AA Bronson interviewed by Olivier Zahm & Dash Snow
AA Bronson is an artist, publisher and curator, who co-founded the artist group General Idea in 1969. Until last October he has been the president of Printed Matter the world’s largest non profit organization to the promotion of publications made by artist and the director of the New York book Art Fair. He is a promoter of low-cost editions and he is insisting on keeping the books non-commercial like a kind of political position. Last autumn Mr Bronson announced that he would depart to spend time on personal projects, especially Haute Culture, the retrospective of General Idea at the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris next February, studying for His Master of Divinity at Union Theological Seminary, and continuing in his position of Artistic Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice, which he founded at Union in 2008. Finally, he intends to devote more time to his practice as an artist and healer. In this interview, published on Purple Fashion magazine (Spring Summer 2009), Olivier Zahm and Dash Snow go deeper into his life, the beginnings of his art and his exploration of other cultures. We would like to present it again because it is very inspiring and because it depicted a sort of turning point of an eclectic mind.
AA BRONSON, one of the founders of the Canadian artists’ group, GENERAL IDEA – whose social activism and poignant irony made its first big impact in their ground-breaking magazine, FILE, published from 1972 to 1989 – remains as active as ever. After the tragic deaths of his two partners, Felix Partz amd Jorge Zontal, in 1994, AA took a more personal and esoteric approach, exploring the secrets and shamanistic rituals of other cultures as a serious practitioner of the healing arts, and incorporating his discoveries into his art. He’s become a mentor and a cult figure for a younger generation of artists. He also runs Printed Matter in New York City, one of the preeminent artist’s book publishers and sellers in the United States.
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM & DASH SNOW
AA Bronson: Good. But I’m a little exhausted from preparations for the NY Art Book Fair.
Dash Snow: I’ll be there on Wednesday, setting up.
AA BRONSON: I know. I’m very curious to see what you’re going to do.
DASH SNOW: We made ten big posters. I’ll have them put aside for you. I’ll have an advance copy of my new book, too.
AA BRONSON: Good. Look at this … I love this photo of yours, Dash. It’s such a great photo!
DASH SNOW: Thank you. This one is of my daughter. This is her grandmother kissing her. This is my girlfriend and her mother. My daughter again….
AA BRONSON: Isn’t she sweet!
OLIVIER ZAHM: We like to keep Purple Fashion interviews like conversations, without a specific agenda. We also like to talk with artists who inspire us, and you’re one of them.
AA BRONSON: Well, thank you. I’m glad to hear that!
OLIVIER ZAHM: When Elein Fleiss and I started the magazine 17 years ago we used FILE Magazine as one of our models.
AA BRONSON: I didn’t know that. I am so flattered! Did you know that the Swiss publisher, JRP/Ringier, has reproduced the whole run of File and published it in book form, six volumes in a box? We’re launching it on Friday at the NY Art Book Fair. I have a copy here.
DASH SNOW: Wow. Very impressive. It must weigh about 500 pounds!
AA BRONSON: Yes, that’s all 29 issues from 1972 through 1989, plus all the inserts, that’s over 17 years of production. We had no schedule, we just published when we had something to publish, often it was only one issue a year.
OLIVIER ZAHM: Was FILE an anagram of LIFE, the popular American magazine?
AA BRONSON: That’s right. But LIFE was no longer being published when we started FILE. What interested us about LIFE was the fact that it was the first truly photo-based magazine. And the first magazine that believed it could make an event into history just by reporting on it and inventing history, so to speak. For example, LIFE did a regular feature titled ‘Life Goes To A Party’, which might take place at a backyard barbecue in the Midwest. Human-interest stories are normal today, but they were the first to do it. And as we started in Toronto, which was so far away from everything, with no art scene really, we needed to invent our own reality and we had to come up with some kind of proof that an art scene actually existed. [Laughs] We had to have our own magazine because no other magazine was ever going to write about us. The first FILE came out in 1972, although we had started General Idea [AA Bronson, Jorge Zontal and Felix Partz] as an art group in 1969, mostly with performance pieces, like our 1970 Miss General Idea Pageant.
OLIVIER ZAHM: What was Toronto like back then?
AA BRONSON: Ridiculous! [Laughs] It was a small boring conservative town. Very conservative. Very small art scene. But it was the intellectual and financial center of Canada, and it had a growing theater scene, and a small press publishing scene, and a new music scene, and Marshall McLuhan!
