Photography by Bruce LaBruce
Interview by Jop van Bennekom
When AA first offered me his special butt massage, I had my doubts. But being back in New York earlier this year, I decided to go for it. AA asked me not to eat for a few hours before the massage, which was easy because I couldn't eat anyway. After drinking a horrendous number of cocktails in some hotel bar the night before I was totally hung-over. A bumpy taxi ride made me throw up right on arrival at AA’s beautiful Greenwich Village maisonette, located in the very same building that Monica Lewinsky happens to live in. AA Bronson used to be a part of the legendary conceptual art trio General Idea. These days, he divides his time between Toronto and New York, between making art and massage.
Jop: I want to start by asking you something about General Idea, but I don’t know where to start…
AA: That’s so much stuff, right? Twenty-five years of General Idea.
Yes, that’s what I mean.
Well, I worked with Jorge and Felix as General Idea for 25 years. At the point where they both became HIV positive or really at the point where they had AIDS, I began to think about death and how to deal with death. I started to take all these courses at the Body Electric School in California that I thought would help me in dealing with people dying. It was through these courses that I learned massage and all these other techniques like re birthing Actually, the butt massage was one of those techniques. So when I started studying all this stuff it lead me into a completely different area. Something that was more about life than it was about death in the end. Maybe this is all too serious for Butt?
I think in the last ten years of my life I learned more about myself than in the first 46 years of my life. It’s amazing what I found out when I started working with my body. I’m far more psychic that I ever could imagine for instance. I always had an intuition for understanding people but it was much more developed than I gave myself credit for. I think I have this ability to reach people. I have been doing massages for years now, and I never got into it professionally, only studying it. Finally, last year, I thought, this is ridiculous: I have all these talents and I’m not giving it to anyone and I should start doing it. So now I do, one day a week. I have some ‘clients’, for the lack of a better word.
And they come over here?
Yes, some of them come every week, others twice a month. When I work with people over a longer period of time I can really use my abilities as a healer. Especially the butt massage is something that you can learn but it needs practice.
What is it exactly that you do with your clients?
It’s so hard for me to describe what I do, to find a language. I mean, there is so much language that New Age masseurs use, but I find that it doesn't really describe what I do properly. At the Body Electric School, where I learned all my techniques, it’s called ‘sacred intimacy’
That sounds awful.
It does. There are websites with people calling themselves ‘sacred intimates’. There are probably six or seven people in New York doing this kind of work. Not so many in fact. There are a lot more in California.
What do you think of New Age?
I hate it and I love it! Most of what I dislike is the whole language that goes along with it. In a way, it’s marketing language. A way of packaging.
What bothers me about New Age is that too big questions are being asked in a far too simple way, like ‘Tjing tjing, what’s the meaning of life?’ There is this constant self-awareness that puts New Age people in a permanent existential state. Couldn't it also be okay not to be aware?
I think awareness is always preferable, at least for myself. There is this certain attitude that goes along with New Age. It’s very moralistic. I think all the language is very moralistic. In a way, the language around New Age is just as moralistic as fundamentalist-Christian language. You’re supposed to be learning from everything, and everything is supposed to make you a better person, all that stuff. I’m trying not to label my work. I always say that I work in the form of massage. It’s like I’m giving massages, but it’s much more. When I put my hands on someone’s body, I get information about them. It’s almost like a psychic thing.
Would you say it’s close to intuition?
Yes, it’s very close. It’s somehow part of the same thing. It comes through my hands. I still haven’t figured out what it is exactly. Part of it is like a vibration. I feel some kind of electric pulse that tells me something. Sometimes it’s very complex, like for instance this man I work with. All of his energy is broken up in little parts: his legs are separate from his torso and his torso separate from his arms, etc. My job is to work with the energy system that runs through and try to pull everything back together.
And this was something you felt immediately?
Yes, I felt a very highly tuned nervous system, a very high anxiety level. If it were a sound, it would be a really high-pitched sound. I needed to open up all the barriers so that the energy could flow through the body again. Another example is this man in his fifties who had come out recently. He was previously a PR person and had just given that up. As a PR person you have to be relaxed, friendly, and you can’t give people the feeling that you’re hiding something. He had that PR personality perfectly. When I worked with him I kept on thinking, there has to be a place in his body where he stores all the tensions accumulated over the years. I mean he has been in the closet for 55 years. But I couldn't find anything. His body felt like nothing. I was not getting any information whatsoever, which was very odd. Then I suddenly got this idea and I put my hand down to his sphincter. He was like holding absolutely everything in his asshole. The asshole is the most secret spot where you can hold deep trauma, incredible pain or anxiety and not show it to the world. In this case, that was where I had to start.
