that transferred into our politics, our video making. And class was part of the analysis as well. The Left’s critique of AIDS activism was that it was a single-issue politics, that it’s not very class conscious. Nothing could be further from the truth. AIDS touched every issue. Housing, economic disparity, drug use, the lack of care, the benign neglect on the part of the government, homophobia, the way women were left out of drug trials, and racism. AIDS touched every issue. It was not a single issue politically, it never was. That’s intersectionality. The second term?

Rail: Identity, another word I love to hate.

Installation view: <em>Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well</em>, Art Institute of Chicago, 2019. Courtesy the artist.
Installation view: Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well, Art Institute of Chicago, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

Bordowitz: Identity. Ok. Do you know British punk band X-Ray Spex’s song “Identity”? It’s really about identity politics and how identity is both a burden and a strength. In the ’70s identity politics was significant certainly because of all the liberation movements. The other Left critique of ACT UP was that it was merely identity politics, and that class politics were more important. I never understood that! I still can’t explain to you, how you can figure class politics and identity politics as separate. Unless you think that class is a fundamental, essential identity more significant than any other term of one’s identity.

Rail: I mean that’s how you end up winning your revolution and then become a colonial power!

Bordowitz: Right. Yes, I agree. So, identity was about coalition building. Identity was significant because there was an intense homophobia that was reinvigorated by the fear and stigma of HIV. Gay men were the earliest groups that fell within the surveillance of the medical establishments. Now we can look back at the epidemiology and look at various ways that opportunistic infections were simply not recognized and counted. GRID (gay- related immune deficiency) and the various diseases that defined it came to the attention of doctors seeing gay men who had enough privilege to have healthcare. But the explosion of tuberculosis in Black and poor neighborhoods was ignored. And also, women were getting opportunistic infections, but they weren’t counted as HIV cases. It took up until 1990, because ACT UP pressured the CDC to expand the list of opportunistic infections defining AIDS so more women could be counted. We understood our identities as multiple and therefore we—each of us—crossed different boundaries of categorization.

Rail: You gave me a lot on identity. Anything on activism?

Bordowitz: Activism! [laughter] I was a really belligerent and militant young person who learned a lot. First, I thought activism just meant the streets and getting arrested, but I very quickly learned that no, activism is a movement. I learned that from working at Gay Men’s Health Crisis. We had a cable show started by Jean Carlomusto called “Living with AIDS” (1985 – 1996) made by and for people living with AIDS and those who love and support us. That became activism. I learned that art could be activism. I also learned that making lunches for people with HIV could be activism. GMHC served free lunches to people with AIDS and their friends, just so there could be a space where they/we felt totally comfortable. Someone volunteered to play piano. Chefs in Chelsea donated their time, restaurants donated the food. Activism could be calling on a friend. I left the street when my best friend Ray Navarro was dying because he needed a care team. Care teams formed for queer people who didn’t feel comfortable going home. A lot of young people had to go home to homophobic households. We were organized to support each other. That was activism.

Installation view: <em>Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well</em>, Art Institute of Chicago, 2019. Courtesy the artist.
Installation view: Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well, Art Institute of Chicago, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

Activism in a movement is a well-coordinated effort that draws upon the energies and labor of people according to what they can give, what they can risk, and it is not limited to protest. Even within protests, we recognized that some people are more vulnerable to the system [jail] than others—people of color, women, trans people, people with differing abilities, people with AIDS who needed access to medications. That does not mean that people from those groups did not get arrested, but we openly talked about privilege. When I got arrested for handing out sterile hypodermic needles to injection drug users on Delancey Street with 10 other people, GMHC paid me—I had that privilege. We thought of our privilege as something we should liquidate.

Rail: Thank you, I personally needed that. Ok, I think I’m finally ready to move towards the ’90s. I would like to pause on 1989 and understand it from your perspective as a Leftist HIV+ AIDS activist. There’s your celebrated video, Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993). After years of collective work, you made a deeply personal work as a person with AIDS, about the body, desire, mortality, anger, despair, so much more. There’s also your other works in the ’90s: A Cloud in Trousers (1995) on Mayakovsky’s early and personal love poem preceding the Soviet revolution, and The Suicide (1996), on Nikolai Erdman’s dark comedy of Stalin era. Can you tell us more about the ’90s and the figure of the failed Soviet writer?

Bordowitz: By ’93 I was really sick. I didn’t show up to the premiere of Fast Trip in New York. I was home with a nurse. Most of my friends thought that I was going to die. I was prepared to die. I somehow recovered from that and hung on until ’96. Many of my friends did not. I did not do anything different than what they did. I still don’t understand it. Luck and privilege are the only reason I am alive. I was burnt out. Both the Democratic Conventions and the Republican Conventions had people with AIDS who were speakers—both women. We were tired. By ’93, we no longer thought that there was going to be any cure or treatment for AIDS. That was announced in Berlin. I thought Fast Trip was going to be my last film. It has that energy. It’s still the piece I’m most proud of.

