In Gregg Bordowitz’s Fast Trip Long Drop (1993), the artist poses as a talk show guest. Bags under his eyes. Sweaty. Full, dark hair. Sits in a dim blue polo cutting at his biceps. In front of a rich blue curtain.
Talk show host palms his hands together: “How long since you received your diagnosis of AIDS?”
Bordowitz begins: “I’m sick and I don’t want a cure. I like my illness. It’s just as much a part of me as any other of my characteristics. I identify…-”
Bordowitz: “…with my illness.”
Another afternoon spent chatting with the hospital’s hold track and it’s one of those phone calls that lasts forever—you’re like no you hang up, no you hang up, no youuu hang up. I mean it this time. The two of you are selfish about your togetherness because misrecognition infuses all great love.
We, the sick, gain new linguistic paradigms for experiencing and describing pain, expanded sensation, a list of diagnostic codes, charts networked across manifold medical institutions—if you get to the point of accessing that sort of care. Illness is a glut of information about the body on a molecular, interpersonal, social, and political level, cocooned in numerical bureaucracy. By denying that any outsider might intuit his feelings about being sick, Bordowitz halts the circulation of atomized information that has come to represent his body. He’s ha ha about it. He is impassioned yet reflective. He glances at the carpet as a respite from direct address. He says, like everyone else, I will die. I may not die of AIDS—
Bordowitz: “I could get hit by a bus. I could kill myself.”
Host: “Well, we can always hope.”
Funneling dry humor through the internal antagonism of being sick (and, ultimately, hovering in tangible proximity to mortality since, while sick, one might feel either too mortal or not enough), Bordowitz evades tropes of medical disclosure that position the ill as an inspiration, a pity, or an enlightened truthsayer. The ill can be a menace. The television host wants to know how long it’s been since the diagnosis. Really, he wonders, how long have you been seeing the world through fresh eyes? How long have you been fighting to thrive, and at what cost?
In its refusal to offer direct, viable answers, Fast Trip Long Drop transmits a sneaky audiovisual message.
Maybe it was a whisper?
The whisper offers a vehicle for disclosure conceptualized through proximal solidarity rather than truth or revelation. As a genre of communication, sonic waveform, and social practice, the whisper deals in ambiguity, tenuously carving out its own audience. The whisper re-molds the conceptual and physical spheres of knowledge at play in space. It is architectural. It is a metaphor for incomplete silence within a degraded private sphere. In the context of Bordowitz’ involvement with ACT UP and the broader lineage of activist video, the whisper arrives as a potential art historical tactic and tool for complicating identitarian address.
In the introduction to their anthology of radical trans poetics, WE WANT IT ALL, Kay Gabriel and Andrea Abi-Karam reflect on form and self-revelation: “The epistolary makes it possible to speak intimately without disclosure—making it especially appealing for trans writers who can speak about their lives without indulging a kind of prurient or sensationalizing interest in autobiography.”1 Examining the notion behind representational politics that political analysis be a narrative strategy rather than formal one, Gabriel and Abi-Karam’s interest in the epistolary implicitly interrogates a conundrum of the ill: what methods of expression exist when self-divulsion has been made involuntary and thus is irreparably fraught? Both transness and illness are subject to the surveillance of interpersonal interest; this is because transness (under the pseudonym of “clinical gender dysphoria”) is a pathology vis-a-vis the Western medical canon. Healing as a predetermined narrative subscribes to the genre of extractive biography by presupposing an end: HEAL or DIE (or GET LOST). In terms of genre, formal strategy, or ontological status, what happens to those of us who fail to do either?
Bordowitz’ monologue is rageful, bubbling, shy; a manipulation of the material substance creating and separating you and me. He sends an unspoken nod to the audience, especially the sick. In one reading, it is a declaration of autonomy from the medical industrial complex, bundled in stiff irony. In another, it is a plea for reprieve from the expectation of health, or worse, the hope that it might return. Maybe it’s a viral acceleration.
On its own, the whisper is an inadequate and easily problematized metaphor for liberatory communication: hearing is not universal, and the disability justice movement has long fought for the political right to a clarity of information rather than its obfuscation. As much as being ill may require speaking in code, the agony of this position is often stoked by impenetrable doctor speak, bureaucratic red tape, and, ultimately, the belief that illness predetermines one’s contribution to an open dialogue. So, why rally behind a communicative mode so complicit in the malicious safeguarding of information that ought to be readily available?
The ties between illness, medicine, and subaltern practices of meaning-making are worth teasing out in the interest of any possible escape from ableist frameworks for self-expression. Partly, the whisper is valuable because of its pathological indeterminacy that still manages to communicate something concrete. Jonathan Sterne locates biomedicine itself at the genesis of sound’s contemporary position, linking the implementation of the introduction of the stethoscope as a medical tool to the differentiation of hearing from the other senses. He notes that “only sounds inside the frame were to be analyzed or considered for diagnosis. The sounds of the apparatus itself, and the other sounds accompanying austiculation, were to be ignored.”2 The role of the stethoscope in isolating acceptable, communicable sound distinct from unacceptable, unclear noise is central to the mythos of pure objectivity in biomedicine. Sterne’s historiography exposes the stakes of intentional listening in and outside of the medical field: the naturalization of certain methods of knowing and the essential characterization of the senses themselves as constituents of our broader social reality.
It is often impossible to say what happened, exactly. Lots of questions. The hospital phone-call unfolds today in a purpose-built office carrell with soundproof walls and a two-way mirror. To detect that the mirror is actually transparent: stick a fingernail up to the glass and inspect. Tap on it. Listen for a hollow sound. Dialogue seeps through: onlookers peering in from outside see their reflected faces become animated with your voice.
Extending the analysis that contemporary sound has been molded through the diagnostic lens of “relevant” versus “non-relevant,” the whisper’s slipperiness invites broader definition of the auditory itself. Taking these inputs seriously pushes back at biomedicine’s impact on our communicative modes as sick people. An attunement to the whisper offers a speculative approach to the life of information; the practices of disclosure which create and circulate knowledge are problematized and reformulated. The most important element of the whisper is not its sonic dimensionality, but rather its response to an established order of acceptable emotionality embedded in the immediately perceptible world.
Talk show host: “What is it like for you, getting up, knowing that you’re living with AIDS?”
An unexpected affect bundles traces of imperceptible longing; recipients of Bordowitz’ monologue catch a secret billowing outwards. A fuck-you to anyone who thinks they deserve to know.