“Being a trio freed us from the tyranny of individual genius.”
General Idea is the collective project of artists Jorge Zontal, AA Bronson, and Felix Partz. Between 1969 and 1994, the trio transformed their life together into a “living work of art,” which they presented in performances, objects, videos, and publications. In doing so, they forged a complicated theory about how visual forms operate in society, best summarized in their motto “image is virus.”
The group came together in Toronto in the late 1960s, galvanized by the decade’s psychedelic counterculture and experimental art practices, and its politics of protest and communal living. General Idea took aim at the myths of consumer affluence, patriarchal power, and technological progress that shaped life in North America after World War II—myths they argued were sustained by cultural forms and images that spread through society like a virus. The group’s strategy, drawing from Susan Sontag’s idea of camp and from the queer science fiction of William S. Burroughs, was to appropriate these cultural forms and images, exposing their power and using their viral nature to spread alternative, more subversive, messages.
General Idea’s first major experiment in appropriation was their 1970–71 “Miss General Idea Pageant,” in which they emulated a beauty pageant to mock the competition of the art world. Over the coming years, General Idea appropriated the mythic forms of postwar militarism, fashion, and architecture. They circulated the resulting artworks through a network of correspondence artists they called “The Subliminal,” and in the pages of their own journal FILE. The group eventually assembled these various projects into a vast mythological apparatus, which they explained would one day be housed in the 1984 Miss General Idea Pageant Pavilion. Though never built, this planned museum-like structure was the subject of exhibitions, artist books, and a set of 289 explanatory “showcards.”
In the 1980s, General Idea targeted the booming art market with their increasingly explicit queer politics. Having relocated to New York, in 1987 General Idea commenced their final project, “IMAGEVIRUS,” in which they reconfigured Robert Indiana’s LOVE to read “AIDS.” In the face of the horrifying epidemic, which in 1994 would claim the lives of Zontal and Partz, General Idea once again returned to the notion of the image as virus, to point to alternative ways of living and dying.
Nicholas Croggon, independent scholar
Note: opening quote is from General Idea, “Three Heads Are Better,” FILE magazine, 4, no. 1 (summer 1978): 14.