So what did you do?
Oh, it was such an amazing session! I got him sitting on the bed with his knees up so I could get to his asshole. With my hand I put just a slight pressure on his sphincter. I asked him to breathe with me: breathe in and breathe out, breathe in white light and breathe out darkness, breathe right down to his asshole. I think he thought at first it was fun to do, but at a certain point his eyes started to get really wide and he started to breathe extremely heavily, like very, very intensely. The breathing just took over. I could see that it was working. Each time he breathed out he started to shit. And he had no idea he was doing it. I mean he had no idea that he was shitting in my hand. When he finally saw the shit, he said, oh my god I am really getting rid of the shit of my life. I have to say that it is very unusual for it to happen this way. I had this instinct for where to go.
The notion of anal retentiveness…
You know what was funny? His personality was not anal retentive at all. He was very completely loose, relaxed…
The word ‘cool’ is another American invention. Maybe cool has something to do with simply hiding stress.
Yes that’s true. It’s very true actually. I think probably, the way a lot of gay culture works is that many guys close down the feeling in their body in order to have sex. On a superficial level they are enjoying it, they can be totally into sex but they’re not allowing some deeper level.
What’s that deeper level?
I think the body holds so much information that we hide from ourselves. Gay men tend to hold their sexuality in their genital area. They don’t let the sexual experience travel through the rest of their body. And they really miss out on a lot of pleasure. Especially American gay men don’t allow themselves real pleasure. They allow themselves the appearance of pleasure, but they don’t allow themselves the deep physical pleasure. I think European men are quite different.
Well, I meet all these Americans who are into yoga or…
Oh yes, but that’s power yoga! Competitive yoga. It’s athletic, not real yoga. Americans just can’t leave their competitive nature behind, even in bed.
Is a full-body orgasm part of this deeper level of sex that you’re talking about?
Yes, for instance. I really love this feeling of how sexual energy builds up and flows through my whole body. When it’s at its most intense, my entire body starts to shake and vibrate. Right from the top of my head down to my toes.
How long does a full-body orgasm last?
I actually don’t know, because your sense of time disappears. It feels like forever, but probably it’s the same amount of time as a normal orgasm.
I sometimes have such a heavy orgasm that my feet start to tremble, but I guess that’s not what you are talking about?
It probably is pretty much the same. What I’m talking about is probably one step up. I’m sure you had a sense of it. And most guys don’t even come to that, you know. We are really running out of time now. I think we should go straight to the massage.
Before we get down to business, I’m curious to know what you see when you look at me.
I’m not sure what you mean.
I mean my appearance, my body language, what do you make of that?
First of all, you look awfully Dutch…
And your centric gravity is low, you’re a little heavy on your feet, which probably means you’re quite grounded and consequently have a strong pragmatic side. And you have a sort of — this is something completely different — you have a sort of glow around your body. You seem healthy.
It’s a healthy glow?
Yes, like psychologically healthy. You have quite a strong physical presence. You are very much who you are, where you are, what you are. You’re in the present moment in the present place, which many people are not. I kind of see that in your aura as it were.
And the second step is when you touch people you get new information?
Yes, that’s another level of knowledge.
Okay, the butt massage. What is it and what are you going to do?
What I’m going to do first is to give you a total body massage, just to get your body relaxed. Which normally takes me about 45 minutes. I feel kind of embarrassed talking about it while we still have our clothes on…
Are you only going to work on the sphincter?
Well, basically there are three or four levels that we can or can’t go to. If I work with someone for the first time, I wouldn't take it all the way. The sphincter has two levels, there’s the outer and the inner sphincter. We are definitely going to work on the outer sphincter, which is just a massage technique around the asshole. If you respond well physically, we can also work on the inner sphincter. That’s just another layer of muscle lying a little bit deeper inside. And then one can also massage the prostate. But I wouldn't do that today.
(We go upstairs to AA’s bedroom where he has his massage table. The following conversation took place during the massage. Imagine minute-long silences in between sentences.)
Just lay down. Right here. Are you familiar with massages?
Please turn that way. Is it okay with you if I use some warm oil?
You’re very warm. How do you feel about doing this particular massage?
