Bad at Sports

Interview with AA Bronson

By Bad at Sports October 8, 2012

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.


AA Bronson is one of the founding members of General Idea, an artist collective that also included Jorge Zontal and Felix Partz. General Idea mined notions of consumerism, mass media, the transmission of culture, and institutional critique through the publication of FILE magazine (1972–1989) and through such iconic multi-part works as the Miss General Idea Pageant and the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion. The three artists collaborated for twenty-five years until Zontal’s and Partz’s deaths in 1994 from AIDS. As a solo artist, Bronson has made work that has dealt with death, loss, and healing. Bronson was also the president of Printed Matter, in New York, from 2004 to 2010; he has curated numerous exhibitions and is the founder of the New York Art Book Fair. Brian Andrews and Patricia Maloney had the opportunity to sit down with Bronson just before the opening of the Stage Presence exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which included the General Idea installation Cornucopia: A Mural Fragment from the Room with The Unknown Function in The Villa Dei Misteri of The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion (1982–1983).

The following abridged transcript is part of the ongoing collaboration between Bad at Sports and Art Practical. You can listen to the full conversation on the podcast as AA Bronson: Episode 369.

Image: AA Bronson and Peter Hobbs. Invocation of the Queer Spirits (Fire Island), August 20, 2009. Courtesy of the Artists.

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Brian Andrews: So much of your work resonates around ideas of community and loss and healing; even though your work isn’t a personal narrative, per se, there is a lot of what seems to be your life path, as it were, in your work. So I’d like to start at the beginning, if that’s all right, with the formation of General Idea.

AA Bronson: General Idea began almost by accident in 1969. About seven of us moved into this minuscule little rack of a house on a street in Toronto that was dilapidated and had been abandoned. The house had been made into a store and then made back into a house. We were all unemployed, and to entertain ourselves, we would raid the garbage of the neighboring businesses and set up fake stores, because we had a store window in our living room. For example, one day we found boxes and boxes of harlequin nurse romance books outside a bookstore, so we opened a nurse bookstore in our window. There was a little sign on the door that said “Back in five minutes”; it was never opened, in fact. And there was a nurse’s residence [hall] around the corner, so we would watch from behind the curtains while nurses came and tried to figure out what this nurse bookstore was all about.

That’s how we began working together in a weird, self-entertaining kind of way. We didn’t use the name General Idea for another year. I almost like to think that it was by raiding the detritus of the local businesses that we came to consider themes of consumerism, mass media, and economy and subjects like that in our work.

Patricia Maloney: What did some of the earliest manifestations of media critique look like?

AAB: It wasn’t always clear that that’s what it was. For example, we started FILE magazine in 1972; its logo looked very much like LIFE magazine’s logo, and the cover was formatted like LIFE magazine’s cover.

PM: To the point that LIFE said cease and desist.

AAB: Yeah, they sued us. But the idea of it was to be kind of a parasitic form. The magazine could go out on newsstands and people would pick it up because it felt familiar, even though they could see it wasn’t LIFE. It gave the magazine a way of traveling; it became, in a way, a virus within the distribution system of magazines. We were already thinking then in viral terms. We thought of FILE as a kind of virus in the magazine market that had its own way of traveling through the world, which we could never accomplish as normal artists showing in galleries.

PM: What were the means of distribution for FILE?

AAB: It was the grapevine effect. The first issue we sent out for free to anybody we wanted to see it, whether or not we thought we had any access to them. That included everybody on the masthead of Interview magazine, which was still pretty young at the time. There was somehow a huge response. Two of our first subscribers were Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys. And it seemed like every North American or European city had one hip store in it at the time, usually selling some mixture of clothing, books, magazines, knickknacks, and what-have-you, and they would all carry it. It really didn’t sell in that many places, but it had an enormous reach, because each of those places reached the crème de la crème of their particular community. I realized early on that you can actually distribute a book or a magazine with only twenty-eight outlets and get very good distribution.

PM: At the time, you were up in Canada, so what was your relationship to the community of artists in New York like then?

AAB: We probably had better connections to New York artists than we did to Canadian artists. We had a lot of friends in New York, and a lot of content in FILE, after the third issue or so, comes from New York. In 1976, we actually moved to New York for six months to produce the New York issue of FILE. Then in 1977, we produced the punk issue of FILE, which is about a third out of New York, and so on and so forth. We finally moved there in 1986.

