interview by JÉRÔME SANS
portraits by DAVIT GIORGADZE
aa bronson is the sole remaining member of the cult art group general idea, known for file megazine, a parody of life magazine. he was an emblematic figure in the gay liberation movement of the late ’60s and all through the aids crisis. he has since introduced healing into his art practice and in 2008 created the art project, school for young shamans. across more than five decades of work, love has been the through line.
JÉRÔME SANS — How did you meet your two partners at the collective General Idea?
AA BRONSON — I was studying architecture in Winnipeg, Canada, and I dropped out of university with a group of friends in 1966 to start an underground newspaper, a commune, and a free school. I went to Toronto because it had the biggest and most interesting commune in the world. That’s where I met Jorge Zontal and Felix Partz. We had a friend in common, Mimi Paige, who was Felix’s girlfriend at the time, and we met through her. She had this idea that a group of us should share a house together. We rented this small house with a storefront that had been a shop at some point. At the start, in 1969, we had nothing to do. We were hanging out. And before we knew it, we started making fake stores in our house that you could see through the shop window. And on the front door was always our sign, “Back in 5 minutes.” We were just enjoying ourselves and doing crazy projects. And then, within a year, we started to be invited to show in exhibitions. Then we came up with the name General Idea and began to think about it slightly more seriously.
JÉRÔME SANS — From the beginning, you had a project with different media. It wasn’t a traditional artist’s vocabulary — you were using posters, printed matter, magazines, TV.
AA BRONSON — Yes, we were very interested in media, and Toronto was the center of media theory at that moment — Marshall McLuhan and so on. At first, people started calling us performance artists because that was very trendy. And then they called us video artists. Then, much later, when we moved to New York, they called us AIDS artists. In North America, you always have to have a label.
JÉRÔME SANS — Why did you choose to work under the name General Idea?
AA BRONSON — The first time we were invited to be in a gallery exhibition — it was a group show at A Space, an artist-run gallery in Toronto — the project that we submitted was called General Idea. They misunderstood and thought the name of the group was General Idea. We decided, “We’ll go with that.” It’s a perfect name. I like the kind of corporate feeling of it, and it’s impossible to interpret, or maybe it has many interpretations. It’s nicely ambiguous.
JÉRÔME SANS — So, it was really an attitude: to not work under your personal names, but to use this generic name and to choose the “we” over the “I.”
AA BRONSON — That’s right. We weren’t interested in being an “I.” We were influenced by Andy Warhol and his Factory because, in a sense, he was working anonymously. He never signed anything back then. And you never knew who made his things. We took it one step further: at the beginning, it wasn’t even clear who was in the group and who wasn’t. When Germano Celant wrote about us in Domus in 1971, General Idea consisted of all the people living in that little house — seven of us. We found a big, abandoned loft in Toronto’s financial district in 1970, and for three years we were an extended family, a queer commune. That’s where we started FILE Megazine. We loved to create confusion. But in 1973, we were evicted. Only three of us stayed together. So, that’s when we began our Three Men series, self-portraits that clarified and explored who we were and our ideas about life, work, and identity. We became a kind of ménage à trois. The balance of power was always changing. We thought a lot about our projects. We’d wake up in the morning, get our mail (a huge pile every day!), get our coffee, sit around a big table. And then we’d talk for three or four hours. So, those early projects developed out of this communal talking and laughing together. We were ambitious, and our standards were high. We weren’t working together in an open-ended way, as collectives normally do. We made a decision to stay together until 1984, which seemed very far in the future. Back in the ’60s, it wasn’t at all fashionable to have goals — you were just supposed to float along freely. And we’d already planned all the projects we wanted to do until 1984. We were committed. So, the years went by, and suddenly 1984 was there. It was a real year. And we realized that now it was too late. General Idea was like a bad habit. In a sense, we’d become one person, like three very different people, but together one rather complex person. I was thinking about that in terms of the word “love.” The word “acceptance” isn’t strong enough. It’s not just acceptance of each other, but it’s this complete other phenomenon. “Unconditional love” comes to mind. This becoming one thing together, the three of us. To accept each other’s faults as deeply as we did required complete and unconditional love because some of those faults were quite big, actually. [Laughs] We had a lot of problems, but we always accepted that it didn’t matter.
JÉRÔME SANS — You had a very interesting philosophy, and we feel this in the poodle paintings, for example. It’s totally Zen. A very beautiful harmony.
