General Idea

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Video still from <b>Test Tube</b> by General Idea

General Idea, Test Tube, (1979), 5:29 min. excerpt from the 28:15 min. original.

Video still from <b>Shut the Fuck Up</b> by General Idea

General Idea, Shut the Fuck Up, (1985), 5:37 min. excerpt from the 14:00 min. original.

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About these works

Test Tube (1979)
Distributed by Electronic Arts Intermix.

Test Tube was produced for television by De Appel, a centre for contemporary Art in Amsterdam, while the members of General Idea–AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal–were artists in residence there.

“The production of the videotape Test Tube marks a change in General Idea’s media strategy. Previously, the media (which in the collective’s conception includes the general public, thereby putting performances under the same strategy) had been conscripted for the construction of the Pavillion [The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion, please see About General Idea]. Test Tube extends the media strategy to artistic activity. Felix Partz succinctly described the aim of this video: ‘But art remains a curious and elitist drink. Despite its unique flavour and heady cultural properties, it has never been effectively exploited.’ The use of art which is both publicly and economically effective is treated in five chapters and on three levels. Each chapter is introduced by General Idea, sitting at the Colour Bar Lounge of the Pavillion; they explicate the general theme of the whole and each of the chapters in three-way discussion. Next we see various scenes of a television drama focusing on the career potential of a young New York artist: she is wooed by a powerful gallery and courted by the in-crowd of collectors and critics, but not without cost in her personal life. An advertising spot follows each chapter, taking up its respective theme through the vehicle of the Colour Bar Lounge or one of the multiples. The constant emphasis on the power of the media and advertising intercut with reflections on the role, tasks, and potential responses of the artist makes this videotape historically significant. On the threshold of the 1980s, General Idea has anticipated the essential thematic fields that will characterize the art of that decade” (Malsch 34-35).

Shut the Fuck Up (1985)
Distributed by Electronic Arts Intermix.

Shut the Fuck Up is General Idea’s latest video work. Using ironic and iconic excerpts from television and film from the 1960s, such as The Joker character from Batman and part of the historic footage of artist Yves Klein's painting and performance from Mondo Cane, General Idea examine the relationship between the mass media and the artist. Recalling Klein’s use of “IKB”–International Klein Blue or chroma-key blue–they revisit their own performance of XXX blue (1984), at Centre d’art contemporain in Geneva, where the artists painted large Xs using stuffed poodles dipped in blue paint. The video reveals the meaning of language and iconography in their work, and provides some background for their choice of poodles as mascot and metaphor. As Felix Partz comments: “Those who live to please, must please to live.”

In Shut the Fuck Up, General Idea underline the media's insistence that only gossip and spectacle make art and artists interesting to the public. On the contrary, General Idea point out, artists are no fools, nor do they operate within "a passive yet cleverly deceitful, alienated cult of the imbecile." Jorge Zontal has the last word: “When there is nothing to say, shut the fuck up.”

About General Idea

AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal of General Idea worked collaboratively in many media for twenty-five years, using video along with performance and forms of publishing to examine and comment on the relationship between the artist and mass media. Their early video work was a means of recording and re-presenting performances, including their extravagant "pageants" of the 1970s, which used an ironic and highly articulated beauty-pageant format as metaphor for the artist's situation. The artist was would-be beauty queen, and the televised pageant a version of public (museum or gallery) exhibition, while May I have the envelope please? caught the moment of selection for public acclaim and entry into a permanent collection. Their later video considered other aspects of media representation, using mock TV shows as "found formats," and incorporating actual mass-media excerpts into their narrative constructions. The works in all media interrelate–video, performance, installation, and publishing–urbane and clever or angry and instructive. As General Idea has pointed out, "Three heads are better."

As early as 1969 General Idea was working on a half-hour 16 mm film, God is My Gigolo (incomplete), but they soon turned to electronic media. Light-On (1970) and Double Mirror Video (1971-74) recorded their projections of shafts of sunlight caught by large, multi-directional mirrors, playing over outdoor surfaces including hillsides, beaches, and blank drive-in movie screens; they were creating a kind of fugitive sculpture or an elegant form of drawing with light.

