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There are few artists I have more reverence for than AA Bronson. In 1969, with fellow artists Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, Bronson co-founded General Idea, the legendary Toronto-based art collective that helped pioneer Relational and Mail Art. Over the course of their decades-long collaboration, General Idea’s multidisciplinary conceptual practice helped establish bold new directions for art in Canada and abroad.
In the 1970s, the group launched the subversive and wildly popular FILE Megazine — with a title and logo cheekily appropriated from LIFE magazine — and opened up Art Metropole, an archive, shop, and distribution center for artists’ printed matter in Toronto. In the 1980s, after Partz and Zontal were diagnosed with AIDS, General Idea decamped to New York, where they produced their infamous IMAGEVIRUS and AIDS works, which reassembled Robert Indian’s ubiquitous LOVE logo with the letters A-I-D-S. The image, as the artists intended, spread through the art world and beyond like a virus.
At 72, Bronson remains busier than ever. In the early 2000s, as executive director of famed New York bookstore and art organization Printed Matter, Bronson was the founding director of the NY Art Book Fair and the LA Art Book Fair — both still going strong. He continues to preside over General Idea’s legacy by organizing countless public art projects around the world. This year, his work has been the focus of two major exhibitions, at KW and Esther Schipper Gallery, both in Berlin.
I recently sat down with Bronson in his sprawling Berlin apartment, where he lives with his longtime partner, the architect Mark Jan Krayenhoff van de Leur. Bronson opened up about how art helped him cope with losing his General Idea collaborators, Partz and Zontal, who both died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1994. He discussed growing up in Canada; living in the communes of Winnipeg and Toronto in the 1960s and ’70s; and his latest collaboration, with members of the Siksika Nation of Southern Alberta, intended to address Bronson’s grandfather’s involvement with Canada’s former Residential School system, which forced Indigenous children to assimilate to Euro-Canadian culture.
In his own words, Bronson offers timeless wisdom and insight into his art practice then and now.
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Hyperallergic: Tell me about your childhood — where it all started.
AA Bronson: Gee, well, just a quick timeline. My father was in the Air Force, so we moved every two or three years when I was a kid, and we ended up in Ottawa, of all places. I went to high school there, which in a way was great because I lived one bus ride away from the National Gallery of Canada, in the 1960s. I was lucky because those were very, very good years in that gallery. I saw people like Warhol, and Rauschenberg — and a lot of Pop Art especially — Ad Reinhardt — a lot of American artists that I never would have seen anywhere else in Canada, so that was kind of great.
And then I decided — the ’60s being very socially conscious — I’d always wanted to be an artist, but decided that it was selfish, and that I should do something that was of more use to society, so I decided to study architecture.
H: So, you ended up in Winnipeg?
AAB: Yes, I went to the University of Manitoba to study architecture, which was a very good move because Winnipeg, at the center of Canada, at that moment in the ’60s, was kind of a weird hub, even though it was small and in the middle of nowhere. It was the era of hitchhiking, and everybody passed through Winnipeg in the middle of going somewhere else.
H: How long were you there?
AAB: I met a lot of very interesting people and ended up dropping out of architecture with a group to found a commune, and we had an underground newspaper and a free school and a shop. It was the beginnings of what’s now called the Osborne Village in Winnipeg.
H: What were some of the ideas swirling around at the time?
AA Bronson: I became very involved in ideas about radical education and about communes, and I ended up moving to Toronto because of Rochdale College, which was really the largest commune in the world at that point. It was a 13-story building that had been built especially to be a commune, and was attracting all sorts of wonderful people. I met Allen Ginsberg there, for example.
H: Were there any particular texts that had a big impact on you during this time?
AAB: Well, there was a Toronto magazine in the ’60s called This Magazine Is About Schools, and it was — of all the stuff available in the English-speaking world — it was really the cutting edge of that kind of educational theory, especially in relation to free schools and all that kind of thing.
H: There must have been so much enthusiasm back then to start different projects and seed different ideas.