BA: Were you able to feel the reach or the readership that you had through that network of cities?

AAB: Well, it was a different time. There was no Internet, but there was this desire for something like the Internet. We encouraged people to send us their material, and we published a lot of stuff that readers sent us. We would typically get a two-foot-high heap of mail each morning of letters and photos and what-have-you from readers and artists. It was actually amazing what would come in the mail.

BA: That almost seems mind-blowing compared to today. Much more fulfilling than a comments thread or something.

AAB: Yeah, and great stuff, like Gilbert and George greeting cards.

PM: Speaking of means of distribution and accumulation, how did you become involved with Printed Matter?

AAB: General Idea started something called Art Metropole for artist publications in Toronto in 1974, which was an archive, bookstore, and video distribution [network] all wrapped up in one. In 1976, a consortium of people, including Martha Wilson and Sol LeWitt, wanted to do something similar in New York. At their first meeting, they had a huge battle. It was emblematic of the difference between America individualism and Canadian community-based stuff. They divided down the middle into two groups. One group opened Printed Matter as a bookstore for artist books, and the other group, led by Martha, opened the Franklin Furnace as an archive for printed matter and as a performance space.

I knew all the people who started it, and actually, I was in New York the day they had the meeting I just described to you. We started selling our books through Printed Matter the first day they opened their bookstore.

I joined the board of Printed Matter around 1998 or 1999. They began to get into serious financial trouble, and then September 11th happened and they got into even more serious financial trouble. September 11th was a weird coincidence because Printed Matter had just moved from SoHo to Chelsea. And moving put them outside of the area where they could get financial compensation for the damage caused by [the attacks], although business was basically zero for six months; everything came to a halt. At a certain point, it looked as if we might have to close the doors, and at that point, the board asked me to take over. Originally, the idea was for me to take over for six months and see if I could turn it around. And I ran it for six years, in fact. I’m now back on the board although I don’t direct it anymore.

Very quickly, we started the New York Art Book Fair, which is now a gigantic annual event with exhibitors from twenty-four countries. And Printed Matter totally turned around; I mean, it’s as thriving as it can be for a small nonprofit. When you’re distributing artists’ books that you get from literally five thousand different sources, it’s never going to be an efficient organization, to say the least. It’s always going to be a nonprofit, but it’s turned itself around and it’s just a fantastic resource.

PM: In the 2008 exhibition Queer Zines you state that by capturing the means of production, you can produce community. And zines have a regional specificity to them that give rise to both the voice of a community and its place.

AAB: That exhibition was presented at the New York Art Book Fair. When we started the fair, we had this idea that New York had been a center for art publishing and bookstores, but all the bookstores were closing, and the museum shops were turning into shit. We wanted to bring together the community of book publishers, and we thought we might have thirty tables of independent publishers. Within three months, we had 70, and this year’s will have 215 exhibitors. I’m turning away about another 215 that I don’t have room for. So there’s this grassroots community of independent publishers and artists—a lot of them are artists—who first come to know each other through the distribution methods and secondly, through these gatherings. There’s actually several art book fairs in Europe now, in Berlin, London, and Paris, and Amsterdam. At a time when the book is supposed to be done, there’s this explosion of publishing, but it’s not the kind of publishing that lends itself to the traditional book form or to traditional publishing houses. Traditional publishing houses are closing, but all these little art publishers are just multiplying like rabbits. And by publishing and distributing and participating in these book fairs, they become part of arts communities, which are not about the marketplace, but about something else.

General-Idea-Cornucopia

General Idea. Cornucopia: Fragments from the Room of the Unknown Function in the Villa dei Misterei of The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion, 1982-1983; mixed media video installation. Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

PM: To switch gears, could we delve into the concept of the Miss General Idea Pavilion and how you appropriated the institution of beauty pageants?

