Niels van Maanen in conversation with AA Bronson
Artist, curator, writer, healer, mentor: AA Bronson (Vancouver, 1946) is many things. Together with Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, he founded the art collective General Idea in 1969. The next twenty-five years the group would blur the lines between high art and popular culture and explore subjects ranging from advertising and consumerism to queer identity and the AIDS pandemic. After the untimely death of Partz and Zontal from AIDS in 1994, Bronson's work took a more personal turn and became a meditation on loss, trauma and healing. Bronson is a role model to many young artists and often collaborates with them. His exhibition 'The Temptation of AA Bronson' at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam won the AICA Award 2014, which is awarded in turn to a Dutch organization, publication and exhibition by the Dutch art press. Niels van Maanen had the opportunity to sit down with Bronson just before the award ceremony.
How did 'The Temptation of AA Bronson' come about?
Defne Ayas, the director of Witte de With, approached me to curate an exhibition incorporating the themes of art and spirituality. She was familiar with my work at the Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice, an organization at Union Theological Seminary in New York. I originally founded the Institute with the idea of creating dialogue between the worlds of contemporary theology and contemporary art. As we all know, there is a huge schism between the worlds of art and Christianity, although the art world has been friendlier to Buddhism. At the institute, I presented symposia, lecture series and exhibitions, including artists like Kara Walker and Marina Abramović.
When Defne contacted me, I told her I don't think of myself as a curator. I've organized many exhibitions, but always by working closely with other artists. For the last few years, I have been showing my own work together with collaborations with younger artists, and also the work of friends. In short, my view is always completely subjective, while a curator is objective. To my surprise, Defne gave me complete freedom.
The exhibition at Witte de With spanned two floors and included works and performances by thirty artists from eleven countries. Can you tell me about your intentions?
There were many things I was trying to do! (laughs) When I organized the exhibition, I was thinking about the history of how exhibitions are presented. The white cube has been the norm for a long time now. It is the style in which Witte de With usually works. In the sixties a more immersive style of exhibition disappeared with the late Surrealist exhibitions, which evolved out of the cabinets of curiosities with their unusual and extraordinary objects. I wanted my exhibition to be self-conscious about its own presentation, so I incorporated all three exhibition styles. The lower floor was in the usual white cube presentation, while the upper floor was in a more immersive form, with darkness interrupted by pin spots, and a layer of sage completely covering the floor. Interrupting the scenography on the upper floor was a corridor styled in the manner of a cabinet of curiosities. It included a lot of books and ephemera from my own collection, which hopefully gave hints of influences and references that illuminated the exhibition. That was the first layer.
Secondly, I wanted to explore the idea of community in the exhibition. Because of my experiences during the AIDS period, I'm very aware that my community is both living and dead. This was reflected in the exhibition. There were the dead artists, like David Buchan, Robert Flack, and my partners in General Idea. And there were the living, many of whom are part of a loosely woven international community of queer artists.
Then, thirdly, there's the idea of sex and spirituality as interwoven realities in our world. When you look at contemporary culture, you find that it's almost only queer people dealing with this theme. I wanted to explore that phenomenon in the exhibition, which led me into an exploration of queerness. For example, the top floor featured the video projection 'Dolly Shot' by the trans artists Mr. and Mrs. Keith Murray. The sound of Dolly Parton's song 'I will always Love You' was kept purposely loud, so that it dominated the entire top floor. And halfway through the exhibition, Carlos Motta and I presented a one-day symposium called 'ritual of queer rituals'. This combined performance-as-ritual with academic lecture-as-performance and included performers such as Ron Athey and Sands Murray-Wassink together with academics such as the anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli and the queer theologian Linn Marie Tonstad. Although some media described my exhibition as 'queer', I didn't want to do an exhibition in which the sense of community was defined by sexuality. Marina Abramović probably had the largest installation in the show, but she's not queer – not in the normal sense of the word anyway.
Finally, there is the title of the exhibition, 'The Temptation of AA Bronson', taken from the book by Gustave Flaubert, 'The Temptation of Saint Anthony'. Flaubert's book can be thought of as the first postmodern book, as it combines found materials from books of antiquity, books from Flaubert's own age, as well as references to famous artworks. Flaubert worked on the book his entire life, publishing three versions in total. It was an early example of a Gesamtkunstwerk, in a sense. The book itself is a kind of total indexing of temptations, and includes segments on sex, monsters, pride and so on. The exhibition was loosely structured around this idea.
You lived and worked together for twenty-five years with Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, your two partners in General Idea. Since the untimely deaths of Felix and Jorge due to AIDS-related causes in 1994, you've often collaborated with other artists. What is it that attracts you to the practice of collaboration?
