AA Bronson on General Idea’s Radical, Enduring Legacy
General Idea, an art group that pioneered a queer aesthetic, is being celebrated in a retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada (opened during Pride Month and running through November 20, 2022). Surviving member AA Bronson talks about their heritage and impact on art and social justice
Few collectives have marked 20th century art history as much as General Idea. Born out of the Canadian counter-culture movements of the 1960s, the conceptual trio—AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal—has been fooling the art world for 25 years with their witty take on social ills, from late capitalist consumerism to popular media and the AIDS epidemic. crisis. (Partz and Zontal both died as a result of the virus in 1994.) Now the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa celebrates the group’s history with its most comprehensive retrospective to date, featuring more than 200 works spanning painting, video, sculpture, installations and archive material. “There are a lot of shifts and surprises from space to space,” Bronson tells me over the phone. “Because of the size of the gallery, there was an opportunity to do something amazing.”
Though it may be remembered as a sophisticated art trio, General Idea began as a commune of sorts when, in 1969, half a dozen friends moved into a small shop on Toronto’s bohemian Gerrard Street West. “Most of us were unemployed and looking for entertainment,” recalls Bronson. “So we started organizing fake shops in our windshields to keep ourselves busy and somehow that grew into a practice.” Early projects were ephemeral in nature and included mail art, experimental performances, and other interventions. For their first group exhibition in 1970, they submitted a work titled General Idea, which was misunderstood by the gallery as the name of the collective. “So we became General Idea!” Bronson laughs. Within a few years – after the creation of the iconic mock magazine FILE Megazine — the original membership dissolved, largely as a result of Toronto’s booming real estate market. “We couldn’t find another equivalent space where seven or eight people could both live and work,” says Bronson. “It just fell apart and we ended up with Jorge, Felix and me.”
Top: Self portrait with objects 1981–82 montage, gelatin silver print 35.6 × 27.7 cm National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Purchased 1985 (EX-85-142) © General idea Photo: NGC. Above: FILE Megazine, full. 3, no. 1 (Glamour Issue) Fall 1975 offset magazine 35.5 x 28 cm Art Metropole fund, Art Metropole Collection, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, Ottawa Gift of Jay A. Smith, Toronto, 1999 © General Idea Photo: General Idea Archives, Berlin, courtesy of the artist
General Idea cultivated a strange aesthetic before there was even a language to talk about it. As early as 1970, the group began organizing Dadaesque beauty pageants as a satirical performance of art and popular culture. Over the rest of the decade, iterations of the Miss General Idea concept unraveled in the form of archaeological fragments from the ill-fated fictional “1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion.” Once finished and dusted, the pageant fantasy was replaced by the equally camp motif of the poodle, which came to dominate the group’s work in the 1980s. Three detached canines first appeared in one explicit painting on MoMA PS1 in 1982 and soon found their way into custom flags, coats of arms scarves, fluorescent cloths, and photographic self-portraits. “It would have been the kiss of death to call yourself a gay performer,” Bronson recalled at the time. The poodles then became a coded trope for their ménage à trois at a time when no critics were willing to discuss sexuality. “They wrote about it as a metaphor for collaboration,” Bronson laughs. It was not until the mid-1980s that a suitable discursive framework emerged. “We felt like we’d been working all those years on as an excuse for someone to invent queer theory,” says the surviving poodle.
As the AIDS crisis deepened in the late 1980s, the group — then relocated to New York — became increasingly focused on the pandemic. from that period, IMAGE VIRUS remains their best-known work: an appropriation of Robert Indiana’s famous ‘LOVE’ logo from the 1960s, of which the four letters General Idea have been swapped for ‘AIDS’. Like the poodles, the AIDS motif first appeared in a painting before spreading across multimedia formats — subway posters, public sculptures, an animated billboard in Time Square, and advertising banners from San Francisco to Berlin — long mimicking the mechanisms of viral transmission. before ‘it viral’ was a thing.
AIDS 1987 offset print on paper 68.4 x 68.5 cm Art Metropole Collection, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, Ottawa Gift of Jay A. Smith, Toronto, 1999 © General Idea Photo: General Idea Archives, Berlin, courtesy of the artist
Although the work is celebrated today, that was not always the case. Turning “LOVE” into “AIDS” seemed like an obscene semiotic gesture that divided the New York AIDS community. The artistic arm of ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power), Gran Fury – known for its safer sex campaigns and guerrilla interventions – soon responded with its own appropriation of the work, this time with the name ‘RIOT’. “There was a kind of cultural divide between us,” Bronson recalls. ‘First of all, there was a generational difference: we were in our early forties and they were in their early twenties. Besides, we came from another country and we couldn’t go to demonstrations because we were afraid of being deported – we were living illegally in the United States.’
Since the deaths of Partz and Zontal, Bronson – who now lives in Berlin – has continued to create art while overlooking the group’s estate. “I have to choose so many things to show,” Bronson says of the countless retrospectives that have been staged in recent years, including at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Museo Jumex in Mexico City and MALBA in Buenos Aires. . But this thriving legacy was not always a given. Like many artists affected by the AIDS crisis, the collective had to maneuver strategically to avoid interference from unsupportive family members. “Essentially, the three of us incorporated General Idea as equal partners, after which Jorge and Felix each left their shares in the company to me,” explains Bronson. “That was before the possibility of getting married. That was the only way to really protect it, otherwise all kinds of claims could be made.” After Ottawa, the current retrospective will travel to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and to another yet to be announced location in Europe. Long live Mrs. General Idea. I