AA Bronson
Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

AA Bronson: “I’m as fearless as I ever was”

Short Profile

Name: Michael Tims
DOB: 1946
Place of birth: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Occupation: Artist

The General Idea retrospective is on view until 20 November 2022 at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario.

Mr. Bronson, is your identity as an artist separate from your identity as a person?

No, I don't have any sense of separation. There's not really a word for it, but it's just who I am. I just became the work! You know, my real name is Michael Tims but nobody's called me that for a very long time, except for the visa people here in Berlin! The main problem these days is that I'm divided: it’s difficult separating my solo work as AA Bronson from my work as part of the art collective, General Idea, which I operated with Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal from 1967 until the mid 1990s. I have AA Bronson exhibitions and General Idea exhibitions, and AA Bronson catalogs and General Idea catalogs. But I continue to work in this way of doing a little bit of everything…

Across your solo and General Idea work, your art has included publishing, architecture, photography, painting, and performance. Is it ever confusing to wear so many hats?

(Laughs) I used to think it was that I was just unable to make up my mind. I thought it was a problem. It's only as I got older that I realized, no, it's my strength. And I love all of it, even stuff like Instagram and social media, it's not really a problem for me. The only problem is that I'm getting too old to do as much of it as I'm used to doing so I'm trying to find other ways of having that stuff done without it taking so much of my energy, but for the most part, I hang on to it so much. I really want to do it all myself.

“We were entertaining ourselves right from the beginning. So we always had a good time.”

How did that work when you were operating as a collective?

Well, in that case, collectively, that's where Jorge, Felix and I started every day: sitting around a big table, talking about what we were doing. And everything kind of emerged from those conversations, all the decisions of every artwork, every performance, everything came out of those coffee sessions first thing in the morning. General Idea was a true collaboration because it was kind of like a commune, we were living together and working together and it was very open situation. I'm very much a collaborator, but I have to be collaborating with somebody I trust and respect.

What else do you remember about those early days?

At the very beginning, we were just kind of unemployed and bored. We didn't know we were collaborating. We just thought we were drinking coffee together. We lived in a little house on Gerrard Street West in Toronto; it had a storefront on the first floor so we had a ready made shop, but nothing to sell. So, for amusement, we began basically stealing stuff from the neighborhood. We found boxes and boxes of nurse romance stories thrown out one day and we dragged them all home, and set up a nurse romance bookstore with a little sign on the door that said, “Back in five minutes.” We’d just kind of hide and laugh at the absurdity of this store. And that's really how it began, just us playing around.

Was it ever daunting to start your art projects, or was it always a bit of fun?

Oh, we were entertaining ourselves right from the beginning. So we always had a good time.

Even when General Idea started crossing over into publishing with FILE Megazine, the arts and culture publication that you produced and actually sold on newsstands as a play on the iconic Life Magazine?

We came up with this idea because Arts Canada magazine had commissioned us to do an eight page spread around our Miss General Idea Pageant, a satirical performance art project we’d been putting on. But when they saw it, they refused because we did it in a kind of faux Arts Canada look. It looked like we were trying to claim that it was their article. So we thought, okay, well, if they're not going to let us be in their magazine, we'll make our own magazine. So it began.

FILE looked very similar to Life, logo and all, so I can imagine it fooled a lot of people.

We did that because we thought that that way, anybody would pick it up. It was clear when you picked it up that it was not Life, but there was that familiarity to it. I had been producing an undergrad newspaper in Winnipeg, so I knew cheap tabloid publishing — but that's really all I knew was tabloids! But we realized that if we wrapped a glossy cover around a tabloid, it looks like a magazine, and it costs almost nothing to produce. So that's what we did.

I love that sort of fake it ‘til you make it mentality. Would you say that’s how all art begins, just by throwing yourself in and seeing what happens?

Yeah, I think that's the artists personality. I think that's very true. It’s funny — with FILE we were publishing these articles, pretending the Canadian art scene was bigger than it was. Then we were pretending we were part of an international scene. At one point, we published an annual, which had little covers of all the issues published to date. Somebody from Time Life saw that we were illegally publishing all these issues that looked exactly like Life Magazine, and they went after us in a way that was very good luck for us. (Laughs) We got an enormous amount of publicity.