I was always interested in the Soviets and I followed the trajectory. I went from Constructivism to Productivism to what happened under Stalin. I started to understand that the historical periods we elevated as models were short-lived in the Soviet Union. They were replaced by a tremendous amount of repression. I was always interested in poetry, especially Mayakovsky and his suicide. In the video, A Cloud in Trousers, the figure of Mayakovsky was framed and understood conceptually as the figure of the person with AIDS. Erdman’s The Suicide was the last play that Meyerhold worked on when Stalin closed down the shop. It’s a very corrosive piece that’s critical of the direction of the Soviet revolution under Stalin. Just as Marxism had cast the working class as the protagonist of history, I felt that in AIDS art—particularly in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1991)people with AIDS were cast as the fantasy protagonist of history for a moment. These videos were my way of trying to make allegories about AIDS. They are very much about disillusionment, defeat, despair, how to proceed.

In ’96, I was seriously ill, and I went through this thing we called the “Lazarus Syndrome,”— the biblical character raised from the dead. We felt like we were raised from the dead. I didn’t plan for a future. That’s why I don’t have a college degree. I lived without any futurity. I still wrestle with this. I’m just getting to it now and I’m 56 years old.

Rail: Looking at that decade, you have this essay “The AIDS Crisis is Ridiculous” (1993) which I think you dedicate that to Craig Owens.

Bordowitz: Yes, yes, I did.

Rail: And you begin it with Charles Ludlam’s “Manifesto: Ridiculous Theater, Scourge of Human Folly” (1975) It feels important. The first line is “get beyond nihilism by revaluing combat”

Bordowitz: Yeah.

Rail: And then the first item: “You are a living mockery of your own ideals. If not, you have set your ideals too low.” What a way to think about the ’90s.

Bordowitz: It’s still a very important axiom for me. There's another one too: “Just as many people who claim belief in God disprove it with their every act, so too there are those whose every deed, though they say there is no God, is an act of faith.”.

That was the ’90s. In ’97, I got my first full-time teaching job at the Art institute of Chicago, where I still work. I think it was Yvonne Rainer who said, “Enough with the Russians, Gregg.” I’m very fortunate in that I hold onto my friends, from art school and a lot of AIDS activists who are still alive. The AIDS activists drew me back in the early 2000s. I traveled to South Africa with ACT UP friends. I wanted to deal with the notion of solidarity and I decided to make Habit (2001). By that time AIDS was such a well-covered topic and the International AIDS Conference in Durban was crowded with television journalists. I figured I could just make the film I wanted to make about South Africa—about this privileged white appearing queer person with AIDS going to South Africa and encountering people who don’t have access to the drugs that are keeping me/him alive. Questions were, what does solidarity mean and what are the limits of solidarity? I heard a lot of people on the Left say, “I declared solidarity with x, I declare solidarity with y.” But what does that mean? Other than making a point at a dinner party.

It turned out that actually people with AIDS in South Africa and developing countries were taking the lead on the global stage around generic drugs and drug pricing. The best thing we could do was to raise money for them. So, the first thing we did when we returned from South Africa was to fundraise. I made a 10-minute tape about the treatment action campaign, TAC, and Zackie Achmat, an activist who publicly refused to take HIV medications until all people in South Africa had access. The action recalled Gandhi’s Satyagraha and Nelson Mandela’s refusal to renounce armed struggle or be treated differently than his fellow prisoners. We raised around 80 thousand dollars.

Gregg Bordowitz, <em>Some Styles of Masculinity</em>, 2019. Performance documentation. Courtesy the artist.
Gregg Bordowitz, Some Styles of Masculinity, 2019. Performance documentation. Courtesy the artist.

Rail: Now that you mentioned Habit and the 2000s, I want to ask you about the shift that happened then. You talk about having been—as the person with AIDS—a vector for years, and then suddenly with the emergence of the new drugs, you come upon these ads. You were interpellated. The black hole of hegemony. You’d become the consumer.

Bordowitz: Yeah, so people with AIDS were always figures outside the general public. The general public is a fiction, a group of people organized to sell things to, a consumer public. People with AIDS and anyone who is considered to be an abject figure are not allowed within that sphere unless there’s something to sell to them. People with AIDS become legitimate representable bodies when there are very expensive drugs to sell to us. I got on protease inhibitors in 1996 and moved to Chicago. I was standing on the L train and I’m looking at a billboard ad for the very drug that I’m on. It’s a smiling advertising-handsome, white guy climbing a mountain.

Rail: [laughs]

Bordowitz: Like yeah that’s great! I’ve never climbed a mountain; I barely move, I read! I don't like to exercise, and I'm not good at sports, but hey, if these drugs will help me climb a mountain or ride a bike or help me do my laundry—all these things pictured in these advertisements—great! I realized I had entered into the general public because I was now a consumer. And in the official AIDS care world, a “person living with AIDS” was replaced with the term “consumer.” And consumer rights invaded the language of enfranchisement.

Rail: That’s really haunting. So far, we have constantly talked about liberation. And suddenly all that is left is consumer rights.

