There’s a banner affixed to the museum, visible from the inner courtyard. Capital letters float rigid, red on yellow: THE AIDS CRISIS IS STILL BEGINNING. Through the door below, and down a hallway to the left, is Gregg Bordowitz’s first retrospective in New York.
MoMA PS1 has publicized the show as a “personal and singular record” of the artist and activist, though the show achieves something of a choral effect, with Bordowitz’s film profiles capturing the activism and private lives—a man tending to his garden, friends bantering on vacation—of other AIDS organizers. The artwork of these subjects appears too, sharing wall space with Bordowitz’s poems and drawings. Still, the show ultimately centers on Bordowitz, not just as a maker but as a central character, narrativizing the ongoing AIDS crisis through Bordowitz’s seroconversion and the thirty years of activism and artmaking that have followed.
The projected films include monologues from at least three decades of Bordowitz’s life, a meditation he wrote on Yom Kippur in lockdown, selections of clippings and ephemera from his personal archives. One room holds a selection of Bordowitz’s personal library, thousands of books, installed as though in his apartment, on tall shelves hinged in the corner of the room. Positioned alongside a series of films in which Bordowitz’s various apartments appear, it feels like walking through the set of Bordowitz’s life. I waver on this inclusion: it’s an homage to his influences, another gesture of collectivity or an acknowledgment page in the exhibit, but it also feels boastful: the curator proud of his acquisitions, instead of an artwork itself. When I visit the show on a field trip with VOCAL-NY, one of New York’s most active present-day AIDS organizing groups, a member says to me quietly, “who can afford to fit this many books in their apartment? Not me.”
The 1993 film Fast Trip, Long Drop begins in one of the screening rooms, which offers only a handful of plastic seats, and I whisper to the organizer that this is my favorite of Bordowitz’s works. In the sterile room we can hear the echoing of other screenings, the arrivals and departures of museum goers who won’t commit to the hour-long film. I wish we were watching it elsewhere, the way I did first, last winter, folded on my couch with my computer on my lap. By then I was a year deep in research on the early activists who legalized needle exchange in New York, Bordowitz among them. But it was something new to see the man in his own highly stylized film diary, more private and familial than the trial tapes and volunteer logs I’d been poring over. “It’s really special,” I insist to the VOCAL leader in the chair next to me, emphasizing that this is the heart of the show, the work that demands our attention, but after a while the room clears out, the organizer excusing herself to attend to her chaperone duties. It’s just me and Gregg Bordowitz, him projected larger than life on the wall ahead.
I’m watching the video of Ray Navarro dressed as Jesus, gold branches woven like a halo around his head, white fabric thrown backwards over his shoulders. It’s a grainy clip that’s appeared in most of the ACT UP documentaries, but I watch it now on YouTube. “JC here with the Fire and Brimstone Network,” he begins, his eyes flitting behind the camera, as he interviews a man carrying a ten foot long condom, filled with balloons and labeled “Cardinal O’Condom.” It’s the Stop the Church action at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, one of ACT UP’s most famous protests, and it’s Bordowitz behind the camera, whom Navarro keeps looking to. They’re best friends.
“I don’t know what that means,” Bordowitz interrupts himself in his ACT UP Oral History interview. He’s referring to best friends, the almost juvenile gold star of intimacy. “He’s been dead twice as long as the amount of years that I knew him. But at that time, if you had asked me ‘Who’s your best friend?’ I would have said, ‘Ray Navarro’s my best friend.’”
Navarro and Bordowitz were organizers together, co-founding the Testing the Limits Collective, the group of filmmakers that documented ACT UP. By the time Navarro was hospitalized with AIDS, Bordowitz was on trial for distributing syringes in New York, the case that would ultimately help legalize the practice, which effectively lowers HIV transmission rates among people who use drugs. On afternoons after leaving the courthouse, Bordowitz would go visit Navarro, taking shifts with other friends, who would keep Navarro company, and bring cassette tape recordings of themselves reading books or the New York Times, since Navarro had gone blind as a complication of his illness. Bordowitz was there when Navarro died. “I just watched the light go out of him,” he says, “That was after three years of like cleaning up his shit and wiping his mouth. A large part of my life was about that. Then he just vanished.”