AAB: First of all, beauty pageants are spectacles for the media. They don’t really exist except as events on television. The very first pageant we did was in 1970, and right from the beginning, they were designed for video and always with a live audience. The audience was rehearsed the way that a television audience is rehearsed for the cameras, only their performance and the rehearsal of that performance also became part of the piece. The beauty pageant is a form in which people are made into objects; there are winners and losers; there are talent competitions; there are prizes. It’s very much like the art world in that way. We saw it as a parallel structure to the art world. The Miss General Idea Pavilion, which we thought of as a fictional building that would house the ultimate Miss General Idea pageant, stands in for the museum and actually creates a kind of power structure.

Our idea was that the pavilion would ultimately be built in 1984, not in any one location, but in fragments in different museums around the world. But as 1984 drew closer, we decided that we had to destroy the pavilion. It was the only way that we could get out of building it. We began to produce a series of architectural remnants, pieces from the ruins of the pavilion, which apparently burned down in 1984. Time gets pretty muddled in General Idea’s world.

Another thing we began to discover by the early 1980s was that museums liked nothing better than things that required conservation. So we started in jest, I suppose, producing these architectural fragments that were crumbling artifacts that had to be looked after. At that same time, the era of the museum as we knew it was coming to an end. The blockbuster exhibition had started, there was a lot of emphasis on how many people went through a turnstile, and the old, more scholarly feeling of the museums totally vanished in a period of four or five years. Partially, I think the piece is about that too: the end of the museum as we saw it or knew it.

The museum is now part of popular culture. It’s silly to deny it.

PM: How did General Idea navigate that critique at the same time you were embraced by museums?

AA-Bronson-Queer-Spirits-Fire-Island

AA Bronson and Peter Hobbs. Invocation of the Queer Spirits (Fire Island), August 20, 2009. Courtesy of the Artists.

AAB: Well, you know, nobody liked to hear this more than curators did. Collectors couldn’t follow it; we never had a collector base, ever. We had a lot of museum shows, and any sales we made were almost entirely to museums. So even though the work was a critique of the museum, it spoke to the museums, and the museums were more the audience than the art market was. We didn’t really have any place in the art market as we know it today.

PM: You were already considering the museum as a popular culture site when the AIDS crisis radically transformed your work and your lives.

AAB: It was a most bizarre coincidence that we had been working with the idea of images as viruses since 1970, and suddenly, along comes a virus that completely dominates our life. In 1987, we were invited to be part of the first fundraising project for the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

At that point, we were looking after our close friend who was one of the early casualties from AIDS. We produced the first six-foot-square painting of our AIDS logo, based on Robert Indiana’s LOVE logo. That logo almost took over our lives. It became an animation in Times Square, posters in the subway system, posters on the streets in Berlin and Toronto and San Francisco, and more. We also did installations in the museum combining paintings with AIDS wallpaper. All together, we did about ninety temporary public art projects using that one logo in different parts of Europe and North America. We spent about seven years doing a publicity campaign for a disease. That is what it amounted to, because it wasn’t being addressed properly or talked about.

General-Idea-One-Year-One-Day-AZT

General Idea. On floor: One Day of AZT, 1991; five fiberglass units, each 33.38 x 84.13 x 33.38 in. On walls: One Year of AZT, 1991; 1,825 units of vacuum-formed styrene with vinyl, each 4.88 x 12.38 x 3 in. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

After Felix and Jorge were both diagnosed in 1989 or 1990, our home became filled with pills, and we began to do installations using those pills as sculptural forms. The best known one is called One Year and One Day of AZT (1991), and it’s 1,825 pills—five a day for 365 days. It was a big installation that was shown as part of the Projects series of exhibitions at MoMA. When Felix and Jorge became very ill, we moved back to Toronto, primarily for the health system. In Toronto at that time, if you signed a piece of paper saying you had a terminal illness and you wanted to die at home, they would send all the healthcare to the home, so we did that. We rented a big apartment in Toronto, and the doctors and nurses came to the home for the next year, and they both were able to die at home.

For that last year it was like, “OK, this is great, we can continue working, they’re not in the hospital,” and we had to take maximum advantage of it. We pumped out just an incredible amount of work in one year. It was unbelievable. We were completely manic with their last opportunity to produce.

PM: The portrait of Felix just after his death is very powerful because as much as there are depictions of death in the visual arts throughout history, they always fall short of an actual encounter with death. This is one of the few pieces in which any sense of grace falls away. Instead, his body just becomes that much more physically present even as his life expires. The image is so formal, and in some ways very abstracted, but I continually return to it and grapple with it.

