The internationally celebrated artist collaborative General Idea (active 1969-1994) produced a vast body of work in a large variety of media: performance, installation, painting, sculpture, and photography. The group had an extensive output of low-cost publications and multiples, and were pioneers in video art. In their 25 years together, they held 123 solo exhibitions and were included in 149 group exhibitions internationally, including the Paris, Sydney, Sao Paulo, and Venice biennales and Documenta.
General Idea first came together as a casual relationship between AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal when they each separately gravitated to the counter-culture underground in Toronto in the late 1960s. By 1969 they were sharing a house, found common interests in mass media and popular culture, and began their legendary 25-year association. Early on, the three principals assumed noms de plume to reflect new identities as collaborators: Michael Tims (b. Vancouver, British Columbia, June 18, 1946) became AA Bronson; Ronald Gabe (b. Winnipeg, Manitoba, April 23, 1945; d. Toronto, Ontario, June 5, 1994) became Felix Partz; and Slobodan Saia-Levi (b. Parma, Italy, January 28, 1944; d. Toronto, Ontario, February 3, 1994) became Jorge Zontal. In direct opposition to the popular myth of the artist as a solitary genius, General Idea purposely obliterated their individual identities, starting around 1972, and worked under a corporate name reminiscent of General Motors. General Idea focused their creative energy on understanding how the artist, the creative process, the museum, the media, and the audience interact to form culture. To explore these phenomena, General Idea created a fictional narrative: Miss General Idea and The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion (sic). From 1970 to 1978, General Idea created performances and installations centred on the construct of the beauty pageant as a simulacrum and critique of the art world. As the moment for the ultimate 1984 Miss General Idea Pageant approached, General Idea destroyed their fictional pavilion and became “archaeologists” (1979-1987), searching the ruins for “artifacts.” Their work now focused on the object, and performance vanished. By 1987 General Idea shifted focus to the AIDS pandemic. Appropriating Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE painting of 1967, General Idea created the AIDS logo and began a publicity campaign for the disease. Over the next seven years (1987-1994) they mounted over 50 temporary public art installations, projects, and gallery exhibitions internationally. Related work followed, including the installation One Year of AZT and One Day of AZT, and Fin de siècle.
General Idea were also active in promoting and disseminating work by other artists. They published 26 issues of FILE Megazine (1972-1989), which centred on artists’ projects. In 1974 they founded Toronto’s Art Metropole as a publishing and distribution centre for artists. As a result of these activities, they assembled a large collection of artists’ books, multiples, video and audio works, mail art, exhibition catalogues and other publications, printed ephemera, and archival material, which became known as the Art Metropole Collection. This collection was donated to the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives in 1999 by Jay A. Smith of Toronto.
Over the course of their career, General Idea were honoured with many awards, among them the Lifetime Achievement Award, City of Toronto (1993); the Jean A. Chalmers Award for Visual Arts, Toronto (1994); and the Bell Canada Award for Video Art, Bell Canada and the Canada Council, Ottawa (2002). AA Bronson now works as a solo artist and continues to exhibit internationally.
The three artists of General Idea had been publishing their periodical FILE since 1972. The enormous interest they received internationally led them to found Art Metropole as a means for other artists to access their distribution system, and as an archive of artists’ materials, especially artists books, periodicals, video, audio, and ephemera. They conceived Art Metropole as the gallery shop and archive from the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion. In 1974 they opened their doors to the public in an abandoned space over a Greek restaurant in downtown Toronto. The building had originally been built in 1911 for one of Toronto’s earliest art galleries, Art Metropole (which closed in the forties), and from this came the name for the artist-run space Art Metropole.
In 1975 Peggy Gale joined Art Metropole to initiate AM’s first video distribution service, one of the first in the world. In 1987 it was discontinued and Art Metropole began publishing artists’ video in low-cost VHS format for general distribution instead.
Art Metropole began publishing books in the late 70s. “Performance by Artists” in 1977 was the first of a series of resource books on new artists’ media. The same year AM published “3 death stories” by Tom Sherman, the first of a long series of artists books.
Although AM hosted video screenings and book launchings, AM did not undertake an exhibition until 1982, when AM toured the seminal exhibition “Museums by Artists”. In 1984 AM presented the first exhibition on their own premises, a tenth anniversary overview of the Art Metropole Collection. In the late 80s AM established a small exhibition/display space and began their regular exhibition program.
In the meantime AM continued to produce a series of innovative distribution-based projects such as “Ads by Artists” (1987) and “Billboards by Artists” (1997). In both cases AM commissioned artists to produce art works for conventional advertising space, in one case in the advertising section of international art magazines, in the other, on billboards in downtown Toronto.