Winter 1998

General Idea: Infiltrate, infect and mutate

Ignoring the boundaries between art and design, this Canadian trio worked in both fields with an eclectic mix of language, humour and commercialism

In the continuum that places ‘art’ (difficult, obscure, institutionalised, self-motivated, humourless) at one end and ‘design’ (accessible, communicative, public, client-led, market-driven) at the other, there have been few successful attempts to operate from a central cultural crossover point. One would have to go back to the heydays of Constructivism, Dada, Futurism, De Stijl and the Bauhaus to find artists equally at home producing paintings, sculptures and films and designing posters. Contemporary design groups such as Tomato, Bureau and Fuel have exhibited work in galleries and published their own projects. But such work is often criticised by designers for being too self-indulgent, and by art critics for a lack of intellectual rigour. The one group that truly deserves acknowledgement for a huge body of crossover work that includes exhibitions at major galleries worldwide and many public art projects is notable by its absence from most cultural anthologies and postmodern art commentaries. Welcome to the world of General Idea. ‘Officially’ formed in Toronto in 1968 by A. A. Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, General Idea produced a wide range of material over the 25 years that the collective was together. Their collaboration ended with the deaths from AIDS-related illnesses of both Partz and Zontal in 1994.

General Idea were actively involved in the making of their own myth from the outset, which was in fact 1969, not 1968. The collective adopted a fictitious title that could stand for a universal corporation in the vein of General Motors, and bogus names. ‘A. A. Bronson’, ‘Felix Partz’ and ‘Jorge Zontal’ were pseudonyms for Michael Tims, Ronald Gabe and Slobodan (George) Saia-Levy, who were then further masked by their collective nom de guerre. ‘General’ sounded deceptively noncommittal but it enabled their activities to remain unclassifiable and unrestricted. It is for this reason that it is more appropriate to examine their legacy in its relevance to design rather than to fine art: their work recognised no boundaries between the two disciplines and was equally eclectic in its use of language, humour, iconography and commercialism. The three members of General Idea could assume the roles of artists, publishers, performers, video-makers, choreographers, composers, designers, architects and entrepreneurs as it suited them. Their art, especially the later AIDS-themed work, was also general in its accessibility. Their audience was a ‘general’ public and their work made use of public media in public spaces.

General Idea experimented with non-traditional art forms from the beginning. Their early works included a shop, with elaborate window displays, that was never open, numerous mail-art projects, performances and even a telephone phone-in on local radio. The trio’s use of various media came partly from their diverse backgrounds which included architecture and experimental film, Felix Partz being the only member who had a fine art training. This also put them in a position where they could comment on the idea of being artists from an outsider point of view. However, as Simon Watney (art historian and cultural commentator on AIDS) says, this diversity also meant that General Idea was ‘not coherent enough to be marketed’ in the conventional commercial gallery sense. They were successful at promoting the persona of General Idea in Canada, and to some extent in Germany and France, but their work was not ‘collectable’ in the same way as that of an artist such as Jeff Koons.

General Idea’s alienation was further compounded by their being based in Canada. In addition to the physical distance from the influential New York art scene, there is an attitudinal separation cultivated by many Canadian artists in order to forge an identity for Canadian art that is not American. As a result, Canadian art often remains underground and subversive. Another isolating factor in General Idea’s work was a camp sensibility that attempted to disrupt the mainstream fine art idiom. James Barrett (of the art / design partnership art2g°, who have also dealt with the subject of AIDS in their work) points out that for designers dealing with gay related issues there is a real danger of being marginalised as ‘queer’ artists which becomes more pronounced with the subject of AIDS. General Idea’s role as corporate infiltrators coupled with manifesto-type pronouncements carried on a tradition begun by Futurism and Fluxus. But they were serious only in their flippancy. Wordplay and sloganeering were important features of their work. Punningly arch titles such as Bar Nun, No Mean Feet, Architectonic and Match My Strike were as carefully considered as the pieces themselves. They were interested in the concept of artists as media constructs, but their irreverence also contributed to the fact that they were never completely assimilated into the confines of the rarefied art world themselves.