OLIVIER ZAHM: How did you get your name?
AA BRONSON: Back in 1969, in the days when I was young and penniless, I collaborated with a friend to write a pornographic novel called Lena. It was the story of the adventures of a 14 year old black girl, it was decidedly politically incorrect, and it was hilarious, a kind of parody. We sold the book, together with the copyright, to a small Toronto publisher, who published it with the name “AA Bronson” on the cover as a kind of pseudonym. It was immensely successful and then was banned in Canada. Grove Press brought out a later edition. My friends began calling me “AA Bronson” as a kind of joke and I’ve been AA ever since. It’s a very useful name as Michael Tims (my real name) is very shy and polite, whereas AA Bronson is more audacious.
OLIVIER ZAHM: Was it difficult starting up a magazine?
AA BRONSON: Well, I had some experience. In the sixties I was a hippy. I lived in a commune that also ran a free school, a free store, and an underground newspaper, called The Loving Couch Press. The network of underground papers was quite unique, and very strong, and we were in touch with other underground newspapers across North America, as well as Paris, Amsterdam, and London and that’s how I first came across the International Situationists. The Loving Couch Press, like all the underground papers of the time, was possible because of the invention of the web offset press, which was very cheap. So when we came to publish FILE, we did the same thing: it was a newspaper with a glossy cover wrapped around it. It was designed to look like a magazine but it was really a newspaper. [Laughs] Warhol was one of our first subscribers, and I used to personally deliver his subscription. At that time Interview was still a newspaper, and during my first visit to him and Glen O’Brien (the first editor), Andy said, Ah-ha! We can do this too! And the very next issue of Interview had a color cover! We gave away the first three issues of File free. We mailed them out to everyone we could think of and William Burroughs, Joseph Beuys and and Beuys and Warhol actually wrote back and subscribed. We were thrilled. Beuys and Warhol as two of our first subscribers! The early issues were mainly things people sent us and party photos, gossipy stuff and which we put together with found images and our own projects. By ’75 File was more of a General Idea project. And by the 80s it had became more about other artist’s projects. By then we were doing lots of exhibitions and didn’t have a lot of time for the magazine, so by the end of the 80s we decided to close it down. But it was our longest-lasting single project: General Idea worked and lived together for 25 years and published File for 17 of them.
OLIVIER ZAHM: It’s great to have all the issues collected in a book. It’s quite difficult to find individual issues sometimes.
AA BRONSON: Did you know that we did a special issue on Paris; we titled it IFEL (pronounced like Eiffel)!
OLIVIER ZAHM: Yes, I remember that issue. FILE had a big influence on Purple. It supported our idea that people in the art world could publish a better magazine than any commercial publisher could.
AA BRONSON: You learn as you go along. It seems that at Purple you’ve kept it fresh, and that’s difficult to do.
OLIVIER ZAHM: It’s been a learning process for us. We’re always striving to make the next issue better, more interesting. How are things going for you these days, workwise?
AA BRONSON: Well, I wish I had more time for my own work. I’m the director of Printed Matter, the artists’ bookstore created by Sol LeWitt, Lucy Lippard, and five other people in 1976, and I’m spending a lot of time there. I’ve been director for about four years now, and we’ve also begun producing the annual NY Art Book Fair. It’s a lot of work!
OLIVIER ZAHM: But thanks to people like you, Printed Matter is still alive, which is a miracle in itself.
AA BRONSON: It is a miracle, given the way things are in America today. [Laughs] With Amazon and Internet publishing, and the collapse of the market Ö and yet, Printed Matter is more successful now than it’s ever been ñ extremely so, in fact. I think it’s because the material we carry is so visual, and we have a lot of unique material, two thirds of which isn’t even available on the Internet.
OLIVIER ZAHM: Do you carry limited editions?
AA BRONSON: Mostly larger editions. We carry some 15,000 titles by about 5,000 artists. Some of those are out-of-print classics by people like Ed Rucha and Andy Warhol, but mostly it is new material.
DASH SNOW: I always wanted to have my books sold in your store, but I heard I needed to have editions of at least a hundred copies and I could never afford to print that many.
AA BRONSON: There’s a way around that. Just call it an “open edition,” meaning there’ll be a hundred copies printed eventually! [Laughs] We do that so that we won’t be approached by printmakers trying to sell their precious $1000 limited-edition-of-five art books. We don’t sell those.