AA BRONSON — Yes, the recent exhibition “P is for Poodle,” at Mitchell-Innes & Nash in New York, showed this very well, I think. [Unfortunately, the exhibition never opened to the public because of the pandemic lockdown.] For example, the set of 10 large paintings, Mondo Cane Kama Sutra, each painting of three geometric Day-Glo poodles in compromising positions — those poodles are not gendered. They’re not male or female. I guess they’re trans, right? It’s an early gender-queer project!
JÉRÔME SANS — Maybe it’s another level of love, another level of queer, but it’s very interesting that it’s effectively a third kind of sex.
AA BRONSON — Yeah. In the ’70s, we were very interested in Edward Carpenter and his British gay rural commune from the early 20th century. And at the same time, Guy Hocquenghem in Paris, with his idea of the homosexual as an outsider. But by the ’80s, we needed something more.
JÉRÔME SANS — Somehow you became a pioneer of the queer revolution because it wasn’t really at the forefront then.
AA BRONSON — Yes, I think so. With FILE or with a lot of the exhibitions we made, we were trying to push the critics of the art world to think about these things. But at the same time, we knew that if we’d called ourselves “gay artists,” that would’ve been the end of our career. So, when PS1 invited us to be in the exhibition “Beast” in 1981, we found a more subversive way of talking about sex and sexuality: the poodles, General Idea’s pampered pets. That’s when we began to really push a queer image of General Idea as a strategy. And it wasn’t until five years later that queer theory began to appear. It began in British academia around the mid-’80s. And that changed everything for us.
JÉRÔME SANS — By 1987, you shifted General Idea’s focus to the AIDS epidemic. At the time, you appropriated the famous LOVE, by Robert Indiana, and shifted LOVE to AIDS: freedom to restriction.
AA BRONSON — When 1984 came, we didn’t precisely know what we were doing. We were still together. There was nothing more we could do in Canada, and we moved to New York. And our best friend in New York, Robert, was diagnosed with AIDS very soon after we arrived. By coincidence, we found an apartment in an old townhouse at 123 West 12th Street, right next to St. Vincent’s Hospital, which specialized in epidemics and became the main hospital for AIDS. Robert ended up at St. Vincent’s, and we became his primary caregivers. So, we were suddenly immersed in this medical world without asking for it. And it was a very difficult, scary time. There was very little being done.
JÉRÔME SANS — You did a lot, all over the world, with this AIDS poster project. This notion of doing something exclusively for public space is a very important approach. It wasn’t for you to make a profit off, but really to create awareness.
AA BRONSON — Absolutely. Ninety-five percent of what we did was temporary public-art projects, presented not in the white cube, but in the streets. Now, because of the prevalence of museum exhibitions and art fairs, people only want to see objects. That kind of history of General Idea’s AIDS project IMAGE VIRUS is getting lost because people don’t remember it anymore. They remember the paintings. They don’t remember everything else that happened.
JÉRÔME SANS — So, what’s the power of love?
AA BRONSON — Love is all there is! Love makes the world go round! All you need is love! [Laughs]
JÉRÔME SANS — This brings me to Felix Gonzalez-Torres. What was your relationship to his work?
AA BRONSON — I loved his work. We knew each other, of course. It was a small scene back then, and we got along well. Also, we were big supporters of Group Material, the collective that he cofounded, and they included us in their AIDS timeline at the Dia Art Foundation. The public tended to mix up General Idea and Group Material because of the similar names and topics, but we were a generation apart. Actually, the truth is, Felix and I mostly met up by accident in sex clubs.
JÉRÔME SANS — In 1993, you went back to Toronto to help and accompany your partners, who were sick and living their last months. In a very strange coincidence, they died a few months apart, one after the other.
AA BRONSON — The Canadian health-care system was wonderful at the time. To have AIDS was a kind of death sentence — we knew they were going to die — and if you had a terminal illness in Ontario, you could say, “I want to die at home,” and all the doctors and nurses would come to your home. You didn’t go to the hospital anymore. And they would send masseurs and people to do your laundry. It was really a fantastic service. So, we rented a big apartment with lots of light and air and an amazing view, and we spent our last few months there, together with the doctors and nurses, who were there every day. And that time was so intense and so beautiful. Because there were no rules. We could be completely open with each other because we knew it was our last opportunity.
JÉRÔME SANS — I was very touched by the way you were taking care of them until their very last minute. It was amazing to see that you were committed to this relationship up until the last moment.
AA BRONSON — Yes. The doctor was surprised, too. He said he hadn’t seen anything like that. But we had our life together. That’s what had to happen. We were, in a way, one person, not three. Our friends gathered round and took care of us, and we lived in a period of terror and pain and anger and sadness, but we were protected by intense love. And when they died, a part of me died with them.
JÉRÔME SANS — How do you think the dramatic context of that time changed your relationship to love?