During the early 1970s, General Idea’s multi-faceted approach was concentrated into a search for the spirit of Miss General Idea, their cultural muse. In 1970 the group staged the first Miss General Idea Pageant, a ‘beauty’ contest for artists of any gender, which could be seen as an ideological precursor to Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World competitions (which were held in London from 1973). The following year’s pageant was a spectacular affair held at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It involved the design of an elaborate entry kit for the pre-selected entrants, a Miss General Idea gown (‘expertly styled with verve and spirit, so gay and up to the minute’), backdrops, tickets, posters and programmes. The group realised that organising such a contest annually would be demanding and decided that the next Miss General Idea should be staged in 1984. The following few years were spent devising the event for that significant date.

General Idea’s conceits were thorough and convincing. The various aspects of the 1984 Miss General Idea Pageant Pavilion were worked out in detail, from the architecture and designs for the Armoury’s heraldry to cocktail recipes for the ‘Colour Bar Lounge’. ‘Showcards’ catalogued the works in progress and were illustrated with found imagery mounted on blueprint-style plans with project descriptions. The letterhead for the 1984 Miss General Idea Foundation (slogan: ‘a blueprint for tomorrow’) also used architectural graphic devices.

The year 1977 saw the staged destruction of the Miss General Idea Pavilion and the presentation of the archaeology from its ruins, leading into a new phase of work. In creating their own eclectic mythologies, both literal and Barthesian, General Idea were true post-modernists (they invented stories about Miss General Idea and her world but used these as a way of examining society’s ideas about the value of ‘art’). Their works borrowed from throughout history and created the frames through which they looked at the art world. ‘General Idea is basically this: a framing device within which we inhabit the role of the artist as we see the living legend … We are aware of the limitations of this and refer to it as our Frame of Reference and act accordingly behind the lines. Projecting our roles gives us some perspective to start with so we can see clear to project our frames frame by frame.’ (File Megazine, Summer 1978). This fits with post-modern theory where, as Craig Owens explains in Beyond Recognition; representation, power and culture: ‘… the ‘frame’ is treated as that network of institutional practices (Foucault would have called them ‘discourses’) that define, circumscribe and contain both artistic production and reception.’

In many ways, General Idea had more in common with the postmodern designers of the 1980s than with high-art circles. Their use of humour invites comparison with fellow Canadians Adbusters (see ‘Design is Advertising’, p36), publishers of the anti-consumer magazine of the same name and sponsors of ‘No Shop Day’ and ‘International TV Turn-off Week’. Dan Friedman, a designer who also experimented with producing work in different media, posed the questions to which General Idea seem to have been striving to provide the answers. ‘How can I make my profession an expression of my lifestyle rather than the other way around? Why are there so few graphic designers whose lifestyle I truly want to emulate? Why do good designers have a relatively minor impact on our overall environment or on our popular culture? What happened to our sense of humour?’ (AIGA Journal, vol.7 no.4, 1990).

One of the frames that General Idea employed was the television screen. Their portentous use of pharmaceutical imagery can be traced back to the 1979 video, Test Tube, in which the test tube (television) became the medium by which ‘culture’ is grown and transferred to the ‘host’. Viruses were a recurring General Idea theme, originally inspired by William Burroughs. General Idea’s ‘language as a virus’ was disseminated through mail art, publishing, television and advertising. ‘We knew that we had no entrée through the front door of museums and galleries into the world of glamour that seduced us, and we chose instead the viral method: utilising the distribution and communication forms of mass media and specifically of the cultural world, we could infect the mainstream with our mutations, and stretch that social fabric,’ stated A. A. Bronson in the catalogue for the 1997 exhibition ‘The Search for the Spirit: General Idea 1968-1975’.

