Fast Trip, Long Drop as Video Support Group

You have to tell your own history to make it advance. And so the point, I think, of remembering is to reinvent ourselves.

Jean Carlomusto in Fast Trip, Long Drop

 

Video never blossomed into humanity’s emancipator. It did not connect people by their nervous systems, eclipsing modern woes with a collective “global village.” Instead, video in its “guerilla” form fell victim to the machinery of the capitalist system—the very monolith it vowed to tackle. At least, that’s the narrative underlying many writers’ works on the subject in the 1980s.[1] These authors, though varying in degree of pessimism, maintain a commonality in positing early utopian visions of video as misguided, mangled, and misplaced. Yet, Gregg Bordowitz’s “Fast Trip, Long Drop” (1993) transcends the fateful hegemonic pigeonholes these authors demarcate.[2] Perhaps the video reached a large enough audience in the HIV/AIDS community and its supporters of the early 1990s to render it a success.[3] Or maybe its sporadic humor and 54-minute duration primed it for a spot on television. Regardless, the video collage succeeds on a formal level to break and transcend traditional, destructive narratives surrounding the HIV/AIDS crisis, while stringing the seemingly disjointed collage of fiction and documentary along an historical fabric. The effect is to simultaneously legitimize individual feelings of despair, while subsuming the individual’s plight within the broader network of community and, ultimately, all of humanity.

At the outset, Bordowitz sets “Fast Trip, Long Drop” in opposition to the traditional broadcast narrative regarding the HIV/AIDS community. At the same time, he exploits the viewer’s expectations of the language and demeanor of a typical news broadcaster on the subject. A news anchor appears on the screen, authoritatively reporting, “Today was the final day of the international conference on AIDS.” His sturdy countenance and the somewhat muffled audio quality render this clip indistinguishable from a primetime NBC News report. However, the anchor proceeds, “…if you are one of [those people with HIV], panic,” at which point the audio echoes and is made clearer, as if the anchor and his set have emerged from—or, broken through—the television into the viewer’s space. At this same moment, the typical newscast frame-within-a-frame video in the upper right corner depicts an old film of a motorcyclist riding and breaking through a flaming structure. Bordowitz, here, sets a jarring tone for the following “documentary.”[4] This is not a video about “living and thriving” with AIDS; it is Bordowitz’s attempt to “reconcile the fact that I’m going to die with the daily monotony of my life,” as his fictional alter ego, Alter Allesman, later claims in the video. Breaking through the traditional narratives, Bordowitz sets about telling his own story—one of bleak despair and confusion, but also of support and love.

In his own manifesto-like piece, “Picture a Coalition,” Bordowitz addresses the video activist’s role. Fueled by anger and structured by the activist group, ACT UP, Bordowitz maintains an energetic, future-oriented language. He writes, “Through direct action we will wrest control of the public discussion of AIDS,” and, “all of this must be done in order to facilitate moves toward the treatment and cure of AIDS.”[5] This same militant, optimistic Bordowitz appears in “Fast Trip, Long Drop” in footage depicting a 1988 ACT UP rally. Here, he speaks to his fellow protestors, “We must establish ourselves in the face of this containment…” at which point the video starts to deteriorate. Devolving into scratchy static, Bordowitz’s body and speech rip apart at the seams, morbidly pointing to Bordowitz’s own mortality and his rhetoric’s anachronism. Though “Fast Trip, Long Drop” still aims to “call into question established structures of the media” and to “work toward participatory forms of representation that incorporate people into the communication process,” a melancholic reality check looms over this new dialogue. It is one best captured in the aforementioned scene’s later reenactment.

After Jean Carlomusto, identified in the piece as an “AIDS Video Activist,” explains the toll her kind of work takes on her psyche and the crucial act of telling one’s own history, Bordowitz replays the 1988 ACT UP rally footage, this time historicized as “1993.” A dejected, though fictionalized Bordowitz appears, giving a speech in place of his previous optimistically naïve self. He professes, “I seek a candidacy for the constituency of the burnt out, the broken hearted, and you—all of you—the profoundly confused.” This, Bordowitz shows, is the only political ideal left for a nation of people with AIDS. Reproducing the rally footage within his current state of despair and replacing his speech, Bordowitz gives the viewer a pessimistic (or is it realistic?) glimpse of political possibility. Yet, this particular section is fictionalized, a category Bordowitz complicates throughout the piece. For this reason, one must look for clues in the video to glean the underlying beacon of light in a sea of darkness.

“Fast Trip, Long Drop” includes an assortment of documentary footage with fictionalized content. This works to produce a fragmentary effect, as Bordowitz, again, deconstructs traditional coherent narratives typical of documentaries and other traditional forms. In her essay, “Video Politics: Early Feminist Projects,” Martha Gever admonishes documentarians against employing an “easy-flowing and emotionally gripping narrative.”[6] Slick production value and overly emotional content comes at the cost of detracting from serious issues. This, she argues, is one way in which the documentary form falls victim to the structure set by an inherently audience-oriented system. Bordowitz’s collage evades Gever’s pitfalls in its fragmentation; yet, it simultaneously relates a gripping personal story. At points in the video, Bordowitz includes what appears to be candid human interaction, emphasized all the more for the scenes’ positioning between exaggerated fictions. Two sections in particular capture a solidarity in collective experience that transcends individual despair: footage of, for one, Bordowitz’s support group, and, two, his second conversation with Yvonne. These intimate settings, juxtaposed with distasteful and fictional characters, like Harry Blamer and Henry Roth, work to express this community’s collective experience—a looming and imminent death—yet, maintain an air of detachment from an “emotionally gripping narrative.” Shared despair, these sections depict, is tolerable—perhaps even gratifying and fulfilling. These conversations are raw and authentic, piercing through the bullshit spewed in the selfish and complacent language of the “media.” Bordowitz does not allow the sentimentality to ferment into cheese by Gever’s standards; he remains solemnly distant.