Bordowitz: And that spreads to other movements too. AIDS activists had to shift attention to the people not included in neoliberal market-identifying freedom and that’s still where we are today. Now when I do the work on AIDS, it’s with a historical perspective, to emphasize its intersectionality, historically and currently. That’s where I am now. I’ve shifted some emphases because of the turn to fascism in the United States. I’m interested in the intersection of race, ethnicity, and national identity with sexuality and gender also in mind. That explains my most recent work, how the various terms of my identity are conjugated in relationship to a national/nationalist identity that I refuse. I disidentify.

Rail: That makes me think of José Esteban Muñoz’s Disidentifications (1999) as queer performance. I wanted to ask you about Douglas Crimp’s “Mourning and Militancy” (1989) which is also a base for Muñoz’s writing on AIDS. But first I want to ask you about language. You once said that in ACT UP you realized that if you got up, and spoke clearly and precisely, people would listen. In contrast, I think of your poems and recent performances. You put yourself in an incredibly vulnerable place, and perform thoughts that are multiple, complicated, and even contradictory. It’s an improvisational space that allows for the complexity of history and thoughts. So yes, any thoughts on language, from political speech to poetry?

Bordowitz: I’ve written poetry since I was in my 20s. I didn’t start publishing or identifying as a poet until the 2000s. I published my book of poetry Volition in 2009. I think a great deal about language. It is the inheritance of my Postmodernism. I’m interested in modalities. Theories are tools and there are limits to all theories. Whenever I look at a problem, I apply a Marxist framework, then a feminist framework, then a queer framework, then a linguistic analysis. I’m still very deeply informed by critical race theory and psychoanalytic theory. It's the same thing with speaking to audiences and crowds, there are different modalities of speech. I do not try to embrace my shattered self in a political meeting or when I need to be efficient. Also, because I am many identities, I’m very familiar with the concept and practice of code-switching. That’s something I learned as a child, something that’s continued, and I'm very aware of it. It's not the same as talking down to people, it's about a modality of relation. When I'm on stage performing, I'm trying to decenter myself, while at the same time I’m getting people to identify with a decentered self. Which is something I was doing as far back as Fast Track, Long Drop. That whole film is direct address but I'm imagining a different viewer every time a character looks into a camera. The audience is jolted from, “Oh he’s talking as a gay person, ok, I’m gay. Oh, he’s talking as a person with AIDS, well I don’t have HIV. Oh, now he’s talking as a person who’s Jewish, well I’m not Jewish. I am this, I’m not this.” What can I conjugate, how can I relate to this person? It’s a constant and very formalist kind of push and pull.

Rail: Interesting. Going back to “Mourning and Militancy.” That text feels especially relevant today. The BLM protestors call in the streets “Say their name.” It makes me think of your Debris poems, made of these intricate gatherings of nouns. You’ve talked about how they relate to the AIDS Activist practice of reading the names of the dead. The poems are part of your daily practice and are written fast. It is the reading and the performance that demands time. Thinking about the politics of mourning, I wanted to hear your reflections on Crimp’s “Mourning and Militancy” cause that is kind of dedicated to you…

Bordowitz: Not kind of, that essay is dedicated to me!

Rail: [Laughs]

Bordowitz: Because it came out of conversations that Douglas and I were having around the troubles that were going on in ACT UP at the time. The macho stance “don’t mourn, organize,” which is really a labor movement cliché that we couldn't live with. It was impossible. ACT UP meetings started with lists of deaths. Two to ten people could have died that week. People who you saw last week. We were in a constant state of mourning. We were mourning ourselves. In a dance with our own deaths. How do you do that? “Mourning and Militancy” was about taking time to not be split off from oneself and to feel the full range of one’s emotions. I think “Mourning and Militancy” is one of the lasting legacies of AIDS Activism. It remains very relevant today. Getting back to your earlier point, I'm still really interested in figures living under the weight of double erasure, which is the definition of the term subaltern. In Spivak's essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” the women are subjugated due to double erasure because of gender and colonial status. I remain interested in figures who are subject to those kinds of erasures.

Rail: The multiplicity of erasure, what a place to end. You know, I recently came upon this text. It’s Paul B. Preciado’s response to an invitation for a discussion on the “Courage to be Yourself” (2015). It included you. Feels like the right place to end.

Keep your courage for yourself. For your marriages, your divorces, your infidelities and your lies, your families, your maternity, your children and grandchildren. Keep the courage you need to maintain the norm. The cold blood to lend your bodies to the constant regulated repetition. Courage, like violence and silence, like force and order, is on your side. On the contrary, I claim today the legendary lack of courage of Virginia Woolf and Klaus Mann, of Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, of Angela Davis and Fred Moten, of Kathy Acker and Annie Sprinkle, of June Jordan and Pedro Lemebel, of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Gregg Bordowitz, of Guillaume Dustan and Amelia Baggs, of Judith Butler and Dean Spade.[…] Fragility, and not courage, is what brings about revolutions.


Yasi Alipour

YASI ALIPOUR (Columbia University, MFA 2018) is an Iranian artist/writer/folder who currently lives in Brooklyn and wonders about paper, politics, and performance. She is a teacher at Columbia University and SVA and is currently a resident at the Sharpe Walentas Studio program. For further information, please visit


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JUL-AUG 2020

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