An Interview with Steve Lafreniere
STEVE LAFRENIERE: General Idea conceived their work on the model of a virus inhabiting a host, manipulating the hosts own structure to mutate it. It was a strategy that was widely imitated and even mutated itself. But do you think that method has become exhausted?
AA BRONSON: I think the world is so much more complex than it was twenty or thirty years ago. So many ideas that then seemed almost frail or difficult to get a grasp on now seem totally ordinary. For example, the concept of postmodernism, which I think is essentially what GI were working with from the very beginning—although the term didn’t exist at that point. Now its sort of nothing much. We really perceived ourselves as trying to mutate culture on a larger scale through what we did. I don’t think that that’s possible anymore, the power of the media itself is on such a grand scale at this point. I guess in a way I’ve given up. I hate to say that out loud. [laughs]
SL: But have you given up? You are still making work.
AA: I’m lucky enough to have two lives. My life with General Idea was one thing, and that body of work and that approach now exists to be looked at and to be learned from in its own way. What I’m doing now has superficial similarities and some thematic similarities, but it’s very different. I don’t even know totally what it is myself at this point. I hope it’s as groundbreaking but I have no idea, really. I’m Immersed in it, and it’s difficult at times to have an overview.
SL: But was General Idea different in that regard? Did you know what you were doing as you did it? It did look so seamless.
AA: Actually, there was an Immense amount of work. Endless meetings. Talking, talking, talking all the time, trying to develop these ideas. It doesn’t show in the work how much discussion went into it. Its a very unusual way to produce art. Its funny, we didn’t really have any goals in what would be considered now the usual way. I think we wanted to have a sense, ideally, of pervading the globe; wrapping ourselves around the globe and subtly influencing the texture of culture. We obviously weren’t successful on a global-wide scale, but that was our ultimate ideal.
SL: And now?
AA: What I’m doing now is the opposite of that. The healing work is what feeds the artwork, and it comes very much out of one-on-one relationships with individuals, and perceiving certain patterns that then come out of that.
SL: Your current Installation at John Connelly Presents (AA Bronson * Healer) is based around a massage table and a small selection of bodywork paraphernalia. It is presented in a concise, colorful way that’s reminiscent of General Idea, but it’s more about a direct physical service that’s for sale.
AA: The biggest similarity is to the General Idea boutiques, which are installation pieces that are supposed to also operate as working boutiques, selling the General Idea multiples and editions. The idea was that they would become this kind of viral museum shop that could move through the world.
SL: Were they successful?
AA: The first one was made in 1979 or 1980. At that point, we were still in the era of the white cube. Museums did not like to destroy the purity of the white cube by having anything sold in it. For the most part, they refused to do it. Then there was the thing about the museum shops themselves. Most of them had monopolies on sales in the building, and they didn’t want any sales happening in our boutiques. They saw it as competition. But curators loved those pieces. There’s three of the boutiques altogether, and they’ve been shown endlessly in museums. But only once did a museum ever agree to actually have a salesperson in the installation selling pieces. It was very interesting to me that the performative part of it was basically denied by the museums. Most especially at the Modern. I had quite a big fight with them over it I’m afraid. It ended up looking very archival because in their case they wouldn’t even have the objects on the counter, in case they got stolen. But they wouldn’t have a salesperson there who would have prevented it from being stolen. They really altered the piece by putting a layer of thick plexi over the counter with flat things sandwiched underneath. And then some things just weren’t shown.
SL: So it lost any aura of commerce.
AA: Yes, it did.
SL: With the healing and massage, is there more of a delineation between being an artist and being an art worker who provides a service?
AA: There’s the Joseph Beuys thing—the art is healing. I’ve sort of flipped it inside out—the healing is art.
SL: Isn’t that the same thing?
AA: Its rather slippery, frankly. [The healing] is part of my artistic practice only because I say it is. There’s really no other reason for it to be considered that. I find the most interesting things in my career have been the moments that we knew we were onto something, but we were totally unable to explain it. Two years later we could explain it. I’m just trusting that this is one of those moments.
SL: It feels like it’s still developing.
AA: I did a version of this current show last fall in Paris. But the actual massage table set-up didn’t exist there. Rather, I used somebody’s apartment and had it set up as my massage studio. The gallery had the photo testimonials on the wall and they made appointments for me, and then I took clients to this apartment nearby. But I found it really didn’t work. The separation between the massage and the gallery was too great.
AA: Yes. The presence of whatever happens in the massage work was not in the gallery. Some sort of ineffable thing. In the John Connelly show I haven’t actually done any massage, because of my back. [AA recently sustained a ruptured disc.] I was planning to give massages before the gallery opened each day, and after it closed. I really felt it would collect an energy. But to tell you the truth I can feel that energy anyway, without anything having to happen there.
