At the Intersection of Art and Activism

A Showcase of AIDS Activism at Reed’s Cooley Gallery

“THE AIDS CRISIS IS STILL BEGINNING.” Written in huge red font on a striking yellow banner at the front of the gallery, this thesis encompasses what artist, activist, and filmmaker Gregg Bordowitz has been working on for decades. It’s a message that permeates all sections of the I Wanna Be Well exhibition on display in the Cooley gallery, which offers a comprehensive retrospective on the life and work of one of the most important figures in the history of the AIDS crisis.

Gregg Bordowitz is a long-time AIDS activist. In 1987 he was one of the early members of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP, where he wrote articles, produced documentaries, and fought against the medical and social taboos that have surrounded, and continue to surround, people with AIDS. This battle took a much deeper personal meaning when, in 1988, Bordowitz himself tested HIV positive — a diagnosis that would change the trajectory of his life.

He and a group of fellow activists formed the film collective Testing the Limits, which set out to document the early stages of AIDS activism. The result of this work can be found on the many TV sets around the gallery, which showcase Bordowitz’s protest documentaries. From the headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to Wall Street, ACT UP organized rallies to fast-track the release of HIV medications and demand greater federal focus on the AIDS crisis. These films capture the raw emotional toll of the AIDS crisis on those directly affected by it, and showcase some of the most vital moments in the history of AIDS activism. Also shown are some of Bordowitz’s original films, poetry readings, and stage performances, which offer a unique and exciting window into Bordowitz’s creative mind.

The gallery’s projector room holds screenings of two films: Fast Trip Long Drop, Bordowitz’s most famous film, and Only Idiots Smile, a performance lecture first debuted at the New Museum. These two films are shown on an alternating schedule, with viewings beginning periodically from noon until 4:00 p.m.

At the center of the gallery is a piece that is sure to catch many eyes: a racecar, adorned with sponsor stickers of pharmaceutical companies. The car serves to conceptualize and criticize the limited availability and distribution of AIDS medication, as explained in Bordowitz’s essay “The Effort to Survive AIDS Considered from the Point of View of a Race-Car Driver”:

“So, what does it mean to win? As it is now, we’re pitted against each other, competing for the sponsors’ interests. Yet, we don’t race for the sponsors. All drivers race out of necessity, certainly not by choice, and most of the drivers in the world can’t find sponsorship…”

While less conspicuous than the racecar, the various portraits of Bordowitz hanging throughout the gallery are also essential in painting an image of the activist as a person. One photograph of Bordowitz highlights “the fashion of AIDS activism,” while others show a high school-aged Bordowitz posing in an army jacket. Especially striking are the string of self portraits Bordowitz himself drew over the span of eleven days in late October, 1986, which show the artist in a state of self-reflection and self-definition.

Finally, make sure not to miss the display case featuring artifacts, fliers, newspapers, buttons, and drawings from the front lines of the AIDS crisis. “SILENCE = DEATH” buttons, fliers for ACT UP, and community newspapers for bisexuals, sex workers, and people with AIDS are all highlights.

The exhibit is open Tuesdays through Sundays from noon to 5:00 p.m., and wraps up on October 21. Make sure to take the time to see at least one of Bordowitz’s performances of the piece “Some Styles of Masculinity,” which will be held September 7–9 in the chapel. Bordowitz will also be participating in Reed’s Visiting Writers Series in the Chapel on September 13, where he will be reading some of his poetry.

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