AA BRONSON — On a personal level, I was forced to acknowledge my love, a love that would have been shameful a few years before. And I think this was true of gay men in general. Because of AIDS, they learned how to love or learned how to be more open about their loving. Before that, it was all about sex and being hot. Suddenly people were dying, and this awareness of who and how you loved came to the surface. I remember the feeling of love permeating the AIDS ward the first time I went into St. Vincent’s. There were a lot of people hanging out there, helping. The nurses were really understaffed, and they had no money in that ward. So, all the people in the neighborhood were helping out. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. And when we moved back to Toronto, in late 1993, it was the first time in my life that I was able to fully receive love. And although all our attention was on Felix and Jorge and their process of dying, of letting go, I was able to move on from day to day, organizing their care as well as our exhibitions because I was supported by love. It was two weeks after Jorge’s death that I found myself in Paris at the Musée d’Art Moderne for the exhibition “L’Hiver de l’Amour” [“The Winter of Love”], curated by Olivier Zahm and friends, installing an immense General Idea installation, Fin de Siècle. It consists of about 500 sheets of very white Styrofoam, which create the impression of an ice floe, and abandoned on the ice are three white baby Canadian seals. It’s an image of death, but also an image of love. It was a farewell self-portrait.
JÉRÔME SANS — And after Felix and Jorge died, you moved back to New York?
AA BRONSON — Well, after that I didn’t really know what to do. I stayed in Toronto for another five years, met Mark — my husband — and fell in love. We moved to New York, where I still had my studio. Then I became the director of Printed Matter, started the NY Art Book Fair, the LA Art Book Fair…
JÉRÔME SANS — Aside from General Idea, you trained as a healer, right? How did you get into that?
AA BRONSON — When Jorge and Felix were sick, I wanted to be a midwife to their dying. I wanted to help them let go of life and see them through to their deaths. And I found a school in California where I studied healing techniques, especially techniques of sexual healing. I took a lot of courses there. I think I have 13 certificates! Jorge and Felix’s deaths really helped me understand the process of dying, and I had the idea that I should work in a hospice or do something like this. But by the time they died, I was burned out. A few years later, when I moved back to New York, I was offered a kind of refresher course to rededicate myself to the arts of healing. And while I was taking that course, I realized I could as easily be a teacher as a student. Six months later, I put out the word that I was available as a professional healer. And suddenly I had so many clients — it was crazy. It was a very interesting period of my life because, in order to do the healing practice, I had to allow myself to believe in myself and to love myself. I had to believe that when I put my hands on someone, the thoughts or images or ideas that came to me were real. The whole process began to flow very quickly and easily. And that’s how it began.
JÉRÔME SANS — But you also created the School for Young Shamans, right?
AA BRONSON — My identity changed very quickly from AA Bronson of General Idea to AA Bronson, healer. I liked the word “healer” because it is so overused and meaningless, really. And I began to play with that identity and use it in my artwork as well. “School for Young Shamans” was originally an exhibition with John Connelly in New York. I invited eight or nine younger artists, from different generations, to be in this exhibition with me, some collaborating with me, others working independently. And that was the beginning of the School for Young Shamans. It’s a kind of imaginary school — it’s not really functional. I think of it as a social sculpture. Sometimes it’s enough to name something for it to exist.
JÉRÔME SANS — Where do you see this urgent need for spirituality in our contemporary lives coming from? Because it’s everywhere…
AA BRONSON — Oh, yes, I sense a hunger for spirituality. Our consumerist culture has gone too far. Young people especially need something more nourishing now. And I feel the same way. Over the years, I’ve explored Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, European ceremonial magic, witchcraft, and so on, but never Christianity, which I always saw as the enemy, somehow. When I was 60, I thought maybe I should learn something about Christianity as well. So, I became a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and the first thing I realized was that the seminary was not so different from the art world. A lot of the same ideas were being talked about — ideas of social justice, race, gender, and sexuality. The artists didn’t know about the religious people, nor did the religious people know about the artists, and in fact they were avoiding each other. So, with the blessing of Serene Jones, the president of the seminary, I began The Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice, and I began inviting artists to come to the school and give talks: Marina Abramovic´, Kara Walker, the Guerilla Girls… A really wide variety of artists came, but all of them involved in a way with social issues. It was a huge success. When Marina had her retrospective at MoMA that same year, I had to take enthusiastic tour groups from the seminary to see her exhibition. The artists were comfortable at the seminary, and the religious people were comfortable with the artists, and a conversation began. It felt a little bit surreal because that’s not how it’s supposed to be. So, maybe the time has come for spirituality and art to be friends again.
