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AA BRONSON

Interview by Michael Bullock
Photography by Kuba Ryniewicz

Published in apartamento 16, 2015

Few people live out the maxim ‘the personal is political’ as completely as AA Bronson, whose art, life, and politics have always merged into one. Fearless, and transgressive best describe General Idea, the groundbreaking collective formed in 1969 by Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal. Together they brought the then unspoken topics of AIDS and sexuality to the public’s attention while celebrating their taboo relationship as a thruple, arguably the first to live an open public life. After the heartbreaking loss of his partners in 1994 Bronson continued to push boundaries as a solo artist with explorations of outsider topics, including healing, shamanism and spirituality, as well as a now famous series of séances, documented in his book Queer Spirits. Bronson is equally well known for his tenure as the president of Printed Matter, (New York’s beloved resource for artist-made books) during which he created the unlikely cultural phenomenon, the NY Art Book Fair. The MoMA PS1–hosted, annual event, now in its 10th year, regularly attracts over 25,000 attendees. Both politically and personally it’s an important time to check in with the soft-spoken 69-year-old artist. Politically, because Bronson’s work helped to set the cultural foundation for this current golden moment of gay acceptance: the passing of marriage equality in the US, the mainstream acceptance of transgender people, and the introduction of PrEP (the daily pill that helps prevent HIV transmission). Personally, because Bronson is experiencing his own golden moment with a recent marriage to long-term partner, Mark Jan Krayenhoff van de Leur, and their recent move to Berlin, a city whose generosity towards artists has allowed Bronson’s studio practice to thrive, with two new exhibitions opening this autumn in Austria, at the Kunstverein in Salzburg and the Kunstverein in Graz.

You were an important part of cultural life in New York. Why did you leave for Berlin?

We moved because in the autumn of 2012 a letter arrived in the mail offering me a very generous one-year residency which came with an apartment, a studio, a monthly stipend, German lessons, healthcare. They pay to bring your whole family over and transport your studio. It’s organised by a national agency called the DAAD. It’s invitation only. They bring in 20 people a year from various parts of the world.

Sounds like a dream.

It’s a remarkable program. It’s been around for 50 years. It was originally created by the Ford Foundation as a way of promoting the West in Berlin. So many artists end up staying after the residency that it has completely altered the makeup of the city.

What’s your impression of Berlin so far?

It’s so grassroots. There are 3.5 million people and over 180 contemporary art project spaces run by artists. It’s very much a cultural city: art, music, theatre, performance art, and now a lot of web start-up stuff—really the mainstays of the city.

And nightlife.

Yes, well, music and nightlife, they cross over. For example, in the case of something like Berghain, where the Panorama Bar has an extraordinary music program. I went for the first time about six weeks ago. But then I have been two more times since then, so maybe I will become a frequent flyer.

I have only been to Berghain for the Snax fetish party on Easter weekend.

That’s a very particular view of it. Then I’m sure you know that the last level of Berghain is a sex club. It’s open four nights a week. It’s extremely theatrical, very grand in an industrial way, and it’s rare to find fewer than 300 guys there.

I was on Fire Island last week and Wolfgang Tillmans came over for dinner and said something like, ‘OK, I get it. This place is amazing and has a tremendous amount of sexual freedom, but you guys only have this for the summer and I have Berghain the whole year round’.

And not just Berghain. Berlin is 30 per cent parks, and many parks have a nude sunbathing area, and each of those has a gay sunbathing area, and not too far away there will be a cruising area. There is a tradition of nudism, of naturalism, in what used to be East Germany, but I think especially in Berlin. You could take your clothes off on the main street and people wouldn’t be that upset about it.

I had never thought about a connection between Fire Island and Berlin before.

