and AA Bronson
AA Bronson is a living legend, and for good reason. Take, for example, the fact that in 1968 the artist as a young man joined forces with two artist friends, George Saia and Ronald Gabe, to begin a 26-year art collaboration that defied modernist ideals of the artist as a solitary genius. Promoting the idea of the collective instead, their partnership was a ménage a trois that made the then-radical pairings of Gilbert & George (1968-present), Fishlii & Weiss (1979-present), and McDermott & McGough (1980-present) wimpy in comparison. Ridding themselves of their birth names in favor of a new, self-defined birthright, Michael Tims, George Saia and Ronald Gabe became, respectively, AA Bronson, Jorge Zontal, and Felix Partz—also known as General Idea.
The artists asserted that art needed “a sound (re)location.” So they strived to challenge the status quo by inverting inside and out, nature and culture, the visible and invisible, fiction and truth, private and public, normative and transgressive, submissive and active, boring and bold, straight and gay. In 1971, for example, they audaciously took on gender “norms” and called themselves Miss General Idea, turning notions of beauty, sexuality, and gender on their head. Complete with beauty pageants, coming out parties, balls, and even a queen (puns intended), the artists appropriated popular culture tactics in an attempt to make the unfamiliar mainstream. And like Andy Warhol and other artists of their generation, they strove to influence mass media with projects on television and in the newspaper, radio, billboards, and other mass media outlets—in this case, as a means to radically address gender, sexuality, and otherness within mass culture. There probably was not a medium the artists didn’t embrace—painting, sculpture, photography, prints, editions, books, multiples, performance, and more. They even started and ran their own exhibition space, boutique, bookstore, and magazine.
General Idea was a product of their times. As artists around the globe broke free from the confines of the canvas and gallery, General Idea restructured every aspect of their lives as an artistic experiment. At a time when ordinary citizens believed they could change the world, they sought to change popular notions of sexual identity. As feminism grew in power and presence, General Idea drew attention to gender stereotypes and promoted its own brand of gender-bending. And a year prior to the momentous Stonewall riots, General Idea boldly took on queer identity without apology or fear.
While their first decade of work flipped the script and took on the ambiguity and ambivalence of identity in contemporary society, there was nothing ambiguous nor ambivalent about their work that, by 1987, powerfully called attention to the AIDS pandemic. They adored mixing metaphors, and never was this tactic more powerful than with their appropriation of Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE paintings, prints, and sculptures that the artists changed to read AIDS. Bold, bright, and insistent, the artists bridged queer love and life with the horror of AIDS and disrupted the silence that abounded around the disease. Along with Gran Fury’s Silence=Death and Visual Aid’s Red Ribbon Project, General Idea’s signature image was inscribed in the minds of countless millions around the world. Employing their media savvy, the image appeared on stamps, posters, billboards, and buttons for easy distribution. As Jorge and Felix fell ill to the disease, General Idea took on the pharmaceutical industry. They appropriated Warhol’s silver balloons, transforming them into shiny silver, red, green, and blue pills (aka “magic bullets”). Hanging overhead, they were alluring, hallucinatory and confrontational—they refused to be ignored and silenced; instead they demanded a cure.
But the cure did not come, and along with millions of others, Jorge and Felix died in 1994. In the face of this tragedy, Bronson understood the role art could play in healing himself, others, and society. Even just hours after Partz’s death, Bronson didn’t retreat; instead, he photographed his friend’s body as he had presented himself during the last weeks of his life, in a beautiful array of patterned textiles and surrounded by his favorite things. In taking his portrait, Bronson openly confronted life and death, disease and grief.
Since 1994, AA Bronson has worked as a healer and shaman in an ongoing effort to deal with themes of renewal. From offering individual healing sessions that include butt massages, to collaborating with a wide array of young artists, his is an art of generosity, community, and spirituality. In an interview with Steve Lafreniere, Bronson stated “there’s the Joseph Beuys thing—the art is healing. I’ve sort of flipped it inside out—the healing is art.”