OLIVIER ZAHM: But working at Printed Matter keeps you connected to the art world.
AA BRONSON: Yes, it does, and it keeps me young! I also founded Art Metropole, in Toronto in 1974. Art Metropole was General Idea’s personal “gallery shop” and it was the model for Printed Matter.
OLIVIER ZAHM: Is working with organizations like these like a political activity?
AA BRONSON: Definitely, especially now that the marketplace is so dominant. Working with low-cost editions and insisting on keeping the books non-commercial is essentially a kind of political position. This position has entered into my own work and recently I’ve been producing things that aren’t for sale! [Laughs] I’ve been doing more performances.
OLIVIER ZAHM: That’s still possible?
AA BRONSON: Yes. I’m doing a performance piece in New Orleans, at midnight this Halloween.
DASH SNOW: I might be able to be there!
AA BRONSON: Sorry, but there’s no audience allowed! [Laughs] And there’ll be no documentation.
OLIVIER ZAHM: In that case can you still call it performance?
AA BRONSON: I think so. With my collaborator, Peter Hobbs, we are staging a kind of stance called The Invocation Of The Queer Spirits. Six of us will form a naked circle, and invite the queer spirits of New Orleans to join us, including 17th century pirates, medicine men, traders, explorers, military men, slaves, brothel-keepers, and all the other forgotten queer histories; as well as those that have died from the massive floods, or hurricanes, or epidemics of cholera or yellow fever or more recently AIDS. New Orleans has always been a city of ghosts, a city of the dead.
DASH SNOW: Especially now.
AA BRONSON: Yes, especially now. You can really feel it if you have any sensitivity to spirit life, and I do. Since Katrina hit New Orleans the feeling is incredible, especially in the 9th Ward. It’s as if the air is thick with tears. It’s so intense! Peter and I have been studying up on Voodoo, which is the city’s strongest religious tradition, and working elements of it into the performance. Our costumes will consist of butt-plugs with rooster feathers. They’ll look like rooster tails! [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM: So, you’ve been down to New Orleans quite a few times.
AA BRONSON: Yes. We met a Voodoo priestess there, and the Mardi Gras Indians, and we went to Voodoo shops together, and a Voodoo temple and so on. I’ve been interested in Voodoo and Santeria for a long time. In the early seventies I went to Venezuela and became involved with a white witch who was working very much in the Voodoo tradition,
DASH SNOW: I read an interview you gave in which you talked about her and cigars.
AA BRONSON: Yes, I was in a very bad emotional state at the time, very depressed, crying every day. Jorge from General Idea grew up in Caracas and he took me there for a badly needed holiday. His best friend was studying to become a Voodoo priest, and he took one look at me and told me I had to go see his teacher. It was an incredible experience. I had two sessions with her, very similar to each other, but I will describe the second. She started by smoking four cigars and then told me what the cigars had told her. So it was puff, puff, puff, and then listening to the ashes and looking at the ashes and puff, puff, puff some more. It was very theatrical.
DASH SNOW: Her breathing probably put her into some kind of altered state.
AA BRONSON: Yeah. She told me things a good psychic might and all about my parents, the house they lived in, and other things about my emotional life. She made me promise that if I liked what the cigars told me, she’d smoke five more cigars and then I’d have to promise to do whatever the cigars told me to do. So I agreed and she smoked five more cigars.
DASH SNOW: That’s a lot of smoking!
AA BRONSON: Five fat Cuban cigars! Can you imagine? Smoking that intensely for that long? I mean, one cigar is more than enough for me. Anyway, the second set of cigars told me that at some future date I would have completely forgotten about this session, and I’d find myself in a country I’d never been to before, in a landscape I’d never seen before, and I’d look up and see enormous tall pine trees with huge pinecones and she made a gesture like this describing the size of cones and covered in yellow pollen.
OLIVIER ZAHM: Very metaphorical.
AA BRONSON: Yes. She said that at that time I’d undergo a spiritual transformation in my life. And she gave me a kind of ritual to do, using nine pinecones and nine pine branches. Nine years later, in 1983, Jorge and I went to northern India to photograph the Dali Lama for the cover of a book a friend of mine was publishing, a book of interviews. We had just arrived in Dharamsala, the site of the Dali Lama’s court, when a Tibetan nun came running over to us. She said that a very important ceremony was about to begin and that although westerners were normally not allowed to attend, she thought we should be there. She gave us a white prayer flag to hold for a minute, and then took it back and told us she was going to talk to the senior tutor of the Dali Lama. I looked up and there were these hundred foot high pine trees, and on them were huge pinecones covered in yellow pollen.