Fire Island was a godsend for me. As soon as I realised what it was I tried my best to find a way to stay there all summer, every summer. The Pines and Cherry Grove are two sides of the gay coin, going together perfectly in a weird love–hate relationship. And then the Meat Rack, the forest in between the two towns, is such a spiritual place. At the same time, it’s a sex place, and at the witching hour, after midnight, all pretences are dropped and the two communities come together. And then there’s the fact that it’s legally the only place you can be nude on the entire eastern seaboard. I loved being at the beach naked, in an extremely queer-friendly environment, especially as more of our friends started coming there. And here in Berlin, gay life has impregnated every part of the city. There are huge forests and they all have clothing-optional swimming holes. It has a bizarre resemblance. It’s not the beach and the ocean, but there is something about being queer and naked in nature that really appeals to me. And it happens in both Berlin and on Fire Island.

Is that connection one of the reasons you felt comfortable enough to stay?

Well, about nine months into it, my husband, Mark, asked, ‘Why go back?’ The thing is that you can have such a huge amount of space and live so cheaply. It gives you an enormous amount of creative freedom, allowing you to spend time doing what you want and not just constantly having jobs to pay for that stupid rent.

Is it rude to ask how much your rent is here?

Let me put it this way: it’s probably the exact same amount that somebody is paying for my one-bedroom apartment in New York. Also, people in Berlin really value their friends; I get the sense that people spend a lot of time with each other here. They’re devoted to their circle of friends. In New York, we just don’t have the time for friendship with the same sort of depth.

Do you enjoy your lifestyle here much more?

Yes. I loved running Printed Matter and the Book Fairs and so on, but here I’m able to focus on my own work. Here, I can afford to have studio space and assistance. There was never even a remote possibility that I could do that in New York.

That’s an astonishing statement coming from an artist as well regarded as yourself.

I suppose. My work is not mainstream marketplace work. I’m not the kind of studio artist that survives well in New York.

Your studio is in your apartment?

Yes, it’s almost 3,000ft2.

Big enough to even have a gallery space?

Yes. It’s very typical Berlin old apartment, with high ceilings and big rooms, and it has a typical floor plan, where there are three big rooms across the front with big windows, which were originally the public rooms of the house. And behind that is something called the Berliner zimmer, which is a gigantic room that looks onto a back courtyard. It’s almost 5x7m, so that’s like 16x23ft. I didn’t know what I was going to use it for, so I decided to use the three front rooms as a showroom. My dealer, Esther Schipper, very kindly came and installed work out of her inventory.

Those are the rooms with the deer?

Yes. That’s one of the three rooms. As time went on, I started using them to try things out, to set things up to see what they looked like. And as production has really got going, one of them is now occupied by five assistants and two sewing machines.

New York artists always fantasised about LA or Berlin. From what you explain, the dream of Berlin is alive. You actually can be much more productive here if you don’t—

Fall into the black hole of drugs and sex.

If I lived here I’m sure I wouldn’t accomplish a thing. You moved here at the right age.

It is a city that is very friendly to older gay men. Like at Berghain, the staff are incredibly friendly to older people. It’s not so easy to be an older gay man in New York. It’s not age friendly. It’s easy to be an older gay man here.

How many years did you live in NYC?

Well, I moved there in 1986, but I went back to Toronto for five years, from 1993 to 1998, and then Mark came back with me to New York in 1998. So, 1998 to 2013—what’s that? Fifteen years?

So you witnessed it transform from an artist-friendly slum to a luxury mall for the 1 percent?

When I first started going in the mid ‘70s it was heaven! Supposedly that was the lowest point, the city was on the verge of bankruptcy, nothing worked; but for me, being a young person, it was a fantastic time to be there—just so many interesting people, and the gay scene was completely flying. It was like the Wild West. Artists had whole floors of loft buildings for $200 a month. That’s why so much of the art of the ‘60s was gigantic, because they all had these massive lofts.

How is it that Berlin seems to replicate some of those circumstances today?

Part of it is because of the history of the Berlin Wall, because all the industry and business moved out, and when the wall came down, there were still all these empty warehouse and factory buildings left over. So people just took space wherever they could find it; space was basically free. And there has always been a culture of anarchy in Berlin, and it has always been a big queer centre, and it has always been a cultural centre. So everything came together at the right time and place to make what’s happening now possible. People here will tell you that the good times are over, that it’s expensive now, that there are too many tourists. But by New York standards, it’s extraordinarily cheap, the number of tourists is quite manageable, and the rate of gentrification is nowhere near as fast as it was, say, in Bushwick.

