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Liveblog: The General Idea behind General Idea

November 16th, 2011

General Idea, No Mean Feet, 1973-74

In connection with the exhibition  Haute Culture: General Idea – A Retrospective, 1969-1994, join artist Luis Jacob, artist and writer Sholem Krishtalka and art historian Virginia Solomon for a stimulating discussion about this foundational Canadian artist group’s diverse and increasingly influential production. I’ll be liveblogging this panel session, which begins at 7pm, so you can follow along at home if you couldn’t make it out to the Gallery tonight. Click here for more information about the panelists. I hope you enjoy reading tonight’s blog! – Holly, Internet & Social Media Content Coordinator

19.00 Philip Monk and AA Bronson are both in the audience, sat together talking about the work. V exciting. HK

19.02 Our awesome adult program coorrdinator, Gillian McIntyre, is on stage introducing tonight’s panelists. HK

19.03 ‘SK is an artist and writing in Toronto. His writing has been featured in Canadian Art amongst others. His paintings are featured in the premiere issue of Headmaster magazine and has solo shows in New York & Peterborough.’

19.04 SK is on stage. ‘I wanted to acknowledge the obvious. I’m a generation removed from the topic at hand – I thought people who knew General Idea personally might be more suited to this event. I’m not going to pretend to an expertise I don’t have. I’m going to address a particular aspect of GI within the context of Toronto and trace a lasting legacy.’

‘Toronto is a provisional space. It was when GI formed and it is now. There’s no firm social hierarchies or stratification in the art scene here. We drink together, eat together, party together and go to each others shows, whatever they may be. This is hospitable to acts of self-creation, invention and insertion.’

19.07 ‘GI are a standard bearer for this kind of self-mythologisation.’

19.08 ‘GI has been explicit in calling Toronto an outright vacuum. It’s not literally true but GI refused the status quo by devaluing its validity. By devaluing that validity they created for themselves an open field of limitless possibility. The mail & correspondence work set the groundword for this self-invention – in it you see the creation of persona, avatars, and characters. Each name is followed by a request for images – both a name, a taste and a persona is declared.’

19.10 ‘To build an art career you can be a farmer or an alchemist. A farmer assembles a body of work and you gain notoriety through the advancement of work. GI were alchemists – as soon as they announced a fixed entity comprised of three identities they began the alchemist moment that defined themselves. They said they were a corporation, great artists whose work needed to be housed in a pavilion, and it was so.’

19.11 ‘Form follows fiction – the utterance was followed by work. Every subsequent work following this utterance fleshed out the self-proclaimed legend and fuelled the Promethiun flame(r).

19.12 ‘GI created self advertisements as their art. The work spawned out of the legend.’

19.14 ‘The myth of queercore/homocore was disseminated by zines, mixtapes and networks. It was a function of and affirmed by a network of zines. There are other tactics of queercore shared with GI – a knack for polemics and for media manipulation.’

19.16 ‘Bruce LeBruce enacts various versions of himself – the blurring of fiction/reality and identity as a front. This is very much inherited and can be critically linked to the General Idea project.’

19.17 ‘The Punk Til You Puke issue of FILE Magazine announced queercore to Toronto – ‘it’s cheap, it’s easy, go do it.’ GI laid the groundwork for an alternative scene in Toronto and Queercore furthered that legend, bringing the Queer West scene into bringing.’

‘Queer West has become this strangely efficient marketing handle. But it’s geographically diffuse, unlike the Village, it’s harder to locate and has no central strip. Vaseline happened at Lee’s Palace, Club V happened in Kensington. It’s more of a persona than anything else and it’s indebted to the lineage of homocore – finding a space outside of the gay village. Will Monroe was the great avatar, the torchbearer for this and he was kind of a social shaman. His parties weren’t just parties – they can be interpreted as rituals that birthed a persona. He brings queercore and GI together.’

19.23 SK is introducing the next speaker – Luis Jacob. 

19.25 LJ ‘I’ll be showing the work of General Idea, Image Bank and my own work. This talk emerges from many discussion I had with Barbara Fisher – I want to acknowledge her.’

‘Historical continuity is the achilles heel of Toronto artmaking. It renders the act of making art into a poignant but self-defeating project. Exhibition follows exhibition and quickly sinks into the black hole of collective amnesia and cultural disregard. Without a public or a language, how can we be an artist? In the absence of history, people turn to myth and begin to gossip. More than 2o years ago AA Bronson curated an exhibition in the Power Plant – it functioned as a kind of manifesto about what artistic culture can mean here in Canada. Bronson’s vision of culture was a network one – culture wasn’t based on individual figures or on institutions but on what happens when one connects the dots.’

19.29 ‘What is striking in AA’s writing is its tentative tone. This network is a dream of community, Canadians want an art scene but are unable to picture the reality except as a dream projected on the national landscape. It appears as an absence and something to desire and project.’

19.30 ‘Without real artists, galleries or magazines, we forget that we were artists ourselves.’

19.31 ‘The artists of Bronson’s generation were informed by McLuhan. When Bronson refers to media however he is pointing so something broader than new media. It is anything that stands between, mediates a network culture as a means of fabricating a tissue.’

19.35 ‘The network has a connect the dots impulse that is overtly transactional.’

19.37 ‘A move away from immediacy is a move towards the media as a mode of mediation. Including the old media of the postal system.’

