COFOUNDER OF THE CANADIN ART TRIO GENERAL IDEA,
AA BRONSON MOVED TO NEW YORK IN THE ’70S AND HAS SINCE BEEN AT THE FOREFRONt OF INDEPENDENT PRINT CULTURE.
NOW LIVING IN BERLIN, HE TELLS US ABOUT THIS VITAL ASPECT OF THE NEW YORK ART COMMUNITY.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s interesting to investigate New York, see what’s left from the old times, what’s new, what’s exciting, what’s gone. You lived here for three decades?
AA BRONSON — Yes, I have been going to New York regularly since the early ’70s. I lived first on the Upper West Side in 1976, and then in the West Village, altogether 28 years, I think.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And how was New York in the ’70s? You were living in Toronto, right?
AA BRONSON — Yes. The first time I went to New York was in ’71, just before we started FILE magazine. The ’70s were interesting in New York because the city was very poor. It almost went bankrupt in ’77. There were no city services, and there was an incredible amount of crime. I still have my mental map of where it was safe to walk. You never went west of 6th Avenue — 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th were all verboten. Then going north, 72nd Street was the top limit, except right on Central Park West and on Broadway, you could go a little further north. On the East Side, it was a little different. But on the West Side, if you went past 72nd, into the no-man’s land, there was a grave risk of being robbed or knifed or shot. It was very exciting!
OLIVIER ZAHM — On the East Side, the limit was Alphabet City, I believe. After Avenue A, it started to be dangerous. Richard Kern has been living there since the mid ’80s, and he told us that it was really dangerous.
AA BRONSON — In the ’70s, I had friends who lived in that area, but they didn’t pay any rent. They had just broken into apartments and were camping out there because nobody lived in any of those apartments. They were all empty. Some people managed to get some electricity, but some didn’t. Some of the buildings still had water, some didn’t have water. It was really crazy. That was another era.
AA BRONSON — Yes. Well, very particular information. For example, George Maciunas lived in SoHo, in a building that was controlled by mafia, and he was producing publications and editions by the Fluxus artists. SoHo was purely an industrial area at that time. There was almost nobody living there except him and the Korean video artist Nam June Paik. The first time I went to New York, I met both of them, and also Ray Johnson, the mail-art artist. But Ray Johnson didn’t live in Manhattan — he said it was too dangerous. The first time I met Ray, he offered to take me on an art tour of New York City. We had to meet at one in the morning. So, we met at one in the West Village. And he said: “Okay, I’m giving you very strict instructions. You have to follow me, do exactly what I do. If I walk in the middle of the road, you walk in the middle of the road because it means it’s too dangerous to be on the side. Because there are people hiding in doorways with knives,” and so on. So, almost the entire way, we walked in the middle of the road. We went over to 11th Avenue, right over to the water at 21st Street, which is where the Spike was, an infamous gay bar of the period. We hung out there for a while, and we didn’t see any art, but we met the artist, John Dowd, who was a barman there. Then, we went to the infamous leather bar, The Eagle, where there also seemed to be no art. That was just one block up. Ray kept looking at his watch, and he said, “No, no, it’s not late enough yet.” Finally, we went up the West Side Highway to one of the infamous piers, which had been walled off with chain- link fence by the police. Every night, people would come along and cut the wires, and every so often the city would come back and repair it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Wow. Let’s start with the New York fanzine, magazine, and art book culture. How was it at that time? Was it a place where you used to go to find information? So, we had to crawl on the ground under neath these barricades and into this enormous building right on the water. And there it was, a huge Gordon Matta Clark installation. Really, truly amazing, a spiral cut down through the layers of the building into the water underneath. We had to be very careful not to fall into the water. It was pitch black. There was no moon that night. And Ray said: “Oh, and by the way, there are cruising men everywhere here. Always be sure there are other people around because it’s dangerous if you go somewhere where there’s no people.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — And this cruising scene was dangerous, too?
AA BRONSON — Yes. At that time, there were many murders in the piers, just to get people’s wallets. It’s amazing how violent it could be just to get a little bit of money. And, of course, it was easy to step into a hole in the floor and disappear into the river.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you risked your life for a blow job?