AAB: There were two organizations in particular that worked out of Rochdale College. One was this Theater Passe Muraille, the first avant garde theater in Toronto, and then Coach House Press, which was this small publisher that had just started at that time. I began apprenticing at Coach House Press, where I learned a lot about printing and publishing. At the same time, I was doing design work for Theater Passe Muraille. It was really a scene about theater and writing and music, but not so much art. There was more art in London, Ontario than there was in Toronto, weirdly enough.
H: Is that when you met Jorge [Zontal] and Felix [Partz], co-founders of General Idea?
AAB: Yes, we moved in with some friends, and we lived in a little storefront and began doing weird projects in the windows. Somehow that turned into General Idea, and 25 years of working together.
H: What about the General Idea pageant? In 1971, General Idea staged the Miss General Idea Pageant at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), a seminal event that appropriated the glamorous language of TV within the performative space of the museum, in what was then an early experiment at art-making influenced by mass media and spectacle.
AAB: There was a small one in 1970; then in 1971 we made the first real one.
AAB: Yes, but there are other examples of our work that’s like that. For example, there’s also an interest in archives, something we were doing long, long ago. Another example is the whole subject of consumerism in art, which really began in the mid ’80s, but we were already doing it in 1970. That’s always a problem with General Idea: we did too many things too early.
H: How about [Canadian artist] Michael Snow — did you two ever meet or connect?
AAB: Well, Michael Snow at that time was living in New York. We never mixed socially, but of course he was a big hero for us. He was really the only Toronto artist we had the slightest bit of interest in — of an older generation, anyway. In the 1970s, Michael Snow moved back to Toronto from New York, and we were happy that he did, because the Toronto scene needed him.
H: What about [the Toronto-based nonprofit art center] Art Metropole, which General Idea founded in 1974? How did that evolve, and how was it related to early mail art, art publishing, and the zine culture of the 1960s and ’70s?
AAB: Well, being in Toronto, we felt very isolated. There was a very small art scene, and not a very interesting one. Somehow we made connections. I guess it started in a way through Rochdale College and through the theater scene and through the publishing scene there.
H: So it was initially focused on connecting and bringing up the local scene? Rather than connecting to an international one?
AAB: We made a lot of connections with people in Vancouver and Montreal, and then also New York, Amsterdam, and London. And we kept in touch mostly through the mail because that’s all there was back then. We were all too poor to afford long distance phone calls. I think that’s in a way how mail art was born. It came out of there being a community of like-minded people who were really separated geographically and didn’t have any local community of their own. So we began making art and communicating sort of simultaneously through the mail. We met a lot of artists that way.
H: Almost like a precursor to social media.
AAB: Really I think the ideas we were working with were really social media ideas. We just didn’t have the tools we have today. If we’d had the social media then, we could’ve really flourished a lot more than we did. The whole idea of networking didn’t really exist then — except [Marshall] McLuhan wrote about networking, but that’s kind of where it starts, with his writing.
H: Were you ever in touch with [Canadian philosopher] Marshall McLuhan?
AAB: Well, in short, no, which is very weird because in university I was a complete Marshall McLuhan addict. A lot of my school projects were based on McLuhan’s writings, and this was very early — like ’64, ’65.
H: While you were still studying in Winnipeg?
AAB: Yes, I made friends with a professor of sociology in Winnipeg who was a good friend of McLuhan’s. But somehow, even though I was well inoculated with all his ideas, when I moved to Toronto I never met him. I don’t think he was very interested in art; he had a reputation for not being interested in artists.
H: With FILE Megazine, General Idea created an early network-based approach for producing and sharing images between artists across great distances — a collaborative approach that prefigured early Net Art. Can you talk about the origins of FILE Megazine and the overall context in which it emerged?
AAB: In 1972, we began FILE Megazine, which kind of came out of the mail art scene. Initially we started building up all this stuff people were sending us, so we thought, wouldn’t it be great to take the best of it and make our own kind of document of what’s happening right now? FILE Megazine for us was a way of networking, and mail art was basically Instagram. But it was also more than just Instagram; it was a system whereby people could send images around the world and share them with each other. And in the early issues of FILE, we published image request lists, which means we would list people’s names and addresses, artists’ names and addresses, and they could advertise what they were looking for — pictures of angels, devils, or whatever.