Shut The Fuck Up (video, 1985) further examined the idea that ‘gossip and spectacle make artists interesting to the public’. This concept had been embraced by Andy Warhol and has continued, elevating the current status of young, publicity-hungry artists to that of media personalities. General Idea’s publishing venture, File Megazine [sic], was another medium through which they could proliferate their cultural commentaries. With the slogan ‘For those to whom living is a fine art’, it was more than a one-off joke, and ran from 1972 to 1989, covering a number of subjects. Each issue had a different theme, such as the IFEL Parisian issue (1973) and ‘Punk ’til you Puke’ (1977), a tactic which i-D magazine (see ‘Reputations’, p10) also later adopted. The magazine began as a way of publishing some of the mail art projects and as another method of infiltrating the mainstream. ‘We saw File Megazine as a parasite within the world of magazine distribution, positioned to infect newsstands, schools and libraries in urban centres,’ said A.A. Bronson. The format was originally a parody of Life magazine, but in 1977 Time-Life insisted they alter the masthead style, an action that supported General Idea’s conviction that they were on the right track. Humour was also a device through which General Idea could tackle difficult subjects. By putting their iconic poodles (stylistically, Barney Bubbles meets Memphis) in orgiastic sexual positions, they could give a visibility to gay sexuality without the risk of censure. Three poodles were often used to stand in for the trio of artists – an element of self-portraiture was evident throughout their work. This could take the form of both stylised photographs and more symbolic representations. General Idea used a recurring character set of graphic icons, some of them reappropriating conventional symbols and others of their own creation which often appeared in triplicate. The heraldic crests designed for the Miss General Idea Armoury demonstrate the range: poodles, skulls, test tubes, cornucopias (that looked as if they could be condoms), pink triangles, nuclear symbols, fleurs de lys (three-petalled phallic lilies), ziggurats, $s, ¥s, ©s, and xxxs (which could stand for kisses, targets, signatures or poison).

These designs were also incorporated into various objects and issued as ‘multiples’, some of which did not evolve beyond prototypes. In the ‘Yen Boutique’ one could buy Test Pattern wallpaper, shopping bags, badges, greetings cards and chenille crests (of the kind found on American sports clothing) as well as back copies of File megazine. Some items were made as limited editions in the tradition of artists’ prints, but a significant number continue to be sold through galleries and have become collectable commercial objects not through rarity value but through desirability. General Idea were part of a generation of artists such as Keith Haring who elevated mass production into an art form. As Craig Owens commented: ‘… serial production does not recognise the fine art / mass culture distinction (and is partially responsible for its dissolution).’

However, the subject matter that resulted in the most mass-communication- and design-oriented work that General Idea produced was AIDS. Without the impact of AIDS, the collective could well have continued to devise increasingly grandiose schemes with which to take playfully kitsch digs at corporate culture. But none of these could have had the sheer impact and visibility of AIDS – the word and the work, the Love (1987 version) that not only dared to speak its name but insisted that it was broadcast worldwide in flashing lights.

The subject of AIDS was so important that it bridged the traditional gap between the art gallery and the street. For groups such as Gran Fury and Group Material in the US, the personal had by necessity become political through the reality of mass deaths in the face of government indifference. The emergence of this new activism in the mid-1980s meant that the boundaries between art, advertising and design became blurred and irrelevant. General Idea had always had an inherent design sense and when the message became too important to ignore, they made use of every medium necessary in order to convey it. In 1987, General Idea began their AIDS work with the appropriation of Robert Indiana’s famous 1966 Love emblem. Over the following seven years the group pursued the theme, producing gallery works but also street posters, public sculptures, commemorative stamps and led displays (a medium also used to effect by Jenny Holzer and Nancy Spero). These works were also documented, labelled Imagevirus and then re-displayed in galleries. The AIDS mark was further removed from an art context when General Idea gave permission for it to be used by the German AIDS Foundation as a logotype on posters and lottery tickets.

