In 2000, when Gregg Bordowitz went to Durban, South Africa, the enormity of that country’s AIDS crisis seemed hopeless. Of the 25 million HIV-positive Africans, over 4 million were in South Africa. Few South Africans could afford the drug cocktail that’s reversed death rates in the U.S. and Europe or the variety of medications that fight the opportunistic infections that actually cause death in AIDS patients. Their best hope was generic drugs manufactured in Brazil, Thailand, and India, which cost pennies on the dollar compared to name-brand ones. But in deference to the major pharmaceutical companies’ patent rights, importation of generics had been banned by the South African government.

Bordowitz was keenly aware of the disparity between North American AIDS treatment and that found in the rest of the world. A filmmaker and HIV-positive AIDS activist, he had pills and money and lots of friends who told him to grab his camera and fly to Durban for the 13th International AIDS Conference. Because of the issue of access to drugs, they said, the conference would be “amazing.”

“For better or worse,” says Bordowitz, “I am an AIDS artist, meaning that all of my work has focused on some aspect of AIDS.” He was a painter living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan when, in 1986, he chose the topic for his first video. “People started to get sick and no one understood why,” he says. In 1988, the topic chose him when he tested positive.

He was given less than a year to live. When his HIV became AIDS in the early 90s, Bordowitz got so sick he went on disability. Fortunately, by then drugs targeting opportunistic infections were available. He went off disability in ’95, on the cocktail in ’97. He moved to Chicago from New York in 1998 and has since made films, written articles, and produced art about AIDS; he’s currently an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute. “The overwhelming majority of media produced about AIDS presumes an audience of HIV-negative people,” he says. “I’m committed to making media by and for people with AIDS. It’s very important to me that each film, in a conscious way, is speaking directly to people with AIDS.”

The most significant event of Bordowitz’s trip to Africa wasn’t captured on film. At a dinner hosted by South African AIDS activist Zackie Achmat (who leads the Treatment Action Campaign, an organization challenging South African policy on drug imports), the American visitors were asked to show their meds to the South Africans. Momentarily nonplussed, Bordowitz and friends dug into their pockets and put their pills on the table. “Some of the people hadn’t even seen them,” Bordowitz says. “They hadn’t seen what they were fighting for.

“It was awkward for a moment, but it became clear to us that the South Africans weren’t mad at us. They didn’t want our pills, they just want their own drugs, their own medicines.”

The Americans returned from Africa determined to put pressure on global pharmaceutical companies. Disputing the claim that these companies need the profits yielded by protection from generics to fund research, Bordowitz says, “The yearly research budget of drug companies is a small fraction compared to advertising, and it’s nothing compared to what they pay their CEOs and the top echelon of management.” Moreover, he says, research on AIDS drugs has to a great extent been funded by American taxpayers. “A lot of AIDS drugs were produced through government research. Certainly AZT was.”

Bordowitz’s documentary, Habit, juxtaposes his everyday activities with his trip to Africa–the title is a reference to his daily pill regimen. It’ll premiere at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, on Friday, April 12, at 8 PM as part of “Drive,” a multimedia exhibit of his work that runs through July 7. Tickets are $20; all proceeds benefit the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago. There will be a discussion after the screening between Bordowitz and University of Rochester art historian Douglas Crimp. Call 312-397-4010 for tickets and more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.