AA Bronson: The last prankster
AA Bronson's business card says “Healer,” and like anything having to do with the last surviving member of the famous Toronto art pranksters General Idea, it's equal parts send-up and completely sincere.
“It's kind of tongue-in-cheek in that I use it as part of my art practice,” he says, “but it's real, as well. I feel like such a fool talking about it,” he says, rolling his eyes, “but when I put my hands on people, I get all sorts of images and impressions. Weird stuff can happen.”
You don't say. For 25 years, Bronson, along with partners Jorge Zontal and Felix Partz made a remarkable career from their own unique brand of weirdness, manipulating the perceptions of fame, celebrity and hype before happening on a career-making turn as the emblematic artist-activists for a generational cause: the AIDS crisis.
At the cusp of seniorhood Bronson turns 65 in June his signature bushy beard is almost entirely white. His soft falsetto voice crackles ever-so-slightly. It's been 17 years since his partners Partz and Zontal both died of AIDS-related illnesses in Toronto — Part was 49, Zontal 50.
It's even longer since General Idea became the dominant international art-world response to the AIDS epidemic, through such works as their shimmering 1987 sculptural installation of hundreds of shiny white capsules.
It represented, as the work was called, “One Day of AZT/One Year of AZT,” the brand-name anti-retroviral taken by AIDS patients in the '80s and '90s. But it was the 1986 logo — that blunt, omnipresent, appropriated AIDS logo — that “took over our lives,” Bronson recalls, vaulting the trio to a level of art-world stardom few ever achieve.
Toronto has since been mostly a fond memory and affordable storage. On a recent blustery Toronto day, Bronson met me in his penthouse suite in the blocky concrete apartment building on Jarvis Street that serves as a sort of informal archive of all things General Idea. It would be one of the best museums of contemporary Canadian art in the country, if ever unpacked.
“The rooms off to the side are just stuffed to the gills artworks, editions, catalogues,” Bronson says with a slight smile, a weary sigh. “Really, it's hard to even know what's in here anymore.”
Images of the threesome in various forms of camp posturing lean on the floor against bookshelves, or are propped on tabletops tucked in bed together like children, or sporting furry long-eared poodle hats. Bronson spends less than a dozen days a year here, he guesses. Home has been New York for decades. Yet here he is in his old stomping grounds, preparing, finally and at last, for a major homecoming.
In July, the Art Gallery of Ontario will open “Haute Culture: General Idea,” a 25-year retrospective ranging from the earliest experiments up to the group's dissolution with the death of Partz and Zontal. It's been at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, with whom the AGO collaborated on the exhibition, since February. It closes at the end of this month, at which point the crating and shipping of the show's more than 300 works begins in earnest.
That's a staggering amount on display for any show, let alone one devoted to a gang of three merry pranksters who decided, way back in 1967 in their shabby Gerrard Street studio, that the way to be great artists was to manufacture their own fame.
From the early days of General Idea, much was gleefully backwards: Consternating fakery was the group's MO and building a grandiose personal backstory was their prescient way of manipulating the mechanics of fame in a still-nascent celebrity media machine.
In FILE Megazine, the party organ launched in 1972, they said as much. From a 1975 issue:
“We wanted to be famous. We wanted to be glamorous. We wanted to be rich. That is to say we wanted to be artists,” they wrote. The disclaimer: “We never felt we had to produce great art to be great artists.”
Take, for example, the “rehearsals” for the 1984 Miss General Idea Pageant, mounted in various places in between 1973 and 1975. They felt fame would inevitably be theirs by 1984, so they'd best be ready. There was the Miss General Idea Pavilion, the future museum imagined to house what would become the group's very important oeuvre — an archive destroyed in 1977, alas, by fire.
“Good question,” Bronson laughs. “I'm not even sure I do.” This, of coruse, was always part of the point. In the late 60s, the group was awash in a burgeoning media culture rife with exhortations on how to look, dress, consume and otherwise function. A pre-packaged world was fast-becoming a genre all its own, and General Idea used those mechanism to build a parallel practice and scathing critique.
All three came from elsewhere, converging on Toronto at exactly the right time. Bronson came from Vancouver for that infamous experiment in liberal education and chaos, Rochdale College (he diverted quickly to architecture). Zontal was an Italian-born son of Yugoslav refugees who grew up in Caracas who went to Dalhousie in Halifax. Partz hailed from Winnipeg.
Just out of school, they moved in together, in “just a terrible little house, on Gerrard Street West,” Bronson recalls.
Their impulses were seeded early. “The house had a storefront built into it, which was vacant. We were bored and unemployed, so we started raiding the garbage of the businesses nearby to make fake stores and window displays. I think that's how we established the theme of commerce right from the beginning.”
Hype was a fast-growing industry; their strategy became self-aggrandizing lampoon. Bronson smiles, a knowing smile, equal parts fond recollection and mild sheepishness, perhaps, at his bombastic younger self. They were nothing if not bold: In keeping with their theme, they decided to pitch the Pageant to the biggest art museum in the city, the Art Gallery of Ontario. They were accepted.
It was a subversive act, something the museum itself didn't recognize at first.
“They thought it would be good for their women's committee, some kind of beauty, fashion thing,” Bronson laughs. “Then they realized what it was, suddenly, on some other level, and they tried to stop it. But we had everything in writing by then, so we just played dumb.”
The camp spectacle that ensued - catwalks and gowns, cued standing ovations - was a runaway hit:
“The place was completely crammed with people,” Bronson says. “In fact, in the end, the museum was really pleased — even the Governor General turned out.”
Bronson couldn't know then that more than 30 years later, in 2002, he'd be receiving a Governor General's Award for Visual and Media Arts, a kind of lifetime achievement prize. An Order of Canada came in 2009. Bronson became a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, the highest honour the French government can bestow on an artist, earlier this year.
Bronson projects the sense that he carries the accolades uneasily. “I always underestimate, I guess, what we accomplished,” he says.
By 1986, when they moved to New York, General Idea was an established Canadian cultural phenomenon. In New York, it was a different story.
“Every time we tried to explain to people our extended narrative, you could see their eyes glaze over,” Bronson says.
The group experimented with abstract painting based on corporate logos - Marlboro, MasterCard, VISA - that stayed true to their consumer critique. The world around was changing. HIV was exploding, from gay plague to epidemic. General Idea was invited to do a work for the first-ever fundraiser for the American Foundation for AIDS Research in 1986.
The iconic Robert Indiana “LOVE” insignia had been on their minds for some time, transformed to what would become their brand: The AIDS logo. “It was on the shelf, just waiting for the right occasion,” Bronson says. The fundraiser was it, “and it just took over our lives.”
General Idea had become the name-brand art crusaders for a generational cause. Their logo went viral. Street-postering campaigns sprung up all over the world. “It really was our brand,” Bronson nods, a happy accident that snapped in place with the group's media-conscious, consumer-critique practice.
“It was perfect. It used all the strategies we have developed the previous 10 or 15 years, and it allowed us to use them in a kind of pragmatic and useful way.”
The afterglow of success would be brief. Partz tested positive for HIV in 1989, Zontal in 1990, and "our lives were taken over by pills.” It was a short step to “One Day of AZT/One Year of AZT,” the shimmering sculptural work that plainspokenly showed what it proposed to tell: Hundreds of glossy white capsules installed in tidy grids, representing Partz's intake of drugs each day, and year.
Right in the middle, General Idea installed a coffin-sized pill to underscore both the consumer-product nature of the drug, and its inability to preserve life, but rather, simply prolong it.
The room housing the piece— it always requires a very large room of its own — has the strange duality that helped define, and sharpen, the group's consumer critque. It has the sense of a shimmering new car showroom, nonetheless with death all around.
Bronson has hardly stood still. Two years ago, he started divinity school at New York's Union Theological Seminary. True to form, the pursuit was both paradoxical play and utterly genuine. “Oh, it's sincere,” he smiles. “It just has plenty of tongue-and-cheek moments.”
Union is as typical a seminary as Bronson is a seminary student. More than half its students are women. Its focus drifts, paradoxically, to feminist, black liberation and queer theology.
Bronson has inserted his artist's bent into the school's liberal framework. He's established The Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice — “it was me, as a first year student, with no money,” he laughs - that has grown into a modest serious of artist lectures and a residency program that Bronson hopes will morph into a master's program in visual arts.
His venture into theology isn't a departure, he says, so much as a reasonable, if distant, tangent. “I've always been very interested in religion, the occult, those sorts of things,” he says. “The thing I know the least about is Christianity, so I thought maybe it was time to make up for that.”
He sounds, as he usually does, almost entirely, or at least mostly, sincere. “There's some concern among the faculty that I don't consider myself a Christian, and I'm having all this influence on the institution,” he smiles, impish to the last. “But I think it'll work out in the end.”
“Haute Culture: General Idea” is at the Art Gallery of Ontario from July 30 to January 1, 2011.