Well, I sometimes feel pretty disconnected from my body, so I guess for me it’s a good thing to do.
The energy flows through your body quite well, you don’t feel blocked. Although your legs feel a bit cool. You hold your energy in the upper part of your body… I’ll use some more oil. Is that okay?
I use sesame oil, which the body just soaks up. It’s a great oil. It’s a little expensive, but it’s really good for the skin. Full of vitamins. And you don’t have to shower afterwards, because your body takes it all in. Can I bring your arms down for a moment? Yes, to the side and pull one over. So anytime I do something that’s uncomfortable, please do say so immediately.
I don’t feel any body shame in your body. When people carry around a lot of body shame I pick it up instantly. I’m not feeling that.
I do have plenty of body shame. Especially in a sexual context.
That must have made it difficult to accept the offer to do this.
It’s not that sexual.
But it’s still body shame. I mean being naked in front of somebody you don’t really know. Maybe it helps that I’m old enough to be your grandfather. (laughs) I’m going to take my shoes off. For some reason, it’s better to give a massage on bare feet.
Yes. Well I have to change my description of you a little bit. Although I perceived you as grounded, you’re not completely present in your legs and feet. It’s like you are floating a little bit off the ground.
What does that mean?
You could use the expression literally; your feet are not on the ground. I’m not quite sure how to describe it. You’re very present in your outward manifestation, because your face and upper body are dealing with everything which comes along… Can I ask you to turn over? Yes, just right there.
It feels good. It’s quite different than a normal massage.
What do you feel is the difference?
The first time you touched me it felt, like, comforting.
I feel that you are a little guarded. I can’t tell to what extent it might be, were you always guarded? There’s some little barrier here… Are you breathing?
Your breath seems really shallow. If I would work with you on a regular basis, I would work on your breathing first. This massage really open up the lungs, gets oxygen into your system.
I also smoke a lot.
Weird, what is this?
Your body is releasing like crazy. There’s a lot going on. Those two points I’m pressing right now are Shiatsu points. They’re major spots on your nervous system. They release tension. I experience it myself as some vibration. I can feel the vibration under my thumb.
You’re not making that vibration?
No, it’s coming from your own body. Sometimes I send a vibration through a body, but in this case it comes from you.
Your heart area still feels a bit closed. How does it feel to you?
I don’t know.
Your energy in your belly is really, really strong. I would like to join the energy in your heart with the energy in your belly, so that they can flood back and forth. I could open up your heart, as it were. Are you feeling comfortable about doing the butt massage part right now?
Why don’t you turn over a little? There’s one great thing I want to demonstrate to you, but I’ll have to take my trousers off. Is that okay? I would like to kneel on your butt. It’s a great way of releasing. The butt is such a strong muscle, the only way to get enough pressure on it is to put a lot of weight on it. Can you feel it?
Do you really have all your weight on my butt right now?
Yes, all of my 165 pounds.
It doesn't feel like that.
It’s amazing isn't it? One thing you learn from doing butt massages is how beautiful assholes are. They’re so vulnerable, and each asshole has it’s own character. And you know the asshole is such a secret place… Are you okay?
Let’s not talk anymore, we need some concentration.
(After the body and butt massage, we go downstairs for an evaluation.)
I feel really weird now. It’s some kind of higher level of massage…
It’s quite powerful. You know, when you talk about a butt massage, it sounds vaguely humorous, but it’s serious.
How long did the butt massage last?
Half an hour.
No, that can’t be true! It felt like five minutes.
It was a full half hour. The whole massage was like one hour and ten minutes. I’m sure it felt like the body part was longer and the butt part shorter. It’s extraordinary what happens with time.
How does that work?
I don’t exactly know. It’s like you enter a completely new area of the body and, with that, another notion of space and time. The butt massage works for you especially because the root chakra, the root of your energy, lies exactly there. It’s your root of powerful energy.
In my ass?
In your ass. You also have a lot of power in your abdomen. The energy gets weaker when you get into the rest your body. You don’t let it circulate completely. Actually you are an extremely strong person, but maybe you are not comfortable with how powerful you might be. I think all of us are uncomfortable with our real power. It’s scary sometimes. When you get older you might come out more, feel more comfortable with it.
What were you saying, during the massage, about my heart? Did you feel it was guarded or blocked?
