ART IN AMERICA
Artist AA Bronson (born Michael Tims) was a founding member of the Toronto art collective General Idea (1969–1994), who published seminal artist magazine File Megazine and founded the artist bookstore Art Metropole in 1974. Since the deaths of his collaborators, he has established a solo career as a multimedia artist and worked as the President of Printed Matter, Inc. A new edition of Bronson's early work of fiction shows the artist expanding the book format through experimental, sexual models early on. Written in 1968, Lena is a provocative work of pulp-erotica that Bronson co-wrote with S.H. at the age of 22. Published by Taurus books in 1968 and Venus Library in 1971 under the pseudonyms A.L. Bronson and A.C. McWhortle, Lena recounts the lurid exploits of a sexually precocious poor black teenager, whose molestation at the hands of a biker gang leads her on a journey in search of the ultimate carnal satisfaction. 30 years later, Bronson has published a third edition of the book under his own imprint, Media Guru, with a cover image by Richard Prince—what better time, as the latter artist's work is censored from Tate Modern? At last, Bronson has also given his story the revised title Lana, which, of course, spells anal backwards.
ASHER PENN: When did you start writing Lena?
AA BRONSON: I began writing Lena with a group of friends in Toronto in 1968. This was just before General Idea. A group of us lived in a big old Victorian house, and we had very little money. It was a time when the pornography market was just heating up and small publishers were looking for material. About 8 of us originally met to try and work out a plot—the idea was that we would write a chapter each—but in the end my friend Susan and I did all the writing. It took us about a year. I have to admit that my own sexual experience was pretty limited. I was 22 and had had adult sex for the first time the previous year (I had affairs with a man and a woman going on more or less simultaneously). But I had read a lot, mostly classics like Lady Chatterley's Lover and Story of O, and I had a vivid imagination, so I had no trouble churning out prose. I knew that unless I was at least semi-aroused as I wrote, the book was probably not good enough.
AP: What was your inspiration for Lena's character?
AA: The idea for Lena was that she was in a way nothing, or no one at all. She does not speak once during the entire book; she has no essential character of any sort, and she acts only as a kind of receptacle for other people's fantasies, including those of the reader. She is the "other" in other ways too, being black, poor, and under-age (the audience was presumed to be mostly white middle-class males). Remember this is before the era of political correctness, and identity politics did not appear for another 15 years. In retrospect it's interesting that we cast so many of the characters as black, presumably in an American city, when we had no personal experience with black American culture. Certainly we were writing tongue in cheek, with the intent of being provocative.
AP: Lena's a special protagonist. No matter what situation she's in, she manages to make it a source of amusement and titillation, and occasionally orgasm. What inspired such a character?
AA: Yes, well put. Lena is above it all. She enjoys the awkwardness of each person's sexual appetites. In a way she's like an airline hostess, taking us on a journey to various exotic places, where the natives have strange habits.
AP: It's funny that on the cover of the second edition there is a picture of Lena. Did you have anything to do with that cover photograph?
AA: I had absolutely no involvement with the book design or the choice of cover photos for either of those editions. But the publishers obviously felt they had to provide an image of an actual Lena to sell the book. It's funny, I never had a strong opinion on the representations of Lena on the first two editions, but neither of them seemed right to me. Lena is more idealized than any photograph can convey: removed, yet present; innocent, yet essentially depraved.
AP: I don't want to give anything away, but the book begins with a revenge plot involving a biker gang, and it concludes in a far more... spiritual place?
AA: The book begins in Lena's neighborhood with a biker gang that reminds me of one of the gangs from West Side Story. Then it moves to Lena's own home, and her mother, whose maternal instincts are not quite what one expects. But in her search for some sort of ultimate satisfaction, she engages in a journey somewhat like those that all great heroes must undergo in their search for the holy grail, or the golden fleece. She endures hardships that carry her from scene to scene, each chapter more extreme than the last, until, in a grand climax, all the characters in the book gather to watch her final scene. The Epilogue, missing in the second edition, provided the denouement in a more Shakespearean sense.
AP: Who were the first publishers? What did they think of the manuscript?
AA: The first publishers were a very fly-by-night Canadian outfit that I think were probably a branch of an American company. We sold them the manuscript for $800 and they were enthusiastic about the text. They hired us to do a second book, but by then we were bored. But Lena was a grand success, at least to our minds, because it was banned in Canada, seized by the police and burned.
AP: I heard about that. The entire time I was reading it I was trying to figure it out why? What part upset people so much?
AA: It wasn't only Lena that was banned. The porn industry was moving into Canada from the USA, and mostly into Toronto, and the police wanted to bring that to a halt. They raided all the porn bookstores in town and seized a lot of titles from these new small publishers who were actually financed by American money (probably crime money). So Lena was only one of many and not that special. But it still makes a good story.
AP: It also makes the first edition incredibly hard to find. The first Lena was published under the name A.L. Bronson. How did you come up with that name? Is that how you became AA?
AA: I didn't come up with the name. That's the name that was printed on the book when it appeared on the stands. I was never consulted. The book was seized by the police and burned soon afterward, and somehow everyone remembered it as AA Bronson, I think because of a joke about being first in the telephone book. That first edition was published by Taurus Press in Toronto. After the book was banned, they sold the rights to an American publisher, who brought out a second edition under the name of A.C. McWhortle, again not our choice. This edition omitted the Epilogue, which we have restored in the new version.
AP: How does it feel to see Lena finally published as Lana? It seems like you've just unveiled a secret you've been keeping for 30 years.
AA: I'm thrilled to have the new edition out at last. I've been wanting to do this for 20 years. And the new name, of course! I certainly have never kept Lena/Lana a secret, but this is letting it all hang out, My philosophy of life (and art) has always been to keep my personal and public lives as one, as transparent as possible, and one with my art. Nice to let Lena out of the closet, along with my depraved heterosexist tendencies.
AP: I like the Richard Prince drawing on the cover of the new edition. Was that image his idea or yours?
AA: The book is designed by Gareth Long, together with his friend Mike Gallagher, of We Have Photoshop. They came up with the idea for the slippery endpapers, and the Richard Prince image on the cover. I sent Richard a copy of the text and an invitation to come up with something (in my mind it was going to be a close-up of a black cunt), and he came up with this... quite a surprise at first, but the more we thought about it, the better we liked it. In fact it inspired an insert for the limited edition version, a black cardboard 12 inch ruler—it looks rather similar to the extended black loincloth in Richard's image but also corresponds to the 12-inch black dick that figures largely (or should I say hugely) in the story.