The members of the artist collective General Idea (active 1969–1994)—Ronald Gabe (aka Felix Partz, 1945–1994), Slobodan Saia-Levy (aka Jorge Zontal, 1944–1994), and Michael Tims (aka AA Bronson, b. 1946)—met in Toronto in the late 1960s at Theatre Passe Muraille. Founded in 1968 by Jim Garrard, this progressive company was focused on eliminating the barrier between actors and audience. The theatre, coming out of Rochdale College—an experimental free university in Toronto—offered a countercultural scene that attracted many visual artists.
AA Bronson, Jorge Zontal, and Felix Partz connected through the social scene that surrounded the theatre. Bronson contributed to the company in various ways in the 1960s, including poster and set design. Laundromat Special #1, 1969, a collaborative performance produced as part of Theatre Passe Muraille’s programming, marked the first time the trio performed together. The work comprised a series of actions staged in a room with laundry-soap boxes piled on the floor and an oversized cotton laundry bag suspended from the ceiling. Match My Strike, performed in 1969 at the Poor Alex Theatre, included Partz, Bronson, Zontal, and Mary Gardner, who used various props, including minced meat, bricks, glass, candles, and a slide projector. These early experiments proved fundamental to establishing the group’s identity as they shifted from a loose collective to the tripartite General Idea, the name they chose after their first group exhibition in 1970.
The Miss General Idea Pageant, which shaped the artists’ work in the 1970s, originated during the intermission of a play performed as part of the international Festival of Underground Theatre held at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts and the Global Village Theatre in Toronto. Taking place in the theatre lobby, the pageant was centred on a small platform filled with flower arrangements that had been appropriated from discards at a funeral home. The work employed a conventional pageant format including a talent portion, in which contestant Miss Honey (Honey Novick [n.d.]) showed off her skills on the telex machine. Other contestants were costumed as bears: Belinda Bear, Danny Bear, and Rachel Bear, all of whom sang and danced. The judges declared Miss Honey the winner, crowning her Miss General Idea 1970—with the entire performance documented on video. Describing the impact of the event, Partz stated, “Everyone was quite mystified as to what was going on. Because it looked quite real, because Miss Honey was quite a good actress.”
The popularity of the pageant format was of central importance to General Idea. Pointing to its flexibility and utility, curator and art historian Fern Bayer explains, “The beauty pageant format provided General Idea with a basic vocabulary of contemporary cultural clichés and allowed them to express their ideas about glamour, borderline cases, culture/nature interfaces, the role of the artist as an inspiration[al] cultural device, the body of myths surrounding the art world, and the relationship of the artist to the media and the public.” General Idea’s performances are part of a larger stream of performance art that came out of key developments in alternative theatre in the 1960s and used the body in ways that highlighted political awareness. As the group went on to produce video, mail art, and installation through the 1970s and into the 1980s and 1990s, their early theatrical experiments would continue to contribute to the form of their work, using fun and fiction to create a queer critique of the art world and contemporary society.
This essay is excerpted from General Idea: Life & Work by Sarah E.K. Smith.