BA: I agree that the aesthetics is a key part of it; the portrait was mind-blowing for me the first time I saw it in 2001 at your exhibition in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. The pajamas and the bed covers, but even the actual rendering of the photograph. It seemed to be printed more like a billboard with a halftone screen, as opposed to something that would be glossy and photographic and high resolution in a way that might make it too particular. It was able to operate in this way that seems broader and more commercial and fits with your distributive designing roots but, at the same time, felt more like a painting.

AA-Bronson-Felix-Partz-June-5-1994

AA Bronson. Felix Partz, June 5, 1994,1999; lacquer on vinyl; 84 x 168 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

AAB: It’s a digital print, but it’s printed with paint. The original photo was taken three hours after he died, and there’s so little flesh. He didn’t really have any illnesses beyond AIDS, so he just wasted away. There wasn’t enough flesh left to close his eyes, which is why they’re open. As he got closer to death, he surrounded himself with more and more color and more and more pattern, which is why the aesthetics come into play; they’re really his aesthetics. They’re how he presented himself to his friends in the last two weeks before he died. When I took the photo, the hair on the nape of my neck stood up. I thought, “Oh my god, I’m going to have to do something with this, but how, and what?” It took five years before I actually could.

And there was a bizarre psychological thing. I lost the negative. I only had a bad drugstore four-by-five print, but I still wanted to do something with it. I was searching everywhere, and then a curator from Germany visited me. I talked to her about the project, and she invited me to produce it there. We did billboards because we had lived our lives together in the media, in a very kind of semi-public way, and I wanted to put him back in the media that way.

PM: Blowing these images up to billboards, was it a way to push it away from you, from the intimacy of your experience and into the world?

AAB: Maybe. That’s a good theory anyway. That could be.

PM: What was it like for you to be a solo producer after you lost both Jorge and Felix?

AAB: I didn’t produce anything for five years. I didn’t know how to produce. I’d spent my entire adult life as part of a group. It was like having my arms and legs cut off. I had absolutely no idea how to even make a decision as an individual. The thing that I always point out is that Jorge always read all the movie reviews. He knew what movies we should see, and I no longer knew what movies to see. There were just weird things like that. So it was very, very hard being solo. I didn’t know how to be a solo artist, and finally I just started by beginning with what I had, which was their deaths. There is one other piece before the Felix portrait, which is still more of a General Idea piece, so the Felix piece is really my first 100 percent solo piece. Then there’s a death portrait of Jorge from photos that I took about a week before he died. Then I made a third piece, which was a kind of coffin with my own image on the cover, which is a representation of the part of me that went with them. The part of me that was General Idea. So I got back into being an artist by starting with those three deaths.

PM: What were the aspects that made the collaboration work for twenty-five years?

AAB: We were incredibly different from each other. Plus, there was this tripod structure, and we had two rules. One was every decision had to be by consensus, so two people could not gang up on the third. And secondly, if there was an idea that we could not come to an agreement on, we would, as we said, put it on the back shelf and return to it later. Very often, there were always lots of old, half-finished ideas floating around, and we would wrap them into new ideas, and they would become new things. We had an additive process of constantly building one thing on top of another. The typical way of producing art at the time was to pare away and refine and become more minimal, but we were doing the opposite. In that sense, maybe, it was camp.

After about year seven, it got to the point where we were finishing each other’s sentences. It was like a group aesthetic and a group mind. After about fifteen years, we realized that any one of us could produce anything and it would be a General Idea work even if we hadn’t said anything to the other two people; we were that much in sync. We basically learned to trust each other more. But we had such an adventurous life. We never got bored. We did fight a lot, but we also had an enormous amount of fun, and it was never less than stimulating. I enjoy my life today, but it’s not possible for it to be a stimulated as it was with General Idea.

AA-Bronson-Invocation-of-the-Queer-Spirits

AA Bronson and Peter Hobbs. Invocation of the Queer Spirits (Fire Island), August 20, 2009. Courtesy of the Artists.