H: And through FILE, Art Metropole emerged — an archive, shop, and distribution center for artists’ printed matter, video, and ephemera.
AAB: Yes, two years later we started Art Metropole (in 1974) because FILE Megazine was such a success internationally — mostly among artists. We started to get deluged with requests from artists saying, “I’m making publications; where can I sell them? Can you give me any advice?”
H: That must have been so reaffirming.
AAB: We thought we would set up Art Metropole as a kind of distribution center for not only artists’ books, but video, because there were no video distributors at that time — and audio stuff, artist records. That’s how Art Metropole began…
H: And Printed Matter?
AAB: When I moved to New York in the 1980s, Printed Matter invited me to be on their board. And then in 2004, they asked me to be the director. So that’s when it began. That’s how I did the segue from Art Metropole to Printed Matter.
H: How about after Jorge and Felix’s passing? How difficult was it to rebuild yourself after their passing?
AAB: It was difficult at first. I’d never worked independently; I’d always worked collaboratively, so I had absolutely no idea what to do. It took about five years before I started making anything at all, and then I started by making portraits of Jorge and Felix around the subject of their deaths. The only way I could start making art was to make it about the process of my grieving, and then trying to move on.
DB: You’re now working on a project about Canada’s violent legacy [regarding] the Residential School system. Can you talk about what led to your interest in this subject?
AAB: My great-grandfather was a missionary, the first missionary to the Siksika reserve, which is one of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the one nearest Calgary. He was very focused on destroying Native culture — as were all the missionaries — but he was particularly focused.
H: So it’s about exposing your family legacy and their role in establishing the residential schools?
AAB: Yes, my great-grandfather founded one of the first residential schools, somewhere between 1883–1884. And, well, the little drama that happened; he was only there for 11 years, and then he was transferred to another reserve because there was a kind of uprising, which has been squashed in written history. You can’t find documentation of it; it’s very, very difficult to find anything about it. But what we know happened was there was a tuberculosis epidemic amongst the children in the school. [With] tuberculosis, you need lots of air and sunlight, and you need to get out into the open air. He was more or less locking the kids in school. He wouldn’t let their parents see them once they were sick because he was afraid the parents would get them to revert from Christianity back to paganism, and then they’d die of the disease, and their souls would go to hell because they weren’t Christian. So he kept them locked up in the school, and they died in the school without ever seeing their parents.
H: How did you uncover this?
AA Bronson: There’s a family story about it. That’s what took me to this project eventually. There are stories from my father and my grandfather. My grandfather was the head of another residential school, and my father consequently grew up on a reserve. So the whole relationship to the Native peoples is very alive and well in my family history, just through storytelling. And from each generation, you get a different kind of story. My father couldn’t cope with it; he ran away from home when he was 14, whereas my grandfather was a very pro-Christian missionary, but like the choir. My great-grandfather was more like the innovator — developed the written language for Siksika, and translated big chunks of the Bible into Siksika. But he also took the kids away from their parents; they weren’t allowed to speak their own language. And despite the fact that he could speak it — which seems really bizarre — they had to dress in Victorian British clothes.
H: In what ways will you address this in your art?
AAB: I’m doing a project called “Public Apology to Siksika Nation.” I want to apologize on behalf of my great-grandfather. Through doing the research on this, I met Adrian Stimson, who’s a Siksika native. He’s a Canadian artist who about a year ago moved back to the reserve. He was living in Saskatoon, and incidentally he received the Governor General’s Award a few weeks ago. I am working on the project together with him.
H: Where will it take place?
AAB: We would like to do part of it on the Siksika Reserve and another part of it in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada.
H: Finally, what is your take on the current political climate in Canada?
AAB: Well, I’m disappointed that Justin Trudeau is not doing more, acting more like he talked. But at the same time, I’m aware that it’s a difficult moment to segue from an economy that’s to a large extent based on oil, to a non-oil economy, and really supporting First Nations people in a big way. I just wish he were doing it a bit faster.