They made viral art before the internet, public art before graffiti was cool, collaborative art before “collab” was a thing. Three radical queers, dwelling commune-style in conservative '60s Toronto, they turned an alternative lifestyle into a new reality. They seemed to perfect what Foucault called “the arts of existence.” They were General Idea. It's been 16 years since this Canadian triumvirate produced their last work, and yet it feels wrong to use the past tense. The ouevre may be reactive—say, to advertising in the 70s, or more famously, AIDS in the 80s—but feels unsettlingly relevant, still.
To see their first retrospective, Haute Culture, which spans nearly three decades and over 300 works, is to feel like you're in on the great big joke of contemporary art. From satiric riffs on Yves Klein and Duchamps to a muse-making, muse-mocking “Miss General Idea” pageant to the seventeen-year project FILE Magazine (an inversion of/homage to LIFE itself), their messages were expressed through all possible mediums, and in ways more infectious than prescriptive. Like so much conceptualism, their stuff isn't often beautiful or even likeable. It's also not boring. Of “they,” one remains: AA Bronson (real name Michael Tims). The other two, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, died of AIDS in 1994. Bronson has emerged from the wilful anonymity of the collective as a new, sincere artist, practicing as a “healer” or a shaman.
He's a leader of the New York scene, organizing the Art Book Fair and serving on the board of directors for Printed Matter, the artist-run store in Chelsea, where he lives. And he has proved himself a moral leader, too: last year the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery removed from an exhibit the supposedly controversial video The Fire in My Belly by AIDS-smitten artist David Wjnoarowicz, and Bronson fought to have his work taken out as well, in protest. He lost, but he was right. Dazed Digital sat down with Bronson at the Art Gallery of Ontario, where Haute Couture takes up residence after its first installment in Paris, to watch him eat croissants and ruminate on the undying past.
Dazed Digital: This being your first retrospective, it must be interesting to see how others perceive the work and identify themes. It's the much the same here as it was in Paris, I take it?
AA Bronson: Yes and no. It's more or less the same group of works, structured the same way, but because it was one of those museums where you start at point A and walk to point B. Here [where it's a more open concept, on two floors], everywhere you stand, you can see in several different directions. There's multiple vistas always, and many more interrelationships consequently.
DD: That repetition made me think of the work in terms of advertising, where the focus is on how many “impressions” they can make with one idea. The time in which General Idea was gaining in popularity was the golden age of advertising, also.
AA Bronson: Yes. I would say it was the 70s; the word marketing appeared in the mid-to-late 70s. So advertising was around in the 60s, but it really came into its own in the 70s.
DD: So you were observing that, and how did it impact your work?
AA Bronson: Yeah, we were extremely conscious of that aspect. We were media junkies. Our generation were really children of Marshall McLuhan. Our ideas about media were pretty developed, and they were based on his presence in Toronto. I never did meet McLuhan, which was strange. We had lots of friends in common.
DD: I did go through the exhibit according to themes, the way it was explained by Frederick, so I started with the glamour section. And I do a lot of work with fashion magazines, so--
AA Bronson: It's interesting actually, the way the fashion industry picked up on this exhibit in Paris. We, my partner Mark and I, were there during the mens fashion week, so suddenly we were front-row centre at Givenchy.
DD: Can you describe the other two members of General Idea? It seems like you only became artists when you met each other, but that can't be quite true.
AA Bronson: It does feel that way, but no, it's not quite true. Only Felix went to art school; Jorge and I both studied architecture. I mean, I first met Felix when I was in architecture school in Winnipeg. I was involved there in a kind of counter-culture group of architects who formed a commune and published an underground newspaper. We had a store and a free school and all that kind of stuff. I came to Toronto to be involved in Rochdale College, which most people have now forgotten about. It was the world's biggest commune, a 14-floor commune. Different groups took over different floors, so one floor was a witches coven.
DD: Were they real witches or artist-witches?