Was it painful to pack up your apartment after 15 years?

Only in that it was kind of complicated to do it on such short notice. I didn’t find it emotionally painful at all. Mark was saying that it was as if there were some sort of wind blowing us across the Atlantic and we just had to give in and go with it. Also, in those two weeks, we not only moved our apartment, we got married.

Wow, lots of big change at once. What does marriage mean to you?

It was easy for me to get a resident visa here because my primary gallery is in Berlin, so I have always made all my money here anyway. Mark would have needed to get a job offer in order to stay here, but since we got married he could come as my spouse and that made everything so much simpler. Plus both of us liked having an excuse for not making it a big deal, for not having to think about what the wedding was going to be like, or who we would invite or where it would be and all of that. It was refreshing to have it be quick and easy. So we got married at City Hall.

How does it feel to say ‘my husband’?

It’s a relief to be able to say that instead of having to decide between ‘partner’ or ‘boyfriend’ or the old-fashioned ‘lover’. ‘Husband’ comes much more easily to my lips. I’m very comfortable with it and I like that it’s political every time you say it to somebody for the first time. I also find that it more truthfully reflects what our relationship is, which surprised me, because I didn’t think I cared about all of that.

As an artist whose work always fought for gay rights, AIDS activism, and queer acceptance, how do you feel about the major cultural shifts for gay people, marriage equality passing, preventative HIV pills being approved, and the mainstream acceptance of Caitlyn Jenner?

I’m not sure that I have an answer to your question. These diversities are being celebrated in a really astonishing, very rich way. It really makes me happy to see all the things coming through on the Twitter feed every day. It’s phenomenal. I should also point out that the PrEP pills aren’t universally accepted in Europe the way they are in North America. There is a lot of hesitation about it in the medical community, a feeling that not enough research has been done on the long-term effects. Insurance does not cover PrEP in Europe the way it does in North America. As far as I know, it’s a relatively small portion of people using it here. So that’s very different. On the other hand, it’s sexually much more free than North America; it’s an odd combination.

General Idea’s work laid the foundation for these shifts to become reality.

We worked very hard at holding space for all of that during periods when it was very difficult.

And not only making your own work but also creating. You distributed publications so there was an infrastructure for ideas to reach their proper audience without depending on traditional venues.

It was important to have that alternative cultural network running parallel to the mainstream galleries and museums and so on.

How have these recent cultural changes affected your current work?

I’m not really sure. In 2013, I had a big show at the Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art, in Rotterdam. I showed my own work, my collaborations, work by my friends, and work that influenced me from the past, and I organised it in an intuitive, evocative way. It’s not an easy show to describe. I’m so pleased that they accepted it because they had to finally just trust that I knew what I was doing. It turned out remarkably well. In the Netherlands it was awarded the best exhibition of the year.

Wow!

That set a blueprint for what I did afterwards. I was invited to do something at the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea. They gave me my own three-storey pagoda. One of the themes that comes through the most is the concept of a society of ancestors, which of course for Asians is perfect—this idea of the spirits of the dead, our gay ancestors. Images of Fire Island featured very largely, both at Witte de With and in Gwangju. I put herbs on the floor, which became like the forest floor. The lighting was very dim; it’s like going through Meat Rack at night. And from there, the next show was with Maureen Paley in London. She wanted a miniature version of that, and she insisted on showing the Queer Zines, the historical retrospective of gay publications that debuted at the NY Art Book Fair in 2008. Queer zines themselves work as a horizontal communication system, which helped people maintain identities that fell outside of mainstream identity, but also outside of mainstream gay identities. The show also included a big light-box portrait of me naked, painted red, in the middle of the Meat Rack. There was a magician’s tent. And then on the ground floor, I presented a little bit of history by showing two General Idea paintings, which are key to this idea of maintaining queer space, I suppose.

The poodle orgy?