Last June, while in New Orleans for a conference organized by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, AA Bronson and I were joined by Creative Time Board member Phil Aarons, and our curators Nato Thompson and Mark Beasley in visiting the Lower 9th Ward. There AA was powerfully overcome by the energy of spirits. He later shared that he had commenced a “queer séance” in Banff while on a recent residency there. He collaborated with Peter Hobbs, a fellow Candian artist who uses drawings, photography, performance, video, installation and text to explore themes of gay male sexuality, witchcraft and heresy. Together they conjured the spirits of homosexual from the recent and long past.
I was entranced; I knew Creative Time had to work with AA and Peter to further their pursuits in connecting with the ethereal space of the spiritual world. So, starting on Halloween, the artists will embark on their second séance in what is becoming a series of engagements with the unknown. While we don’t yet know where the next séances will take place, we expect for them to end in Governor’s Island next June when Creative Time launches a major exhibition on this historic island just South of Lower Manhattan.
Interview, October 2008
Would you mind talking about how and why General Idea was formed? What was your vision? What did you hope to signify with the name General Idea?
Felix, Jorge and I were in our early 20s when we first met up in Toronto in 1969. A mutual friend, Mimi, found an old house and convinced a group of us to move in. It was on a street that had once been the Carnaby Street of Toronto, but had fallen on hard times, and a storefront window punctuated our living room, which looked straight onto the street. We were all unemployed and we would raid the trash of the local businesses at night and set up fake storefronts in the day to entertain ourselves. There was always a little sign on the door that said “Back in 5 minutes.” As our faux shops became more ambitious we began to actually open them to the public: our first “boutique” was the “Belly Shop”, which offered standard plastic bottles full of cotton batten. I don’t think we sold a single bottle. We gained a reputation as a kind of “group” and eventually galleries started inviting us to be in exhibitions. The name General Idea was the name of one of the first projects we presented in that way, but everyone misunderstood and thought it was the name of the group. So that’s how we got our name. We liked the corporate sound (which was radically politically incorrect at the time) and also the anonymity—we positioned ourselves in opposition to the artist as individual hero.
I wonder what it was like as three young artists, just out of art school, to form this highly unorthodox relationship. What was the mood like around you? How did people respond?
Well, I had studied in Winnipeg, where I became a big fan of the futuristic ideas of Archigram. You have to remember that the 60s was the era of communes and of underground newspapers, and in fact I had been part of a very active commune that also published an underground newspaper, as well as a small magazine on radical education. And so it was assumed that this was another kind of slightly wacky commune. Except, of course, that we were more glamorous than whole earth, dressed in recycled clothes from the 40s (this is before the era of retro fashion), used makeup, and generally avoided anything that might seem too Calvinist. People weren’t quite sure what to make of us. We were a curiosity.
Did you imagine this collaboration would be a life-long partnership?
In 1971 the three of us made a vow to work and live together until 1984. We thought of that as a kind of Orwellian symbol of the future, and I think that date kept us together: we could always say, well, it’s only 7 more years, or, well, it’s only four more years, and so on, until our living and working together had become so habitual that we didn’t know how to do anything else. We were addicted to the intensity of our own total living/working relationship.
In 1978 Jorge took you to Caracas to meet with a “white witch” who influenced your spiritual journey. Then, in 1982, you went to Tibet to photograph the Dali Lama for the cover of a book. During that time, something unusual happened to you—you were selected to be given spiritual teachings by the senior tutor to the Dalai Lama and began a trajectory of “visualizations.” Was this the beginning of your spiritual journey? Did you grow up religiously? Did General Idea see its work together as a spiritual practice?
I come from a family of priests, artists, and military men. My great-grandfather was the first missionary to the Blackfoot Indians. I was brought up Anglican, but at the age of seven, enraged that I was not getting a proper religious education at my not-very-good Sunday school, I stamped my little foot and refused to ever go back. From that time on I immersed myself in books on mythology, the occult, theosophy, spiritualism, yoga, and various Eastern religions, notably Buddhism. Luckily we moved every two or three years, so I always had a new library to ravage. I would pile up books around my bed and refuse to come out.
