General Idea was formed in Toronto in 1969 by Jorge Zontal (1944–1994), Felix Partz (1945–1994), and AA Bronson (b. 1946). Over the next twenty-five years, the group produced groundbreaking work in numerous mediums, prefiguring relational aesthetics and institutional critique. Best known for addressing themes from popular culture to queer identity, General Idea played a crucial role in the development of art and activism in Canada and beyond.
Harnessing humour and parody, General Idea borrowed structures from mass media — such as television, advertising, and magazines — to probe the production, circulation and consumption of images, art and culture. Between 1970 and 1978, the group used faux-beauty pageants to satirize the contemporary art world, simultaneously inhabiting and interrogating glamour, fame and consumerism. The 1971 Miss General Idea Pageant (1971) involved submissions from artists across North America, and culminated in an elaborate awards ceremony, simulating a live television broadcast with speeches and prizes.
From 1975 to 1984, General Idea produced a series of works centred around The Miss General Idea Pavilion, a fictional edifice intended to house the ultimate Miss General Idea pageant. In 1977 — seven years before it was built — the Pavilion dramatically (and paradoxically) burned to the ground. Conceived as a decentralized museum, its fragments housed in institutions around the world, the fictional Pavilion would double as a comment on the structure of the art world and the changing role of museums. Blurring the boundaries between past, present and future, the Pavillion and its fictional archeological remnants deconstructed the mythos surrounding art, architecture, archives and artifacts.
General Idea’s strategies shifted in 1987, when the group began its acclaimed Imagevirus series. Living in New York and faced with the reality of the AIDS crisis, they famously appropriated American artist Robert Indiana’s Pop Art LOVE (1967), substituting the word “AIDS.” Initially a painting, their AIDS logo quickly found expression outside the gallery — notably as an animation for the Spectacolor Board in New York’s Times Square, and in poster campaigns from San Francisco to Berlin. Located at the nexus of art and activism, General Idea’s AIDS project took on new urgency following Partz’s and Zontal’s HIV diagnoses in 1989 and 1990. Both died of complications from AIDS in 1994, prompting the untimely dissolution of General Idea.
The group has had more than 100 solo exhibitions, and countless group exhibitions internationally, and has produced a wide range of public art projects. It was awarded the Bell Canada Award in Video Art in 2001, The Governor General's Visual Art and Media Award in 2002, and the Skowhegan Medal in Multimedia in 2006.
In addition to its prolific artistic output, General Idea’s contributions to contemporary art include the founding of two important institutions: FILE Megazine (1972-1989) — a periodical whose first subscribers included Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol — and Art Metropole — a publishing and exhibition platform that has been distributing artists’ books, audio, video and multiples in Toronto since 1974. FILE and Art Metropole attest to General Idea’s vital place in the history of independent publishing and artist-run culture.
In addition to working as a solo artist since his partners’ deaths, AA Bronson has continued to preserve General Idea’s legacy, occasionally reactivating their work in the present.