AA BRONSON — Yeah. And a bit of excitement. And an art tour! The presence of danger is always exciting. [Laughs] And there were other artworks. Ray took us on a tour of the building, and quite a lot of artists, without permission — in fact, against the law — had gone in and made artworks. He planned the tour so that at dawn, as the sun was coming up, we ended up on a big platform out the back of the building, which was hanging over the river, a loading dock. And when we looked back, there was a gigantic black panther drawn on the outside of the building. So, that was my first art tour of New York City. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — When I used to go to New York in the ’80s, I would go to Printed Matter and other bookstores and come back to Paris with a suitcase full of books, fanzines, magazines, even Canadian magazines like Parachute. New York was, for me, a source of information. Printed information.
AA BRONSON — Yes. I mean, there was no social media, no Internet. So, really, we relied on centers of information. First of all, the mail-art network from the end of the ’60s and into the ’70s, and then the artists’ self-publishing. There were networks forming. And you could only find out about those networks by going to New York, London, or Paris. But New York especially was a great place for that. We opened Art Metropole in Toronto in ’74. It was a kind of artists’ bookstore and library and archive, where all the NY artists sold their books. And then Printed Matter started in ’76, first in the Artists’ Building (I think that was the name) in Tribeca, but then it moved to Lispenard Street below Canal Street. The first time I stepped into the shop, I was astonished to see that all of the books were displayed face out, and all of them were white with black text on the cover … except for one, which was black with white text. [Laughs] They didn’t trust General Idea’s materials, like FILE, because we used color, because we were appropriating commercial formats. They designed Printed Matter after Art Metropole, in a way, because we were selling Sol LeWitt’s books. We were selling all the conceptual artists’ publications in Toronto. But the Printed Matter crew were very suspicious of us.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, Toronto was more advanced than New York?
AA BRONSON — Not in general, but yes, for that kind of thing. I think we were so disconnected from the world — publications and magazines and zines and so on were really important to us. And we became very well connected to an international network, which included a lot of people in South America. South America, at that time, was all dictatorships, and so the artists could not speak openly. So, they started publishing small publications as a kind of political resistance, but in an art context. And the same in Eastern Europe, in the early ’70s especially. Behind the Iron Curtain, artists started doing a lot of self-publishing as a way to get their voice into the West. So, at Art Metropole, one of the things we were interested in was connecting to Eastern Europe and to South America. In 1976, Printed Matter started. And, of course, I immediately went to Printed Matter. Originally their idea was to publish artists’ books. Then, when they published their first six or seven books, they suddenly realized nobody wants to sell these books. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because it was a new category, in a way?
AA BRONSON — Exactly. So, they had to start their own bookstore in order to sell them. When the bookstore first opened, it had very few titles.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And now, Printed Matter is a chaos of publications.
AA BRONSON — It’s so amazing, yes. Thousands and thousands of publications. More than 15,000 titles.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And have you always considered books and publications an art form?
AA BRONSON — Yes, absolutely.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did that come from mail art, maybe?
AA BRONSON — I think partially from mail art. Also, in the mid-60s, I was a hippie, and I was involved with a commune. We had a shop, and we published an underground newspaper, and we developed relationships with underground newspapers all over the world. Not only with the newspapers, but with people like the Situationist International in Paris.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Oh, really?
AA BRONSON — Yes, we were selling the Situationist International publications in our commune in Canada. The gold and silver metallic covers of that series, they’re so clearly artworks. It was absolutely clear already in the ’60s that that was happening.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I have the whole collection — they’re so beautiful. For my generation, Guy Debord and the Situationists were very influential.
AA BRONSON — And for General Idea, very influential.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s speak about FILE because it was very unique to start a magazine…
AA BRONSON — I had started an underground newspaper in my commune in the mid-60s, a very different kind of publication, but I knew the economics of publishing from producing that newspaper. At that time, it was very cheap to publish a tabloid newspaper. But General Idea didn’t want to publish a newspaper — we wanted to publish a kind of glamorous magazine or something that echoed a glamorous magazine. And we came up with the idea to put a shiny color cover on the outside. It’s really a tabloid newspaper on the inside, and then it’s cut down so it’s not a standard tabloid size, and it has a unique look. Andy Warhol was one of our first subscribers. The first copy we sent in the mail, and he sent a subscription right back. From then on, I always took him his copy in person. For the second issue, I was in the Factory with his copy, and you know, it was such a different time because I knew the address so I just went to the building and walked in the door, and there he was sitting with Glenn O’Brien. This would’ve been about ’73. We had a great conversation, and then he showed me around the Factory. At that time, Interview magazine was just black and white. And it was newsprint, same as FILE. And they looked at FILE, and they said, “That’s so clever putting that colored cover around it — it completely changes them.” And then, the next issue of Interview had a colored cover.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was printing fanzines and magazines also a way to express a different sexual inclination?
AA BRONSON — Yes. We very rarely used the words “gay” or “queer” in the magazine. But clearly there’s a very queer sensibility, as there is in much of Interview magazine. When people look back at it now, that’s how they see it, for the most part. At the time, it was like a kind of code. The people who knew about gay- ness could see it immediately. And the people who didn’t know had no idea. They just thought it was a kind of weird-looking magazine. They didn’t get it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I’m sure you’re nostalgic for this kind of ambiguity.
AA BRONSON — Yes. And we wrote about ambiguity quite a bit in FILE. Ambiguity was a major theme. Interestingly, though, Americans don’t really understand ambiguity. Maybe that’s why the real gay-rights thing had to happen in the US because in the US, they don’t know how to be ambiguous, so they had to be more confrontational. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s so true.
AA BRONSON — But certainly in England and Canada and France, ambiguity is a major part of culture.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you come up with the title, FILE?
AA BRONSON — It’s originally based on LIFE magazine. The first few issues, we just took the LIFE logo and cut it up and rearranged it. And then LIFE magazine threatened to take us to court because they said we were stealing their audience [laughs], which was so clearly ridiculous. There were two articles in The Village Voice in New York about this, making fun of the Time-Life Corporation. And so many media people live in New York, and they all read The Village Voice. And so, Time-Life said to its legal department: “You’ve got to stop this. It’s making us look like fools.” They had to settle out of court very quickly. All they said was: “We want you to change the logo, and that’s all you have to do. Nothing else.” Originally, they wanted us to destroy all the back issues and pay them a lot of money. So, that’s when we made the color logo, which is, in a way, not so different, but you don’t think of LIFE magazine when you look at it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And why did you stop FILE? Because it was so successful and in- spiring. It inspired Purple, too. Elein Fleiss was a big fan.
AA BRONSON — Well, we moved to New York full-time in ’85, and we were so busy with exhibitions and things, we thought maybe it’s time to do it in a new way, a new kind of magazine, change it, different kind of style. So, the last four issues were done with this idea of doing something completely different. But frankly, we just didn’t have the time. And it ended up being very expensive. We couldn’t afford it anymore.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because there was no advertising?
AA BRONSON — Well, there was some, but not enough to support the magazine. It was interesting who advertised and who didn’t. It was only galleries and occasionally a restaurant. If it was a restaurant, they would just give us credit at the restaurant. But most of the galleries were a bit suspicious of FILE. We weren’t commercial enough for them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, and the art world and galleries just want reviews. If you don’t publish reviews, they don’t support the magazine. This has always been scandalous to me.
AA BRONSON — I agree. The one dealer who supported us a lot in the ’80s was Mary Boone, which is quite surprising because I think of Mary Boone as being 100% commercially minded. She was really about strategy and selling, selling, selling. She was the first visible power salesperson in the art world in New York. But every time I asked to make an appointment to talk to her, she always said yes. She would give me half an hour. And she looked at the magazine and said, “If you’re doing something with my artists, anyway I can help, I’m happy to help.” So, if we wanted to do some color reproduction of one of her artists, she would pay all the costs of the color. And she would buy a full-page ad. She was very generous with us, and it always shocked me because it wasn’t my idea of her. Of all the dealers, she was the most supportive.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Interesting. And why did you finally leave New York? Because the three of you from General Idea, you were all in New York, right?
AA BRONSON — Yes, we were all in New York.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Living together or separately?
AA BRONSON — Living together on 12th Street, right next to St. Vincent’s Hospital, which is no longer there. St. Vincent’s became the main hospital for AIDS, and it had a whole floor dedicated to this. Very early, we had a close friend who died of AIDS, and he died in that hospital next door to us. So, we were involved in looking after him until the end.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That was in ’83, ’84?
AA BRONSON — No, he died in ’86. It was a time when there was no money in New York, and the hospital was very poor. And so, when I first went to the hospital to visit somebody, in the AIDS ward, the nurse took me and said: “Before you see your friend, I have to show you where everything is. In case you need to change the sheets, this is where the clean sheets are.” And she took me through the whole place. And the room that originally had been the waiting room now had a big table in the center loaded with food, and there were about 30 people sitting around this table talking and laughing. They were all the friends of the people who were sick.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it was like a new commune.
AA BRONSON — It always makes me cry when I talk about it. It was like a new commune. It was a very beautiful sight. So, we ended up spending a lot of time in St. Vincent’s. I think he died about two months after that. And at the same time, we were in an unusual situation because we were illegal. We were Canadians, and in the US, Americans only think Mexicans or people of color are illegal. We didn’t want to get arrested because we would be thrown out of the country. So, we didn’t participate in any of the demonstrations or anything. We could only participate through the way we used our art. We didn’t go to ACT UP meetings because we knew they were full of police. The other odd thing was that the generation of ACT UP was all people in their 20s at that time, and we were already in our 40s. I mean, I turned 40 in ’86. So, we were 20 years older than most of the AIDS activists. But it was a very strong time to be in New York — the last half of the ’80s and into the ’90s.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But the AIDS movement also had cultural relevance in that it opened up a new form of resistance. It opened the path for queer and trans identities, don’t you think?
AA BRONSON — Yes, absolutely. I’m just thinking about how much publishing came out because, at that time, there was very cheap poster technology and cheap newsPaper technology. There was a lot of overlap between the art world and the AIDS world, especially in the area of publishing. And that’s kind of interesting that an explosion of independent publishing happens at the same time as the AIDS crisis.
OLIVIER ZAHM — With the be- ginning of Macintosh, there was a revolution for print- ing.
AA BRONSON — Yes. A completely different time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Then the Internet took over in the late ’90s.
AA BRONSON — Yes. Just to fill in one bit of detail: we went back to Canada in ’93 in order to get the free medical care for Jorge and Felix, and they died in ’94. It took me a few years, but I moved back to New York with my current partner, Mark, in 1998.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And this is when you did your beautiful installation Fin de Siècle that we showed at the Musée d’Art Moderne. I think it was in ’95.
AA BRONSON — Yes, I remember. It was spring 1994. Jorge had just died, and Felix died just after. It was between the two. I came to Paris, and I was rather a zombie. It was a very difficult time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s incredible that you were able to survive this situation.
AA BRONSON — There was no choice.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is that when you became a healer? When you went into performance?
AA BRONSON — Yes. I had done some performance when I was younger, and I had had some experiences in both Venezuela and with the Tibetans. But AIDS took me back into performance again, the whole subject of healing, and shamanic healing, and these kinds of traditions. I spent a lot of time in California — that’s a cliché at this point — and I studied a lot of techniques. And then, I brought that information back into my performance work.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because you had to rediscover different techniques of healing that the Western medical system would never accept?
AA BRONSON — Yes, I think a lot of people did. It was an important time. A lot of things changed in that time. It took me about five years to feel like myself again. Then, I moved back to New York with my husband Mark in ’98.
OLIVIER ZAHM — New York at the time was still interesting… There were lots of new galleries. There was an explosion in Chelsea, and the art market started to boom.
AA BRONSON — Yes, it was the boom time. When did the towers fall down? 9/11.
OLIVIER ZAHM — 2001.
AA BRONSON — Oh, so only three years later.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, three years later. That also opened a new situation for New York because New York, after that, never recovered the freedom it used to have.
AA BRONSON — No, it never did again. It’s true. And it was a particularly difficult time for Printed Matter because Printed Matter had been in SoHo, and then, not even six months before 9/11, they moved to 22nd Street. When 9/11 happened, there was government money for everybody below 14th Street. And Printed Matter had been below 14th Street, and it had just moved… Consequently, there was no government money for Printed Matter. And there was nobody on the streets, nobody shopping, nobody coming in the door. So, it was really hard for Printed Matter. It almost closed. And at the moment when it almost closed, the board came to me and said, “Would you be willing to run Printed Matter for six months?” That was their idea: “And then you can tell us if you think it’s possible to keep it open. Or do we have to close it now?” So, I started working at Printed Matter.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you saved it?
AA BRONSON — Well, we saved it. One thing about Printed Matter was that as it got more difficult, their response had been to try and sell more famous, expensive books because that brought in more money. But it wasn’t really the right way to go.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The Taschen ideology.