BA: It seems that a lot of the work that you’ve made after Felix’s and Jorge’s deaths seemingly have more of a spiritual sense to them. Your School for Young Shamans (2008-present) and the Invocation of the Queer Spirits (2009-present) seem to have arisen out of that situation, at least historically. Can you speak to that?

AAB: I suppose I’m very conscious now of living in a community of the living and the dead. That all those that died in that period, and other people as well, are part of our community. History does not include a history of homosexuality, and so we have to make our own history. I’m very conscious of a history that’s been overlooked and left unwritten. It’s not a genetic history and also not a history of family structures, but some other history that’s been passed down through time. The obvious kinds of history are the histories of the shamans and medicine men and those of different spiritual traditions. I’m also really interested in the histories of all-male communities: cowboys and loggers and trappers and explorers and pirates. Although they’re outwardly heterosexual communities, they’re implicitly homosexual in their structure. So those are some of the interests I bring to the things I do.

AA Bronson’s School for Young Shamans is an attempt on my part to collaborate with a lot of younger people of various generations, pretty much all younger than me, to bring together projects and shows. Right now I’m working on a project called the Temptation of AA Bronson, after the temptation of St. Anthony, but it includes my work, collaborations with younger artists, and works by younger artists. Ultimately, it comes back to the idea that we’re a community of the living and the dead. That is a spiritual idea, I guess.

BA: Contrasting off that, Invocations of the Queer Spirits seems to pull away from the concept of community; its events are almost private events, such as the one that took place in the lower Ninth Ward.

AAB: I’ve been doing a lot of events that are really just for the people participating in them. They include anywhere from two to ten people, relatively small groups, actually.

BA: While in terms of the content, it makes a lot of sense, so much of the rest of your work is mass-market communicative. This actually seems to be a bold gesture and, of course, it raises a lot of questions about what actually happens. So I’m going to just ask you—how do those things unfold?

AAB: Each one is different, of course. I don’t know if I can describe if there’s such a thing as a typical session. That just sounds completely bizarre to say out loud. I usually research the area where the—let’s call it a performance—is going to take place. I find a location through a gallery that will sponsor it. So in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, it took place in an artist’s studio. There were seven of us gathered.

We gather late at night. We make a circle; in a way, it’s based on the traditions of western magic, or the occult, but also with a hefty dose of anything else. New Orleans is such a center for voodoo and Santaria, so starting with that particular event, we incorporated a lot of Santaria. Without wanting to sound too crazy, I’ve had a lot of experiences with spirit manifestations that can be quite unpleasant, in fact. And although we gather to invoke the spirits of the dead, our idea is to think about our histories and provide ourselves with some sort of protection and community and to have a number of hours where we can speak and be with each other in a more intense way than we normally could.

One of the things we’ve devised are these tails we made by tying rooster feathers to butt plugs. We’re naked except for these butt plugs with rooster feathers, which turn us all into roosters, in a sense. We’ve all got rooster tails.

First of all, it’s completely ridiculous. Nobody can take themselves seriously when you’re wearing a butt plug with rooster feathers, but it also completely grounds you. It’s like you are in your body. You are not in your head, you are in your body, and there’s not going to be any spirit manifestation because the spirits can only invade the body when you leave your own body and enter your head. So it keeps us physically safe as well, and it seems particularly gay somehow, a little campy.

There’s usually a written invocation—usually written by me, but not always— in which we list the communities from that particular place going way back, so in New Orleans, we started with the pirates and the explorers and the military, and included the fire that killed a lot of the gay population in the 1970s, and then the people that died of AIDS, and all the people who died from murder or suicide because of their identity. It’s a litany of spirits that we’re invoking.

Then we have food, and we pass a bottle of good whisky. It’s communion really—a little bit like a Quaker service, so whoever feels that they have something to say speaks, and it tends to be big things; there’s no small talk. I ask that everybody stay in the room, stay in the present moment, stay in this group, not talk about what happened yesterday or what’s going to happen tomorrow, but stick with the present moment. Sometimes, whole speeches come out of people’s mouths that feel like they’re prewritten. The one very typical thing is that it’s taken twice as long as what we thought. So we think it was an hour and a half when it’s three and a half hours. We go into some sort of altered state through the process, and it comes to an end at its own time. At a certain moment, everyone looks at each other and says, “Oh, it’s over.”

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