By the mid-sixties, when I first left home for university, I was ripe for the cultural revolution that was beginning to unfold. I studied in Winnipeg, where I immersed myself in Bucky Fuller and Marshall McLuhan and the futuristic ideas of Archigram. I was one of the first—if not the first—in my city to drop LSD: it was given to me by Jerry Rubin, who crashed on my couch on the way through town. The 60s obsessions with Eastern religions, states of the ecstatic, and theories of radical living and working together fit me perfectly. General Idea never presented itself as spiritual, but behind our corporate mask, we were the product of our generation. And various projects belie our spiritual interests: Borderline Cases (1972-73), for example, is based on the Kabbalah; and Humpty Dumpty (1972) marries the ten stages of the Kabbalah with the writings of Madame Blavatsky. Social justice and transformation, together with sexual identity, featured largely in our agenda, and from 1987 through 1994—after moving to New York—we focused almost entirely on the subject of AIDS.
My own spiritual practice did not really reveal itself until my visit with the Tibetan court in 1983. Again, it’s too much of a story to unfold here, but I came away from those ten remarkable days practicing an advanced form of Tantric visualization that I didn’t in the slightest understand. However, as the Dalai Lama’s senior tutor had promised, it revealed itself to me over the 14 years of practice that followed.
Throughout history there are many examples of artists creating ecstatic, healing, even spiritual work as they face their own mortality. Just think about Goya’s late mystical paintings, De Kooning’s celebratory explosions of light and color, or Sol Lewitt's recent, profoundly beautiful black wall drawings. Did the passing of Jorge and Felix similarly affect your practice as an artist?
In the years leading up to their deaths, we began to look in a different kind of way at abstraction, and we produced a series of works—such as the black-on-black and white-on-white AIDS paintings—that referenced modernist abstraction. We also created, for example, Fin de Siecle, an installation of three faux white seal pups on a vast ice floe constructed of 300 sheets of white Styrofoam, which calls to mind David Kaspar Friedrich’s painting The Loss of Hope.
After Jorge and Felix died—they both died at home, within a few months of each other in 1994—I really didn’t have the slightest idea how to make art as a solo being. Finally, immersed in my own grief, I produced three death portraits, one each for Felix and Jorge and one for that part of myself that had died with them. After that, my solo work began to unfold as a meditation on loss, trauma, and healing.
Your spiritual practice has taken numerous forms, including massage, which entails a one to one relationship between you—the artist/healer—and the participant/collaborator who completes the work. It’s a rather intimate and unusual way for an artist to consider audience. In the case of the séances, there is no audience whatsoever—unless you count the spirit world as an audience…
The artists’ relation to the audience was always a primary concern of General Idea and I guess I continue that interest. We always likened art to a car, which can be viewed in the showroom but ultimately must be driven in the street. In the past ten years I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with the art market, and married my practice as a healer and as an artist. My work has become literally about healing, and the performative aspect exists in relation to another human being, one on one, with no audience and no documentation. Invocation of the Queer Spirits takes the same strategy: there are now multiple participants, but there is no audience and no documentation. As the groups get larger, the project will become more clearly a kind of “public art”, although, as we have remarked before, the audience of spirits could be vast indeed!
I’m ecstatic to be commissioning and presenting a series of “queer séances” with you and Peter Hobbs, the first of which we will launch on Halloween in New Orleans. Tell me about the origins of your séances.
