A view of the General Idea retrospective in Paris, which includes (left) “Nazi Milk” (1975-90) and “The Boutique from the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion” (1980) (all photos by Pierre Antoine from the MAM installation, all images courtesy the artist & museum)

It’s hard to underestimate the power of General Idea, the three-person Toronto (and sometime New York)-based artist collective that transformed the art world in the 1970s and 80s with its collision of high camp and high culture, its blurring of the boundaries between mass media and merchandizing, and its foregrounding of gay identities during a period when LGBT people were still suspect and demonized by society at large.

The three artists, Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson, were active from 1967 to 1994, but their influence continues to be felt today in the work of young artists, particularly those who create fictions around their identities as artists or lampoon society using the language of corporate media.

Copies of General Idea’s “FILE” magazine, a remix of Life Magazine, it was published from 1972 to 1989.

Their work in the 1970s and 80s was dominated by Miss General Idea, “a fictive character who was at once muse and object, image and concept.” By the late 1980s and early 90s, their work took on a more activist tone as AIDS reared its ugly head in society and devastated the gay and artistic communities around them.

Partz and Zontal died in 1994 from complications related to HIV, but during the last few years of their life the three artists produced some of the most powerful work ever created about AIDS. Their Imagevirus series involved their reimagining of Robert Indiana’s famous Pop icon “LOVE” with the letters for AIDS. They posted the image in urbanscapes around the world in a way that foreshadows the street art campaigns of Shepard Fairey and other poster artists but also looks very contemporary today during a time when we’re obsessed with the dissemination of information. But there is more to Imagevirus than political commentary. Its repetition again and again also feels like a form of ritual, like a chant, that continues to inform your consciousness long after you stop directly experiencing it — it really is that powerful.

On February 11, the first major retrospective of the work of General Idea opened at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris with 300 objects, and I took the opportunity to interview AA Bronson about General Idea and his thoughts on the group.

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AA Bronson (photo by Ari Marcopoulos, image courtesy the artist)

Hrag Vartanian: It has been over a decade since General Idea. When you look back, what do you remember the most about the art?

AA Bronson: It is 17 years since Jorge and Felix died. We lived and worked together for 25 years. When I look back, I have many many memories, from the earliest days to the last days. What I remember most is that making art and living our life together were one and the same thing. We had no “private” lives. We were immersed in the semi-fictional actuality of our days together as artists.

HV: I remember discovering General Idea during my college years in Toronto, but I also remember what an anomaly the collective was in the city’s art scene. Did you feel you guys were doing something so radically different at the time or did that not even occur to you?

AAB: We knew that what we were doing was radically different, but it didn’t seem strange or difficult, we just did what came naturally. It seemed strange that more people weren’t living as we lived, making art out of the fabric of their lives.

HV: What were the influences at the beginning of General Idea and how did the muses behind your projects change over the years?

AAB: Many of our earliest influences came from writing and literature: Gertrude Stein, Marshall McLuhan, and especially William Burroughs. Some of that is documented in Gregg Bordowitz’s new book on General Idea, ImageVirus. But of course we could not escape the influence of Andy Warhol and his factory, and also Joseph Beuys, with his unlimited editions of low-cost multiples, and his Free University. And of course we came out of the counter culture of the sixties, and all that implies.

A view of various works in the “Imagevirus” series that appeared in various major Western cities in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Also, on right are two very early works by the group: “V.B.Gown #5” (1975) and “Artist’s Conception: Miss General Idea 1971” (1971).

HV: What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about the group and the art?

AAB: It depends which people, maybe. Americans tend to think of General Idea as “AIDS artists,” although we predate AIDS by almost 20 years.

HV: I once wrote a college paper about the notion of a “gay male aesthetic” and discussed General Idea as an example of it. Do you think there such thing as a gay male aesthetic?

AAB: We had endless discussions around the dinner table about the notion of a gay sensibility. Of course it is impossible to pin down, but we believed that there is. Perhaps one of the qualities of a gay sensibility is its refusal to sit still, a constantly evolving, shifting sensibility. And like Wittgenstein’s famous theory of “family resemblances,” there are many overlapping gay sensibilities, each sharing something with the next, but without any one defining characteristic.

A view of General Idea’s “Mondo Cane Kuma Sutra” series, 1984.

HV: I know people often discuss the gayness or queerness of General Idea, but as a fellow Canadian, I’m really curious about the Canadian-ness of the group. How do you see GI and its relationship to Canadian identity?

AAB: When I give public lectures, I often speak of Canada’s odd relation to the USA, how a country physically larger but demographically much smaller than the USA has almost its entire population living within a hundred miles of the American border, how Canadians are immersed in an onslaught of media, all of it saying “our” (“our President”, “our elections”) when in fact it is not ours at all. The result is that, while Americans are embedded in their mass media, Canadians are observers of media. We are at once alienated and entranced. This is most easily seen in the phenomenon of Marshall McLuhan, but also in the fact that Canadians dominate the American humor market. In the world of art, Jeff Wall, Michael Snow, and General Idea all demonstrate an observer’s position in relation to culture.

HV: What are you most excited about in the current retrospective in Paris?

AAB: That someone other than me was able to present a viewpoint and history of General Idea, and that it is radically different than mine.

HV: I’ve always curious how artists’ perception of their older work changes over the years. Is there a work that has changed a great deal — for better or worse (hopefully the former) — since the time it was made and in what way?

AAB: Many of the earlier participatory community-building projects, like “Club Canasta,” seem increasingly important as time goes by, whereas they seemed perhaps incidental at the time. As our influence on younger generations becomes clearer, the works that demonstrate that influence become more important.

Haute Culture: General Idea, A Retrospective, 1969–1994 continues until April 30, 2011 at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (11, avenue du Président Wilson, Paris).

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

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