AA BRONSON — Yes. That’s the way they tried to survive, and it wasn’t working. They sold a complete set of Ed Ruscha’s books for $40,000, which was the biggest sale that Printed Matter had ever made. But it’s still only $40,000. And we had to buy the books in the first place. Max Schumann came to Printed Matter in the mid- ’80s, and he worked his way up. By the early 2000s, he was the manager, one down from the director, and I said to Max, “You know, I think you have the answer to what should be done.” And he thought I was joking. He didn’t take me seriously. Then, he came to me one day, and he said: “There’s a young artist who’s made a zine, and it only sells for 50 cents, but he wants to do his launch at Printed Matter, and we won’t make money… If we do well, we’ll make $10. But I really like him. This guy is so enthusiastic, and it’s such a great zine, and I’d love to help him out.” I said, “Sure.” So, we had a launch for a 50-cent zine, and the place was crammed with young people. Hundreds of young people were trying to get in the door. And we sold a huge amount of stuff. Not just the zine, but we sold everything. It was a huge success. So, Max and I developed the new strategy, which was that every time somebody wanted a zine launch or a book launch, always say yes. Soon we were doing four launches a week. Each time, a new circle of people would come in, a new group of friends, and the audience for Printed Matter started to grow very fast. And that’s really how we saved Printed Matter — through zine culture.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I remember my friend, the artist Dash Snow loved you very much. He did so many zines and always presented them at Printed Matter. It was an important and unique place for self-publishing books.
AA BRONSON — Somehow, Printed Matter created a scene that incorporated different generations and types of people. And that’s what created the environment that led us to create a book fair. Before that, it was too specialized as an audience. Now, we had multiple audiences. We had the zine audience, a design and art audience, and a photography audience.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe also the gay, queer, and trans audience looking for alternative publications?
AA BRONSON — Yes, that, too. So, I came up with the idea… I mean, back then there was another fair — it’s still going today, it was a fair for printmakers, and they had some artist publishers as well, and Printed Matter was showing there. They didn’t really like us because we were too noisy. So, they threw us out. So, we thought, “Okay, we should start our own fair, but what will it be?” And we came up with this idea of taking all our different audiences and making one book fair that had things for the photo audience, for the zine audience, and for the experimental book audience, as well as for the antiquarian audience. And put them all together. DIA was our landlord and very generously lent us the space. We had two floors. And we made booth prices by category. So, the zines were free. But the major book- sellers had to pay quite a high price for their stand. And then it was stacked in- between. We didn’t know how many people would come. We opened on a Thursday night, and the fair continued onto Sunday. That was the only time we could get the space. And we thought, “If we really work hard, maybe we’ll get 500 people.” And the first year we had 5,000 people. We couldn’t believe it, like, “Where did all these people come from?” And the next year, 10,000 people came. And then it just grew very, very fast.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Now the book fair is also in LA, right?
AA BRONSON — Yes. We started in LA in 2013 at the invitation of Jeffrey Deitch, who at the time was the director of LA MOCA. What he really wanted was to make a Printed Matter store at LA MOCA. I went to see it, and I said, “You know, the number of people going through LA MOCA is almost zero.” It’s suicide for a bookstore. But how about if we do a book fair? He agreed immediately. We realized that there are many communities in LA, and they’re very independent of each other. So, we got seven advisors, each one from a different community. For each of them, we made a part of the fair that was aimed at that group. We had all of LA MOCA, so we were very free. And we sold out, 18,000 people came. Word somehow got around, and every scene came. All the LA people gave us their advice on how we should do it, and it created a unique fair, with its own character.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And it’s run by Printed Matter?
AA BRONSON — Yes. I ran the first one, and the talent- ed Shannon Cane took over after me. But the LA one hasn’t happened since Co-vid, and now the museum is under new direction. I’m not sure what’s going to happen with that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How is your life in Berlin, compared with New York?
AA BRONSON — Well, it’s such a different place, of course. We miss New York a lot. But in its own way, it’s a very unique and outrageous city. Frankly, it’s a better place to be old in, unless you have a lot of money. New York is hard on old people. I’m 76 now, so it’s much easier for me to be in Berlin. It’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. Right now, all the Russians in Ukraine are moving to Berlin. And, of course, there’s a Ukrainian population moving in, too. So, the city is booming right now. And the fashion scene is still small. But it’s great for art and music — both electronic and classical music. There are three opera houses, seven symphony orchestras, and only three-and-a-half million people.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, maybe you’ll come back to New York?
AA BRONSON — Well, I was thinking about New York and the changes in New York. I went back to Manhattan recently for the NY Art Book Fair, just like old times, and it was so grand to be in a building full of excited, smiling faces. We have a problem right now — our Berlin landlord is trying to get us out. A huge flood came through our ceiling, which may or may not have been an accident. We’re living in a temporary apartment. And this morning, in frustration, I said, “Well, maybe we should move back to New York?”
OLIVIER ZAHM — It would be spectacular to have you back in New York.
AA BRONSON — I need to make more money then. [Laughs]
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