SL: I read a recent quote of yours about the “New Age” aspect of your current work. You said, “Most of what I dislike [about the term New Age] is the language that goes along with it. In a way its marketing language.” Is that one of the things you’ve addressed in this installation?
AA: I have in a way, but displaying it as such. I’ve used the marketing language with some ambiguity. Very General Idea again—am I complicit with it or am I critical of it? I’m both at once, maintaining those two stances simultaneously.
SL: I wonder if you’ll garner interest from actual New Age practitioners. Id love to read an interview with you in New York Spirit magazine! Do you use a public relations agent?
AA: Originally what I wanted to do was hire a real PR agent to carry out the sort of campaign that they would do for a new age project, like a spa, rather than what they would do for a gallery. One woman that I talked to wasn’t prepared to take on butt massage as a subject at all—which was a shame, because she’s very good. The other one was somebody who operates more in the art world. But she couldn’t get her head around what I wanted to do. She thought she would just phone up Jerry Saltz, stuff like that. It wasn’t what I wanted, so in the end I had to form my own media relations company, AA Bronson * Media Guru. But I haven’t completely followed through—I haven’t sent out a press release to New York Spirit.
SL: But otherwise it does sound like you are trying to redefine your relationship to the audience.
AA: Yes. For example, there are problems and benefits with showing at John Connelly, just because of his position in the art world as the bright young thing in the obscure location. Because of the obscure location I feel like I’m primarily getting hardcore art world people. On the other hand, because he’s the bright young thing, there is another flux of young people that come through that don’t go to a lot of galleries. So its been interesting. Ideally my audience should be way broader or at least more diverse than for an ordinary gallery show. I’m not too interested in making collectibles for rich folk.
SL: You mentioned that you normally give massage to people in conjunction with AA Bronson * Healer. You referred to them as clients. Do you see them as separate from the art world “audience”?
AA: That’s sort of exploratory on my part. Normally when I work with massage clients it tends to be on an ongoing basis. Most people will come back to me three or four times. Some have been coming for a year and a half. But the way I did it in the Paris show was that when you received a massage you also received a certificate. It was like you got a print, a limited edition that documented the fact that you had had this encounter.
SL: So they were both massage client and art collector.
AA: But what I found was that the people who wanted the massage didn’t really care about the print, and the people who wanted the print really didn’t care about the massage. The other thing was that the people who came to me in that situation, but could only see me once, were people who really needed to see me over a long period of time.
SL: Who were these latter people?
AA: It’s hard to say. They had heard about me on the grapevine. It seems to be a certain kind of network of mostly young people in their 20s, who are creative on the whole, and internet-savvy. A lot of this has happened through the internet—finding my website, and also them chatting with each other. But somehow, without ever meeting me, these people trust me. For example, there is a guy in Minneapolis who found my website through an online friend in Toronto. I have an online journal, and his friend directed him to that. That, in turn, had a link to an article [about me] at artforum.com. Based on that he sent me an email asking a lot of detailed questions, specifically about the butt massage. He wanted to know was it something other people in the country were doing? I wrote him and said that I was not aware of anyone in Minneapolis doing anything similar. His response then was, even is there were someone here doing what you’re doing Id still wait until I came to New York and Id see you. He said, “somehow I trust you.”
SL: You’re conflating the role of the spectator with those of the participant and the collaborator. There’s a little of the fan in there too—you are rather well known.
AA: Perhaps in the anti-celebrity world.
SL: How has the response been to the butt massage itself?
AA: I had a guy come to see me from San Francisco. He booked three appointments over five days. The first one nothing happened at all, from my point of view. He was just resisting, resisting all the way. He asked me a lot of questions—he was really in his head. I could tell him a lot about his body and what was going on with him, but I couldn’t get him to release in any way whatsoever. Two days later he came back and it was the same thing all over again. At the end of the second day he said, “I’m going to cancel my next session. I feel I’ve gotten everything out of this that I needed to. I said, “Well, from my point of view I’m getting quite frustrated, but I don’t feel like I can do anything.” At that time, I was refusing to give anyone the butt massage until the third session. You can set off a lot of things if you’re not exactly clear about the person. He said to me, “I think you should trust your intuition more, and go straight to the butt massage if you think the person can handle it. I think you should have done that with me.” Then off he went. He was a clothes designer for a department store in San Francisco, and he hated it. About a month later I got an email from him saying, “Thank you for everything you did for me. I’ve quit my job, I’m going to the Body Electric School and taking all their training, I’m going to some other school and doing this, and I’m doing a retreat with that. And my plan, after all these courses, is moving back to New York and setting up practice as a healer.”
