With projects as diverse as the artist collective General idea, File magazine, printed Matter, inc., and the School for Young Shamans, the extraordinarily active artist, magazine publisher and curator AA Bronson has been “living life radically as social sculpture” since the Sixties. Here he discusses what punk means to him.
Interview by Mara Goldwyn
SLEEK: There seems to a revival of interest in punk as fashion, but also in DIY lifestyles. What was punk and what is punk?
AA BRONSON: it started in london – it was about kids realising that they could manufacture their own records, they could make their own zines. They could do what they wanted, in the way they wanted, without a hierarchy such as the music industry. photocopying and cheap record production were really the fore- runners of digital technology – and the whole punk aesthetic and punk approach to life is perfectly suited to our digital times. now the production of anything is possible to do on an extremely small scale and distribution through the internet is really easy…
But with digital technology anybody can find something that once might have been considered “underground.” before, you had to work for it more.
Yeah, a quick Google search and no one’s really underground anymore. There’s not this sense of being against the culture, standing in opposition to the primary culture like it was in the Seventies. But i think about the Occupy movement as the punk version of being a politician. it’s based on freedom of information through Twitter or Facebook or whatever. Action can happen in a very horizontal way instead of a hierarchical way, and that to me is the essence of punk.
What is queer punk?
The queer zine movement is only possible because of the punk zine movement – there’s a whole lot of overlap. A book i published, Queer Zines, traced the lineage from the punk zines of the eighties to 2008 when the book came out, and how they transformed over time. For example with the arrival of Butt magazine it suddenly hit the middle class and became, you know, normalised.
There’s this idea of a Punk belle époque in london and new York in the seventies, the “authentic” punk…
We did a punk issue of File where we looked at the bands of london, lA, new York and Toronto. And it’s interesting because the British ones were so much more visually eccentric.
But we’re all told that that was the time when everyone could really be themselves…
Not true. The parameters for how you could dress to be identified as a punk were pretty narrow. it became a label pretty quickly… [now] you can buy the right clothes and the right attributes and become a punk. i think it’s a little bit like the idea of the cowboy in American culture, representing the individual, the hero against all odds. punk doesn’t care about society, doesn’t care what’s demanded of them, doesn’t care about all the pressures, and power and a voice as an individual, which is completely fake at this point, it’s much more of a style.
Is punk political?
It was basically saying “fuck you” to the whole system, to the parents. especially in london it was the disenfranchised working class – no money, nothing to do, no chance of having a job. in new York it was a much more middle class phenomenon. CBGBs had this façade of being working class, anarchic. But Anarchism didn’t have a strong foothold. it was really capitalism in the end. At the beginning it wasn’t clear what was punk and what wasn’t. Talking Heads and Blondie were included in all that. But it quickly became clear they were more ambitious. in ’77 we put debbie Harry on the cover of the punk issue of FILE. It was her first cover ever. When we went to photograph her she was re- cording in a studio on the top floor of rockefeller Center. So this is like, not very punk to be recording at the top of rockefeller Center, right? She got so freaked out about it that she insisted they had to record in the bathroom. So they recorded their first LP in the washroom of rockefeller Center.
Would you consider yourself a punk?
Because it seems like you have a career of just doing things, not waiting for the industry.
That’s why things like the [Printed Matter] new York Art Book Fair took on that flavour. We really gave priority to the DIY people. We weren’t against the big publishers – we charged them premium amounts of money and gave free stands to people with no money, make the big people finance the lower people. A robin Hood approach.
There’s this situationist idea that relates to punk… that the way you live your life is itself an artwork. And I see that in General Idea.
We lived our lives as a sort of expanded artwork. And i still do today. But now in the art world it’s more about objects. When you go to art school you are being trained to make objects, trophies for rich people. i’ve been teaching at Yale, and as much as you to try not to do that, that’s what hap- pens. it’s all about participating in the market; it’s not about making culture. Though there are exceptions.
The way you say it, makes it sound like “punk is dead.” Does punk have a future?
Doing the new York and LA Art Book Fair, what i’m really impressed by is the explosion of DIY art publishing. There’s a whole world of art going on out there that for some reason is taking the form of publishing. And that if there’s something that’s punk it’s that – and it’s growing very, very fast. Very exciting!
Taken from Sleek 38, “The One and the Many” issue.