For an artist who formerly pursued fame as art (through the now-famed collective General Idea), the production of legacy comes tripping through most of his productions since. But AA Bronson isn’t altogether conscious of this. Instead he continues to advance his wildly collaborative practice, and query the capacities and consequences of both print culture and performance art. As he prepares to open a tour-de-force exhibition at the internationally-regarded Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art next week, Bronson is, in fact, actively producing a vital legacy for himself. But it comes with a great deal more.
“The Temptation of AA Bronson” presents the artist as curator and collaborator in a fashion true to his catalogue, scanning queer culture and performativity through the lens of mysticism and spirituality. He works alongside artists like Carlos Motta, Terence Koh, and Michael Bühler-Rose; and features work by Marina Abramovi?, Mike Kelley, and Gareth Long. Performances punctuate the long-running exhibition’s duration, beginning with an opening night that alone features Bronson, Chrysanne Stathacos, Michael Dudeck, Nils Bech, Sands Murray-Wassink, and Sébastien Lambeaux. Meanwhile Bronson’s print exhibitions, “Queer Zines” and “Ancestors,” form important libraries within the Witte de With’s substantial galleries. By all appearances, “The Temptation” is meant to read like a cabinet of curiosities blown open by their expansive subjects: magic, mysticism, phantasmagoria, ritual, sex, subversion, and faith.
On a brief visit to his Toronto studio — between stops in New York, Rotterdam, and before an imminent year-long residency in Berlin — Bronson sat down with BLOUIN ARTINFO Canada to discuss the exhibition, his spirituality, and the future of cultures both print and queer.
It’s interesting that you’re inhabiting the role of both artist and curator for this exhibition. How did this come to fruition in its earliest stages with the Witte de With? Were you invited or did you approach them?
The director Defne Ayas actually invited me to be the co-director of the museum for a year. I said, “I don’t think I can do that but I can propose an exhibition.” I warned them that if I did propose an exhibition, that it wouldn’t be your normal objective third-party exhibition, but rather more like an artist project combining my own work and my collaborations with work by other people. And they went for it.
Can you discuss why you didn’t want to take the director position there?
Well, I loved the idea, but I’m just too busy with too many projects. And I didn’t really see myself moving to Rotterdam for a year. I’m already director of an institution in New York, I don’t want to be a co-director of one in Rotterdam at the same time.
What's the backstory of this exhibition?
The current director Defne Ayas was up for a three-year term, and each director who comes in for a term is given an opportunity to carry out a particular series of ideas. Her set of ideas had to do with what she called an “ancient knowledge system.” I think it’s like a code word for “religion,” in a way. She wanted to spend her three years working out the problematics of (Deeply) secularized Europe. The reason she invited me to be co-director was because I’m the director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York; she wanted to have my participation from that viewpoint.
So the exhibition I proposed is an exhibition which very much delves into the ways spirituality is explored in the artworld today, with a big focus on the queer approach — but not only that.
Regarding the basic “media” that you outline in this exhibition — from bodily fluids, crystals, and mirrors, to nudity — what holds these together?
I suppose there’s what I think of as a set of family resemblances. For example, there are a number of artists who deal with ideas that come out of the tradition of European ceremonial magic — Aleister Crowley is the best-known person from that tradition. There’s a number of artists dealing with techniques and methods that came out of that tradition. The artist Michael Buhler-Rose is a Hindu priest, and will be performing a Hindu purification ceremony at dawn the day of the opening. Marina Abramovi? will have a set of what she calls “beds,” but they’re really like tables that the public can lie on, and underneath each table is a giant crystal. It’s like they’re recharging the audience and that comes out of a Tibetan tradition. There’s all these simultaneously different traditions going on throughout the building, but it’s not always evident what they are.
Spirituality is difficult to make manifest, and you’re dealing in a realm of objects and proof, really. Can you reflect on that very challenge, on bringing something auratic and ephemeral into a gallery setting?
Well there’s a lot of performance in the show. I tried to work in a lot of the actual physical body and spirit of the artist quite literally, so that the artists themselves are present as much as possible and are involved with the show. There’s also an evening of films by the Surrealist poet Charles Henri Ford, from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art; the films have just recently been restored and they’ve never been shown yet, so that’s kind of a coup.
As far as objects go, there are many people who don’t use objects in traditional ways, so for example, there’s a French artist Sébastien Lambeaux; he makes fetish objects, really, and charges them. It’s a very different process from making artwork in a normal way. There’s two floors: on the top floor of the museum, the floor will be covered with white sage, and the works will become much more difficult to distinguish. It’ll be difficult to distinguish where one ends and the next begins. It’ll be much more of a total environment, more of an experience and less of series of objects.
What’s your opinion of the potency or potential of re-performing works?
Well I never re-perform performances myself. I mean, I think it’s interesting from an academic point of view; it allows people to study performance. But I think it can only be a kind of representation of what originally happened, it’s not the thing itself. I think it has a certain value especially from a pedagogical point of view, but it’s not the artwork, it’s like making a fake of a painting and calling it a real thing. I’m sure Marina wouldn’t agree with me, but that’s how I think of it.
You mention that the remains of a performance will be exhibited within an object. What does that mean?
That means that the objects, the remains of whatever physically happened in the space, are left in play. And that at least gives people some sort of clue as to what went on.
Can you talk about the exhibited work that you’re producing with Terence Koh? How are you seeing its relevance five years later, after its initial staging in 2008?