Is that when you knew you had a really good idea?

Yeah, I think so! In the sixties and seventies, there was really no art marketplace. Art wasn't about money. And it wasn't about visibility either. The first time an artist was on the cover of a magazine was in 1986, when Robert Longo was on the cover of New York Magazine. We all looked at each other and said, “Okay, something's going on. The art world is changing.” But before that, we were a hidden little world that nobody cared about.

Your art that deals with deeper issues, such as your iconic AIDS poster, definitely helped bring General Idea to a wider audience in the 1980s.

All the work we’ve done has had its serious side beneath any sense of humor or irony. There always needs to be a reason for doing it, and that, I think, is more evident in projects like the AIDS poster. That felt very gripping, like it was something that we really had to do.

Did the gravitas of that kind of topic also make it more difficult to make the art?

We were in our forties by the time the AIDS crisis happened, so it was a time when the part of your life where you're trying things out is definitely over, and now you're gonna go for it. So it was a time to really focus. It’s a weird thing to say, but in a way, we were lucky that it was so absolutely clear what we had to focus on. The three of us were all very, very focused through that period. And then Jorge and Felix, were diagnosed with AIDS in ‘89 and ‘90, and then it became very serious, of course.

How did that impact your focus?

I mean, it was a death sentence, right? We knew they were dying. So it became clear that we only had a certain amount of time in which to finish all the ideas we’d thought up. We had two assistants working with us for the last six months. We turned into maniacs, and we were like pumping out the art as fast as we could. And that's very evident in the General Idea retrospective exhibition taking place in Ottawa right now. The last room is from 1993, 1994. It’s amazing how much we did in that short period. The exhibition itself is in a space about 16,000 square feet, so it’s very big. I felt quite freaked out about it, you know, General Idea was 27 years ago, being at the opening with a lot of our friends around, it's like the last 27 years have been erased. My identity as AA Bronson, survivor, is no longer who I am today, but who I was in 1994. And that's very strange and surreal.

That was also around the time that you became a healer, right?

Yes, in the period leading to their deaths, I started taking courses in various aspects of healing, especially massage-based techniques. They both died at home. And I found that I was actually really good at being a kind of midwife for the dying. And so when they died, I thought I should really continue doing this. I have a kind of talent for it, and there was a big need for it at the time. It did take a while for me to put myself out there as a professional healer. I could have done it much earlier but I just didn’t have the confidence. But eventually I began to wrap that back into the artwork as well, I did performances and projects around the subject of healing.

“I was fearless as an artist! I was lucky to come of age at a time where there was nothing at stake in the art world.”

You said that initially, you lacked confidence as a healer. Did you ever get that feeling with art?

I was fearless as an artist! I was lucky to come of age at a time where there was nothing at stake in the art world. I think it also helped that there was three of us in General Idea and we worked fairly anonymously — our own names weren't on anything. Whereas as a healer, it was as an individual. And I wasn't used to taking credit for something individually. It was a new experience.

Apparently after Felix and Jorge’s deaths, it took you about 10 years to come into your own as a solo artist.

Even now, I’m not sure I’m totally comfortable with it. But in 2004, I started working as the director of Printed Matter Inc, and it was really important for me to be around people, to be in a public place where I could mix with the local arts community and get to know people. There's a kind of magic to an artist bookstore, there is the shine of creativity in the air. Ideas sort of percolate and take off and turn into something bigger. So that was that was good. I was at the center of a very big creative community. And it was very, very fulfilling actually. But you’re right that  after their deaths, I really didn't know what I was doing anymore. There were still exhibitions planned that I had to complete, and then there was a period of about five years where I really had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I wanted to continue being an artist, but I didn't want to look like I was still doing General Idea.

What changed?

I guess I realized finally that I had to begin from the fact of the deaths. So I had a portrait of Felix that I had taken just after he died… And then I thought, “Well, I have to do a portrait of the part of me that died with them,” so I made a kind of black coffin with a full size naked portrait of myself on the lid… Moving on without them was very tough.

Do you think that after their deaths, you lost a bit of that fearlessness you mentioned?

I think the 10 years after their death were very difficult. But then I gradually got my feet back on the ground and found myself again. And in the end now, I'm just as fearless as I ever was.