‘For an artist who works in a community that is a network of communities, a village that is global, ‘here’ becomes very tricky. I might feel totally up to date with art happenings, but how do I relate to people here, in Toronto. This is precisely the question of audience. What’s the relationship between culture by mouth and culture by media? General Idea’s answer is ambivalent.’

19.39 ‘General Idea can dream the audience if it is an un-organic audience. It emerges artificially, theatrically, out of its own lack of artistic culture. The contradiction between artwork and network is the ground from which their production emerged, instructing us about the genius of this artists whose three heads are better than one.’

19.42 ‘The artist is a figure that embodies the impossible idea that the energies of network culture can survive in the form of the autonomous artist. It can be preserved in the artistic canon and reconciled with a history not whispered. For artists to be artists here in Canada we must remain poised between public and publicity.’

19.45 Third speaker, VS, is being introduced. 

19.46 VS ‘I’m writing a dissertation about GI re-articulated politics to include the self in everyday social life.’

‘Where does this sexuality come from? My work talks about how sexuality structures the group…How sexuality can a collaborative, iterative identifcation rather than just about smooshing…’

19.48 ‘For GI politics can be about making space for ourselves and our social groups. This is fundamentally political and not about our institutionalised power structures. They replaced cultural terrorism with viral methods. In the context of Occupy, there is a history of politics without specific goals.’

‘Part of GI’s portrait comes through self portraits. Practices were about creating identities and personas that were in flux. GI did lots of mail art and correspondence – Canadada was about using the postal system as a way of creating personas that lived in people’s everyday lives. Mail was part of larger projects.’

19.52 ‘Artist were able to play each others personas – not about acting but inhabiting. Circulation of emblems were free game.’

19.57 ‘GI didn’t have a lot to do with the body politic for various reasons. Body Politic was a collective publication which grew to national significance – a gay liberation paper that articulated a different kind of social order. It critiqued the building of a narrow definition of what gay life was. Homosexuality breaks the rules of distinct sexes and appropriate performances – GI wasn’t as much gay as it was anti-patriarchal, says a label upstairs.’

20.02 ‘The video Test Tube, in the colour lounge, is a soap opera, telling the story of painty Mary-Anne. It set out the possible political stances the group could take – fascism, communism, capitalism – they ultimately present as the solution to the problem of what stance an artist should take. It’s a hybrid, an opportunistic, navigational kind of politics depending on what systems and structures are available to you. Embedded into a social scene and a social life, hybridity and flexibility.’

20.06 It’s now time for the panel talk portion of the evening. SK, LJ and VS are talking about General Idea and camp.

20.07 SK ‘The stealing in and out of meaning is an astute shorthand for the mechanism of camp. The colour bar for instance is the camping of TV, the Decadance is the camping of the Oscars… absorption, subversion and inserting meaning.’

20.09 VS ‘Camp offers a way to be funny but still be taken seriously. It gives ‘silly’ work meaning and consequence. It shows camp as not just being about accident but a deliberate and conscious choice to appropriate and inhabit.’

LJ ‘Queer people have had to develop strategies of codifying messages for multiple audiences. I liked the idea of fiction following form and these different moments in recent history where people are performing something they wished existed – an art scene, a punk music scene that includes queerness in it, creating a community that didn’t already exist. I don’t know if it’s a camp strategy but this process of behaving as if what you want is real and attracts people to it, making it real.’

20:13 SK ‘Using what’s around you to elevate your persona is a camp strategy. ‘I am legend’ is a very camp utterance – GI are absorbing the corporation and the pavilion into themselves.’

20.15 VS ‘It’s about speech that means one thing in one context and TWO things in another context.’

LJ ‘That’s where GI’s humour comes from, when you can see the two things at the same time. In the early work there are references to Humpty Dumpty – when something cracks, new space happens and also you get the joke when you crack up.’

Question from the audience: ‘I was exposed to GI as part of the aids movement in the early 90s in NYC – how do you talk about the virus in that context, how did it present challenges to the strategies of General Idea?”

SK ‘I feel with GI that metaphor and reality become these cruel echoes of each other. It’s a devastating irony that their career was premised on the idea of viruses in the media and then had to cope with the reality of aids. It’s almost alarming – a slippage of metaphor into reality. It’s cruelly poetic – the initial reception to the image virus campaign was total hostility. GI’s mode of codes and sly subversions were not enough in the moment – this was a terrible moral crisis that demanded more than image play. When GI died I was 15 and being taught that sex would kill me – to me, the image virus stuff narrates beautifully this seismic cultural shift – the end of free love, hedonism and the beginning of a darker age. It narrates a shift into how we conceive of sex, love and politics.’

20.27: LJ ‘I find it uncanny how the metaphor of the virus was there from the very beginning and then took a whole other dimension in the 80s. It’s almost supernatural – form follows fiction. One easy way to interpret irony is as ‘above it all glibness’ – but I detect other emotions in irony. There’s a deep poignancy in irony sometimes. The AIDS logo pieces have a sort of blankness, the colours are jaunty and vibrant but there’s all these other emotions there too. I came of age sexually in the 80s – I never lived sexually pre-aids. It was very important to give a face to the diseases then. Artists made it human – a person and a community dealing with an illness.’

20:31 VS ‘Reagan didn’t say the word until 1987. So it was almost a branding campaign.’

Thank you to all the speakers and to everyone who’s been following on at home. If you’ve enjoyed reading please leave us a comment and let us know! Back for more liveblogging soon – HK

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