Yes. One was a large-scale painting of nine geometric poodles fucking. This autumn, I have two shows coming up in Austria: one at the Kunstverein in Salzburg and one at the Kunstverein in Graz. Do you know about Keith Boadwee? He is a 54-year-old artist from San Francisco. He’s best known for making work by shooting paint out of his ass; that’s his trademark. I invited him to Salzburg for the summer for a residency and we spent some time squirting paint out of our assholes together. We made 13 paintings that will be on view, and I’ve published a book documenting the process.

How do you see your role now in terms of moving gay culture forwards?

A large part of what I do is collaborating with younger generations, and that’s a way of looking to the future. Even collaborating with Keith. It’s a funny thing to think that a 54 year old is the younger generation, but it is for me because I’m 69. Berlin is such a centre for young artists from all over the world, and especially young queer artists. I’m approached by them all the time. I find that very life affirming. So continuing to collaborate with younger artists is the way to go for me.

Let’s wrap up with some interior design. The Fornasetti wallpaper in your kitchen is wild.

The landlord offered to take it down, but we said, ‘No, no, no—we like it!’ Every time I look at it, I think of my first visit to Tokyo. In 1987 General Idea had its first exhibition there; the gallerist took us to a very special dinner and the entire restaurant was covered in the same Fornasetti wallpaper and everything was served on Fornasetti plates.

That must have confirmed that you were choosing the right apartment.

Yes, it’s like a piece of my own history. Apparently a famous soccer player lived here before us and did all the renovations. It’s funny to think of a soccer player choosing that. I don’t know his name so I’m not giving away anybody’s secrets, but his wife or girlfriend lived in one of the front rooms with her own bathroom and then he lived in the back with this enormous closet. Sexually it seems suspect.

I would say—over-the-top decorating choices and separate living quarters.

Yes, and really his closet is what sold us on the place. I mean, it’s bigger than most people’s bedrooms in New York and it’s totally outfitted for a huge quantity of clothes and has lots of drama, like little pin boxes and things like that.

Like walking into a department store, but it’s your own clothes!

Exactly, yes.

Who designed that amazing chair in your studio, with the pink Mickey Mouse ears?

It’s called the Wink chair, and it was designed by Toshiyuki Kita. It’s a Wink chair because it unfolds into a kind of chaise lounge. And you can get replaceable covers so that you can change the colours of the ears. It’s extremely comfortable. General Idea bought that chair in the late ‘80s.

It’s beautiful and so in style again.

We bought it when we first started selling our art. We got a great discount on it because it was a floor model. It wasn’t that expensive. Back then furniture hadn’t escalated to the crazy prices of today. It was the first fancy thing we ever bought. And so I think it must have been about 1989, because Felix had just been diagnosed as HIV positive. People could see the writing on the wall, so they were beginning to buy our work as an investment. We had a discussion about it because it was quite upsetting to have people buy your art because you might die. So we decided, ‘OK. If they want to do that, fine. We will take their money, and we are going to have a great time with it’.

Tell me about the enormous General Idea pill piece you have on the wall of your living room.

This particular one, it’s in red, green, and blue. I think it’s the first pill piece we ever made. The red, green, and blue colours are taken from the original Robert Indiana Love painting and the General Idea AIDS painting. It’s about AIDS and pharmacology. And it was made before we had completely figured out how to use the image of pills. At that time, Felix was taking a lot of pills and Jorge was beginning to take them, too, and we found ourselves surrounded by pills in our domestic lives for the first time. We started to think of them as miniature Donald Judds scattered all over the house. It became an emblem of sculpture and we just started to fold it into our artwork. So there were several years where we produced a lot of works using the icon of the pill. The best-known pill piece is titled One Year of AZT/One Day of AZT, which is a huge installation. That was shown at MoMA and is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. It was interesting when we showed them. We found that old people really responded to them because getting old is also all about pharmacology, so they felt this bond with the AIDS generation. It crossed age barriers.

I never would have thought of that.

This was the first one of those we did. And it’s really odd because it was shown first at the Daniel Buchholz gallery, which was in Cologne at the time but now is located on the ground floor of this building.

Spooky, it’s all come full circle. You are obviously meant to be here.

It’s a very weird coincidence.


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