For me, collaboration comes naturally. I don't really know how not to collaborate. I've never done anything else. I dropped out from the School of Architecture at the University of Manitoba to found a commune, a free school and an underground newspaper with a group of eight classmates. That only lasted a year, but it set the foundation, a philosophy and a method of group decision-making that led to General Idea. The idea that art has to be created by an individual is bound up with the market place. It's the myth of the artist as an individual genius turning out precious objects. You can't sell collaborations, any art dealer will tell you that. Which is kind of unfortunate in my case! (laughs)
Michael Buhler-Rose, Ryan Brewer, Richard John Jones, Bradford Kessler, Travis Meinolf, Scott Treleaven: you often collaborate with younger artists. I wonder how you see your relationship with younger generations. Do you feel a responsibility?
I find that younger people, especially young gay men, tend to seek me out. They come to me with questions: how to be an artist, how to be a gay artist, how to participate in the larger world without losing your identity? I see it as one of my responsibilities in life to respond to them. My generation was the first generation to come out. We established the gay organisations. We had nobody older to learn from. Many gay people of my generation died in the late eighties and early nineties, so I feel that for those of us who remain, mentoring should be an important part of what we do. We can keep the queer history of the last fifty years alive.
The night before the opening of 'The Temptation of AA Bronson', your 'Invocation of the Queer Spirits' was enacted privately by a small group of men at Witte de With. Since 2008 you've invoked the queer and marginalized histories of at least seven sites. How did these queer seances come into existence?
I did the first one at The Banff Centre in the Canadian Rockies. Banff offers seven-week residencies to artists and in 2008 I was brought in as a visiting artist for a weekend. Among the thirty participants, there was one gay artist: Peter Hobbs. He was going crazy and told me: 'I can't cope with all this straight energy around me.' I said: 'Let's dream up something very queer.' We came up with the idea of an 'Invocation of the Queer Spirits', invoking the queer spirits of the mountain to be present for him during the rest of the residency. We held the first invocation in a cabin in the woods and gave Peter some support from the dead, since he didn't have it from the living.
A whole series of invocations followed. I was living in New York back in 2008 and I was getting fed up with the market place. Artists were under constant pressure to produce saleable work. I wanted to do something that fell completely outside of that. Performances, especially private ones with no documentation and no audience, provided me with that opportunity. Because of my move to Berlin in 2013, I'm now able again to produce objects without feeling that I'm under the thumb of the market place. I have a solo show coming up at Esther Schipper Gallery that will consist of paintings. And they won't even be collaborations! (laughs)
How did the invocation in Rotterdam unfold?
Since the queer population of Rotterdam seems to have disappeared to Amsterdam, I decided to use the word queer in a more metaphorical way at Witte de With. The main idea behind the performance was to remember different populations of the dead that I feel have been marginalized in Rotterdam. I focused on the history of Rotterdam as a center of slave trade, but also on the history of people who died of AIDS.
Six of us gathered at Witte de With at eleven at night. Witte de With built a big box for us to sit in, and inside it we made a circle of sea shells collected at the North Sea coast. We were naked and shared food and alcoholic drinks. I started by reading the invocation, which I always prepare in advance, and invited the dead into the circle with us. Maybe you can think of it like a Quaker meeting: you sit in silence and when you feel called to say something, you say it. The idea is to only talk about the present moment in the present place. We usually stop when we feel that it's over.
One of the participants has a background in the Radical Faerie movement, so he was pressing for group processing and self-evaluation. One of the other participants was much more performance-oriented. He didn't really want to talk: he wanted to do things. So, in the beginning there was already a tension between thinking and doing. It felt like two performances coexisting at the same time. I have to say it was a relatively chaotic session.
How do you make sure you stay in the present moment?
Staying in the present is extremely difficult on a day-to-day basis, but usually not during a performance. Now that I've done at least seven invocations, with group sizes ranging from 3 to 7 individuals, I can say that there's always someone who emerges as a scapegoat. It's not something I expected to happen, but each time it does. During the last invocation, at this year's Gwangju Biennial in South Korea, one participant even fell asleep.
The performance in Rotterdam was the first one during which we didn't use butt plugs. There's a kind of butt plug that you can leave in for hours and it is comfortable, but I couldn't find them anywhere in Rotterdam and Amsterdam. The thing about the butt plug is that it makes you present to your body: you're in this body, in this moment, with these other people, who are in the same situation. I always decorate the butt plugs with rooster feathers, so that they look like rooster tails. It's hilarious and sexy simultaneously.
I will tell you the truth: I found being in a museum context also made it more difficult to stay present. A museum is just not the same as an abandoned building or a forest, where I usually organize the performances. I thought the big box we sat in would make us feel separate from the museum, but the presence of the museum was very strong. The performance was not bad, but there wasn't that kind of crazy freedom that there can be.
