General Idea: Imagevirus

By Bill Clarke

General Idea: Imagevirus
By Gregg Bordowitz
Afterall Books, 2010
121 pages, colour illustrations
$16 US/$20 CDN

This recent addition to Afterall’s “One Work” series, an essay on the Canadian collective General Idea’s most iconic work, "Imagevirus", is well-timed. Not only has there been a resurgence in international museums’ interest in the group’s work during the last few years – Haute Culture, a 200+ piece retrospective organized with the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris arrives at the Art Gallery of Ontario at the end of July – but, on a less upbeat note, new cases of HIV, the retrovirus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) has also seen a resurgence. After a decrease in the spread of HIV following the height of the AIDS epidemic post-1994, more recent numbers show that diagnoses of HIV are again increasing in Canada, with an estimate of between 2,300 and 4,300 new cases appearing each year in increasingly diverse populations.

General Idea: AIDS Stamps (1988): Offset on perforated paper inserted in Parkett magazine, no. 15, 1988. Edition size unknown, with 200 signed and numbered sheets. Published by Parkett, Zurich. Private collection, Toronto. Photo: Magenta.General Idea: AIDS Stamps (1988): Offset on perforated paper inserted in Parkett magazine, no. 15, 1988. Edition size unknown, with 200 signed and numbered sheets. Published by Parkett, Zurich. Private collection, Toronto. Photo: Magenta.Artist and writer Gregg Bordowitz brings his own experience living with HIV, as well as his years producing politically engaged art during the AIDS crisis in the U.S. throughout the late-80s, to bear on his examination of "Imagevirus". This series of paintings, sculptures, posters, videos and ephemera was produced by the members of General Idea – Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, who died of AIDS in 1994, and AA Bronson, the sole surviving member – after almost 25 years of communal art production. Imagevirus, which replaces American Pop artist Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE graphic with the word AIDS, was first produced in 1987 and launched into what Bordowitz calls a “battleground” that pitted enraged artists and activists against an indifferent U.S. government and powerful, homophobic right-wing groups who proclaimed that AIDS was God’s punishment on a society that tolerated homosexuality.

Bordowitz states that he, like many artist-activists producing work during the AIDS crisis, didn’t know what to make of Imagevirus when it first appeared as a poster on New York’s streets in the late-80s and early-90s. Many artists, apparently, hated it, thinking that it was a “crude joke”. With the benefit of hindsight, however, Bordowitz approaches his examination of General Idea’s work through the lenses of social studies, art history, identity politics, literature and poetry. The last two approaches are the most interestingly developed in the book. Bordowitz first traces General Idea’s idea of ‘the virus’ back to the writing of William S. Burroughs, and then positions the formal aspects of the stacked AI/DS as a form of concrete poetry. (Indeed, LOVE’s creator Robert Indiana is also an occasional poet; in a poem titled “Wherefore the Punctuation of the Heart” published in a limited edition artist’s book in 1969, Indiana also plays typographically with the word LOVE, though this connection to General Idea’s source material isn’t made here.)

As mentioned previously, many artists didn’t know what to make of Imagevirus. As Bordowitz explains, “It was not expressive or personal. To the contrary, it was impersonal.” While other artist collectives, such as fierce pussy and Gran Fury, or artists like David Wojnarowicz were producing aggressive works about the AIDS crisis, General Idea’s position was decidedly “passive-aggressive.” But, for Bordowitz, this is where the significance of Imagevirus lies. At a time when everyone was pushing their own agendas or assigning blame, General Idea developed an image that defied meaning, resisting advocates’ attempts to counter homophobic and racist interpretations of the epidemic, as well as the right-wing ‘moral majority’ that saw the AIDS epidemic as a well-deserved scourge. Like the disease itself, General Idea’s AIDS graphic is neutral, infiltrating the media landscape without feeling or emotion, just like a virus does in a body.

Although the essay does meander at times, Bordowitz’s reflections on Imagevirus are heartfelt and informative, providing not only some interesting interpretations of this key artwork, but also some fascinating insights about the times during which it was produced.