AA Bronson: They were real witches, actually. It was an absolutely amazing place. So that's where we all met, and then we rented a little house together and everything began.
DD: But Toronto, the way its been described, was mostly small and conservative then. Do you ever think about how your art might have been different if you had lived somewhere else, like New York or Paris?
AA Bronson: It's really hard to know, right? I always wondered what would have happened if I'd gone to London, because I was always attracted to London. Back then, most of the culture of the English-speaking world came from there, I mean everything that happened in New York happened in London first. Was picked up in New York, marketed in New York. London's a special kind of place.
DD: This is a big question, and I'm sorry, but what do you think is the most important thing—not a piece, but a message—conveyed by General Idea?
AA Bronson: Hmm. This is a difficult one. I think, what I'm finding these days, is that the aspect of General Idea that's most appreciated is the queer aspect, and kind of insisting on making it mainstream and public rather than hiding in gay counterculture or veiling things. Also, the model of three gay men living and working together is such an unorthodox model, even while the gay world has become so conventional. Queer people can create our relationships and structures however we want, we have enormous freedom, and I think people have forgotten that. But I think General Idea is an example of that self-generated structure, completely tailored by us, and thus unique. We're role models in that—in an important way.
DD: How do you define queer? Just because there's so much debate, and you know, the whole Judith Butler anyone-can-be-queer thing.
AA Bronson: Yeah, I'm a bit in that direction, but just for ease of day-to-day usage, I tend to mean people who are gay, involved in same-sex relationships, are attracted to the same-sex, people who are trans, people who are androgynes, people of both sexes. But then, people who inhabit that world can be part of it, no matter what their sexuality, because sexuality is a fluid, constantly changing, difficult-to-pin-down thing. Diversity is natural. Queerness is a kind of catch-all phrase that can hold all kinds of diversity in a way that, for example, gay liberation does not.
DD: Robert Indiana's LOVE insignia, which you turned into the AIDS logo, is so powerful. I love how it's repeated throughout and mashed up with different artworks. And the way it was used then, invading public spaces around the world, presaged the street art movement in some ways. There's no graffiti in the work of General Idea, but—
AA Bronson: —no, but there's a lot of public temporary work, which is in a way graffiti.
DD: And my generation thinks of that kind of work as common, but then it must have been radical. Do you look at graffiti and what are your feelings on the movement, and its superheroes now, like Banksy and Shepherd Fairey?
AA Bronson: Well, I look at the real graffiti artists, the original ones. They were alienated youth from the Bronx, for example, people who were not included in the major culture, and graffiti was a rite of passage by which boys became men. For example, in New York City, what they did with subway cars was really visually incredible. It's interesting that the city of New York spent $3 million dollars on a machine to wash off graffiti, but they should have done the opposite, just celebrated.
But now it's become a genre, and it has its stars, like any other genre, and personally I'm happy that it's with us. Certainly in the beginning I think those boys from the Bronx were the ones who began it and should receive more recognition. But a lot of them are probably fifty-year-old auto mechanics.
DD: Even if you don't like it, it's very funny work; very ironic. Although now, irony is so pervasive it's almost meaningless. David Foster Wallace said he thought the next rebellion among young writers or thinkers would be against irony, which he found oppressing, and in recent years there's a lot of talk about the new sincerity.
AA Bronson: Mm-hmm. In my own work, as a solo artist, I don't use irony at all. Since the deaths of Jorge and Felix, it's like—I think in the presence of so much death, I mean in one room in the exhibit I'm surrounded by portraits of eight people who've died, it becomes difficult to support irony in the same way.
I love irony, especially when used intelligently; it can have remarkable power. But I've headed away from it in my own work. Although, with me being a “healer,” there is a kind of irony because it's an overused word; there's the suspicion of a con man, and I'm aware of that and use it for that reason. I might use irony, but I feel sincere. I'm just talking out loud here.
General Idea: Haute Culture, July 30, 2011 - January 1, 2012, Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas Street West, Toronto Ontario Canada M5T 1G4. All images courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario