In "Present Tense", a short essay included in his collection The Aids Crisis is Ridiculous and other writings 1986-2003, Gregg Bordowitz writes in an attempt to respond to "the associations set in motion by a medical procedure." (142) Although the operation had been filmed he declined a copy of the video knowing he would use it in his work. Bordowitz explains why he wanted the experience to become artistically present in language rather than in images:
I never wanted to reduce the exploratory nature of my work to such a literal exposition. I preferred a textual description that wouldn't be overwhelmed by a sensational depiction of my body's interior - that can be encountered only as an abstraction through language and never a truth reduced to biological documentation. (142)
What is also striking about "Present Tense" is its role in Bordowitz's shift from the activism of his involvement with ACT UP to an engagement that came from a more explicit engagement with the lyrical and the poetic. In an earlier essay, "Operative Assumptions", Bordowitz - seeking to make clear his attitudes and assumptions before completing his video Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993)- observes how, as a student, "I made a commitment against any mystifying practices assigning privilege to an author, a figure, a signature, a gesture. I resisted the notion of the artist as a lonely alienated soul" (91). Bordowitz goes on to observe his own anxiety at what this necessary critical stance may have neglected:
Has my opposition to some formulations of expressionism enabled me to ignore the presence of my own unconscious? Has it limited my ability to understand the role of my unconscious? There have been times in the recent past when I repressed my own ambivalences in order to convey a sense of certainty in my activist work. When I was most intensely involved in AIDS activist politics, I was unable to admit any sense of doubt in my work. Doubt, uncertainty, and contingency were temporarily removed from my vocabulary.
This was not a crime. I feel more curious than guilty reflecting on the limits of my previous efforts. Circumstances seemed to demand it, and now I understand why. It was necessary for me to focus on the problems of representation concerning people with AIDS in general rather than become mired in the circumstances of my own infection - the arena in which I experience fear about the future.
This was a good but inefficient means of coping. It left much unattended. Now, I must post new questions or maybe formulate some answers. (93)
Fast Trip Long Drop (1993)
What strikes me about "Present Tense" is the degree to which this shift is mapped onto a shift of media from film to poetry/ writing. It was evident when Bordowitz talked at the LUX in May this year, alongside screenings of Fast Trip, Long Drop and Habit (2001) that, together with a curated selection of books, formed the exhibition Gregg Bordowitz: Conflicting Tendencies at LUX 28. Although presented as a video-maker, Bordowitz talked of his focus on writing poetry and read from a prose work comprising a series of questions. It prompted the thought that themes of activism and lyricism are becoming combined through an exploration of pedagogy.
But to what extent are these different needs, these different intersections of self, artist, art work and public, confined to different media? Certainly the different ways of working of film and poetry could suit different desires for engagement and rhythms of daily life. I think there's often a useful idealization that comes from shifting media - certainly John Baldessari seems to be possessed of this point of view in his interview with Doug Aitken in Broken Screen when he talks of his envy of poets, the freedom they acquire from being off any cultural radar. As, too, artists - think of the poetry of Jonas Mekas - often don't engage with what could seem to be the equivalently minded group in their new medium. Perhaps it's a need for a medium where they are not so immediately aware of all the different groups, factions, scenes, and opportunities.
An engagement with different media can lead to the development of different responses and styles in exploration of a single concern, often moving in what can seem contradictory directions. If Bordowitz's poetry provides space for a more formal, philosophical, abstract and lyrical language, then working through the same issues in his video work produces what he presented at LUX as the contents of his hard drive: work beginning with deliberately touristic images of Vienna - deliberately, he said, similar to what his students would take and post on flickr. Perhaps it is in the combination of these divergent explorations that the developments in his work can come.