It feels to me you keep your heart covered. I think in general gay men do because we've had to hide to a certain extent throughout our lives, even when we were children. We had to hide our vulnerabilities, so we protected ourselves. There’s some shield over your heart. It’s not like a steel door or anything. It’s not impenetrable, but it’s there. I feel that you protect yourself emotionally a little bit from the people around you.
What about my asshole?
It’s a very generous asshole. The energy there is very, very strong. There are very little and tender assholes, shy and afraid ones. Just like there are all kinds of people, there are different kinds of assholes. Your asshole is strong, steady and there, you know, it’s just there. It’s a very nice characteristic. It’s a bit like how I described your physical presence before the massage.
What does it mean when you’re well connected with your asshole?
Well there is this issue of shame, and it’s in the asshole where a lot of people hold their shame. It’s also where we, in Jungian terms, hold our ‘shadow self’: that part of ourselves that we are not completely confident with. So the better the relationship is, the more you’re accepting all these different sides of yourself.
Is the butt massage a tantric technique?
No, not really, because it doesn't include sexual energy. With a tantric massage, I would include the penis and the balls. If we had more time today, I would have considered asking you if we could do a little bit of that. Just to include all of you. The basic idea of this tantric massage is to raise sexual energy through the cock and balls. Spreading the sexual energy throughout the body.
Is the tantric massage a form of sex?
Yes and no, I mean, I keep my clothes on. I suppose you could look at it as some fantasy form of a hand-job, but in fact that’s not what it’s all about. The person who is receiving the massage is just receiving. Sometimes receiving can be a really difficult thing to do. A lot of people want to do something back. Grab the masseur’s cock or something like that, but the idea is not to do that of course. When you’re able to receive one hundred percent it becomes something completely different.
It must be extremely intimate.
It is. As I said before, I pick up so much information when I do a massage and especially with a tantric or butt massage. I usually take my shoes off during a massage so I can let stuff travel through my body and release it through my feet. If I don’t do that, I can hold it and feel sad or angry after a session.
I actually feel a bit sad right now after the massage. Did you notice?
Yes, you’re holding a lot. Maybe some pain has come up. The asshole is just such an important hiding place. And it’s a tender loving spot at the same time. It’s a funny mix of things that gets released. I’ve seen people after a butt massage screaming and crying. Like this one guy who, after a butt massage, kept crying out ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy…’ over and over again.
Oh my god!
I had no idea! (laughs)
You love bodies.
Yes it’s true. I love bodies! I still find bodies completely amazing. It sounds stupid.
Not at all. Could you say that you’re celebrating the body?
Oh yes. I've been with many people when they died. Maybe that brought me to celebrate the body.
Does General Idea still exist?
Not really, the work still exists but not General Idea itself. It’s still a legal entity, with a bank account, but there’s no more work being made under that name. When my two partners died, General Idea died. Which was very difficult for me because not only my two best friends died but also General Idea and in fact a part of me died. It took quite a few years to get to do things on my own. I still wanted to make art, but I had no idea how to make it. I started making work using their deaths as a starting point.
Do you still work on the subject of death?
Maybe I’m finished with it. I might be. What I’m working on right now is this series of photographs of men in their beds. Being naked in their nests. I would like to show the bed as a place for life instead of death. It’s very relaxed, even when I photograph men with a lot of body shame they become very comfortable when they’re in their bed.
Body shame is such a weird thing.
I have plenty of it myself.
Are you aware that right now your belly is hanging over your trousers?
Yes. (laughs) I sort of like my belly. I’m relaxed with it. I like relaxed bellies, not like bellies of people who are holding in their stomach all the time. There are two ways how people gain weight. There are people who are gaining weight because of some protective covering and there are people who gain weight in a more generic way that your body naturally wants to go to reach a certain size and shape. They’re two different things. I always can see it when people put on weight as a protection, it’s like they are wearing a coat or something.
What about your beard?
Yes, what about it? I've taken off the sides a little bit. All my life I looked so much younger than I really was, like ten or even fifteen years younger. I grew a beard about six years ago. At that time I aged very rapidly because of grief. I needed something to hide behind. I thought my grief was too much for anybody to understand. And now I’m a bit experimenting with removing it. I think I’m going to take off a little bit more. For some time I really have withdrawn from the world. It’s time to come back.
BUTT NOTE —
It turned out that the next day, the effect of the butt massage was even more dramatic. Imagine a strange mix of sincere happiness and total depression, and a tendency to laugh and cry at the same time. AA is the first entry in our address book. Get in touch with him through his website: www.aabronson.com