General Idea’s thematisation of the mythology of the artist can only be described as a successful project, given the general air of myth and mystery that surrounds their surviving works, documents and artifacts. The laborious process of archiving all these materials which began in 1995, uncovered a cartload of documentary discrepancies along the way, not least the fact that they did not actually meet until 1969, a troublesome fact given the official date of their formation as a group in 1968. Choosing viral strategies of infiltration rather than direct demonstration, the lines of truth and parody are hard to distinguish, as their history intertwines fiction and fact to such complex effect that the beginnings, ends and events in between are barely distinguishable from the myths and rumours surrounding them.
General Idea was formed, then, in 1969 by Jorge Zontal, Felix Partz and AA Bronson, variously artists, performers, architect-dropouts and activists (and all, incidentally, pseudonyms.) They met in Toronto and began to share a house together with Felix’s then girlfriend, Mimi Paige, and actor Daniel Freedman. Parodying the structures of the art world and its networking activities, their work was a grand improvisational feat, setting up an alternative art scene that took glamour, fame and wealth as its central goals, deliberately flaunting the more poe-faced artistic ideals of the early 1970s. In their own words ‘what we wanted to do was both bratty and surreal.’ Their activities came to center around the creation of a Miss General Idea Pageant, an event which took place twice, in 1970 and again, on a far larger scale in 1971, although official ‘Miss General Idea’s for 1968 and 1969 were crowned retroactively. Post 1971, their activities were framed around the next version of the pageant, which they declared would be held in 1984, so were framed as rehearsals for the great event. In the 80s, however, their work took on a different slant as their viral strategies were adapted to address the deadly virus affecting large swathes of the gay community, and they began to make work about AIDS. General Idea worked together until 1994, when Zontal and Partz both died of AIDS related illnesses.
This exhibition shows a selection of early works drawn from their archive, some of which show General Idea in their most formative stages. The silent 16mm film, “God is my Gigolo” (1969), here in a newly restored version, was the first and only film they ever made, and according to the definitive catalogue of their early works, ‘was never completed.’ A vitrine of archival documents shows a scribbled story board, sketches for the set, notes and still photographs. The film itself, shot in the General Idea house and surrounding downtown Toronto, written and directed by Zontal and featuring all the house’s inhabitants, as well as other frequent collaborators, is a sloppy slapstick parody about sexual awakening, filled with exaggeratedly mimed innuendo, phallic props and tropical beach scenes. Though it is a interesting prelude to the role playing, dressing-up and overturning of conventions that occurred in the pageants, and an entertaining insight into the comic theatrical goings-on of the group at this time, any more than 5 or 10 minutes is hard to take. It’s clear why this was their first and last film.
More significant are the assembled documents and photographs in the vitrines and on the walls here. A selection of index cards with type-written instructions document ideas for performances or events, some fluxus-like in their encouragement of a new perception of everyday reality (‘air series: 1. writing “air” once in each place you go during the day. Continuing for a month. 2. Printing stickers saying “air”. 3. Thinking airy thoughts. 4. while others describe the subversive spirit and audience manipulation at the heart of the General Idea enterprise (“restaurant event. A restaurant is opened. When the people come to eat, the door is slammed in their faces.”) Their Chain Letters elaborate these events in mail-art form, concurrent with the mail-art undertakings of Ray Johnson, who visited them in Toronto and began sending them mail (in a great episode, however, they even co-opted his practice, kidnapping examples of mail art he sent to them to distribute, and instead forwarding their own letters to the intended recipients.) Most elaborate of all here is documentation of the “Club Canasta, FILE’s Filathon Telephone Canasta Party” (1972), which involved a group card-playing party and simultaneous telephone conference with a list of pre-contacted telephone partners from around the world, from Ray Johnson and Gilbert and George, to Mr. Peanut and Helicopter Art Ploy whoever they may be. The original letters sent out to participants are included here, as well as documents listing which calls had been successfully completed, which were unsuccessful and which should be repeated. These documents, as well as recordings of the conversations, are wonderfully literal of the networking at the heart of the art world, a process which General Idea literally demonstrated in action.
Perhaps the most intriguing materials here, and the most crucial to the central project of General Idea, are taken from “The Showcard Series” (1975–79). Uniform printed graphic forms, with various sections to be filled in, they organize the activities of General Idea into what they call “Framing Devices”, documenting works in progress and ideas to be realized in the future, most of which were conceived as rehearsals for the mythical forthcoming event of the 1984 Miss General Idea Pageant, and the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion that was to be constructed to stage it. These elaborate activities together with the future date (itself loaded with literary allusion) are almost dizzying in the suspension of reality and mirroring situation they set up, creating an alternative, enclosed realm of operation. The plan and its documentation usurp the events themselves while external elements such as media coverage (positive or negative), found materials, or props (the Miss General Idea Shoe, and the plexiglass hand on a stick: “Hand of the Spirit of Miss General Idea”) are incorporated, swallowed whole and re-calibrated by the General Idea project. The archive of show cards, with their standardized sections, titles, date stamps and photographic documentation (130 of which were showed in the original exhibition, “Goin thru the Notions” in 1975, added to until 1979) applies a rigorous taxonomy to events whose actuality is questionable.
Such convincing blurring of reality and fact has its echoes in recent projects such as that of Walid Raad and the Atlas Group, or Tirdad Zolghadr’s restaging of a previous press conference for the United Arab Emirates Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, complete with lip-synching actors and pre-planted audience questions, or Seth Price and Kelley Walker’s exercise in instant archiving: “Freelance Stenographer”. Their performative output, meanwhile, has echoes in John Bock’s catwalk shows, or Mark Leckey’s tongue-in-cheek adoption of the public lecture format. General Idea’s spotlighting the theatrical processes that underscore our cultural appreciation of art and its archiving of unfinished ideas was as conceptually subversive as it was entertaining. This show acts as a taster of General Idea’s various strategies and complex output, but to fill in the blanks, take a look at the great catalogue of their early works: “The search for the Spirit: General Idea 1968–1975”, Art Gallery of Ontario, 1997.
General Idea „Works 1968–75“,
General Idea „Showcard Series“ (Set of 18), 1977 (© Courtesy Esther Schipper, Berlin, Fotos: Nick Ash)