[ A conversation* with Gregg Bordowitz ]
by Zander Porter
(*An imagined setting and invented encounter:)
Man in red blazer and glasses on one side of the small brown coffee table and younger Zander in ladybug rainjacket on the other, Gregg Bordowitz and I sit respectively across from one another in Bordowitz’s office at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The artist-activist-writer-performer, whose work primarily traverses video and writing, has spent time recently with performance and poetry, including the performances/performative lectures Testing Some Beliefs and The History of Sexuality Volume One by Michel Foucault: An Opera. Bordowitz lives with AIDS and I live against AIDS. Daily, I take a baby-blue pill which inhibits the activity of an HIV-used enzyme reverse transcriptase in the event that the HIV virus should enter my body. Bordowitz has generously taken the time to chat with me about my work as an art student, our “identities,” and the sociocultural landscape of gayness and AIDS, considered alongside his writing and lectures.
A fictive dialog between me and Gregg Bordowitz:
ZP: I have been thinking much about ideas that feel like my own, whose origins I cannot locate. I am simultaneously reading your book on General Idea’s Imagevirus and making my own work, which could be titled Digitalself Imagevirus.
GB: What is the “digitalself imagevirus”?
ZP: It is a self-portrait video project in which I play variously gendered and sexualized characters. They float ungrounded in a world of viral internet iconographies and sounds; they can only touch and talk to one another via suggestions made possible by green screens and video-editing software. Facebook, Pokémon, and Survivor constitute their visual/linguistic codex.
GB: I wonder about your tendency towards the viral, and its relationship to the new media and nontraditional forms you’re interested in crossing between. Where do you situate yourself within these relations and crossovers?
ZP: Identifying in this process not just as an artist or student but also as a sexuality engages me into your work and your writing. Thinking about my identity as a gay artist conjures a history of work produced by individuals within and around queer, gay, or LGBT identifications. But then I am not a person living with AIDS, and so the space between you and me must consider histories of illness and temporal disjuncture. It is confusing: I was born in 1994, a year that marked the death of many by AIDS, including Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, as well as the birth of your essay “Dense Moments,” in which you described your densest life moment as “the spring of 1988. March and April. I tested positive. […] And I told my parents I am gay. […] The moment when I first realized that what matters is the meaning I make of my life” (143). I cannot seem to dissociate my birth with the deathly peak of the AIDS crisis nor your own diagnosis.
GB: I think being an artist is also like a sexual orientation, as in you don’t choose it, it chooses you. Artists may orient themselves and their desires towards aesthetics potentially similarly, as in towards bodies or objects. I have recently been spending time with a Robert Duncan book The Opening of the Field (1960). I’m born in 1964, so in trying to get back to this book I’m also trying to get back to something prior to my own existence, a fantasy of an open field.
ZP: Yes! With more mature sexual experience and denser comprehension of how my sexuality relates to memory, getting back to a time before me feels personally prehistorical, in regards to the kind of community established by you and others engaged in ACT UP in New York City in the ‘80s. That seems like a physically intimate space I have yet to experience in my often digitally queer life. My recent engagements with queer NYC are primarily structured by digital and isolating softwares like Grindr, or in the presence of people like Jacolby Satterwhite and Ryan McNamara, names closely attached to the queer contemporary art landscape. Sites and scenes around these artists feel super-defined by social media relevancy as well as ironic performance of self-indulgence – a fun or overwhelmed hypersexuality party. These social and antisocial, anxiety-producing and sexually liberating social/performance sites feel like the contemporary pace of cruising, which has been accelerated and dehumanized by Grindr, a digital app that relocates the type of cruising I read about (José Esteban Muñoz, Samuel Delany, Douglas Crimp) onto the edge of the fingertip. And the bodies to be cruised are further objectified by their often-displayed facelessness as small square images – static yet interactive pornography.
GB: It would be naïve of you to assume the gay scene of the ‘80s and ‘90s was without a similar visual-sexual noise of social life and performance. At that time, the viral effects of HIV indeed affected social spaces in such a way that held sex and death together quite closely. I could guess that given the less taut tie between sex and death today in gay New York, there arises a freedom to over-perform sex, where a certain queer desire now doesn’t indicate a death sentence of the past.
