Changing perceptions of Aids forever, Bordowitz describes how it feels to survive certain death
Taken from the August issue of Dazed & Confused:
Gregg Bordowitz’s Fast Trip, Long Drop changed the world’s perception of Aids forever. Karen Orton talks to the filmmaker about how it feels to survive certain death “Fuck you,” spits Gregg Bordowitz in a mocked-up TV studio in his acclaimed autobiographical 1993 documentary Fast Trip, Long Drop. “I don’t want to be yours or anyone else’s fucking model. I’m not a hero. I’m not a revolutionary body, I’m not an angel... I’m just try to reconcile the fact that I’m going to die with the daily monotony of my life.” With the raw, starkly honest film, shot on grainy video, the then 29-year-old activist/filmmaker revealed the most intimate aspects of his life, from how he discovered he is HIV-positive to coming out to his parents and confronting his sex life, his past, his fantasies and his fears for a future that seemed non-existent. Produced at a time when the Aids crisis in New York City was at its height, it made him an underground poster-boy for a generation of young, HIV-positive gay men facing down their own mortality.
“I thought Fast Trip would be my last film,” Bordowitz says today. “It was a militant, angry, corrosive film. I thought I was dying; I felt I could say anything. I wanted to represent what people with Aids in my immediate circles were experiencing, which was death, contemplations of suicide, mourning and defeat. I wanted to break all the taboos and open the discussion.”
It’s early in New York City, but he has already been up writing for hours as per his daily routine. Now 48, he looks weary. His mother has cancer and the interview has been fit around her needs. His 29-year-old self probably didn’t think he would see the end of the year, never mind live long enough to experience the pain of losing a parent.
A working-class Jewish kid from Long Island with a fiery political consciousness (he declared himself a socialist at 14), Bordowitz moved to Manhattan in the early 80s to study painting and lived in the East Village with his girlfriend. Like many of his downtown peers, he had relationships and slept with both men and women. As he searched for a way to merge his art and his activism, Bordowitz grew interested in documentary filmmaking. “Video was the anti-painting of the time,” he says, “and for me it was interesting because it was largely in the hands of women.”
Soon he was out on the streets with his camera, documenting the gay-rights protests that grew out of the landmark 1986 Bowers vs Hardwick ruling, in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of an anti-sodomy law in the state of Georgia. Identity politics were taking centre stage, and Bordowitz increasingly identified with the gay community and the fledgling Aids-activism movement. “The Aids crisis began to take more of a political shape,” he remembers. “The Reagan administration ignored what was clearly a health crisis in the gay community. It was very scary because no one knew what the cause was.”
The gay community began to self-educate through such works as How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach (1982), but education would need to be coupled with militancy. “The Reagan administration was advocating for internment camps for people with HIV,” Bordowitz recalls, his voice rising. “Jerry Falwell, the leader of Christian right group Moral Majority, declared that Aids was God’s punishment to homosexuals. William F Buckley, a famous right-wing pundit, said homosexuals should be tattooed on their ass and drug users on their arms, to shame the sick and make it easy to identify high-risk groups. We got the feeling that the right wing and the Republican Party were willing to let us die because they hated us.”
It was in this febrile atmosphere that direct-action advocacy group Act Up (Aids Coalition To Unleash Power) was born, when Aids activist and playwright Larry Kramer declared at a New York lecture in March 1987 that it was time to get angry and fight back. Later that month, Bordowitz went to Act Up’s first protest, which took place on Wall Street. Stockbrokers on their way to work stared incredulously at the young activists loudly chanting, “You could get it too.” Kramer remembers Bordowitz in those days: “He was young and full of energy and ideas and incredibly handsome – startling so.” New York City at the time was oppressive. Bordowitz describes it as “horrible. If you were gay and your lover died and your name wasn’t on the apartment lease, you would be kicked out. And lots of people were being kicked out of their apartments, just out of fear.” The healthcare system wasn’t any better: nurses would leave food in the hallway outside the rooms of Aids patients for fear of touching them. “The public was horrified and no one really understood what Aids was. There were a lot of myths."
Although Bordowitz hadn’t yet been tested, he knew Aids could easily become more to him than something he was fighting on the behalf of others. That fear informed his decision to leave behind his academic career to focus on activism and video work. “I didn’t think I needed school because of the kind of sex I was having, the risks I had taken,” he says, thinking back. “I hadn’t tested positive yet, but I thought I wasn’t going to live to see the benefits of academic credentials.” He co-founded film collective Testing the Limits, which documented Act Up’s early protests in its first film, one of the first records of Aids activism. “Our early demonstrations were not covered by the dominant media. We had to make our own media for legitimation, self-representation and our own historical record.”
