PRINT February 2011

AA Bronson

General Idea, on the roof of their loft, 87 Yonge Street, Toronto, 1970. Back row, from left: Granada Gazelle, Jorge Zontal, Felix Partz. Front row, from left: AA Bronson, unknown (behind mirror), Daniel Freedman.


2:54 PM, SATURDAY, December 25, 2010: It is Christmas Day and I remember my final Christmas with Jorge and Felix, my two partners in General Idea. It was 1993, and we had rented a big Toronto penthouse for their last days. We gathered around the table that seated twelve, with friends and family, Felix looking like a living corpse, Jorge with his IV stand at the table and our favorite nurse at his side. This was the nature of our collaboration: We lived and worked together for twenty-five years, sitting around a big table, talking and laughing and fighting, and coming up with impossible projects and unlikely strategies. We played the part of a single living artist—one mind, one consciousness—and that is what we became.

General Idea emerged from the background of alternative culture in the ’60s. With eight friends, I dropped out of architecture school in 1966 and founded a free school, a free store, a commune, and an underground newspaper in Winnipeg, Canada. Our method was typical of the period: We made decisions by consensus at a weekly house meeting. As the commune grew from eight people to sixty-five, that process became increasingly difficult. Our underground newspaper formed one node in an international network unique to the era, whereby I first came into contact with Jerry Rubin, the Situationist International, and Yoko Ono. When I first met my future partners, Felix was involved with a cooperative gallery and head shop across the street, and Jorge was in Vancouver studying performance under Deborah Hay at Intermedia, the influential collective of artists, writers, dancers, photographers, and filmmakers that was rethinking the process of making art. So collaboration was already an integral part of our young lives.

General Idea began by accident in 1969. A mutual friend, Mimi, suggested we move into a little house with a storefront in a dying part of downtown Toronto. I was working with the city’s first underground theater, Theatre Passe Muraille, and Jorge had come through town to film rehearsals for a production there. Felix was visiting Mimi, and she wanted to make sure he didn’t leave. We were all unemployed, and once we moved into the house we entertained ourselves by raiding the trash of neighboring businesses and setting up fake shops in our store window, which doubled as our living room. There was always a sign on the door that said BACK IN 5 MINUTES. This early environment led to our preoccupation with ideas of consumerism, mass media, and strategies of distribution.

By the time we moved to a much larger loft in the banking district a year later, we were having regular meetings and developing a busy schedule of performances, exhibitions, and other, more difficult to categorize, projects. Our decisions were made by consensus, and we were as conscious of the importance of playing the part of the artist as we were engaged in making art. By the time we first used the name General Idea, in June 1970, our branding was in place. We stood opposed to the tyranny of the individual genius. For us, three heads were better than one.

True to our countercultural roots, we were also opposed to copyright and dedicated to a marriage of high culture and low. We thought of ourselves as both urban guerrillas and cultural parasites. We weren’t particularly interested in a studio practice; we described our art metaphorically, as a kind of vehicle that we enjoyed polishing up and displaying in a showroom but ideally liked to use on the street.

By the mid-’70s we had developed not just a group language but a group way of thinking. We were at the point where we could finish each other’s sentences, and from then on collaboration was not so much a choice as a condition of living. By the mid-’80s, it was clear that any one of us could dream up a piece and it would be a work by General Idea. Our daily meetings were no longer necessary, and the evolution of our practice, and of our collaboration, grew exponentially. Our AIDS-related projects, made between 1987 and 1994, deployed every method and strategy we had developed in the ’70s, but in a new, concentrated form. We experienced ourselves as one mind, with a single point of view, despite the radical differences between us as individuals.

In 1994, Jorge and Felix each died at home, and the part of me that was General Idea died with them. Five years later, when I began to make art again, I started from what I knew: the fact of Felix’s death, and Jorge’s, and my own. I continue to collaborate, however, with younger artists—of several generations—as a mentor and sage. I am supported in this endeavor by Jorge and Felix: I have come to recognize that we are a community of the living and the dead.

AA Bronson, a New York–based artist, was a member of General Idea with Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal from 1969 until 1994.