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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.