General Idea


General Idea: AIDS (1987): Silkscreen wallpaper, various dimensions and AIDS (1988), acrylic on canvas. Installation view. Gift of Robert and Lynn Simpson, 1997. Photo: Carlo Catenazzi. Images courtesy the Estate of General Idea and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.General Idea: AIDS (1987): Silkscreen wallpaper, various dimensions and AIDS (1988), acrylic on canvas. Installation view. Gift of Robert and Lynn Simpson, 1997. Photo: Carlo Catenazzi. Images courtesy the Estate of General Idea and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

By Adam Lauder

General Idea
Art Gallery of Ontario
To January 1, 2012

General Idea finds patterns in the practice of everyday life. The five-fold thematic plan of curator Frédéric Bonnet’s General Idea retrospective Haute Culture sheds new light on the parasitic geometry practised by the Canadian art collective through illuminating new configurations of their multimedia production.

A 1979 “Showcard” draws attention to the geometric method deployed by the group, founded in 1969 by AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal:

“The Spirit of Miss General Idea is a form rather than a sex, a geometry rather than a role, an interplay of person and prop becoming the fulcrum of desire.”

Cannibalizing the demographic instruments of market research, General Idea spun a seemingly endless series of charts and graphs to plot and, in effect, to produce an ideal audience profile in the absence of a vibrant contemporary art scene in 1970s Toronto. The perverse statistical distributions documented by the 1970 General Idea mail-art project, Orgasm Energy Chart, which invited respondents to document their sexual activity for a one-month period using a questionnaire designed by the trio, are emblematic of the devious geometries recorded by the media archaeologists. A 1975 “Showcard”, from which the exhibition takes its name, reprises the statistical vocabulary of Orgasm Energy Chart to explore the role of media stereotypes in gender performance:

General Idea: P is for Poodle (1983-89): Lacquer on vinyl.General Idea: P is for Poodle (1983-89): Lacquer on vinyl.“Our seemstress [sic.] extraordinaire is stretching the tape beyond the measuring point and getting bruised in the process. Haute Culture. Catch her re-enacting the getting caught in the measuring act. She is leaving behind a trail of interrupted decimals on the cutting room floor.”

The ultimate symbol of the group’s subversive geometry — as noted by Bonnet (as well as Elisabeth Lebovici in her excellent catalogue essay on the complicated sexual politics of General Idea, “Gender ‘Trouble’”) — is the triangle: at once a cipher for the group’s creative ménage à trois as well as a calculated assault on the patriarchal structures of a heteronormative culture industry. The triangle motif structures myriad permutations of babies, poodles and other alter egos of the artistic conspirators that challenge the myth of the individual genius.

Bonnet’s studious, but by no means dry, presentation of General Idea — 15 years in the making, and based on the curator’s thesis work — is remarkably nuanced in its framing of the group’s controversial response to AIDS, to which both Partz and Zontal succumbed in 1994. Appropriating Robert Indiana’s iconic 1960s language work, LOVE, General Idea released its trademark red, blue and green A-I-D-S logo into the mainstream as an image “virus” beginning in 1987. While underlining the activist overtones of this gesture, Bonnet simultaneously holds back from aligning the fiercely autonomous General Idea oeuvre with a gay aesthetic, perceiving instead an anti-patriarchal thrust to the work that resonated with, but did not programmatically endorse, contemporaneous struggles for homosexual rights. For Bonnet, as for Lebovici (and also Gregg Bordowitz in his recent Afterall monograph on General Idea, Imagevirus), the group’s media interventions bring into representation “a social system in need of subversion,” rather than a straightforwardly activist aesthetic.

Bonnet’s insights provide a brilliant and accessible container for the raucous satire of General Idea, whose dizzying self-mythology has eluded ready comprehension elsewhere. At once challenging, funny, glamorous and petulant, the art of General Idea rewards viewers with a cornucopia of wit and visual pleasure. I found that the institutional container, however, provides a somewhat less congenial frame of reference. Wall texts proclaiming the Art Gallery of Ontario’s long-time role as benign “host” to General Idea’s critical interventions — beginning with the impromptu 1969 Walker Court performance, Mirror Sequences — while in no way diminishing the parasitical force of General Idea, rang a false note of tolerance that does not jive with AA Bronson’s recollections of a more troubled relationship in recent interviews. Moreover, the gallery’s self-congratulatory tone threatens to collapse the very critical space necessary to sustain the type of fractious, but vital, dialogue between artist and institution epitomized by General Idea by smothering critical tactics in advance. It leaves me, for one, less certain about the contemporary fortunes of General Idea’s inspiring critical legacy.

Adam LauderAdam Lauder is W.P. Scott Chair for Research in e-Librarianship at York University, where he is developing an online catalogue raisonné of the work of IAIN BAXTER&. He is also author of a chapter on BAXTER& and the N.E. Thing Co. in Byproduct: On the Excess of Embedded Art Practices, as well as a contributor to Border Crossings, C, and Hunter and Cook magazines.