OLIVIER ZAHM: Of course you immediately made the connection with the priestess’s prophecy.
AA BRONSON: Yes. In fact I had written all the details of the priestess’s prediction on a piece of paper that I had kept in my passport for those nine years. The nun came back and told us the senior tutor had invited us to the ceremony. We went into this little temple where the monks were all doing their throat-chanting, an incredible experience. This was the start of the intense relationship I had with the Tibetans, especially the older Lamas. At that point the old Lamas were still alive, in their eighties, although they didn’t live much longer. But to return to my story, the next day the same nun came and told us there was a course being given by an 86-year-old Lama, the living incarnation of the Yamantaka, and that she thought we should take it. We had to apply for permission and we were told that normally people had to study for 15 years before they could take such an advanced course. So the nun went back to the senior tutor with prayer scarves, which we had once more to hold in our hands. She returned and told us the senior tutor had granted us permission to take the course, that in fact he said we must take the course, that we would have trouble understanding what was going on, but that if we practiced the visualizations every day, over the years their meaning would be revealed to us. So we took the course. It lasted for three days. It was very intense and involved a kind of complicated visual meditation. I practiced it for the next 14 years and it completely transformed my life. That took me up until the late 90s, just after Jorge and Felix died. It was like a movie that played in my head and then one day it just stopped; it was over.
OLIVIER ZAHM: Maybe that’s part of the process, that when your mind is clear it’s a sign that it’s time to stop.
AA BRONSON: People I’ve talked to have said it was a sign that I needed to advance to a higher level of instruction, involving a personal teacher. So what I’ve done is ñ this is kind of crazy, actually ñ I’ve gone back to school. I’m now studying at Union Theological Seminary, which is a Christian Seminary here in New York. I started two weeks ago. I’m now working on a Masters of Divinity degree. I always wanted to be divine![Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM: But are you still interested in Voodoo?
AA BRONSON: Yes, Voodoo and Santeria, which originated in Africa but came to America through Cuba. Voodoo came through Haiti. Both have similar traditions.
OLIVIER ZAHM: What is it that interests you about these religions?
AA BRONSON: Well, they offer a direct connection to spiritual life. You can experience the divine by connecting with specific spirits that manifest themselves during certain rituals.
OLIVIER ZAHM: So you’re interested in all paths that lead to the divine?
AA BRONSON: Yes, all the different paths.
OLIVIER ZAHM: Is what you experience sensual as well as religious?
AA BRONSON: Anything that’s deeply spiritual is probably very sensual as well. Victorian Christianity dispensed with sensuality and in America, Christianity has always been Calvinistic. But to me religion does involve sensuality.
OLIVIER ZAHM: Your performance pieces often feature nudity and sexuality.
AA BRONSON: Yes. I want to put sexuality back into religion! Definitely! [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM: Sex is the ultimate experience of the body and the ultimate experience of the mind is spirituality.
AA BRONSON: Yes. My involvement with Tibetan Buddhism was at the Tantric level, which has a hidden sexual aspect. That has deeply influenced me.
OLIVIER ZAHM: In a way, it’s like you still have the spirit of the 60s.
AA BRONSON: Yeah, I’m just maintaining the traditions of the commune. There was a lot of nudity back on those communes. [Laughs] We did a lot of body painting. Remember those nude and painted photos of Veruschka in Vogue in the 60s? We did that too! [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM: Dash told me that you’ve developed new massage techniques. Can you tell me a bit about them?