Have you ever thought of making your invocations more inclusive, to leave categories of gender and sexual orientation behind?
The performance was originally invented as a way of escaping a situation dominated by 'straight energy', a residency otherwise composed of straight men and women involved in quite orthodox if conceptual art-making. A similar performance could be constructed that is open to all genders and all sexual orientations, but of course it would be different. The performances have included straight men and one person who identified as gender-fluid, but primarily it included queer men in the eighties sense of the word: men who see themselves as opposed to the beliefs and tactics of mainstream gay liberation.
I've always interpreted the invocations as a conscious choice to break away from heteronormative and homophobic society and establish an alternate, queer reality instead.
Yes, it's a reality that is not rooted in the mainstream world. Gay liberation is about becoming part of society. The invocations are about creating a unique space outside of that society. Not all homosexuals are queer. Queer is the outsider.
The term queer has now been used in so many different ways, that it almost can't be used at all anymore. In the last five years the term queer has also come to be associated with sexual fluidity in academic circles. I worry that when we use the term queer in that way we lose the ability to differentiate queer culture form gay liberation culture. I'm uncomfortable with that.
For at least two decades you have worked as a healer. Can you tell me more about this? Do you think of it as separate from your artistic practice?
I have been interested in ideas about healing most of my life. I had some training in Gestalt and group therapy in the sixties, and I have read enormously about everything from herbal medicine to palm reading! I took my first healing courses around 1990, but I didn't start a professional practice until the end of the nineties. The treatments I give are massage-based, so it's very physical, intuitive work. In fact, it's a strangely sculptural activity. By placing my hands on someone's body, I'm getting information about them. I become a kind of go-between, creating a conversation between the client and their body. When I started giving massages I thought of it as something completely different from my activity as an artist, but I quickly realized in many ways it was much the same.
So, I began to combine the two, although not very successfully, to be frank. In 2003 I did an exhibition where people could book a healing session with me at Galerie Frederic Giroux in Paris. The gallery had works in the form of advertising for my services. After people had a session with me they got a print. Unfortunately, the people who wanted a print didn't want to have a session, and vice versa. So, that didn't work. For a later exhibition, in 2004, at John Connelly Presents in New York, I created a spa in the gallery. The idea was that someone could book a healing session before the gallery opened or after it closed. But I threw my back out before the show, so I didn't give any treatments. Instead, I was at home in bed.
I also did a project about healing For The New School in New York in 2005. I made a poster that advertised that the first ten people who came to me would get a free healing session, on the condition that I could photograph them before and after. Then I gave a public conversation with Gregg Bordowitz on the subject of art and healing, to which those ten clients were invited (Gregg was one of them). That show was a success: there was a big turn out. The amazing thing about the photos I took was that my 'clients' looked absolutely the same before and after! On the surface you couldn't see anything at all. Sometimes their hair was a bit messy. (laughs)
Each healing session is completely different. People respond in totally different ways. Sometimes a massage leads to analytical thinking; sometimes it's almost like an exorcism. There are also times when I simply can't tell if something happened or not. But then often I'll hear the next week, or years later, that I made a change in someone's life. I have a very high success rate I'd say.
In 2008 you were made an Officer of the Order of Canada and in 2011 you were named a Chevalier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. You've received many awards during your career – right now you're in Rotterdam to collect the AICA Award 2014 – and you hold two honorary doctorates. What does all this institutional recognition mean to you?
It is very easy to take awards too seriously and to get full of yourself. I think people get caught up in their 'accomplishments' and that cuts them of from reality and life. I try to make myself 'accessible' and I think that is relatively unusual for artists of my generation.
Receiving appointment into the Order of Canada was a wonderfully strange experience. It seems like a very formal, silly type of thing, but it gave me a moment to reflect on what it means to be Canadian. That somehow became much more important than having my accomplishments acknowledged. There's a very bizarre, emotional thing about being Canadian. Maybe it's the same in every country. (laughs)
Being awarded in France was a very different experience. It came out of nowhere and I wasn't expecting it at all. There was a ceremony at the residence of the Canadian ambassador in Paris. It is an extraordinary house with enormous chandeliers and acres of gold leaf: I had never been in such an impressive house before. Receiving the insignia meant a lot to me, because my two partners Felix and Jorge were also being acknowledged. The honour was for the three of us. I wish Felix and Jorge could have been there.
So, my relationship to institutions is complex. On the one hand, I am a university dropout who has spent most of his life focussing on work that falls outside of the institutional framework. On the other hand, I have invented institutions, such as the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice, and I am also appropriated by institutions occasionally: I have taught at UCLA, the University of Toronto, and the Yale School of Art. I am comfortable with whatever it takes to be active, present and engaged in the world, while doing my best to leave behind the expectations that others put upon us, and become increasingly myself, whatever that might mean. (laughs)