The Canadian Art Database

TRAFFIC | Conceptual Art in Canada 1965-1980

General Idea

Active between 1969 and 1994, the celebrated collaboration between AA Bronson (b. Michael Tims), Feliz Partz (b. Ron Gabe), and Jorge Zontal (b. Slobodan Saia-Levy) titled General Idea generated an enormous body of work and forged a legacy through 123 solo exhibitions, the publication of the influential FILE Megazine, and its involvement in the early years of artist-run culture in Canada. Throughout their partnership, the members of General Idea produced films, videos, performances, installations, paintings, photography, sculpture, and events, and gained international recognition for their work and their activism for HIV/ AIDS awareness.

Bronson, Partz, and Zontal moved to Toronto in the late 1960s, each drawn independently by the city's counter-culture movements and gravitating to the openness and collectivism of Rochdale College. Beginning as performers, they staged several performances at Theatre Passe Muraille, including Laundromat Special #1 and Match My Strike. Later that year, the three artists rented a house at 78 Gerard Street West, and the apartment became the first General Idea Headquarters, a meeting place for Yorkville hippies and artists. The Gerard Street house lead to collaborations on elaborate window displays, the unfinished experimental film God Is My Gigolo, and exhibitions such as Waste Age, The Belly Store, and Betty's.

General Idea was heavily invested in alternative theatre, film, and publishing communities at the end of the 1960s, and by the 1970s, the collective had become increasingly involved with the visual arts community, responding to the international discussions of Conceptual art. In 1969, the collective began recording performance ideas on index cards similar to those produced a year later for David Askevold's historic Project Class at NSCAD. The cards are filled with irreverent performance scenarios; one reads, "Pieces of cheese are stolen. They are served with fruit, on large platters, ceremoniously." In June 1970, General Idea participated in its first gallery exhibition, Concept 70, at the Nightingale Gallery. The group produced the Conceptual work Line Project, which began with an announcement on CHUM Radio inviting listeners to participate in a "Conceptual Art Project" by calling the General Idea phone number. General Idea mapped and photographed the respondents and invited them to the gallery to participate in a "Rope Holding Event."

Between 1970 and 1983, General Idea's production focused on the mythic Miss General Idea Pageant—especially the 1984 installment that would never materialize. The pageant started as part of a larger performance titled What Happened, at the Festival of Underground Theatre at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in August, 1970. Honey Novak was crowned "Miss General Idea 1970," and the three artists retroactively crowned Granada Gazelle and Mimi Page Miss General Idea 1969 and 1968, respectively. Just over a year later, General Idea staged the 1971 pageant at the Art Gallery of Ontario; this time the title went to Michael Morris of Vancouver's Image Bank for "capturing glamour without falling into it." At the end of the pageant, General Idea announced that it would work towards the 1984 General Idea Pageant, and particularly on the Miss General Idea Pavilion where the pageant would be held. The themes of the 1984 pageant were explored through a series of exhibitions, videos, performances, installations, and events. Perhaps the most important of these was the exhibition, Going Through the Notions, presented at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery in October 1975. For this exhibition, General Idea produced a series of show cards and blueprints that laid out the "frame of reference" for the 1984 Pageant. For the 1977-1978 exhibition, Reconstructing Futures, also at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery, General Idea staged the destruction of the Miss General Idea Pavilion through a tragic fire. Following this disaster, the collaborators began impersonating the archaeologists attempting to piece together the fragments of the enigmatic and never-constructed building.

Beyond their work as artists, the members of General Idea published the internationally significant artist magazine FILE Megazine, and founded the artist-run publishing and distribution centre Art Metropole (1973-present). Both the magazine and Art Metropole were in keeping with General Idea's primary interests in marketing, advertising, branding, and fame. With a logo based on the American magazine Life, FILE gave General Idea a platform from which to multiply its interests and participate in a cross-country and international network of artists. One oft-cited passage from FILE lays out the framework for General Idea's seemingly quenchless thirst for fame. "This is the story of General Idea and the story of what we wanted," the group wrote in 1975; "We wanted to be famous, glamourous and rich. That is to say we wanted to be artists and we knew that if we were famous and glamourous we could say we were artists and we would be."

General Idea has been the subject of major international survey exhibitions organized by the Kunsthalle Basel (1984-1985); the Albright Knox Art Gallery (1986-1987); Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart (1992-1993); the Art Gallery of Ontario (1997 and 2011); The Blackwood Gallery, University of Toronto, Mississauga (2003-2007); and the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2011). Its work has been featured in major international exhibitions at museums and galleries around the world including the Biennale de Paris (1977), the Venice Biennale (1980), Documenta (1982, 1987, and 1997), the Biennale of Syndey (1982), the Bienal de Sao Paulo (1998), and the Biennale de Lyon (2005). In 1994, Feliz Partz and Jorge Zontal died of AIDS-related causes. AA Bronson continues to work as an artist. In 2002, he was awarded the Governor General's Visual Arts and Media Award; in 2008, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada; and in 2011 he was made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in France.

Further Reading
Ammann, Jean-Christophe, Louise Dompierre, Elisabeth Levovici, and David Moos. General Idea:
    A Retrospective 1969-1994
. Edited by Frederic Bonnet. Paris; Toronto: Musée d'art moderne
    de la Ville de Paris and the Art Gallery of Ontario with JRP/Ringier, 2011.
Bayer, Fern, and Christina Ritchie. The Search for the Spirit: General Idea 1968-1975. Toronto:
    Art Gallery of Ontario, 1997.
Bordowitz, Gregg. General Idea: Imagevirus. London: Afterall, 2010.
Fischer, Barbara, ed. General Idea: Editions 1967-1995. Mississauga: Blackwood Gallery,
    University of Toronto at Mississauga, 2003.
General Idea, and Willoughby Sharp. "The Gold Diggers of '84: An Interview with General Idea."
    Avalanche (Winter/Spring 1973): 6-21.
Ruf, Beatrix, ed. File Megazine. 6 vols. Zurich: JRP/Ringier, 2008.