Well, I never know what’s relevant or not relevant, but it’s a piece I really love, and am happy to have done with him. I want to show it again. It relates to so many of the other works in the show, physically. It’s a double toilet cubicle, with no toilets. There’s a glory hole between, and you can lock the doors behind you. The audience is free to use the space. So there’s a kind of challenge to the audience obviously to use it in a kind of sexual way. I did once see an image on a Tumblr blog of somebody’s penis coming through the glory hole, so I know at least one person has done that. But, that’s all I really know. It is a challenge to the audience to actually engage with the artwork and not just look at it. And in that way, it’s similar to Marina’s, where people can lie on them; although maybe this is pushing buttons a little more.
Certainly in the last few years we’ve seen a kind of evolution of performance art, where it’s being brought into a more popular cultural consciousness, particularly with Marina Abramovi? at the helm of that. Do you have thoughts on the evolution that performativity is undergoing right now and its re-emergence on the popular platform?
I think it’s almost too early to see where it’s going, but my first reaction is that I’m really pleased that it’s happening because the artworld, especially in New York, was just really into buying and selling collectibles for rich people. It’s been getting extremely boring in New York. So to have this kind of situation crack open, where performance takes center stage instead of being the poor cousin out on the perimeter is kind of interesting. But it’s hard to say ultimately whether that’ll be productive, or whether it’s a red herring, whether it’s taking us too much in the direction of entertainment. Maybe that’s ok to go in the direction of entertainment, I find it really hard to know at this moment.
What is your relationship to spirituality?
Well, I’ve always been fascinated by all forms of spirituality, since I was seven years old or so. I’ve researched and read heavily into all sorts of traditions, in particular I was very involved with Tibetan Buddhists for about fourteen years, as was Marina. More recently, I decided to give Christianity a chance, because I was always kind of annoyed with Christianity, but my family’s background is in the Anglican church. My great-grandfather was a missionary to the Blackfoot Indians; there are generations of clergy in my family. So I went to seminary, I went to Union Theological Seminary; I think I was about 62 when I started, so definitely an older student.
I realized while I was there the enormous parallels between the kind of work that’s being done in the artworld by people like Alfredo Jaar or Paul Chan, people who are involved with kind of social justice issues. There’s a big parallel between that and what’s going on in particular at the Union Theological Seminary. So I began with the blessing of the president of the school a series of lectures where artists came in and talked about their work. Before I knew it, I had established an institute – the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice. Then, the school asked if I would step down as a student, because it was too embarrassing having a student run an institute, so they made me an honorary professor instead. So here I am, I’m directing an institute in the Christian seminary. It’s about as far away from whatever I could have imagined as it could possibly be.
My relationship to spirituality has taken a very specific form in the past five years. Before that, I was very eclectic and always very active. There’s lots of stories on the internet, I’m sure, about my various run-ins with everything from witches to bishops.
Regarding the challenge of both curating and presenting your own practice, how do you navigate those two roles and how do you perceive the marriage that is becoming more prominent between the two? Is it complicated, troubling, or a certain opportunity for artistic freedom?
Well I just do it my own way. I’m not saying that every artist can be a curator, and I’m not even saying that I’m a curator; but, for example, in the show there’s an exhibition within the exhibition called “Queer Zines,” and that’s a show I put together in 2008 for the New York Art Book Fair together with the collector Philip Aarons, an exhibition of queer zines that shows the history from the end of the ‘70s and early ‘80s up until 2008. So now for this opportunity we are updating that show; we’ve added a lot more publications. One gallery in the museum is an exhibition of publications and queer zines, and all that implies — Do-It-Yourself, and how do people make aesthetic decisions?, and do those decisions demonstrate the culture they’re imbedded in?
I don’t have a very clear way of talking about it. I used to, but I realized at a certain point that I’m really not a curator in the normal sense. I’m just doing what I do as an artist, to bring things together in a room. What I actually do as a curator is probably closer to what an artist does, than what a real curator would do.
It’s interesting that you say “normal sense,” because that’s a constantly evolving role.
Yes of course, and rather quickly too.
As an active participant and promulgator in the field of print media, how do you perceive the status of print publications in the artworld, and its future?
Regarding publications, I started the NY Art Book Fair eight years ago, and it’s about to have its eighth appearance this September, for the first time not organized by me. It’s really incredible how the field of visual publishing is just exploding in all directions. I know this year they have 285 exhibitors, and they’ve had to turn away masses of people. So I think the whole thing is about self-publishing or publish-on-demand, or publishing by smaller organizations — because in mainstream publishing, everything’s kind of crumbling and falling apart, but in the world of Do-It-Yourself, fine art publishing is really exploding. It’s alive and healthy and there’s an enormous sense of excitement and community. There seem to be particular cities that are sort of hotspots for independent publishing, like London, Berlin, and Tokyo. I think part of it is because through the internet you can self-distribute and sell your own things, so you can reach your audience globally. Even if you have something that has a very specific audience, you can find that audience without too much trouble.
At this point in your career, and given the nature of this Witte de With exhibition and its title, are you being quite conscientious and reflexive about the production of your own artistic legacy? Is that something that you’re actively pursuing the development and profile of?
Well, because General Idea ended in ’94, I’m very aware of legacy when placing work in the right collections and in the right museums and to make sure that it’s going to be publicly accessible. I’m very conscious of the issue of legacy with General Idea, and I guess I’m the executor of the estate, basically.
For myself, I think I see what you mean, and I’ve had people say similar things to me, and I don’t really know how to answer: I’m kind of just having a good time, frankly. I’m meeting so many people and especially so many people of a younger generation, and within the queer community there are so few people left of interest in my own generation: they all died. All the people who were risk-takers died. Now I have a lot of people looking up to me, for, as much as anything, just some acknowledgment, and I try to give that as much as I can. I’m a person who has all my life collaborated, and once General Idea ended, I just started to collaborate with whoever came to me and wanted to collaborate, if I felt any connection at all. I don’t know if that’s legacy or not. I’m just going with the flow.
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