In addition to these candid and fictionalized scenes, Bordowitz works intertextually to sew together his personal and collective histories with a universal element that remains acutely sober, yet active. Gluing scenes together with old footage of various daredevil stunts, he points to a reckless past reminiscent of his own sexual encounters. At one point, a newspaper article appears, bearing the video’s title as its headline. The article is in reference to Evel Knievel’s failed attempt at clearing a canyon—it appears at a moment when Bordowitz renounces the “fantasies about who my father is.” He intricately weaves together his own imagined past and a desire for solid grounding in closure with a wistful connection to risk as embodied by the video’s reoccurring references to daredevil stunts. One feels as though “Fast Trip, Long Drop”—in all its despair and confusion—is literally held together with a past riddled by risk. In this way, Bordowitz maintains his activist program, effectively calling on his audience to act responsibly or chance peril.

On the other side of the coin, Bordowitz employs intertextuality to complicate existential coping mechanisms. Integrating individuality with humanity, Bordowitz constructs a kind of McLuhanian support group—one that includes the HIV/AIDS community most immediately, yet encompasses all mortal beings. A man and woman—identified as “Figure A” and “Figure B”—appear in a car, pontificating various existential platitudes: “History is an ideal,” “History is a fantasy,” “Time is the measure of history,” “Time is the invention of history.” This culminates in the same characters reciting Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, claiming, “God is dead.” However, Figure B forgets her lines in the midst of referencing the classic philosopher of despair. When these same actors appear some minutes later, they are identified by name: Sheri and Ernie (along with a young girl, Nadia). At this point, they reveal what appears as their own authentic ideas concerning God and existence. Bordowitz here manifests the current state of affairs for the marginalized HIV/AIDS community: with militant activism a thing of the past, support in common existential struggles remains key to “dying with AIDS.” But coming to terms with despair ought not to be a forced, solely internal struggle—as exemplified by the overtly artificial Figures A and B. Instead, Bordowitz seems to maintain, death is a grand unifying force. In this sense, “Fast Trip, Long Drop” is not so much pessimistic, as it is grounded in a kind of deterministic reality.

Gregg Bordowitz’s “Fast Trip, Long Drop” represents a social and political development in the emergence of an epidemic and a subsequent struggle with mortality. It explicitly denies traditional rhetoric manufactured by an inherently oppressive system, giving voice to the marginalized HIV/AIDS community. But it works in a vein that veers from the late 1980s militant rhetoric embodied in the ACT UP footage it includes. Instead, the piece shows an individual struggling to come to terms with imminent death. Employing formal techniques that complicate notions of history and fiction as they relate to the individual, the community, and humanity, Bordowitz concocts a multidimensional piece that maintains an acute relationship with its HIV/AIDS community audience and the world. He succeeds in transgressing the barriers mapped out by writers like Martha Gever, constructing a piece that addresses an audience in need of support in the face of nihilistic despair. In this sense, “Fast Trip, Long Drop” maintains a critical distance from the political sphere that quarantined its audience. Refusing to participate in traditional politics, Bordowitz’s piece paradoxically sustains its own impossible politics of despair and support.


Atkins, Robert. “Fast Trip, Long View: Talking to Gregg Bordowitz.” Robertatkins.net. Accessed December 2, 2015. http://www.robertatkins.net/beta/witness/artists/moves/bordowitz.html.

Bordowitz, Gregg. “Fast Trip, Long Drop.” Video Data Bank, 1993.

———. “Picture a Coalition.” In The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous and Other Writings, 20–41. MIT Press, 2004.

Gever, Martha. “Video Politics: Early Feminist Projects.” In Cultures in Contention, 92–101. Real Comet Press, 1985.

 

 

[1] Deirdre Boyle describes “the beginning of the end” of video collectives, as exemplified in TVTV’s slow dissolution under its later intimacy with network television (“Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited,” 1985, pp. 231.). Paul Ryan claims video lost, and must regain, its raw and critical confrontation with “the industrial culture promulgated by broadcast television” (“A Genealogy of Video,” 1988, pp. 44.). Martha Gever explains the various systems that determine and undermine documentary video’s efficacy with respect to the plight of marginalized groups (“Pressure Points: Video in the Public Sphere,” 1985, pp. 239).
[2] Bordowitz, “Fast Trip, Long Drop.”
[3] Bordowitz, in an interview for “Artist In the Archives,” claims the video was, in fact, “very well received” (Atikins, Robert).
[4] Ubu.com—the video’s hosting site—and other description sources categorize “Fast Trip, Long Drop” as a documentary. This is problematic, as Bordowitz blends fiction and documentary footage, creating a collage-like form that defies traditional, coherent narrative.
[5] Bordowitz, Gregg, “Picture a Coalition,” 24-25.
[6] Gever, Martha, “Video Politics: Early Feminist Projects,” 97.

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