General Idea had unsuccessfully attempted to contact Robert Indiana before creating the AIDS pieces. When he did react to the work his criticism was design-led rather than ideological. ‘I would never have done that to the D,’ Nancy Princethal quotes Indiana as saying in Public Art Issues (Spring 1992).

Other commentators felt that maybe the typographic awkwardness was deliberate. Bill Berkson wrote that ‘the AIDS image lacks the self-supporting geometry and typographic grace of the original design … Does that make sense? To the extent that the space between official representations and people’s actual experience of disease and dying is patently out-of-kilter, it does.’ (Artforum, April 1988). The Imagevirus pieces seemed to stir up more controversy among activists and art critics than they did among the public. In 1989 Gran Fury presented their own reworking of the AIDS / LOVE cipher to read ‘RIOT’, accusing General Idea of a lack of didacticism in their work. ‘The Canadian art collective’s square AIDS paintings, posters, and stickers exhibited their usual cynical detachment. What can the word AIDS mean in this format? Did 1960s love lead inexorably to 1980s AIDS?’ asked Gran Fury’s Donald Crimp in his book, AIDSdemographics. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why Gran Fury were so hostile, but for some artists and designers the political battles had become full-time and intensely personal, leading to a sense of ‘ownership’ of the subject matter. Nancy Princethal thought that ‘Neither General Idea nor Crimp wants AIDS to be forgotten; their differences are tactical. But what Crimp feels is really at issue is more than graphic design – it is moral authority. Since General Idea, like, say Gilbert and George – and unlike Gran Fury – is a collective based on a form of shared personality, its work is particularly vulnerable to character judgements.’ Simon Watney observes that there are in fact very few American art collectives, and those which have emerged have worked because of a unifying cause which is greater than the individual egos involved, such as the Guerrilla Girls (feminism) or Gran Fury (AIDS). General Idea, although involved in the politics of AIDS, were always a collective first and foremost.

General Idea defended the fact that their AIDS works were not dictatorial. ‘People seem to project their own agendas onto the image and assume that the meaning of the work is correspondent to what makes them uncomfortable. One possible interpretation, a rather negative one, is that love leads to AIDS; another interpretation, this one more positive, is that AIDS brings out love in the community. Hopefully the second interpretation will be more often heard,’ A. A. Bronson told Joshue Decter in an interview in Journal of Contemporary Art (Spring / Summer 1991). There were also territorial differences in terms of how the AIDS crisis had been dealt with. ‘In Canada, due in part to our more socialised system of health care, the way that AIDS has been experienced here has differed from the situation in the US, and the artwork produced here in response to the epidemic has reflected that difference.’ (Robert W. G. Lee, ‘AIDS Boogie Woogie’, Fuse vol.19 no.1, Fall 1995).

While Gran Fury’s tactic was to use direct propaganda in their public work about AIDS, General Idea were presenting a statement that was deliberately left open to interpretation. This approach has become an increasing trend in design and advertising, and consequently with health promoters in the 1990s, as messages about HIV and AIDS have grown increasingly sophisticated. Felix Gonzalez Torres (a member of Group Material) also produced AIDS-themed billboard work that could be said to be ambiguous, but this was somehow more acceptable as ‘art’ in a public place. James Barrett offers the theory that Gonzales-Torres, although producing ephemeral posters and giveaways, managed to evoke a poignancy in his work that dealt with the more universal themes of loss and mourning. In some ways, General Idea’s AIDS work fell between categories once more, not blatant enough for propaganda but too confined by its subject matter for the art critics.

As healthcare improved and drug therapies seemed to offer longer-term solutions, the art world began to consider a diversity of ‘post-AIDS’ work. General Idea began to explore the new medications in works which used the group’s continual fascination with wordplay and symbolism. For example one title from this period, Pla©ebo (1991-92), hints at multifarious ideas about corporate pharmaceutical companies, medical authoritarianism, drug trials, false hopes, the process of mourning and, as James Barrett points out, even at the simulacrum of an ‘art object’ itself.

