Bzzz Bzzz Bzzz
AA Bronson on General Idea

Issue no3
Jun -Jul 2021
Makers Of Their Own Time - Relational Activism

Today AA Bronson opens at Witte de With. In 201 Snowden Snowden talked with him about his years with General Idea. In Witte de With AA will present other co-operations.

—Snowden SnowdenLet’s do a conventional establishing shot. Can you give a Ken Burns voiceover for how General Idea started?

—AA Bronson‘It was an accident. I was in Toronto and I had been designing sets and graphics with Theatre Passe Muraille, one of the first of the new alternative theatres. Jorge was on his way from Halifax to Vancouver and stopped to film a production that was being made there. Felix went out with my close friend Mimi Paige. He was visiting from Winnipeg. Mimi was trying to get Felix to stay, so she decided that we should all live together. She found us a crummy little house right in the centre of downtown at 78 Gerrard Street West. It had been converted into a store at some point, with a store window inserted into the living room, but the street had since fallen on hard times. We were all unemployed, and to entertain ourselves, we started raiding the garbage at night from neighbouring stores, and setting up fake displays in our store window. For example, one day we found boxes and boxes of nurse romances being thrown away, so we opened a nurse romance bookstore, with a little sign on the door that said ‘Back in 5 minutes’. There was a nurses’ residence nearby, so we would watch the nurses walk by and gape at the window. We did endless projects like that, and gradually they became more elaborate and more sophisticated. There was always an element of cultural irony to them. I think living in a house with a storefront was why so much of our later work turned into an examination of media and consumerism. The identity came out of being in that house and playing those games.’

—Snowden SnowdenWere you AA Bronson around the house? The name, AA Bronson sounds dependable, like a metals company, AA Bronson Steel. How did you land on that name?

—AA Bronson‘In 1969, just immediately preceding General Idea, I wrote a porn novel with a friend, A.S.A. Harrison. We sold it outright to a small publisher, copyright and all. When it came out, the name AA Bronson was on the cover. My friends started to call me that as a kind of joke, and it stuck. The book was banned in Canada, and Grove Press brought out another edition that sold out, so I figured AA Bronson must be a pretty good name.’

—Snowden SnowdenWhat name is on your tax return?

—AA Bronson‘The name on my tax return and passport and so on is Michael Tims.’

—Snowden SnowdenDid you ever consider legally changing your name to AA Bronson?

—AA Bronson‘I did legally change it, but again, my life has been like a series of accidents. Around 1977, General Idea was showing video tapes at an art centre in Brussels. The event was funded by the Canadian embassy, and they asked us to come by and collect the cheque for our artists’ fee, but the check was made out to AA Bronson. I said, “Ohh, there’s a little problem, AA Bronson’s not my real name!” The cultural consul said, “Give me your passport.” He disappeared for about ten minutes, came back with it and said, “Okay, now you’re okay.” They had added, “The professional name of the bearer is AA Bronson.”

—Snowden SnowdenWhat’s the process of legally changing your name?

—AA Bronson‘In Canada, that was all I had to do. Jorge changed his name legally as well but he had to do it through the court system. He had to pay a fee and fill out some papers. With me, I was just adding a name rather than changing it. Even now, on the paperwork for my Green card, it says, “Michael Tims, a.k.a. AA Bronson,” which is amazing to me, that the American government would do that. My lawyer said, “Well, I’m just going to type it in and let’s see what they do.” They left the whole thing intact. I don’t even know if they know; they might think that it’s a very long name, “Michael Tims a.k.a. AA Bronson”.’

—Snowden SnowdenThat a.k.a. really makes you sound like a criminal… What does a pseudonym allow you that your birth name didn’t?

—AA Bronson‘Michael Tims was extremely shy and unable to operate in the public world, but AA Bronson had already written a porn novel and was much more in your face, so I decided to take on the second identity. I was surprised that I could do it, that I could act out being this person who was so different from who I really was.’