By the early ’90s, AIDS activists had been fighting for years, many full time, and no end of the epidemic was in sight. As Sarah Schulman writes in Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987–1993, an index-like authority that was published within weeks of Bordowitz’s opening, no truly effective drugs were available, women still couldn’t be diagnosed with AIDS, which meant they couldn’t get benefits or be in medical trials, and the deaths were unceasing, many as prolonged and miserable as Navarro’s. And for those, like Bordowitz, who had tested HIV positive themselves, there was not just the profound grief of watching young friends die, but the sense of being next in line.
For Bordowitz it was the loss of Navarro, compounded by an announcement from the Berlin conference that any viable treatment for HIV/AIDS was at least ten years out, that propelled him away from group work and toward an autobiographical film project. “It was personal,” he says, “selfish. I am an artist, right?”
Bordowitz calls Fast Trip, Long Drop a documentary, but it has one foot in the fictional realm, a sort of variety show of captured, reenacted, and imagined realities. Bordowitz plays a series of roles, including himself in both unscripted and scripted scenes. There is footage from Bordowitz’s support group, six men who met biweekly for dinner in those years, taking turns hosting. There are stilted deliveries, campy and diaristic, and a fracturing of performance as actors are shown practicing the lines they are meant to deliver, or choreographer Yvonne Rainer mentions the script she has just performed in the role of herself. The film circles constantly around spectacle; ACT UP members kissing in mass at a demonstration to show AIDS can’t be spread through spit, circus tricks, caricatures of infomercial and talk-show representations of AIDS.
Collectively, the jukebox quality of the film captures the dynamism of its subject, offering a robust and contradictory portrait of a man with AIDS. Bordowitz writes himself a preemptive eulogy, but he also offers something more generous, more collective, speaking directly to those also living with AIDS in order to honor them and to carve a space for them.
A man flips a baby through the air while standing on the edge of a high roof, a cityscape surrounding him. A car runs into a brick wall on a race course. Over the archival footage, Bordowitz tells of his father’s death: he went to see Evel Knievel jump across the Grand Canyon, then was fatally struck by a bus as he left the event. Bordowitz lays in his bed and describes getting fucked in the ass for the first time, his gaze trained daringly on the camera. When he speaks of the man coming inside him, no condom, the image jumps: a stuntman shoots out of a canon. Unlike the moralizing narratives of the era, Bordowitz equates contagion to chance.
Who will die first, Yvonne Rainer asks Bordowitz in the film: him of AIDS, or her of breast cancer? Peter Staley asks the same of his support group. They all know they’re going to die of this; who will watch who go, and who will be left, last? Somehow, the film casts mostly the winning parties. Rainer is now in her mid-eighties, and most of the members of Bordowitz’s support group lived until effective medication became available; they’re now somewhere between middle-aged and elderly. An exception is Spencer Cox, who eventually chose to stop taking his medication. And in one of the oddest twists, Derek Link later admitted to actually being HIV negative, at which point many of his friends stopped speaking to him.
For a film about dying, the sick bodies hold their illnesses discreetly. There are no waning limbs, no unsightly fluids, no Kaposi sarcoma lesions. Perhaps this is a line of spectacle Bordowitz will not cross. The subjects seem healthy, for now. But there is a rupture in the final moments of the film, after the credits have rolled. It’s an outtake from the opening scene. “Death is the death of consciousness,” says Bordowitz, reclining in bed, pants-less. “I hope there’s nothing after this,” and then he breaks character and starts laughing, as does whoever is filming. But the laughter turns to coughing, Bordowitz can’t catch his breath. Is it the smoking? There’s an ashtray balanced on his SILENCE=DEATH T-shirt. Or is it the virus, breaking through the dam?