SL: The last person you would expect that from.
AA: No, not exactly. I said to him while I was working on him, “I think that you could be really good at doing this yourself, if you could just let go of all the structure you’re holding together in your life.” I guess that stuck in his head.
SL: That brings up another subject. You’re work with General Idea mimicked the top-down orientation of received culture. Yet this is so interactive, for lack of a better term . . .
AA: But I’m also very aware of it as performance. I have to trust that whatever comes out is what should come out. I really don’t know what’s going to happen next. With massage, you can’t work on someone, you have to work with them. I don’t think of myself as being a masseur in the normal way. Its not … again, I just haven’t developed the language yet to talk about it.
SL: Maybe an apt analogy would be to a musician. Have you ever collaborated with anyone musically?
AA: Yes, I actually have a CD right now. Its the music for the current show. And with General Idea we were very closely connected to the world of punk and rock n roll and so on. We used musicians in our performances a lot. In fact, one of the issues of File was the punk issue.
SL: I remember. It had quite an Impact on me, and a lot of other people.
AA: I wouldn’t exactly call them collaborations, but there were various musicians we worked with in our performances. But in a way, the thing with File was a sort of collaboration. Genesis P. Orridge did pieces in File, and David Byrne. We brought the Talking Heads to Toronto before they even had a record out, I believe. They had come by car because they had no money, and we certainly had no money. There was a huge snowstorm in Buffalo, and they couldn’t get back to New York. So, they sat around our table for two or three days, reading magazines.
SL: There weren’t so many great ones to read back then. I suppose Interview was still somewhat fresh …
AA: When File put Debbie Harry on the cover of the punk issue, it was the first cover she’d been on. Andy Warhol had been one of the first subscribers to File, and whenever possible I delivered his issue in person. I remember taking him that one, and Ronnie Cutrone, who worked for Interview at that point, saying to Andy, “We should consider Debbie Harry for a cover.” Andy said, “Oh no, this is her only cover so far. When she’s had seven or eight covers, then well consider her.” (laughs)
SL: One had to already be a superstar to be airbrushed onto the cover of Interview. Tell me about the music CD you mentioned in conjunction with AA Bronson * Healer.
AA: I’ve been working with Andrew Zealley, a composer from Toronto. For this show he recorded a massage session I did with his boyfriend, using very, very sensitive microphones. So a lot of it is even just the sound of my hands on the body, and so on. There’s breathing sounds. We talked through it, so there’s some talking. He took those sound snippets and then orchestrated and structured something out of that, and then added a certain amount of orchestration over the top of that as well. The bass line, in a way, is the massage.
SL: Is it for sale?
AA: It’s for sale in the gallery, and they have it at Printed Matter. A few other places are going to sell it as well.
SL: I have one other question for you. The term is over-used, but do you find that this new spiritual work has been a breakthrough in your life?
AA: It’s not entirely new to me. I’ve been lucky enough to have an amazing spread of experience in my life. I got involved with Tibetan Buddhists in 1982, in Dharmsala with a small group of high lamas, just before they all died. There’s a generation missing, you know. There were these lamas who, in the 1980s, were in their 80s. Then, because of the escape from Tibet, the next generation after them were basically missing. And then there was the younger generation. These older lamas were the living wisdom of that tradition. I went there with Jorge to take a photo of the Dali Lama for the cover of a book that a friend was writing. Instead we got sort of plucked. There were a lot of westerners [around], but we got plucked and put into this very intense situation for about ten days.
SL: What happened?
AA: We were told by the senior tutor to the Dalai Lama, “You need to do this; you’ll understand as the years go by what it is.”
SL: That would be pretty hard to resist.
AA: Yes. It was very surprising and extremely interesting. I ended up doing this very advanced visualization for fourteen years after that. It just stuck. I took to it like a duck to water. I stopped around the time Jorge and Felix died, but I can still now … if I start the visualization, its like turning on a projector. The movie starts right up.
SL: You mentioned that you had had a strange encounter …
AA: Yes, that happened nine years prior to meeting the lamas. Jorge was from Venezuela. In 1973, when I was 28, I had a nervous breakdown. Jorge took me down to Caracas. His best friend from high school had since become an apprentice to a white witch. Again, I was sort of plucked, and had an amazing week with this witch.
SL: These incidents keep coming up throughout your life?
AA: There are these repeating things, yes, and they also all link together. Part of how I now give a session comes out of my experience with the witch. But I hesitate to tell these long stories . . .
SL: Go ahead.
AA: I really was in a rough emotional state. Jorge took me down to Venezuela to get me away from Toronto and to give me a holiday on the beach. His friend, the apprentice, immediately upon meeting me said, “I think you need my friend. You have to have a session with her.” So I did.