—Snowden SnowdenCould you keep them autonomous?

—AA Bronson‘Yeah, although as the years went by the two sort of merged. It’s hard to distinguish between them now.’

—Snowden SnowdenDoes AA Bronson have a different id than Michael Tims?

—AA Bronson‘That’s a good question. It’s possible. Actually… Yes.’

—Snowden SnowdenBy all art world coordinates, Toronto is in the middle of nowhere. How much did geography have to do with General Idea’s self-mythologizing?

—AA Bronson‘A lot. As far as we were concerned there was no art world present for us there. Although there was a Canadian art magazine, it wasn’t a real art magazine. Although there was a museum but we didn’t think of it really as a museum. We realised we had to create our own infrastructure. We started FILE Magazine to be our personal mass media. Our concept of the Miss General Idea Pavilion was as a performative museum structure. Each element of the General Idea universe was a fragment of our own art world, because we didn’t have one otherwise. I don’t think all this would have happened if we’d been living in New York.’

—Snowden SnowdenDid it have a kind of anthropological bent?

—AA Bronson‘Absolutely. Around that period, 1970/71, we became fascinated with Claude Lévi-Strauss. General Idea actually thought of itself as a contemporary anthropologist, an anthropologist of contemporary culture.’

—Snowden SnowdenI’m fascinated with why you chose LIFE as the infrastructural model. It’s funny, and you probably already know this, but LIFE magazine was one of the first magazines – if not the first – to invent news.

—AA Bronson‘I always talk about this in my artist lectures. LIFE was also the first picture magazine. They had that special LIFE goes to a party! section where a photographer and a journalist would turn up at some BBQ in a mid-Western town or something, and turn it into a news story. So in a way, they really invented the human-interest story. General Idea could mimic LIFE and put ourselves onto newsstands, and people would pick it up because it had a kind of familiarity. It didn’t matter what was inside, it could be as weird as we wanted, and they would still pick it up and look at it. What’s more, the distribution companies would take it and put it on the newsstands, because it looked familiar. It was kind of astonishing. Distributors wouldn’t usually carry it for long, because they’d figure it out too quickly, but then they never paid us, so we were happy to be rid of them anyway. There was a recurring section of FILE called Bzzz Bzzz Bzzz which always reported on a party, but it was a fabricated party. We got people we knew in different cities to send us photos of their various parties, and we would collage them together into one big party. Then people would get mad at us. They’d say, “How come I wasn’t invited to that party? but that party never actually happened.’

—Snowden SnowdenPart of fabricating your own art world is making your own celebrities, and some of these people became more than a little mythic, and it seems like FILE was no small accessory to the fact that people like Ray Johnson and Vincent Trasov, who performed as Mr. Peanut, were becoming more images of people than just people. What was it like to watch or aid someone’s transformation from a person into an image of a person?

—AA Bronson‘What’s really disappointing is when they turn back into people. Especially if as they age they turn into not very interesting people. I’ve experienced that. I’m more conscious of people developing a personae, or public presence, and then suddenly dropping it. If they move onto a new thing, that’d be one thing, but a lot of the people who developed personae in the Mail Art era have just dropped their acts and don’t really know what to do next.’

—Snowden SnowdenIf I had to map General Idea’s other early motif, it would be irony. Why was irony in there to begin with?

—AA Bronson‘Well, during the 1960s the US became extremely irony-free, and I’m not exactly sure why. Irony was always present in Canada; there was a tradition of it. There was never a time when it wasn’t there. That’s only half answering the question, because irony was so central to everything we did, and I’m not completely sure why it was that central. I mean, we actually read books about irony in the early 1970s, trying to figure it all out.’

—Snowden SnowdenYou were very serious about irony! Did people get it?

—AA Bronson‘In a way, everybody got it and nobody got it. Our idea was that we could build so many layers of meaning into each project, that everybody would get at least one of those layers, but would also be aware that they’ve missed other layers. It was always kind of mystifying on the one hand, but also always something to connect to on the other.’