I thought I was dying; I felt I could say anything
Within a year, Act Up began challenging government healthcare policy, demanding faster access to and more investment in new drugs. On October 11, 1988, over 1,000 activists surrounded the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) headquarters in Maryland and tried to take over the building, achieving unprecedented media exposure. “It wasn’t the first act of civil disobedience, but it was the sheer scale, the boldness of it,” Bordowitz remembers. “The FDA was doing a terrible job of testing and releasing medications.” Mark Harrington, co-founder of Aids-activist organisation Treatment and Action Group, worked with Bordowitz on the FDA protest. “Gregg was one of the instigators of the FDA action,” he remembers. “He was handsome, dark, charismatic and articulate.”
Earlier that year, Bordowitz’s life had changed forever. “I went to this anonymous testing site with my friend, tested positive and was told that ‘statistically’ I had a year to live, and that I needed to get things in order,” he remembers. “I mean, I don’t know exactly what a 24-year-old working-class kid has to get in order. I had nothing to will except a pile of used Marxist books and a futon – though I think I was more afraid of dying then.” What he did next was characteristic – he walked out of the clinic and into that night’s weekly Act Up meeting, where he announced his status to a stunned room that included a number of his sexual partners. It was taboo then to come out as having Aids in Act Up, and he felt it important to end the secrecy. “It was unusual at the time,” Harrington says, “and I remember his bravery.”
Act Up’s weekly meetings were intense: people debated, organised, taught and consoled each other. “People were dying daily – every meeting started with a list of people who had died that week,” Bordowitz remembers. “We were aware that many of the people in the room were infected, or their lovers, their fathers, their best friends. It was a terrible time, yet Act Up was a truly exciting place, a sexy place. The meetings became one of the hot gay nights to go to, but also a place for people to bring their anger and grief.” Meanwhile, he and filmmaker Jean Carlomusto produced cable TV show Living with Aids (1988–94). “In the media, people with Aids were not shown,” Bordowitz says. “They were masked, placed in a shadow or had their voice changed. The only images we saw of ourselves were of people dying.” Living with Aids set out to change that. “We only interviewed people with HIV who were surviving and thriving – people fighting for their lives, taking care of themselves, taking drugs on the underground, fighting for expanded drug access and trials and changing the ways that drugs were manufactured and distributed in the US.”
Carlomusto remembers those years well: “Gregg and I were always on the move, acquiring footage from Act Up actions. Our relationship was like brother and sister. We had many brothers and sisters. This level of caring made it difficult when the numbers of sick and dying mounted hideously in the 90s. Gregg was increasingly aware that he might well die soon, and many of the men in Act Up shared this fear. The tensions in the group rose along with levels of burnout and grief. It took its toll.”
As things got increasingly bleak, Bordowitz found that the “surviving and thriving” narrative was wearing thin. His time was being spent in hospital rooms as a primary caregiver for his friends. “The early 90s were the worst. My best friend, Ray Navarro, died in ’91. So many others died then. The mood was very sombre and we were burnt out. Act Up felt like it was falling apart.” People tried anything to self-medicate themselves, from buying alternative drug treatments underground to making them at home. “Shiitake mushrooms, lipid drinks – people were desperate.”
In 1991 his health worsened. He left the show and started work on Fast Trip, Long Drop. “Surviving and thriving felt like a lie. With Fast Trip, I felt we had to break the mould of Aids media. If it was to continue and be valuable, it had to be honest.”
On the advent of Bill Clinton’s election at the end of 1992, activists hoped that official policy might become more proactive, but it was years until the first truly effective medications were available. Seriously ill, Bordowitz was unable to attend Fast Trip’s New York premiere. But he pulled through, and in 1996 his system was stabilised by powerful new medications called protease inhibitors. His films A Cloud in the Trousers (1995) and The Suicide (1996) appropriated the work of Soviet artists, reflecting an ongoing struggle to balance activism and art, and, in the latter, to come to terms with a new lease on life. Filmmaker and close friend Liza Johnson (Return, 2011), who interned on The Suicide, says: “There’s been an ongoing shift in Gregg’s work as the nature of the Aids crisis changed. He’s constantly rethinking what constitutes political representation.”
He returned to academia in 1995 and has remained there ever since. He is currently a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where his classes are hugely popular. Bordowitz remains haunted by the inequality within the global Aids epidemic, however, and made it the subject of Habit (2001), a follow-up to Fast Trip, Long Drop that examined the history of Aids in South Africa and the US. More recently, he staged Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality as an opera at the Tanzquartier Wien, Vienna, in 2010, and gave a performance/lecture based on Foucault at the Tate Modern in 2011. He has also given poetry readings at MoCA in Los Angeles and received fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, among others.
The glorious footage captured by Bordowitz and friends in the early days of Aids activism formed the basis of award-winning 2012 documentaries How to Survive a Plague and United in Anger. Today that footage, along with Fast Trip, Long Drop, is the people’s archive of an era defined by impassioned struggle and huge losses. “Gregg captured the anger and desperation of that time,” Carlomusto says. “He also included the growing sadness that now attached itself to all the activist footage. At first that footage symbolised empowerment, but by 93-94, many of those in that footage were dead or dying. With Fast Trip, Long Drop, he crafted a compelling autobiographical work that was both a search for paternity in a time of abandonment and a loving portrait of our people.”