“Oooph,” says my friend Grace through their mask, when a TV in the exhibit shows a dozen hands holding a long banner that reads, Pfizer lies, People die. The protest was held in Johannesburg twenty years ago, against patents for HIV/AIDS medications, but just this week ACT UP was outside the Pfizer headquarters in midtown, laying on the radiating summer sidewalks in a die-in to protest Pfizer’s restricting its Covid vaccine patents, again leaving behind poorer nations.
We stop at a photo of a newspaper clipping under glass, which shows the needle exchange defendants on the steps of the courthouse three decades ago. Grace and I have volunteered together for years at the needle exchange Bordowitz helped legalize. We’ve come to see his show in part because we consider ourselves in his lineage, as inheritors of the relative safety that ACT UP helped yield. In the newspaper photo, Gregg is standing on the step behind Richard Elovich. Richard has reached up to hold Gregg’s arm, which is wrapped around his chest. Dan, Monica, Debra, Kathy, we name, Grace and I, pointing one by one, as if it’s a family portrait.
“I’M DYING” yells a man in his round silver glasses, bent over a podium. He is “Harry Blamer,” standing in for Larry Kramer. Hex Larson seems based on Magic Johnson, dribbling a basketball, encouraging condom use, and reassuring audiences that he still gets his. Andrea Fraser plays an HIV-positive composite WASP named Charity Hope-Tolerance, “of the Connecticut Tolerances,” with her stiff white shirt buttoned all the way to her throat. She’s rich, white, and straight, she says, and has resources, isn’t going to be a burden on anyone. “Feel bad for a few more seconds,” she says, “alright that’s enough.”
In one skit, Bordowitz plays Alter Allesman, the nominer a riff on the Yiddish for everyman, who is on the talk show Thriving With AIDS—a spoof of Living With AIDS, an actual show Bordowitz produced for the nonprofit Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Initially refusing to speak at all, then unruly and disruptive, Alter Allesman rails against the idea that his illness might be instrumentalized as some kind of lesson. “Fuck you,” he boils, “I don’t want to be yours, or anyone else’s, fucking model.”
Between the Yiddish, the recurring archival imagery, and the menorah and other ritual objects shown on Bordowitz’s bookshelf in a clip amounting to a home tour, Judaism is the weather of the film, atmospheric, pockmarking the dialogue with dark Jewish humor, scoring the scenes with Klezmer wedding songs and wordless prayer melodies called nigunim. In interviews, Bordowitz has said this inclusion is about otherness: he experienced his apartness first as a Jew, then as a bisexual man who calls himself gay as a sort of political shorthand. But the theoretical spine of the film feels Jewish to me too, the intense focus on history and the persistent considerations of what it means to be a victim.
A former art history professor of mine, who I consider to be reliable, told me that when Bordowitz was working on the film he kept in his pocket Walter Benjamin’s Theses on The Philosophy of History. Benjamin theorizes in the essay about the rewriting or flattening of history by the ruling classes. He stresses that “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins,” meaning that deaths would be qualified and moralized. As AIDS claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and the President refused to even speak the virus’s name, it was easy to imagine that history would omit the pandemic, or repackage it into a politically convenient narrative.
Bordowitz’s role in AIDS activism was varied, but first and foremost he was an archivist and an amplifier. By the time he made Fast Trip, Long Drop, he had spent years amassing footage of the crisis the nation was ignoring, filming the strategic, coordinated, artful activism of the communities left to die of AIDS. In this way, the project wasn’t only a landmark for persons with AIDS in his era, but a consciously crafted, permanent artifact that would shape historical memory. The film collects selections of Bordowitz’s archive into a counter-monument, a gristle in the eventual history of AIDS as he imagined it would be rewritten by a neglectful government that didn’t adequately try to save AIDS patients.
And what about the selfishness of the project, which Bordowitz himself admitted to? As Paul Celan, the most famous among Jewish Holocaust survivor poets, wrote, “no one / bears witness / for the witness,” so Bordowitz turns the camera on himself, asking us to witness him. Here emerges the dynamic self-eulogy of a man who believes himself to be dying, whose dying has already begun. “Before I die, I want to be the protagonist of my own story, the agent of my own history,” he says, as Allesman. He is capturing himself on the record: activism, Judaism, chosen family, the mother and stepfather on Long Island who clearly love their son but justify his homosexuality by saying, well at least he’s not a murderer, at least he wasn’t hit by a bus.