—Snowden SnowdenThe recovering satirist, Philip Roth said almost the opposite in the early 1960s. He said that ‘actuality is continually outdoing our [the satirist’s] talents and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.’[1] He seems to be saying that the material coming off the line is already so self-mocking that it’s putting the satirist out to pasture, or making that kind of work pretty impotent. Was this something that General Idea recognized?

—AA Bronson‘The irony disappeared when we moved to New York in 1986. It was the first year we exhibited in the U.S., at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, although we had been exhibiting in Europe for ten years. The American audience wasn’t prepared to deal with the complexity of our narratives. They didn’t want something that couldn’t be digested in a split second. We had to completely rethink what we were doing for the work to have any meaning, for it to communicate in any way with the New York audience.’

—Snowden SnowdenWas there a hard stop for the irony?

—AA Bronson‘We must have done 30 or 40 paintings of copyright symbols that asked, in effect, “Can you copyright a copyright sign?” Maybe those are the final ironic pieces, just before we started making work about AIDS. We suddenly found ourselves in an era when the physicality of death was ubiquitous. One walked amongst the dying every day, and so life took on a different meaning. I know a lot of the AIDS activists here in New York hated the original AIDS logo we did, the posters and paintings, because they saw the play on Robert Indiana’s LOVE logo as being ironic. They somehow thought we were, I don’t know, making fun of or exploiting the disease.’

—Snowden SnowdenIs one of the awkward things about a retrospective having to look back on a life that maybe you no longer take full ownership over? Perhaps the ironic work feels like a relic now. This past week I’ve read and looked at a lot of the General Idea bookshelf. It’s been a bit like binge drinking; it’s been very satisfying. (Laughs) I felt satisfied merely having looked at it.. What does it feel like to look back at your own bookshelf?

—AA Bronson‘Well, working on the exhibition is a little different than looking at the bookshelf. Working on the exhibition is a constant process of answering questions, and examining my memory to try to remember how this happened, or how that happened, or what goes with which work… Or before which work… What influenced what. When I cast my mind back I see Jorge and Felix and myself sitting around a big table and talking, which is what we did almost interminably – different tables in different places and different conversations. These memories take me to a place of grief pretty quickly. The last time I was in Paris working on the exhibition, I was in the Musée d’Art Moderne for three days in a row, and it was really too much. By the third day it was really hard. It’s been fifteen years since they died, and my life has changed pretty dramatically since then. It’s very surreal to be immersed in that life again.’

—Snowden SnowdenIn the re-released edition of his book Slow Learner (a collection of early short stories) Thomas Pynchon writes a brilliant introduction that deconstructs why and how all the stories went foul. He says, ‘You may already know what a blow to the ego it can be to have to read over anything you wrote 20 years ago, even cancelled checks.’ He goes on to say, ‘I now pretend to have reached a level of clarity about the young writer I was back then. I mean I can’t very well just 86 this guy from my life. On the other hand, if through some as yet undeveloped technology I were to run into him today, how comfortable would I feel about lending him money, or for that matter even stepping down the street to have a beer and talk over old times?’[2]

—AA Bronson‘It’s funny. When I look back at myself in that period, it’s like I’m looking at a different person. It’s very odd. It’s the kind of person that maybe I would mentor now. I’d be happy to take him for a beer.’

Snowden Snowden is a bus boy, Brooklyn NY. He organizes an event series in the Chrysler Building (www.thechryslerseries.com).

1. Philip Roth, quoted in: Chris Bachelder, ‘A Soldier Upon a Hard Campaign. Or, the Work of Art in the Age of “Passion of the Christ” Jewelry’, in: Believer Magazine, October 2004. 2. Thomas Pynchon, Slow Learner (Back Bay: Little, Brown and Company, 1984), p. 3.
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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 3 — 2021