AA BRONSON: Sure. In the 90s I took a lot of courses about methods of healing, including conventional message, rebirthing, and all sorts of other techniques. I have thirteen certifications! Six or seven years ago I finally began working professionally as a healer. I am particularly known for a kind of anal message that I developed, a butt message. The sphincter is a circular muscle made up of two layers of muscle, an inner and outer layer. It’s a place where we hide our most secret aspects and most traumatic experiences, where a lot of deep tension builds up and it’s called being tight-assed, I think! [Laughs] It’s a secret place and you can’t even see it yourself, it’s completely hidden from your eyes. I usually work with the outer sphincter, so there is no penetration involved, and usually there’s no need to do more, that’s already a lot! [Laughs] But if I work with someone a long time I might work with both the outer and inner muscles. One of my most important teachers was a Cherokee Indian healer whose grandmother was also a healer. He was the master of the anus and he taught me a lot about the importance of these muscles. I have developed techniques of my own, but the original teaching came from him. I work with men only, or people who identify as men and female-to-male trans-gender people, also. A lot of the men I work with were abused as children and emotionally, sexually, or violently. And a lot of the work I do has a sexual component and sexual healing with women, well, that’s the next step I want to take. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM: So inducing sexual pleasure is part of the treatment?
AA BRONSON: Yes, pleasure is involved, but not in the same way as you find in the so-called Tantric sex of North American New Age workshops, which in any case are completely different from the Tibetan Tantric approach I’m familiar with. Pleasure can do amazing things to the body and as well as the mind.
OLIVIER ZAHM: Did your interest in healing techniques develop because you wanted care for your partners in General Idea when they fell ill with AIDS.
AA BRONSON: When they fell sick we had a long discussion about how they wanted to live their last days, because at that time they knew they were going to die. They decided they wanted to die at home, not in a hospital. At the time, in Canada, it was possible for the doctors and nurses to come to the homes of the sick if they were terminally ill…
DASH SNOW: That might have been harder to do in America.
AA BRONSON: Yes, I think so. Jorge and Felix both died at home, a few months apart. I was the primary caregiver. Towards the end, a nurse came every day, and a doctor visited once a week. I learned things from the nurses, like how to do different kinds of injections and those kinds of things. I felt like care-giving was something I was good at, so I began taking my healing courses. But it was ten years later before I found the courage to actually do it for the public.
OLIVIER ZAHM: Do you tie your healing practice into your art?
AA BRONSON: Well, I really work with the client, especially with massage. It’s a creative process, and a kind of collaboration. In a way it is like a performance. And it’s also a bit like sculpting. [Laughs] Trying to find something in the body that you bring to the surface.
OLIVIER ZAHM: Like an invisible sculpture?
AA BRONSON: Exactly. In many ways I feel this is a part of my artwork and not all of it, certainly. I found an identity as a healer, and very quickly gained a reputation as one. In the meantime, my identity as General Idea was gone. So AA Bronson Healer, became my new art identity.
OLIVIER ZAHM: You’re also involved in the resurrection of Josef Beuys, who is almost forgotten as of late. Young artists don’t seem to care a lot about him.
AA BRONSON: That may change. For Beuys, art involved a theory of education, and the story of his art was really the story of his life. How he dressed, how he talked, the places he traveled to and including refusing to come to America for so many years, and then when he did, wrapping himself in gray felt.
DASH SNOW: And putting on the most amazing show.
AA BRONSON: Yes, it was an incredible show, exactly as you imagined it was going to be. Maybe art can still be all-encompassing, with your art being your life. I certainly see this in your life and work, Dash.
DASH SNOW: What was it like knowing Ray Johnson?
AA BRONSON: Ray was hilarious. His art and life were totally connected; everything was a performance. He once came to visit us in Toronto with a medical bandage over his mouth, which he never removed. He stayed for three days and never took it off! He never spoke. I never saw him eat! It was his kind of crazy way of taking a silent retreat, I think.
OLIVIER ZAHM: Which other artists do you admire?
AA BRONSON: Well, let’s see. After we mention Warhol, Burroughs, Ray Johnson, and Beuys, we should really mention Pierre Molinier and another artist whose art was his life.
OLIVIER ZAHM: He’s not very well known beyond a certain circle, but he was great, it’s true.
AA BRONSON: I’ve always been a big fan. He went his own way, even when nobody liked what he was doing.
OLIVIER ZAHM: How do you feel about the current state of the art world. Are you depressed by it?
AA BRONSON: Not really depressed … I don’t know how to describe my feeling. The art world has become so big. It’s really several worlds now and needs several names. It’s more like the world of entertainment. The marketplace has become important in a way that it wasn’t twenty or thirty years ago. Now I find my own place in the art world a little mysterious. I don’t really know what my place is, because I don’t operate in the way that the marketplace demands of me. I know that my role as a teacher and a mentor is important. I’m a creator more than a consumer:
the most important thing to me is making art.