Where to begin? The reality of spirit life has been with me all my life, although growing up I just assumed I had an overactive imagination. And as a child, I always wanted to be at a séance, although my middle-class, suburban upbringing could not have made that a reality. My tangential experiences with spirit life—and with traditions that honor spirit life—have been many. You mentioned the white witch in Caracas, and my experience with her is too complex to even summarize here. I realize now that she was a Voodoo priestess. Similarly, the Tibetans, during my time with them in the early 80s, still maintained many aspects of the old Bon religion, which is often described as “black magic,” and in particular I remember having dinner with the State Oracle of Tibet, a man who seemed remarkable in his ability to manifest both absolute intuition and rational mind simultaneously. But perhaps my most profound personal experience of spirit life was at a retreat in the woods in Northern California with some 40 gay men in 1992. Again, too much to tell here, but a very dramatic series of events including 8 men possessed, on their backs on the floor with their eyes rolling in their heads, and another man flat on his stomach on the floor, arms spread as if flying, with another man on his back laughing, both in deep trance. And a pair of Santeria practitioners, who were amongst the participants in that workshop, identified for me a particular type of vibration that I sometimes feel in my body as the presence of my ancestors: they could “see” it as it happened. I am aware that all of this is at once a kind of exotic mumbo-jumbo and yet something personally profound. Last year, participating in a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts in the Canadian Rockies, I was struck once again by the intense presence of spirit life there: it is said to have been a gathering place for medicine men and shamans and traditionally no one was allowed to live there. I usually get intense headaches there and sometimes my body seizes up so that I can barely walk; but this time I decided to collaborate with the spirits rather than fight them, and my time there became remarkably easier. Peter Hobbs, who I had met at an earlier residency, was also there, working on his “Rocky Mountain Institute of Queer Technologies.” Peter is an artist and academic whose writings, performance and installation have focused on queer identity. We began talking about doing something in relation to the queer history of Banff and the first Invocation of the Queer Spirits appeared. We were the only two participants, we carried it out late at night in the woods, and although there were no dramatic manifestations of spirit life, we both experienced waves of goose bumps, and felt the presence of the dead.
Had Peter ever done a project like this before?
Peter’s performance “Gothic” (2001) is worth mentioning here. ”Gothic” was a site-specific work performed on the ground floor of the home of Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. MacDonald—the house is now run as a museum. MacDonald’s wife Isabella was bedridden with unknown diseases, which included numbness and massive headaches. She lived on the ground floor of the house, drinking liquid opium and sherry. Peter’s performance involved a six-month period of preparation, working with a therapist, and practicing visualizations. For the performance itself, he was given a series of original objects from the house to hold: when he came to the teacup, he felt his left side go numb and he began to cry. He cried for three hours before the performance came to an end. This paralysis of the left side I see as a repression of the masculine, in order that the feminine, emotional side could take over; but of course it also corresponds to Isabella’s own symptoms. The spiritualist mediums of the late eighteenth century were typically women who manifested the spirit of a strong man; Peter reversed the process, channeling the spirit of a grieving woman.
When you and I we were in New Orleans in June, I introduced you to my friend Robert Greene, a resident of the Lower Ninth Ward. You seemed uncomfortable during the visit and you later told me how struck you were by the spirit energy there and throughout New Orleans. You then told me about the séance you realized with Peter. I immediately knew it would be great for you to do one in this decimated city. Had you and Peter considered doing more séances before then? How do you find locations for séances normally—is it always based on such an intense experience with site?
Usually the spirits find me. After 9/11, the air in the neighborhood of the World Trade Center was thick with tears, and many people of a spiritual persuasion gathered there to pray for the dead, and also to help effect a transition to the other side. New Orleans—and especially the Lower Ninth—was similarly dense with spirit life. But Peter and I realized this was not only the result of Katrina, but also the endemic violence of the area, together with the long history of major catastrophes and disenfranchised populations, from the pirate fleet of the eighteenth century to the Black Indians of today. It is the unusual layering of histories that attracts us, together with the intense embodied experience on site.
What happens in the séances?
The séances are designed in a format suitable to the history of the location: in New Orleans, we have devised a ritual that utilizes the methods of Afro-Caribbean spiritual traditions, especially Voodoo, together with the methods of European ceremonial magic. Peter and I have made this a major research project, investigating both the history of New Orleans—which is a strange and wonderful subject in itself—as well as Voodoo and the ancestral spirit-raising of the Mardi Gras Indians. We invited seven artists to participate, and we have asked each of them to undergo a pre-ritual. They each cooked up a potion of five herbs and five oils, and for five days each person immersed themselves in the liquid and let it dry on their body while they meditated on the event to come, on what they might bring to the spirits of the dead, and on what they themselves might achieve by this process. The actual event takes place in a secret place: we draw a circle, ask for protection, and invoke the spirits, naming the various histories and communities of the dead. We share food, drink, and alcohol between ourselves and on behalf of the spirits. And we talk together about the here and now: what we are sensing and what is happening for each of us as an individual and as a group in this ritual. We finish with a vow of sorts, each of us making some sort of personal declaration, which might also acknowledge the honor the dead. In the tradition of queer (and Wiccan) ritual, this is all done naked. In this case, we have also added butt plugs decorated with rooster feathers (like tails)—these will ground us and help prevent possession (from my healing practice I know that the most effective way of bringing someone back into their own body is by pressure on the sphincter). We each participate in a queer community of the living and the dead; the dead walk among us and are in subtle communication with us. Most societies acknowledge this relation to history and to our ancestors, but for some reason our society has lost this link to our own history.