Bordowitz attempts no conflation of a death by Holocaust or pogrom and a death by AIDS, but the film forces an echo: The insistent klezmer soundtrack returns over gray archival footage of Jewish cemeteries, lines of tombstones engraved in Hebrew, a man jerking back and forth as he davens. Then there is a jump cut to an ACT UP die-in, hundreds of activists laying in the street holding cardboard gravestones above their heads. “I guess I’m just a part of history,” Bordowitz says.
Still, he insists, as though distinguishing himself from the divine figure in Benjamin’s text, “I’m not a hero, I’m not a revolutionary body. I’m not an angel. I’m just trying to reconcile the fact that I’m going to die with the daily monotony of my life.”
In the library room of the retrospective, I take a picture of the Walter Benjamin section, looking for a worn-down spine that might reinforce my professor’s rumor. I scan the paperbacks for creases, but they look pretty clean.
In 1993, the year Fast Trip, Long Drop was released, Bordowitz left ACT UP. “You didn’t leave ACT UP,” he says in his ACT UP Oral History interview. “It was like a relationship. You left ACT UP in the dishonest way you left a relationship you didn’t want to actually acknowledge was breaking up . . . It was my life. . . . There was nothing else outside of it.” After all this qualifying, he gives his motivation for stepping away simply: he says, “we were tired.”
Also on display at the PS1 retrospective is Habit, Bordowitz’s 2001 film. It’s something of a sequel to Fast Trip, Long Drop, or maybe a reunion. After Grace and I occupied the only two chairs in front of a small television at PS1, Grace taking notes in a notebook, I watched the film a second and third time online, alone with Bordowitz’s work again on my couch. Bordowitz sits with Yvonne Rainer, both of them looking older. “For a person with AIDS I’m doing very well, and yet,” he tells her, “I just hate the way I look.” Bordowitz strips next to a washing machine, dropping his clothes inside. He’s suffering from lipodystrophy: his calves are tiny, withered almost, while his belly is swollen between his puny limbs. “I hate looking in the mirror, you know, I constantly catch myself looking in my reflection, in reflective surfaces and not recognizing who’s reflected back at me.” Rainer punctuates his sentences with sympathetic yeahs, smiles in recognition; children ask her on the subway if she’s a man or a woman. She, the famous Judson Dance Theater choreographer, whose body she called her “only reality.” Her hair is cropped short now, her jowls pronounced. “I don’t look in the mirror as much as I used to, and then I, you know, I do this kind of thing.” She pulls her cheeks taut, as if to reveal the younger woman, the pre–double mastectomy version of herself, and she laughs loudly.
The film trains much of its attention on Johannesburg, where thousands are dying without access to medication, and where AIDS activism is peaking. It profiles South African leaders like Zackie Achmat, who could access effective medication for himself through his organizing connections, but has chosen not to. He works with too many people who don’t have the option, “and I could never look those people in the eye,” Achmat says, “I couldn’t lead them if I was taking my medicines while they were gonna die.”
Habit doesn’t explicitly grapple with this inequity—with the relatively normal lives of American people with AIDS and the preventable deaths of those protesting alongside Achmat. Instead, the discrepancy is highlighted by juxtaposition, cuts between South African activism and the figures from Fast Trip, Long Drop, now older, meditating, drawing, relaxing in America.
Bordowitz is shown at home in Chicago, often with his partner Claire. Our first glimpse of Bordowitz is a reprise: he coughs in bed. But then there is something new: a handful of pills. Twenty a day, he says. And he pours them into his palm, letting some scatter onto the counter. Oily transparent orange, chalky white, pistachio green, large and yellow, half-red and half-pink. Piled in his palm, reflecting light, they look like jewels.