That’s the General Idea

14 mins read

“We were very interested in the idea of life as art and art as life,” explains AA Bronson in General Idea: Art, AIDS and the fin de siècle, Annette Mangaard’s new documentary. AA is the sole survivor of General Idea [GI], the innovative trio who collaborated on multi-media art from 1969 to 1994. For 24 years, they produced clever and often profound critiques of media, culture and consumerism. The film tells GI’s story: the evolution of their conceptual art, rise to international celebrity status and poignant finale as first one member and then another was diagnosed with AIDS.

Mangaard’s film shows how these infamous artists planned their careers, from “virtual” birth to all too real deaths through art projects. Under the banner of “General Idea,” they changed their names from Slobodan Saia-Levy, Ronald Gabe and Michael Tims to, respectively, Jorge Zontal, Felix Partz and AA Bronson. “By inventing the personas we didn’t have to worry about who we were or what our core nature was, or any those things,” AA has explained. “We could be anybody we wanted to be.”

General Idea: Art, AIDS and the fin de siècle pieces together their story through stills, old videos, catalogues, documentation and interviews with curators and artists who were part of the heady art-filled days of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The film also shows how AA Bronson has dealt with the death of his colleagues, the end of General Idea and the loss of his own identity. Mangaard’s work, which pre- miered at this year’s Hot Docs festival in Toronto, is not just a well-considered mixture of cultural and personal histories; it truly captures GI and their era.

From 1978–1982, I was fortunate enough to work closely with AA Bronson and General Idea. AA hired me when he was the volunteer President of A Space, Toronto’s first alternative art centre and he continued to be a programmer throughout my time there. I had just graduated with an art history degree but for the job interview, I studied GI’s bril- liant art journal, FILE Megazine, which parodied the look of the famous photo and news magazine, Life. I wondered what I was getting into! Those following years were wonderful times for me. I was lucky enough to spend time in Europe with General Idea, when they showed work at such prestigious venues such as Germany’s Documenta and the Venice Biennale.

AA and his board of artists relocated A Space down to Queen Street West, into what is now known as the CityTV building. Although CityTV claimed to have “found” that building, many artists and collec- tives, including Michael Snow, the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre and Trinity Square Video were already there. Through General Idea and Peggy Gale, who was the Director at A Space, local and international experimental artists showed in Toronto.

Ever innovative, General Idea founded Art Metropole in 1974 as an artist-run archive and distribution agency for artists’ publications and other materials. It was located around the corner from A Space at Duncan and Richmond. Across the street from A Space was Pages Bookstore, an innovative centre in its own right, and contributor to the beginnings of artistic activity in Queen Street West. YYZ, Mercer Union, and Impulse magazine also started during this time and, thanks to brilliant artists such as General Idea, the arts in Toronto flourished.

Based in the burgeoning Toronto scene and, increasingly in New York City, General Idea’s conceptual art was multi-media: performances and pageants, video and television productions, paintings, books, magazines, postal art, sculpture and multiples. They produced irreverent, witty commentary on the art market. As described by AA, “We were always interested in thinking of ourselves as part of the globe and the mass media as a way of networking around the globe. We were, in a way, complicit with the mass media while criticizing it. While we were parodying it, we were also doing it.”

Known as the “artists’ artists,” General Idea’s work was embraced in Europe, where they were invited to solo and group shows as early as the mid-70s. Mangaard’s on-camera interviews provide insights into General Idea’s influence on the contemporary art scene and other artists. “They were the golden boys,” says Mangaard, who dramatizes her point with stills of them in idyllic settings in Italy, lying in the Tuscan sun, a lifetime away from thoughts of AIDS and death.

“They really showed that three heads are better than one,” says curator and friend Peggy Gale. “Each of them was a different personality and individual, but as time went on, it was hard to tell who did what. They had great ideas!” AA adds, “We were seen as Marxists because we worked by consensus. We were always involved in group therapy, on a 24/7 basis.” Annette Mangaard has now directed four films on artists including her absorbing portrait of another Toronto legend, The Many Faces of Arnaud Maggs, but the film on General Idea posed particular challenges. She had to cope with the death of two-thirds of the trio and the question of what material created by GI— particularly their brilliantly manipulative videos—should be used in the doc. Mangaard spoke with AA over a number of years and waited for him to agree to proceed with this film, on his own terms and when he was ready.