There was a certain amount of ritual involved. She smoked seven cigars. The first four cigars told her things. [mimics the witch puffing rapidly in and out on the cigar.] She listened to it, and she watched it, and she told me things the cigars were saying. She described my parents, she described my parents house, she told me a little about my life and so on, like any good psychic does to gain your trust. Then, in order to get the last three cigars, I had to pay her some money. It was a small amount, but it was part of the exchange. I also had to make the commitment that whatever the cigars told me to do, I would do. She said it would be in the form of a ritual I would have to carry out. So I made that commitment. The last three cigars pumped out a little recipe: seven oils and seven herbs. These were to be boiled up in a pot of water while meditating on the meanings of their names. In this tradition, one of them might be called “Loud,” or one might be called “Plenty”—these thematic names. Then I had to divide the pot of water into seven bottles, and once a day for seven days I had to wash myself with a kind of pure lye soap. As I was washing I had to concentrate on getting off of me anything that anyone had laid onto my body. Any expectations, anything like that. Then I had to pour one of the bottles of this stuff over my head and rub it all over my body and think about what I wanted out of my life, until it dried. Of course, it was full of oils—it took an hour to dry. For an hour I was thinking about my life.
After seven days I was to come back and, basically, she would tell me what had happened. I did so, and again out came the cigars. This time there were nine. With the first five she talked about my personality and that I should be more aware of who I was and not so much about what other people expected of me. What it came down to was that I was a highly empathic person and I needed to protect myself because I took on too much of other people’s stuff. Once again I had to pay her money for the last four cigars, and make a commitment to do whatever they said. Again I was told it would take on a ritual form, but that that it would in the future. I agreed. The cigars told her, “At some point in the future you will have forgotten completely about this session. You will find yourself in a country where you have never been before, in a landscape where you have never been before, standing under very large pine trees. On the trees will be large pinecones. The pinecones will be covered in yellow pollen.” Now, at this point Id never seen pinecones covered in yellow pollen. “That moment will be a crucial one in your life. It will be a spiritual turning point, and your life will take form from that moment forward. What you must do at that point is take nine pinecones, nine pine branches, nine herbs, nine oils, and boil them up and blah-blah-blah.” The ingredients were all spelled out in a way so that I would even be able to find them in Canada, weirdly enough.
SL Were you to keep all of this written down, say, in your wallet?
AA: I did. I kept it in my passport. Nine years later I arrived in Dharmsala. I’d never been in India. I’d certainly never been in the Tibetan community before. And I had never been … I mean, the Himalayas are quite different from the Rockies. It was maybe stretching it to say I’d never been in that landscape before but I really hadn’t, it’s so exotic. We had just arrived and had instantly found our friend who wanted us to take the photo [of the Dalai Lama] for the book. This Tibetan nun was with her. She sort of looked at us and said, “There’s a long-life puja being given for the Dalai Lama by his senior tutor. Its very, very special, there are no westerners allowed. But I think you should be in there.” She gave us a white prayer flag to hold, the two of us, and she ran off to the high lama, to get us a pronouncement. And I looked up and there were these hundred-foot-tall pine trees, covered with huge pinecones, and they were all completely covered in yellow pollen.
SL: You Immediately recognized it as prophetic. Had you been thinking about it before you arrived?
AA: Not at all.
SL: So you collected nine cones . . .
AA: I collected nine cones and nine branches and smuggled them back to Canada.
SL: Was this nun the connection with the high lamas you spoke of earlier?
AA: Yes. She came back and we were given permission to go into this ritual, and in we went. I still remember the high lama—it sounds so new age-y—but it was like a bolt of lightning hit me when we met. This was the beginning of the section of my life with the visualization I mentioned.
SL: Something that so profound must have had an Impact on your work.
AA: Well, 1982 was a change-over point. I think that the practice I started doing with the Tibetans at that time was something that deepened in my body with time passing. I can’t put a precise frame on it. But in some ways, it didn’t really start to bear fruit until Felix and Jorge were both diagnosed with AIDS. And then it was like something else kicked in, some other idea.
SL: Some other idea?
AA: . . . The whole process of having to plan General Ideas estate, and also in a sense to plan the process of Felix and Jorge’s deaths. How to orchestrate that whole thing, and then to be present for their deaths. It was an amazing life experience. Originally I had started learning the body work as a result of their HIV status, and one of the things the Body Electric school talked about was trying to develop a way to become a midwife to the dying. That is so close to the Tibetan way of thinking about dying. It all sort of came full circle.
First published in Commerce 10: People in Trade, New York: Commerce Books, 2008.