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New Art Institute exhibit spotlights professor/HIV activist
by Ariel Parrella-Aureli
2019-03-19

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During his 30 years of documenting the AIDS crisis, Gregg Bordowitz has learned that people can be resilient, fragile and powerful when organizing toward change.

The artist/activist/professor started recording the AIDS epidemic and his personal experience when he was diagnosed with HIV at age 23 as a coping mechanism. He was part of the ACT UP movement in New York, where he cofounded various video collectives, including Testing the Limits, an advocacy group within ACT UP and DIVA ( Damn Interfering Video Activists ).

Through video, portraiture, poetry and multimedia installations, Bordowitz created a lens of communication and awareness on AIDS, healthcare and activism that influenced progress for people with HIV and destigmatized perception. Now, his work will be on display in a new exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago ( AIC ) called "I Wanna Be Well," inspired by the 1977 Ramones song. It will document Bordowitz's decades of work that span political and artistic expression about healthcare access, HIV and its treatment's effect on identity and marginalized groups. "I Wanna Be Well" is the first comprehensive collection of the 54-year-old's work and career.

"People in museums and galleries need to be addressed and educated just as much as people in community centers and other public entities," Bordowitz told Windy City Times.

The exhibit also coincides with the Stonewall Riot's 50th anniversary on June 28, a historic day in the LGBTQ community. Curators Robyn Farrell and Solveig Nelson said although not intentional, it proved more exciting to have the exhibition around this time, since Stonewall's struggles are still present, particularly for the obscurity of trans history, Nelson said.

"The details in the coalition and conversations that were happening throughout Gregg's practice are still unresolved questions," Nelson said.

The exhibit begins with a 2002 MCA-commissioned piece called "Drive" that includes multiple media components like a 50s-era derby race car with stickers on it of all the pharmaceutical companies providing AIDS drugs at that time. It also has two clocks—one set to Chicago and one to South Africa. The curators said "Drive" is showing a race-car driver as a metaphor for living with HIV/AIDS and invoking questions of desire, risk and life trajectory.

"It's not a surprise that the exhibit came together because we were both very interested in having Gregg's work here in the museum," Farrell said.

The exhibit—which first opened at Reed College in Portland, Oregon—will run at AIC April 4-July 14 in the Abbott and Stone galleries and a series of performance-lectures by Bordowitz called "Some Styles of Masculinity" on April 5-7 will kick off the exhibit. The curators also organized other exhibit-related programs, including another Bordowitz lecture and screening at AIC on May 16, and a program at Gene Siskel on Bordowitz's "Fast Trip, Long Drop" and Marlon Rigg's "Tongues United" on May 17. A poetry reading at AIC and screening of Bordowitz's The Suicide will take place in July at the Siskel Film Center.

The Chicago show will also include a special collection of Bordowitz's library that helped shape his work and identity throughout the years. Bordowitz, who splits his time between New York and Chicago and teaches at the School of the Art Institute, called the collection a queer left person's library. It includes books by Douglas Crimp, Noam Chomsky, Emma Goldman, Stuart Hall and Michel Foucault.

"The library is a kind of portrait of what the queer left was interested in reading historically during the period of my activity," Bordowitz said.

He said the exhibit is bringing awareness and advocacy around HIV, healthcare and access to medicine, reminding people that the crisis is "still beginning," as a banner in the exhibit reads. While some may think access to medicine is common and the disease is stable, Bordowitz said there is a split around access to life-saving drugs in the U.S. and more so globally.

More than 1 million people are infected nationwide and one in seven do not know they have HIV. Of the 38,739 new HIV diagnoses in the United States in 2018, 52 percent were in the south, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's HIV report. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has pioneered antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV/AIDS, turning what was once a uniformly fatal disease into a manageable chronic condition, but accessibility is the key, and those in Southern states have less access to these drugs, NIAID noted.

Globally, there are 36.9 million people living with HIV, many who are children and women living in sub-Saharan Africa; they have minimal access to prevention, care and treatment, although mothers had increased access to antiretroviral therapy in 2017 compared to 2010, according to HIV.org, the official government site that U.S. Department of Health and Human Services manages. In 2017, 59 percent of those with HIV were accessing antiretroviral therapy globally, an increase of 2.3 million since 2016 and up from 8 million in 2010.

Bordowitz acknowledged these advances over the years, including pressure from ACT UP to create government-funded legal needle exchange programs in the '90s and CDC's amended HIV definition to include women. But he still considers himself lucky and "undetectable" from the disease, compared to the scores of friends he has seen die in the crisis.

"By virtue of being in New York and being involved in the movement, I have access to resources that others have not historically," he said.

The exhibit also opens up a critical conversation on what the current administration is doing about HIV/AIDS, he said. In 2018, CNN reported that President Trump moved more than $9 million from HIV/AIDS programs and CDC funding and gave it to immigration officers and child detention centers. But he has also publicly said he wants to end HIV transmission in the next 10 years, which experts say is realistic only if the administration radically changes its healthcare policies, Quartz reported Feb. 5.

"It's very frightening that the government would take existing HIV funding and funnel it toward repressive agencies—it's very much significant of our time," Bordowitz said. "The news is not good in terms of the focus and desire or energy to meet the challenges of the crisis as they continue."

For more information on the exhibit, visit www.artic.edu/exhibitions/9170/gregg-bordowitz-i-wanna-be-well. To register for the opening lecture and performance, visit www.artic.edu/events/4476/performance-lecture-some-styles-of-masculinity .

Note: All of the videos in the show will be closed-captioned and the performances "Some Styles of Masculinity" will have ASL interpreters


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