JÉRÔME SANS — You’ve been living in Berlin since 2013. What made you decide to leave New York?
AA BRONSON — In 2013, I received an invitation from the DAAD to come to Berlin for a one-year residency. I was getting fed up with New York because it had become so intense and materialistic, and my interest in books was working against me. In the status-ridden New York context, I couldn’t be both a bookseller and an artist of consequence. And by coincidence, my dealer Esther Schipper is located in Berlin. So, I accepted. The DAAD has a very generous program called the Berliner Künstlerprogramm. They bring you to Berlin with your family; they give you a studio, an apartment, a monthly stipend, health care, German lessons, really anything you want — they’re there to help you. And it was a fantastic year. There’re a lot of very interesting artists and galleries in Berlin, but there are really no collectors, not very much money. It was like we had managed to step back in time a little bit. We’d stepped out of that New York thing into a pool of quiet, where it was possible to think about what you were doing and live life in a different kind of way. And maybe it was a little bit more like the ’70s. There were young people moving here from all over the world. And they were coming here really to try and find themselves, to discover something about themselves. It was risk-takers in life who were coming here. And that made for a very interesting community. I’ve found a lot of like-minded people here, especially younger people because really my generation, the people I liked, mainly died. I’m very privileged to have a new community, a loving community of artists of different age groups and from different places. And it’s very sweet and creative and diverse. The move to Berlin was a move to a new phase of my life.
JÉRÔME SANS — Looking back on your own life, do you think the question of queerness and gender, the struggle and the need to talk about it, are still relevant today, since it’s a more open debate than it was before?
AA BRONSON — Yes, it’s much more open now. Still, especially in the US, the amount of violence against queer and transgender people — and especially youth — is incredible. There’s still a lot to be done before there’s any real notion of love. It’s just astonishing, the amount of hatred on the streets in the US. Even in New York in the ’90s, twice in our neighborhood there was somebody shot on the street out of a car window. Somebody driving by shot them dead just because they thought they were gay. We feel like everything’s much more open and talked about, but it’s still in a very narrow context. This is becoming increasingly clear in the political and social turmoil in the US this year.
JÉRÔME SANS — Do you think Europe is more open than America?
AA BRONSON — Certainly, most of Europe is much more open. To be queer in Poland might be difficult. Hungary or the Balkans would be more difficult. But generally speaking, yes, I find it much more accepting.
JÉRÔME SANS — And as you said earlier, maybe love changes as you get older?
AA BRONSON — It’s easier to love in an unconditional way as you get older, and in a more open way, a less defined way. It’s just easier to love when you’re older, to tell you the truth. I always think of the US as the drunken teenager and Europe as the more parental adult. Perhaps Tibet is the loving grandparent to the world.
JÉRÔME SANS — And how would you describe your personal experience of love?
AA BRONSON — I feel rather lucky these days. In a way, I’m immersed in love. I feel loved, and I feel loving. I have a very loving partner and friends. Mark and I sometimes feel like grandparents to a very big pool of grandchildren, especially during this pandemic. There’s our circle of artists and others, a lot of queer people who have become a part of our extended life, and not only here, but also in New York and Toronto and other cities around the world. We have the opportunity to sit in a big pool of love with all of them. In a way, it’s a great pleasure for me, too, to feel that it’s a kind of continuous web of love that connects us all.
JÉRÔME SANS — It’s interesting that your partner looks a lot like you.
AA BRONSON — We look rather similar. People often say they can feel a circle of love around the two of us. I think it’s true.
JÉRÔME SANS — It’s the best compliment you can get! Do you think we can love without being a “couple”?
AA BRONSON — Absolutely. It’s possible to love somebody unconditionally even knowing that you’ll never get to know them properly. Part of loving somebody is that you have to wish what’s best for them. And if what’s best for them is to be away from you [laughs], then you have to embrace that, too. To love somebody, you really have to want the best possible world for them. That’s not always easy.
JÉRÔME SANS — No. What could be new models for love today?
AA BRONSON — Our planet and our species, and indeed all species, are in desperate need of the power of love today. Now more than ever, we need to allow ourselves to love and to be loved. Love is diversity — of species, sexualities, ethnicities, genders. It’s the rich palette of human and nonhuman life on the planet today. To embrace difference is to embrace love and to be embraced by love. The most negative force on the planet today — and I consider this to be the very definition of sin — is the refusal to be loved. Opening oneself to love is perhaps the most difficult of a lifetime’s many lessons. What could be new models for love today? Each of us is a spark of divine light in the constant unfolding of love across the planet; there is no perfection and no imperfection; each of us is equally the model for divine love.