There’s a huge banner hanging near the Michigan Avenue entrance inside the Art Institute of Chicago. The banner is bright yellow with bold red letters and it reads, “The Aids Crisis Is Still Beginning.”
That’s an introduction to the new exhibit from Gregg Bordowitz called I Wanna Be Well. Bordowitz is an artist, writer, activist, professor and director of the Low-Res MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has lived with HIV for over half his life.
The exhibit is an overview of his 30-plus-year career, bringing together his video work, poetry and sculpture and bringing us into the AIDS crisis as it emerged in the ’80s — and also as we live it today.
Bordowitz stops by the Morning Shift to talk about where he sees his art and activism intersect.
Explain the meaning behind the banner, ‘The Aids Crisis Is Still Beginning.’
Gregg Bordowitz: The AIDS crisis is still beginning. If we as a species, humans, survive a 100, 200 years, climate change and the possibility of catastrophic ecological collapse, then historians will record that in 2019 the AIDS crisis was still beginning. There are 36 million people around the world who are HIV positive. Only half are getting the life-saving drugs that are keeping me alive.
There’s a stillness. I feel like I have been working on this issue. I have been living with AIDS for more than half my life. And so, still.
On being a longtime HIV survivor
Bordowitz: I’m of a generation who was fortunate enough and privileged enough to gain access to lifesaving drugs in 1996, when the protease inhibitors became available. I was very sick at the time. Many of my friends had died and were not fortunate enough to see the day when those medications were available.
Part of the problem, if you could call it that, is wrapping your mind around luck. I think I really didn’t do anything different than what a lot of my friends did.
Using art, activism to shift the discussion on AIDS
Bordowitz: I think in the ’80s, we went through a period where people with HIV and the communities disproportionately affected by HIV in this country faced quarantine, and we turned that around. AIDS activism shifted the discussion away from focusing on a fictional general public and protecting that fictional general public from hoards of the unwelcome and ostracized to actually looking at the concerns of us, people living with the disease.
And all of my work has really been centered around that move — making people with AIDS in all their diversity the center of the discussion and recognizing that people with the disease should play a role in structuring a response to the epidemic … I thought it was important to show how we were also living our lives … that I am, we are, still going about our daily lives laughing, trying to have fun, trying to have a love life, thinking about our work.
On how the perception of AIDS has changed over the last 30 years
Bordowitz: Frankly, I think it’s very confusing and fractured. I think I see progress in the ways people with AIDS have been represented. The first time I saw a public representation of a person living with AIDS that was positive was in Chicago in the late ’90s. I was on the L train platform and I was staring at a billboard of a smiling face of a person with HIV who was taking the same drug that I was taking at the time.
So people with AIDS go from being stigmatized, scrambled faces seated behind potted palms to people with AIDS being consumers, and that’s how we entered into the general public, frankly. And that was very confusing.
Jenn White: Where are you finding hope in this moment?
Bordowitz: The quotidian, I gotta return to that. We're sitting here, I'm looking at your, we're smiling, I have a cup of tea. I'm fortunate. I find hope when I have to take the moment and experience my gratitude. I did not expect to be here. It really wasn’t supposed to be. I don’t mean to be dramatic. My friends prepared for my death. I prepared for my death. I’m 54 years old. I tested positive when I was 23.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity by Stephanie Kim. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.
GUEST: Gregg Bordowitz, artist, writer, activist, professor and director of the Low-Res MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
LEARN MORE: 'I'm Still Here' (Chicago Magazine 4/1/19)