FILMMAKER AND ACTIVIST Gregg Bordowitz's passage through the 1980s mirrors the course of AIDS activism in that decade. From the very first ACT up demonstration in New York to the triumphal storming of the FDA headquarters outside Washington, DC, he deployed his art in the battle against AIDS. Bordowitz leads off this two-issue series of personal chronicles of the decade, recounting his experiences as an activist and guerrilla filmmaker at the forefront of the fight.
Art does have the power to save lives, and it is this very power that must be recognized, fostered, and supported in every way possible.
Douglas Crimp, introduction to AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism (MIT Press, 1988)
When Ronald Reagan was elected president, I was sixteen years old, living in Coram, Long Island. A smart faggy teen, I spent every possible minute drawing and painting in the art rooms of Longwood High School. I loved Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. I listened to an eclectic mix of music, including Miles Davis, James Brown, and the Ramones. It was my girlfriend Michelle who introduced me to punk culture. She taught me everything I needed to know--where to get the music, where to shop for jewelry (any pet store), and how to cut my own hair without a mirror. Well, almost everything. My crush on one of Longwood's art teachers led to the other defining friendship of my high school years. Mr. -- instructed me in the ways of the gay world, even taking me into the city and showing me the leather shops and bookstores of the West Village. I always knew that the minute I turned eighteen I would move to Manhattan, which seemed as far away and glamorous as Hollywood. After graduating, I followed Michelle to the School o f Visual Arts.
On arrival in Manhattan, I made friends with others new to the city. During the day we studied art and visited museums. At night we explored bars. I recall one late night at the Pyramid Club on Avenue A in the East Village. The house was packed, and there was a long list of entertainers. A tall slender blond boy dressed in metallic space gear tapped out a scale repeatedly on a toy electronic organ. In a trancelike state, he chanted, "Take what you can get and call it love."
I spent the next four years in and out of love with many men and women. I formed important and enduring friendships with artists like Mark Dion, Jason Simon, and Andrea Fraser. In 1986, Andrea and I lived together, on Fourth Street between A and B. The East Village was then host to a hodgepodge of cultures--punk, bohemian, queer, and druggie. No one I knew referred to himself as gay. That identity was reserved for clones--older homosexual men who wore mustaches and dressed alike in tight jeans and nylon bomber jackets, or in leather. I rejected this style as a kind of conformity. I was free of labels.
None of my friends knew much about AIDS in 1986. I was still living in a mostly straight-identified scene, and AIDS was a remote concern. But then the reports about the AIDS crisis that began to dominate the news captured my attention, probably because I realized that I could have become exposed to HIV from sex with any number of men--some friends, son e acquaintances, some strangers. Even among my few homosexual friends there was much confusion, misinformation, and denial when it came to safe sex. The public sex culture of gay life that had achieved visibility and legitimacy through the sexual revolution was being driven underground by homophobia. In the mid-'80s, mandatory testing and quarantine were discussed at very high levels of the Reagan administration.
Underlying all this confusion was the fear that one could test positive and die a horrible death very quickly. This fear, magnified by all the attention AIDS was getting in the news, drove me to seek advice and information. The only hospitable place to go was the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center on Thirteenth Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. …