It is appropriate to consider General Idea as designers and the AIDS series as mass communication not just because of the series’ public format, but also because of the accessibility of General Idea’s gallery work. Although the pieces are open to interpretation, which also applies in graphic design, the titles combined with sheer visual presence to form strong messages dealing with current debates about AIDS treatments. The displays, One Year of AZT, One Day of AZT (1992) are just as effective as pieces of information design, giving a clear representation of the impact of AIDS on an individual, as they are as pieces of sculpture. By visualising on a grand scale the 1,825 capsules of AZT a person with AIDS was expected to ingest in one year, General Idea were using the standard advertising and Pop Art technique of repetition for visual impact (another by-product of which was to render Damien Hirst’s pharmaceutical chic impotent by comparison). The use of repetition reinforced the message and led to a further set of multiples, an AIDS ring and an enamel Pla©ebo lapel badge.

General Idea had always made playful references to other artists (in 1984 they had recreated Yves Klein’s famous Anthropometry performances using stuffed poodles). The AIDS project not only used Robert Indiana’s work as a starting point, it also infiltrated and Infe©ted work by Bruce Nauman (see Eye no. 29 vol. 8), Rietveld, Mondrian and Ad Reinhardt. As artists who showed in galleries, General Idea were often reviewed in art magazines, but these were not necessarily the most appropriate arenas in which to discuss their work. Traditional ‘art’ criticism did not seem to be equipped with the criteria with which to assess their postmodern irreverencies. For the pre-1984 pieces, commentators and critics were often keen to show they could appreciate the in-arthouse jokes.

With the AIDS series however, they were reluctant even to engage with the work as ‘art’. One critic wrote: ‘General Idea’s work always leaves me on this kind of fence. I am tempted to criticise yet hesitant to rain on their earnest parade, with them in spirit while confronting conceptual snags at every step.’ (Lois Nesbitt, review in Artforum, September 1992).

This issue came to the fore when the New Yorker dance critic, Arlene Croce, coined the term ‘victim art’ in arguing why she felt unable to review a dance piece by Bill T. Jones because it dealt with AIDS. James Barrett comments on the art world’s confusion about how to respond to this type of work as a ‘lack of appreciation for the value of fine art in times of crisis’. Gran Fury could evaluate the effectiveness of their campaigning in tangible political results, but the legacy of art about AIDS is more difficult to assess.

The writer and critic Adam Mars-Jones has identified two ways in which artists had chosen to deal with their own HIV positive status: The ‘Freddie Mercury Defence (carry on as before)’ and the ‘Derek Jarman Option’ (integrate HIV into a working practice that is already in some degree autobiographical)’. AIDS became an important aspect of General Idea’s work and identity.

By the early 1990s, the ‘art-as-activism’ spirit had run its course. General Idea’s Fin de Siècle pieces signify this end of an era as well as the group’s own demise, while still suggesting a defiant decadence. They were artists who took design seriously, yet also designers who brought their own agenda into fine art galleries. Their collective multimedia approach is one which some areas of graphic design now seem to be moving towards and AIDS activism has further opened up the connections between art, communication and collaborative working.

The ‘Imagevirus’ infestation concluded with the AIDS symbol rendered white on white. The Fin de Siècle was similarly represented by three white seal pups marooned in a sea of snow-blind brilliance (again a serious point about the value of the lives of gay men with AIDS versus public sympathy for cute baby animals is diluted by the kitschiness of the image). General Idea’s own identity changed and developed; it was not bound up in a single logotype, though their distinctive graphic style was frequently coupled with the use of primary corporate colours. It was surely no coincidence that red, green and blue were the colours of General Idea’s crests, their wallpaper and their drugs, are also the constituent colours of a very bright white light.

Top: One Year of AZT, One Day of AZT, 1992, installation view. A graphic representation of a strict drug regime, given a futuristic antiseptic fibreglass gloss.

Siân Cook, designer and educator, London

First published in Eye no. 30 vol. 8 1998

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.