With their Miss General Idea Pageant of 1970 and 1971 and the inception of their extended project, The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion, video offered a format for staging as well as recording performance. Hence Blocking (1974) structured participants in a performance at the artist-run centre The Western Front in Vancouver. It was released as both film (17 minutes) and video (7 minutes). As stated in Blocking, "General Idea is basically this: a framing device within which we inhabit the role of the artist as we see the living legend."

The 1975 Miss General Idea Pageant performance at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto) was framed in turn as a television spectacular and released on video as the 53-minute Going Thru the Motions. In 1976, ongoing planning for the Pavillion project's construction led to Interview with Foreman Lamanna, their art dealer at the time. The interview took place standing at a jigsaw-patterned "hoarding" with three cut-out, construction site peepholes. Their Press Conference performance was recorded in Vancouver in 1977, the same year they produced and broadcast Pilot for TVOntario. Pilot captures the essence of General Idea at the time, an introductory "TV special" that becomes a detailed metaphor for the functioning of the art market and museum world. In 1978 they orchestrated a cheering standing ovation for Toronto's Fifth Network/Cinquième Réseau video conference, subsequently cablecast as Towards an Audience Vocabulary.

Test Tube (1979) shown in excerpt here, marked a significant shift in form, with Bronson, Partz, and Zontal again in central roles. Loco and Hot Property followed in 1985 along with the ten-minute Cornucopia, an elegant narrative work examining "archeological fragments" from the long-lost and ruined Pavillion. With their final video work, Shut the Fuck Up (1979), they give devastating, dramatic advice to the mass media: "If you really have nothing to say, then Shut the Fuck Up."

Throughout this period, General Idea published their brilliant FILE Megazine (1972-89), originally a parody of Life Magazine and later taking on other formats. Their photoworks and highly polished texts and manifestos, integral to FILE, spilled over into performance and media productions. Their multiples (limited edition art works) are wide-ranging: sculptures, graphics, editions of all sorts including jewellery, inflatables, heraldic crests, numerous test-tube variants, drinking glasses, plates and placemats with TV "colour bar" test patterns, posters and wallpaper, notecards, booklets, all within the framework of their ongoing constructions and evolving philosophy.

Formed in 1968, General Idea was a unique collaboration. The deaths of Zontal and Partz in 1994 from AIDS-related causes marked the group’s official end. In 2001, Bronson accepted the Bell Canada Award for Video Art for General Idea. Bronson continues to work independently, from both New York and Toronto, while the General Idea archive has been placed with the National Gallery of Canada. In their twenty-five years of working together, General Idea presented 123 solo exhibitions and were included in 149 group exhibitions internationally, including biennales in Paris, Venice, Sydney, and São Paulo. Their founding of Art Metropole in Toronto (1974) to publish and distribute artists’ works in multiple format, continues to have international resonance.

The video works of General Idea have been exhibited widely, as early as 1972 at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery in Toronto and in such international venues as Projekt 74 (Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, 1974), Projects VIII (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1976), Another Dimension (National Gallery of Canada, 1978), Venice Biennale (1980), Portopia International Video Festival (Kobe, Japan: award, 1981), Talking Back to the Media (Amsterdam, 1985), documenta 7 and documenta 8 (Kassel, Germany, 1982, 1987), Tokyo International Television and Video Festival (Spiral, Wacoal Art Center, 1987), Video as Television (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1989), among many others. They have been broadcast as well, on networks including TVOntario (Toronto, 1977); PBS (San Francisco, 1981), WNED (Buffalo, 1981), MuchMusic (Toronto, 1985); as well as on Dutch and Spanish television. Their video works have further been cablecast in Toronto and Calgary, 1978; Halifax/Dartmouth, 1981; Cambridge, Ontario, and Regina, 1982; and seen via slowscan transmission in Toronto/New York/Memphis/San Francisco/Vancouver/Victoria (1978) and elsewhere.


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