“There is a huge responsibility that goes with making a film about an artist,” comments Mangaard. “Naturally, General Idea, AIDS, 1987, screenprint on paper, edition of 1000. they want control over what happens to their art. When it is transferred into another art form and becomes a story, which is what this film is, I think it must be really hard [for them]. With General Idea’s work, I felt that every moment, I was extremely conscious and respectful of them and their art and process.” As a student at Ontario College of Art, Mangaard had heard of the famous collective, and once visited their Simcoe Street studio for an opening. In 1993, while studying at the Canadian Film Centre, she was invited to direct a short piece on GI when they received their Lifetime Achievement prize from the Toronto Arts Awards. Since then, she always wanted to do a full-length documentary on GI.

With able navigation from Fern Bayer, who has curated, catalogued and written about GI for many years, Mangaard sifted through hundreds of art works, videotapes and catalogues in Ottawa’s National Gallery, which holds the General Idea archives. “I went through every single file folder,” recalls Mangaard, “and later, returned with a photographer and selected hundreds of images to shoot, so that I could work with high quality images.”

Mangaard selected and edited vintage footage from the videos GI made over the years. She was able to include the artists’ own voices and on-camera personalities, bringing Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal back to life—for their documentary. It’s Felix who explained to us—the audience—that GI’s work was really “all about surface. It’s been a labour of pure fabrication.” And Jorge tells us, “We didn’t want to change television. We wanted to add to it, to s-t-r-e-t-c-h it.”

Early on, the trio decided to search for a Miss General Idea. In order to find that elusive ideal, GI hosted many early pageants, first in a store in downtown Toronto and then at the Art Gallery of Ontario. At one pageant, the judges announced they had selected a winner who “had captured glamour, without really falling into it.” Then the artists decided that from 1971 to 1984, they would plan the next Miss General Idea Pageant. In fact all of the work leading to 1984 was described as “rehearsals” for the big event, which never actually happened. Finally, in one performance, the mythological pavilion burned down!

One of the resulting images was a poster, called “Reconstructing Futures,” with a photo of Felix, AA and Jorge shielding themselves from the residue of smoke left by the burning structure. In a recent interview, Mangaard laughed while recalling the story about the pavilion. “Showing it was a challenge,” she acknowledged, “I mean, how do you shoot something that didn’t exist?”

But ultimately the work that continues to receive the most exposure was their focus on AIDS, and its devastating effect on society. Visual commentary included the design of a brilliant word play on the seminal LOVE painting by Robert Indiana. GI changed the four letters to “AIDS.” Suddenly this ominous logo was reproduced everywhere—in paintings, sculptures, posters, pins, stamps, and other products. The AIDS logo was repeatedly printed on surfaces in the United States and Europe. Thousands of posters permeated the New York City subways—as if “in a blood stream,” as AA says in the film. The AIDS logo spread like a virus.

While many stills of images throughout the NYC subway still exist, Mangaard travelled to Amsterdam to recreate the effect of the posters on that city’s transit system. She shot footage on moving trams and editor Gary Popovich created a particularly beautiful sequence, superimposing the AIDS posters onto the new footage.

That recreation reminds us of the time when galleries were lined with the AIDS logo and hundreds of placebos, representing the pills that Jorge and Felix were taking to offset the AIDS symptoms. Huge pills—the size of a human body—became art forms. General Idea had always created self-portraits of themselves as babies or poodles. Now, in photography, they focused on artists as doctors, and in installations, as victims—as three threatened seal pups, trapped on ice floes.

Haunting and poignant portraits of Jorge were completed a week before he died. Felix’s dead body, surrounded by brilliantly coloured fabric became an artwork, subsequently reproduced many times.

Since the passing of General Idea, AA has overseen a series of works that were conceived before his partners died. Galleries and museums continue to show General Idea’s work and a recent retrospective of prints, posters, books, multiples, and editions toured from 2003 to 2007 to 16 locations in Canada, the United States, and Europe.

AA, whose own work has evolved into becoming a successful art-healer, says, “I think life is primarily our relationships—the part we play in the web of people that we know on various levels. Whether it is intimately or distantly or in a work way, or whatever, I think our position within a web of people is the most important aspect of being alive.”

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