The feeling of ACT UP in its heyday, when the room was packed and the meeting spilled out into the courtyard of the gay community center, was full of sexiness, cruising, and chattiness. The energy was amazing because it was filled with people who had ideas and also erotic energy – a bazaar of desires. I think you’re inclining towards spaces that feel like desire-bazaars, and you should continue reflecting on your personal and contemporary experiences with them in your work as a student and artist.
ZP: Your transition between painter and moviemaker was an important and contemporarily crucial activist gesture. I consider my self-presentation to you here and now, after invoking my work that splits my self into six different virtual avatars. Bizarrely, the self I present to you here contains you, and not just the you that sits here and generously shares time to talk to me, but the you that is tied to the time that precedes my birth.
GB: You’re using new media to gain access to the visualization of the selves of your imagination, and these selves, in their collective body and identity, constitute the you that is here, suspended in the duration of our conversation. We often define freedom in negative terms: freedom from tyranny, hunger, oppression. But I think that freedom has to have a positive content, which can be found playing with the ideation of identity, or in a duration like ours – an idea that comes from Henri Bergson. When you’re eating a meal with your friend or holding a long conversation and time seems to slip by and you don’t know where it went, that’s when you’re feeling your freedom, experiencing it within a kind of timelessness.
ZP: I think I want to recreate that feeling of timelessness in my video and performance work, to channel the kinds of freedom in play I fail-try to remember from an earlier childhood time.
GB: I believe that art and freedom are necessarily related. Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to get back to my childhood, an open field (remembering Duncan’s book), where all is possible. But not everything is good there because chaos and turmoil are bound up with joy and pleasure.
ZP: And what happens if that turmoil is homosexual, or if the chaos of childhood involves the child recognizing a violent or subjugated future? Despite living with AIDS and existing with a history of watching friends and lovers die from AIDS, you do the seemingly impossible work of holding AIDS outside the self as an idea, “an evil idea in possession of a magnificent formal perfection” (11, from Imagevirus). The impossible child (Lee Edelman, No Future) holds the turmoil outside of the self, keeping it out of consciousness or away in temporal distance.
GB: The quote you reference describes General Idea’s art as appropriative of the idea of the virus. Much like the virus, the artists’ project was ongoing, ever mutating and replicative. And like viral spreading, General Idea hammered AIDS through a multitude of media, perhaps similar to your insertion of yourself into a contemporary vastness of internet-derived and digital media. And these children that were once you and me, playing with and extending turmoil, perhaps move us towards your inquiry about the possible origins of certain selves and ideas or selves-as-ideas.
ZP: In General Idea: Imagevirus, you elucidate AA Bronson’s inability to locate the origin of the work’s conceptualization. The story of the project’s origin changes with each iteration of attempting to discover it. I am struggling with that in my work, to perform characters of myself that embody the boys, girls, and others I imagined myself as in childhood, one marked by spending much time with the computer. I am awash today with digital ocean-feelings and virtual (off-)Zanders, unsure how to make sense of where they come from or why they are complexly fragmented.
GB: For General Idea, both identity and the image were forms of virus. People leave each other marked irrevocably, as in encounters like ours. What happens when images represent the self’s imagined identity/identities? And can an identity of the self be an idea for an artwork? These questions feel close to this conversation, as you continue to think through your relationship to what you see happening around you.
This exercise was inspired by Bordowitz’s own fabricated essay “[ A Conversation with Delmore Schwartz ]” from The Aids Crisis is Ridiculous and Other Writings: 1986-2003. I was initially introduced to Bordowitz’s writing in Queer Times: Poetics and Politics of Temporality, an English-Queer Studies course taught at Wesleyan University by Associate Professor of English and writer-mentor-artist-scholar Lisa Cohen, without whose syllabi and guidance this essay would not exist.
ZANDER PORTER grew up in Los Angeles. Zander recently graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT with High Honors on xyr Art Studio thesis, for which ze was awarded the Elizabeth Verveer Tishler Prize.