Why are these queer séances?
The concept of gayness is of course a modernist invention, and the word “queer” is an attempt to escape the limitations of that word. In the history of the world, magicians, shamans, mediums, priests, adventurers, and healers have always been more sexually ambiguous. We are particularly interested in the presence of all-male societies, like pirates, explorers, traders and trappers, and the military. Artists and prostitutes traditionally also provide access from one world to another, and wherever you find a brothel, you will also find gay men. In the end, we have used the word queer to include all kinds of marginal and disenfranchised communities.
What might be other sites you are interested in?
When you first introduced me to New Orleans and the Ninth Ward, I knew we would have to perform Invocation of the Queer Spirits here. My experience was of a place filled with tears. It is, of course, the city of ghosts. The cemeteries are legendary. Haitian Voodoo and other Afro-Caribbean traditions are well established here, and New Orleans was the primary North American center for the distribution of African slaves. It is a city of floods, hurricanes and epidemics, lynchings and massacres, fires and funerals.
The other site we are currently investigating is Governor’s Island, off the tip of Manhattan. It began its life as a military colony about the same time as New Orleans, and has at various times been a prison and a place of quarantine, where victims of yellow fever were left to die. It is, essentially, one enormous cemetery.
Since the passing of Felix and Jorge, you have continued to collaborate with lots of artists—from Peter Hobbs to young artists such as Terence Koh. But I’m curious if your desire to host séances stems, in part, from a desire to reconnect with Jorge and Felix? If so, have you connected with them?
The idea of the séances is not to contact Jorge and Felix. I have felt Felix’s presence—after all, he resisted dying fiercely—but Jorge left and I never felt his presence again. I miss him deeply, but I am not attempting to reach him. In the years immediately following Felix’s death, I felt him guiding (or rather, trying to control) the ways in which I dealt with the estate of General Idea: if he didn’t like what I was doing he would give me an enormous kick in the right buttock. As this was usually when I was in a meeting with a dealer or curator, it was often somewhat embarrassing!
Humor was a common strategy in your early work with General Idea, and with butt plugs, feathers, and booze—it seems at least like you embrace humor and camp in the séances.
There is a joy in life and living that is revealed in the antics of the spirits. Like children, they have no particular notions of the serious. We certainly intend to enjoy our visit with them, and clothe (or unclothe) ourselves in appropriate finery. Some elements, like the rooster feathers and white rum, are taken directly from New Orleans Voodoo. The butt plugs are a somewhat humorous way of grounding ourselves, and of being “real”: it is difficult to affect any pretense wearing a butt plug decorated with rooster feathers! And the white rum is a typical ingredient too: it helps us loosen our normal inhibitions, and like the red wine of Christian Eucharist, represents communion with the spiritual world.
In September you started studies at Union Theological Seminary at Columbia. I wonder what you hope to learn? Has the experience been moving for you?
The idea of going to seminary has been with me for a long time. It is a rather bizarre idea, as I am not sure that I am even Christian. I have finally given in and gone, because I had no choice: the call was too strong. However, Union is unusual as seminaries go. For some years it has been associated with the conversation between black and white theologies, and the issues surrounding poverty. At the moment there is a movement towards a more complex theology: Hispanic traditions and the explosion of storefront and charismatic Christianity in New York City is being incorporated into the curriculum, including Santeria, Yaruba, and Voodoo, as is the conversation with Buddhist, Jewish, and Muslim traditions. I feel very at home in this muddle of spiritual investigations, although I am more than double the age of most of the other students (I am 62). When applying, I said I wanted to be ordained, and I do; although in what tradition, or what I mean to do with that, completely escapes me. Perhaps the Queer Spirits will answer this question.