General Idea

Esther Schipper

About halfway into his twenty-five-year collaboration with Jorge Zontal and Felix Partz, AA Bronson described one major reason why the three came together in Toronto in 1969 to form the group General Idea: the absence of their own visibility or self-representation within a national art scene. “We forgot that we, ourselves, were real artists, because we had not seen ourselves in the media—real artists, like Frank Stella, appeared in Artforum magazine,” Bronson wrote. This exhibition presented a selection from the collective’s production through 1977 and consisted largely of ephemera documenting the group’s primary preoccupation during those early years: the construction of a myth that addressed the anxiety of geographic marginality, in tandem with a sophisticated deconstruction of mass media and the culture industry.

The earliest piece here was a silent 16-mm black-and-white film, God Is My Gigolo, shot in 1969 but never completed. The film’s central narrative, outlined in a handwritten script by Zontal—the original was also featured in the exhibition along with film stills and a drawing of the set—involves a giant toy penis discarded by a vagrant and then circulated among various protagonists until it finally washes up on a beach on Toronto Island, where it is discovered by a group of natives. The three principal female characters are played by Mimi Page, Granada Gazelle, and Miss Honey, all of whom would subsequently hold the title of Miss General Idea in a series of fictional and staged beauty pageants dating from 1968 to 1984. Four photographic works also depicted some of the iconography that emerged out of General Idea’s parodic obsession with glamour, including Hand of the Spirit, 1973–74, a prop that originally appeared in a photographic submission made by Vincent Trasov to the 1971 pageant, and the Miss General Idea Shoe, ca. 1973, a manly stiletto consistent with the pageant’s queer, campy aesthetic.

“Index Cards,” 1969, and Chain Letter, 1970, presage the numerous correspondence projects initiated by General Idea as well as other Canadian artists and collectives, in response to the fragmented nature of an art circuit concentrated on opposite ends of the country. In 1972, General Idea produced the first issue of FILE Magazine (an obvious spoof of Life, then in its final year of publication), initially as a means to archive the massive amount of images and texts that had been circulating by mail among certain segments of the Canadian art community, but also as the next logical step in visualizing and legitimating their scene and promoting it internationally. Club Canasta, FILE’s Filathon Telephone Canasta Party, 1972, consists of letters, call lists, photographs, and recordings from an event that took place at the studios of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Members of General Idea’s social circle gathered together to play canasta in one room, while in an adjacent room prearranged conference calls were conducted (or merely attempted) between collaborators and friends in Canada and abroad, including Gilbert & George, Image Bank’s Mr. Peanut, and Lowell Darling.

The final work in the exhibition was a selection from “The Showcard Series,” 1975–79, stamped and dated silk-screened cards with photographs of press clippings about General Idea and handwritten quotes and citations, which cleverly reframe the print-media representation to which the group had aspired and that they ultimately achieved. Years later Bronson would write, “Someone sometime must write a really good history of Canadian art in the Sixties and Seventies.” As documents of a narrative about the configuration of an art scene critically invigorated by its own peripheral situation, this particular selection of work amounted to an important chapter in that history.

Michèle Faguet